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Floating with the flock: Three days among the faithful at the first Phish Studies Conference

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05/17/1992

Achilles Rink, Union College

Schenectady, NY

Phish nears the end of a 53-date run, its Elektra debut, “A Picture of Nectar,” barely three months on the shelf. The first of two sets caroms toward conclusion with “Chalk Dust Torture,” a crunchy rocker with a scuffed-cuff riff, a memorable cry of “Can I live while I’m young?” and a Trey Anastasio guitar solo that scrambles for release.

On the album, it ends in 4 minutes, 23 seconds. But live the band unravels it and gives itself room to stretch. Tonight, they’ve added an interlude that boils Trey’s vamp to the utmost peak. It begins at the 3-minutes mark and climbs and builds and swipes and claws until no worlds are left to conquer, reaching an intensity quelled only by

05/17/2019

Memorial Union, Oregon State University

Corvallis, OR

A hand stops the track and draws it back. Eyes open. Bobbing heads rest. The space falls silent. Commanding a table in the Horizon Room, three Phish fans who also happen to be music theorists: musicologist Jacob Cohen, Youngstown State University assistant professor Steven Reale and Johnson & Wales University assistant professor Julie Viscardi-Smalley.

It’s 10 a.m., and they’re clearing 40 cerebellums with guided tours through versions of “Chalk Dust Torture,” dissecting measures and illustrating its onstage evolution over a two-decade span.

Naturally, this one hews closest to its studio-produced companion. After all, it isn’t that old. The song resumes. As the performance builds once more, Reale shouts, “The jam’s about to start!” and as if on cue, it

05/17/1992

Achilles Rink, Union College

Schenectady, NY

climbs and builds and swipes and claws until no worlds are left to conquer, reaching an intensity quelled only by a shuddering return to the foundation it, honestly, never abandoned. Birthday boy Page McConnell’s key strikes, Jon Fishman’s drums and Mike Gordon’s bass abet Anastasio’s ascent, but they’ve stayed faithful to the underlying groove.

05/17/2019

Memorial Union, Oregon State University

Corvallis, OR

The speakers are as blissed out as their audience. At the solo’s pinnacle, Viscardi-Smalley points a finger toward the ceiling, nodding, smiling. There it is, exactly where it belongs. From Reale’s expression, one would think he’s emanating it himself. Cohen looks like he can’t wait to start talking about it again.

And talk they do, man. Modes and scales fly fast and furious. D, C-sharp, B, chromatic passages, foreshadowing. The first major climax arrives at 4 minutes, 20 seconds, a cosmic coincidence acknowledged with appreciative laughter. Trey gallops toward an eventual note and repeats the climb four times; when he falls back, we’re told, it’s a signal. He’s coaxing his bandmates back into the song proper. They oblige, executing the conclusion as heard on “Nectar.”

We leap ahead seven years: 07/10/1999, E Center, Camden, New Jersey. Again, the jam begins three minutes in, but this time Phish is older, more experienced, more comfortable twisting “Torture” into peculiar shapes. “This is more of an episodic approach than a race to a peak,” Cohen says. The band’s exploring for the pleasure of exploring.

Unspoken dialogue between members is subtler now. Around 5:24, the majority attempts a new adventure, but Fishman isn’t having it, so everyone returns. Around 8:15, the drummer makes his own move, as do McConnell’s keys. Forty seconds later, they’re all in sync. Trey then launches a soaring beauty. The other three grant him space to paint. “Chalk Dust Torture’s” framework disappears over 28 minutes, never to return. It transitions into “Roggae” instead, called into existence by the latter’s sway.

“I’ve heard a number of people that I’ve spoken to say that starting with music is the right way to do it,” Reale says, later reliving the moment. “Being able to talk about the music and what is meaningful to us about it was a really great way to kick it off.”

