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One journalist's wild summer on the road with the world's most popular cult rock band, Phish.
Despite their enormous success and their status as America's biggest cult rock and roll band, Phish remains an enigma. Each of their albums has sold more than 500,000 copies, and their concerts sell out instantly, but the band makes a virtue of ignoring the mainstream, and the fans rather prefer it that way. In Run Like an Antelope: On the Road with ...
One journalist's wild summer on the road with the world's most popular cult rock band, Phish.
Despite their enormous success and their status as America's biggest cult rock and roll band, Phish remains an enigma. Each of their albums has sold more than 500,000 copies, and their concerts sell out instantly, but the band makes a virtue of ignoring the mainstream, and the fans rather prefer it that way. In Run Like an Antelope: On the Road with Phish, Sean Gibbon deftly and hilariously chronicles this unique musical subculture.
Inspired by the offbeat road stories of Hunter S. Thompson and Bill Bryson, among others, Gibbon resolved to follow Phish and their kite's tail of hundreds of thousands of followers on their 1999 summer tour. What he discovered is a new kind of American tribe: a mixture of aging, resigned Deadheads, wealthy college kids, and dedicated Phishheads, all bound together by their belief in the band, passion for the music, and energetic spirit, which transform Phish into an experience. His ensuing adventures among the Phish fans constitute a memorable, insightful, uproarious odyssey into this new frontier of American pop tribalism. Whether he's being kidnapped by a group of ebullient Georgia Tech coeds, or being serenaded by devoted fans on the institution of Phish, Gibbon navigates the wild, fascinating Phish experience with verve and a keen eye, brilliantly communicating both the enormous energy of the band's music and the distinct character of their fans.
July 15, Holmdel, New Jersey
The more I see Phish, the more I want to see them. You'd think it would be just the opposite—that you'd get sick of it after a while. Same music, same band, same songs. But I've become even more of a fan on tour. I'm sick of crisscrossing the country on these terrible highways, and yet the show itself never gets old. And each night is different. It's like the more you see the Yankees play at the stadium, the more devoted you become and the more you want to keep going back to the stadium. You notice the way the shortstop pulls on his cap before he crouches, or the way the right fielder gazes out into the bleachers between pitches. You don't know what's going to happen night to night, but certain things are very familiar because you've been there before. You have a stake in what's happening. That's why fanatics develop on an escalating scale—the more you're a part of it, the bigger a fanatic you become.
One of the appealing things about life on the road with Phish is that it forces you to enjoy the moment. At the show, you don't think about the next day or next week. You see all these people dancing around in dirty bare feet, the music pouring over you, everybody sweating, and you think, There's nowhere else I'd rather be right now. Where else do you get this feeling? We're all so busy day to day, running around doing this, doing that, hustling here, hustling there. When do you stop and just suck up everything around you? I suppose you might say, Well, I appreciate the sunset once in a while or a really good meal or a walk in the woods. That's fine. But I'm talking about a celebration with thousands of dancing maniacs, all caught up in the frenzy of the music, all experiencing the same thing at the same time. A Phish tune called "Run Like an Antelope" captures the frenzy of it all, the celebration. Of course, this sort of thing you can't capture in writing, words on a page simply can't do it, but, well . . . the song is one long jam, building up, faster and faster, hardly any lyrics until the very end, totally frenetic:
Run run run run run run run run run run run run . . .
Run run run run run run run run run run run run . . .
You've got to run like an antelope out of control
You've got to run like an antelope out of control
Run like an antelope out of control
Run like an antelope out of control . . .
At this point you're really moving. I mean, you can barely keep up with their pace. You feel like a goddamn antelope. Antelopes are fast mothers. Drenched in sweat, loose, limby, you can dance better than you ever thought you could. Really groovin', rubbery. And you're not dancing with anybody in particular. No partner to account for, so you can let it rip. In this moment at a show there's almost nothing in the world I'd rather be doing. And here's the strange part, the thing that has surprised me: with each show, I become more absorbed into the music. I dance harder. I didn't expect this to happen. A month ago I thought, Well, I'll hit the road and write this book, hear some great stories, and no matter what, living on the road will be exciting. I thought the trip itself would be the highlight and the music would just sort of be there night after night. It's turned out to be just the opposite. The music is what makes it all worth it.
