By now music snobbery should have gone by the wayside. After all, the state of music has been disgustingly bleak since MP3s dethroned the industry in the 2000’s. Jobs have been eliminated, rock ‘n roll clubs have closed and bands with true talent and drive have settled for Spotify streams as a means to an .08 cent residual check twice a year. It wasn’t always this way.
In the glorious 90’s, I had friends with million dollar expense accounts, closets full of CD’s and other useless swag – like the Dave Matthews Band rain poncho I still have in a garage somewhere – and pockets full of drugs. But to say you are a “music executive”… or an A & R guy these days – sort of signifies that you are hanging onto a dream that died long ago. I have a good friend still in the business whose job it is to re-package Greatest Hits compilations to Wal-Marts across America. He’s the last executive I know – and I doubt that putting together a 10 song CD called Best of Soul Asylum is what he dreamt of when he was a younger man. In a way, today’s aging execs sort of resemble the 55-year-old hair metal musicians still hanging around the Rainbow hoping their demo CD lands them a review in Hit Parader Magazine.
Sure, nowadays vinyl is popular, but not everybody can plunk down $28.00 for a new Jack White album, no matter how many awesome backward grooves and upside down hidden songs exist when you play the thing on a 1976 Fisher-Price stereo. Besides, nice record players today can run upwards of 500 bucks. Isn’t it just so much easier to have a digital device or streaming service with everything you’ve ever wanted on it? Most of the world thinks so… But apparently, the gargantuan structure known as Amoeba Records in Hollywood does not.
Amoeba Records is the last place in the world where a used “out of print compact disc” can fetch roughly $17.00. It is the last place in the world where snobby record store employees still exist- and consider themselves way superior than the people shopping in their store. It is the last place in the world where music entitlement continues to thrive, as tattooed polliwogs insult your used DVD or CD collection while snickering behind the counter about the fact that you are wearing a Black Crowes shirt.
“Another R.E.M. CD?” One super tool employee whinnied as I tried to sell back a stack of CD’s from my collection. “Sorry, wrong decade.”
In 2003 my band released the first of our now five country-rock albums, ”Ghost Signs.” At the time, the death cart hadn’t quite been dragged through the streets for the physical CD, and independent manufacturers like Discmakers were still convincing artists like myself that things like shrink-wrap and jewel cases were ever so important. I fell for it, not only because it was my first time putting out my own album, but because I had always been one of those kids with 10,000 CD’s neatly arranged in jewel case displays across my dorm room. In short, I wanted my own title to exist with those titles. And there it was, finally in April of 2003: My album Ghost Signs by Zachariah.
The minute I received my shipment of 1000 CDs in the mail, I did what any bright-eyed troubadour who harbored dreams of becoming the next Springsteen would do – and I sent them out to a hundred magazines, music festivals and bigger record labels, hoping for a bite, a lead or a review. I also packed a box of 50 and went down to Amoeba Records, hoping to get a top display in front of the store. I lugged the huge box to the consignment counter and met a skinny employee with a Descendents t-shirt on who rolled his eyes when he saw me drop my hard-fought album on his counter. In those songs were my heart, soul and dreams. I was under the impression that he would take 50 of them and then ask for 50 more. After all, this wasn’t some crappy demo tape, this was an actual well-produced bad-ass album.
The employee barely shrugged at my hard work. He giggled and yawned. He wasn’t impressed. Instead, he offered up the following.
“We take two copies.”
“Two?” I said, incredulously.
“But I have, like 1000 of these,” I said.
“So does everyone else. Here’s our deal. If these sell, you get 3 bucks. If they don’t sell in 30 days they go in the dollar bin.”
I couldn’t believe it. Here I was, expecting to unload 50 CDs and have hundreds of new fans clamoring for me to perform live at the Greek Theatre by the end of the summer. Instead, a skinny asshole with skin so pale you could count his remaining good vein had shattered my dreams in under three minutes.
As of last week, both copies of that album are still floating around the dollar bin at Amoeba Records.
11 years later, I experienced roughly the same exact thing when I dropped my band’s new album off at the store, hoping that they had opened their minds to independent artists actually trying to distribute their own music. I was greeted by a chubby woman with Betty Page bangs – who had a dozen bangles hanging from her wrist. She had strange vampire kitty tattoos and was ironically wearing an Usher tour t-shirt. I hated her smugness immediately.
