Dissecting Phish with Mr. MinerFeatured, Music — By Marco Alvarez on July 3, 2012 at 11:40 am
I first heard the American rock band Phish back in â€˜03 through my college roommate who studied music and played the sax. There would often be music playing in our apartment being that he was a saxophonist, and my other roommate, a guitarist. I never learned to play an instrument myself, but I always appreciated hearing the sound of my friends jamming out or the sound of their favorite artists blanketing over the place with their charm. We all just shared what we liked. The first Phish song I was exposed to was â€œBouncing Around the Room,â€ the first song off their live album A Live One. Phishâ€™s four members are: Trey Anastasio (guitars & lead vocals), Mike Gordon (bass & vocals), Page McConnell (keyboards & vocals), and Jon Fishman (drums, percussion & vocals). I was extremely impressed by the bandâ€™s ability to play live so well and by their keen sensibility to improvise. The song sounded familiar like I shouldâ€™ve heard it somewhere before, but I had that feeling only because it was so pleasurable to my ears. The crowd at the recorded show immediately acknowledges the song as its introductory drumming and bass begin by growing louder and louder in one massive amalgamation. The lyrics are a form of poetry, a music all of their own. They are excellently written and so catchy that you soon find yourself singing along with the song. After I heard this one song, I was hooked.
You can listen to any of their songs and tell that Phish is able to utilize many different elements in their style. The keyboard melodies and solos carry the grace and elegance of classical music. The keyboard, guitars, and drum display the improvisational restlessness of jazz, and can also add a touch of blues or psychedelic rock. Phish produces stunning compositions but also have the skill of being able to spontaneously play something brilliant on the spot. Once you become a little familiar with the beautiful sounds theyâ€™re able to make, youâ€™ll realize itâ€™s unmistakable because no one else can play how they play. Playing live in front of a crowd is the hardest aspect of being a band, and they make it sound the best and appear the most natural. They give concert-goers exactly what they want, which is how they built up their underground reputation.
Iâ€™ve been a fan of their music ever since I first heard them simply because theyâ€™re just so talented. The cool thing about Phish is that theyâ€™ve been around since the late â€˜80s and early â€˜90s and never sold out while always setting the bar for ingenious music. They are masters both in the studio and live, and they have the live album releases and numerous mind-blowing live recordings to prove it. They follow in the same spirit as Jimi Hendrix with spectacular live performance and extended improvisation. Phish is one of the greatest American bands ever, which is why I was so thrilled when M.J. handed me David Calarcoâ€™s Mr. Minerâ€™s Phish Thoughts: An Anthology by a Fan for the Fans. A Collection of Writing on the Most Interesting Band Alive for review. It felt heavy in my hands like I was carrying the Bible on steroids. This 680 page hardbound book is packed with illuminating passages and photos on everything Phish. I put together a Phish track list on my music player to accompany me as my soundscape while I wrote. Being that there was so much material to touch upon, I went ahead and chose a few of my favorite parts to engage, especially considering that the bookâ€™s self-navigating form encourages readers to discover their own points and parallels.
The book mentions a few prominent aspects of Phish that I wish to interconnect in the following paragraphs, which delineates the mental course I took in approaching the book. The first point drawing intrigue for me is how Phish functions according to a relationship with the audience in sharing a creative energy and welcomes participation in the show by letting the crowd sing certain parts and create clapping beats and rhythms. Trey Anastasio articulates the dynamic between band and audience when he says, â€œItâ€™s a give and take…They react when we take risks and go someplace weâ€™ve never been before. You sense that. Itâ€™s what weâ€™re happiest doing, so we try as hard as we can to…be in a situation every night where everybody is hoping for spontaneityâ€ (21). When the fans feel the energy of Phishâ€™s spontaneous solos and improvisations, they go crazy and give back a strong energy by the sound of their own cheers and reactions. In addition, Phish constantly redirects their celebrated achievements and credits back to the fans by explaining how vital their fans are to their work. Calarco emphasizes this facet of the band when he writes, â€œThe communal nature of Phish shows has always been a part and parcel of the bandâ€™s live performances, making fans an integral part of the concert experienceâ€ (21). A distinct mutual respect has existed since the beginning as they started playing and touring with friends and even hired their friends to help them along on their musical endeavors; a community was built around their music.
