Zach wrote and produced this piece for TBS Digital starring the Sklar Brothers.
PHISH STORY (Four Old Guys Go to a Phish Concert)
In 1995, I had hair to my back, owned 329 bootleg Phish cassette tapes and dated a girl who didn’t shave her armpits with whom I shared a cat named “Fee.” Phish was more than a band. They were a way of life, and whenever they sauntered within 300 miles of Los Angeles, I was out the door, in my Honda Civic that I had named “Hayley’s Comet” (After an obscure Phish song), en route to another show somewhere down the road. In the 19 years since my first concert, I have seen Phish in 13 different states (and many altered ones). I have snuck into their dressing rooms during long, improvised jam sets and taken pictures of their guitar cases. I even made a long trip to Europe in 1996 to follow them around as the opened – yes opened- for Santana. The highlights of this trip included meeting Trey Anastasio in an Amsterdam café and shaking Mike Gordon’s hand outside of the venue in Paris… (As well as making out with plenty of European women, who didn’t speak a word of English). Yes, I was fanatical. Phish was even the reason I decided to “join the internet” – just to check out their website Phish.net – and they were the benchmark by which I held a person’s character. Did you like Phish? No? Sorry, we can’t be friends.
Every one of my close friends was right there with me. We would write letters of set lists from East Coast shows to buddies stuck in LA, send tapes, make mixes and throw listening parties. Throughout the years, some of us had been cited for possession, arrested for selling bootleg t-shirts and handcuffed at DUI checkpoints. One friend – Frisco Freddy – in an ecstasy-fueled dare – once got married to a girl he met at the Aladdin Theatre in Las Vegas at a drive-through chapel following the show. The danced to “If I Could” and made love in a hotel room shared by 12 people that night – as we all giggled listening to Frisco Freddy reach his climax. It was all part of the adventure. (The marriage was annulled 2 days later. Frisco Freddy is now Fred Goldfarb, commercial real estate agent).
It seemed so normal. It was our existence. If we timed our chemicals right, we might peak during a terrific “Chalkdust Torture” that would stoke college apartment discussions for weeks on end. My favorite moment/lyric of any Phish show was in the same song when Trey erupted into the brilliant line “Can’t this wait ‘til I’m old? Can I live while I’m young?!” The lyric clanged through our heads like the National Anthem.
The words were a true celebration of our freedom. Of being young, making our own bold choices and not wanting to face any responsibilities of the reality of survival in the real world. That lyric was my unofficial catch phrase for my way of life.
When Phish concerts were announced, a plan was hatched to buy tickets and block out the dates roughly an hour after the show was revealed. We traveled anywhere, drove in any state of mind – and slept five deep on friend’s apartment floors. It was all part of being 20 and being in love with a band of 4 vagrant virtuoso musicians from Vermont who had captured the hearts of our generation. Nothing could ever distance me from my brothers – both onstage and in that endless, dancing crowd. The nameless faces who said to me “Have a good show” before every gate opened – and the post show strangers who would sell me a Pheelin’ Phine sticker and joint for ten bucks in the parking lot to help face the impossible comedown on the drive home.
And then, something happened.
Around 1998 – somewhere between college and the real world, something changed. I remember going to the July 20, 1998 show at the Ventura County Fairgrounds – and for the first time, at age 23 – feeling as if the band and I had suddenly grown apart. Maybe it happened during “Poor Heart” when I didn’t get up and dance like a maniac like I used to do – or maybe it happened somewhere in the second set during “Maze” when I suddenly developed a bunch of insecurities about my career choices and lack of girlfriend – I was never quite sure. All I knew was that there was definitely a grand abyss that suddenly presented itself before me. And my old friends in Phish somehow took the unlucky slack. I contemplated a drive to the following night’s show at Desert Sky Pavilion in Phoenix– site of some of the most memorable concerts of my youth… and I decided against it. It somehow seemed a little irresponsible and desperate. It seemed like another distraction from chasing my new path.