When I saw my first Phish show five years ago, I remember thinking, Now this is different, all this wild dancing. People danced at Dead shows, of course. It was a big part of the experience. But this "Run like an antelope" crap—what the hell is going on? I thought. I liked it. But I certainly wasn't doing the antelope right away. A part of me immediately responded to it. Another part thought, This is sort of goofy. Like I found it very strange that at certain points in the show each band member played his instrument as fast as he possibly could, barely holding it together, and that this more than anything sent the crowd into a fit. I hadn't seen this before at other concerts. I'd seen arenasized crowds swaying to a particular song or pumped up for the big radio tune, but this was more like something you'd see on the Discovery Channel—a wild dance ceremony in some far—off torchlit corner of the world, drums beating frenetically.
It's the diehards at Phish shows who seem to most enjoy these frenzied moments, who seem to really have a moving experience. Skinny as can be, like they've been stranded on a desert island for years, and they find, somewhere, a ferocious energy. They dance hard, with everything they've got, for the entire set, cooling down a bit for the slower numbers but still working it. They drink a lot of water, smoke a few joints in the dark—both the water jug and the joint get passed down the row—and then between sets they sit down on the lawn, unwind a bit. The first set usually lasts about an hour and twenty minutes. Do you know what it's like to dance for eighty minutes straight? At some point in the set I always have to sit down for a moment. I usually get a cramp or simply run out of gas. And I'm in pretty good shape. I think these tourheads have a reserve tank to draw from, which they tap into when the lights go down and Phish takes the stage. In the tank sloshes a powerful cocktail of adrenaline and drugs, and the music is like a zap of lightning that kicks them into gear. It reminds me of that scene in the old Frankenstein movie where the zombie monster lies on the table, pale and lifeless, and then lightning strikes and the monster opens his eyes and he's instantly ready to go. The music is a bolt of life for Phishheads.
Have you ever run down a street at night with alcohol buzzing through your veins? You feel like the fastest guy on the planet, like you could jump over a building. Except it doesn't last long and you come down after a few minutes, gasping for air. Well, imagine being able to keep up that sort of energy for an hour or so that's what it's like at a Phish show. I have a friend who never runs anywhere except when he's drunk, in which case he tears about—dives into bushes, climbs trees, hurdles fences. Sober, he doesn't even walk very fast, and running, I mean, forget it. He hates to run. But with alcohol racing around inside his body, he's able to tap this well of energy and just take off. I think some Phishheads are able to fuel their tank in the same way they transform into super—energized versions of their normal selves.
Because for them this is what it's all about. This is what it all comes down to on tour: the show. You have to Get It Up for the show. No matter how far you've traveled, no matter how worn out you feel, no matter how little money you have in your pocket . . . who cares? You're here and your band is taking the stage. That's why diehard tourheads enjoy the moment even more—this is it for them, the big payoff. What else is there to look forward to? Tomorrow means another traffic jam, more rest areas, a scramble for a decent meal. The end of the tour means finding another job, since you quit the last one.
We tend to think of dropouts as delinquents, avoiders, cowards. But the thing we don't realize is that dropping out isn't easy. Oddly enough, it takes a certain perseverance. Anybody in America can find a job. Anybody can find an apartment and a shower and a roof over his head. In a way it takes a certain willfulness not to have these things. Life is much easier with a steady job and an apartment. Life on the road, riding the highways each day, takes a scrappiness that most of us don't have. We need the security of nine—to—five with benefits and ten vacation days per year and Sunday afternoons in the park. It would be hard to come up with a figure for how many Phishheads really are on tour for years, who truly are dropouts. At least a couple thousand. And add to that many, many more thousands who go to maybe four or five shows per tour—an adventure in itself.
Phish is tapping a nerve in America. It's the same nerve the Dead found, but with a different generation. It's hard to define the nerve, exactly. It's a lot of things rolled into one. Somehow our culture is not offering up everything that young people need, that young people search for. What's missing in our youth culture of video games and satellite dishes and the World Wide Web? What's missing in a country in which the fastest—growing sport is golf? Adventure. Adventure is partly what's missing. The Phish tour promises adventure. But it's more than that. We don't really have any ritualized celebrations in America. The holidays, yeah, but the holidays mean football games on Thanksgiving and the malls at Christmas. We don't have any rituals. We don't celebrate the coming of the spring. We don't celebrate the harvest moon. When was the last time you celebrated anything? I mean, when was the last time you let your hair down and howled at the moon on a clear autumn night? Humans have been doing this sort of thing for centuries, as a way to celebrate life, the joy of it.
