Run Like an Antelope: On the Road with Phishby Sean Gibbon
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/p>
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.
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Run Like an Antelope
On the Road with Phish
By Sean Gibbon
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Sean Gibbon
All rights reserved.
June 29, Burlington, Vermont
Time to get this thing started. I'm on the road for a month, following Phish, living with the fans in campgrounds and motels for the summer tour. Twenty shows in thirty days. The idea is to write from the inside out, the crowd's perspective. The Phishheads. The traveling cult. The whole scene. The book deal went down in the last week or two and the contract isn't hammered out just yet. My agent assures me everything is in the works. Check's in the mail.
Tomorrow I fly to Kansas, the first show of the summer. Tennessee the next night, Atlanta over July 4th, and then a big loop up the coast, winding through Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, upstate New York, across the border to Canada, and then dropping back down into the Midwest at the end of July.
The first thing I needed was a car to pick up in Kansas. The woman at Hertz rattled off some figures, but then later in the afternoon my friend from California called with a good point:
"You can't get a normal rental car," he said. "You'll stick out too much. Think about it. You don't want to pull into the parking lot before the show in a Hertz rental. You need to blend in."
"You're right," I said. "They'll think I'm a narc."
"I'll look up a few things on the Web and get back to you."
He left the number for Rent-A-Wreck on my machine.
I dialed the number.
"I want a car that doesn't look like your average rental car," I said on the phone. "I'm writing this book about all these people who follow this band around the country, and I'm going to travel along with them and I want to, you know, blend in. Have you heard of the band Phish?"
"Ah ... I think so. Yeah."
"Well, they have lots of fans who follow them everywhere and they drive things like VW buses and Subarus. I don't want a car that looks brand new."
"I hear what you're saying," the guy said.
"So what do you suggest?"
"We got an '88 Buick ... or how about something like a Chevy Blazer or a Jimmy?"
"Yeah, okay. That sounds good."
"I've got a Jimmy that I've been fixing up. Just put a new engine in it, actually, and I could throw on some new tires for you. Let me tell you, the guys in the shop, we're all stock car racers out here. We know what we're doing."
So tomorrow when I step off the plane in Kansas City, I'm supposed to look out for Kathy in baggage claim. She'll be holding a clipboard with a Rent-A-Wreck sticker on the back.
* * *
Philip and I sat on his porch a couple of nights ago drinking beer.
"Watch out for pit bulls," Philip said.
"Pit bulls. After the Clifford Ball a few years ago all the Phishheads came back to Burlington and took over City Park. I swear every one of them had a dog, and nine out of ten were pit bulls. Not even pure breeds, but some Doberman–pit bull cross. The mangiest and meanest-looking dogs you could imagine."
"And the crowd seems to have more of an edge to it than the old Deadhead crowd," Philip said. "With the Deadheads it was almost self-consciously pacifist, you know. But with this crowd there seems to be more an attitude of I'm-out-for-me-and-mine. I don't know how exactly, I just think it's different."
The next day, another friend called and said, "Four twenty, dude."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You're going on tour and you don't know what four twenty is?"
"Never heard of it."
"Damn, man. It's the code name for marijuana. I think it came from the old police code or something."
"Well, okay, good to know."
"You don't want to get embarrassed out there on the road."
My landlord suggested I get some dreadlocks for the trip. "Oh, it'd be great," she said. "Perfect. You should definitely do it. And they can weave them right into your hair these days."
"Is that right?"
"Oh, yeah. They can. And then you'd have to get pictures. It'd be great. You could do a before-and-after shot for the cover of the book. I love it."
Even if I thought this was a good idea, which I don't, it would never work. With dreadlocks on my head I'd be preoccupied the whole time, arranging them in different styles, scratching, wondering if the disguise was working. I don't think I could meet anyone in the eye with fake dreads. In a million years, I wouldn't introduce myself to a stranger with dreadlocks woven into my scalp.
My girlfriend, Jill, is concerned about the drug scene. Specifically, me taking part in the drug scene. She's a medical student at the University of Vermont here in Burlington.
I know our phone conversations from the road are going to be uncomfortable.
"So what did you do today?" she'll say, thinking to herself, He's on something, I know it.
"Oh, not much," I'll say. "Walked around. Did some interviews." And the whole time I'll be thinking, She doesn't believe me, she thinks I'm tripping. And the whole time, no matter where I'm calling from, she'll hear some dude beating a drum in the background, which is going to make me sound even more suspicious.
My mom worries about the car situation.
"Rent-A-Wreck?" she said on the phone.
"Yeah, that's just the name, though."
"That sounds terrible."
"No, Mom, they're a reputable company. It's just the name. You know, it's their gimmick. Actually, there's a Rent-A-Wreck in every state. It's not just one place in Kansas."
"I think it's very unwise."
"It's fine, really. They've put in a new engine."
"A new engine! They had to put in a new engine?"
"Just to fix it up. They're all stock car racers out there, you know."
"Stock car racers?"
