On Halloween night 1983, at an ROTC dance on a college campus deep in the heart of Vermont, the band subsequently known as Phish played their very first gig.
It was a total disaster.
But it was the beginning of an era. Here's the whole story.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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About the Author
Dave Thompson is the author of Depeche Mode, Go Phish, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Read an Excerpt
By Dave Thompson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 Dave Thompson
All rights reserved.
Nobody seemed to be quite sure what was happening. Around the corners of the room, a few uniformed buzzcuts sank beers and postured, while the girls they'd attracted fluttered impatiently toward the dance floor.
In the half-darkness of his hideaway, the disc jockey played some loud Michael Jackson, and "Wanna Be Startin' Something" came bouncing off the walls. Onstage, the four guys who'd been chopping through a distinctly restless Marvin Gaye cover blinked uncertainly at one another and wondered where they'd gone wrong.
Near the front, a girl whooped support; everyone looked, but they'd seen her already, the only person in the whole damned room who'd even tried to dance to the rickety music, and as the musicians put down their instruments and wandered off the stage, a dull thump administered the coup de grace to their concert. It was the sound of a hockey stick disentangling itself from the mass of duct tape which once held it in place, and falling off the stage.
"It's hard to ignore a hint like that!" The drummer, squinting through the veil of sweat which hung behind his spectacles, gestured one thumb in the direction of the music. "But at least it was Michael Jackson blowing us offstage."
Amy Skelton, the girl from the front of the stage, finally wandered up to join them. "I thought you were great," she smiled, and if she was lying, it didn't really show. "It was your first gig, after all."
The guitarist smiled back. "Which means you're our first fan. Welcome to the club."
The quartet drank up, then left the room. There was another show booked in just a few days, and unless they wanted a repeat of tonight, they had some serious thinking, and playing, to do. As they parted for the evening, there was just one last thing to say to each other. "Happy Halloween." Overhead, the cloudy Vermont sky was wondering whether to snow.
* * *
A sudden rush of classical architecture in the state the developers forgot, the University of Vermont in Burlington sprawls across the landscape like a Degas ballerina. From the wooded campus, Lake Champlain offers a respite from the forests and hills which roll through the state, and though the university — the fifth-oldest in the country — ranks among the most respected in America, the academic requirements it makes of its 10,000 students are nothing compared to the climatic demands.
Vermont itself was named by the French explorer after whom the lake is named, Samuel de Champlain: Ver-, from the French word for "green," verd; -mont for "mountain," mont. But he was there in the summer, when all is a wonderland of rolling verdant forest; he stayed through the fall, and the kaleidoscopic leaf show which decorates the woodland with nature's own psychedelic light show. By October, the snows have already started falling; by Christmas, the place is a sea of white. Come Easter, and one doesn't even think about Vermont without packing a ski suit first.
There is a calmness there, though, which defies even the boisterous blur of the winter sportsmen, and a hardiness which the urban sprawls farther south ofttimes mistake for simplicity. Vermont, reads a typical introduction, the home of Ethan Allen and Ben and Jerry's ice cream, and a bumper sticker paraphrases insistently, "You don't have to be laid-back to live here, but it helps."
Climbing, skiing, trapping, hunting — entire communities exist around those pastimes, drawing the tourists in through the summer, then rolling up the sidewalks and sleeping through the cold. Others, even more self-contained and self-sustaining, don't even need the tourists, and those they do meet have either become lost, or are hoping to. Through the late 1960s, the wooded border with Quebec was a favorite haunt of America's draft-dodgers, pouring up Highway 91 as it paced the famous Rock Island Line, or skewing off onto roads which were little more than rutted tracks, passing unseen into Canada, and a world without war.
A lot of them made it, but a lot didn't need to, as they vanished into the countryside to wait out the slaughter, blending into the soil, and the lifestyle came quickly. They're still up there now, walking museums of Vietnam Vintage, the old VW bus grittily doing her duty, and once in a while, they'll track into town, to buy what they need and barter for more. "You don't have to be self-sufficient to live here, but it helps." And while Dropping Out of Society isn't on the UVM curriculum, there are not many students there who wouldn't know how it's done.
