Now that both Olympic and Paralympic Games have closed, all eyes look to the next Olympic Games, Paris 2024. During the closing ceremonies they played a hype video to get you excited for France and it did not disappoint.
An equally impressive performance was shown at the closing ceremonies of the paraolympics.
I’m writing this in case I’m asked why I took nearly a week off to attend a three-day concert all the way on the other side of the country in central Washington. I want something I can send out that satisfies and hopefully inspires people to dig in to learn a little more about this band that drew me there, Phish.
I enjoy improvisational instrumental music. Not anything too rigid such as classical, nor as completely loose as avant-garde jazz. The attraction of jam bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish is that they have set structures that, after multiple listens, lay out the confines so you can appreciate how skillfully the band can diverge, explore, then return to a song’s structure.
While the music is the language of the conversation between the band and its fans, there’s also the atmosphere of a live concert that must be experienced in person to appreciate. I’ve been to many Grateful Dead shows between 1985 and the early-90s but stopped seeing them after the crowds became unwieldy with too many fans showing up for the party scene, less interested in the music or even musicians.
After Jerry Garcia passed away, a friend took me to see Phish play in Sacramento. The music sounded frenetic to my ears so used to the loping strut of so many Dead songs but I was intrigued and could see there was something to explore.
The next time I saw the band live was several years later for two dates in Tokyo. The fans that rolled into Japan brought an energy and joy of life with them that was palpable and infectious. While it was misty during the beginning of an outdoor concert in Hibiya, the clouds later parted and (I’m not making this up) a rainbow appeared.
It’s the lore passed down over the years by the wise elders to the newly arrived that sustain the fan culture. Phish “phans” are refreshingly welcoming and positive about what life sends their way. Yet their philosophy is not blindly optimistic, they know you also need a quirky sense of humor to roll through an unfortunate setback and come out with a good story that finds the silver lining or lesson learned.
The band feeds this quirky sense of humor. What other band would spend Halloween playing entire albums as their costume? Over the years they have covered classics such as the White Album, Quadrophenia, the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and many more. Then, after that became too routine, the band set up an elaborate Halloween prank by playing a fictional album by a fictional Scandinavian rock band complete with a backstory outlined in a pamphlet handed out at the show, fake music reviews, and fan sites to dupe their audience further.
I’ve only begun to dig into the lyrics of Phish’s music. There’s a lot of play on words, a song’s chorus of “moment ends” transforms into the song’s curious title, Moma Dance. NICU comes from the phrase “and I see you.” Finally there is The Mango Song, which I heard this past weekend. Why is an entire crowd of 30,000 belting out at the top of their lungs, “Your hands and feet are mangos, you’re going to be a genius anyway!” and what the heck is that about? Look it up.
There are so many threads to pull on in their music it’ll take a lifetime to unpack it all. During a 13-night residency at Madison Square Garden, Phish played 237 songs, no repeats. Like the stat nerd baseball fans, there’s an entire stat culture around Phish’s music that goes as deep as you want. Most of it lives on phish.net where the complete setlist of every concert and side project lives in its fan-built database. Register an account and tick off the concerts you attended and you’ll get a complete set of stats showing you how long it’s been since you’ve heard Ocelot or the probability of seeing Bouncing Around the Room at your next show.
During each tour, there’s a fantasy-football type game around trying to guess which songs will open or close out a set and phans post their picks and tally up their totals in a master google doc. While all this existed with pen and paper while I was seeing the Grateful Dead, usenet and basic websites is all we had to exchange information.
There is a robust community of traders who upload and share digital recordings and an app from which to stream the collective archive hosted generously by the Internet Archive. There are song-by-song analysis of each concert in a podcast and even a guy on YouTube having a good time doing the rundown of each night in the style of NBC’s political stats guy, Steve Kornacki.
As for official channels, there is the Live Phish site and its premium version which unlocks the entire soundboard archive. The band also uploads the soundboard recording of every show and gives away to everyone at the show with an individualized download code on each ticket so people can re-live the concert afterwards and the band can register new fans and convert someone who bought a ticket into a fan who starts to explore their music.
As with any experiential business, there are tiers built into their business model. For those that could not afford the time or money to tour to each city the band plays on a tour, you could listen along in the premium Live Phish+ and hear each concert the following day to hear how the band worked through their sets over the course of their tour as they made their way to where I was to see them at The Gorge this past weekend.
Reviewers of the tour spoke of “couch touring” which is, as it sounds” experiencing the tour from the comfort of your home. This is made possible by a package of video streams the band has been teasing on their YouTube channel and making available in full with a special $440 package.
When I asked someone about the lengths you can go to experience the band I learned about annual Mexico dates they started to play a couple years ago down in Cancun. For anywhere from $3000 – $12,000 a head you can spend a week at an all-inclusive resort where waiters will come and deliver your margarita to you as you dance on the beach. And I thought renting an RV and parking in the Gold Lot was bougie!
