Pieces of the Big Thing
The last time I wore this vintage bootleg Phish T-shirt I wore it to a funeral.
Today is May 27, 2022, and I’m getting drunk in a hot parking lot at an entertainment megaplex on an island off the coast of Alabama, where I am spending Memorial Day weekend seeing the venerable, dorky, transcendent, irredeemable jam band Phish, who I have loved with reservation since I was a teenager; who are in their thirty-ninth year as a going concern even as I am on the eve of my fortieth; who have only ever lost one member and can still boast the four-man line-up of Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman, and Page McConnell that they’ve had since 1986 (the Grateful Dead have had as many piano players as there have ever been members of Phish); whose setlists I read like some men read box scores or the Talmud when I’m not forgetting that they exist for months or years at a time; who I will not at any point in this essay try to convince you to like, or even to listen to; who are kicking off their spring tour with a three-night stand at the Wharf Amphitheater in Orange Beach; and who are going to help me answer two questions that I first mooted as lines of casual inquiry but which have lately taken on a morbid, ecstatic urgency: Who, exactly, goes to Southern Alabama to spend Memorial Day weekend at a trio of Phish shows? And what am I doing here with them?
Or, to put it in the parlance of the band, specifically their song “Stash,” which I am hoping to hear tonight: “Was it for this my life I sought?” Anastasio, the frontman and guitarist, sings this line with a hint of snarl and when he does, the whole crowd shouts back at him, “MAYBE SO AND MAYBE NOT!” It’s scribbled in the end pages of the tenth-grade yearbook of my soul with a little drawing of a pot leaf next to it, and they’re gonna play it and I’m gonna shout it, but that’s later. First, I will tell you the story of the shirt.
In the spring of 2021, after a year of lockdown, after fires choked the sky over the whole Northwest for much of the summer and approached the city limits of Portland, where I live; after the goddamned election; after February ice storms shut the city down and left hundreds of thousands without power for a week; after the first vaccine doses became available and things seemed like they were finally—finally—getting a little better, my friend Phil shot himself in his apartment.
I didn’t know Phil well enough to know the history of his struggles with depression. The friend group through which we knew each other is a tight-knit but fairly large one, and my wife and I are relatively late additions to it. (Some of the foundational relationships go back decades.) I’d always liked Phil and assumed that I’d get to know him better as the years went by; that we’d look back one day and be old friends. I knew he had two young daughters and an ex-wife with whom he was still in amicable touch. I knew he was a pop culture junkie. He loved video games, Star Wars, The Simpsons, karaoke, and memes. I’d like to say he was a pretty good dancer but I’m not sure whether that’s true or how I’d know.
For the memorial service, attendees were requested to wear something wacky, something that would have made Phil laugh. I don’t own much wacky clothing. My first thought was of a sweet Grateful Dead Vegas 1992 T-shirt that a friend got me as a gift. It is “wacky” in that it features skeletons playing craps, but I wasn’t about to show up to a funeral home in a shirt with skeletons on it. The Phish shirt is a ring T, white with green at the sleeves and collar. The front is emblazoned with a modified version of the Gatorade logo, with the word “Gamehendge” swapped in for Gatorade and “Soul Quencher” for “Thirst Quencher.” On the back, it says “Going to make it all true for you . . .”, a garbled or possibly misheard version of a lyric from their song “Wilson,” printed in that same Gatorade green. (The “correct” line is: “I beg it all trune for you”, which is rather more inscrutable even if you have a guess as to what “trune” might mean.) The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday, colloquially “Gamehendge,” is a song suite/rock opera that Anastasio wrote while a student at Goddard College, a shaggy dog absurdist fantasia set in the psychedelic land of Gamehendge, where a tribe of people called the Lizards have long suffered under the reign of a cruel king named Wilson, and—actually, you know what? Nevermind. I’ve accrued mountains of Phish lore in my time, but please don’t mistake my fluency for devoutness. The only thing worth knowing about Gamehendge is that it was composed by an undergraduate whose major influences were Frank Zappa, Yes, Bread and Puppet Theater, the Talking Heads, and The Lord of the Rings. The Gamehendge songs became some of the earliest Phish songs and are still performed to this day, though never together as the full rock opera.
Like my Vegas Dead shirt, the Gamehendge shirt was a gift. My friend Adam sent it to me a few years ago; it still has his name written in Sharpie on the inside collar, I think because he took it to sleepaway camp one summer. He grew up in Boston and saw a billion shows before he burned out on Phish. He sold most of his vintage lot T-shirts on eBay, where there’s an avid collectors’ market, but he sent this one to me. I’ve treasured it but had never had occasion to wear it until the day I decided to wear it to Phil’s memorial, on the logic that Gamehendge/Gatorade was kind of a meme, and something Phil might have appreciated, if not on first sight then certainly after I explained it to him, which I surely would have had to do.
We sat at round tables with centerpieces that were quasi-sculptural bouquets of video game controllers, Star Wars toys, and Simpsons stickers. The T-shirts were wacky and manifold: airbrush art, horrendous faux-Western-wolf-in-the-moon-over-the-desert stuff, and a few Etsy purchases commemorating real historic memes. After the service, a bunch of us went to our friends Leathan and Sam’s house for a barbecue. They have a big backyard and a grill, and it was a nice spring day. Folks were in from out of town and, because Oregon was among the first states to fully shut down and among the last to reopen, even many of us locals hadn’t seen each other in person in over a year. Everyone’s hair was grayer and their kids were bigger. I spent a few hours chasing Leathan and Sam’s toddler in and out of his kiddie pool and the joy of being together pierced through the tragedy that had brought us together, and that was the last time I wore this Phish shirt before today.
