The Duality of Jon Fishman

The unique combination of stunning musicianship and silly humor that vaulted Phish to their iconic place in music history was fully embodied, all along, by their dress-clad drummer, Jon Fishman.  This dichotomy that popularized Phish can be readily illustrated by the multiple roles played by “Henrietta.”  While spending most of any given show providing the adhesive for Phish’s extra-terrestrial jamming, Fishman was just as well known for his onstage antics, tongue-in-cheek covers songs, and Electrolux vacuum solos.  A central factor in defining Phishiness, “The Greasy Troll” was both the foundation for cosmic travel and a stand-up comedian all at the same time.

hamptonphish_18_74Too often overshadowed by his zany stage presence, Fishman is a drummer to be reckoned with.  Allowing his silly persona to permeate the Phish community, Fishman could just as easily lay it down for an established jazz trio, or just about any other musical ensemble.  His versatility behind the kit was a central reason Phish explored so many musical feels, while his sub-conscious communication with Gordon consistently created one of the tightest rhythmic pockets in the business.  Trey’s Jedi guitar chops and Page’s virtuoso playing could only go so far without their cornerstone.  Yet, what was special about Fishman, was his ability to improvise and communicate with multiple band members at once.  While always glued to Gordon, Fish consistently echoed Trey, toying with, and mimicking his guitar patterns.  This dynamic created enhanced textures in which the beats not only provided the backbone for the melody, but complemented it as well.  Resulting in an extremely active musical motion, we have come to love this musical interplay, and take it for granted as Phish improv.  Fusing elements of  jazz, rock, breakbeats, funk and beyond- Fishman carved out a personal niche for himself in the drumming world.

p000056686It was not always how infectious his beats were- and they most always were- but the delicacy in which he played them.  His subtle layers of shimmering cymbals at the onset of a Slave jam; his gentle textures in the ambient intro to YEM; his precise poly-rhythms of  “Limb By Limb” or his accented grooves amidst so many “Reba”s illustrate a sophisticated, yet precise side to his playing.  While his driving groovier beats in Mike’s, Split Open, or “Tube” jams show another side of his immense talent.  Fish’s drumming is part and parcel with the dance-based experience we call Phish, and his playing is integral to our esoteric journeys.

In addition to his drumming prowess, Fishman also scribed some Phishy classics.  He is responsible for “My Sweet One,” “Kung,” “Lengthwise,” “Ha Ha Ha,” “Faht,” and “Bye Bye Foot,” while writing the lyrics to “Gumbo” and “Rock A William.” (He also co-wrote “Harpua,” “Tube,” and “Dog-Faced Boy.”) Yet, what Fishman will always be known for is not his songwriting, but his absurd on-stage antics.

10.31.95 - End of Quadrophenia

10.31.95 - End of Quadrophenia

While holding the music together with determined efficiency, his humor spiced up shows throughout Phish’s career.  His appearance, alone,  illustrated Phish’s more wacky side.  The guy rocked a dress commando- not just once, but for twenty years!  Minus some time in ’97, with his black Italian suit, this has been one of the constants in Phish’s career- their drummer wore a dress.  The drummer’s wardrobe was one of the first things that suggested to you that this was not your normal rock band.  The dress brought intrigue to that goggled monster ripping the smoothest beats you’d ever heard.

0145051What made Fish so amusing, was his ability to be serious and absolutely joking at the same time.  Throughout the band’s career, during intense jams, Fish was known for letting out howls, cat-calls, phrases, and other mutterings that signified that the band was raging.  Whether it be the midst of a ’94 Antelope or thick in the 12.30.97 “Black-Eyed Katy,” when Fish was feeling it, he let you know.

The veritable class clown of the band, Phish always made room for the late second-set Fishman Song.  Generally used as comic relief from heavy improv, these cover songs were also a gimmick that new fans walked away from the show talking about.  “Remember when the drummer with a dress came out and sang ‘Purple Rain’ like a beluga whale?”  Always introduced with the ’70’s anthems of Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up” or Foreigner’s  “Cold As Ice,” Fishman songs were his own little comedy act.  Singing a wide spectrum of classics over the years, from Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” to Syd Barret’s “Bike” and Neil Diamond’s “Crackin’ Rosie,” Fish took these compositions quasi-seriously in providing the audience with some genuine laughs.  After a bunch of shows, these interludes certainly lost their novelty (for me), but as always, Phish wasn’t just playing to one person.  Often accompanied by several laps sprinted around the stage in celebration of his song, you couldn’t help but laugh at him while high on anything.

