26 in 26 of 2019: #26 09/01/2019 Dick’s Sporting Good Park, Commerce City, CO (Wally Holland, @waxbanks)
by Wally Holland
i’m fuckin’ here
you’re fuckin’ here
i’m fuckin’ here
you’re fuckin’ here
fuckin’ here there here there
here there here there here there here there
Disclaimer: I wanted to keep this one short and sweet, to write analytically, keep my head – or failing that, figured I might write a love letter, thank-you note to a community that helped me become me, on the occasion of our long-delayed joyous/bittersweet reunion. I sorta tried, halfassed. But what follows is what happened. I know it’s way out of measure with the rest of this year’s entries, ponderous and overlong; turns out there were some Big Feelings going on, which got me all jumbled. Some difficult life stuff has been going on too, which further strained the writing. Maybe that’s OK. Seeing it through was a weird challenge for which I’m grateful.
If you find this pretentious (it’s not) or just intolerable (fair enough), search on ‘peaks’ and ‘jesus christ’ to read the important good bits. Have a lucky day.
To begin where we begin and end, in the middle: ‘Piper’ begins in the gentle swirl of the ‘Fuego’ outro jam, windborne drifting then turning to gather, together. Seven voices, four wordless. And 15 minutes later we end as we tend, clipclop ticktock giving way to ‘Tweezer’ funk lurch. Without, to my ears at least, the usual rock and roll conviction; something else is up. The whole show’s like that and I wonder. ‘Crazy Sometimes’ is a series of knots which cinch then loosen but never quite untie. ‘Gin’ opens its arms but breath cools to beat and the first set ends having marked a good time but not, I think that I think, any journey to the deep places. ‘Twenty Years Later’ a kayak ride, staying afloat – and did you ever notice 20YL could slip right into Ghosts of the Forest without changing a line?
‘It’s a new day,’ he says. ‘But the morning has passed.’
Y’know, ‘Fuego’ rolling on from rapids to lake, our doubles skating beneath the glass, keeping moving; and ‘Chalkdust’ not driving but getting older, more family than berserk. Can’t we live now we’re old. And ‘…don’t wanna be anything where I don’t know when to stop…’ And Page sings of divine creation and being squashed and silent and kneeling. And Trey sings of having to turn away from his beloved friend, and says to thousands of us and me and you, ‘I didn’t want to leave,’ but nobody has any choice, do we, and Trey’s friend is dead but there’s a song. Now something else is visible, on the other side; or, you know, this could be it. Ghosts. We could be.
Also, they do a rock song about a dog – one of several written and performed by the Phish from Vermont, you’ll note; they have this whole weird thing about dogs, also nipples – but this one is Subtly Altered to be about prairie dogs with bubonic plague!
Because the entire notion (‘plague’ haha) is faintly ridiculous. Even Trey can’t help but laugh.
HISTORY TIME: The selfsame bubonic plague wiped out a third of Europe; people had no idea – and then lots of wrong ideas – about what was going on and how to stop it. They slept on straw and died stupid by the million and the million.
Afterward, Europe entered what’s known as a ‘postapocalyptic’ period. Whole villages empty, whole ways of life gone Roving mercenary warbands fell on towns and cities like locusts, ate stole raped killed a while, moved on. You could buy them if you had money, but you didn’t have money; kings and popes did but we’re none of those. More even than the usual dose of evil, madness, stupidity. This mystery disease left villages empty, and for those left behind, All Bets Were Off, so to speak: I mean look, you gotta take what advantage you’re granted. You join whatever mercenary warband is hiring.
Long ago I learned from Larry Wall that apocalypse doesn’t mean what ‘apocalypse’ means. Everyone talks like it just means Bad Thing, an End to the world. Destruction, which the aforementioned plague weren’t short on.
But apocalypse means revelation. The gift of knowledge.
And those tend to be destructive. Which is fine in a story, where they tend to come before the beginning (premise) or at the end (climax). Pure bullshit but that’s a handy setup. In stories it’s always a new day; friends don’t build you up just so they can knock you down, they don’t leave, they don’t leave.
Here we are, though, definitely postapocalyptic just now but very definitely not in a story. After apocalypse we can’t go on, I’m fuckin’ here, you’re fuckin’ there, we’ll go on. We have no choice but to know; you leave one world, of ignorant ‘bliss,’ and come into this new thing heavy with knowing.