Phish got a late start to touring this year, due in no small part to the lingering uncertainty caused by Covid. They played four nights in late February at a resort in Mexico, and they played four nights at Madison Square Garden in late April, which were themselves the rescheduled dates for their traditional New Year’s run, which was canceled at the last minute when cases spiked in December 2021.
The “Spring Tour” is eight dates between May 27 and June 5: three nights here at Orange Beach, two nights in Charleston, South Carolina, and three in Noblesville, Indiana at the storied Deer Creek Amphitheater. Then they take a month off before coming back for their “Summer Tour,” from mid-July to early September, with stops across the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest before winding things up with their traditional three- or four-night blowout at Dick’s Sporting Goods Arena in Commerce City, Colorado. I’ve been lurking on some message boards (phantasytour.com, r/phish) so I know that the fans aren’t thrilled that Orange Beach is a little (or a lot) out of the way from where they live, and from the rest of the tour. It’s ten hours from here to Charleston, and eleven from Charleston to Noblesville, with only a day off between each city. This is gonna be a hard tour to see all of, and a lot of people feel like that’s by design. The band has been moving away from the tour-rat-friendly model that the Dead pioneered, preferring instead to schedule two- and three-night runs at a given venue, then to pop up next somewhere slightly too far-flung for the average fan to follow. This seems to be a conscious effort to inconvenience the trustafarians and junkies enough that they’ll join a different fanbase. Phish wants, in short, to avoid becoming the post-“Touch of Grey” Grateful Dead, who spent the late 1980s and early 1990s on an endless succession of stadium tours, leaving a grim wake of overdoses, petty crime, and drug busts behind them wherever they want, and quite literally helping to kill Jerry Garcia, who never quite kicked his heroin habit and died at fifty-three years old in 1995. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Phish’s shift in touring strategy kicked in around the time that Anastasio—who has had his own struggles with addiction, which he seems to have beaten—turned the age that Jerry was when he died.
The other thing pissing off the fans is that the Alabama Gulf Coast is a huge tourist attraction in its own right, and Memorial Day kicks off its high season, so all the accommodations are expensive as hell. I’m staying at a Hampton Inn twenty minutes inland in an outlet mall town called Foley, and it’s still costing me $400 a night. Last but not least, there are the Alabama cops, of whom out-of-state travelers with Schedule 1 hobbies are justly afraid, though some folks on the message boards say such fear is overblown. “Don’t act like an asshole and they will not mess with you,” advise several sage locals. “If they were seriously cracking down on DUIs they’d have to arrest the whole town.” This is useful info to have but may not be as comforting as the bros on the boards seem to think it is.
For most fans, the biggest issue vis-à-vis cops is not the threat of arrest for carrying drugs, but rather for selling comestibles and wares. The Wharf Amphitheater at Orange Beach is part of a sizable entertainment complex that includes waterfront hotels, a movie theater, a marina, and an outdoor mall. The cops will enforce the megaplex’s NO VENDING policy with extreme prejudice. Their role is to uphold the dolorous power of capitalism, to be the invisible hand made visible in wraparound polarized shades and gleaming jackboots.
A big part of the experience of going to a jam band concert is spending all day in the parking lot, where you can buy food, beer, jewelry, bootleg merch, and—yes—drugs, from small vendors whose main purpose in selling stuff is to make enough money to get to the next show. The lot is a daylong tailgate party and flea market, affectionately known as “Shakedown Street,” after the Grateful Dead song. The fans on the boards have been saying for weeks that between the cost of attendance and the projected lack of a viable Shakedown Street, these shows are not worth it. They’d rather stream them at home via LivePhish, a pay-to-play option colloquially known as “couch tour.” They’d rather save up for the summer tour closer at Dick’s, where there’s camping on-site and the nearest Alabama cop is twelve hundred miles away.
With Shakedown banned, meeting people is going to be harder than I’d hoped, but I’ve got a camp chair and a cooler full of beer, which the cops can’t stop me from offering to my lot neighbors or anyone who happens to walk by. Vending may be outlawed, but tailgating is still allowed. I pop the back gate of my Subaru Crosstrek for a sun shade, crack a can of the Terrapin IPA that I picked up at Publix earlier, and hope for the best.
The first friend I make—and who in the fullness of time becomes the hero of this story—is Logan, a beautiful and extremely friendly dude with a short scruffy blonde beard and golden hair in a bun peeking out from under his baseball cap. He’s wearing a red-pink tie-dye shirt with the classic Phish logo in rainbow colors and white shorts that hit at perfectly tanned mid-thigh. He is in from New Hampshire but grew up in Alabama and plans to move back sooner or later—it’s home, you know? He’s twenty-nine, a former stonemason now working as a landscaper; his girlfriend is a lab tech. They’re here on vacation with his parents and his brother; the folks rented a condo at the Wharf for everyone. The deal is that family time goes from morning until four or five o’clock, then Logan and his girlfriend are free to come down to the lot. But she’s pregnant and has been feeling tired lately so she stayed behind at the condo. “She wasn’t pregnant when we bought the tickets,” he explains.
Logan was looking for Shakedown too, and he’s even more disappointed by its absence than I am because he really really wants to buy some drugs. He came over and said hi to me because he thought that a guy wearing an old-school shirt like mine might have a line on, at the very least, some shroom chocolates. I’m sorry to say that I can’t help him, but I’m glad that he likes the shirt. I offer Logan a beer and he accepts.
Logan says New Hampshire has been way better than Alabama for seeing music. As for the Northerners (his word)—well, they’re okay. Sometimes they say things to him about how he talks or where he’s from. He doesn’t love hearing their takes about Alabama and the South, but when I ask for examples he says he’d rather focus on the positive and reiterates that mostly it’s okay. He’s got his landscaping work and wants to see as many shows as possible while he can, which might refer again to living in New Hampshire or might be a reference to the fact that he’s going to be a father before the year is out. He’s seen Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews, James Taylor, and some band called Goose that I keep hearing people mention as the new jammy up-and-comers.