038In Fish’s most acclaimed stunts, he would take individual solos on an Electrolux vacuum cleaner.  Admittedly a large proponent of psychedelics in his adolescence, I can only imagine an 18-year-old Fishman, tripping balls in his dorm room, perfecting the art of sucking and blowing into a vacuum cleaner for hours on end.  However over-the top they were, he always received huge ovations for his novelty contributions to the show. And every now and again, he actually got a nice little vacuum groove going.

A jester who approaches music with a self-avowed “religious attitude” and a drummer who jokes around as part of his job, Jon Fishman defines the ethos of his band.  Playing music with a humble determination and reverence, while never taking himself too seriously, Fish seeks uplift the spirits of his audience.  While sharing a playful nature with the rest of his band members, Fish is no doubt the clown-prince of the entire community.


“Love You > HYHU”  4.29.1990, Woodbury, CT                           (ABSURD Footage!)

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video


NICKNAMES: Some of the more absurd nicknames Trey has dubbed Fishman over the years are:  Norton Charlton Heston (10.25 & 11.2.96), Luke Skywalker (12/29/94), Bob Weaver (Summer ’98), Tubbs the Beast Boy (11.19.92), Sneezeblood Eyeball (6.13.95),  The Yo Yo Ma of Vacuum Cleaners (4.17.92), Moses Yastrzemski (2.7.89), Hankrietta; The Hardest Man in Show Business (11.13.91), Sammy Hagar the Horrible Horn Section (11.13.98).  The name of his alter ego for the night was always a slice of humor in its own right. (Thx to The Phish Companion)


INTERVIEW: Here is a great interview with Fishman from July 11, 1996.  In it, he discusses his love for Bob Marley, his teen-aged habit of taking two tabs of acid at 5 am so he would wake up at 7:30 ready for school, and Phish’s approach to music.  (Some nuggets of info were taken from the interview for my post.)



12.11.95 Cumberland County Civic Center, Portland ME < LINK

port2585Keeping it real with December ’95, we have Phish’s second visit to the intimate Civic Center in Portland.  Busting out “Dog Log” for the first time since ’93, Trey led the crowd in diverse renditions, claiming they were recording them for a forthcoming “Dog Log” album.  Balancing their humor with ferocious jams, this show features standout versions of “Stash,” “Reba,” “The Curtain > David Bowie,” and “Harry Hood.”  Warren Haynes joins the band for “Funky Bitch” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” to close this chilly night in Maine.

I: My Friend My Friend, Ha Ha Ha, Stash, Prince Caspian, Reba, Dog Log#, Llama, Dog Log*, Tube^, McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters, Julius, Cavern

II: The Curtain > David Bowie, The Mango Song > Fog That Surrounds, Scent of a Mule, Harry Hood, Suspicious Minds > HYHU, Funky Bitch**

E: While My Guitar Gently Weeps**

#Trey explains that they are supposedly making an album of a bunch of “Dog Log”s and they need the audience to help make different versions.  *Lounge-lizard style, along with high pitched screaming on command. ^In thanks to audience for helping with the “Dog Log” album.  **With Warren Haynes on guitar


I received an overwhelming number of requests for shows yesterday, have started a list, and will get to all of them.  (Today is the first!)

One favor, when requesting particular shows, please email me at, rather than post requests to Comments.  I will be able to keep track of your requests much more easily, and we can keep the comments for discussion. Thanks!



26 Responses to “The Duality of Jon Fishman”

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  1. Honu Says:

    Agree with most of what you wrote however you’re incorrect in writing that Fishman always stayed ‘glued’ to Mike musically. It really wasn’t until 1997 and afterwards that the band setteled into a more standard rock format of the rhythm section serving as the foundation with the melody instruments layered on top. Fishman, early on would say in interviews that he actually followed Trey and played off of what Trey did. Mike would often be Fish’s secondary musical connection and you could hear that in the early shows up to the mid 90’s. I think it actually was a better band dynamic that way because it wasn’t so conventional even if the pocket of the music suffered. They’ve become a better band but they don’t have that palatable sense of adventure that they had back then when Fish would play off of Trey. Not trying to be a @#$ by pointing this out just that it’s not quite accurate to say that Fishman was that connected with Mike throughout the band’s history.

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