Welcome to the first annual, first-ever, first-anywhere Phish Studies Conference. For roughly 200 strong over a three-day period covering every angle imaginable — from music theory to philosophy to anthropology to mathematics to technology to cultural and gender studies to religion to social work to even public health — it’s its own community, a new home away from home, a signpost on a wild, winding trip.

It’s just a band. What’s the big deal?

Every Phishhead wrestles with the question. It’s the central mantra of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, Communications Studies Department associate professor Jnan Blau’s Friday presentation, “We Are Aphicionados, We Are Vernacular Theorists!: A Critical Reconsideration and Anti-Hegemonic Recasting of Phish, Phandom and Fan Praxis.” Others will touch upon the concept over the next two days, some supported by personal research.

The band’s ’90s rise came with an unfortunate price: mainstream media scrutiny. The more predominant music press tagged them as fried-granola noodlers braying soup for spaced-out, dreadlocked, Frisbee-flinging burn-boys. The stigma bled into popular culture, where it's always sort of existed, anyway. Despite their popularity, jam bands were never the rabble’s bag.

Yet many of those alleged freaks graduated from college — multiple times over, in some cases, collecting degrees like bootlegged tapes — and became tenured professors, clergy, computer scientists, attorneys, psychologists, and even a director for planning and response at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Health. Yes, the crew-cutted Andrew Garrett, before addressing the conference on severe flooding that canceled the 2018 Curveball Festival at New York’s Watkins Glen International Raceway, reminisced about seeing Phish for the first time: May 16, 1995, at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium in Massachusetts.

“I chose pretty wisely,” he says. Heads nod in agreement.

Phish fans, in other words, are everywhere. You may know one and not know at all. They love the band for its unpredictability. Multiple concerts and even years can pass before a song's set-list reappearance. There's a funky symbiosis there as well, transcending empty "We love you, Wisconsin" platitudes; both seem intent on making an experience an event for the other.

As for the academic attraction, scholars point out that Anastasio majored in philosophy at the University of Vermont in Burlington, where what became Phish began taking form. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree at Plainfield’s Goddard College, submitting his 1987 senior study, “The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday,” as a nine-part song cycle recorded with the band.

“Yesterday” tells the story of the fantastical Gamehendge and its inhabitants, particularly Colonel Forbin, the lovely Tela and the evil king, Wilson. Its songs remain in the repertoire, and at least two presenters discuss “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” this weekend: After quipping, “Thanks for sticking around to hear about a chord,” Julie Viscardi-Smalley focuses on the composition’s arpeggiated augmented triad, which represents the colonel traversing a mountain. Oregon Institute of Technology humanities professor Ben Bunting compares its lyrics to Henry David Thoreau’s evocations of Mount Ktaadn in “The Maine Woods” (1864).

In short, as Blau tells me later, “Phish fans are thinkers. And we’re also feelers. It’s one of the things that makes the Phish fan community kind of special to me. I hesitate to compare them too much to other fan communities, but there’s something there. I think it’s in Phish’s music, and there have been references to it this weekend in terms of what they’re working with in lyrics, what kind of implied or explicit messages they put out, plus the ethos of what they do and how that becomes a personal value and attracts a certain type of person who tends to be more open, a seeker.”

One’s even responsible for the conference itself.

The only rule is it begins

First, there’s the logo: Portland artist Ryan Kerrigan’s psychedelic creature swimming across a sandwich board outside the Memorial Union. Organizer Stephanie Jenkins, an OSU School of History, Philosophy and Religion assistant professor, greets attendees with handshakes and the occasional hug. She’s loved Phish since the mid-’90s, when, as a high-school freshman in Bangor, Maine, the aspiring drummer received a copy of “A Live One” (1995), the group’s initial concert release.

“What drew me to it was the creative power behind Fishman’s drumming,” she says. “He plays like a percussionist. It inspired me to continue in my life not only as a Phish fan but also as a musician. Later, when I was a PhD student at Penn State [she graduated in 2012, with a dual PhD in Philosophy and Women’s Studies], one of the professors in my program was rumored to be R.E.M.'s band philosopher. That set off a lightbulb in my head: Philosophy with a rock band was a possibility.”

