Joy in Mudville

The Phish scene's swan song


It's no use: By the time we've traversed the short but swampy distance from tent to tarmac, we're caked in mud to the knees. Still, after navigating through sheets of rain on the seven-hour drive up from Manhattan to Coventry, Vermont, and finding ourselves a campsite after being turned away from the Noachain morass of the official media campgrounds, Amy and I are delighted to be as dry as we've managed to stay. We accept that it's going to be a muddy weekend and begin making our way through the teeming hippie throngs milling about the runways of the Newport State Airport.

The horse-mounted security officers—mostly former Royal Canadian Mounted Police, I later learn—seem pleasantly unconcerned with the (technically illicit) vending of microbrews from wheeled coolers, to say nothing of the backpacked boys advertising heady nugs, doses-doses-doses, chocolate covered 'shrooms, and molly (short for the MDMA "molecule," or pure, unadulterated ecstasy—in theory, at least). People have been here for long enough that I expect the drug market to have settled on a reasonable equilibrium price, but we're not shopping. The scene's surreal enough without chemical aids.

Off to our left, some folks have set up a huge open tent looking like nothing so much as a giant onion, where an impromptu dance party is being held. A hand-lettered cardboard sign at the door instructs visitors "shoes off." A small crowd has gathered around a girl in black stretch pants and a spangled blue tank top who's doing a frenetic dervish dance with a pair of flaming ropes, which she twirls in time with the bongo-playing of a friend who sits beside their RV in a gray jacket and rolled-up jeans. Fireworks periodically whistle-up from the surrounding fields, dimmed against the sky by the batteries of floodlights mounted on cranes above the tarmac, provoking indifference or applause seemingly at random. A golf cart festooned with mylar wings, giant windsocks trailing behind it, zips past one of the official vendor booths, where a sweaty man with a long beard is adjusting a live torch to craft custom glass pipes (for tobacco use only, officer). A giant yellow chicken rolls by, and a man in glasses pops out of the top to let a few feathers flutter down to an eager girl waiting below. A little further down, jugglers and fire-eaters in turn-of-the-century garb perform for passersby on a wheeled patent-medicine cart under a sign that reads "PharmaPseudical Remo-o-Deez." At the end of the strip, among falafel stands and racks of tie-dies, a couple of guys noodle free-jazz on a makeshift mini-stage. A lone girl in a long dress contemplates them quietly from a nearby tower.

It is the beginning of the end: the night before the first of two final performances by the Vermont-based jam band Phish. If you tend to find your music on the radio, it's entirely possible you've never heard one of their songs. But over 21 years, the group has built an intensely devoted following of fans who'll spend hours debating the relative merits of favored versions of "Harry Hood"—or caravanning to the improvisational live shows that have become the focus of a nomadic community. This weekend is a measure of that devotion: Over 65,000 phans have trekked here, less than a dozen miles from the Canadian border, to bid the band farewell.

The journey is not entirely smooth for many of them. Press, mercifully, have been directed to their own entrance at the back of the airport, but at exit 26, the main route in to the venue, there are some 20 miles of cars backed up in a dead standstill. Fans waiting to get in have more or less given up on moving and set up folding chairs and picnic tables or made friends in line for a few games of pickup frisbee. The torrential rain has converted most of the site to a mudpit, rendering well over half the fields unusable. When we arrive on Friday, huge tractors are pulling even the bigger SUVs in through the mud on chains. By Saturday morning, the Vermont State Police have had enough and decide to close the exit. Bassist Mike Gordon announces on "The Bunny," the temporary radio station set up for the concert weekend, that fans still waiting on Interstate-91 are to be turned back.

Very few, of course, are deterred by this. Early arrivals had already phoned friends en route to apprise them of the mud situation, and with the news circulating by word of mouth at rest stops and gas stations up through Connecticut and Vermont, folks are prepared, with extra galoshes galore and plastic bags fixed to their feet by rubber bands. By mid morning, the phones are out again and word percolates through traffic still more quickly: There's plenty of camping space, and it's dry enough to pitch a tent.

By midday Saturday, a steady stream of fans is coming down the dirt road into the campsite with tents, sleeping bags, and whatever else they can carry strapped to their backs. Californian Wayland Bryan, who's come up with friends by way of North Carolina and Pennsylvania, explains that while many have just abandoned their cars alongside the interstate, Coventry locals have seized the entrepreneurial opportunity and posted signs offering parking on their capacious lawns for $40 or $50 per car. Others have launched impromptu taxi services. George Smith, a 63-year-old from Columbia, Missouri, whose tastes normally run more toward Benjamin Britten, says he's been to almost no rock concerts in his life. But his 16-year-old son Bram was determined to see Phish before the band called it quits, and the pair managed to flag down one of the pickup trucks ferrying folks in at $5 to $10 per person. Police later estimate that as many as 2,500 cars have been abandoned. Amazingly—if you're unfamiliar with Phish fans, anyway—everyone seems to be in high spirits. Dave Werlin, president of the band's production company, sums it up for the press late Saturday: "Despite the hardships and the hours spent in traffic, everybody seems to be in a really good mood."