Logan says that whoever’s playing, seeing a great show is like “second church.” It is not clear if he has misspoken the word “secular,” or if he in fact means exactly what he said—that there’s church and then there’s church. “I came to all this so late,” he says, which is an odd thing to hear from a guy who is twenty-nine and has been a devoted head since he was fifteen—but then I realize he must mean late in the life of the band. (The boys are all still under sixty, but not by much.) “It’s like I’m just putting the pieces together, pieces of the Big Thing.” I can hear the capital letters in Logan’s voice. “You can go see Dave or Bisco or whoever and it’s great but Phish is like, the Big Thing, and I’m coming to it so late but every show is another piece. I get another piece of it and I’m just trying to put them together.”
Like Logan, I got into Phish, the Dead, et al. around age fifteen, and though I’ve had periods of waxing and waning interest in jam bands in general and Phish in particular, I always find my way back. Phish didn’t play any shows in Florida in 1997 or 1998, the years when I was first getting into them. But then in 1999 they announced an eighty-thousand-person New Year’s campout to be held on the Big Cypress Indian Reservation, to ring in the new millennium with five sets of music over two days, culminating in a set that would start at midnight and go until sunrise the next morning. I was a senior in high school, Big Cypress was two hours from my house, and that was my first Phish show. It made an impression.
Phish took its first hiatus in the fall of 2000, had an abortive return from 2002–2004 that I missed entirely (fans call this Phish 2.0), then went back on hiatus for five more years. When Phish 3.0 launched in 2009, I’d have told you that I was long past caring, but then that December my sister and I were bored out of our minds visiting our grandparents and I happened to see that the band was playing its New Year’s run at the American Airlines Arena (now FTX Arena) in downtown Miami instead of the usual Madison Square Garden, so we drove down from Boynton Beach and scrounged tickets to the December 28, 2009, show. I caught December 30, 2010, at MSG, but didn’t see them again until 2014 when I bought a three-day pass for the Randall’s Island shows, where an improbable mosh pit broke out during the “Character Zero” encore on July 11 and some guy fell over on me and I rolled my ankle so bad I barely walked for a week, so I couldn’t go back for the other two nights.
I hadn’t been to a show since, and indeed would not be here now but for my in-laws, who live just down the coast from Orange Beach in Pensacola, Florida. A month ago, they mentioned that their buddy owns a box at the Wharf and gives them tickets to all kinds of stuff. They’d seen Imagine Dragons and Luke Combs and plenty of other acts they didn’t know much about, so why not give Phish a shot? Since I am the director of an MFA program that meets in the summers in central Tennessee, they thought maybe I’d like to pop down for a night and go with them.
“Oh wow, that’d be something,” I said, giving absolutely no indication that I was considering coming. I didn’t think I was considering it. We all laughed it off and they gave away the seat that would have been mine to some other friend and that was that. Except then I spent the next two days in deep dialogue with my imp of the perverse, who helped me rearrange all my summer travel, buy tickets for all three nights, reserve the price-gouged hotel, and pitch this essay on the dubious premise that the collision of Gulf Coast culture and the Phish fanbase would reveal some deeper truth about America. I’ve come here hoping to find libertarian heads, Q-pilled hippies, and Northeastern liberals afraid for their lives. I figure that all I will need to do is invite people to tell me their life stories, and in fact, many people will, but nobody will say anything about politics and they will clam up any time I try to raise the subject, so I will stop raising it, and so everything I’ll learn will be by inference. Mostly what I’ll learn about is money.
I thought this was a story about politics and in the immediate sense, I was absolutely wrong. In a deeper sense, however, I was more right than I knew, because in America money is both the politics that functions as war by other means and the politics that dare not speak its name. Money is violent and money is sexual. One thing I like about Phish is that they’re neither.
A guy about my age hops out of the SUV parked next to us. I offer him a beer and Logan asks if he knows where to find “party favors,” his catchall term for whatever drugs you might be willing to part with. “Well, I got my kids,” the guy says. “So that’s a buzzkill already.” A couple more guys walk up. The new guys introduce themselves as Chase and Paul, compliment my awesome shirt, and then ask if they can use the open trunk of my car to do bumps of coke. They don’t want to do it out in the open where the cops can see. Plenty to go around, they assure us. I offer them beers and tell them they’re welcome to stick their heads in the trunk of my car, and they do, and if you’ll grant me the plausible ambiguity of the passive voice let it be said that bumps are bumped and friendships cemented and then Logan asks Paul if he can meet the dealer and Paul says sure and they leave to go find him while Chase sticks around.
Chase grew up in Destin, Florida—the heart of the so-called Redneck Riviera—then he moved to Denver, but he came home during the pandemic and decided to stay. He came to this show without a ticket and just got a free one. He’s thrilled, as well he should be. Free tickets are called “miracles” in jambandland but they’re actually fairly common. The scene runs on strong barter and gift economies, its denizens dig generosity and oppose scalping as matters of principle. Jambandland might be the only American subculture where—despite its inevitable, regrettable dependence on a certain evil corporate entertainment monopoly—you can show up broke and empty-handed and still stand a decent chance of seeing the show.
Paul comes back with Logan, who has his own bag now. He’s thrilled, too. Everyone’s thrilled! And chatty! More heads in the trunk of the Crosstrek. Logan gives me his phone number so we can meet up later. The sun is low in the sky, touching the top of the tree line like it’s balanced there, like something out of a Flannery O’Connor story—out of several of them, actually, and I try to remember the essay I read somewhere about how in her work the sun crowning the trees is a symbol of Christ’s glory, but I can’t and it doesn’t matter because the thing right now is to finish this beer, shake the coke dust from the plastic mat in my trunk, and then go inside the venue which has finally opened its doors. It is six o’clock. Phish comes on at seven-thirty.
