Like many writers, I Google the pieces I plan to write before I write them. This time I search “Learning to Love Phish.” Much to my dismay, Carrie Brownstein (best known for the hysterical Portlandia), wrote more than ten blog posts on NPR Music about her two-week headlong dive into Phish, and she did it six years ago.
Six years ago, I graduated from high school and somehow convince my mother to bring my sister and me to Bonnaroo, one of the largest music festivals in North America. I was 17 and wear tie-dyes and teal bandanas with a vigor and enthusiasm I cannot put to words. Though, I am easily one of the coolest potheads in Tunkhannock Area High School just for attending, I found the festivities exhausting. In 2009 Phish headlines Bonnaroo, playing two shows.
Based solely on my wearing a tie-dye shirt in the shape of a fish, I want to hear them play. My mother scoffs. Phish sucks. They’re like The Grateful Dead but worse. Despite her skepticism, we go to one of the shows and prop up our bleacher chairs. I am asleep in seconds. They jam me to unconscious. When I wake up, my mother tells me a fire hooper made fun of my head all tipped back and mouth hanging open.
I have since learned how to stay awake at music festivals.
When I fall in love with a Phish Head, I don’t realize that I have fallen in love with a Phish Head, or more accurately, I don’t know what it means to love a Phish Head. All I know is that Phish puts me to sleep.
I want to be with this particular Phish Head, Lauren, more than anything so I woo her in the best way I know how: $6 pitchers of Yuengling at the State College bar that plays jam bands, Rathskeller, our initials plastered, carved, and painted on every booth. She laughs at me when I sing every Dave Matthews Band lyric. She tells me I have no shame. I have gone to eight DMB concerts.
When she sing-mumbles Phish lyrics, I ask her if it’s English. Lauren has gone to 20 Phish shows.
In 2009, Carrie Brownstein dedicates herself to learning to love Phish. She writes in her blog post “Phish Update No. 2: Early Thoughts,” “From now on—whether in my car or at home—it’s all Phish, all the time. You know what made the transition easier? The fact that the last song I heard on the car radio was “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl).”
I have no idea how Brownstein is inflecting her mention of Looking Glass’s one hit wonder “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” but I hope it’s positively, as it’s my favorite song of all time (challenged only by King Harvest’s one hit wonder “Dancing in the Moonlight”). But either way, I listen to “Brandy” before I start my Phish kicks. It pumps me up.
I try to learn how to dance to Phish. Lauren puts on her favorite second sets: Denver in 13, Portland in 98. The second sets are always way better she explains. I ask her if it’s because the drugs kick in but she can’t hear me. She bops around the kitchen and I bop around her in orbit, sock sliding in circles on linoleum, asteroid, meteor.
Typically, at 6am we stop drinking. We stop dancing. We curl into the couch and watch Portlandia (a show she introduced me to). Brownstein makes an excellent feminist bookstore co-owner. Lauren falls asleep after the sun comes up. Her toes haven’t stopped moving since the music. She bops, or maybe swims, in her sleep. Sometimes I wonder if she has gills.
Lauren messages me links to blog posts that explain Phish via sports analogies and I dive in because I want to be with her more than anything. Dark Was The Night writes:
Phish is like a baseball team. And like a baseball team, the average fan can find reasonable enjoyment viewing the one-off or odd game simply by understanding the rules and way in which the game is played. However, as any real baseball fan will tell you, there is so much more to the game then hitting the ball and running bases. There’s learning player statistics, histories at certain ballparks, histories between various teams, and so much more. There are good nights and bad nights, good seasons and bad seasons.
With Phish it’s exactly the same. There are good nights and not so good nights, legendary tours and times when things fell apart before our eyes. There are song histories, venue histories, and statistics galore, all designed to help enhance your enjoyment of the band. No two shows are alike. And as with learning to keep scorecards, there is a learning curve. To fully appreciate this band, one must become an “active listener,” engaged in the process rather than simply having the music on in the background.
Lauren says I won’t understand until we’re there together. I won’t understand until the light show, until they break out the mini trampolines and glow sticks monsoon around me. She says I will understand, but the way her voice climbs is enough for me. I’m already there.
In the summer of 2014, I attend six Phish shows in ten days. The Phish Head has me wrapped around her finger. To fund the shows on Randall’s Island and in Chicago, I ask my record store boss for an advance on my small paycheck, a good faith loan of sorts. (As an aside, see what Pitchfork has to say about Chronic Town). He knows it’s for Lauren and he pats me on the back, wishes me luck, and hands me an envelope.