Phish shows are becoming an American ritual. People turn out year after year to hear the same band play the same songs at the same time of year. And it is precisely this continuity, the ritual of it, that in a way brings a magic to the show, makes the fan feel like he is part of the event. The shows provide a timeline, a kind of calendar to divide up the year. In America, our rituals are sports and television—going to the ball park or sitting in front of the tube. These are anemic rituals, without any real bite or celebration, and they don't really deserve to be called rituals anyway. The American Dream at the millennium is television and the Internet—how much time you get to watch the tube or surf the net. And if you're really lucky, if you've really made it, then the American Dream means getting to play a lot of golf.
At night, after the show, the campgrounds come alive. Outside the amphitheaters and hockey arenas, people beat drums and dance in circles. Wherever Phish goes, the sound of drums can be heard—drums beating in parking lots, drums at night, drums in the sunshine. It provides a weirdly atavistic background to the whole thing. People truly do howl into the night.
If one person in every family learned to the play the drums and once a week you gathered outside and hopped around for a few hours, we'd all be much happier. I'm not kidding around here. I mean it. Get a bongo drum, go to your backyard or your neighborhood park or the beach, bring a bunch of friends, build a bonfire, bring a flask of wine, and have someone start hammering away on the bongo. I dare you to stay still. I dare you not to dance until you drop. You wouldn't believe the release.
Americans work harder than anyone else in the world. That's a fact. According to a New York Times report, we work 350 more hours per year than Europeans (that equals nine work weeks) and 70 more hours per year than the Japanese. We have the strongest economy in the world, but also the busiest work force. No one has any time. Who do you know who works forty hours a week anymore? Humans weren't meant to sit in offices all day. We didn't evolve to hunch over a computer, butts glued to a chair.
May Day is the kind of celebration we need in America. May Day began as a Roman holiday in honor of Flora, goddess of flowers and spring. The festival celebrated the new spring and fertility and just nature itself. The holiday spread across Europe and became a tradition in England, where for a while it was banned due to general decadence. You can still find towns in Britain today that celebrate by dancing around the Maypole. In Turkey, May Day is a national holiday. In parts of Eastern Europe, May Day was a Socialist holiday.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story called "The Maypole of Merry Mount" about an early American colony with a maypole at the forest's edge. With the Indians, the settlers wore masks of goat and bear, fixed horns on their heads, drank wine and danced around the maypole—a slender pine tree decked with garlands.
"On the Eve of St. John," Hawthorne wrote, "they felled whole acres of the forest to make bonfires, and danced by the blaze all night, crowned with garlands, and throwing flowers into the flame .... Its votaries danced round it, once, at least, in every month; sometimes they called it their religion, or their altar; but always, it was the banner staff of Merry Mount."
It was a pretty wild scene for seventeenth—century Americatoo wild for the neighboring Puritans ("most dismal wretches," according to Hawthorne), who eventually tore down the maypole and punished the revelers. Hawthorne's story is based on fact. There was a settlement in Massachusetts near present—day Quincy called Mount Wollaston, or "Merry Mount." In 1625, Thomas Morton established a trading post in the area, put up a maypole, and invited the Indians—whom he found to be more "full of humanity" than the English—to dance with the colonists. The festivities angered and upset Governor John Endicott, who ordered the maypole chopped down. Morton wound up in trouble for dealing firearms to the Indians and fled to England.
So the maypole celebrations, the welcoming of spring with attendant rites and partying, never got more than a toehold in America, and it was quickly stomped out. I'm not suggesting that Phish shows are a modern—day Merry Mount. After all, there isn't any clear connection to spring or fertility or any of that stuff. But the music, the dancing, the celebration outdoors, the strange costumes, the ritual of it all—all this is there. Phish shows are probably the closest we get to Merry Mount.