The Wharf Amphitheater is not on the water and the water that it is not on is not the Gulf of Mexico. Orange Beach is on a narrow island barely separated from the Alabama mainland by Portage Creek. The amphitheater is built on marshland and tucked away among densely planted stands of pine trees. If you look at it on Google Maps you can see how small these stands are, but from ground level, it feels like you’re in the forest. After you go through the security checkpoint, you follow a raised boardwalk surrounded by looming trees; frogs croak and insects buzz and it’s magical. The mall and the cops and sundry hassles of the day disappear, and then a nice woman in a yellow vest scans your ticket and you’re set loose into a serviceable concrete bowl full of long metal benches, still a good hour until show time, not much to do other than grab a tallboy that’s a bargain at eight dollars and find your seat and take a load off and don’t drink the beer too fast and watch the sun give blazing glory to the trees it has dipped behind, which is or is not Christ’s glory, and think about how great it is to be here and what you hope they’ll play, which for me includes “Stash,” “Piper,” “Ghost,” “The Divided Sky,” and “Tweezer.” This isn’t a list of all-time favorites; on another run, I might pick five different songs. This is just where my head’s at right now, what it feels like the vibe is likely to yield, and it gives me a sense of skin in the game, like joining a March Madness pool with a five-dollar buy-in. It’d be nice to win, sure, but most of the fun is in making the bracket.
They open with “Twist” and jam it out for thirteen minutes, which is uncommonly long for a set opener, much less a set one opener, though it’s not that uncommon these days, or even particularly long. Since they came back from Covid-hiatus, they’ve been in the habit of kicking off shows with big jams rather than building up to them. Their core stability in personnel and musical ethos notwithstanding, Phish has always been a restless, protean band. The big-jam-first era is only the latest in a succession of phases and fancies that has included cow funk, ambient jams, band vs. audience chess matches, everyone switching instruments mid-jam, acoustic sets, bluegrass sets, an annoying delay loop siren, jamming while jumping on trampolines, and a cappella barbershop renditions of “Hello, My Baby.”
At the climax of the first set they play “Stash” and we all do the screaming-back-at-Trey thing, and this would be a great place to close the circle I opened in my intro, draw a conclusion and call it a day, except that it’s only the first set of two on the first night of three, so I will be denied the aesthetic conveniences of symmetry and thematic closure, and settle for having a good buzz going at a very fun rock concert, celebrating a fine rendition of “Stash” that is also, happily, the first pick from my bracket to hit.
Set two kicks off with “Llama,” a classic song from the Gamehendge suite. It’s about riding a llama. “Llama” is a fast song with a punk energy to it. The lyrics are spat as much as sung, there’s a fiery piano part, a quick guitar solo, and that’s pretty much “Llama.” So it’s a big jolt to the crowd when they bust out their massively slowed-down version of “Llama,” aka “Slow Llama,” which they’ve only played twice before in the three-decade history of this song. I prefer the fast version but it’s exciting to be on hand for such a rarity. I feel like catching an elusive Pokémon or witnessing an eclipse.
Next, they play “Soul Planet,” a cloying triumphalist anthem to perseverance and the human spirit. Anastasio has been writing these ever since he got sober and they can be pretty unbearable, at least in terms of lyrics (“And there’s one big ocean / And the ocean is love”), but he’s apparently not going to stop. One way the band has brought its reticent fanbase around to this new material is by jamming the ever-loving fuck out of it instead of letting it languish as a four-minute Hallmark card. That’s what they do with “Soul Planet” for the next twenty minutes, and I hereby confess that they got me; I am ready to believe “the wind is the music on the soul planet”—and the ocean is love. Okay sure, why not?
Would that the guys behind me got the message. They are having a bitter argument that seems to be on the verge of violence. They’re in their late fifties. One is tall and skinny while the other is short and thick in a damp blue Polo shirt and khaki cargoes that go past his knees. They’re fighting over the change from the cash that the short guy gave to the tall guy to buy them pizza. The short guy thinks the tall guy may have ripped him off for as much as ten dollars and now things have escalated to an existential level.
“I hate liars,” the short guy says. “You man, you are the scum of the earth.” He sounds exactly like Danny McBride on The Righteous Gemstones. “After the show, I’ll take you back so you can get your things but then I never want to see you again, because I hate you.”
Since I’m trying to stick with the band and not the fight, I don’t follow all of the drunken back and forth but I can tell you that at a certain point I start to think the tall guy really did take the money. He has that desperation to be believed that only liars have, like he needs you to reflect his lie back to him so he can start to believe it himself. The short guy throws his pizza down and I think the fight is about to start, but instead he bolts out of the row and makes for the hallway. The tall guy runs after him. They’re gone a long time. When they finally come back things are patched up somehow. They’re buddies again. The night is saved! The band meanwhile has moved on from “Soul Planet” to “Ghost,” a cool weird song about a ghost and—hey!—my second pick to hit.
The tall guy, no longer at risk of exile, is now having a great time. He’s keyed into the jam and finds himself looking for a surface on which to drum along with drummer Jon Fishman, beating out patterns with his pointer fingers. Two problems: one, Jon Fishman is one of the most talented drummers alive today, almost impossible to keep up with even if you were also one of the most talented drummers alive today, which the tall guy isn’t; two, the tall guy is using for his drum kit the back and shoulders of the person standing in front of him, who is me.
