Canonizing Phish

Something interesting happened to me on the way home to Brooklyn today. I was riding the subway, and I was looking through Parke Puterbaugh’s Phish biography. At 14th st., an older gentleman, maybe in his early 50s, sat down next to me. He was very tall, glasses, long hair in a pony tail. On a crowded subway car, you find yourself checking out who’s reading what. I do this sometimes, I find myself casually glancing over someone’s shoulder.

Anyway, nice older guy was clearly looking at my Phish book. Eventually he asked me, rhetorically, “that’s a book about Phish?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“How long is it?”

I though that was an odd follow-up question. But maybe he’s thinking about reading it himself and wanted to know what kind of investment it would be (the font is huge, compared to most of the stuff I read, so you fly through this book). Or he wanted to give it as a gift to someone. Anyway, I assumed he was, if not “on the bus,” at least quite familiar with the bus if he knew who Phish was. Plus, y’know, the pony tail…

“It’s about,” I thumbed through to the end, “270 pages.”
“Is it any good?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “It’s a good read for most fans and also for people who don’t know the band well.”

I chose not to mention that die-hard phans, such as myself, might find that it offered few new stories, just some interesting new perspectives and fascinating interviews with insiders about stories we all know from years of reading internet lore and collective fanbase storytelling.

“So tell me,” he asked, “they’re kind of like the Grateful Dead, right?”


Colorful cover makes catches eyes on the subway

I stumbled badly through an answer. As musicologists, we are constantly confronted with this problem: describe your life’s work, something that is extremely nuanced and needs to be approached and understood from many, many facets, in a non-pretentious way to a layman who wants a simple answer. We have to do this when we teach. I’m sure it kills one of my colleagues (I’m thinking of you, Ryan) to have to teach Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 20 minutes, when he’s spent years and years studying the piece. I’m sure it’s even worse for my Medieval-Renaissance friends whose music appreciation courses spend one day on “early music.”

The reason I have been thinking so much about this Grateful Dead/Phish connection recently, the reason I was reading Puterbaugh’s book on the train today, and the reason I’m posting this is because I’ve been contracted to write the entry on “Phish” in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, aka “AmeriGrove.” And I needed to get Trey’s birthplace (Ft. Worth, TX). Now, every single musicologist who reads this knows exactly what Grove is, while every single Phishhead who reads this is scratching their head. Simply put, Grove is the place that music scholars and music graduate students go for basic information about anything. It’s like our Google – it’s where we go for information, and the beginning of most research. What year did Mozart write Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail? Grove. What is “scordatura?” Grove. Describe the musical style of Charles T. Griffes? Grove. You get the idea.

However, Grove is subscription based, which means that only people with academic institutional affiliation can access it. So, it doesn’t come up in real Google searches. What this means is that the information in Grove is the “definitive” basic info for scholars and academics. For the other 99.999999% of the population, it might as well not exist.

This means that anytime a music professor or researcher, especially those who have never heard of the band before, wants to learn more about Phish, chances are one of the first places they’ll go is New Grove. I’m trying not to get overly egotistical about this, but to some extent, I control what people will know about Phish. Some small extent, sure. But then I think about all the stuff that I’ve learned exclusively from Grove, and I realize that this is a reality.

So, how do I deal with the day-glo elephant in the room: what is the connection between Phish and the Grateful Dead? As a scholar, I feel it is my responsibility to address this connection. Like it or not, there ARE many similarities between these two bands. The most direct similarities, I believe, are non-musical: it’s in the behavior and touring style of the fanbases, the business philosophies, the trading of concert recordings, the avoidance of traditional promotions, the success based on touring and word-of-mouth rather than a big hit radio single. As for the music, that’s a much harder question. Certainly, as I told my new friend on the subway, the idea of freeform jamming outside the song’s structure is common to both bands. Even though much of Phish’s musical language has more to do with Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Little Feat, the Beatles, Talking Heads, Boston, and Genesis than the Grateful Dead, none of those other bands improvise in quite the same way as the Dead. And it’s that type of improv, “Type II jamming” as us Phishheads call it, that many phans value the most.

Phil Lesh and Trey Anastasio

And yet, even though so many Phishheads are also Deadheads, we grow tired, or are even angered, by the constant mass media references which reduce the Phish/Dead connection to an overly simplistic “Phish is a modern-day Grateful Dead.” Could the Dead have ever written something as bizarre, both lyrically and musically, as “Guelah Papyrus?” Or anything as intricately through-composed as “Foam?” Could Phish have ever written something with as much sorrow as “China Doll?” Or something that combines psychedelic swirls of sound, modal jamming, and old-time storytelling like “Wharf Rat?”

Yet here I am, invoking the Grateful Dead in a 300 word dictionary definition of Phish (their limit, not mine!). In the end, I’ve decided that I have to address it more or less as I just did. The connection, especially between the fanbases, cannot be denied. The improvisational philosophy, too, shows a clear lineage. But musically, Phish’s influences, and their output, is too diverse to be whittled down to a one-to-one ratio of predecessor-successor. Did Phish “inherit” the Grateful Dead’s legacy. Probably. Inherit is a good word. When a relative dies and you inherit something of theirs, you get it, whether you wanted it or not. When the Grateful Dead disbanded, Phish got the improvisational torch. Whether their music was the same or not doesn’t matter – the spirit lives on in the latter band. Understanding this basic difference is crucial to deciphering the seemingly easy question: “they’re kind of like the Grateful Dead, right?”

