There Must Be Something More Than This: Phish and the Evolution of a Teenage Brain

I’m 15. Scott comes home from overnight camp – it’s the summer of 1993 – pops a cassette into the tape deck and says, “Listen to this.” 

Scott was my musical oracle; the one whose collection became the soundtrack of my teen years, played in the background throughout endless rounds of 500 Rummy and high stakes girl-chasing strategy sessions.

My pre-Scott music tastes were rather pedestrian; an eclectic collection of CDs largely selected on a whim because Columbia House and BMG were generous enough to send me 12 CDs for the price of one.

U2 I liked. Not the way I liked C+C Music Factory or Milli Vanilli, which is to say, because MTV told me to. I liked ‘em, liked ‘em. They were definitely my first band. Oddly, the smell of melted ski wax still warmly reminds me of U2 because Achtung Baby was my go-to entertainment while tuning up my skis in our basement. My boom box eventually died, but U2 remains a band that, to this day, I always circle back to a few times a year.  

In other words, I knew I enjoyed music, but I had not yet learned how to explore music, either in depth or in breadth. Scott, on the other hand, was a musical autodidact, precocious, exceedingly curious and had no need for his music to be en vogue, pristine or digitally mastered. Despite the exploding popularity of compact discs at the time, Scott’s formidable stereo system did not include one, nor did he want one. Live music. Raw music. Analog music. That was Scott’s taste, and it became mine.

So, in the summer of ’93, when Scott said, “Listen to this,” I was already primed for whatever he may have discovered.

It’s been about 25 years since that day when I first listened to a live recording of Phish, but nothing about the magic of hearing their music has faded. In fact, it has only deeply intensified.

That fall and winter we spent acquiring as many live recordings of the band as possible. You could not find this stuff in music stores though. You had to work at it. You had to network. You would somehow meet a dude – maybe a friend of a friend – and he has a show from last fall. He says if you send him blank tapes (the gold standard being Maxwell II 90 minute cassettes), he’ll use his double cassette deck to make copies and mail them back. Oh, and pay it forward. That’s how you become a member of the community.

Collections dependent on random teen hippies with tape decks and the US Postal Service do not build themselves quickly. Slowly slowly, though, we put together a small archive. Scott, being the more industrious member of our duo, largely arranged the trades. I copied from him, meaning most of my tapes were one generation older than his, and at least technically, of lesser quality. Real snobs might not have copied from my tapes, being the 3rd or 4th generation descendants of the famed originals. Under duress to complete their collection of the spring tour, perhaps they would take it, but given the chance, they’d gladly upgrade to a 2nd generation recording, copied straight from the DAT.

The etiquette of tape trading is beyond the scope of this brief trip down memory lane, but it was was important to follow and is wonderfully explicated here.

Music for teenagers is often a way of putting an identity stake in the ground. It’s waving a little “I stand for this” flag at a time when carving out one’s personal brand feels exceedingly urgent. Phish, this little known and offbeat musical sub-culture, was certainly this for me, but bubbling beneath the surface was something far more profound; a subconscious coming of intellectual age that I am still experiencing every time I hit play.

Phish taught me to think. Phish taught me that there is something more.

Well before I could analyze a text I was starting to analyze Phish, and I feel strongly that this training fueled my overall intellectual and literary growth. Phish taught me that music can be heard from 10,000 feet, as one cohesive unit, but it can also be dissected, and listened to in parts, one instrument isolated from the other. Each instrument is a voice with a mind, identity and story.

I would sit and listen to just the guitar, blocking out everything else. Now just the bass. The piano. The drums. The improvisational jam went on and I would try instead to listen to two instruments at once. Were they on the same page? Were they reacting to each other; talking to each other? Endless hours were spent like this, parsing the relationships between the instruments in different configurations, emotionally joining the unfolding musical story line, meandering through peaks and valleys, some soaring and pure and others dissonant and dark, until resolution and closure brought me back to earth. And it was – and is – so freaking satisfying.

Phish is literature. There are characters, motifs, themes, protagonists and antagonist, humor, irony and love. There is a remarkable and paradoxical cocktail of complete sincerity and comedic goofiness that is intimately felt between band and audience. There is foreshadowing, teasing, and emotions withheld, only to be later delivered in unexpected moments. And it all happens in real time. Just like life.

Scott and I walked into the long-since-demolished Snively Arena at the University of New Hampshire on April 11, 1994 for our first show. Casually we walked up to the stage, not realizing that, with the band’s increasing popularity, we were catching the tail end of smallish-venue performances; not realizing that eight months later we would be seeing the same band, but from the balcony level of the original Boston Garden on New Year’s Eve, and then dozens of times more into the future, at Great Woods, Madison Square Garden, a Native American reservation in the Florida Everglades and beyond.

The experience was everything we wanted it to be and more. An addiction was solidified. Hook. Line. Sinker.

Yearly Happy April 11th phone calls are still exchanged.

Twenty (plus) years later, I’m still upside down.

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