Recently, on social media and my website, I have made no secret of my modern return into the world of competitive basketball. I play full court four days a week at the Hollywood YMCA and recently entered a Three-on-Three tournament against other fathers at elementary schools, which I happened to have won. (My proudest athletic achievement in my life to date – not counting the time I took Colton – the star 7-year-old pitcher – DEEP in a father-son Little League game last summer…)
I have re-discovered a love for the game I haven’t had sine 1993 and I’m actually a better player now than I have ever been.
Throughout my life and into high school, basketball was everything. As a 6’2” inch eighth grader, I was groomed by my coach to become the next great Arizona Wildcats big man. Unfortunately, I haven’t grown an inch since eighth grade. I switched to the wing, where I lacked certain skills, but was still able to hold my own mainly because I was actually grabbing the rim with ease and in top physical shape. However, around age 18, I discovered the usual pitfalls – Weed, beer and women – and decided that since I had no chance, or interest in walking on my college team, I would hang up my Air Jordan XII’s and I only stepped on the court a handful of times over the ensuing decade.
A few years ago, however, I was listening to UCLA great and fellow Grateful Dead-Head Bill Walton broadcast an Arizona- Oregon basketball game, when something he said struck me deep inside. After he spent a few minutes comparing some obscure 1970’s Bob Dylan song to the Oregon Ducks’ fast-break technique, he discussed his history of injuries he attained while playing. At the end of this sidebar, Bill Walton claimed to have broken his nose 13 times.
“That’s what happens when you play defense with your face,” he exclaimed.
He also mentioned his surgically fused ankles, incinerated spine, broken wrists, 36 surgeries and broken leg – all suffered on the basketball court. Walton’s lifelong injuries, along with his 1978–1979 year-long protest of the Portland Trail Blazers unethical treatment of his injuries, gave him the record of missing the most games during an NBA playing career, when taking into account the number of years he was officially listed as a player on a team roster. He spoke of how debilitating it became to walk and I researched even deeper to see that Walton once even contemplated suicide due to severe depression from debilitating back pain.
However, Walton then made a comment that made his life on the disabled list seem even more surreal… He observed a certain move power forward Solomon Hill had made and remarked, “That is a move to study – for those of you who are still lucky enough to play basketball…”
Lucky? How could 13 broken noses and suicidal thoughts be considered lucky? I felt that I was lucky to have quit basketball with my original nose still in place. What was Walton talking about?
Attempting to find out, the next day I dusted off some 10-year-old shoes and made my first trip to a court in what was nearly five or six years. I checked out a basketball at the YMCA that looked as if it had spent a good majority of its life underwater, and went to shoot around. It took me awhile, but eventually I was making short jump shots and working on my cardiovascular fitness while running up and down the gymnasium floor. Some of my old spin moves came back to me, and I put up a couple of nice finger rolls and hit some three pointers. It actually felt amazing.
About an hour later, a few guys asked me if I wanted to play “21” with them, but I declined, afraid of shooting 9 air balls and getting embarrassed. Instead, I continued to work on some post moves and drives and watched them from the corner of my eye. They were laughing, having fun and playing just above the level where I was – which made me think I might have hung in there if I had accepted their challenge. Instead, I returned my ball and went home and told myself I’d be back the next day.
I did come back the next day. And the next. I ran that court nearly every other day for months until I was actually joining the games of 21 and winning a good majority of the time. For the first time in over a decade, I was having a lot of fun playing basketball. I soon found myself in the full court games and now, three years later, found myself coming home and discussing the games with my wife as if I was playing in the NBA Finals. It became an obsession to the point where if I missed a lay-up during a game, I got depressed for the rest of the day. Still, it drove me to come back again, improve and remedy the situation.
My wife thought I was nuts. Every time I would bring up my day on the court, she would roll her eyes and remind me that I’m more Kevin Arnold than I am Kevin Durant. She also warned me to be careful, to which I reminded her that I was playing against a bunch of guys in their 30’s and that I was in better shape than most of them.
And then, about six months ago, I got smashed in the nose by a teenager who lowered his shoulder into me on a penetration. My nose now cracks in both directions when I try to move it, but I luckily avoided a full break. Then, a couple weeks later I was slightly concussed after being run under by a guy who was pissed that I was outplaying him. I ended up sitting out two days nursing my brain – which luckily was not permanently damaged. In December, I took an elbow to the bridge of my nose, which caused it to bleed profusely all over the court and earned me 75 “likes” on Instagram.
In February, I jammed my left thumb so hard during a rebound that I am still having trouble operating the zippers on my jeans. Then I jammed my right pointer and ring finger in consecutive games. I’m consistently fighting shin splints and a bone spur. Finally, last week, I discovered that I have bursitis in my right shoulder and that I might not be able to play for three weeks or so. This will be my first trip to the disabled list in my athletic career. And I’m a month away from 40. According to my dad, the injuries will now just start piling up. In short, I am about to enter my Bill Walton years. Now, my family is giving me all kinds of advice.