The world that ends is inner. ‘You can’t say you weren’t warned.’
‘Don’t give up hope,’ though.
‘Don’t give up hope.’
One key difference between the mere debased overlap arrow (>) and God’s own segue arrow (–>), on the ol’ j-card or in yr newfangled iTunes library, is that the former tends to indicate two separate conceptual realms, a strict border between: France-Germany, Mason-Dixon, either-or, you-me. The latter (Gin –> Real Me; Tweezer –> Izabella) is all about the borderland, zone of both-and. Not only space but shared moments…and knowledge of Before Time carried over into Afterward. The future isn’t the thing that comes after the past, it’s the past elaborating and succeeding. Not on/off, just on and on.
I mean to say you carry it with you. You don’t forget, which is another way of saying you don’t give up hope. And the next song gets to be more than itself because of what it carries forward from what it was (where and what we were). You get to be more than your self.
The past isn’t even past. No one is.
That’s the gift.
Man, I kept trying to figure out what was up with this show. The other day I listened for the first time in years to the Guyutica tape, which was so perfect I had to text @aklingus to make sure I was still on earth. Sitting alone in the Best Buy parking lot waiting to pick up a vacuum, yelling at my stereo about how good they were in Fall 2010, and why don’t I listen to this tour more. And then returning to this tape out of obligation (I call these mp3s ‘tapes’ now) thinking Sheesh, they just weren’t feeling it that night were they. What the hell am I gonna say about this. What the actual HELL.
‘The life I love is making music with my friends, and I can’t wait to get on the road again.’
So (ahem) what is up with this show? How come all the peaks are rounded, how come there’s this brief tempo battle at the top of ‘Piper,’ for that matter how come the tempos all seem a little draggy (even if they’re not, I mean what does it matter anyway)? Why no speech at the end? No catharsis, huh?
I spent the last 15 months living in a goddamn apartment that my ugh job had taken over, standing desk and multiple computer monitors taking up half the dinner table (making manifest that which is hidden), seeing the same two people every day and TODAY I’m sitting in an actual café writing for the first time in all that time. Truth be told, my peaks have gotten a little rounded.
Apparently there’s something I want from the music, maybe even something I need (if I can admit it). But – even if this concert didn’t feature maybe the worst performance of ‘Taste’ in the band’s history – I’m not going to find those things inside, they’re not gonna happen to me.
It isn’t the music that ‘peaks,’ it’s you.
So how would it feel to play a concert like this? Imagine yourself up there: clutching the guitar your beloved friend made for you, singing a song you wrote on a lark decades before, or mourning one of your dearest mates, or just threading dotted lines between the dashes and slashes and slow curves and weird shapes and open spaces your brothers were up there creating with you. How must it feel to jam like Phish, not just to do that work but to feel such absolute belonging and gratitude in your partners’ company that you could push past 50 being so silly and taking such risks? How fucking good must it feel, in the innermost locked rooms of your heart now thrown wide open to mountain air (plus plague), to be alive again and again, over and yes again over to try to make your music beautiful for us, of all people…
And how would you feel to fall short, to play a Below Average series of songs plus some upbeat ‘Type I’ jams plus a string of subdued but thoughtful tunes in the second set, to connect with your sisters and brothers in the mountain crowd and on the stage but feel like it’s not quite what it could be but you got up there and didn’t quit but you’ll get ‘em next time but this is the end of the tour but you’re doing a Fall run out on the coast but Dick’s is supposed to be the Big Summer Deal but so what? And to come out for the encore and sing ’Don’t give up hope’ like it’s your last chance to tell God’s truth?
I for one am pissed they didn’t sing ‘MYFE’ to finish the ‘Tweeprise’ encore. I’m pissed they didn’t consult me.
The segue arrows in this one do mean business! Fuego –> Piper –> Tweezer is the real thing, each tune consequent to the logic of the previous, 41 minutes of nose to the grindstone. The thing is, we’re conditioned to expect certain things from a Phish song or jam, after a move like that. After the arrow, beyond the deeps. In politics, if not parenting, this is called an ‘entitlement’: promise, expectation. And on my first listen, it seemed like this concert didn’t fulfill its promises, or more grandly its promise. I’m the one brought the expectations, but Ernesto Anastasio et al. are the ones chose whether and not to meet and surpass them. It must be so!
