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 singopera?' 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 everyonewaiters, plumbers, car mechanicsseems 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 hugereal 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 nightswarm 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 beardoften 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 routinestayed 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 morewhat?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 scenedreadlocked 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 showsso many he can't keep track and rolls his eyes when you ask how many. He looks like a lot of guys in townmessy 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 unbelievableMadison Square Garden sold out."
Johnny Mac is typical of a certain type of diehard music fanextremely 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 jazzhe'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 atwhat'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 `Fluffhead.' This is perfect. It was that moment where all of a sudden everything was perfect."
It's this kind of peak that, in part, makes a person follow a band across the Atlantic. And it's this kind of peak that has made Phish unbelievably successful. But still it's strange, the whole phenomenon, the whole business of packing up and following a band wherever they go. It's weird. Fanatical. All these people wandering around, following a band to Ohio and Oregon, back and forth across country, passing their days on the road, hanging out in parking lots, cooking on a grill, listening to tapes, taking drugs, dancing around their vans.
And yet there is something incredibly romantic about it all. Almost irresistible. The call of the road. Jack Kerouac. Easy Rider. The Grateful Dead. For whatever reason, Phish is the last place for this sort of thing in America today, the last frontier. (Continues...)