“Maybe think about not playing anymore,” my mother offered. “You know, you’re no spring chicken.”
I hung up on her.
“A spin class is much better on your body,” my dad suggested. I simply sent him pictures of my three-on-three trophy and told him I’d be back on the court in a month.
“Don’t do anything stupid, you don’t want to really hurt yourself,” my wife told me.
I rolled my eyes and studied Russell Westbrook highlights like it was important game film.
During the past week, I have found myself watching Bill Walton again. I guess recently there have been petitions to remove him from the Pac-12 broadcast booth, which upsets me entirely. Sure, he can go on tangents about the time Bob Weir and him spoke Arabic to camels in the Egyptian desert, but his unique and loveable qualities are what make him a treasure in the booth. He’s not a cookie-cutter color guy. He’s quotable and full of basketball wisdom. In fact, he may be my favorite college basketball announcer working today. Not only does he know the game, he makes it fun. I know he seems like he might be high or severely “out-there” once in awhile, but his love for the game is like nobody’s I’ve ever heard before. Not only that, his passion for the game is what got me playing basketball again.
Without Bill Walton, I’d still be jogging three miles on a treadmill. Not competing and not getting any sense of accomplishment.
For that, I thank you Mr. Walton. For inspiring me to lace up my sneakers that early morning three and a half years ago and return to the sport of my youth.
The evening after I won the three-on-three “Dads” championship, my wife said I had a “glow” about me. I knew what she was talking about, because I felt it. It was a sense of invincibility and achievement. I felt young again. Above the rim. It brought to mind a famous Bill Walton quote I had read years ago when he said, “You don’t win championships by being normal, by being average…”
I may have only defeated a bunch of dads in a Saturday pick-up tournament, but for those of us who are just hanging onto the final glimpses of what we might be able to accomplish as men, it was as if I won an NBA Championship.
Now if you excuse me, I have to go ice my shoulder. I’m planning on returning to the court earlier than expected…
When I came down with the rebound and heard my right knee explode and pop, I knew something was horribly wrong… I looked up at the faces of my basketball teammates looking down at me lying on the court writhing in agonizing pain. I somehow managed to verbalize what was going through my mind…
“That’s it, amputate my leg… just cut the fucker off.”
Turns out my injury wasn’t bad enough to turn me into an amputee, but it was bad. Torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Partially torn medical meniscus. Partially torn medial collateral ligament (MCL). If you’re not familiar with this medical terminology, in layman’s terms… I blew out my whole fucking knee.
Before I was given the official medical report by my doctor, I had four days to figure out what the hell I had done to myself. Why? Well, in America, with health care as bad as it is, getting in to see an Orthopedic surgeon for an official diagnosis takes time… Like, a lot of time. Which means, after Googling “knee injuries” over 3000 times, I had to make my own medical diagnosis on myself until a doctor appointment could be set up.
Based on my online research, I had concluded that one of three things had happened to me:
1. I tore my ACL. 2. I tore some other knee ligament. 3. My bones were deteriorating from early onset kidney disease and I would be dead by August.
My father and sister are both doctors, so their advice to use the RICE method, (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate), helped a lot. They recommended getting crutches to get around, so, I quickly called my friend Scott, another basketball friend who had suffered numerous leg injuries over the years. Sure he had a pair… he said. But they were for people 5’10” and under.
After searching for cheap crutches online, I called the Hollywood Goodwill and was told by an employee that they had a set that they would hold for me. As I limped through the parking lot of the store, praying that they would fit my 6’2” frame, I went over certain decisions in my life that had lead me to this point… Why had I turned down the professional path to pursue this artist life? If I hadn’t, would I be staggering through a Goodwill parking lot in Hollywood on a Thursday afternoon in my pajamas trying to save $15 on crutches if I only had I taken that job at FOX SPORTS all those years ago? What had I done to my life? The last couple months had been tough… Air BNB disavowed my house from renting it out, so my income had been roughly slashed in half. My latest voiceover residual check I had received in the mail was for .08 cents… My only solace of late had been in playing basketball… and now that dream, like my right knee, was CRUSHED.
I felt like I was on the verge of being homeless.
Of course the girl at Goodwill had made a mistake. They had a WALKER, not crutches. It also happened to have a blood stain on it, which is why it was SLASHED to $2.00. I passed.
I went to Walgreens next, where the crutches were at the back of the store. I hobbled all the way in only to find that they were “on sale” for $59.99. Excuse me? 60 bucks? FUCK OFF. I was about to go fasten myself a crutch out of an old tree branch and a bicycle seat when I looked on my phone and noticed that Home Depot sold them… I called, but got no answer. When I showed up, I was told that their crutches were not available in-store. They were online deals only.
“Go to Urgent Care,” my friend Alex told me. “They’ll be able to tell in five seconds if you tore something… and they’ll give you crutches for free.”