"Mom, it's fine. Trust me."
She did get me thinking, though. Why did they put in a new engine? Maybe I should stick with Hertz.
I just need to get this trip started. I feel like I'm on a team that's made the playoffs and I'm sitting around the locker room waiting for the game to begin, thinking too much, wondering what's going to happen.
Last night, Jill and I went out for dinner to this Italian place and we were talking about the trip with the tour itinerary spread across the table when our waiter said, "Hey, I met one of them Phish guys."
"Oh, yeah?" I said. "Which one?"
"One of them Phish guys, you know. I was at this bar and my friend introduces us. He says, 'This is Trey.' And then we're talking and so I say, 'What do you do?' He says, 'I sing.' I'm like, sing? So I say, 'What do you sing — opera?' He says, 'No, in a band.' And so I say, 'What band?' And he says, 'Phish.' Then I look at him, surprised, and I sip my Bloody Mary and say, 'Okay.'"
Burlington is a small enough town so that everyone — waiters, plumbers, car mechanics — seems to have a Phish story.
"I lived in the same house with the drummer, right down the hall. ..."
"I did some work on their barn. ..."
"What's-his-name comes in to get his hair cut. ..."
"I used to party with those guys. ..."
My own Phish story is that I've taught squash to Page McConnell, the keyboardist, at a local fitness club. Which was pretty cool. He said it was the first time he'd exercised regularly in fifteen years, what with the constant touring. One time I called his house to change a lesson time and his wife said, "Hold on a second." It was quiet in the background when she called his name and then I heard what sounded like a door opening and then all of a sudden the loudest music you can imagine came blasting into the phone for a few seconds, pure noise, like an explosion. He must have been in the music room.
Phish are Vermont's celebrities. Our celebrities. Even though most people in America have never even heard of Phish, everyone in Vermont has heard of them and everyone thinks they're huge — real live stars. Who else do we have to boast about? Whenever something with Phish happens, it makes its way around town. A week or so ago, Jim Carrey, in Vermont for a movie shoot, sang a few songs with the band at Trey's barn. They sang a couple of Beatles tunes together, and supposedly Carrey's voice isn't that bad and when he didn't know the lyrics he was able to invent some of his own.
The other night I saw Trey and Page sit in with a blues band at a local bar. They came on stage unannounced and there were maybe a hundred people in the room. It was one of those perfect Saturday nights — warm air blowing in the window, no line for beer, perfect sight lines, great music. In a way, Phish is still a Burlington band. Last year they grossed over $23 million in ticket sales and played all over the world, including Amsterdam and Barcelona, and yet between tours they are still part of the local music scene, each of them popping up here and there with different bands.
You can find a halfway decent band somewhere in town most nights, with plenty of people turning up for the shows even on like a Tuesday night. College kids come out by the hundreds. They travel in packs. And you'll always spot some scattered middle-aged couples with long ponytails dancing in the corner. But the most common type, the most recognizable guy out at the bars on your average night, is the Burlington Dude: a twenty-or-thirty-something guy with longish hair, a week-long beard — often some sort of writer, artist, musician who makes money waiting tables, bartending, landscaping, etc. ... Basically a slacker. A dropout. "We're hoping he'll go to law school someday," his parents are saying back home in Connecticut. "But he's up there in Burlington doing who knows what."
When I first moved to Burlington a few years ago, I lived in a first-floor apartment of a three-story brick house, directly beneath a guy learning to play the bongos. He was this little dude from Long Island, maybe twenty-one or twenty-two, with long dreadlocks and scraggly hair on his cheeks, who woke up about noon and stood in the front yard smoking cigarettes, looking very pale and out of it. The bongo routine started up at approximately two in the morning. Thump, thump, thump. He was terrible. Had no idea how to play. In the afternoons, he cranked Bob Marley out of his window and stepped outside to walk his dog, a skinny mutt named Marley who crapped all over the lawn and occasionally got hit by cars on the busy street.
The whole thing didn't bother me much, bongos and all. I sort of adjusted to his routine — stayed up with the bongos, slept late, ate breakfast at noon watching him through the window with his cigarette. (One bonus to living among slackers: they're always blasting music or shouting out the window or drinking beers on the ratty front-porch couch, so if you are a procrastinator, like me, then you always have an excuse not to get down to business ... How can I write with the goddamn bongos? Might as well watch MTV.)
One morning I was sitting there eating breakfast when a brown liquid dripped from the ceiling right into the center of my kitchen table. I called the landlord, expecting the worst, and he went upstairs to investigate. He came down a few minutes later and explained that there was a bong spill last night, not to worry, that the brown liquid on my table was simply a bit of bong juice which had trickled through the cracks in the wood floor above. The landlord was a pothead, too.