“Consignment?” She asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve actually placed some of my music in the store before.”
“What an achievement,” she puked.
I laid my new album on the counter. 11 songs. Pristine and awesome. A personal accomplishment. It was called Skywriting and was my fifth album of original material. I had foregone the jewel case this time around for the plastic sleeve and single panel artwork. It was cheaper, less clunky and much easier to store. My friends had been doing it this way for years, so I took their lead and saved some money on manufacturing costs. The girl looked at me as her lip curled upwards.
“What kind of packaging is this?” She asked.
“Well, I didn’t print my new album in jewel cases because – really – who uses jewel cases anymore, right?”
She shot daggers. It was as if I told her that the world was ending in a few minutes. I wasn’t sure why. The CD game had suffered so immensely in the time since I put out my first record, I figured the days were numbered that anyone would be caught dead with a jewel case. Or a CD for that matter. After all, new computers don’t even have DISC DRIVES anymore.
“You’re kidding, right?” She vomited. “Of course we use jewel cases.”
“Oh, I just figured they were becoming obsolete and everything.”
“I have 25,000 CD’s at my house. You call that obsolete?” She said.
I wasn’t sure what to call it. I have 25,000 CD’s as well, but mine were all stored in Case Logic books and on shelves in closets. The days when my alphabetized CD collection was the envy of every Pi Phi who waltzed into my fraternity house asking to borrow The Chronic were OVER.
“You don’t use the big CD books?” I asked.
“CD books are bullshit… You can never find anything, the artwork gets folded which means you can’t re-sell it and the discs get scratched in the storage… Whoever started using those things in the first place was an idiot.”
I couldn’t believe it. I was having an argument with a record store employee about how to store compact discs. It was like arguing that the news in tomorrow’s print newspaper would be more relevant than the news just posted on the internet.
She took my CD’s and re-packaged them in some abandoned clear jewel case she had in the back of the counter and filled out a consignment sheet for me. This time, I only brought two copies of my new album, wishing not to embarrass myself by leaving down the elevator with 50 copies like I did a decade prior. I signed a sheet saying that they could sell the album for $7.99 and that I’d retain three bucks of each sale.
Then I suggested we put the CD in the country section, to which she replied, “Nobody wants to be in the country section… especially with a name like Zachariah. You think anyone is looking in the ‘Z’ section of country?”
“Maybe they’ll find it while looking for Dwight Yoakam?” I suggested.
She rolled her eyes again and hit me with even more conceit and arrogance.
“No offense, but if anybody is looking for Dwight Yoakam, they probably aren’t looking for you.”
I hated this bitch.
“Fine,” I said. “Put me next to Warren Zevon and ZZ Top in the ‘Z’ section of rock n roll.”
“Good choice,” she said. “Not that anybody is looking for them either.”
I thanked her for being so awesome and told her that she’d be surprised at how fast my CD’s would sell. She eeked out a fake smile and waved me off before moving onto the next customer who was selling a large amount of unopened House of Cards DVD’s.
Three days later, I sent my brother into Amoeba to buy both of my CD’s. I didn’t care if I was losing a few bucks by doing it. The point was to prove to these assholes that I could sell something at their store. I slipped him $20.00 and he went in and came out with both copies of my new album.
A day later, a different manager called me and informed me that I had “miraculously” sold out of my CD’s and that if I wanted to bring a few more by, he’d be happy to consign them and pay me the $6.00 I was
“How many copies should I bring down?” I asked him sarcastically. “About 50?”
“Why don’t we start with one,” he said.
I told him I’d be in that afternoon. But that I wasn’t providing a jewel case…
HOW TO SURVIVE A GRATEFUL DEAD SHOW WHEN YOU LOSE YOUR FRIENDS IN THE PARKING LOT * By Zach Selwyn
My old college friend Bernard (Or “Burner – for reasons that don’t need to be explained) called me the day before Father’s Day. He had an extra ticket to the 50th Anniversary Grateful Dead concert in northern California. I informed my wife that I would be traveling to the show the following Saturday night.
“Haha yeah right,” she said.
“No. I’m going.”