Don’t get me wrong, plenty of my friends attended and sent me letters telling me that they couldn’t believe I missed my home state gig – but I somehow didn’t care. (I think I saw Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at the Derby in Hollywood that same night and felt pretty damn good about myself…) Needless to say, the tides had turned. I was a different man.
I guess it seemed like Phish was a band that would keep me treading in the same spot rather than blazing a new path forward. The recent passing of a dear friend – who I last saw at a Phish concert a year prior – had brought a vague sorrowful cloud over the frivolity of my youth. It was as if a window of life had closed and a dream had ended. I sold Hayley’s Comet that summer and bought a more sensible 1998 Honda CR-V. It went unnamed.
My final show was September 17, 1999 at Shoreline. I sort of wandered around during a long jam session during the second set, seemingly bored. It was as if the drug had worn off and I couldn’t wait to get back to my room and climb into my bed. I was only 24 years old, but I had peaked. It was time to settle in, make some money and follow my own dreams of leading my own band – instead of just following someone else’s. I felt like the pupil who was about to overtake the instructor. When I finally got my band together, in 2002, the goal was to outdraw Phish in five years… Didn’t quite happen. (My band went on to hit some extremely minor success on the zombie country – rap music movie soundtrack circuit, but other than that, we never quite sold out Madison Square Garden…)
Oddly enough, a year after my last show, Phish would break up. I felt like I had timed it perfectly. For six strong years, I followed a band to the ends of the Earth – Draining my wallet while feeding my head and my soul. I was 25, and engulfed in Hollywood – listening to new finds like The Band, Gram Parsons and Little Feat. Suddenly, Phish seemed like a tiny speck on the musical map and I was done with their guidance. It had been a gorgeous journey but it had to come to an end. The CD’s and tapes began collecting dust as I opened my mind into a deeper track list of song and only occasionally reminisced about getting to do the clapping thing along with 13,000 people during songs like “Stash.” The band had broken up, my hair had been cut off and things like set lists and rides to shows no longer mattered. I didn’t think I’d ever see Phish live again.
The phone call came in two days before the concert. Our old friend Larry had bought four tickets to the 2012 West Coast summer tour kick off show at the Long Beach Arena. His first instinct was to gather the tribe back together for a reunion show. It was brilliant. Larry had assembled a crew of former fraternity brothers and Phish-heads alike, none being bigger than me – a man with nearly 35 shows to my name – including some back as far as 1993. Our pal Mike was coming – his first show since 1997. Also along for the ride was a man known as “The Sauce” for his heroic drinking capability back in college – a longtime fan who had seen over 12 shows. And Larry. As advanced a partier as I have ever known. Never without a pocket full of Percoset and a bottle of 18-year-old scotch in his back pocket. We were four old warriors returning for one more battle with the great gentle giant of our past. Prepared to run the place, the way we did in 1997… Prepared to experience an earth shattering revolutionary moment of clarity. Perhaps at a time when we all needed it the most.
All of us are in our late 30’s and married. Three of us have steady every day high-paying jobs. I’m the one without one. (Still coasting along in the entertainment industry). Amazingly enough, whereas we used to compare make out stores and conquests, now, all these years later, there are 9 children between the four of us. There is one stepdaughter and one baby on the way. It was a far cry from the days of smoking an ounce of weed in an old Ford Explorer with our sorority girlfriends. It was our time to prove that we could pretend we were 20, but always be aware that we are 37.
Larry’s offer was impossible to refuse.