Urgent Care it was. I found one with a five star rating on Yelp and went down. I paid my $25 co-pay and was treated by a 20-something female who claimed to be a doctor, although I noticed that her name tag did not say “M.D.” It had a bunch of other letters that I’m sure were placed there to confuse naive patients… Hers said A.P.R.N. C.N.M.
I texted my sister – a doctor down in Newport Beach – to see if this lady was, in fact, a doctor.
ZACH:Hey – What do these abbreviations mean and is she a legit doctor? A.P.R.N. C.N.M.
She wrote back immediately.
AMANDA: NO! That stands for Advanced Practice Registered Nurse – Certified Nursing Midwife – What are you, fucking pregnant? get the hell out of there and see a real doctor!!!
Since I had already paid the $25.00, I stayed. The young “doctor” felt my knee. She moved it around. She stretched it. It actually felt pretty good… And then, she gave me her official diagnosis:
“You did NOT tear anything,” she said. “This is a bad sprain at worst.”
“Really!” I exclaimed. “A bad sprain? Thank you sooo much! If I ever need a midwife, I’m calling YOU!”
She took some X-Rays of my knee, (which I later learned were completely unnecessary for a ligament injury and cost me $125) and I asked them to provide my free crutches. When they explained that they did have crutches – but that they cost $39.99, I bit the bullet and bought them. Finally, upon checkout, the manager told me that I could earn a $5.00 gift card to a Starbucks if I simply gave them a 5-Star Review on YELP.
“Hell yeah!” I said. “You guys made my day.”
I put in the 5-Star review, snagged my gift card and Uber-ed home to elevate my “bad sprain.” Wow, no tear, no surgery, no problem. I was elated and texted everybody I knew that I’d be back on the basketball court within weeks.
And then I got an appointment with a real doctor.
Dr. Weiss was recommended to me by my primary care physician. I had my leg up on his exam table the very next day, confident that he would walk in, slip me an ACE Bandage and wish me happy holidays… Instead, within 30 seconds of looking at my knee, he casually offered the following.
“Wow, you tore the shit out of your ACL… Hopefully you didn’t do too much damage to the other ligamants,” he said.
“Wait, what?!” I reacted. “Tore my ACL? But the Urgent Care said it was a bad sprain…?”
“Well, if by ‘bad sprain’ they mean a ’completely annihilated anterior cruciate ligament,’ then… yes.”
Dr. Weiss scheduled an MRI for that afternoon and told me I had wasted my money on X-rays and my entire Urgent Care appointment.
“Lemme guess,” he said. “They offered you a Starbucks gift card?”
Following the MRI, which is when you go inside one of those huge claustrophobic X-Ray machines to examine all of your inner workings, I was back in Dr. Weiss’ office for my evaluation two days later.
He broke down my injury and began planning out my recovery. Since I was set to travel with my family for the holidays, I was concerned I’d be missing out on my trip… He assured me that since my swelling was so immense, I would have to wait at least four weeks for surgery. He then explained how it would work.
“Based on the fact that you’re 44-years-old, I’m gonna replace your ACL with a cadaver ligament.”
“I’m sorry, what? A CADAVER LIGAMENT?”
Doctor Weiss smiled. He went on to explain that younger “athletes” can replace their torn ACL’s with their own ligaments, but for older guys like me, the best option is to take an anterior cruciate ligament from a DEAD BODY and put it into my destroyed knee.
“Can you make the ligament from like some Kenyan distance runner or something?” I joked.
“Haha,” He said. “It’ll most likely be from a car crash victim.”
Dr. Weiss also told me that 20 years ago, patients my age wouldn’t even be ELIGIBLE for ACL replacement. As if men over 40 were considered beyond repair or something… Luckily, the outlook on knees had changed since the late 90’s.
Eager to get to my rehabilitation, I bought a $300 knee brace from the doctor (Of course, not covered by insurance) and got instructions on how to put it on. After it was affixed, I had the look of a hydraulic half-man/half-Cyborg. I felt like Darth Vader.
“Will I be ever able to play basketball at the level I was playing again?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he said. “But you might want to join an elderly league.”
Limping out of Dr. Weiss’ office on my crutches, the first glimpse of my mortality had hit me. Knees crumble, ankles snap… ligaments are torn. Age is forever out there hunting us down. Luckily, with this type of injury, full recoveries are entirely expected and at worst, I would lose 4-6 months of my life to inactivity.
On the way home, I stopped at Starbucks to spend my $5.00 gift card on a cup of coffee. When I presented it to the cashier, he told me news that at this point, I was not surprised to hear.
“Sorry, sir,” she said. “This card only works at certain Starbucks… Not this one.”
I logged onto Yelp and changed my review…
*Ed Note: Zach is set for ACL replacement surgery in Mid January. Stay tuned!