It's a town full of potheads. Underachievers. It's amazing anything gets done around here. I don't mean this in a negative way. I love slackers. I feel much better surrounded by them. I mean, if I rise and shine in the a.m. and have at least some semblance of a career, well, then I'm way ahead of your average twenty-something in Burlington. People here put off career decisions and future plans and just hang out, skateboarding and washing dishes, smoking pot, checking out a band on a Tuesday night. One of the most popular bumper stickers around town, often spotted on rusty bumpers of old Subarus, is the Ben & Jerry's slogan: "If it's not fun, why do it?"
There is of course a yuppie element in Burlington, like you'll find in most college towns: nice restaurants, boutiques, Banana Republic, and all that. But the overall feeling of Burlington is more — what? — crunchy, skateboardy ... bongy. Like there's this one pizza joint on Main Street, Mr. Mike's, that gets a lot of the late-night bar crowd. I swear everyone that works there is high for their shift. Usually a Grateful Dead bootleg blasts from the stereo and a tie-dyed waitress floats around the place, wandering with a pie on her shoulder trying to remember who ordered the large sausage and pepperoni. The tables are always sprinkled with that gritty pizza-crust stuff that sticks to your fingers. I've had some of the best and worst pizza in that place. You never know what you'll get. But I keep going back.
There's a bar in town called Three Needs which is definitely part of the scene — dreadlocked dudes mixed in with the seven-year-plan college students, a Phish song on the stereo, everyone seeming to know each other even on a busy night. John McIlwaine used to work at Three Needs and now he just goes to hang out. He's been to hundreds of Phish shows — so many he can't keep track and rolls his eyes when you ask how many. He looks like a lot of guys in town — messy brown hair, unshaven, t-shirt, jeans, a knit hat. He's from New Jersey, which if you take New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut then you'll account for about 90 percent of the Burlington scene. John likes the summer tour least of all the tours. "It's a rowdy party, the summer crowd," he said at Three Needs. "There's a lot of people that just go and get fucked up, you know. A lot of drunk frat kids. It's a big party. It's the closest thing to running away and joining the circus. But it's tough because you don't have people who are really focusing on the music. But that's a big generalization. Summer tour's just a lot different. So much of the scene is really in the parking lot because it's warm. You're not freezing your ass off. You can pretty much hang out in the sun all day drinking beers getting retarded. That's sort of the summer vibe. A lot of people on the lawn getting really fucked up. A lot of kids on the ground afterwards."
McIlwaine, or "Johnny Mac," is a serious Phish fan who can tell you just about anything about the band — nights they were on, nights they were off, nights they reached new highs. He's followed them through Europe, even once rode a ferry from Alaska for a run of California shows. "I've seen these guys in tiny little shithole rooms, you know. I never thought these guys would be as big as they are. It's funny, I'd give tapes to everybody I met, but I always thought nobody would ever get it. I was living in Alaska when they sold out the Beacon Theater and I laughed. I read it on the Net and I just laughed. No fucking way. That's hilarious. And then I'm seeing them at the Garden on the thirtieth, you know. And that was unbelievable — Madison Square Garden sold out."
Johnny Mac is typical of a certain type of diehard music fan — extremely smart, totally obsessed with music, with an uncanny memory for shows years ago and a record collection at home that is worth more than anything else he owns. He seems to think of everything in terms of music, and when he talks it's a bit like listening to jazz — he's all over the place, sometimes mixed up and turned around, and other times you think, My God, he's got it exactly right. He'll quote Goethe or Thomas Mann and you think to yourself, What the hell? ... but he moves fast, never stays with one thought for more than a few seconds, and he'll leave Goethe for a description of John Coltrane that grabs you by the collar with its inventiveness.
Like a lot of serious fans, Johnny Mac is very critical of the band. Part of the appeal of a Phish show is watching the puzzle come together, hearing the musicians work it out, improvise, stretch, come together. The really big moments don't happen every night. "I've gone for a long time," he said, "so I've got really high standards. I'm constantly disappointed. But when they break through it's always for me a big big big moment. It's like a tightwire act. You're seeing them to see if they make it. When they make it, it's great."
One of these moments, according to Johnny Mac, came in Europe a couple of years ago in a small town in Italy. It happened during a song called "Fluffhead."
"It was great. All of a sudden they're up there and it was like they sold themselves on it. All of a sudden they believed in 'Fluffhead.' It was like they were young again, like being in Rhode Island and seeing them at — what's that, the Campus Club? — where they did all that 'Follow the Yellow Brick Road' and shit. They believed in 'Fluffhead,' and I mean they just played the shit out of it. It was triumphant. It was such an utter moment of absolute bliss for me. I was ripped, but I mean honestly there was such ... you know, I started crying during 'Fluff-head.' This is perfect. It was that moment where all of a sudden everything was perfect."
Excerpted from Run Like an Antelope by Sean Gibbon. Copyright © 2001 Sean Gibbon. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Sean Gibbon has written a number of newspaper features on Phish and the Grateful Dead. He is a recipient of the New England Press Association award for best feature of the year and is a huge Phish fan. He lives in Burlington, Vermont.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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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.
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.
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.
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! :)
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.
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.