13 July 2011

The Ultimate Nostalgia Act

So, since Phish has come back I've heard a lot of people adamantly say that they are NOT a nostalgia act. While I agree they are not a tribute band nor are they the Eagles, I mostly disagree, I think they are absolutely a nostalgia act. I also think that maybe they almost always have been. I also mostly think this is a great thing and the ultimate reason why we go so nuts for the band.

If you think about it, music in general is the ultimate memory vehicle. Songs evoke nostalgia like little else in this world. I don't think I need to give you examples on this. This is especially true for a band like Phish. Maybe for Phish like no other music. Listening to shows you went to, didn't go to, poring over setlists of the past, statistics, tracking bustouts, etc.... this is all a way of capturing each tidbit of music as a memory. Behind each asterisk on the setlist is a memory, a story. Everything that's happening in the now is considered not as its own individual piece of live music, but almost entirely in the context of what's come before it as seen through the lenses of our own experiences. This is nostalgia at its most crystalline. The crazy thing about Phish is that there are memories stacked upon memories. We compare versions of songs to other versions we heard only on recording, filtering our experiences through that first impression of an impression of something we are only experiencing secondhand. Regardless, except in rare instances, we cannot experience things as they are with Phish. We can only experience them through the memories of everything else we have experienced... and since we're all so f'ing nuts, that is hours and hours of listening and dissecting and writing and arguing and listening some more. Our experience is clouded by it all.

I remember in college how tapes would filter through our little Phish community. One guy with the DAT deck would get something particularly awesome and then it would distribute its way through the rest of us very quickly. In the end, we were all listening to the same thing at essentially the same time, creating new memories from the memories of the magnetic tape. Anyway, it became like one big shared knowledge base and totally affected how we listened to the music and saw the shows we saw. I remember when everyone got their hand on the Murat Theater show from 8/93, we must have listened to that Bathtub Gin a zillion times, it completely redefined what the song could do and blew us away every time we took another ride in the bathtub. We hadn't even been to the show and yet our entire outlook on the song had been completely rearranged from nice little set closer to a major jam vehicle. The next time most of us heard the song live was at 12/30/93 and a bunch of us were clustered around the front and when they started the opening riffs I remember everyone looking at each other like... here we go, just like at the Murat Theater! We were already nostalgic for something we hadn't even experienced ourselves. That version was decent, certainly the best I had heard up to that date live and in person, but didn't come close to that Indy version. We were, to be honest, a tad disappointed.

Disappointed! It didn't live up to the memory. The memory that wasn't even "ours" technically. You know exactly the feeling I'm talking about. It's nostalgia. Everything the band has ever done is part of the collective memory and infects and controls everything the band will ever do again. You cannot consider the present without the infection of nostalgia. This is not a bad thing. It's what makes Phish more than just a band, more like the most addictive thing you've ever experienced or done. It's constantly chasing the past as we forge on in time. The thing that makes it all so interesting/confounding/annoying is that we're all nostalgic for our own experiences. Some of us are yearning for 1999 and others 1989 and everything in between. People are clamoring for "more jams!!" or"more bustouts!!" or "longer jams!" or "go back to playing that the way you used to!" We are chasing memories that we'll never relive and it's a glorious thing. Most of what I've written in this blog is the result of such nostalgia, and it fuels the road trips and the stories and the countless other outlets for our craziness.

And it's ALWAYS been that way no matter how much you want to think otherwise. There's only a handful of truly in-the-moment experiences with Phish, the first time you heard the band or realized that songs could do certain things or the band had all-caps THAT in them. Every other time after that is nostalgia.

The other side of the coin of the great nostalgia trip that is Phish is the trip itself. The places they take us, the voyage in getting there, the anecdotes that become stories that become legends. Every song from every show happening in real time generating memories that bind us together in ways we've never dreamed.

Personally, I've gone far-flung with the band, but what's most fascinating to me is the crazy weirdo places in New York State that I've seen this band and how they've reflected this life of mine which has mostly been spent in New York State: Just a couple days ago was the 19th anniversary of the HORDE show at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse. That was a nostalgic date on many levels. I've probably been to "the Fair" over twenty times in my life, it's a part of my past and present. That was also the first time I saw Widespread Panic which started a whole other musical "career" which was spent, in part, chasing that moment when I first heard and saw them, 100% new and fresh. That show was also an epic 24 hour day off from working at summer camp with a group of friends who I'm still very close with. We are constantly retelling jokes and anecdotes from those days and the amount of hilarity that ensued on that date is of epic proportions. This is what this band does to me in its nostalgic ways.

Vernon, Binghamton, Albany, Plattsburgh... if it was a dot on the weather map of my youth, chances are I've seen Phish play there... Glens Falls (where we visited my grandparents annually in my youth), Darien Lake (where my parents took me before they had big roller coasters and I wasn't big enough to ride 'em even if they were there), Syracuse Armory (the very room where my wife-to-be and I saw Phish play is where we had our rehearsal dinner several years later), and of course, Watkins Glen.