In college we had this party called Bavaria each spring. A pig roast and a parade. A few of us dressed up in what we imagined to be Bavarian style—knee—high socks, shorts, and suspenders. One year someone even hauled in a sheep for the party, which just stood there silent and still until someone poked it with a stick. None of us knew a thing about Bavaria, and it was really just an excuse to have a party. But we put on a parade. Now this was something to see. Trombones and trumpets and we all trooped wildly around campus, beating homemade drums (mine was a tin garbage can) and singing this song over and over: "I love a parade, love a parade, love a parade . . . ." Then we'd come back and drink more beer and dance by the fire with a chunk of pig in hand. It was different from our normal routine of standing beside a basement keg guzzling watery beer in plastic cups. Here we were, hundreds of us, dancing around in the springtime with the drums beating and the music and everything blooming and the pig cooking. It really was connected to the spring and being outdoors and being young. And it wasn't about the Internet or the movies or museums or books. It was a real in—the—flesh celebration. In a strange way, it became a ritual. I'm not sure why I'm writing about this now. I haven't thought of Bavaria in a while. But somehow talking about Merry Mount brought back Bavaria, and now I'm feeling depressed with my Bavaria days behind me.
My brother has joined me for this leg of the tour. His name is Brendan, but he's known to everyone as Skins (too hard to explain). He just graduated from Harvard and is not sure what he's going to do career—wise. He plans on heading out to Colorado in the winter with a few friends, maybe wait tables . . . the fear of every parent: send him to Harvard and he ends up in Aspen a ski bum. The Phish tour should be perfect.
He's the one who introduced me to Phish in the first place and we've been to a bunch of shows together. Also, Skins has seen a number of the big acts in recent years—the Rolling Stones, U2, Dave Matthews—so he knows what else is out there in terms of live rock and roll and he thinks that no one comes close to Phish.
For Skins it all started with Guns N' Roses. It was a birthday present from my dad: two tickets to GNR at Madison Square Garden on a school night. My dad thought it would be fine. You know, the two of them going off to a rock and roll concert together, riding the train into the city. He brought a book along for the slow parts of the night. Well, things started off with the strippers on stage and it progressed from there .... But my dad was okay with it all. Surprised, I think, by the level of decadence and probably very unimpressed with the music itself. But what really bothered him was something else entirely: the cigarette lighters. People flicked on their lighters for the one or two slow songs and waved them above their heads. My dad had never seen this before. Never heard of such a thing. At the time he was a prep school headmaster, and things like fire hazards were very much on his mind. He asked security if they would do something about this, which I'm sure the security guy thought, What . . . ?
A few days after the show my dad wrote a letter on his headmaster's stationery to the fire chief of New York City, expressing his concern, and believe it or not he did get a reply from the fire department, saying they'd look into the matter.
Where the hell am I going with this? Not sure. Who's to say there has to be a solid story line always moving forward? You're bound to get distracted here and there. It's like being on tour—you never get to the next venue without diversions. Anyway, we're in New Jersey for the next two days. I'm not sure I've mentioned this yet. Phish plays Friday and Saturday night at the PNC Bank Arts Center (formerly known as the Garden State Arts Center, a much more dignified name—though admittedly it's not as bad as what happened with Great Woods, rechristened the Tweeter Center, a name I refuse to acknowledge and am embarrassed to see now on my screen). The PNC Bank Arts Center is like all the other venues—open—air, amphitheater—shaped, with a roof covering the front section and a wide swath of general admission lawn in the back. It's in Holmdel, New Jersey, not far from the shore. In fact, our motel is right on a boardwalky stretch of the Jersey shore, which I'll get to later.
The big news around here today is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band kicking off a fifteen—night run tonight at New Jersey's Continental Airlines Arena. Fifteen nights all at the same place, each one sold out. Bruce is of course a Jersey boy, and this is the big reunion tour after ten years apart from the E Street Band. The local papers are full of Bruce. He's a hero in this part of the world.
At the show, two noteworthy things occur:
The first is a guy in a Hawaiian shirt (unbuttoned) and a captain's hat (white with ropy yellow trim) running up and down the aisle shouting, "Bruuuuuce! Bruuuuuce!" He's red—eyed and pot—bellied and drunk. It's a safe bet he's a Jersey boy. He starts his routine before Phish takes the stage. The strange thing is, he gets no response from the crowd, even when he turns around to face them, cheerleader—fashion. No one so much as lifts a finger to support his call for Bruce. I guess it's not surprising, really. Most Phishheads could probably care less about Bruce Springsteen. Any time you walk by a VW bus in the parking lot the only thing you hear is Phish—maybe some Dead or Bob Marley, but that's about it. Our Hawaiian man doesn't tire easily, nor does he show a shred of embarrassment as he keeps up the routine full—bore until the house lights go out.