I turn around to face him and he seems shocked to realize I am an actual person, indeed a significantly younger man with a pissed-off look on my face. I would never start a physical altercation with this sad broken buffoon but he has no way of knowing that and I can see his whole life laid bare in his pleading eyes: a self-sabotaging loser to whom nothing good ever happens and who, on those rare instances when he has gotten out of cosmic Dutch, will immediately pull the rug out from under himself and land on his ass or his head or in jail or at the mercy of guys like this short fascist fuck to whom he has attached himself and at whose pleasure he apparently will or won’t have a place to stay tonight.
“Great show, huh?” I say to the tall guy. I flash a big smile. He looks like he’s about to cry in relief. “Oh yeah!” he says. I turn back around and he stops playing drums on my back and the band eventually comes out of deep space to play “Chalk Dust Torture,” a song about how cocaine is great but also sometimes not so great. They close with the Rolling Stones’ “Loving Cup” and we all pump our fists and sing along.
After the encore, I make my sweaty, elated way along the boardwalk back through the dark forest and am blasted by floodlights when I hit the lot. A pale girl walks by wearing a black bikini top, black jeans shorts, and black leggings. She’s carrying a studded black leather bag and handing out business cards and when she gets close I can see she’s kinda banged-up, like this is her third or fourth late night this week and one or two of the previous late nights might have involved some meth. She’s backcountry goth and I’m sure she wasn’t at the show. “Nitrous delivery,” she’s mumbling like a mantra as she hands out her cards. At first, I can’t figure out what she means. Do you call the number and then they roll the tank over to your car? No. I realize she must mean delivery to your hotel or Airbnb. They’ll fill the balloons and bring them to you, a Doordash for minor brain death.
I’ve heard tell of an after-party at a bar called The Undertow, just five minutes down Canal Road from the Wharf, but the thought of it is exhausting, and I’m already exhausted; I’m going back to my hotel.
Yesterday I was in the premium lot but today I’m in the free lot, which is farther away from the main gate. It’s also much bigger than the paid lot. There’s one dude bravely selling plastic Mardi Gras beads shaped like fish. It seems like he’s waiting to break out more stuff but he never does. Some guys are flying a flag of the Seal of the State of Florida with Jon Fishman donuts where the neo-Confederate X usually goes.
(Quick guide for the perplexed: One night early in the band’s career, Jon Fishman found a sleeveless purple sundress with a pattern of thick red circles on it in a pile of clothes some friends had picked up at a Salvation Army. He wore it on stage as a gag. The next night, when he showed up in regular clothes, Anastasio asked him, “Where’s the dress?” so he went home and got it, then stuck to the bit for fifteen years. During a brief spell in the late 1990s he tried out three-piece suits, but by that point, the dress had become a good luck charm for the band and a crucial piece of lore for the fans. So he put it back on. The Fishman donut is easily Phish’s most iconic piece of branding: this weekend I’ll see it on socks, shirts, fanny packs, license plate frames, sunglasses frames, and bikini tops.)
My in-laws are coming to the show tonight, but they’re not here yet, so I’m tailgating alone and learning that I have made a significant tactical error by not wearing a conversation-starting T-shirt like I did yesterday. I’m wearing a plain gray T-shirt that makes me look like exactly who and what I am: a middle-aged man drinking by himself in the shadow of a Subaru in the middle of the day. Logan texted earlier and said he’d come by with his girlfriend but they seem to have ghosted me. Oh well.
There is a Honda Civic parked directly behind me: cracked windshield, all kinds of crap in the backseat. It looks like someone lives in it, or lived in it for a while and then moved on. It does not compute that someone got up this morning and drove this car here. Its owner sets his camp chair uncomfortably close to mine because, he says, he wants to catch some of the shade from the back gate of my car. I say he’s welcome to it, which is my way of acknowledging that he hasn’t asked. He does not have a ticket for tonight’s show. He has heard they’re going for cheap but he can’t figure out who to ask. It’s his first show. He’s seen Dave Matthews and Widespread Panic but not these guys. He just heard they were playing and had to come. He’s drinking something called Body Armor. His slur and/or accent render his speech nearly incomprehensible. I can’t tell if he’s still recovering from whatever he did last night or if he’s already blitzed out of his mind. He tells a lurid story about his ex-wife, long pauses in weird places, like maybe he’s waiting for me to ask if there are pictures on his phone. He’s wearing a necklace of the fish-shaped Mardi Gras beads from the one functioning merch table. Everything about him radiates creepiness and skeeze. I realize he hasn’t said his name and I don’t ask because I don’t want to know it. This pulsing void, this walking darkness. I wish he’d dematerialize before he calls down the devil like a lightning rod.
And then, as if fears were wishes, the devil appears in the form of a text from my friend Matt. Matt’s brother went missing in Portland last week and a couple of days ago his car was found in Forest Park. This morning the police swept the park and recovered his brother’s body. I tell Matt I’m so sorry. I tell him I send my love. I think of Phil’s funeral, how we held each other then, when we were both part of the supporting cast of tragedy, the mourners’ chorus, and how now Matt’s been thrust into center stage for the big solo of loss and rage and bafflement and grief. I think of my father, who seriously considered suicide twice that I know of and attempted it once; who survived only to die, horribly, from Parkinson’s in 2017. I realize that Matt’s brother is the sixth person I know to have died by their own hand since the start of the pandemic. I’d like to call Matt and talk to him but he has a million other calls to make, and I’m stuck here with Honda Creep, who is still sitting uncomfortably close to me and now is babbling about an oyster farm he used to own and the last time his aunt called the cops on him, and it feels like all this death is his fault, and I’d like to make him pay somehow. But of course, that’s lunacy and anyway my phone buzzes again and this time it’s my in-laws letting me know that they’ve arrived. I tell Honda Creep I need to meet my family. “Okay yeah, okay,” he says, like he doesn’t quite believe me but is used to being ditched on pretexts thinner than this one. I give him a PBR as a parting gift. I lock my car and find my in-laws in the VIP lot. I don’t tell them about Matt’s brother. We take a selfie to send to my wife: here we are, the three of us on the tailgate of her father’s F-150, hoisting beers and grinning in the bright warm beautiful light of a perfect Southern summer afternoon.