My wife and I once hired a hippie nanny named Sioux who hid little bags of weed for me around our house. I remember the day we interviewed her – she was about 19, naturally slender with long blonde hair and she was wearing a skirt that looked like it was stitched out of the AIDS quilt… She had on Birkenstocks. She smelled like lavender. She was gorgeous. My first thought was, “I would have totally dated this girl back in college.”
When you’ve been married as long as my wife and I have, the best way to say you think somebody is attractive is to say that you would have dated ‘back in college.’
Of course, I told my wife this very fact.
“Well keep your hippie dick in your jorts,” she responded.
I laughed. I love my wife. Meanwhile, after a few conversations, I was sold on Sioux to become our nanny for our then five and two-year-old kids… but my wife wasn’t so into it.
“I don’t know – she seems flighty,” she remarked.
“Cmon, what’s the worst that can happen?” I asked. “She gets high and eats all of our ice cream?”
My wife agreed, mainly because we had a wedding that Saturday night and our other go-to nannies were already busy.
“If she fucks up, that’s on you,” she said.
She didn’t fuck up. At least that first night. In fact, when we came back from the wedding a little buzzed from the wine, we stayed up late with her and talked about the kids, how hard it was to meet guys in Los Angeles and eventually, she secretly told me that she hid a tiny bag of weed for me underneath the sage candle she had lit to ward off bad spirits on the coffee table. As she left, I thanked her and imagined that if she was my age in 1995, we would have been one of those hippie power couples that I was always jealous of at Phish concerts.
The second time Sioux babysat, I casually came downstairs wearing my old Grateful Dead 1992 Spring Tour shirt. She went ape shit. Told me it was the coolest thing she’d ever seen. I immediately felt like Phil from Modern Family, pretending that I didn’t even know I had the shirt on… even though I had been calculating the move since the week before. From the corner of my eye I saw my wife shaking her head while watching my pathetic attempt to connect with Sioux over a t-shirt.
“Nice shirt, babe,” she said.
“I guess I’ll go get ready,” I added before running upstairs to change.
When I came back downstairs, Sioux had prepared some food for the kids (all macrobiotic) and smiled one of those young hippie smiles at me – as if we were college sophomores peaking during a Run Like an Antelope solo. My wife smiled at me. I smiled at my wife. She smiled at Sioux. I kissed my kids. Sioux leaned in and hugged Wendy. They separated. The kids ate. My wife watched me as I leaned in and hugged Sioux. As I did, I stupidly whispered a single word into her ear…
Sioux smiled. My wife looked confused. I brought myself out of this fantasy hippie love triangle and said, “OK, bath at 7:15 and bed by eight.”
My wife and I walked outside to catch our Lyft.
In our ride to the birthday party that night, my wife cleared her throat and calmly asked me exactly what “candle” meant.
I told her.
“Last time she babysat, Sioux left me a part of a joint underneath the candle on the coffee table and I smoked it.”
“Oh great, so she’s high around our kids?”
“Well, I mean… so what? Sometimes I’m high around our kids.”
“This is her last night babysitting,” my wife said.
I could understand her frustration. It wasn’t because Sioux was this macrame Goddess with rings on her fingers and bells on her shoes… but face it – if your nanny was sneaking joints around your two-year-old daughter, you might think about getting rid of her too.
Still, I argued that we had nothing to worry about and that by the time we returned home, we would be thrilled to find our kids in bed and that maybe we could even split the little bag of weed I was expecting to find underneath the sage candle on our coffee table.
Until we got back around 11:45 p.m.
As it turns out, Sioux had started a bath for the kids upstairs… and forgot that she began running it. She turned on the water and then came downstairs to get the kids and somehow got distracted… By what, nobody knows – food? A text? A documentary on YouTube about the benefits of Dr. Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar? Whatever the case, she suddenly remembered that the bath was on just as drops of water began seeping through our living room ceiling and landing on the floor. The puddle stain on the roof was large and substantial and we knew we were looking at some serious water damage and mold repair.
Sioux was in shambles.
As she tried to explain how she forgot to turn off the water, we examined the damage and quickly lost the hippie buzz we had all generated earlier. I informed Sioux that we would pay her for her time, but that we fully expected her to be responsible for the damages once we had the roof inspected. She agreed and left, her head hung low, embarrassed and ashamed.
“OK, so she was probably high and forgot about the bath,” I said.
Stupidly, I checked beneath the candle for some weed.
There was nothing.
The damage came to over 1000 dollars. Sioux was broke and we felt bad charging her, so she offered to babysit for free until she could pay us back. Amazingly in Los Angeles, that’s only like, five nights of work…
However, my wife and I chose to not use her again.
The last I saw on Facebook she was living in Oregon with a Spanish guy named Pau.
Sweden TV4’s late night talk show will feature ZACH singing his counter-culture anthem “How to Get a Medical Marijuana Card” LIVE on tomorrow’s broadcast. We’re betting most of you dont live in Sweden… So come down to the W Hotel in Hollywood at 10:45 a.m. and watch Zach perform it LIVE!
