Twenty years ago I was in Redmond, Washington at Microsoft on a business trip. Izumi called me at my hotel early in the morning to tell me something terrible had happened and that I should turn on the television to see.
For the next three days I was stuck in Redmond with no way to get back to New Jersey where I was living at the time. Izumi was alone with Tyler and pregnant with Julia and felt very alone. There were a few other visitors from the East Coast stuck with me at Microsoft and we were very close to renting a car to drive back home across the country when my travel agent called to say she secured a reservation to get me home (god bless her, she booked multiple reservations just in case one fell through). I got one of the first flights out of Seattle and, after connecting through Denver, made it home.
I’ll never forget coming back up the driveway, you could see the plume of smoke on the horizon from our house in Pennington, a good 60 miles away. I went to NYC several times over the next few weeks leaving from Hamilton Station, a stop on the NJ Transit commuter line. Each time I went in, you’d see several cars that hadn’t been claimed since 9/11, tickets piled up on the windshield, their owners were not coming back.
Tonight I noticed the twin beams shining up in the sky and took my bike out to ride down to the 9/11 memorial, like a moth to a flame. It was quite touching – many people were there, mostly in silence, to reflect and show their respect.
I spent a few hours riding around the city, viewing the lights from several vantage points. September 11 hits harder here in New York City, where it happened. Fireman dressed in their honor guard uniforms were out in force – many had been out drinking. It was like Fleet Week in San Francisco but instead of everyone giving high fives to the sailors, people were slapping the backs and thanking the firemen for their service. This was their day to honor the 300+ they had lost that day. So strange that 9/11 was the day and that 911 is the number you call in an emergency.
Remember this day. It is too soon to ask what lessons can be learned, time has not yet healed the wounds of those it has touched. Just remember this day and be reminded that life is fleeting and that those that passed away only live on in our memories.
One more highlight from our recent visit to the MOMA was a clip from PlayTime, Jacques Tati’s 1967 comedic classic commentary on “confusion in an age of high technology” Tyler insisted we watch closely and upon multiple viewings you can see several story lines un-spool in the background.
You can watch the full two hours online from either Amazon or Criterion but I’ve been told you really should try and seek it out in its full 70mm glory because there are so many details that you’ll miss when you watch it on TV.
Nevertheless, here are a couple of clips just to give you a taste.
We stay-cationed over the long weekend and visited the Museum of Modern Art.
We’ve been meaning to go but just never got around to it yet. We enjoyed it so much, we signed up for an annual membership (it’s tax-deductible). What I love about the annual museum memberships is that it takes the pressure off to see everything in one go and now, whenever we’re in the neighborhood, we can pop in for a quick visit.
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.
It was just a few short years ago that I posted Tyler’s send off to college. Yesterday he graduated from Boston University. While the last year, for various reasons, has moved a bit slower than the others, the collective four years have flown by in hindsight. I can only imagine what a journey it’s been like for Tyler.
So now he’s a college graduate and we couldn’t be prouder. He not only graduated from a school that was his top choice, he graduated with honors with a major in a department that he chose after an early flirtation with physics at Temple University.
What’s next? He had a few good runs where he made it to the final round at a few jobs and has a few more irons in the fire but no offer on the table as of yet. Today he drives down with his roommate who is also from New York City and will live with us while he nails down his next steps.
I have no doubt he’ll find something. He hustled to secure an internship with the Celtics back office staff and did a paper on the application of options pricing to pricing NBA player contracts. Tyler’s passion is sports, always has been. He has all sorts of interesting ideas about how professional sports can evolve to take advantage of the interactivity offered by new technologies such as streaming and mobility.
But for now, we are just happy to have Tyler back with us and a Summer in a new city before us. Congratulations Tyler, welcome home.
I found this short video on how to get around the New York subway system useful.
675 miles of track
5.5 million daily riders (pre-covid)
Express v. Local – usually the local train will be up against the wall, express trains on the inside
Uptown v. Downtown – if you’re getting on the train on a local stop, make sure you’re going down the right side. Trains follow traffic on the avenues so downtown trains will be on the right of the road if you face downtown. Brooklyn-bound trains are going downtown, Bronx-bound trains go uptown.
Price v. Practicality – unlimited metro cards (week or monthly) are most cost-effective but per-use cards can be shared among people. You can use the metro card to take the Roosevelt Island tram and the Staten Island ferry is free.
I’m feeling a lot of emotions now. It’s a mix of things that contribute to a marking of time. Hearing the Derrick Chauvin verdict feels like the end of a chapter that started at the beginning of the pandemic (even though I know it’s only the beginning of another chapter).
I also video-chatted with my parents tonight and see that my father is losing his hearing. He can’t hear what I’m saying and he’s too stubborn to try out a hearing aid. This leaves him to only excitedly talk about something and then leave me to watch disappoint cross his face when he realizes, once again, that he cannot hear my response.
I’m feeling mortal – conscious of the passage of time. If you are feeling the same way, may I recommend this beautiful video-scape of Antarctica, preferably on a big, flat screen TV, in a dark room, with a tumbler of your favorite whiskey by your side.
Part of the charm of the greater Grateful Dead culture was that there was something for everyone. Like any good pastime there was some aspect of a Grateful Dead show to please everyone.
I often compare the sub-culture of Deadheads to baseball fans. There are those that go for the scene, the roar of the crowd or to see their heroes play. Others go for the party, the beer & hot dogs on the one hand or the recreational drugs and lightshow on the other.
Then there are the stat nerds which also exist in both cultures. Go to any ball game and you’ll see people with detailed score cards, recording every hit and at bat using their own custom shorthand.
There are stat nerds in Deadhead culture too. These are the people that can tell you the last time the band opened the second set with Saint of Circumstance or when they last played Red Rocks. There’s a special language of code to how they talk and a learned shorthand to normalize communication.
During the time when I saw the band, computers were not that widespread so a lot of the documentation was collected from memory and passed around on handwritten notes. Historic setlists were passed down as legend.
The photo above is something I found in a drawer as I was packing to move house. It’s a handwritten collection of every setlist from every concert the Grateful Dead played in 1985. Crib sheets like these were passed around like a folksy database of shared knowledge.
There’s endless detail in the notations that hint at a shared understanding of how a Grateful Dead setlist works. The capital “E” in the detail above ties Estimated Profit and Eyes of the World together as those two are often paired and segue seamlessly from one to the other. The “Gimmie Gimmie” scrawled above Gimme Some Lovin’ is a wink to the fact that Bob Weir was especially enthusiastic in his rendition of Spencer Davis that night.
All this was just to say that while the ever-connected phones in our pockets are wonderful for precision and recall, they don’t transmit knowledge and understanding as well as these folksy databases of handwritten notes. An illuminated manuscript from the medieval past, carefully hand-copied and embellished, is so much better at transmitting culture and passes on so much more than just the written word.
To listen to two Deadhead stat nerds get into the weeds, check out my post on Alex and JM Hart’s discussion about the evolution of Bob Weir’s playing style on Deadicated.