We enter the venue as soon as the doors open. The in-laws go in through the VIP gate and they have the VIP area to hang out in, but the free food in there isn’t too exciting so they come out and meet me in gen pop. Their box is a small fenced-off area between the mezzanine bleachers and the standing-room-only pit. They’re nice seats but not much better than mine. The main advantage of the box is you get the VIP entrance, a chair with a back, and a waitress who comes by to take your drink orders.
Set one opens with another big jam: a “Sigma Oasis” that at nineteen robust minutes will turn out to be the longest jam of the night, barely edging out a cover of TV on the Radio’s “Golden Age” that’ll be the centerpiece of set two, and the lead-in to one of my favorite sequences of the weekend: “What’s the Use?”; “The Moma Dance”; “If I Could”; “Run Like An Antelope.” This last is a chicken-fried prog rock goof that starts out laconic only to build through cyclical jams toward full-on guitar god rampage before stopping on a dime so Trey can dispense some dubious wisdom—“Set the gear shift to the high gear of your soul / You’ve got to run like an antelope out of control”—that he wrote back in the days when he still thought dubious wisdom was the only kind worth dispensing.
Unfortunately, the in-laws miss the whole “Golden Age”-to-“Antelope” sequence. They said at set break that they were having a great time, but they also reminded me that they had to drive back to Pensacola. They were very impressed that the band plays two sets themselves instead of having open acts, and they said that the light show might be the best one they’ve ever seen. It blew their minds when I told them that the lights were often improvised just like the music, by a guy named Chris Kuroda, who has been with Phish since 1989. (It blows my mind, too, still. You could hate this music with every fiber of your being and still be ready to give Chris Kuroda a MacArthur “genius” grant for what he achieves with his light rig.) All that notwithstanding, they left three songs into the second set, after a cover of the James Gang’s “Walk Away,” and so could quite possibly be home and in bed by the time I get back to the parking lot and am relieved to see that Honda Creep’s Honda is already gone. I’m about to drive back to the hotel when my imp of the perverse pipes up. Since he’s the only company I’ve got right now I decide to hear him out. Fuck it, the imp says. It’s Saturday night.
The Undertow is in a strip mall and some of the first people I meet here weren’t even at the Phish show. Wayne and his girlfriend, Danielle, for instance, drove in from New Orleans just to see The Iceman Special, the after-party band. There’s a nitrous tank somewhere just out of sight. I can’t figure out where exactly, but it hisses and hisses, and balloon after balloon keeps appearing. I’m not even inside yet. The door guy is also the band’s manager, he tells me, or I hear someone say. I give him fifteen bucks and he stamps my wrist.
Lincoln is a surgical resident at a medical school in Nashville. He’ll be a full surgeon in about three weeks, and then he’s moving to Savannah. He’s here with his friend whose name I don’t remember or possibly never learned. They’re both on the verge of falling over. Lincoln keeps giving me fist bumps. This girl comes over and is really into him. She isn’t so steady herself. Lincoln keeps demurring and eventually, she gets the hint, starts talking to me instead. Swaying into me and all that. But I’m an altar boy as far as she’s concerned and Lincoln’s friend also turns her down so now she’s zero for three and pissed at us, thinks we suck. She storms off. But then she comes back and keeps coming back, to see if anything is different. I think of Alec Baldwin haranguing the salesmen in Glengarry Glenn Ross: “Your name is your wanting.” That’s her. But of whom here at The Undertow is that not true?
If this is, as I said earlier, a story about money, then it bears mention that Lincoln is the first person I’ve met this weekend other than my own in-laws who has any. There’s an easiness to him, a confidence he projects despite the smoke and chaos in this room and how wasted he is. He’d like it if this band ruled, he might even be open to meeting a girl (some other girl) but he doesn’t need these things to happen—he doesn’t need anything—and that gives him a tactical advantage over the night itself.
The name of my wanting, meanwhile, is Cigarette. I’ve known since I booked this trip that at some point I would break down and have one. Teasing myself with the waiting has been part of the pleasure and I’ve made that tease last two full days and nights. But now I’m here alone at this trash bar and I’m ready. It’s my time. Unfortunately, my new friend and his friend are both pulling from digital vapes. I step outside into a circle of smokers all of whom, to a one, tell me that they cannot spare any of their meager stash because there’s nowhere around here to re-up. Deflated, I turn to see a dude with large triangular hair, like a Cathy comic if Cathy were a redheaded jam band bro with a sweet goatee. He has cigs and I am certain that he either watched me get shot down or simply psychically senses my ask. He is ready for me and I could hug him; I almost do.
Instead of hugging him, I offer him a dollar for the smoke. He declines. He says to add it to my next tip to the bartender. I promise I will. He tells me that he bartended for thirteen years. Both his parents worked in restaurants and bars. He describes himself as having “grown up in the services,” which I guess means the service industry. We smoke and chat and he says he didn’t see Phish, he drove in from New Orleans just to see the Iceman Special. I suddenly can’t remember if this is Wayne, who I met earlier, or a different guy who also drove in from New Orleans to see Iceman. If he isn’t the same guy he might as well be.