“Stop it. Now, what do you want to do for Father’s Day? Should we meet the Bartons for brunch? Or do you want to have people over to bar-be-cue?”
“I hate the Bartons,” I said. “I want to go to the Grateful Dead.”
“Are you serious?”
“Well, take your son with you, don’t you think he would enjoy it?”
I didn’t think that was the brightest idea. The smoke and the dancing and twirling was completely mind-blowing to me when I was at my first show at age 18. Back then I was scared shitless. Too many drugs, too many lost souls… too many people having a lot more fun than I was. I told my wife that I’d rather let my son find his own musical path. (Then again, if he’s following 5 Seconds of Summer around the country in 10 years I may have failed somewhere.) Plus, I told my wife that a 9-year-old boy does not need to see his 40-year-old dad clink Absinthe cups with a dude in hiking shorts who made Silicon Valley millions by inventing the Nook.
“Do NOT drink Absinthe,” she demanded.
“I won’t, I promise.”
Eventually, I got the green light – and I called Burner back and committed to his 70-dollar ticket. Which I soon found was WAY too expensive for my shitty seats behind the stage where just a few songs into the set a man would face-plant and nearly die on the concrete right next to me.
Recent online ticket prices for the Santa Clara shows had settled at $20-$40 depending on where you were seated, way down from the rumored $1500 nearly a month earlier. This was due to the “Soldier Field Panic Purchase” that nearly every Dead Head and ticket scalper had fallen for when their final two shows of this “Fare Thee Well” concert were originally announced… Thinking the tickets to Santa Clara might be listed at the same price as the Chicago shows, folks bought up dozens of seats at face value, only to find themselves losing money when trying to unload the tickets in the parking lot the afternoon of the show. (Steal Your Face Value, anyone?) Even Burner was left with a handful of tickets that he ended up trading for “pieces” (pipes or chillums), 50th anniversary bandanas, T-shirts and at one point a foot long joint being sold by a spritely blonde nymph out of a giant cardboard box.
Now, a fair amount has already been written about these shows – if you want to hear about the set lists and the fan reactions to Trey Anastasio and the supposed $50,000 “fake rainbow” – go Google that now. This is my personal adventure about smoking a lump of hash with a crazy looking scallywag who was dragging a dirty pet pit bull named “Iko” around on a hemp dog leash – and becoming so cosmically altered, that I managed to lose my friends for the duration of the show long before the first note of Truckin’ was even played.
It was a surreal experience to say the least. When I last saw the Grateful Dead in 1995, the crowd was pretty much the same… just about 20 years younger. But now, those folks have grown up. Gone are the days of living in the Vanagon and hopping from town-to-town. The “Only Users Lose Drugs” shirts I used to fawn over had been replaced by at least 25 men happily wearing a t-shirt reading “Grateful Dad.” (Thank you, honey for not getting me THAT for Father’s Day.)
A vast majority of the well-off crowd could be found eating sushi and sipping wine in the safe “red” parking lot, while the more traditional “Shakedown Street” blue parking lot catered to the jewelry designers, pushers, providers, dealers and, yes, the guys selling veggie burritos. (At $5.00 a steal – considering it was $11.00 for a nitrate-riddled hot dog in the stadium). Bottom line was, it was a very balanced scene. Which is how I went from talking about music with a doctor who lived in Marin County – to witnessing a hippie trade a T-shirt for a Churro – to eventually asking the aforementioned scraggly looking pit bull owner if I could have a hit of his joint.
“It’s hash bro,” he said.
“Nice,” I said.
“Nice,” he responded.
I took a long drag from the tightly rolled spliff. It was licorice-like in flavor… and reminded me of smoking hash on a Eurorail with a Spanish stranger during a train ride from Switzerland to Germany in 1996. I exhaled.
“Nice.” I said again.
“Real nice,” he said and pulled off the joint again.
I stared up at the clouds.
“Nice,” I laughed.
“Totally nice,” he replied.
We stood and watched the sky for a few minutes. I started to realize that for the past ten minutes, I had managed to keep a totally coherent conversation going by merely uttering the word “nice.”
I shook off my daze and decided to gather myself to find Burner and our other friends and head inside. We were 30 minutes away from the opener and I didn’t want to miss it. I looked back at my hash-providing friend and we shared an ever-knowing look of “I’ll never see you again, but thanks for the time together.” I threw up a peace sign. As I walked away to find my buddies, I heard him utter one final word as a fare thee well to our little session.