Within two years of her OSU arrival, it became a reality: “Philosophy of Art and Music,” a Phish-heavy e-campus philosophy course in 2014. She’s grateful for its existence, and still kind of stunned that it happened. Because it all helped lead to this.

“When I first got here, I mentioned my dream,” she says. “My friends said, ‘You should do that.’ I didn’t think it was permitted. It was so different from my disciplinary training. School director Ben Mutschler encouraged me to do it. [Former College of Liberal Arts] Dean Larry Rodgers was also supportive. [Current dean Nicole von Germeten backed the conference as well, introducing Jenkins on Friday.] One of the things that OSU does that I’m proud of is that we prioritize high-impact learning experiences. Running a pilot of a class that incorporated classroom instruction and a concert experience was good for the community.”

You can almost pinpoint the moment initial conference discussions began. Phish fans assiduously document every date, city, venue, plonk and squall. They introduce themselves to potential acquaintances by mentioning their first shows, and the other person has likely either seen or heard it, and most definitely has an opinion of its ranking in the pantheon.

The conversation, which also involved Blau and Cohen — who were later part of the program committee, along with Jenkins’ mentor Natalie Dollar, a noted Grateful Dead scholar at OSU-Cascades — happened sometime during the band’s Sept. 2-4, 2016, stand at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado. (“Dick’s” is shorthand in Phishworld, a paradise on par with “the Gorge” (Gorge Amphitheatre, George, Washington), MSG (Madison Square Garden, New York City, home to the New Year’s Run) and Deer Creek (Verizon Wireless Music Center, Noblesville, Indiana).)  

Jenkins tested the waters with the Phish Studies Colloquium during the band’s July 20-22, 2018, stint at the Gorge. It was also a field trip for her class; among its requirements were three live shows in person or online, as well as conducting interviews within the group’s expansive community. Eight scholars, including Jenkins and Blau, addressed an assemblage of 100 people over three nights.

“It demonstrated that there was a demand for this sort of work,” Jenkins says. “My colleagues at OSU were happy with the outcome, which gave me the courage to throw the conference.”

Falling into a deep well

Upon entering the Memorial Union, one ascends a small incline of steps, where Benny Beaver, of all beasts, awaits with high-fives and good vibes. A long registration table lies just ahead, T-shirts and Jamie Lee Meyer (Portland)-designed posters stacked behind. The former’s yours for $20, the latter, $30. This may rank in the Top 10 of academic events peddling their own merch.

Arrivals get their own share of swag: name tags, programs and drink cards (Block 15 concocted an event-specific brew called Fluffhead, in reference to a song from 1989’s “Junta”) — like, a literal card, mind you, swiped from an Uno deck, kissed with a google-eyed crab sticker. Neophytes receive dolphin stickers, alerting veterans to n00bs in need of oracles.

Today, amplifying the OSU creed stamped high on a wall — “A heritage from the deeds and dreams of yesterday, a reality with the students of today, and the assurance of a magnificent tomorrow” — is another quote due southwest, this one from Anastasio, practical wisdom for any age:

“There’s so many things about climbing too fast. It takes time … to learn to control a bigger room on every level: production, performance, acoustics. The way you play — the clarity — comes from moving into it very slowly. Trial and error, trial and error. Just like life.”

It’s part of the Alex Grosby-curated “Below the Moss Forgotten,” an exhibit displaying concert posters, mostly Columbia Gorge and Pacific Northwest shows from the early ’90s through the mid-2000s. Glass cubes protect ticket stubs, torn and whole, once entrée, now artifact. Near a corner sits an ancient school desk, a smartphone between clamps and a pair of headsets hanging from hooks. Clamp ’em on and lose yourself in 23 years of performance.