Maybe they were out of gas? That too is an entitlement: if they can deliver a first-set thrilla and Go Deep jamming in the second, they must and will. Must be some kind of failure. I mean, they’re the fucking Phish from Vermont.
Maybe they were out of gas. I dunno, they’re older guys now and even geniuses need tea and Clif bars, even groupminds wear down.
But maybe I needn’t speculate about what they were out of. It’s not in my hideous, fallen nature but maaaaaybe I could just look first at what they were into?
What they carried forward and what they left behind, I mean. That seems fair: I don’t know the members of Phish, don’t even know anyone in their organization, but they’re my loved ones for heaven’s sake. And therefore entitled to clear seeing and to say and hear their real names, as we are.
At the beginning of lockdown I thought I was an extrovert and now I know (I’ve decided) I’m not. The prospect is faintly embarrassing and off-putting – I’ve long falsely equated it with shyness and other social debilities – but like any ‘diagnosis’ it gives something to work with. I can finally give my family and friends the gift of knowing/telling that truth about myself, whichever others I’m less ready to square up to. The exchange rate of funtime to alonetime has finally been set.
Point being, after such a comprehensively stupid plaguetime I can’t help feeling like Summer 2021 better be a soft reboot of 2019 (2020 will be the ‘gas leak year’), or at least tease/quote several of the 2010s in a playful spirit so I know when to cheer. I want a Strong Fourth Quarter this time or why even goddamn bother?!
Gonna be so disappointed, so annoyed, when it turns out that it’s just another year. Another year with myself.
Probably it feels pretty good to play a show like 9/1/19 at Dick’s.
It isn’t the music that rocks, it’s you.
Every year I do one of these essays – except when there’s a year-and-a-half long gas leak, natch – and every year they seem to know (I guess I know) less about the music itself.
This show is compelling, it’s sweet, at times it’s strangely moving – and probably it was somebody’s first time, probably somebody got IT on this hilariously personality-free soccer field over Labor Day Weekend. (Pity about the timing, if so, though there’s no wrong time to start loving something.)
But they’re not trying to impress anyone anymore, and all the hard problems of musical expression that once consumed them are either solved or set aside – except the hardest one, what Trey even at his lowest point knew to be ‘the biggest idea’: communication, meaning open presence, meaning democracy of the spirit, meaning being real. Phish aren’t the band they were 20 years ago, or 10, or five. For the bandmembers, most especially for Trey after he bottomed out, the music these last few years has obviously been a place to gather in spirit rather than the highly technical project that made the band members rich and famous. Great things happen when they push themselves – the Fuego group writing exercises, Thrilling Chilling, the freewheeling ‘Phish covers Phish’ Halloween experiments, the Baker’s Dozen, Trey’s early-2015 woodshedding, Ghosts of the Forest, Hands on a Hardbody – but for many of us the band’s identity was formed during a time when they never ever stopped pushing themselves, and that ain’t the way anymore.
Which makes it harder to assess whether, and to what degree, their improvisatory rock shows ‘succeed’ or ‘fail.’ It’s a good time, they make more or fewer mistakes, they’re really present with the jamming (as if we could tell) or they aren’t (as if it doesn’t get most everybody off anyway).
We’re left talking about feelings, connections, hopes, experiences.
You push yourself when you want to be somewhere, someone, somehow else. Transformation is ongoing; being is transformation, can’t help it. But sometimes you have something more specific in mind, a felt need. It recedes over time but in the moment it’s so powerful, it’s everything. Of course it’s real. Powerful inarticulate desires are desires.
When I was young I assumed that going slow meant being complacent. I thought doing one simple thing, even if it felt good and helped people feel good, was failing to do a million complicated things. I thought ‘impressive’ mattered.
Phish helped me hear that I was wrong.
beyond the dream
wake up and try the impossible
the magic myth of the impossible
the impossible is your only hope
Could I exchange this world
Of unending separation
For just one crossing
That year after year, always comes to pass?
(Li Shangyin, tr. Chloe Garcia Roberts)
Don’t give up hope
Don’t give up hope
Increasingly it’s hard to know what to think of things. I wouldn’t say it’s harder to think, though it doesn’t feel quite like it used to. It’s certainty that comes less easily.
That’s frustrating but I believe it’s a good thing.
For a while now I’ve been thinking about the difference between certainty and confidence. You might say that certainty is the feeling of having The Answer; confidence is the sense of having understood (related correctly to) the question. The former drives refusal and exclusion; the latter makes humility possible.