That optimism and determination (so much for amotivational syndrome) can be perplexing to outsiders. But the fans are not just—perhaps not even primarily—here for the music. Phish concerts, especially massive multi-day camping festivals like Coventry, serve as foci for the staging of Temporary Autonomous Zones, like Burning Man or the Rainbow Gathering, where the rules of mundane life are temporarily suspended. One sign of this is the popularity of apolitical détournement, in the form of T-shirts co-opting commercial iconography with obscure references to Phish songs or Phish lore, silk-screened Masonic handshakes intelligible only to initiates. The Atari logo is modified to read "Axilla," the Greyhound bus company becomes "Treyhound" (a reference to front man Trey Anastasio), M.A.S.H. becomes S.T.A.S.H., Sega turns into Tela," the IBM logo is rendered to read "YEM" (a reference to the jam-heavy "You Enjoy Myself"), and so on. Unlike the brand appropriation practiced by, say, the folks at Adbusters, this is not an attempt to subvert or comment on the existing iconic world of commercial America, but rather to construct a parallel one—the familiar imagery of consumer culture as seen through a Phish-tinted glass.

That's not to say politics is entirely absent at Coventry. A group called Headcount (a pun on the term "heads" for hippies) has set up a booth near the main strip, and volunteers are circulating, attempting to register voters. One of them, 25-year-old New Yorker Rachel Beigel, avers that the group is "completely non-partisan," though she comes up blank when asked if she's run into any Republicans so far. She's a bit shocked to learn that her colleague Christine Konieczny, 22, has—"but not here; at Dave Matthews Shows." Headcount ultimately registers over 1,000 people over the course of the weekend, but they are for the most part an incongruous presence. When I meet the pair, they've just fallen short of convincing one young man to sign up: His friend instructs him to "walk away from this shit." Most are more polite than that, but even in these polarized times, it's not a terribly political scene. "In the 60s," she laments, "it wasn't about getting fucked up, it was about changing the world. A lot of that's missing now." But then, when you've done a decent job of creating a little world of your own, perhaps it's hard to get excited about changing the rest of America.

Now it's done, and while groups like moe., The String Cheese Incident, and The Disco Biscuits are likely to see their audiences swelled by the Phish diaspora, the king of jam bands has no heir apparent. That's probably in part because few bands are as successful as Phish at building such a big musical tent, synthesizing so many different styles in a sound that appealed to a variety of musical tastes. The last concerts showcased slow ballads like Fast Enough for You, the silly, Gilbert-and-Sullivan babble of "Reba", the country twang of "Poor Heart," and the jammed-out, dissonant "David Bowie." A lot of people, in short, are going to have to find something else to do with their lives.

Perhaps that's just as well. Temporary Autonomous Zones are, after all, temporary. The late philosopher Robert Nozick's vision of the best of all possible worlds began with the recognition that no possible world would be best for everyone. Instead, Nozick imagined a thin—almost anorexic—state that served as a framework for utopia, a meta-utopia within which a pluralistic assortment of voluntary communities could flourish, each with their own rules and modes of life.

Nozick's vision, though, was still of more-or-less permanent, geographically bounded communities, and it required a fairly robust commitment to laissez faire on the part of the top-level government. The roving bacchanalia that grew up around Phish had the virtue of being possible in the here-and-now by refusing to stay in one place long enough to piss off the locals much: Those dreadlocked kids were going to buy some sandwiches at the local convenience store, not stick around to peddle all manner of terrifying psychedelics to your toddler.

But the ephemeral nature of the Phish community gave it a second virtue—one that may have required not just the end of each particular tour, but of the scene as a whole. As Hakim Bey, who coined the term Temporary Autonomous Zone, observed, revolutions tend ultimately to gel in states that recapitulate all the bad traits of the ancien régime. Communitarians who long for the tight knit communities supposedly undermined by modernity's rootless cosmopolitanism might want to take a look at the Twelve Tribes, who for years have brought their giant maroon bus, The Peacemaker, to concerts by Phish and their ilk, setting up cafes serving tofu, tea, and propaganda [PDF]. The Tribesfolk are friendly enough, and they make a mean veggie wrap. But they also like their women subservient, their homosexuals closeted, and (if critics are to be believed) their children kept in line via strict corporal punishment. It's not hard to imagine tension quickly building if they remained in close quarters with this liberal crowd for more than a weekend—nor is it much of a stretch to imagine the very apartness that makes Coventry work so well for a few days soon becoming toxic.

The band members themselves seem well aware of that. Longtime fans can all recite the story of Gamehenge, a narrative in song that began as singer Anastasio's college thesis. In the tale, a retired colonel named Forbin is transported to a distant wonderland where the simple people, called Lizards, are in thrall to the evil king Wilson. The Lizards had previously lived in peace and harmony thanks to the teachings of the Helping Friendly Book, penned by the reclusive god Icculus, which Wilson has stolen. Yet when Forbin goes on a quest to find a new copy, the revolutionary leader Errand Wolfe seizes it, and as he and his band finally triumph, the familiar strains of Wilson's theme sound again.

For a band whose lyrics are characterized above all by whimsy and magical realism, it is an astute political message. Reason enough, perhaps, not to lament the passing of the band and their eclectic scene, but to sing, as Anastasio does in fan-favorite "Down With Disease," "this has all been wonderful, but now I'm on my way."