To fund the trips, I go to my old house and rummaged through the relics from my childhood, through the collections of baseball cards, Pokémon cards, coins. I do some research. The world is shunning the dollar even more than usual. Gold and silver are on the rise. I drive along the Susquehanna to “Gibson Girls Antiques and Coins”—a little house on the river, doubling as a business. This is where my father used to sell silver quarters, extra cash for music equipment, pedals, amps, a new mahogany neck.
The man who doesn’t look particularly like a Gibson girl, holds a magnifier to his eye; his eyes have slightly yellowed in the whites, like some older peoples’ have. He runs callused thumbs along the edges of fake trade coins from 1876, lets me down easy (if authentic they can go for over $200). He dumps an old cigar box of my father’s wheat pennies into a coin counter—they go for five cents apiece. He flicks through a stack of Buffalo Nickels.
When he starts counting the silver pieces, I can’t understand the system. He weighs the coins, doesn’t look at the dates, doesn’t wonder how long I kept that one particular German Baden in my pocket as a type of anti-anxiety. The international coins were passed down by my late grandfather. He’d hand me two or three and tell me stories from the countries they came from. The Gibson Girl man handed me $212 dollars; he asked me if I wanted to keep my father’s cigar box—the one now almost 35 years old. As I walked outside, I could hear the $20s slide around like snakes in the hollow box.
The Phish Head has me wrapped around her finger. I still have my Mickey Mantle card, my holographic 1st edition Charizard. But this summer is coming up fast. Phish will announce their summer plans soon.
I have a head of my own: an EDM Head. My hair frequently stands on end. I am static electric, dancing all the time. Flail. Flume, Kygo, Kill Paris, Adventure Club, Mylo, MNEK, Odesza, Shakehips, Glitch Mob, Gold Fields, Prince Fox, Dark Sky, Pretty Lights, Vanic. Drop. Trap. When the beats drop, it’s in volts and I ripple.
Lauren swims on my skin and tells me she read that Skrillex compared EDM to jam. We’re not so different she says.
My first three Phish shows are punctuated by hour and a half long subway commutes with 4-7 connections. They are punctuated with warm $13 dollar beers. They are punctuated with glow sticks and compliments on my Keith Haring tattoo. They are punctuated with little butt pinches Lauren gave me—her way of saying thank you. After three Phish shows in New York I still don’t like Phish, but I think Lauren is wonderfully sexy for navigating the subways, so I love her even more.
In Chicago, I drink on the beach with Lauren and watch seagulls dive for things so small I don’t have names for them. I talk to other Phish Heads. I like them. I drink tons of Fireball Whiskey in a parking lot. In that parking lot, I feel excitement in my stomach like nausea. In Chicago, I dance because the music is weirdly boppable, and I’ve just gotten the swing of things. In Chicago, a hula hooper compliments something arbitrary about me and Lauren—this is because she’s on Molly, but in her happiness, she gives each of us blue, iridescent cactus necklaces. It hangs above my bed now, and I find it strange that I think about Mike Gordon every single night. In Chicago, I learn to love Phish.
I live in Alabama now, while Lauren lives in Brooklyn. Our long distance relationship is held together by the transparent glue of jam. It’s on everything. I frequent Tuscaloosa’s Grey Lady because they jam, and occasionally a DMB song slips through and I croon—$1.50 for Rolling Rocks.
I text Lauren screenshots of my treadmill playlist: Carini, Fuego, Reba, Wombat. I do this to prove just how adorably dedicated I am. How even distance won’t stop my unending efforts to like what she likes, to be the woman for her.
For Lauren’s birthday I make her a makeshift band poster using 2009 Microsoft Word. The poster, plastered with antelope galloping over geometric triangle patterns, undoubtedly breaks a copyright law that I don’t know or care to understand, but it illustrates my growing understanding of Microsoft Word, and her love for “Run Like an Antelope.”
This summer will be my seventh Bonnaroo Music Festival. It will be Lauren’s fourth. She will stand beside me as I flail to DEADMAU5, Bassnectar, Flume, Odesza, Gramatik, Tycho, and Jamie XX. She will love that my skin feels electric when she reaches out to me, that it still shocks her every time. I will kiss her neck just above her gills and she will bop, or maybe swim, to my kind of music. I’m in love with this Phish Head. No shame.