Thoughts Out on the Page: Swim to the Light

Phish and their fans have a unique relationship. It’s sometimes intimate, often intense, occasionally awkward and rarely boring. Few bands in history can claim anything comparable.

In this writer’s opinion, the reason for this is simple.  Phish is made up of four remarkably humble individuals.  Unlike other rock gods, the members of Phish truly believe in the notion that the music is created through them, not by them.  So much of their mythology is predicated on this notion—it could be considered the philosophical basis of Phish.

The Jewish concept of the Sheliach Tzibor, or the “messenger of the congregation”, sums up Phish’s relationship to their audience nicely. Under this belief, the leader of the congregation is no better or worse than the rest—he or she is simply a vessel to the higher power (I’m sure there are other examples in different religions or practices, I’m just trying to put all my Hebrew School hours to good use).  They surrender to the flow and we receive the flow through them and surrender as well.  That’s how the magic happens.

The entire reason they play Loving Cup, Trey has said, is for the “I feel so humble with you tonight” line.  But fans often run into trouble when they lose their sense of humility.  Certain fans, usually after being fans for a long time, begin to feel that the band owes them something.  And in some sense they are right.  The band owes us their full commitment and concentration every time they perform.  They owe us unchecked generosity in how they share their connection to the “higher musical power”.  And they owe us a continuation of the humility they’ve shown throughout their career.  These rules aren’t written anywhere, but they’re implied and understood by every fan when they buy a ticket.

They do not, however, owe us any choice over which songs they play.  Or how long they jam.  Or which venue or city they play in.  They don’t owe us a midnight festival set, or a Gamehendge set or even a fall tour.  It’s perfectly fine to hope for these things, but—not to get all Yoda on your ass—it’s when hope turns to pleas turns to demands that fans overstep their bounds and threaten to fatally damage the relationship we share.

Part of me worries sometimes that this has happened already.  It’s hard to imagine Mike driving around the parking lot in his golf cart these days without getting harassed by fans demanding he play “Eminence Front” or criticizing his latest hotline message.  Many of the unique connections the band used to have with their fans—backstage parties, post-show hang outs, even Doniac Schvice—haven’t existed in some time and I find it tough to image them ever coming back.

Yet, at the same time, smaller stories do keep occasionally pop up, such as the famous Ross Compressor gift or the story I heard about a guy who works for Four Seasons getting gifted by Trey on his way to the Greek show.  Stories like these say to me that our special relationship isn’t dead yet, it just may be on life support.

I believe that the relationship can be saved if fans remember to heed not just the words of Loving Cup, but more importantly, Theme From the Bottom.  This is a song about being a humble receiver of life.  It describes how Phish relates to their music and it should describe how we, as fans, relate to Phish.

I feed from the bottom you feed from the top
I live upon morsels you happen to drop
And coffee that somehow leaks out of your cup
If nothing comes down then I’m forced to swim up

Phish will always feed from the top and we will always feed from the bottom.  That’s the nature of the relationship.  But we get to choose whether to be thankful or contemptuous of that fact.  I see it is an amazing gift and it is something I feel very lucky to be a part of.  Four talented musicians have learned to sublimate their individual egos to tap into something much higher than themselves, and we have the opportunity to do the same and join with them every time we go to a show.  It’s not always a feast—sometimes it’s just morsels—but it’s always worth it.

Sink just below all the churning and froth
And swim to the light-source, or fly like a moth
So toss away stuff you won’t need in the end
But keep what’s important – and know who’s your friend

And oh yeah, one more thing: Thanks for playing the Hollywood Bowl!