Last week I got to see Phish play in Watkins Glen on Seneca Lake. Just up the Route 14 on the lake was where I spent many summers as a camper and counselor. I'd spent many a day at Watkins Glen State Park, hiking the gorge, swimming in the massive pool there. Those summers were magical for me. Seeing Phish there with my wife, brother and sister was also pretty great. The fact that the first set was a nostalgic list of songs mostly from the early 90's was perfect. Each song was a trip down memory lane. Reba -- the first song I heard them play just a few miles away. Creature From Mars -- the Halloween t-shirt "costume" I've worn to every Halloween show. Mound -- the first Phish song I "hated," And on and on. It was all nostalgia and I wouldn't have had it any other way.


BH said...

This is dumb and you are dumb. They may be playing the best music they ever have. Stop being stupid.

Mc said...

BH I would need to read again but I didn't feel like this was a dig against the way Phish is playing now.

@neddyo great read and I have to agree that the nostalgia is a definite positive. Part of the reason I love many of the songs as much as I do is for the memories and emotions they evoke from previous times I've seen or heard them.
I'm from Va and my entire childhood, Hampton Coiliseum was "where I saw the circus." since 95 it has been The Mothership. This hoes to show that our nostalgic experiences evolve and as long as Phish continue to evolve so will my nostalgia.

neddy said...

Thanks for reading. Not hating at all, in fact, I love the way they're playing now! Make me wish I was young and dumb again so I could spend more time making new memories instead of dwelling on the old.

John said...

yeah i think this article is lame too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an insightful read. I know exactly what you are talking about and appreciate your definition of nostalgia in this context. As a late-90s initiate, I also enjoyed the "Murat Gin" anecdote. I think I had one or two similar experiences, and find it amusing that someone in the early-90s was "disappointed" ... ha! That story definitely illlustrates your point. Cheers.

Sean said...

The criticism here is dumb. Just listen to any interview with Trey, the band is an omage to the world and its music and literature.

Even if the band were to be purely "original" and better playing than ever (I don't know if they'll beat some of those turn-of-the-90s shows), they have little to stop them from sounding good when millions of people are on a continuous nostalgia spree with them, celebrating their own catalog!

The Dead also played with the same vague but palpable sense of nostalgia, which makes up much of the religious vibe we fans have toward the body of recordings. "Re-ligio" means to re-attach, to something vaguely central and spiritual, which is exactly what the band thinks whether or not the fans do. Every time a ritual in oral traditions is performed, its content is nostalgic in this sense, but always improvised because perfect representation isn't itself part of the fun!

yamar said...

The best thing about phish for me is that if you don't get it, you don't get it. For those who don't get it and disrespect the band (aka neddyo) I feel sorry for you. As one of the 30,000 people at super ball and who fell in love with phish in 1992, I wholeheartedly feel you should keep your mouth shut and jump on the Dave Matthews caravan where you clearly belong and your shiity opinions will be accepted. Until you can play bass like mike, beat on the drums like fish, have 20k people wishing for page's house or think for 1 second like Trey, I would shut up.

Anonymous said...

I simply cannot believe some people actually think Phish is playing its best music ever...??? Tightly played hit-parade, sure. Better than nothing, without any doubt. Best ever? Get serious. If you believe this is true you are a naive noob or delusional. Or both.

Anonymous said...

@BH: Thanks for sharing your obvious positivity and especially for the personal attack on the author!!! You should be so proud -- you are exactly what a good Phish fan should be! What a fine representative. JACKASS!

BTW, I have no idea who the author even is, but I do have you pegged for the a-hole you obviously are. Some Phamily... <-- though you probably have no idea what that means.

Zach said...

This is Brilliant. Thank you. I can feel your love for Phish now and forever. You hit the nail on the head.

Anonymous said...

WSP SUX you have lost credibility.

Anonymous said...

i agree on a lot of the points but its not always the case. i find new things that i love and old things that begin to annoy me. i'm not looking to hear a bathtub like one from the past... i'm looking for a totally new variation. i want to see a 20 minute ocelot or a set with no songs more than a 20 minute ghost and a set with all classics.

Phishentine said...

Great write-up on your opinion of it all! Cannot understand the negativity out here. Can't really pay attention to it though, not knowing who a single person actually is (are they on drugs, are they biased due to some other personal event going on in their life, etc).

All in all, your article makes a lot of sense on many levels.

I know you are a long-time fan, glad you are getting enjoyment out of the writing.

See you at UIC?!

n said...

Hey Neddyo,
Great post~ Not sure why this touched such a nerve with phans, but you're right on.