* * *
Just another long-haired freshman with a bass guitar in his luggage, Mike Gordon arrived in Vermont in September, 1983. He was eighteen, fresh out of Sudbury, Massachusetts, but Burlington made him feel ancient. Maybe it was the nonstop diet of grizzled classic-rockers which began pumping out of the radio the moment he crossed the state line that did it, or maybe it was the knowledge that from now until he graduated, the best thing he could hope for was that MTV would follow him out there. But whatever it was, he didn't like it.
Born in Boston on June 3, 1965, Mike Gordon's hobby was organizing things. He'd been doing it since he was tiny, and in later years he would look back and reason, "I probably didn't feel like I had enough control, so I decided to make up these fantasy things that I could control."
Control was the operative word. One day, Mike recruited a couple of friends to help him build a go-cart, and it was the most natural thing in the world that the cart became a sports car, and that one car became an entire fleet of the things, lined up in the forecourt of his young imagination, streamlined, gleaming, and costing an absolute fortune. Soon, he knew, the whole world would be dreaming of owning a Hawk, a streamlined, gleaming, magenta Hawk.
"Magenta?" There was dissension in the ranks already. "Magenta?" Two against one. But it was Mike's car, Mike's dream, and that question mark at the end of the word, that was fighting talk. "Yeah, magenta. Do you have a problem with that?"
Later, he could laugh, but at the time it was serious. "I wanted magenta, they didn't. So I threatened to quit. Of course they couldn't do without me, so they said magenta would have to do." And with that decided, they went home for dinner, and the Hawk was never mentioned again.
"My interests would change every two weeks," Mike recalls. "I liked to spend a lot of time alone, always working on projects, but after two weeks, I would realize that my interest was changing, I had a new project I wanted to work on, and I wouldn't know what the new one was; it was always frustrating to figure out, 'What do I want to be doing now?'"
He would always figure it out in the end, of course, but until he did, he was antsy, impatient, his face furrowed thoughtfully and his brain racing around like a mad thing. At times like that, nothing could get through to him, not his parents, not his brother, and most of all, not school.
Solomon Schecter Day School, in Mike's hometown of Sudbury, Massachusetts, was strict, and strictly Jewish. From third grade on, everybody spoke Hebrew for half a day, every day, with ingenious punishments being meted out to anyone who didn't — or couldn't — comply. Mike was one of the ones who couldn't. When everyone else in his class was fluent, he was struggling to grasp hold of the basics.
He excuses himself with a laugh. "Imagine a kid who doesn't know Hebrew, listening to a twenty-minute Hebrew lecture!"
He diverted himself by dreaming and scheming. "I didn't want to be a kid, I wanted to be an adult." He still possesses the filing cabinet stuffed with documents that were his childhood delight, drawers full of "typed plans for clubs, different kinds of clubs."
There were hundreds of them, including a few he actually put into practice, and one, just one, which he'd even call successful. "That was this one called the Social Club. There were six of us in the neighborhood, and every Monday after school we had a meeting. We taped it. I still have the tapes. We had an agenda to talk about, and we had donations. We had one field trip." And then it fizzled out. Another time, Mike decided he wanted to make movies. He formed a moviemakers' club. One script was written, and then he moved on. He fell in love with electronics, and there was an electronics club.
At first, music was just another of these passing fancies. By his own admission, Mike was never particularly promiscuous in his musical tastes: He'd played piano since he was six, but "growing up, the first album I ever listened to was [the Beatles'] Abbey Road. My first few years, that was the only album that I ever listened to."
Songs like George Harrison's plaintive "Something," Ringo Starr's whimsical "Octopus's Garden," and John Lennon's megalithic "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," the last notes the Beatles ever recorded for release, remain branded on his consciousness to this day. But at the time, that's all they were, songs. Not until his early teens did he also begin to see them as a means of escape, from the closeted world he was erecting around himself, and from the rigors of the real world beyond. He had transferred to public school, and it was hell.