Now, I know this is not something that a 37-year-old father of two should ever be writing, but for some reason, last Wednesday night – I felt a burning desire to join an intimidating rap circle and try and drop some dope-ass, quick-minded, funny lyrics on some totally unsuspecting strangers.
If there is ever a moment in my life I could have back, it is this one.
Standing out in front of the Smokehouse restaurant in Burbank – in front of my wife and another couple – whose kid is in the same kindergarten class with our son, I decided to stumble over into a “cypher,” or crew of people rapping together in a cyclical pattern. I suddenly turned from “the bearded weirdo who always drives the soccer practice carpool,” into “the drunk dad from the kindergarten class who thought he was Eminem.”
Let me back up here a minute. See, I used to be a rapper. That is not a typo. I didn’t “wrap” presents… I RAPPED. I recorded a few CD’s and everything. I had skills. A future. A following.
I know, laugh it up…my outside appearance is deceiving. I am white, fatherly and pasty. I wear basketball shorts and t-shirts 90 percent of the time for “comfort.” I occasionally have non-dissolved Rogaine foam in my hair. I am not intimidating at all.
But, believe it or not, at one point in my younger life I was a bona-fide, authentic, legitimate, validated, record deal – having, somewhat admired freestyle rapper. Arguably, one of the best in the world. I could rhyme like Dr. Seuss on a mushroom trip. I could think off the top of my head faster than 99 percent of all improvisational actors I have encountered. I used to perform my skills live with bands in nightclubs, at late night parties and at sketch comedy shows. I garnered mad respect. People would come up nightly and ask me, “How the hell does your mind think like that?” The truth is? I had no idea.
I bet you’re wondering how this all started…
In 1987, if you had asked my mother what career she thought I’d pursue as a young man – based on the thousands of dollars I made mastering Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire’s signatures – she most likely would have said “professional autograph forger.” (A quick arrest at the local baseball card shop in 1989 ended that career…)
She might have guessed I could have followed my father – who is a doctor – into medicine – but a quick “D” in chemistry my sophomore year of high school stifled that dream. (I even cheated. And I still got a D…)
I may have even been able to make a living in the courtroom, brandishing my gift of gab in front of honorable judges while trying to convince the jury that the defendant was not even in the country when the crime occurred… But to me, law school was for the geeks who couldn’t talk to girls at junior high parties. Or make them laugh at summer camp… Or freestyle rap their way into their pants.
“Yo Melissa/ I wanna kiss ya/Take off your dress and I wont dismiss ya…”
The first time I made a rhyme up about a girl was in eighth grade. Her name was Melissa, and we were at Dana Restival’s Halloween party. Everybody knew I was the best rapper in school – and when I dropped those lyrics to her in front of a crowd of people, she continued to follow me around the party for the rest of the night. Around 9:30, we snuck away, near a saguaro cactus in the Tucson desert – and shared our first kiss. It was sloppy, but unbelievably perfect. Brilliant and everything I had ever imagined. In my mind, Melissa was going to be my girlfriend. I thought I had it made… Problem was, she ended up letting John Coates – school hesher – feel her up on the school bus a week later.
Back in the 1980’s, if you were into rap music, it made you unique. I had a partner in crime named “Ryan the Rhymer” (Now a dentist in Tucson) – and we comprised the tightest white-boy rapping outfit at Townsend Junior High School in 1989. We were a two-man wrecking crew known as “SO FRESH.” I wore African leather medallions to school and sported those 3rd Bass/ Dwayne Wayne flip-up glasses as a way to seem more “intelligent.” We wrote raps and performed onstage as a crew at talent shows, and were basically laughed at for not listening to cheesy hair-cock rock like Poison and Slaughter. Back then, we were the musical outcasts, because we liked Beastie Boys, Shinehead and Boogie Down Productions. Then, one day, we won a student council election based on one of our raps (Called “Do it for the School!!!”) – After that, we were no longer considered out-of-touch losers.
The first rap I performed at my high school was when a kid named Eric Tiberon challenged me to a rhyme-off in ninth grade. He was black, and had the entire school behind him mainly for the sole reason that he had a high-top fade that looked like Kid from “Kid ‘N Play.” When I accepted his challenge, people were somewhat scared for me… but the final parking lot battle went a little differently. Eric basically recited Eazy-E’s classic Eazy-Duz-It. I made up a rap about how much being in ninth grade sucked.
Eric rapped about his cars and his girls (Both of which he did not have).
I rapped about being beat up by a high school bully named Jason and getting a C in Geometry. I remember my verse well.
“School sucks, I get up so early/ Bully named Jason always looking so burly/ Said I looked like a freshman girlie/ stuck my head in a toilet and gave me a swirlie…”
Yeah, I know it was WILL SMITH-ish… It wasn’t hardcore or gangsta – but it was funny – and the people loved it. So much so, that Eric and I became friends after that – even going to see Ghostbusters 2 together just to hear Bobby Brown’s new song “On Our Own.” (Still holds up today. CLASSIC jam).