Everyone in beards!

More than anything, I feel a responsibility to the band and to the phans to do this article right. Perhaps I am being delusional about the importance or impact of this article. Still, I KNOW that at some point, someone will get their knowledge of what Phish is and what they sound like entirely from my tiny AmeriGrove entry. I just hope they won’t go away from it thinking to themselves “just like the Grateful Dead…”


~ by Jake on December 16, 2010.

6 Responses to “Canonizing Phish”

  1. i just hope they won’t go and cut and paste it right into one of their term papers for that class you’ll be teaching on American Popular Music.

    • Ahhhh….to be plagiarized, that’ll be the day :). Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure my intro students would much rather plagiarize from wikipedia than anything as reputable as Grove.

  2. “y’know, the pony tail…”
    nicely done. I think you’re right about the comparison of the non-musical aspects of the 2 bands. To me its important the Mike, Fish, and Trey were all pretty big deadheads in the 80s and that exposure and influence certainly had a big impact on how their “scene” became so similar. The idea of a community was important to them so they cultivated it through their career, culimating in the multi-day festivals, something the grateful dead never pulled off.
    As for the musical influence, I feel phish took what GD were doing in their time and contemporized (is that a word? -if not should be) it. Sure, Dark Star and YEM are musically very different, but they share the fact that they are clearly both bands’ opuses and are designed as such, with cherished composed sections and large spaces designed for open ended jamming. Obviously, on an academic level, you could go on and on about these issues, but the Grove entry is a great start (congratulations on that) and hopefully one day we can fully invenst in the time and energy necessary to fully delve into this project. MSG!

  3. Kenny – i agree that it’s very important that most of Phish were big into the Dead, although as Puterbaugh notes, for Trey it happened way later than his obsessions with many other bands like Genesis, Rush, Zeppelin, Zappa and Beefheart (RIP), and the Talking Heads.

    I think contemporized is a word, although WordPress just told me it’s spelled wrong.

    However, I don’t think you can compare Dark Star and YEM in the way you did. Yes, they are both bands’ magnum opus, and both are loci for far-out improvisation. however, I feel that comparing Dark Star to Tweezer is more appropriate. from the very beginning, Dark Star has always been just a “shell” of a song – it’s two chords, a short lyrical section, and a couple of composed lines, but really it’s all about the improv. and the improv., from more or less the very beginning, was all about taking the song “out there,” moving as far from the given structure as possible before reining it back in. on the contrary, YEM never really went “Type II” that often until 1993-94, when most Phish songs started to go that route. For Phish, it was more important to nail those songs’ composed parts and then create well-crafted jams on top of the song’s given chord changes. and of course, YEM’s pre-jam section is MUCH more important and intricate than Dark Star’s composed section.

    the way you put it, Dark Star is designed for open ended jamming, and I agree with that. It is part of the compositional strategy of that song – the “album version” of Dark Star is revealing in that it shows just how small and insignificant Dark Star would be without the jam. however, I don’t think YEM is designed for open ended jamming in the same way. YEM only grew to include open-ended jamming when it was in middle age, sometime around 1994-95. and even the YEMs that go the most “out there” (like 12/9/95) still sound very much like YEM. my favorite “open ended” YEM is definitely 4/5/98, where you really feel as though they’ve left YEM behind and are charting new musical ground.

    what I think is most interesting is that Phish created specific jams that have structure, like Bowie, Antelope, and Reba, but are meant to sound as though they are open-ended. like Dark Star, these jams are just two chords, and are designed to provide a space during which the band takes the song out there. these jams are meant to do what Dark Star did, but in a more structured way that always (at least in the early days) leads to the same point, and follows a similar pathway to get there. Dark Star is different, it takes you out and then brings you back. it’s circular. sometimes, especially the early 1969 versions of Dark Star, the jams does lead to a specific point (that riff that closes the Live/Dead version). whereas with those Phish songs, it is a linear build to a specific point: in Bowie it’s the pull-off riff, in Antelope it’s the moment that it all stops, and in Reba it’s Fish’s tom-tom roll. almost every time, those songs end that way.

    a long response, but good food for thought!

  4. On Google plus the other day, PHISH asked how we discovered the band. I wrote a lengthy reply, but the gist of it was – if I didn’t compare Phish to the Dead, I would have loved them sooner.
    Here is the link:

    • that was actually an impediment for me too, although it was indirect. I was at summer camp and my counselors who were Deadheads got me into the Dead. I idolized them, and they had a random Phish bias. so, being 12, I decided I also didn’t like Phish. ironically, being into Phish was considered a bandwagon at my camp, if you can believe that…

      I got into Phish a couple years later, when a different counselor sat me down and played me the 7/8/94 Gamehendge set. then I “got it.” or at the very least, I got “Lizards.”

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