When I get back inside, Lincoln and his friend have commandeered a high-top table and saved me a seat. The sad girl is still coming by. Lincoln’s got her running little missions to get him and his buddy nitrous balloons. There’s a young Black man in a spotless white T-shirt walking around with eight or ten balloons in his hands, selling them for I think five dollars a pop. Lincoln buys them two at a time. The table fills with their pink deflated bodies like clown condoms. Behind us a gorgeous girl in donut print tights is pool sharking a couple of guys wearing donut print headbands, to their absolute delight. She has the shibboleth splayed across her ass and shows them no mercy whatsoever, and what else could you ask for at a bar called The Undertow, here on Canal Road, in the heart of the heart of Saturday night at the literal and conceptual bottom of Alabama? She deserves the Medal of Honor. I’m going back outside.
Jeremy is a master electrician who lives outside of Atlanta. He says he doesn’t really like Georgia but needs to be near his son. A certain tone on need makes me think it might be court order rather than preference, but who knows? He’s laughing and swaying, talking about how fast that shit will kill you. Electricity, he means. “It just wants the easiest path,” he says. “And that can be you.” Jeremy is thirty years old at most; he might be twenty-five. He’s wearing a black shirt with a picture of Einstein on the front. On the back it says that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Another guy says that the words on the shirt are so profound. He loves Jeremy’s shirt, man, it’s amazing. Where did Jeremy get it? Jeremy names some department store, possibly Target. “Amazing,” the amazed guy says.
The Iceman Special come on at twelve-thirty. Cops show up almost immediately, and for a minute it seems like we’re all going to jail. Nitrous balloons are everywhere, half the staff is huffing. The music cuts out and the cops frisk the merch guy. Then, as suddenly as they came, they go, and nary a bust made. The music and the nitrous tank both fire back up. Someone tells me later that the tank was so well-hidden the cops couldn’t find it and that’s why they had to go: no proof. That seems less than likely. I assume the cops came here to convey some message of caution to the staff about the limits of what they’re willing to overlook. Maybe they also came to collect their kickback. I’ll never know.
I finish what I’ve decided will be my last drink of the night and then I drink a glass of water. I watch the sloshy crowd slosh around in the evil blue and purple lasers raking the smoggy room. The more water I drink the less I want to be here alone with my thoughts among these ridiculous people, these lifers. They’re on their night off from work, from childcare, elder care. They’re breaking parole and getting away with it, at least so far. They’re living with their parents just till, you know, things settle down. They’re on their first vacation in five years, their last for who knows how long. They’re sucking gas and shooting Fireball, chasing tail and oblivion; these proles with their premature frown lines when they smile, teeth that testify to how hard their lives have been, telling sad stories in happy accents slurred to pudding. The last thing these people need is me hanging around to catch them in the cheap flash bulb of my attention, watching as they are degraded by their desperation or their pleasure, by desires met or not met, by the way their wanting names them and what their true names are. The recording angel is a pornographer; I’ve got them all on the casting couch and they don’t even know.
When the band takes its set break at one-thirty I go outside and run back into Jeremy the master electrician, maybe-Wayne, and probably-Danielle. I say goodnight to them.
“Are you sure?” probably-Danielle asks. “They’re gonna come back on.”
Which I know. That’s why I’m going. My self-disgust and indifference toward this band notwithstanding, the fact is that if I hear that second set start I will definitely go back inside and if I do that I will stay to the end. I don’t want to be offered any more nitrous balloons because I am running out of reasons to decline them and I do not want to be here or anywhere near here when this show lets out at three in the morning. I don’t want to be on the road with these drivers. I don’t want to get invited to wherever the after-after-party is.
Because, God help me, I would go.
It rains so hard for the first half of the day that I start to worry the show is going to be canceled. Eventually, the weather breaks. I’m wearing my Vegas Dead 1992 shirt so people will think I’m cool. I had plans to meet up with Logan today. He has reached out several times via text and phone call to confirm these plans but now seems to be ghosting me again, possibly because I declined when he attempted to enlist me in the quest for party favors. I told him I was sticking to the beers in my cooler and would be parked in the same spot as on Friday (back in the premium lot!) and that I hoped to see him. He said he’d come by at five-thirty and that I’d finally get to meet his girlfriend. That was an hour ago now.
The doors are open and I could go in but my seat tonight is at the back of the upper deck and I’m pretty bummed out about ending my run this way. Phish fans have a saying (inherited from the Dead): “Never miss a Sunday show.” Standalone Sunday shows are extremely rare, so if a Sunday is on the tour calendar it’s probably the last night of a multi-night run, which means that the band is comfortable in the venue; the odds of certain songs appearing is higher (and more predictable) because you can look at what they’ve already played that weekend; and the crowd will be a little smaller because so many people have to get back to prep for work on Monday, which means that there’s going to be shorter lines for everything, more room to dance in the pit, and that the band is going to reward the fans who did what they had to do in order to be there on a Sunday night.
After what I’ve seen here on Friday and Saturday, I’m ready to believe all of this. I believe that they’re gonna play my “Tweezer,” a song—natch—about a tweezer, a freezer, and a guy named Uncle Ebenezer. (Don’t start with me.) I’m about to give up and go in alone to find my crappy seat when—like a miracle and with a miracle—Logan appears. Flying solo again. “Sweet shirt,” he says, referring to Vegas Dead 1992. “Were you there?”
“I was ten,” I say.
“Still,” he says. “Woulda been pretty cool.”
Logan didn’t find party favors but he swiped two joints from his brother and that’s a start. With the beers in my cooler, he feels like we might be okay. Logan said that I would meet his girlfriend tonight but she’s feeling tired again and isn’t coming. He has a pair of pit tickets—do I want the other one? Yes! More than he could possibly imagine. I ask him how much and he says nothing, his girlfriend said to just make sure it went to good use, and as far as he’s concerned I fit that bill.
On the way into the venue, and then again when we get into the pit, someone tries to buy my Vegas Dead shirt off my back. The first guy is casual about it, might even be joking, but the second guy offers me $150 and stands there waiting to see if I’ll take it off. We walk away.
