My first Phish show took place Nov. 15, 1996 at the Kiel Center in St. Louis, where the St. Louis Blues play hockey. I knew next to nothing about the band, apart from what I heard on A Live One and the then-recently released Billy Breathes. It was bitter cold, as late fall often is in Missouri, and the hippie chicks wore their winter dresses — the thick, woolen patchwork things, as opposed to the thin, cotton ones they’d wear on the summer tour. A whole sea of dropouts, freaks and acidheads ambled about before the show, interspersed with the occasional older man in a Starter jacket, scalping tickets to the few who needed them and had the ability to pay. The tour kids sold grilled cheese and burritos to make enough money for bread and gas, to make it the next show and the next, living like Gypsies.
I had just turned 20, and I fit right in with the crowd, despite being unaware of the band and what it could do. When our group stepped inside the Kiel, our brains were already half-fried. The band came on and opened with “Wilson,” and the crowd’s chanting along did in the other half.
That night was known henceforth as “the ‘M’ show” among tapers, as at least one word in each song in the second set began with that letter, with the exception of the closer, “Weekapaug Groove.” I recall “McGrupp” and the “Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday” segueing into “Avenu Malkenu” back into “Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday” as being particular standouts, as well as the appearance of Blues Traveler’s John Popper halfway through a cover of the Beatles’ “Mean Mr. Mustard.” Trey Anastasio thanked the crowd at the end of the night and announced, “This show has been brought to you by the letter M and the number 420.”
Afterward, we drove the two hours back to the University of Missouri. The next day, we bought tickets for Phish’s Nov. 19 show in Kansas City, a show that featured, as far as I’m concerned, the greatest “AC/DC Bag” in the band’s history.
The next semester of college passed slowly. When it was over, I wrapped a tie-dye bandanna around my head, threw on a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses, got in my car and turned Gypsy.The next three years were a weird road to travel. I’d meet people on the tour whom I’d met the year before, in different places and sometimes under different names. One time, I sat down to a poker game in Columbia, Mo., once I had gone back to school, and across the table was a guy who the summer before had saved my place in line at the showers in a campground near the Deer Creek Music Center in Noblesville, Ind.
Even I wasn’t immune to the vagaries of the touring life. Some folks knew me as Dan, others knew me as Moses, for reasons that really are best left unwritten but have to do with a hotel party in Kansas City, a dozen police officers, the gang beating of a vicious crackhead and a midnight flight to the next show. Let it never be said that the touring life is all love and peace.
After three years of getting on and off the road, back and forth between college and concert venues throughout the country, I finally hung up my spurs after driving some 16 hours, followed by 13 hours of dead-stop traffic, to attend the band’s marathon show at South Florida’s Big Cypress Indian Reservation on New Year’s Eve, 1999. That night, after a three-set show the day before and an afternoon set on New Year’s Eve, Phish came onstage a few minutes before midnight and played for seven and a half hours, with no set breaks. When the sun came up as the band played a God-slaying version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” I stood among a sea of 85,000 people, most of whom had collapsed during the night, sleeping in the grass before the stage. But not me. I stood among the fallen, and though the band had not yet announced its hiatus or the subsequent breakup, I felt that I was seeing it for the last time, nonetheless.
I caught the group once more before its hiatus at the end of 2000, and once again between its return from hiatus and the announcement that the band would break up permanently following a final two-day festival in Coventry, Vt. By that time, I lived here in South Florida, far from the Green Mountain State. But I never harbored any doubt that I’d make it to Coventry for the shows on Aug. 14 and 15, 2004. A marathon drive up the East Coast, a couple of days freaking out in New York, and then, there was Coventry. A bad storm turned the festival site into a giant mud field. Cars could only get in one or two at a time. After 24 straight hours of dead-stop traffic, I arrived at the show with Brian Noonan, a friend who had been with me for most of my experiences with the band. The mud was a foot deep in places, as if those photos of naked, filthy hippies at Woodstock had all come to life in a writhing sea of dirt and tie-dye. Phish, drowned. But I had said goodbye to the band, for the last time, whatever it meant. I left my tie-dyed bandanna there in the mud, came home, and wrote an article headlined “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here” with the subhead “Phish Plays Final Show in Ninth Circle of Hell, Sinful Fans Remain Unrepentant.”
Four years later, Phish announced it was getting back together. My first thought: Fuck. This. Band. Did I mention the 24 hours of nonstop, bumper-to-bumper traffic I went through to say goodbye? The horror show that was Coventry? Even the crowd hadn’t been the same there, all heroin and cocaine instead of acid and grass. And now, after wallowing in the sinister hard drugs and high tides, this band had the fucking balls to get back together? You’ve got to be kidding me! There was no way I’d see them again. No way.
And then, after Phish’s Halloween festival in California, Noonan called up and said, “They’re hot, man. Better than anything since the ’90s.”
So here I am, with ticket stubs in my hand, still tied in knots over the memory that the long road ended with a menacing “plunge in the sludge,” as the band’s “Destiny Unbound” goes. But maybe that tune has it right in its final words: There isn’t even any road. Our destiny was bound.
The rocky animal trails I and so many others traveled had been blazed by others long years before, beatniks and hippies, failed seekers on a pilgrimage to nowhere, in search of meaning and community in a world with little of either. So that now, when I look back and try to write a story on what the whole trip meant, what being on the road meant, I am struck by that line. There isn’t any road. Our destiny is bound.
And I am bound for the American Airlines Arena. Because however pissed I may be that this band made a mockery of my hard-earned goodbye, it doesn’t outweigh the giddy joy I feel in seeing it again. And I know everyone will be there, in spirit if not in body –- that gorgeous, tiny blond girl who gave me a backrub in a campground outside Noblesville, Ind. The man with the long, red hair who held my place in line and lost a bad beat to me months later, flush to four of a kind. That impossibly hairy guy who was drinking nacho cheese inside the Kiel Center, the first thing I saw inside my first show. A thousand other memories that made me laugh and sigh and feel a part of something larger. There isn’t any road, because a road implies that the traveler is moving forward with a goal in mind. There isn’t any road, because for those few years, the road was the goal.
Contact Dan Sweeney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was originally published Dec. 22, 2009.