Suddenly the lobby’s alive with music. Attendee/presenter/program committee member Chryss Allaback breaks into song: “Meatstick,” a Phish album no-show that, though an unreleased studio recording exists, has lived exclusively on stage since 1997. She’s teaching Benny the official dance. “Whoa, shocks my brain; whoa, shocks my brain,” she sings, the only non-allusive lyrics printable in this uptight clarion. She lifts her right arm and waves it in circles as Benny follows. He doesn’t quite stick the landing, but he appears to be having fun — especially when trampolines materialize. (They’ll get workouts all weekend; y’ever seen a bouncing musicologist?)

Inside this silent scene

Jenkins punctuates her opening speech with a long, deliberate pause. It’s more holy than solemn, homage to tradition observed in “Divided Sky,” when Trey settles thousands into silence. He’s described it as its own jam, an improvised composition following a collective rhythm. A Madison Square Garden audience set the record — 3 minutes, 9 seconds — on Dec. 2, 2009.

We pose no threat whatsoever. The hum of nothing feels heavy in the room. A solitary titter rumbles and fades. A “Freebird!” cry is loosed. In time the applause begins, one tentative clap growing slowly to 60-plus. “Yeah, Trey!” someone shouts. Jean Peterson, an associate English professor at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, cheers, “Trey looked right at me!” Tuck Gillett, a music teacher in Colorado’s Telluride School District, shouts back, “No, he was looking at me!” Jenkins regards us with a slightly amused smile. It took us, she reveals, all of 1:30 to “woo!”

Despite the missed mark, it’s still the first “Divided Sky” pause at the first Phish conference, with myriad firsts in store. “This is historic and unprecedented,” Jenkins says. “We’re redefining what is possible in academics.”

“You have to be here to understand what is happening,” she adds. “I was saved by rock ’n’ roll.”

So show us why we came here

The three-day program, its 50 presentations winnowed from 125 proposals, moves at an agreeable pace, and the breadth of its coverage is impressive. In a rare conference occurrence, it’s possible to attend every session. Each panel speaker receives 15 minutes apiece, with time for questions afterward, followed by a 15-minute recess. And that’s where the real fun begins, as energized scholars and attendees become microcosms of the band itself, jamming on spontaneous theses, suggesting avenues for exploration and excitedly collaborating on new threads.

Evenings end with well-earned rewards: Friday’s taco bar (replacing the initially planned grilled cheese bar) with Fluffhead beer, followed by a “Happy Birthday” cupcake chorus for Phish’s Page McConnell as he celebrates year 56, and an afterparty at Corvallis’ American Dream Pizza, where Eugene quintet Left on Wilson uncorks some Phish for scrutiny. On Saturday, the pizzas come to us in 15-minute intervals before an excerpt from Michael Ryan Lawrence’s fan documentary “We’ve Got It Simple.” Also, there are doughnuts. Lots and lots of doughnuts, a reference to the pattern on Fishman's iconic unisex concert wear.

The event’s aim, however, isn’t purely academic (it fuses serious and fun with droll elan) — or even entirely about the music. The Phish base is fueled by proactive empathy, its denizens using their disciplines in service to the community. The Memorial Union’s downstairs multi-purpose room, in addition to housing vendors of Phish-related crafts (and doughnuts, lots and lots of doughnuts), features tables devoted to multiple causes, massage therapy and a life coach offering free 45-minute sessions.

“We really wanted to promote the idea that this is a topic that rewards interdisciplinary study,” Cohen says. “You’d think a band would be something that you’d study from a musical point of view, and I think the reason we are advocating for a legitimacy of Phish studies as an academic discipline is because it is such a rich site of inquiry for so many different fields.

"You’re not going to hear just musicologists or cultural theorists. You’re going to hear the economics guys, the math guys doing numbers-crunching. You’re going to hear people talking about social work. We’re in all these different disciplines across academia and we’re trying to create a space where we can bring all that knowledge together.”