The second noteworthy thing happens when a fan jumps on stage. He has a few seconds in the spotlight before the Yellow Shirts come to take him away. Up there in the bright lights he doesn't know what to do or where to go, so after leaping on stage he stands still for a moment. I don't think he imagined he would have much time to kill after making the big leap. He considers for a second walking in Trey's direction, thinks better of it. He looks all of a sudden profoundly embarrassed. At least if he were a girl he could run up and throw his arms around Trey and everything would be fine. But he's not. He looks like an average suburban kid caught in a very awkward situation, about to maybe stick his hands in his pockets and stare down at his feet. But at the last second he saves himself by turning towards the audience and throwing his arms in the air in a gesture of total triumph. At which point the Yellow Shirts close in. The timing is perfect and he's able to exit with both hands in the air, a face—saving way to go down.
I try to see where security carts him off to. For a moment I consider trailing them for a bit of investigative journalism. But I don't want to get into some weird chase scene around the PNC Bank Arts Center.
Posted October 20, 2013
Posted January 13, 2012
Always love to read about Phish! This "fan" provided great insight into the music of the band and what it meant to him and possibly to others. After reading the book I felt like this kid should have just stayed home instead of going on tour. This kid was bias toward the crowd by what they wear in the lots. He made a reference to someone wearing a metal shirt at one of the shows and not being a true fan due to that shirt. I have been to a bunch of shows and usually wear a cut off slash shirt or a lamb of god cut off just to get laughs. Its not about what you wear in the lot its about how the music and the people associated with Phish make you feel. Another point I would like to make is, out of all the fans that have been with Phish since the start how many of them have wrote a book to make money off of their favorite band? My point being this kid is a turd and used Phish as a vehicle to make money off of them and their fans. Im just glad a friend let me borrow it! Too bad nooks were not around when he wrote this because it was a waste of paper.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 11, 2004
This is a quick and easy read, and gave me some good laughs. I read it shortly before seeing a few shows, which helped get me pumped up. This is by no means a 'guide' to the band. It's more about what you see at the shows, accented by the music. Just take the book for what it is... a guy enjoying himself for a few weeks on the road. Don't expect to see a lot of insight about the band here.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 18, 2002
I was excited about reading this book as soon as i saw it, being a huge phish fan, i was interested in seeing how someone would explain life following the band. I read the book in 2 days, hoping that it was going to culminate into a real understanding, but, although it seemed like he kinda had an understanding for the shows and the fans at some points, i think that his view was a bit clouded and biased. As a touring fan, it seemed like he was complaing about the whole book, which was a downfall for me. THere are some sweet parts tho, and all in all, it is pretty interesting... worth reading if your a fan.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 29, 2002
I had no idea this book existed. I was at Borders a couple nights ago and decided to pick it up. It's good enough for me to have finished in 2 days, But boring enough for me to have skipped a couple pages. This book is focuses more on the "scene" than on the band. Which is cool. But a lot of stuff was repeated. If you are looking for a book about the band this is *not* your book, if you love the scene as much as I do this *is* your book. Pick it up & check it out..then fork it on eBay or trade it for something! :)Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 30, 2001
When I first got the book I was truly excited, I'm a big fan of Phish and really don't get the chance to follow them any distance. The main reason why it didn't get a better score from me is that it's missing one HUGE point. He goes to every show right- he tells what happens before, after the show, what the people are like and all that BUT he barely ever mentions how the show was. I can think of one time when he said Phish was off that night. Besides that though, it's pretty good.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 9, 2001
Being a Vermont native, (where the author and Phish reside) I thought when first reading this book it was going to be about some rich, straight-edge kid who didn't know a thing about Phish. As I got sucked into the book about half-way through, I realized that I really enjoyed his first touring adventure. The author was being honest and taking a point of view from the Phish scene for those who haven't experienced touring as well as the well-traveled Phisheads. He wrote about his experiences with the 'lot kids' and his first experimentation with 'special brownies' which I found pretty hilarious. This book is more about the scene than Phish and its members. If you're not familiar with Phish, but want to know about the Phish phenomenen, check it out. For the serious phan, you might become a bit bored.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 7, 2014
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