Back on Earth, I was suddenly totally confused. Burner was gone. Swirls of dreadlocks and weathered faces engulfed me. I wasn’t sure if I should head back to the blue lot and skip the show altogether or saunter forth inside all alone. Like a wilderness-trained tracker, I decided I’d take some photos to document the beauty of the signage and the sky and the colorful people and cars all around me. Scrolling through my camera roll a day later, all I can find is a few pictures of the stadium and a wasted girl passed out on a lawn. I definitely could not find my friends. I was high and wandering… but at least I had a ticket to my seat.
Having lost buddies at concerts over the years, I am somewhat used to making friends and surviving. This was certainly not the first time I had been alone at a Grateful Dead show… In fact, at the LA Sports Arena in 1993 I accidentally left the concert mid-song and walked 23 blocks away until I was lost in a Ralph’s parking lot deep in South Central Los Angeles. Luckily, the night cashier slipped me a Fentanyl and called me a taxicab. Once I lost my buddy in Santa Barbara and ended up sleeping in a bush after a Neil Young concert. At the Dead show, however, I wasn’t truly worried, because nowadays we are all lucky enough to have cell phones.
I looked down to text my friends. No service. Of course. No fucking service.
I made my way inside and ogled the crowds flittingly dancing along. Anticipating the first note of the show that would send me into another stratosphere. They started with Truckin’. The place went nuts.
Then the guy next to me almost died. His friends pounded his chest until he sat up and they forced water down his throat. Scared and afraid, I went to get a beer. I met some kind gentlemen in the beer line. We spoke about how awesome the show was that we were missing… by waiting in that beer line. I looked around. A girl next to me made sure to use all 9 pockets of her leather fanny pack. At least three guys purposefully wore cargo shorts to show off the “Jerry Bear” leg tattoos they had done in the 90’s that they were waiting all these years to uncover once again… Finally, a woman carrying a six-month old baby in what seemed like a paper bag attached to her back came dancing through the crowd. The kid’s head bobbled furiously, unstable and terrifying. In Los Angeles, the helicopter moms of Orange County would have screamed, rescued the baby and brought it to the nearest hospital. At the Grateful Dead show, however, grown men laughed and spewed forth dragon breaths of marijuana smoke into the sky as the baby drifted right through the haze. It was absolutely disturbing. I could not imagine my kids in this environment. As much as I would want them to appreciate what the music can do for everybody, the last thing I would want is my kid getting a second hand weed buzz around a group of folks sending wafts of OG Kush into the atmosphere.
A few songs later, I had settled down. It suddenly hit me that I was completely alone and that my conversations with strangers were fun but fleeting. I wasn’t making any new friends… I wasn’t analyzing every note Trey played… The worst part was, I was barely even seeing the show from my seat behind the stage. I watched the majority of it on a big screen. So, I wandered around and decided to talk to the security guard. His name was Reed.
“What’s crazier, a 49ers game, or this?” I asked.
“Well, different crowds, ya know?” He said. “Niners fans drink a few beers and try to look tough. These folks drink 10 beers and dance around like fools!”
“So is this the rowdiest show you’ve ever seen here?” I asked.
“Oh hell no, the worst was the WWE Wrestling event. I broke up about 30 fights, had to throw a guy down some stairs.”
“What’s the weirdest show you’ve ever seen here?”
“Kenny Chesney. Was like a Gay Pride Parade met the deep south.”
He shook my hand and walked off.
A few beers later, I was overwhelmed by hippies praying to the miracle rainbow in the sky yelling out things like “It’s a gift from JERRY GARCIA MAN!” (If you can imagine a bunch of high people reacting to a rainbow at a 50-Year Grateful Dead anniversary show, it’s EXACTLY how you picture it…) The argument that the rainbow has been faked is everywhere online, but in truth, if the Dead had 50K to blow on a holographic rainbow, I would hope they at least should have tried to construct a hologram Jerry Garcia instead. (Shit, I’d have settled for hologram 2Pac.)