The two words are near-synonyms in popular usage, but no one ever talks about ‘serene certainty.’
I remember being young and having a hard time understanding why people persisted in Error.
Lately I consult the I Ching from time to time. (Wilhelm translation duh.) I figure, if it worked for Philip K Dick and Carl Jung, who am I to say boo? The first or second time I did so, I meditated afterward and experienced a vivid, unsettling, emotionally gratifying vision. In retrospect I can’t say with any certainty whether it was ‘conscious’ in origin or operation; I just know it was beautiful, and while ultimately my mind (to capriciously mix some metaphors here) showed me some things I wanted to see, I couldn’t have said or known I wanted them – one aspect of the experience was being surprised by my own desires.
The vision was possible because of – or if we’re being more modest about our relationship to time, within – the experience of visiting the oracle.
I can’t be bothered with yew stalks, are you kidding me: you flip a coin a half-dozen times, up comes one of 64 hexagrams (6-bit numbers), then you consult JUDGMENT and IMAGE and interpretive text. There’s a philosophical system underneath the book, the ‘oracle’ comes out of a coherent school of thought elaborated over the centuries of its composition/compilation/interpretation, but frankly I’m a late-20C American tech school grad with self-consciously noncommittal metaphysics and don’t have the same deep relation to the background/source materials as would a philosophical ‘native speaker.’
What I have instead, which it took me 40ish years to acquire, is trust in what’s fundamentally an improvisatory collaboration between me and a helping friendly book. Enough trust to get on with the casting and asking and listening, anyway. And then once you’re in it, you’re in it. It gets easier.
I keep wanting to type ‘Please don’t laugh.’
Worrying about whether and to what extent divination relates to (and affects) future action, whether it makes sense to speak of any obviously internal mental image as a ‘vision’ (and if so…which?), whether the first time a hexagram repeats I’ll just be yanked out of it, whether sufficiently vague poetic text doesn’t just kinda tend toward an interpretive breadth we call ‘profundity’ out of fearful laziness – pointless! Those are interesting questions (is ‘vision’ a function that can be served by any inner image?) but the worry’s misplaced; it comes from outside. I know I trusted not in the book but in the experience it became possible to have with it, and while the text offers no answers, it helps me decide whether I’m asking the right questions.
You only have certainty; you move with confidence. In spite of uncertainty – and then, as you age into yourself: because of uncertainty.
It’s hard to know what to think of the Phish from Vermont music show 9/1/19 in the Dick’s – hard even knowing how to evaluate the listening experience. Writing these posts every year gets harder, because as I grow more confident in my sense of the limits and possibilities of my own personal relationship to Phish’s music and our shared culture that revolves around it, as I settle on (for?) explanations and understanding, I’m every year a lot less certain about what it all Means, how to quantify relationships between shows, whether and how to list or describe or (ugh) explain the virtues of this art which (like any good art) (it’s good art) is its own best advertisement. My grip’s loosening. And it’s hard to shake the feeling of embarrassment caused by this relinquishing…
…but then somebody said meaning is like geology, you find it anywhere you dig deep enough. It isn’t the I Ching but seems right all the same.
And I’m wondering if what I’m hearing in this series of unexpectedly low-key improvisations, etc. > Piper > Tweezer > etc., isn’t that same relinquishing. Maybe a little. The way Trey comes in juuuuust a little early on the opening ‘Piper’ vocals, before Fish has a chance to bring up the Correct tempo (they struggle a little, Fish gives in, resets, they meet in the middle). Without that old sense of Phish theatrics, of showoffishly demonstrating the possibilities which arise at interface of transitional open improvisation and the songform rising up under. I adore that opening; there’s something fragile about Trey’s singing, but (this seems important) not hesitant. We’re all Modern and don’t wanna prescribe virtue but doesn’t that seem like a beautiful, healthy, good thing? To enter bravely before strangers in all your fragility, I mean, to come to consensus with your dear friends in playing the song you wrote a quarter-century earlier? To be silly, and to miss someone? To work so hard to perfect your art, your craft, so that you – WE – can continue to make space for one another’s imperfections? For our own?
In the vision (daydream, fantasy, visualization, passing fancy, oh whatever) I walked in and further in through a series of doors – the further in you go, the bigger it gets – opening past loved ones living and dead who greeted me without judgment or resentment, and finally I saw myself as a little kid. This tiny kid. I kissed him on the forehead and we embraced. I felt like I was protecting him.