After that, high school was certainly an awkward stumble through athletics, music, girls and experimentation – but hip-hop music was always a staple in my life. I rapped over Humpty Dance break beats at high school proms and earned my juice on the dance floor busting out the Running Man, Roger Rabbit and the Butterfly to songs like The Choice is Yours by Black Sheep during my junior prom. By my senior year, I thought I’d even try to make a legitimate rap album.
And then The Chronic came out.
Dr. Dre’s album changed my life Suddenly, dancing wasn’t cool anymore. My style of rap sucked and whatever street cred I had amongst my Tucson, Arizona brethren went out the window. I was Vanilla Iced-out. Squashed. 187-d. Ignored.
At the time, I was surprised at how little I cared. In fact, it was a relief to know that my rap career had ended… And the following fall I enrolled in college at USC in Los Angeles – where I engulfed myself in West Coast G-funk – but also expanded my mind into other areas of music as well. I picked up the acoustic guitar as a means to get laid – and even started my first band with my pal Jason Richards. (The only other freshman that could play more than 3 chords) We were called, sadly – “Two College Freshman.”
We were at USC – which is a terrific campus in the middle of south central Los Angeles – and we were one year removed from the famed LA riots of 1992 – so the West Coast dominance of rap music was everywhere – but I no longer wanted to be a rapper. In fact, based on the amount of girls I got when I rapped compared to how may I got when I did an acoustic guitar cover of “Your Bright Baby Blues,” I suddenly realized that I really wanted to be JACKSON BROWNE. Especially when legends like 2Pac and Notorious BIG were murdered, I knew the rap game wasn’t exactly cut out for a 3.8 GPS-having son of a Jewish doctor.
I ended up paying tuition and making ends meet in college by DJ-ing and Emcee-ing fraternity parties and weddings – and I eventually branched out into Bar Mitzvahs after school (An entirely different story altogether). But by the time the late 90’s rolled around – and I found myself hanging around musical friends like the bands Matchbox 20, Paperback and even boy-band acquaintances like ‘NSYNC – I noticed that everybody always talked about the newest rap music out at the time. Puff Daddy, Mase, Nelly – you name it. This was the music of the time, and even the biggest musical stars I knew were obsessed with the genre. I’m not sure where it happened for the first time, but I was around some guy who began freestyle rapping. He was decent, but his trite choice of lyrics and lack of originality made me consider attempting my own rap. I jumped in. He nodded along, probably unimpressed – but nonetheless enjoying my effort. When I was done, he gave me a fist bump and walked away.
I did it again with the guys from ‘NSYNC. Living in Los Angeles in 1998 meant I had a lot of young friends who were trying to act, sing, dance, direct, produce – you name it. One of my buddies had grown up with Chris Kirkpatrick – probably best remembered as the guy Eminem threatened to beat up in a song in 2000 – and the dread-locked “bad boy” of ‘NSYNC – the most popular boy band in the history of the world. Chris and I would get drunk together and end up in some random hotel room with a bunch of girls and background dancers and rap producers at two in the morning. Somehow, after 30 Heineken bottles littered the floor and a few joints were passed, people began rapping. I started stepping in. I started getting the laughs. Making up rhymes – and ultimately having the tightest flows of any so-called “rapper” hanging around these after-parties.
Once, around 1999 – I ended up in the Standard Hotel with Dr. Dre. He was surrounded by 300-pound bodyguards and a crew of slinky women who looked like they were in En Vogue. – He employed a personal “blunt-roller” and was encircled by about ten wanna-be rappers. That night was the first time I was actually afraid to rap in front of somebody in nearly ten years. In fact, after witnessing three saggy-pantsed douche-nozzles try to rap Dre’s ear off, I decided that perhaps my rap future was a pointless joke. I guess I always knew what I did in hotel rooms with my friends was more of a party-trick, and less of a career choice, and it didn’t bother me. I had no interest in becoming a professional rapper. I was committed to having fun and getting laid and occasionally jumping on-stage after 10 drinks to freestyle along with my friend’s band at their Hollywood club gigs. None of it made any sense. We were 25-years-old, wasted and happy and sleeping until noon. We were young, dumb, naïve and convinced that fame and success was just around the corner. One of my friends, a former hip-hop dancer for the local rap station Power 106 – began calling me “Zachariah.” I immediately took on the moniker as my rap handle. “Zachariah, the Rhyme Messiah.” There it was. My party trick. I would go around any room and rap about what people were doing, wearing, drinking, you name it. I never thought it would lead to anything but a few free drinks and some laughter.
And then somebody offered me a record deal.
The first studio time I ever had booked was around this time. A girl I had fooled around with named Lisa knew a rap producer named “Cookie” and she arranged a meeting for us at the Skybar on Sunset Boulevard. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do during this meeting, but I put on a cowboy shirt and fluffed my hair up to Lindsay Buckingham –heights. Anything to seem somewhat marketable and charismatic.