See, I had actually broken my Phish hiatus a year earlier. The summer of 2011, I had gone to see Phish at the Hollywood Bowl, my first show in 12 years. It had blown my mind. The songs were familiar and inspiring and even new jams like “Backwards Down the Number Line” had me believing for a few glorious hours, that my life with the band was all worth it. I hit peaks, flashed back to marvelous memories on highways and in hotels, with girls and old friends and eventually simmered into a state of serenity as I took a $5.00 cab home from my neighborhood venue. I had never seen a more perfect concert. So, the possibilities a show in Long Beach held were endless. Old friends gathering once again in a beach community to smoke a little, drink a little and dance a little? It was a no-brainer. I signed up immediately. Mike and the Sauce were in too. The stage was set. We would meet down at the Long Beach Hilton around 5:00 pm and pre-party before hitting the show. If all went too crazy, we’d share a hotel room. We’d even try to carpool down to save money for parking and gas. We were planning on being more responsible, trying to spend a night not thinking about the troubles at work, our kid’s schooling and whether or not to sell our Facebook stock. Larry had even mentioned ecstasy. After a minute-long consideration, we all passed, but the knowing smiles we shared with each other only reminded us of a time more innocent when rolling on a tab of E was a guaranteed path to a brilliant Phish experience. Now, we decided to just have a few beers and maybe split a joint. We had grown.
The 5:00 meeting did not happen. When work let out, the traffic to Long Beach from Los Angeles was unbearable. I left my house at 3:30 and met up with the Sauce at 5. We then spent another hour and a half on the 405 and 710 to the LBC. It took us roughly three hours to get to the concert. I was fuming.
Back in the day, a two- day drive to Texas for a show would have never been out of the question. Now, however, spending three hours in a car these days is not my idea of a “night out from the kids.” And years ago, joints would have eased the pain of the ride as we blasted some live tape from 1992 smiling at the cars we crept along the freeway with. Now we were afraid to hold our cell phones up to our ears to avoid getting pulled over for not having “hands-free” devices.
The Sauce and I made a wrong turn off the 710, but somehow ended up meeting Mike and Larry at the hotel. After long lost friendly pleasantries were exchanged, the immediate recognition of spotting the familiar Phish army sank in once again. Kids showed up in John Fishman dresses – kooky Phish t-shirts from 30 years of merchandising gone right and plenty of MAN-dals. It was all as familiar as a “Bathtub Gin” guitar riff. As we approached the venue, we became aware that we were definitely amongst the older generation – probably by 7-10 years – and we quickly noticed the similarities between 1995 and 2012. Except for instead of being the longhaired young kids with hot girlfriends, we were the dirty old dudes drooling over hot 20-something hippie girls who were there with their boyfriends. It should also be noted that the hairy armpit girls of the 90’s were nowhere to be seen. The California crowd was HOT. Young, bountiful, blonde, sexy, natural, curvy and gorgeous. A far cry from the dreadlocked smock-wearing wanderers that would hitch rides with us from town to town in the 90’s. Somewhere in the past 15 years, Phish’s female fan base somehow got SMOKIN’ hot.
I smoked a joint with my old friends. We laughed, shared pictures of our kids and split decent gyros we bought from some dude on a bicycle. It started to feel like home once again. As we saw the throng of concert goers celebrating the very fact that it was a religious night we began smiling like we were all young and innocent again, We were transported back to a time of peace and incorruptibility, purity and clarity. We were in heaven.
I’m pretty sure I made my first mistake when I stood in a 30-minute line to get a wristband to buy beer. Nobody had told me that inside, there was a smaller line – so I freaked out and wasted a half hour. I also made the mistake of not using the port-a-potties outside. I saw five people waiting to pee and got frustrated. But when I went inside, the line was 75 dudes deep. Took me another 20 minutes to hit the head.
Still, as the anticipation mounted, the familiar feeling returned. I knew I was seeing one of my all-time favorite bands and I couldn’t wait to get into the music like I did one year earlier at the Hollywood Bowl. It had been five hours since I left my house. I had drunk a few beers and took a long hit off of another friend’s chillum pipe. I was flying high when they opened the show with “Suzy Greenberg” – an old school jam that I used to LOVE. I hadn’t even thought about the song in 16 years. But it sounded as boisterous and thunderous as it had all those years ago. The set continued. “Kill Devil Falls” is one of my newest favorites. “Bouncing Round the Room” made me reminisce of old friends and women dancing around my apartment. Just young and dumb and free… Fucking FREE.