Because of the tribe’s size, it naturally draws fans whose perspectives counter the prevailing code. “How do we contend with such elements while remaining inclusive?” It’s also self-reflective, aware of its faults and receptive to solutions. “How do we improve as people?” So there’s a humanitarian aspect at play here, too, most clearly evident in the Mockingbird Foundation, a nonprofit founded by fans in 1996 and devoted to music education for youth. (Its representatives are here, too, along with the brain trust of Phish.net, home to aficionados, archivists and historic preservationists.)

Friday’s most electrifying panel, of course, is “We’re All in This Together: Race and Racism in the Phish Community,” in which speakers directly confront the scene’s prevailing reputation as predominantly white. Its tone is never defensive — with sober discussions of color-blind racism and white fragility — but confirmation of a problem that must be rectified.

On Saturday, Chryss Allaback contemplates the subculture, describing the shared utopia of a live show and its crowd. “It’s the best of all euphorias,” she says. “It’s the same band, but I’m changed.” Denise Goldman, adjunct professor of English at Hofstra and Long Island universities, reflects on female spaces within the Phish universe, where support and camaraderie reign, and music-established emotional connections spur the online discourse.

In Sunday’s “Healing the Symptoms: Recovery and Access,” Joel Gershon outlines the deaf fan’s experience, how it’s best enhanced through ASL interpreters familiar with the discography (and won’t find the lyrics too strange) and ideal venue placement of both. Corvallis physical therapist Maggie Cooper pleads to Phish ignorance. But, when asked after her presentation if she intended to catch the band, she smiles. “I think I am,” she replies.

I get so overwhelmed

Even two weeks later, there’s too much to digest, so many roads leading everywhere.

• Washington State University archivist/librarian Joseph Dresch gushing over the Halloween 2018 Vegas show, when the ever-unpredictable Phish presented 12 new songs as 12 allegedly old songs from 1981’s “í rokk” LP, recorded by Scandinavian prog rockers Kasvot Växt, which, despite having a thorough All Music Guide biography, does not exist.

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• Rolling Stone contributor, author and rock writer Benjy Eisen describing Kasvot Växt lyrics as Phish lines fed through a translator from English into other languages and back again, and then providing convincing examples.

• A Judaism-focused panel in which a survey reveals that 32% of its Jewish respondents discovered Phish at summer camp — a demographic that includes speakers Oren Kroll-Zeldin and, interestingly, Jacob Cohen and Rabbi Josh Ladon, who’d attended the same camp as teens and were reunited in Corvallis.

• Stephanie Jenkins donning concert gear, a pair of sunglasses and unicorn coat, to discuss the band and French philosopher Michel Foucault, imploring colleagues to experiment with art, to strike that balance between passion and profession.

• The lexicon. Oh, that beautiful lexicon.

But I must stop.

For perspective, I turn to attendee Tuck Gillett, who on Sunday is celebrating a Phish anniversary of sorts. Twenty years earlier, on May 19, 1999, he caught Trey Anastasio solo with drummer Russ Lawton and bassist Tony Markellis as they opened the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver.

“That was the day I basically knew I had to quit the day job,” he says. “I had studied three years of musicology and I had this horror somewhere in the first or second set that someone was going to try and dissect the jam band and Phish culture generations after it happened. No, no, no; we’ve got to cover our own community. Someone’s got to be responsible.

“I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to get some letters after my name so I can talk about this.’ That was exactly 20 years ago today, and here I am with a whole bunch of people with letters after their names, and we’re talking eye-to-eye. We haven’t studied the same area; it’s just that we take what we’ve seen and what we believe we’ve seen so seriously that we want other people to be able to say, ‘That’s a fact.’”

Melt, split open and

05/19/19

Memorial Union, Oregon State University

Corvallis, OR

Alex Grosby dismantles his installation. Farewells pass in the lobby, old friends, new friends. Doughnut boxes slump in repose. Benny Beaver is long gone, dancing about architecture elsewhere. It’s hard to believe the conference is over, that a less inquisitive reality lurks outside. I’ve heard so much Phish, talked so much Phish, that a chance absorption of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” on the way home jolts like an alien broadcast.