So back to the original question – why three days and why fly all the way to Seattle? First off, I bought the tickets pre-pandemic when the flight from the Bay Area was just a quick hop. Second, the plan was to meet a couple friends who were flying in from Japan that I hadn’t seen in years. Finally, I’ve heard that the venue, The Gorge, is life-changing and something that needs to be experienced in person to appreciate.
The journey out here isn’t easy which thins out the crowd to the committed. Most are here for the entire three-day run and experience the rhythms of the days together, as a community. There’s a crowd-sourced online guide to help newbies plan ahead and know what to expect and bring. I’ll add that the walk into the Gorge to swim in the Columbia River is totally worth it and that you should figure out where you want to situate yourself on the first night and return there every night as those around you will become your tour friends.
After a couple of songs on the lawn, where we experienced the fantastic view and lightshow, I found a walkway around behind the soundboard that let out on the left side of the stage where it was relaxed enough to get down in front, just a few rows back. It was a dancing audience so there was not a lot of conversation as the crowd just focused on the music.
Occasionally the band would build into a tremendous crescendo of sound like they did with Scents & Subtle Sounds, Bathtub Gin or Saw it Again and banks of lights would descend until they were just over the stage like a giant transformer. While we were too close to fully appreciate it, the upgraded lighting rig has been the talk of the tour and the interplay of LED stripes and real-time adjustment of the rig adds a whole new dimension to what can be done.
With the recent passing of Charlie Watts, the band opened with Torn & Frayed on the first day. This band has an on-going conversation with their fans. There is no, “Hello Seattle!” shout out. They know you know who they are so there is no need for frivolous introductions – they are there like an old friend, picking up the conversation where you last left off. This is, after all, a band that had an ongoing chess match during a tour where fans voted on the next move during the gap between each show.
There’s a respect of the audience’s attention that allows the band to dive deep and explore each song, turning it inside out, giving them the courage to try something new every night. During several extended jams, as the tempo of the song completely shifted, I would forget what song was being played until it was brought back, like a wayward spaceship, and landed back onto the original melody.
Because of this relationship, there are moments where the crowd will break out and do something unexpected and wonderful that, if anything, gives you an excuse to start a conversation. So why does everyone throw tortillas in the air when they play Carini and do you really bring a stack of tortillas to each show just in case they play it? The band speaks through its song selection and there are endless conversations around trying to decipher the message in the music of each night.
As with other multi-day festivals such as Burning Man you orient yourself by the campsites around you – the guy with the Japanese fishing flag, the Montana flag we couldn’t make out because we were reading it in reverse, and the family we met at the RV place. This becomes your mental map for the next three days and the people in your neighborhood are there for the same reason so you might as well chat with them.
All this meeting and getting to know new people exercised mental muscles that had atrophied during lockdown so by day three I was tired. I’ve done a weekend of shows before but three nights in a row is something you need to pace yourself for. At one point we realized we had walked over 20kms in the two prior days (maybe that river is further than I realized) so we were ready to take it easy. I was content to drift off while sitting in the shade, eyes closed while the high desert winds blew gently, carrying with it distant and faded conversations, laughter and music.
Charged up after a relaxed day, we headed in for our final night of music. Sunday night seemed more crowded than the previous two so lines were longer to get in. The “still waiting” line from the Talking Heads song Cross-eyed and Painless was a nod by the band to the crowd and the band wove that line into other songs in the set just for kicks.
After saying, “Some people deserve two songs” the band broke out Shine a Light for an encore as another nod to the late Charlie Watts and sent us on a way.
Due to the drought, the Northern California town of Mendocino is running out of water and is considering bringing it in via a tanker train. Greenville, another NorCal town, was reduced to ashes by the Dixie fire, the third largest in the state’s history.
65,000 rubber ducks were dumped into the Chicago River to raise money for the Special Olympics.
Quick-thinking trash workers in Ohio reunited a grandmother with $25,000 in cash that was thrown out by her grandchildren who were clearing out expired items from the refrigerator. Why was grandma storing hard currency in the freezer? Maybe you should ask my grandmother who stored her manuscripts in the oven.
Somebody thought it would be fun to post a cover of rapper Flo Rida’s Low, also known as “Apple Bottom Jeans. ” They invited others to post their versions as well. The internet delivered.
On March 20, 1967 Japanese runner Shizo Kanakuri crossed the finish line on a marathon he started over 50 years prior with a time of 54 years, 246 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes, and 20.3 seconds. Guinness World Records recognizes this as the longest time to complete a marathon.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In 1912 Japan sent its first team to the Olympics, held that year in Stockholm, Sweden. Japan’s team consisted of only two athletes, a sprinter named Yahiko Mishima and Shizo (this year Japan’s squad has 552 athletes).
Back then, the road from Japan to Sweden took weeks. First on a boat then aboard an arduous weeks-long train trip across the steppes of Siberia. By the time Shizo and his teammate arrived in Sweden, they were not only exhausted but also out of training. The only time they could workout was by running around station buildings during brief stops along the way.