The second detail is that Phish is a unique band consisting of members who represent idiosyncratic individualism as virtuosos, or technical masters of their instruments. They are creative musical geniuses, so we perceive and value them as intriguing characters who are specially talented and gifted. Now, if you pair this aspect with another of their major ones, which is the sort of shamanic role they play for the crowd in guiding them toward ecstatic enlightenment, then you have a duality that appears to be paradoxical. On one hand they are these pioneers of individualism and musical talent, but on the other hand they are also the enablers of a bigger force of inspirational energy for which they insist they act as only the medium. As singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio himself put it best:
I never even feel like Iâ€™m performing. I feel like Iâ€™m there to be an intermediary between music thatâ€™s in the universe and the audience. It sounds silly, but I believe it more than I believe anything in my life. When Iâ€™m onstage I feel this incredible togetherness and intense energy that is like fuel for goodness…The problem is when you try to verbalize it, it sounds weird, but only in a world thatâ€™s completely lost touch with its spirituality. (21)
This duality between the dazzling individual and the humble messenger who simply transmits a greater truth poses a paradox. So which does Phish represent exactly? Are they individual masters producing heightened artistic music wholly by their own efforts and inspiration, or are they the egoless middlemen of sounds that already exist? It would appear to me that itâ€™s both. Somehow, Phish is able to transcend their individualistic roles and serve as a greater instrument in making people feel as though their souls are being nourished by the artful music they create. I interpret this as not that those specific notes and solos already existed in some imaginable reality because you can argue that all infinite variations of all sounds are pre-existent in the universe but just need to be played and activated, but rather it is that they find manifestation when the Phish members entirely surrender themselves to the beautiful possibilities of the moment.
Calarco appropriately references Terence McKenna, the godfather of ethno-pharmacology and psychedelic research when discussing how Phish serves a greater purpose by uniting people in this positive energy and leading them to fulfilling introspection. McKenna reaffirms how Phish provides a spiritual outlet for people in an existence dominated by hyper capitalism and politics. Through performing their music for people, they act as modern shamans nurturing their neglected spirits. Phishâ€™s transcendent style of performance highlighted by their incredible transitions and complex improvisations has its origins based on the ancient human rituals of communal art and music.
Phishâ€™s transcendent improvisations have another specific connection to the arts in addition to those ancient ritualistic traditions of our ancestors. Calarco wonderfully relates Phishâ€™s spontaneous ability to play brilliantly with the enchanting spontaneity of Beat literature, as pioneered by Kerouac in the â€˜50s. Kerouacâ€™s vision of Beat literature was influenced by jazz music and its improvisational spirit, by the poised saxophonist pressing forward into the creative unknown with his madly passionate melodies, in smoke-filled venues in search of that transcendental state of being and consciousness. Kerouac describes the experience in his classic novel On the Road:
All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets IT â€“ everybody looks up and knows… Time stops. Heâ€™s filling empty space with the substance of our lives… He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows itâ€™s not the tune that counts but IT (31).
That â€œitâ€ factor, as Kerouac refers to, is so elusive and yet something that everyone can recognize when it arrives. Itâ€™s that sweet spot you hit when youâ€™re playing exactly what you feel inside, and you make everyone else feel it just by watching and listening. Beat literature and poetry have in many ways honored the beauty of spontaneous incantation. American poet Wallace Stevens believed that the core and essence of poetry lied within the inherent sound and music created by the uttering of the words, and not within the actual meaning of the words. It is more a matter of euphony than intellect.
Mr. Minerâ€™s Phish Thoughts is one of the most epic documentary books covering a rock band! Calarcoâ€™s collected writings really rise to the occasion of capturing Phishâ€™s impact on music, society, and culture, and are worthy of the awe surrounding Phish. I would highly recommend this book not only to Phish fans but also to all music-lovers because Phish kills it in so many ways and styles that they are bound to blow you away if you are passionate about music. Transform your coffee table into a portal for artistic exploration. There are a myriad of relevant associations throughout the book just waiting for you to reveal them! How will you digest and ponder its pages?