This morning I suddenly wonder if he wasn’t forgiving me. If I wasn’t—
I think it runs strictly counter to the typical thinking of a typical young person, to understand relinquishing – giving up, giving-way – as creative effort. Phish have always seen it as a help (think of Oh Kee Pah, the Big Ball Jam, the chess game, Hoist as an attempt to back off from the insanely micromanaged Rift, that whole goofy ‘surrender to the flow’ thing, etc.), but the joyful necessity of surrender has been one of the explicit lessons of their music since ‘The Blob,’ the abortive additive-musical-manufacture project that helped shape Billy Breathes (you can hear part of it in the studio ‘Steep’). There are so many examples, over the last 25 years, of the band striving counterTreyintuitively to loosen the grip in order to deepen connection:
Trey receding from the music’s front throughout 1997. The infamous no-discussion rule. The agendaless jamming behind Story of the Ghost. Deliberate hypnagogic practice at Big Cypress. The collective beauty of the ‘Ring of Fire’ jam at Lemonwheel, and the burning structure at the Went. Playing in a box at Superball. Writing as a group for Fuego and Kasvot Växt. Bringing in Bob Ezrin to decisively shape their music on Fuego and Big Boat. Deliberately putting themselves on the back foot no-repeating at the Baker’s Dozen, counting on one another, on good fortune, each moment…
Giving up control means giving up identity, fixity.
The interposing, occluding idea is gone.
How would you spend a year with no social obligations, no noise, no ‘FOMO’? Would you read, write? Hike? Meditate? Freak out and throw stuff? Fear? Mourn? Think about fucking 24/7? Or death? Call your friends and family more often? Less often? About the same? Organize? Keep doing the same job, only without social contact? Drink less coffee? More? Do more drugs? Sell more drugs? Less? Clean the kitchen? Learn to cook? Thrive? Suffer? Find out something horrible about yourself? Something wonderful? Lose loved ones? Love new ones? Remember? Forget? Forget?
There’s something attractive about the notion, amirite? Or there used to be. Easy for me to say. Easy to imagine, fun (I always thought) to fantasize about. But for actual existing us it isn’t even anymore a notion. The nightmare was millions dead, a boat stuck in the Suez, evil imbeciles in charge, insurrection, streets on fire, madness and stupidity – but the apocalypse, threshold of revelation, was that mostly unwelcome exchange: a yearish of your life and some false certainty for knowledge of how you would live under plaguetime, what of you would remain. One fewer question mark, maybe more I dunno.
I’m not sure I want to ‘put this whole pandemic behind me,’ as I’m sure someone somewhere is saying. It’s been horrible, idiotic, but sense needs making now. ‘Normal’ sucked, no interest in going back there (and I couldn’t if I tried; they’ve died). Be nice if this next world were a better one. Better than nice: necessary. Absent any ideas, you’d have to start with the world—
Lemme tell you, I’ve no clear idea why but I wrote ‘couldn’t if I tried’ and ‘they’ve died’ and started crying. It’s been that kind of a year and a halfish.
It’s not the music that peaks, not the—
It’s you peaking, you weeping, you on the road, you up the mountain, you going away. You and the sound of the storm, you giving up hope, you vibrating, pulsating. Dying from the world. Relinquishing and reconnecting. Hey! Downbeat upstroke. 7/8 ii-V, hey! Beautiful just dancing. Remembering forgetting. Flirting with death. Splashing, free. Having a cup of coffee. Catching your breath.
Us together all these, hey—
Jesus Christ, I miss you guys.
we are come
As in past years, I’m so grateful to the generous contributors to this year’s blogaround, most especially to Myke and his whole sick crew for making it all happen and for inviting me to join in. I could never have predicted, in I think 2013 or whenever the first round happened, how much this annual tradition would mean to me – or how bummed I’d be when it didn’t happen last summer.
And I’m grateful to and for the diehards, dweebs, lovely kind people, new/old friends, weary olds and newborn babes and everyone else, who (before and after all) form the tribe the music binds together.
When I think of you all dancing to the music together this summer, my heart’s full and light. Every minute getting real together is a blessing. You ever think about how lucky we are, to have fallen for this? Of all things?!
I hope you have an amazing time this summer, safe happy and healthy, and they play an hourlong ‘Bouncing Around the Room’ to open the tour. See you around.