I buy Logan a beer to thank him for my ticket. We’ve been hanging out for about an hour now and have basically run out of things to say to each other, so we’re reiterating how rad the whole weekend has been, then we move on to guessing about what songs they’ll play tonight. I share my bracket, noting proudly that I went two for five on night one (last night was a shut-out, but never mind that) and Logan shares that he really really really wants to hear a Gamehendge. He wants them to play the complete rock opera. He says this several times.
At first, I wonder if Logan is saying this because I wore the Gamehendge shirt on Friday, but who am I kidding? This dude has no idea what shirt I was wearing on Friday. He wouldn’t know my name if it wasn’t saved in his phone. He’s saying this because he means it with all of his beautiful innocent heart, and I can’t bring myself to tell him it isn’t going to happen, because they haven’t played a full Gamehendge since 1994, and if by some miracle they had been planning to bust out the ultimate rarity, they wouldn’t have played “Llama” on Friday or “AC/DC Bag” last night because those are part of the suite and the one thing Phish won’t ever do is repeat songs during a run.
As the sun sets behind the tree line and the pre-show energy builds, Logan tells me again how happy his girlfriend is that I took her ticket. It means a lot to her that someone who really cares is getting to use it, since she is not a huge fan. “I brought her into this,” he says, meaning the scene or perhaps the life. There’s awe in his voice; he’s so amazed that she came with him. (“Came with him” in the grand sense; in the immediate sense, of course, she didn’t come with him: I did.) Most of the women I’ve encountered this weekend are here primarily as an indulgence to their boyfriends or husbands. That isn’t to say that they won’t have a good time, or that they don’t “get” the music—I’m aware that misogyny within the jam band scene is a real issue, one I have no desire to compound by erasing the existence of autonomous, engaged female jam fans, who really do exist—but with that proviso firmly in place, I would guess that fully half of the women at this concert would, if they had their druthers, be somewhere else right now.
The show begins. Logan’s brother’s joints are dispatched with dispatch. Let it suffice to say that an hour and change of jams are jammed. As the night goes on and people give ground in the pit, we make steady progress toward the front. When set two kicks off we’re almost at the rail: I can feel Mike’s bass notes in my sternum; I can see Trey’s fingers moving on the frets of his guitar. They open with “The Landlady,” a pithy piano-driven instrumental, and then they kick into the “Tweezer” that I’ve been pining for all weekend.
You can say all kinds of snide things about Phish: their aesthetics, their fans, their scene. I’ve said some of them myself. I don’t care whether you believe those things and I don’t care whether you believe what I’m about to say. Each of these four guys is among the best living musicians to play his respective instrument, and when they play together they bring forty years of friendship and work and mistakes and solidarity and inside jokes and love and belief and inertia and trust and joy; they bring it all together and stand up there together making it all true for us and for themselves, dreaming a shared future into evanescent presence note by note and song by song. I’ve never encountered anything else remotely like it in this world, I have no reason to believe that I ever will, and the fact that it’s all a little stupid only makes me love it more.
When “Tweezer” wraps up some twenty-two minutes later it is officially the longest jam of the Orange Beach run. The rest of the set goes by in a blur—a funky “Wolfman’s Brother” gives way to some boring ballad I’ve never heard before; things kick back into high gear for the taut paranoiac “Maze” and then “Harry Hood,” a song I would have picked for my bracket if I hadn’t been so certain of its being played that choosing it felt like wasting a wish. They encore one more ballad before bringing the house down with “Tweezer Reprise.”
When the lights go up I turn to Logan but he’s gone. It’s possible he bugged out early to check on his pregnant girlfriend. It’s possible he’s in this sea of people somewhere, that he’s made new friends. Well, he made my night, my whole weekend really, and there was nothing left to say to him but thank you, which I’ve already said about a hundred times. His number is still saved in my phone, but I don’t expect to ever talk to or see him again. Or maybe I’ll see him in some lot a year or two from now, with a baby strapped to his chest in a donut print Björn.
I stop by the merch table. I buy an official T-shirt. I walk back through marsh darkness to my car, and dump the ice melt from my cooler into the dirt. The show buzz is fading but it’s not yet gone. Goodbye to all the landscapers and electricians, the aged Gen X’ers in their flaccid anger and the two-time losers clinging like suckerfish to their sweaty sides. Goodbye to Honda Creep and the sad girl who couldn’t get laid, and all the patient women “brought into this” by day-laboring puppy dog men. Goodbye to the man my father’s age who sat alone wearing a shirt that said “DON’T FAUCI MY FLORIDA” and kept taking pictures of himself while life whirled on around him. Goodbye to Logan, Lincoln, Chase, and Paul; Danielle and Jeremy and maybe-Wayne; Trey, Mike, Page, and Jon.
I’m going back to my lonesome hotel to sleep cosseted in my king bed for a few precious hours, because tomorrow I light out early, headed north for Nashville to spend a day with my mother and my cousins before I head off to be an adult again, to say hello to my title—director of the MFA Program—and my off-the-rack Nordstrom sport coat. Hello to the advancement office, facilities management, and the wellness center; to turning forty and throwing my back out while trying to do a ten-minute core crush on the Peloton app. But hello first to smoked pork wings at the meat-and-three in Durbin, Alabama. Hello to seven hours of podcasts and the basket of peaches I’ll pick up at a farmer’s market for my mom. And hello to cousin Ava, sixteen years old and curled up on the couch with her phone and who, when I tell her I have just spent Memorial Day weekend at three Phish shows will roll her eyes and say, “Omigod, why?”
“You’ll understand when you’re older,” I will tell her, grinning, and it will feel great to say even though by then I will know that it isn’t true.