This essay was written in collaboration with Zachary Cohen and Andy Greenberg, the guys from Please Me Have No Regrets.com. These guys have been waxing philosophic on all things Phish in long form over on their site for about a year now. This is cross-posted on their site as well.
Why do we return, like moths to the flame, to Phish? What is it about the Phish experience that so attracts us, that underpins our fascination, our obsession, dare we say our addiction to this band? Do we even know why we keep coming back?
Fans are always primed to cite their most obvious, though not incorrect, reasons: for the music and adventure, to see friends and for the sense of belonging, for the community. But beyond these recreational pursuits, something larger looms, something more purposeful.
The common thread that binds all Phish fans together is a desire for the transcendence of self and a communion with the collective unconscious. For when we attend Phish concerts, our own sense of importance shrinks as we join a force far greater than ourselves. And though people may scoff at the word “religion,” if understood to mean simply the spiritual journey that like-minded brethren seek, our devotion to Phish approaches that of the pilgrim.
In their live concerts, Phish offers the promise that at any moment, anything can happen. And when they are at their best, “anything” often does. We come back to Phish because of this Freedom. Enmeshed in their live experience, this feeling returns us to a child-like state where our world is fresh and new and we are freed from the worries, obligations, responsibilities and ethical / moral compromises of our day to day selves. And like Peter Pan refusing to grow up, we crave to experience this “not knowing,” so that we may be able see the world anew, with fresh eyes and ears.
The energy manifested at Phish shows, both internal and conjoined, is unlike any secular experience. And this is never more true than during a free-form improvisational excursion. When Phish breaks free of their own constraints, casting aside rhythm, tempo and the harmonic structures of their songs, they untether both themselves and the audience from terra firma. It is then, when venturing into unchartered waters, that we are able to perceive the universal magic of pure ideation. During these moments, we are reminded that raw creation is the single most powerful force in the universe. Seeing, feeling, hearing, experiencing and most importantly, being a part of that process provides us with a net energy gain. This energy buffets us, providing ballast to our bodies and souls.
Shamanism and Spectacle
The four members of Phish—Trey, Mike, Page, and Fish—are modern-day Shamans who guide us on this spiritual journey. They function as vessels able to tap into and share sacred information that remains unavailable to all of us in the quotidian rhythms of our day to day lives. Our very purpose as human beings can be divined through Phish, whether we know it or not.
And this is why we keep coming back.
Though it may seem foreign to us to envision dancing, music, light, sound, even intoxicants, as tools for the elevation of the spirit, countless cultures throughout the ages have depended on these very practices; To strengthen themselves, connect with deities and promote the overall health of their communities.
The Phish show is a spectacle that serves as a breeding ground for the creation and sustaining of this energy we’ve described. We attend a show, and like Alice down the rabbit hole, or Neo opting for the blue pill, we enter a world unaccountable to the natural laws of time and space. We become frozen, arrested. We are beholden to nothing but the music, ourselves, and those around us. Phish concerts heighten our senses, attuning us to foreign, though strangely familiar, wavelengths. We hear music that has never existed and that is also strangely ancient and true.
Upon leaving a Phish concert, we are often flabbergasted to realize that the rest of the world has continued to spin, blissfully unaware of what we just experienced. And just as a deep-sea diver surfaces and has to adjust to a new pressure environment, we too must normalize after a Phish concert. Often enough it is in this between time, this interstitial, that we are most lucid and receptive to the lessons that have been bestowed upon us. This is also true after individual improvisations. All of sudden, lyrics that we long ago memorized and melodies that serve as the soundtrack of our lives take on new import and meaning. They are somehow truer and more real.
The Dissolution of the Self
The most difficult task for any musician is to play without thinking. When Phish achieves this and transcends their egos they kick open the door to a world of mammoth insights. As listeners experiencing this, we instinctually respond by sublimating our own egos so that we may fully appreciate the band’s illustrations of “What We Are;” Of what an authentic experience truly is. As the energy rises, the listener taps into harmonic, atomic truths, transcending the self in the process. It is in this moment that we feel part of something bigger than the mechanized social behemoth, with its impositions of order and bureaucracy, unnatural restrictions on our freedom. Unmoored by these limitations we are free to commune with the cosmos.
The promise of any Phish concert is that any moment anything is possible, a clear symbol and parallel with the true freedoms and fundamental nature of the universe. We are here after all, and there is nothing more marvelous to behold than existence. Music imitates G-d and / or the creation of the Universe; The relative stability of harmonic intervals mimics that of the electron orbiting the nucleus of an atom. Phish has become so familiar with their harmonic terrain that in their purest creations they function like G-d or whatever force initiated our world.
Our purest fantasies are those where we are free to create purely, like a child at play; So as we watch and participate in Phish’s creation acts we play out this fantasy of creation alongside them, alongside one another. At their best Phish are able to explain the deepest secrets of the universe by transmitting a signal that we spontaneously comprehend down through to our pores, to our very particles, the basis of our existence.
This is why we come back.Tags: Culture, The Moment