I moved recently. It wasn’t far, just from outside my town to inside, but physical distance isn’t the only thing and the change was significant. Our house was sold and packed up and lots of borderline-forced metaphors swirled around about the mess (confusion) and boxes (categories) and plans (future). On top of that, and in the midst of this notably distressing time, I couldn’t find my bootleg of a May 2000 Phish show.
Phish was my first post-Zeppelin favorite band. There was a brief period in the mid-‘90s when, at shows, I lobbied unsuccessfully to have the band’s fans called “Groupers.” Maybe they thought I was making fun, but I wasn’t. As with every social sphere in my life, then, now, and—I’ll accept it—in the future, I’ve lived on the periphery of the main Phish scene, neither fully inside nor out. But my appreciation was sincere, and it was officially consecrated when I finally saw them live, now just over a decade ago, and then, for the first time, understood. Something was genuine and joyous there, even with the well-advertised pitfalls of the subculture.
The end of 1999 was maybe six years after the original transition and just a few months after I quit my job and began grad school. When I left work, I thought school would bring me closer to the core of a jam-friendly atmosphere. Except, I was (and am) married, we lived out of town, and humanities grad students are just weird, not necessarily interesting. With all their Foucault and Philip Glass, none of them had the faintest curiosity about Phish. I kept trading shows, still on the de rigueur Maxell XLIIs, but the switch to CD-Rs and MP3s was on, and the demands of coursework crushed my vision of a strong circle of Phish-minded friends. I was a Grouper in a school of one. So maybe a season later, and while owning up to my transition into yet a different part of life, one of the final boots I got was the May 2000 Radio City Music Hall two-night stand.
The last song of Set I, second night, was “Bathtub Gin.” It’s a mini-epic with a nice history of style, from the earlier years of guitar-y stretches and dominance to more recent evidence of elegance and maturity. It starts off a tad irrational, festive, with lyrics about ambassadors, troubadours, jokers, kings, all lining up to get some fresh gin. There’s one line, I guess the refrain, saying “We’re all in this together, and we’d love to take a bath.” It’s a crowd pleaser, a good chance for community singing, where the “love to take a bath” part is really cheerful, maybe ironically so for all the dirty Crunchies. Then the song leaves the playful lyrics behind and builds into an even collage of open and semi-structured improv.
Of course, it’s that improv, the infamous noodling, that is both the staple of jamband parody and the explanation of fan appreciation. On Lawn Boy, their second studio album (1990), “Gin” clocked in at 4 minutes, 29 seconds. Live at Radio City, it was about 15 minutes. I liked this particular rendition not only for its ethereal jam, but also because it fit hand-in-glove topographically and temporally as the soundtrack to my 15-minute drive to town. For the next four years, I listened to the May 22, 2000, “Bathtub Gin” probably two or three times a week on that minor journey, maybe 400 times in all.
The drive itself was always easy and pleasant. A quick turn east onto the main, four-lane road from my street and then no stoplights until town. The road skirted north of one broadside of a mountain before veering through simple curves and large, deep-green terrain. The song tracked along, playing the joker-referencing lyrics straight for a few minutes before itself curving into less structure. Then, lyrics gone, the road hopped over two smaller mountains, up and down valleys in between where the tune was even more tightly built around the landscape.
On the inclines, it crescendoed and needed power. By the first major climb, maybe five or six minutes in, the early jam was on its way. And then, soon, the most amazing, astonishing part, honestly, came on the second big climb to the peak overlooking town. There, on the best days and after a perfectly built crescendo, the free-flowing jam crested exactly as I hit the top of the hill, a really triumphant symmetry between stereo and geology. The music’s energy was highest, my view at its most transcendent.
These are the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and the name holds true. From my view, coming over the peak, I saw, in 50 miles of low ridges, five deep, ever-softening, and increasingly muted shades of blue and purple. The live recording is doubly large here, because when Phish reaches the top of its jam, the crowd reaches its highest roar, the song’s swelling bolstered by that deep cheer; they could just as easily be celebrating my view and me, figuratively about to fly off the top of the mountain. At that high point, this “Gin” is a strong, yet graceful, cacophony, quite distant from the sparse lyrics section. Layers and layers and layers, really fluid, melted together, guitar not so much soloing, as in other versions, as much as melody-making, the total feel kind of jazzy, the bass and piano and drums rolling inside the song, not on top of it.
Then, still goofy from that ascent, I would roll to the bottom of the hill with the song’s plateau following all the way down. Slowly, the layers pulled back apart and each individual instrument was again detectable. And—this is true—the song’s pace staggered to an eventual halt at nearly the exact time I rolled to that one stoplight, riding in neutral from 65 to 0, hearing the engine whir down to nothing, hearing the band resolve itself. Then, I’m there, in town. That’s a good start to the day, 400 times over.
The song was a string tying me from home to work. And that was pretty intense. But that isn’t even the half of it. It also connected my former self, as one year removed from the scene became two, then three, then four, as I moved farther into the increasing depth of adulthood, already marriage, but then a mortgage and a son, and all the rest, to whatever I am now.
Even more powerfully, this spring, a heavy series of phase-ending convergences collided to confirm that things were changing still, again, more. For one, grad school is coming to an end, and we decided to move into town—you know, cut down on driving, give our son a better neighborhood, and so on. This meant the drive was no more. Which meant the song was no more. Which meant maybe 100 things for me, made thicker by this soundtrack legacy.
Then, just a few weeks before the move, when I was deep into my mopey sentimentalism, Trey Anastasio announced that Phish is officially breaking up after this summer’s tour. I heard him say on The Charlie Rose Show (of all places) that those under 30 were unanimously pissed off at him, those over 30 unanimously understanding and accepting. He was right. I understood and accepted, especially since by now it, the band, fit within my own life; I no longer had to fit my life into theirs. This was all, I hesitate to say, a mere month after I made a really big deal to everyone that my homepage—Andy Gadiel’s Phish Page—was shutting down. “My homepage of 10 years!” I’d emphasize, was no more. I don’t mean to be overdramatic, but it seemed catastrophic enough at the time. Because, my God, how many different ways can I get the message?
And finally, this: Two days after Trey’s announcement, the week before our move, I’m outside searching frantically under and between car seats, in side pockets, on the dash, then inside the house in the drawers where hundreds of XLIIs are haphazardly filed—because that one tape, out of all, had become my happy reminder of real identity, an avatar of finally finding and building stability and family and seeing the past and present equally, and I thought I could drive one week more, prolonging time, stretching out the possibility of enchantment in a really comforting, personal way—when my wife asks what the hell I’m doing. “Looking for that May 22 show,” I say, “I can’t find it anywhere.” I go back to the car, look again near and high, then return pretty distressed. She says, “You know, one of your stupid tapes got stuck in the player a few weeks ago. I threw it out, I think. Can’t you just listen to another?”