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!

22 comments:

Toothpaste Jones said...

How odd. I mentioned The Dead and Phish in my post today. I really have no love for Phish, no offense, though I've secretly loved The Dead for a long time. At any rate, I was talking about watching bands grow in a live format. And how lucky we've been down here to have some amazing bands come out of the scene down here, and how rewarding it is to watch them grow. With a lot less travel and lot more beer than weed etc. Box of Rain is awesome. I really like Terrapin Station, too. Well, "Dancing In The Street" sucks. But no one can cover that song and get away with their credibility.

millionsuns said...

Any musician that can open up their songs - or anyone else's - has got my respect. And I love jam bands for being able to do that. I also think many other musicians get a bad rap for "jamming" on their songs, or at least stretching them out. That's a total shame. Go to a Radiohead show and see how they reinvent their own songs. That's what I'm looking for whenever I see a live show. It is pretty nuts that we both mentioned Phish/Dead in our posts today. Not to get all hippie on you, but it looks like you're part of the circle of brainwaves now, Jones.

Toothpaste Jones said...

I was gonna write a response, but it got too long, so I made it into a post on my blog. Though, there's a band that I forgot to mention in the post. Yo La Tengo are the most awesome jam band around today. Why the hippies haven't gotten uh, hip to that, I couldn't tell you. I think the hippies should really like them and Sonic Youth.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that my opinion is bias being a fan of both bands, + jam bands in general. First of all I would like to say that your harsh analysis on lyrics is too much; jam bands and lyrics are contradictory, and so lyrics are not that important. Second that credit is not given. Even ask rolling stone mag., Trey is like 73 and Garcia is 13 on the best guitar players list of all time. Trey's showmanship and Garcia's guitar improv. are unmatched. You not remembering the concerts does not mean they were no fun to be at (fun was a major goal of Phish).

millionsuns said...

Wait. "Jam bands and lyrics are contradictory"? "Lyrics are not important"? Is that in the Helping Phriendly Book somewhere? Weird logic, bud.

I do remember having fun at the shows. Too much fun, therefore the problems remembering.

Anonymous said...

Curious if you are going to any Phish shows??????

millionsuns said...

Haha. Tell you what, if somebody miracles me and I don't have to drive too far, I'm there. And I'll probably love it. And I'll probably start listening to my Phish boots again. And I'll probably remember why I went to 32 shows in the first place.

Anonymous said...

So you said that Phish's lyrics are stupid and the lyrics you chose were from Gotta Jibboo. Listen, I'm no expert but the simplicity of the lyrics of that song along with some of the complex guitar riffs and horns makes it so perfect. You gotta do what you gotta do is the message. I love the Dead too, but Phish tells stories in their songs. Fee is a great example. They talk about wonder like in Dirt, and mystical creatures and they just have fun with their lyrics which make them powerful in there own way dude. Dead lyrics are powerful too, but you can't say that they were on a different level then Phish when it comes to songwriting. Cool review though.

joseph.ibrahim said...

yeah phish has silly lyrics once in a while. that's what makes them awesome. They also have excellent lyrics that are easily overlooked and dismissed because of the silly ones. Sleep, almost anything off undermind, silent in the morning, if I could, free, waste, thse are all songs with excellent lyrics not including many many more.

millionsuns said...

There are a handful of Phish songs that have beautifully fitting lyrics to go with the music. Totally true -- you mentioned the songs from Billy Breathes, which is my favorite album of theirs. If I Could is lovely. A criminally underrated song lyrics-wise is Frankie Says.

I'm talking about the vast majority of Phish tunes. I know the guys in the band are preoccupied with the melodies and the crazy jamming, and they're not supposed to be poets, and that Tom Marshall's not supposed to be a poet either, but it's frustrating and embarrassing because they seem to go for the jokey stuff, the 6th grade humor kind of stuff, when their audience is made up of fairly intelligent college kids itching for a thought provoking couplet here and there.

They can do better. They're capable of doing better, as evidenced by the songs you mention. That's the frustrating part! But keep the comments coming.

Joshua said...

Some songs you make you laugh, some tell you a story, some songs have meaning, some are just silly. This is one of the great things about Phish, beyond the live show experience and their technical prowess.

Of course as you loosely referenced, song meaning is in the eye of the beholder. It's a very personal exercise, which may also change as you change. Phish treats lyrics in a much different way than most bands. In many cases these are more simple lyrics that have great meaning, when it hits you the right way.

Doc said...

Was it for this my life I sought? Maybe so maybe not. If you don't think about the possibility that you got to choose to come to Earth after hearing this lyric...your brain is on auto-pilot.

Anonymous said...

You'd enjoy Phish more if you stopped trying to compare them to the Grateful Dead.

E.Scott said...

In my mind, without a doubt, the Dead benefited from having Pigpen in their early lineup, and all of the intangible things that were associated with his presence...the Mojo Hand for example.

Anonymous said...

This all seems to say that phish's best songwritting album is simply "Billy Breathes" while the Dead have so many deep lyrics. 'Feel the weight, feel your weight, like the day before. Maybe you'll find direction, around some corner where it's been waiting to meet you' ... I'll have what he's having please! Plus the bass lines get you grooving and happy all the time. Plus their work with Joplin and what about that awesome ditty with Bob Weir, "monkey and the engineer" I really enjoyed Billy Breathes so I bought another phish album 'Hoist' and found it a little weird. Never having been to a phish conert, it seems more visually stimulating than anything else. Interesting that it is one of men's most heightened senses. It seems like the arguement between the two bands sometimes comes from the guy who picks a shirt because its adidas brand, but its purple, and he hates purple? A lot of dead songs were hard to get, especially 7 years ago, unless you had the net and shared files. That's where a lot of their live sets were available versus some 'best of Dead' cd in store and no idea on itunes. Availability played a factor in recordings available and the fact that Dead's shows stopped and phish keeps going,somewhere at european festivals that cost hundreds to travel to in the first place? The dead helped me get over road rage while sitting in chicago traffic for 45 miles both ways, that's how I got to know them best. They got me through the stiff classical music undergrad work. 'Come on children and clap your hands!'

Anonymous said...

I agree with this post. I am a punk rock guy who had a lot of dead/phish fans for friends. By teenage default, I openly disliked both. Later in life, I found hearing the Dead in the background soothing and realized there was depth to not only their lyrics but sound. Phish now, even more than before, really is heavily redundant and the lyrics are abysmal, just terrible.

Anonymous said...

You are an idiot. A golgi apparatus is a part of the animal cell..

millionsuns said...

Holy cow, you're right, it is. That changes the entire premise of my argument. Phish really does have something to say to us all!

Anonymous said...

I'm in my 40s now and have enjoyed all forms of rock throughout my life. I love jam bands, including The Grateful Dead and Phish. I really miss seeing Jerry with the band and long for their live shows. As such, I will continue to enjoy live Phish until the ride ends. Both bands are iconic in their own right.

Anonymous said...

I think you missed one HUGE difference.

The Grateful Dead were great singers. They had naturally great voices. Garcias voice is amazing, as were the others.

Phish are musicians that figurerd out how to sing. Voices just ok.

When it comes to singing, (pre 1980s) Grateful Dead blow away Phish.

Anonymous said...

They're not the best at what they do,they are the only ones that do what they do....is what Bill Graham said about the Dead....................................It is a timeless quote......

Anonymous said...

Phish is the Wiggles for Hippies!!!!!!!!!!!