The funny thing was, back in the 90’s I would have been able to tell you what song was beginning by the first three notes. I knew every opening riff, line, bass thump, drum kick, you name it. Now, it took me half a song to even recognize what it was. I wasn’t as up to the familiarity as I thought I was. Still, it didn’t matter. That first set was perfect. We were all happily stoned, shrugging off the $10.50 Miller Lites and ignoring the fact that the Long Beach Arena should really have been reserved for a WNBA game – and not a Phish concert in a fine-looking slice of California near the sea. Even the dozens of people near us smoking cigarettes didn’t bother us just yet. We were all in a Phish trance, heckling stadium vendors trying to sell kettle corn and churros to a bunch of drugged out super fans and doing our best to remember our killer dance moves.
Everything was conscious. Everyone was free. Everyone was happy… Until they played “Stash.” It was then that I decided to make my first journey into my iphone to see what the name of the song was. (Back in college I would have had the lyrics tattooed on my arm, but now, I was struggling with the title). As I looked at my phone, my wife’s name appeared in a text. As did my brother’s. And a text from a possible business opportunity. Suddenly, Phish was GONE. I had to return my wife’s text to make sure the kids were OK. I had to send my brother a pdf file. I had to go talk to my business contact about the TV show idea he had. I was distracted. I suddenly realized it was Wednesday. Oh man, I had shit to do.
The classic “Stash” lyric “Was it for this my life I thought? Maybe so, maybe not” began.
It made sense when I was 20. It made perfect sense again.
I made sure I clapped at the right places and sang the “Ohhwooahh woah woah ooh” part in the song somewhat properly, albeit less enthusiastically than I had all those years ago, but I listened to that lyric repeat itself as I embarrassingly dove back into my phone. Afraid my friends would make fun of me for not being as entranced in the show as they were, I was pleasantly surprised to look over and see that Larry, Mike and the Sauce were all frantically texting into their phones as well. We were once slaves to the music. Now we were slaves to technology, wives, kids and work.
I decided to wait to go outside to call my wife until after the first set, which was a good move. But when Phish crushed the arena with “Quinn the Eskimo,” I was as as festive as anyone my age can get. As I drooled over some ridiculously hot dancing brunette who reminded me of half the girls I had dated in the 90’s, I began whispering to my friends about how old I felt at the show. We all nodded, laughed and high-fived.
I think The Sauce was the first one of us to yawn.
Still, I knew I had to go find a quiet place where I could calmly call my wife in peace and let her know I wasn’t wasted and that I would be home on time to wake up with the kids so she could go to work in the morning. As the set ended, and the place erupted, I darted for the doors. Somehow, I beat the bathroom line and even got a beer before getting stuck in sweat-filled traffic towards the front entrance where a full cell phone signal awaited. I called. It rang. My wife was asleep. I looked at the time. 9:45 p.m. Once, the beginning of my nights. Now? Fucking LATE,
I looked around at all of the fans around me. Most of them were texting, tweeting and updating Facebook pages, which I chalk up to the generation. However, when I saw the crew I had rolled with come outside, it was thoroughly predictable. We were all blowing kisses to our wives, checking on kids and even taking business calls. (Larry opened and closed a lawsuit between sets).
The Sauce took a 10-minute business phone call.
Mike went off to buy a churro and didn’t return for 40 minutes.
I sent photos of the crowd to my brother.
The guy next to me played Angry Birds.
30 minutes later, we were all exhausted and ready to call it a night. Still, we forced ourselves back inside. The anticipation was gone, the reality of an hour long drive back to L.A. sank in and we all crowded around the Long Beach water fountains for free cups of polluted tap water – just to avoid $4.50 twelve ounce Dasani’s from the concession stands.
As we sat in our seats, the lights came back and an unfamiliar tune came on. After five minutes of pretending we knew what it was, a guy behind us finally used his “Shazam” app on his phone and figured out it was “Rock and Roll” by Velvet Underground. The Phish version went on for 25 minutes. It was amazing. But then. The pdf file I sent earlier didn’t go through. Larry’s lawsuit took a turn for the worst. Mike’s churro sucked and The Sauce had to discuss hotel design with somebody in Macau. We were suddenly no longer the four Phish phreaks who would bed five girls before the night was through. We were grown men with responsibilities and allergies, children and long drives home. We were fading fast. When “Ghost” started, I shrugged it off. It was never one of my favorite songs, but I knew it well. It was one of those songs I had heard back when I began to separate myself from the band. Still, the song sounded great, and my body seemed to once again start buzzing… Until I realized it was just the buzz from another iphone text from my wife. Our two-year-old daughter was awake and crying. I felt guilty for not being there.