At the time, nobody in LA had any type of haircut but a short spiked boy-band thing, so my wild Jew-fro gave me a little edge. It somehow made me a bit more reckless. Maybe even dangerous – if only in that “I don’t give a fuck” drug-addict look that you see outside of Venice Beach grocery stores.
At the Skybar, “Cookie” – as he introduced himself – told me to order a beer. Lisa was next to me, and I think I ordered a Corona because Mexican beer was about all I lived on in my early 20’s. Lisa bragged about my ability to freestyle and Cookie then stared me down, took a long pull off his beer and asked me to “do something impressive.”
It was on. Was he serious? I nearly froze. I was unsure of what to do. Should I recite some lyrics? Tell him some song ideas? I wasn’t sure. Instead I rapped off the top of my head to the cocktail waitress.
“Come here now for a second Miss blondie/ Any chance you wanna get on me?/ You live in LA? I’m from Arizona/ Do my boy Cookie a favor – another Corona?/ Don’t mistake this – I Cant fake this – you’re so hot for a waitress/ Do ya have fake tits? I cant tell/ That’s alright, I still think yer swell/ My name is Zachariah, how do I look?/ Trying to rhyme for this dude named Cook/ Ill steal yer heart like a bona-fide crook/Ill take yer naked photos and put em in a book/ So lets just let this relationship bloom/ So here’s the key to my hotel room…”
The waitress smiled. Cookie looked at me and said, “I want to capture THAT in the studio.”
I made out with the waitress that night.
So a week later, we were in Cookie’s studio, known as “LeftSide.” I had written a song in Las Vegas with my friend Jason Jacobs called “Runnin’ Shit” about two guys who slept with girls, traveled to Mexico and Vegas on random Wednesdays – and got high and drove really nice cars. In reality, we were both Southern California Bar Mitzvah DJ’s. The last time I had been to Mexico was with my mother over a family Christmas vacation (typical Jewish trip – Mexico over Christmas) and I drove a 1989 Dodge Lancer.
To top it all off, I was desperately unable to do anything in the studio that night – but SUCK.
The studio was a small rented office space off of Slauson and La Cienega. Cookie hooked me up with a producer named Warrior – who was a master of the MPC 3000. We smoked some weed, made a beat and put together a silly rap song full of voice imitations and bad jokes and pop culture references. It was called “Come On” and I was convinced it was my ticket to the big time. A crossover hit… a massive smash. Cookie started marketing me to record companies as “If Eminem hung out at Dawson’s Creek.” I should have quit right then.
I put out an EP on Q/LeftSide Records – and it went triple plastic. Every major label denied me. I ended up with a closet full of 3500 CD’s – which included a song called “Other Side” featuring the powerful voice of a silk-voiced friend of Cookie’s named Stacy Ferguson. Today she’s known a little differently. She’s Fergie from Black Eyed Peas. I never thought she had much of a future. She did have a voice from God, but so did a lot of girls. When we stopped hanging out, I didn’t think she’d go very far.
After LeftSide folded, I ended up starting a country rock band that dabbled in hip-hop. We had a little local success, but not much more. From there, I caught a lucky break and got on TV – where I was able to convince the folks behind the screen to let me attempt to record some songs for nearly every show I have been a part of. Today, those residual checks amount to roughly 63 cents a year.
I also recorded a bunch of stupidly silly comedy rap songs about Cartoons I’d like to F*%&, White People Problems and the TSA. I have released a few CD’s on some small labels and I have been hired by over two dozen companies to write and record rap songs for their products, from Levi’s Jeans to Netgear. So, I guess, technically, I once called myself a rapper… but I certainly never took it seriously. And now, the style of rap is so much different, I have no idea how to imitate lyrical geniuses like Lil Wayne and Drake. I’m still stuck in that Will Smith meets Skee Lo style. Storytelling, comedy and fluff rap.
According to my calculations, it had been nine years since I truly “battled” somebody. A battle is when you trade rhymes with another emcee, often including insults, braggadocio and clever wordplay. A lot of rappers suck at this. For some reason, I was always able to come up with quick rhymes. In fact, I have never lost a battle in my life. Other fools have claimed they out-rapped me, but most of them recited something I could tell was written beforehand. I was strictly improvisational.
Freestyle rapping is like working out. You need to do it all the time or you get rusty. Rarely do you take nine years off and step up to the microphone and sound like Rakim. For some reason, however, last week – following a few glasses of red wine, I thought I was back in the Skybar in 1999.
The three dudes standing outside of the Smokehouse restaurant in Burbank were sharing a joint and rapping about “Maybach’s” and “Stackin’ Chips.” The valet parking attendant took our ticket as I caught one of the guy’s eyes. I guess in the 90’s you would call what he was doing “Mad-dogging.” I would normally run from any large crew of wasted black dudes in a parking lot at 11 o’clock at night, but for some reason, I felt the need to jump into the rap battle. Maybe it was because he kept staring at my wife and obviously commenting under his breath about her. Whatever it was, I felt like I needed to say something. I took a step towards them.