More than a week earlier — 05/08/19, for the record — Stephanie Jenkins could only envision the weekend’s possibilities.

“One of the things I’ve learned from Phish is that it’s OK to publicly take risks and even to fail,” she said at the time. “Are you familiar with their song, ‘The Line’? It’s about a basketball player who missed a shot in the most important game of his career. What that told me is that I could make the greatest mistake of my life and one of my favorite bands may write a song about it.”

She laughed.

“But I think this conference is going to be amazing. It’s not going to be a failure.”

Turns out she’s right. Curiosity within and without pursues it to the end. I catch Deena Prichep’s 3-minute NPR segment on Sunday morning. Jenkins and Cohen ponder in bites between Phish’s “You Enjoy Myself,” Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies” and Prichep’s commentary. Soon, Stereogum will react to the NPR piece. Then someone will react to that. And so on and so on and so on, as the cycle feeds itself. (Later, we learn that a Trey Anastasio documentary, "Between Me and My Mind," will screen in town this summer.) But here at OSU, I watch flesh-and-blood attendees leave invigorated.

“It feels momentous and powerful,” Jean Peterson says, gathering her coat. “It allowed us all to enter as equals. In this field of ‘Phishademia,’ we’re all true academics, and the egalitarianism of it was very beautiful to me. I had so much fun being a student. It was wonderful, and I have great hope for the next generation of scholars.”

Committee members are equally pleased.

“It turned out better than we could have imagined,” Cohen says. “I think the quality and level of scholarship and the personal and professional investment of everyone involved has just been — we expected it, but when you actually see it happen, it’s really gratifying. All the rigor and expertise that we bring to our disciplines and things we study that aren’t Phish, we’re bringing to Phish. We’ve been able to take what we do professionally and bring it to this thing that we love.”

“I started writing about Phish academically in 2002,” Chryss Allaback says, “so I got a lot of ‘That’s weird’ or ‘Chryss is weird.’ Everyone’s been echoing that here over and over, about how their colleagues think they’re weird and bizarre. So this wasn’t even an idea. Never in a million years did I think someone would organize an entire conference — not just a colloquium or something, but three full days of academic work on Phish.

"I come from a performance studies and theater background, so I have this way of looking at Phish. To come here and see therapy, neuroscience, medicine, religion and philosophy — now I’m thinking, ‘What other lenses can I use to examine this phenomenon?’”

The moment ends

When asked for a final summation, Jenkins replies, of course, with lyrics — these from Trey Anastasio’s “The Show of Life”:

It’s been perfectly planned

It’s completely insane

It’s a revolving cast

But it’s the same old game

Luckily, that’s mere aperitif.

“I saw that this was an institutional improvisation,” she says. “We were bringing together two communities with conflicting rules, norms and interests, so we had to figure out that dance. There’s a learning curve, just like a jam. I’ve been joking all weekend that my PhD’s in philosophy and women’s studies, not event-planning. Corvallis, Oregon, was probably the last place on Earth that this Phish community expected they’d be coming to, yet we had an incredible turnout from around the country.

“We are at our best when we are at our most passionate. For someone else, it might be fly-fishing or football. It could be another band. I hope that other scholars and students and fans of whatever will pick this up as a model for transforming the academy, for thinking about ways that we can integrate our teaching, research, service and scholarship.”

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Special thanks to Chryss Allaback, Benny Beaver, Jnan Blau, Jacob Cohen, Charlie Dirksen, Derek Finholt, Tuck Gillett, Ellis Godard, Stephanie Jenkins, Adam Lioz, Jean Peterson, Phish.net, Steven Reale, Dana Reason, Michael Snell, Mark Tolonen, the many fine Memorial Union vending machines, and the Golgi Apparatus.

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