"In Solomon Schecter, no discipline was ever needed because nobody ever did anything wrong, and everyone was brilliant. Then, suddenly, I was in a school where the main thing was to beat each other up, do drugs, and peel out in the parking lot. I was the one in charge of getting beaten up; one day I was walking down the hall, and this tall ratty kid said to me, 'I hate your face,' and he punched me."
With music, for the first time, he was able to "branch out a little bit." He talked about forming a band in the same spirit he'd once talked about an electronics club, but when this dream came to fruition, he stuck with it. Music became his life, and his life began to focus around music.
Mike gravitated toward the bass guitar because "you can vibrate people" with it. On holiday in the Bahamas with his parents and brother in 1979, the fourteen-year-old stood by the hotel swimming pool with his father while the house group, the Mustangs, ran through their repertoire of Top-40 favorites. "And the bass could just vibrate you," Mike recalls. "The guitar could make pretty melodies, but the bass could actually vibrate your whole body. I really liked that physical thing, and I told my dad at that point that if I were ever in a band when I got older, that I would want to play bass."
By his early teens, that dream was coming true. In his bedroom at night, Mike would lock the door and then climb into the big black box he'd suspended from the ceiling, and sit there practicing his rented Beatle bass copy. Alone in this self-contained environment, free from even the most insignificant visual distraction, he played ... he vibrated. And when he emerged, to form his first group, Mike's father, the man who founded Massachusetts's Store 24 chain, didn't even bat an eyelid. Instead, he loaned his son the use of a company van to drive the band's gear around in.
For the first time in his life, Mike reflects, "I was more in a social situation. All my friends in high school were people in the band or friends of my high-school band."
That was the Tombstone Blues Band, an adventurous combo that specialized in blues and sixties rock, partly because of Mike's growing admiration for Peter Albin, bass player with Janis Joplin's San Francisco aggregation, Big Brother and the Holding Company; but more out of deference to one of Tombstone's other members, Cary.
Cary's father once played with bluesman Muddy Waters, and Mike openly admits, "His dad was better than him" — so much better that there was actually a plot for father to replace son in the lineup! And when it failed, the Tombstone Blues Band had dug its own grave.
Still at high school, Mike's next outfit was the Edge. It was the late 1970s by now, and rock's post-punk New Wave, ricocheting out of nearby Boston, slammed straight into the young bassist's consciousness. "We had some originals," Mike recollects, but the band's repertoire was more comfortable with contemporary covers: Talking Heads, the Police, the Pretenders, and so forth. The Edge went west when Mike moved north, and he arrived at UVM with only one goal, finding himself a new group.
Looking back, he explains, "I'd been doing music, and instead of having a hundred different interests like most Geminis have, I guess I just started concentrating on music." It was hard enough, he sighed, simply to balance his two musical goals, "bass playing and songwriting," without having to worry about everything else that interested him, "filmmaking and all the other things."
His only distraction was the course he was signed up to study, electrical engineering, and even there appeared an inexplicable, perfect dovetailing. "The head of the electrical-engineering department said that there were a lot of engineers that were bass players, according to what he had found." The professor offered no explanation for this phenomenon. It was, simply, a fact of life.
Even in his first few weeks at college, Mike quickly came to realize there were always a few bands knocking around the campus, unambitious aggregations for the most part, looking to play a few songs, pick up a few girls, whatever it took to quell raging teenage hormones. That was pretty much all he wanted to do, too, when he followed through on a flyer he'd seen flapping in one of the halls.
* * *
Like Mike, Ernest Giuseppe Anastasio III, "Trey," was a freshman, grimly coming to terms with Burlington, Vermont. His first impressions did not give the state much hope of impressing him; Vermont, he decided, "was just longhairs who lived out in the country and hiked a lot." He didn't know what they did for fun in these parts, but the glazed expressions he caught around campus and the furtive goings-on he saw in certain corners didn't leave too much room for the imagination. Particularly as his newfound best friend, an affable hobbit whose friends called him Fish, had already made it clear what his hobby was. God bless Timothy Leary.
