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!