“Punk ass bitches get stitches like snitches/rub you out like a genie, grant ya 3 wishes/ Im a killa, son, drinking Miller, son – All the tracks on my album dope, no filler son…”
I heard the guy’s rhyme. Not bad, but I knew I could hang. I sort of stumbled over as my wife failed to pull me back and stop me from entering the cypher. As I walked up, they noticed me and rapped about my approach.
“White boy stepping up, what the fuck he want/ Gonna kick him in the dick if he pull a stunt…”
The 3 guys laughed uproariously. I started getting nervous. I heard my wife gasp. The other couple we were eating with immediately signaled for their Volkswagen Touareg to be ready to drive off should I get into a street brawl or something. I slipped up to the crew of rappers.
“Are you guys rapping?” I asked, realizing I sounded like that fat pledge in Animal House asking the frat brothers if they were playing cards.
They burst out laughing. I thought I was doomed.
“Yeah, you wanna step in?” A large man with a diamond encrusted grenade-chain offered.
“Well, I actually freestyle… was hoping to get in on the cypher.”
More laughter. They punched each other’s shoulders and leaned their heads against one another.
“Are you gonna put your doggie bag down first?” One of the guys asked.
I looked down. In my hand was a plastic bag of leftovers with a red bow around it. I looked like the schlub I used to make fun of when I was younger. The out of touch chump who was taking home half a New York Strip and three pieces of cheesy-bread after a double-date night. I knew the only way out was to rap. I began firing.
“Yo -I take a bag of leftovers from the smokehouse/ you can continue with your jokes now/I’m broke now – so I have to eat this for breakfast/ When’s your next concert? Put me on the guest list/ I spent my weed money on my wife’s gold necklace/ That’s her over there, she’s got the Best Tits/ I’ve ever seen and they aint even fake/ We live in a house over in Toluca Lake/ I bust freestyles in only one take/ Put the kids to bed stay up late and get baked/ and I know I look lame and somewhat old/ You guys look like a younger De La Soul/ But my wife’s calling me to get the car and go home/ Because she don’t want me to catch another cold/ So I’m out – thanks for giving me time / I doubt any of ya’ll can defeat that rhyme!”
I stepped back and took a breath. Wow. I had dropped 16 bars in front of a crew of three hardcore hip-hop heads who probably took rap music more seriously than I ever did… I had held my own. I was proud and I looked back at my wife and the other couple, who were stone-faced and somewhat impressed. Wait until I tell my son about this!!! I thought to myself.
And then one of the guys began answering my challenge. His name was Black Angus.
“Yo, white boy – your white noise aint right boy/ yeah I see yer wife, she no longer tight, boy/ cause I did her last week/ in the back seat of my Jeep/ Did it in five seconds without a peep/ while you was asleep/ getting kids ready for school/ I gave her my tool and took a piss in your pool/ Smoked your bullshit weed/ pulled it indeed/ Killed you like Drago did Apollo Creed/ Planted a seed – inside her – you mind?/ Now you wonder why your kid looks like mine?/ Don’t step into my circle unless you bring skills/ go home to your anti-anxiety pills/ Watch whack white TV like that show the Hills/ and keep being a sucker and paying yo’ bills/ You a dumb-ass honky who cant rhyme for shit/ Now go back to your Minivan before you get HIT.”
The crew cheered. Our friends Touareg sped off and I was silenced. A terrifying chill, like one I’ve had on airplanes when we hit some odd air pocket that scares even the flight attendants, engulfed my body. I was smoked. Forget winning a freestyle battle, I had been pulverized, insulted, dissed and clowned by a dude outside of a steakhouse that I would probably never be able to go to again. I faked a laugh, and tripped backwards towards my wife and our awaiting car. Which, by the way, is NOT a Minivan.
“How’d that go for you?” My wife asked as we raced off into the Burbank night.
“Uhm, not well,” I said.
After five minutes of complete silence, I uttered my final words of the incident.
“Why’d they have to be so mean?”
I sulked into my home. Being a little buzzed, I passed out watching SportsCenter and the thought of rap music sickened me with every commercial starring Andre 3000 or Ice Cube. It was a cold bucket of water to the face that reminded me that I am – at best – an above average rapper. I am a decent freestyler, but in no way cut out to be a professional. Bottom line? I am too much of a pussy.
The next morning, I pulled out the leftovers from the Smokehouse and considered making a steak-and-egg omelet. The one indulgence I was going to allow myself. When I saw that half of a New York Strip in the bag, it brought back too many bad memories from the night before. I tossed the meat in the trash and settled for a bowl of Trader Joe’s ‘Honey Nut O’s’ instead.
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….