As the evening went on, as a way to remember what I was going through, I began dictating voice notes into the “recorder” app on my iphone. These are the translations as best as I could decipher them:
A: I have just spent the last hour hanging with a giraffe
B: (Me singing a song idea for my band to record in the future) – “Sunday Ticket, who’s got my Sunday ticket… man are you with it? I wish I could stop and smell the roses – but the elements of elephants are lost among the doses – I suppose it’s the way of the Dead – I suppose it’s the way of the Dead” (Then yelling): “WAY OF THE DEAD!!! MY NEW SONG WOOOOOOHOOOOOO!!!!”
C: Hot dogs, nachos, chicken fingers… hot dogs nachos chicken fingers…
D: What hole have these people been hiding in since 1995?
The last note made sense. A lot of these fans were folks who looked like they never recovered from Jerry Garcia’s death. They had been in exile, awaiting the return of the Grateful Dead for years, sort of like those Japanese soldiers you read about who were trapped on islands with their loaded weapons unaware that the war had ended months earlier.
The highlight of my night came during the song St. Stephen. I had never heard the tune live – nobody really has – and it lifted my spirits high. For five minutes, the long drive alone had been worth it. So had the hash and the lost friends and the $70 seats. I reached high for the sky and let out primal screams of joy and happiness and thought about my kids, my wife, my career, my goals, my dreams my family. I was genuinely ecstatic. I had found my top of the mountain… It was one of those moments that I remembered having as a kid – worshipping this band for slices of perfection like that – when everybody is smiling and nothing can go wrong. A moment of calm and peace I hoped would never end…
Of course, an hour after the show I found myself cursing technology and feeling depressed about having to wait in a two-hour line for an Uber.
I left the venue alone. Got to the hotel alone. I was in bed by 1:00. I woke up before my friends – who had stumbled in at 3:30 – and shook off the cobwebs before beginning the long drive back to L.A. As I listened to the radio and heard reviews of the show it became clear how awesome the evening had been. I re-played to my voice memos and shuffled Dead songs on my iphone the whole drive, wondering how I could call my work and get out of it Monday so that I could stay and watch the second night show instead. Thankfully, I decided one amazing show was enough and I rode down California 5 with Santa Clara and the Grateful Dead in my rear view mirror. As I watched northern California disappear behind the rolling hills, one word came to mind as I smiled and traveled the golden road home…
Buy Zach’s FIRST ALBUM “Ghost Signs” on itunes!
There was something scampering behind my washing machine. Something rodential. Something with chattery little teeth that sounded like it could nibble the toenail off of a homeless man if there was a promised slice of cheese beneath it. A real man would have stood up, tore back the machine and smashed the skull of whatever creature was frolicking around his lint catcher. Not me, I heard it nibble something and screamed so loudly, my wife ran downstairs and asked me if I had accidentally cut off my finger.
I hate mice, rats, squirrels, possums, raccoons, boll weevils… whatever. They disgust me, not only for their collection of diseases, but because they have no bowel control and they love cropdusting the bowl of avocados in my house with fetid urine samples and freakish teeth marks.
I’ve never been an animal person. Ever since my dog ‘Buffy’ shook my pet kitty to death in front of me when I was a quiet, sensitive 5th grader, I have despised all pets. Maybe I’m afraid to get close to them… maybe I’m afraid one might attack me. Maybe the fact that Buffy was the subject of nearly six separate lawsuits from 1985-1989 involving other 5th and 6th graders who claimed to have been mauled by him while waiting for our local ice cream truck has something to do with it… I don’t know. I just don’t love them. Nor do I love miniscule vermin who invade my kitchen at 9 o’clock at night when I’m trying to have a glass of Malbec and watch college basketball.
I heard the scratching again. My guess was that he made his way in through the side of the house like an imprisoned Andy Dufresne before nestling near the laundry machine searching for any disgusting amount of dried food that might fall out of my kids pockets following a day at school. There was a chance that the invaders gathering behind my Kenmore were harmless and small. But I doubted it. I was guessing they were quite large. The type Westley from The Princess Bride would refer to as R.O.U.S.’. (Rodents of Unusual Size). I wanted nothing to do with these cheese-nibbling tick factories.
