Friday, April 20, 2007

Grateful Dead vs. Phish: An ex-hippie's deconstruction

Most people lump all jam bands together into a dispicable, disposable package, but I’d like to do something that I’ve been meaning to do for awhile, which is to address the differences between Phish and the Dead. Most people don’t care about these differences because it’s like splitting hairs on the ass of a talentless donkey, but for those of us who followed one or the other for longer than they’d care to admit, the short answer is easy. Please don’t go away quite yet.

The Dead, sloppy as a pothead in art class, never possessed the technical proficiency of Phish. While the Dead had more of a grasp on their gumbo of American musical tradition, Phish could blow them off the stage with their technical musical wizardry. However, to that argument, I quote the following:

Momma sing sing that ya gotta jibboo.
Papa sing gotta jibboo

Momma sing sing thatcha gotta jibboo.
Gotta jibboo and keep on drinking too!

Those timeless words should give you an indication as to the lyrical wisdom of Phish. Phish couldn’t write their way out of a 52 minute Piper -> Bowie -> YEM encore if their lives and livelihoods depended on it, but the fans didn’t care. Their ears were gummed up by so much ear wax, resin, and the shouted setlist predictions of their friends that they couldn’t usually decipher the words anyway. It was all about the music, man, and the music was pretty killer, brah.

It’s soooooo easy to target Phish fans. I know this because I was one. I say “was” because I can’t really hang with Phish anymore, lyrically or musically. The final tender moment came last week when I recycled my last tour t-shirt during our Spring Cleaning Madness Sale, i.e., I threw it away.

But I leave my time with Phish in good spirits, with great memories, I think. That is, I can’t really remember. After 32 shows at about 2 ½ hours per show, you’d think I would've taken something away from it. But mostly I remember transcendent snippets of a great show now and then. And every time I think of those amazing moments, there’s a little piece of my heart that pines for the scene. And then I remember the lyrics and I shudder.

But there was that great shorthand used by Phish fans to communicate how stellar each show was. Being a fan was all about esoteric references. All you had to say was “Harpua,” and you got your point across. "Wow, Harpua??" Or “vacuum solo.” Or a million other things I won’t bore you with.

And to be fair, a few of their songs strove for depth and meaning, like "Silent in the Morning," "The Squirming Coil," and "Wading in the Velvet Sea." But the band had such a huge, devoted following that it was ultimately frustrating for such a musically stunning force to reward their fans with lines like "We've got skyscrapers/And it seems a pretty tune/Every band needs skyscrapers too." Most of the songs were about dancing pigs or newborn elves or flies or weasels or lizards or some kind of perilous Dungeons & Dragons situation.

About those transcendent moments, though: I think it was Ken Kesey who said that kids will sit through an hour of musical dreck to hear that one split-second where they are completely flummoxed by what they’re hearing, as though the band has performed a magic trick and defied logic before their very eyes. It’s true – that’s what kept me coming back every time. The things they could do just could not be explained. But it doesn’t really translate to the taped shows, which is why these days it’s the lyrics that tend to hold the music together. And with lyrics like Phish’s, the music falls apart. Just like in the lyrics to “Sparkle.”

The Dead, on the other hand, seemed to have things to say. And songs like “Box of Rain” and “Ripple” and “Cryptical Envelopment” and “Dark Star” have gravity. You can feel the weight of the words. And sometimes the music supports that weight. When it does, as in, say, the three discs of Dick’s Picks, Vol. 8, you’re sent on one of those rides that kept Ken Kesey on the bus. Those guys played fast and loose. Well, loose, anyway.

You can listen to the Dead in your rocker when you’re 80 and get some meaning out of it. I look forward to it. I still don't know exactly what a Box of Rain is, but I know I'll figure it out completely at some point in my life when it hits me just right and gets me through whatever I'm going through. I couldn't give a rat's ass in a cat's mask what a Golgi Apparatus is, and I never will.

To sum up, the Dead have staying power. Phish doesn't. Maybe I've been running in the wrong circles, but I don't really know anyone at all who listens to their old Phish boots. That's not true about the Dead, however, and that’s what makes the Dead the better of the two, in this ex-hippie's humble opinion. But why weigh on a sunny day?

Wink. Once a hippie, always a hippie. Happy 4/20!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Another reason why Fenway Park is the best place on earth to watch a baseball game.

Always high drama on Patriots Day -- yesterday was no exception.

There's only one reason why I'm not too broken up about never being able to see my Sox in person. And that's because I get to watch NESN and hear Jerry and Donny O call it as they see it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Cribbing from the best...again.

Inspiration has been in short supply lately, as evidenced by the sorry state of this blog. Maybe it's the weather, maybe it's my general state of early April torpor*, but I just haven't felt like writing a damn thing or sharing my feeble thoughts in general.

(* you always remember the SAT words that screw you over)

I was going to post another bitchfest lamenting the state of news reporting, specifically targeting the inclusion of a news item in this morning's AIM Today entitled "The Cutest Baby Fart," in which the reader is treated to a short video clip of a baby farting baby powder, but I just can't muster up enough energy to deal with it.

So again, I'm going to steal a blog idea from someone else. This dude Marco, who I had possibly the most awkward conversation in my life with on sticky night on a parking deck in North Carolina back in 1995 (the NC crew is familiar with this story) has a habit of coming up with these brilliant lists of something or other. His latest creation is a list of his top ten highschool albums. Jenny had her own take on it, and I figure it couldn't hurt to hijack the idea myself.