Fresh-faced and bespectacled, short-haired and city-smart, there was still a barely perceptible trace of Texas in Trey's accent. He'd left his Fort Worth birthplace when he was two, though, and since then, he'd divided his life between the family home in Princeton, New Jersey, and a private prep school in Watertown, Connecticut.
His family background was impressive. His father, Ernest Anastasio II, was executive vice president of Educational Testing Services, the fiends who set the SAT exams. His mother, Diane, was an editor on Sesame Street magazine. With or without the all-consuming passion for music which no one around him could fail to register, Trey (a nickname derived from the numeral that follows his given name) was clearly destined to go far.
Trey commenced his musical career playing drums, eight years old and hammering hell out of anything that stayed in one place long enough for him to get some kind of rhythm going. He was a child when his first song was recorded, as well, when his mother announced she was involved in compiling an album for the children's educational market. Catching Trey as he wandered around the house singing the self-composed nonsense he delighted in creating, she sat him down for his first lesson in songwriting. The result, the tale of an impetuous frog named Joe, would appear on a collection of ditties called Sing and Learn Large Motor Skills.
Once bitten, never shy, a decade later, Trey continued writing songs, only now he was banging them out with his Princeton Day School buddies, and stockpiling them for the day they might come in useful. Many of Trey's earliest songs, including several he would still be playing through the first years of Phish, bear cowriting credits for his friends Bob Szuter, Aaron Woolfe, Dave Abrahams, and Marc Daubert; and then, of course, there was Tom Marshall, who continues to write songs with Trey today. When Trey earned his first gold record, for Phish's A Live One in-concert recording, he made certain that Princeton Day School was presented with a plaque formally acknowledging the music department's contribution to his career.
By the time he graduated from Princeton Day School, Trey had long since traded in his drumsticks, realizing very early on that although you can do a lot of things with a drum kit, songwriting is not one which springs immediately to mind. Neither is picking up girls, and what else do you go to school for? He traded in his drum kit for a guitar, and while he struggled to master the instrument, in his sophomore year at Taft Academy he joined his first band.
Excerpted from Go Phish by Dave Thompson. Copyright © 1997 Dave Thompson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Gone Ghoti-Ing,
2. Shaky Ground When I Talk,
3. The New Ones Suck Your Face Right Off,
4. They're Not Our Band Anymore,
5. Sexy Nights, Sexy Lights,
6. People Talk About Sex a Lot,
7. Not Everyone in the Lot is Your Friend,
8. We Wanted to do it Every Night,
9. The Paper Cut Across the Nipple,
10. That Shit in My Dressing Room,
11. We Need to Purify the Body,
Epilogue: This Last Night in Sodom,
A Selection of Phish Web Sites,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
He glided in, his eyes flicking around for something to do.
The handome italian boy sits alone at a table, smoking a vape. He looks around for any girls and sighs. He sees some but knows no one sees him.
He walks in
Walks in wearing a black t-shirt, jeans, and a fleece jacket. "The party's here!"
She stepped into the room, her bright eyes bellowing the place as her hands slithered down into the deep pockets of her skinny jeans.
Stell sauntered in, wearing a short black dress.
This book explained a lot about my favorite band. If you're a Phish fan, this book is excellent. It explains everything from when they met in the 1980's, to when they became widely famous in the early and late 1990's. Learn the story of Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, John Fishman, and Page McConnell. Learn how they met, how they started, and how they became labeled 'America's #1 underground jamband.' A very interesting book.
This book really touched on the roots of the band and the early struggles it went through. It touches on it's build up of success in the New England area and the little recognition they received on their first trip out of the area (actually to my home town of State College, PA). The loss of a band member (when they were a 5 member band) and the origin of some of their classic songs are all included. For me it was a great book as someone who has always loved the music but never truly understood the roots of the band.