When race day arrived in Stockholm on July 14, 1912 it was an unseasonably warm 32°C (89.6°F). Long distance running as a sport had not evolved to where it is today so the preparations were, shall we say, unorthodox. Nike’s famous waffle sole had not yet been invented. Shizo wore Japanese tabi on his feet and the cloth was all that protected him from the gravel path. And because it was thought that perspiration contributed to fatigue, he refused to drink any water while running.
As you can imagine, Shizo passed out from heatstroke and took refuge at a nearby villa to recover. After spending some time recuperating there, he decided to drop out of the race and caught a train back to his hotel and eventually returned back to Japan.
Because he never informed race officials that he dropped out of the race, Olympic officials marked him down as missing.
Meanwhile, back in Japan, Shizo went on to run in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics, established the famous Tokyo-Hakone-Tokyo College Ekiden race and is known as the father of the Japanese marathon.
Fast-forward to 1962 when a Swedish journalist happened upon Shizo and informed a very surprised Swedish National Olympic Committee that the missing marathoner was very much alive. As a marketing promotion, several Swedish businessmen invited Shizo to Sweden in 1967 to finish his marathon at 76 years of age. That’s the photo above.
Upon Swedish Olympic Committee representatives reading out his official finish time to the gathered press- 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds- Kanakuri was asked if he’d like to say a few words about breaking a world record for slowest marathon ever run. Thinking for a moment, the elderly athlete shuffled to the microphone and said,
“It was a long trip. Along the way, I got married, had six children and 10 grandchildren.”
Much has been written about Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the team and individual all-round competition at the Tokyo Olympics. Despite the negative coverage accusing her of quitting it is instructive to look at her (and her team’s) responses in the press conference.
When reporters trained their questions on Biles’s emotional state, she spoke just as comfortably, talking about mental health in the same terms as fitness and recovery programs—another variable in the champion’s pursuit. She described the danger of pressing through and competing in her state, saying she didn’t want to “do something silly” and hurt herself. She called Osaka—another sport-defining Black woman—a source of inspiration. “I say put mental health first,” Biles said in response to a query about how she’d advise other athletes in similar circumstances. “Because if you don’t, you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to.”
Two versions for you. One a dystopian robot beehive and the other, a thin veneer of joyful play hiding a powerful and increasingly sophisticated machine.
Exhibit One the Ocado beehive
Robots used by the UK online-grocer Ocado zip back and forth across “the grid” delivering good to human packers who box everything up for shipment to the customers. Each robot is about the size of a washing machine and are optimized to run back and forth at great speed, missing each other by the thinnest of margins. Of course, when they don’t which causes all sorts of problems.
Exhibit Two Boston Dynamics dancers
Two videos, the first from January where the Boston Dynamics Atlas machines run thru a number of dance moves to the 1962 hit Do You Love Me? It’s a slick PR stunt to make these machines more lovable but it also had the practical benefit of pushing the team to improve their robot.
Now that Boston Dynamics is part of Hyundai, they have been put to use dancing to the likes of K-Pop boy band BTS. Here’s their most recent video where a group of Spot robots are dancing in unison.
Again, these robots can do much more than just dance. As Google Image search queries have, over time, taught the algorithm what a cat or dog looks like – teaching Atlas and Spot to dance and move with grace will help it integrate seamlessly with humans further down the road.
Are we witnessing the first steps towards Westworld?
Runways are needed on either end of your trip so you still need to look for an airport for takeoff and landings. An alternative approach is the Aska which is more like a folding helicopter that has wheels.
Either way, the future is here, if unevenly distributed.
There were many thought-provoking exhibits, you can read about them here or here, but the one that captivated me was Michael Menchacha’s video installation, A Cage Without Borders.
From the artist:
A Cage Without Borders hijacks the commercial appeal of motion graphics on social media platforms in order to critique the US carceral state. This three-channel video installation runs a synchronized HD animation on three TV’s that are vertically oriented, mimicking the visual presentation of mobile devices. This installation addresses the ways in which Big Tech is currently operating as a de facto neo-colonial project enabling racialized state surveillance to oppress the most vulnerable communities.
The video (see embed up top) is overwhelming but that is the intent. I dare you to keep up with the commentary while assaulted by glittery animations that scroll by on the screen like a digital slot machine. Little snippets jump out at you and lodge in your brain like morsels of insight, something to chew over and ponder later in your day.
State-sanctioned bias bots
Your behavior is now their private property
The truth does not generate surveillance profits
Facebook has created a political whitelist which has exempted over 100,000 officials from fact-checking in order to maximize user engagement
A digital caste system
Become a digital vegan
With those thoughts jangling around in our heads, we sought refuge across the street and discovered the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, the perfect digestif to the technological assault we just experienced.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Frothy expectations bring out the cringe. Social Media was all the rage during Web 2.0 and at the crest of that wave brought us this little ditty, Let’s Get Social.
Now it’s crypto. The clip below is a couple years old but I’m putting this here for posterity. Carlos Matos & Bitconnect (which turned out to be a huge scam)