It's Friday, and my experiment with Phish is coming to an end. I wrote about their music on Wednesday, and I'll do that again today. But it would be both unfair and untrue to say that I'll ever be able to fully divorce Phish's music from their fans and from their community. And, frankly, I wouldn't want to.
From Wednesday's music post:
At first listen, Phish comes across as a jazzy, jam-based band with leanings toward folk, funk, freak and frivolity (oh, and prog, but that throws off the alliteration). For non-Phish aficionados, here are some base references: Zappa, Beefheart, ELO, Flying Burrito Brothers and Soft Machine. But it's just as easy to be surprised by a Phish song and have it sound like none of the aforementioned; to hear hints of classical music, the grandiosity of a Who rock opera, or the melodic prowess of Lennon/McCartney (or maybe Garcia/Lesh).
If jamming scares you, then Phish's music will be harder to take. But I like the jam, particularly in the live setting. And many of the great live bands playing today incorporate some element of jamming, sometimes to the chagrin of their fans. Stephen Malkmus (whether with Pavement or The Jicks), Yo La Tengo, Arcade Fire and Wilco are but a few of the bands that like to change up their songs on stage. And if you love Television and its wiry, taut albums but never saw the group live, then you wouldn't know that those terse songs were jammed out Dead-style in concert, sometimes stretching well beyond the 10-minute mark.
On Monday, I embarked on an earnest experiment driven by a fundamental question: Could I learn to love Phish — a band that occupies the unique position of being criticized and shunned without further, if any, inspection — in the course of a single week?
And here is my answer: Yes and no. If that's disappointing, then I apologize, but let me explain.
There are some bands whose music grips you immediately. And whether or not you're overtaken by a band and fall instantly in love depends on context, age and a number of other factors. For example, I didn't need to spend a week figuring out that I loved The Jam. A teacher game me All Mod Cons my sophomore year of high school, which was, frankly, the exact right time for me to hear Paul Weller and his cohorts. Then there was Nirvana, a band I took to the first time I heard a Cobain howl; they made sense because they were singing about a landscape I'd grown up in and with which I was familiar.
With Sonic Youth, on the other hand, I needed to see a live show, to witness a lightning bolt of image, sound, coolness and experimentation that I'd never quite understood on record. I'm always willing to sit with an album or an artist for a spell, to see if they have anything to reveal or if there is something for me to unearth. From Captain Beefheart to Miles Davis to The Pretty Things, some musicans speak louder and clearer the longer you keep them around; and then, well, the sound is deafening, and you don't know how you ever lived without it.
With Phish, as I pointed out earlier this week, the only consensus I could glean was that their genius lay somewhere in the interstices, between the studio and the stage and between the songs and the songs' subsequent deconstructions and transformations. Therefore, I often doubted whether I was ever hearing the "best" version of any given tune; if I didn't love it, I wondered if it was partially due to this fact.
Compared to my usual means of musical exploration — put the album on the turntable, let the songs play, see how I feel — searching for the quintessential version of a Phish song often felt like an impossible and frustrating way to proceed. So, instead, I found the Phish songs to which I was drawn and then sought out their different incarnations. I listened to multiple versions of "Tweezer," of "Harry Hood," of "Free" and of countless others. And only then could I get a sense of whether any of the music was sinking in. In the end, I found that it was more about harnessing the essence of a Phish song — of experiencing it — than about trying to put a boundary on it.
Listening to the live recordings, which I did following my Phish meet-up, I gained a greater appreciation for the band's playing. Though I only listened to about four studio albums — Junta, Hoist, Rift and A Picture of Nectar — I found none of them to contain anything particularly gritty or forceful. But on the live CDs, the guitars buzz and sing, notes float out into the ether and get sucked in again, and there are moments of beautiful and exhilarating chaos (particularly in the mid- and late-'90s sets). I do wish in these wilder moments that things could get messier, not just weirder.
I won't lie; some of the songs sound too noodly, wacky and benign for my taste. And, lyrically, I have to almost be in complete denial. In fact, I prefer when the songs move away from the lyrics and the singing all together, or when the voices are merely another instrument in the mix.
But I think that my biggest disappointment with Phish stems from the fact that I want the band to be more of a musical force; not just the cultural one that it so clearly is. I feel like the strength and the passion is coming from the fans — not just the ones I met in Portland, but also the ones who've been commenting on this blog all week. Phish's members keep losing me with how diffuse their music seems to be a little here, a little there and a lot (A LOT) everywhere. But where is the fiery center, the core? I'd argue that the Phish fire is in the fans; they're the ones who cohered the band for me, and gave the music a context and a platform.
(This is where someone says I need to see them live.)
I love the dedication that the fans show to Phish — their loyalty and thoroughness, their carefulness and, yes, the way they protect the band. And I may never again have so many people reading my blog. (Or caring how many times a day I post. I should add that I've never done 12 posts, let alone three, about a single band. Ever!)
But maybe I chose a band that I can't learn to love in a week. Or perhaps a week is too arbitrary a time frame for love. I'd argue that it is. After all, what if my love for Phish blossoms in the eighth minute of a 20-minute jam I've yet to even hear?
So, in conclusion, do I love Phish? No, or not yet. But I might after seeing the band live. Do I like Phish? Yes, I think I do. Was it was worth it to immerse myself in one band's world for a week? Of course. And I certainly think I was able to let go of a lot of the fan stereotypes. You know, the seaweed-dancing, dogs-on-ropes, acid-in-burrito assumptions that I used to make. Along the way, I met some great people, and I'm the owner of about 30 Phish CDs, some of which I'll continue to listen to after taking a break from Phish's music for a while.
A week ago, all I could tell you is that I didn't like Phish, and that I'd never heard an entire song. Today, I can tell you that I like the Phish fans I've met in person, and that my current favorite Phish song is this: "Bathtub Gin" from 8.17.97. After only one week, I'd say I'm off to a good start.
But, I'll be honest: I'm ready for some punk rock.