Please remember that I attended highschool 1988-1992. And please understand that I'm shocked, shocked to actually write that down. Kids born in 1988 are now in their sophomore year of college...Christ almighty, no way that's true.


10. B-52s: Cosmic Thing

I remember the day I bought this tape. Note: everything in this list was bought on cassette tape. I'll join the chorus of the purists who believe that the physical act of having to get up and flip a record or a tape to side two is an essential part of being involved in the listening experience. Anyway, the B-52s. If you can't get off your ass to this album, you're dead. You're officially dead. You have no pulse, and you certainly could never gyrate it til you've had your fill, just like a pneumatic drill.

9. XTC: Oranges & Lemons
This came out in '89 or thereabouts, and it established my longstanding, ceaseless, passionate devotion to everything that is XTC. God damn, do I love XTC. It's funky, it's brainy, it's funny, it's spasmodically melodic, and it's criminally underrated. Spent hours upon precious highschool hours in my bedroom with this one on the boombox. I miss my Toshiba boombox.

The first song, "The Garden of Earthly Delights," welcomes newborns to the world and serves as a sort of instruction manual for getting around this nutty planet in one piece. Perfect also for highschoolers. The first line is "Kid, stay and snip your cord off! Talk and let your mind loose, can't all think like Chekov, but you'll be okay!" Awesome.

7. David Byrne: Rei Momo
His latin album. Each song in a different latin style, each one listing that style in parentheses after the song title. All I cared about was that it was good, and it was. An asskicker, in fact. If you don't salsa, by god, this album will teach you how. My Toshiba boombox had this feature (light years ahead of its time) that allowed you to set the tape to start playing whenever you programmed it as a sort of alarm clock. This was my wakeup tape for 2 years during highschool. The first song on side one is called "Independence Day." Oh, the irony.

6. The Cure: Disintegration, The Smiths: Strangeways Here We Come, Depeche Mode: Violator
I lump these together because they're of a piece. They're very British, very lonely, and they share an unparalleled knack of reminding you that they are way more miserable than you'll ever be. Except for Depeche Mode -- Violator has a way of making you want to have really intense sex while staying as far away from intravenous narcotics as possible. Still, three of the best albums ever made. Especially suited for highschool.

5. Lou Reed: New York
I remember skipping volleyball practice on a regular basis and walking around downtown Rochester listening to the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now, which is basically the dialogue and music from the entire movie over two tapes. In one of my stranger highschool moments, my friends somehow convinced me to get up on one of the tables in the Common and recite Marlon Brando's last speech to Martin Sheen, in its entirety, in front of the entire lunch room. If you know me, you know how preposterous that is.

Anyway, when I wasn't listening to Apocalypse Now during my walkabouts, I'd pop in New York and compare Lou's descriptions of his city to my observations of my own. There wasn't much of a comparison, obviously, but we both loved and hated our cities in equal measure. Given his thesis statement that New York was a dirty, crime-ridden, bigoted, steaming pus hole, I vowed never to move there. Haha.

4. INXS: Kick
Don't laugh, it still holds up. It's dated as hell, but it still holds up, kinda...

Okay, it doesn't really hold up. I remember writing out the lyrics to "Mystify" on the outside of my math folder during a typically painful 7th period session circa late '90, and Eric Mayer (who had thick cokebottle glasses and a mohawk) saw it, yanked it off my desk, and read it aloud to the class. I deserved it. But, being a skater, I could relate to the guy flying through the album cover on his Vision Psycho Stick, even though if you look very closely you can see the black duct tape over the lettering, presumably to minimize the risk of copyright infringement. Punk as f*ck.

Whatever, "New Sensations" is dope!

3. Talking Heads: Naked
Given my pathetic excuse for a memory, it's quite amazing that I can remember all of the words to this album. Not even Doolittle or London Calling can claim that. If I had a nickel for every hour I spent listening to this on the Toshiba, I'd have a shitload of nickels. "(Nothing But) Flowers" may be the best song ever written, no joke.

2. Nirvana: Nevermind
I came into school one day in September of my senior year clutching Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine after seeing their video for "Head Like a Hole" on 120 Minutes. Whilst trying to convince everyone how psychotically brilliant it was, my buddy Tom waved his new copy of Nevermind at me.

The cover was ridiculous, and I thought the music was probably just as stupid. I spent the next hour convincing him that Pretty Hate Machine was the future and that joke punk bands like the Circle Jerks and Nirvana had their day in the 80s. Went over to Mac's house at the end of the day and saw the premiere of the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I felt like the world's biggest shitheel.

1. Jane's Addiction: Ritual de lo Habitual
Nevermind was a revelation, but this one tempered its impact quite a bit. There is nothing in the world that sounds like Perry Farrell in mid-scream. This album was THE soundtrack to the second half of my highschool experience. Each song is better than the last. I'm still in awe. There is nothing on earth like the anticipation that builds during the Spanish introduction of "Stop!" followed by Perry yelping "Here we go!" to kick it off. It all gets better and better, and ends with "Classic Girl." Dare you to find a better closing than that.

I might not be alive today if I'd gotten my license before the age of 20, because rocking out to this album undoubtedly would've caused me to veer off the road into telephone poles on a regular basis. Thanks, fear of driving!