I was torn on what to do. Should I set a trap? Bait him? Call the exterminator? Not like they ever really help… First, they come and charge $100 to spray coyote urine all around my back yard. Two weeks later new turd droppings line the closets, the “safety screens” they installed become metallic snacks and eventually, a horrendous smell that resembles what I imagine the a rotting corpse of a tauntaun to smell like breezes through my house. I wanted to kill these little shits, but as you may have devised, I lack the courage to kill anything besides a bottle of wine. In college, I killed a few moths, spiders and cockroaches, but that was a long time ago – and these massacres took place while drunkenly squealing with my eyes shut and frantically whapping a rolled up Rolling Stone magazine against a nest of invaders who had settled into my Futon. “Bastard son of a bitch slut sons of WHORES,”
I yelled at the noisy bunch gathering in numbers behind the aforementioned washing machine. “I’ll kill all you fucks.” They didn’t listen. They just seemed to slog me off like the guys trying to get me to take a “StarLine Bus Tour” of Hollywood every time I pass through Highland.
I watched the rest of the Arizona Wildcats game admiring TJ McConnell’s presence and smiling with every play drawn up by coach Sean Miller… But every time the applause died down, I heard the little Ratatouille party happening a few feet away. God-damn disease-ridden little whiskered gargoyles. Why wouldn’t they leave? I finally had the courage to take a hand towel and smack the washing machine a few times trying to get them to scamper and disappear. Instead, what I heard was the following:
Squeakity squeak. Squeak. OoohOoh. Squeetz Sysqweek.
SQUIIZZIIZIZIIZIZIZIZI . SQUEAK! SQWZZIZIZTTZYZYZYYT.
CHRIST. At this point, they were mocking me. Laughing. Squeaking their way through my house like furry rabies-riddled bastard hobo squatters. I finally decided there was only one thing to do. I had to KILL. These beastly gargantuan monsters had to go. I was going to go all Chris Kyle on these little pricks. I was about to assassinate.
Using all my strength – no doubt brought on by the wine and some anxious anger – I ripped that Sears Model Top Load Elite away from the back wall and prepared to face the dragon I knew I had to slay. Armed with an iphone flashlight and a paper bag, I was ready to battle these medieval beasts with all my timorous might – hoping to get it done in one schmack. A kill shot on the first swing. In my mind, I was the house-husband American Sniper. I was a silent assassin. In football terms, I would have chanted “I Must Protect This House.”
When the snarling creature and I came face-to-face, I was immediately humiliated. Sitting on the floor, behind my washing machine, was the tiniest most timid, miniature little mouse I had ever seen. The type of mouse they feed to snakes in terrariums at desert museums. A little guy who was just trying to find his next meal and a nice comfy tube sock to sleep in. I stared him down. He stared back at me. His head tilted left. Mine went right. He squeaked. I smiled…
And then he screamed and ran away as if I was the John Wayne Gacy of homeowners. After he left, I went to the mirror and took a look at myself. My lips were purple. My teeth were dressed in the stains of the evening’s red-wine. My hair shot forth in a bundle of curls. The bags under my eyes spoke of a few too many late evenings. In reality, I did somewhat resemble a serial killer. If anyone was scared, it was that little mouse. He was just a cute little thing. I looked like I was about to go on a Manson-like mass murder.
I decided to drag myself to bed. Around the same time the next night, I heard similar chattering coming from behind my washing machine. More nibbling, more squeaking… more odd noises that made me think I was 90 seconds away from having a honey badger tear through my kitchen and rip my scrotem off. However, instead of panicking and dropping rat poison behind the Kenmore, I took a moment and tilted my cap to my cute new friend behind the major appliance. After all… he was more scared of me than I was of him.
In prison, that would mean I was in control.
After a few minutes, I explained to my wife that I was totally cool with having a few rats and mice run around our house. As far as I was concerned, if they don’t bother us, let’s not bother them, right?
She looked me in the eye and shook her head ‘no.’
The exterminator came the next morning.
Celebrate Zach’s 2013 Short Story collection beong published on “Dirt City Press” and his new TV show on AMC, “Immortalized” (TBA very soon!)
Cover will be cheap! Like, $5.00 * PLUS Zach’s wife Wendy analyzes his lyrics and reads his journals… Comedians stop by… The band plays on… Zach raps the news of the week…
and we show a short film… Email to be on the HARDSHIP GUEST LIST… firstname.lastname@example.org
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