I’m pretty sure I was the second one to yawn.
Larry soon informed me during “Guyute” that he had a place for me to crash on his hotel room floor. My contact lenses were burning – and the drive home seemed impossible, but I figured it would be better for me to get home and not wake up in Long Beach hitching a ride back to Hollywood at my age, so I decided to go get some water from the tap once again. Four glasses later, and I was in the bathroom, staring at the bags below m eyes in the mirror while listening to two 20-something kids discuss some Festival in 2008 that I had obviously missed. I heard “Guyute” climax into that space age three chord re-birth that always made me happy and I smiled again. I was back inside, full of energy and ideas and resilience and glee. Until I returned to our section to find a good amount of the fans in my section seated and unconsciously bored.
“I’m bouncing like a newborn elf,” sang Trey.
Really? I didn’t see any newborn elves dancing near me. I saw four guys who were exhausted, rubbing their temples and beginning to worry about their hearing.
I stuck it out for “Julius” – one of my all time favorites – but when I noticed that our crew was all in the wife-texting mode we all looked at each other with an unspoken knowledge that it was time to go home. Yes, we had blossomed into the OLD GUYS AT THE PHISH SHOW. We weren’t quite what we used to be. And I think, truthfully, we were all a little grateful that we weren’t.
I remember waiting in line to buy Phish t-shirts as a kid to wear around college and try and instigate conversation. I made it a ceremonial task to buy a shirt at every show I went to. I have something like 22 Phish t-shirts in a closet in my house and I’ll hold onto them forever. Mike, Sauce, Larry and I thought we’d take a look at the newest merch and maybe drop a few bills. Of course, the only item that appealed to us was the baby onesies. Mike bought a toddler t-shirt and a newborn onesie. Larry got a onesie as well. I decided against it, as my kids were a little older, but it was the final moment of truth. We were now here just to tell our kids that we were there. The thrill had somewhat faded and we were all just looking forward to a decent night’s sleep.
It was the first time I had ever left before the encore. It was the first time I was happy to do so. It was the first time I hadn’t bought a beer, weed or burrito in the post-show parking lot. It was the first time I hadn’t left completely blasted out of my skull.
When Mike suggested taking a taxi back to the hotel three blocks away, all four of us smiled. Yes, a taxi! Brilliant! We were close enough to walk, but forget that idea, man. When we arrived at the Hilton, We split the $5.25 charge amongst four of is, said some pleasant good-byes and split apart. We had come to do what we came to do… sort of. It was a new experience on an old battlefield. WE were the decorated aging generals of yonder.
On the way home from Long Beach in my car, I fired up the MP3 player to “Chalkdust Torture.”
There was that magical phrase again.
“Cant this wait ‘til I’m old, can I live while I’m young…”
Well, I guess I let it wait ‘til I was old. I lived when I was young! And even though 37 still seems young in a way, when there are babies to feed and diapers to change at 6:00 in the morning, 37 is really fucking old.
Still, Phish will forever hold a deep piece of my heart – and should they play anywhere within 10 miles of me (haha) I will go anytime. The band is one of the reasons why I became a confident stage performer, a songwriter and a well-traveled man. They were a part of my youth, but also of my adulthood. They continue to offer inspiration and wild creativity but they also continue to keep me grounded. To know that nothing lasts forever… be it friendships, bands, trends, beauty, money… you name it. All we have is belief, love and music. And that ain’t bad at all.
Still, if anybody has an extra ticket for tomorrow night’s San Francisco show, I’m totally in… I’ll drive….
—- Zach Selwyn * August 16, 2012