01 September 2009

Limb By Limb

[FYI: Of course, the first day I excitedly launch my long-awaited Phish blog, I end up stuck in a conference room in training all day, where I will remain for the next two days. I would say it sucks, but since I work for a game design company now, I get to play video games some of the time, which is sorta cool. Mind-numbing usage data reports, however, are not. But count my blessings I shall...]

So, yeah. I heard Phish was reuniting in Winter 2008. The news was a carrot dangled before me (and a few Phishhead friends of mine) back in February 2007, when we saw a newly sober Trey Anastasio talk with music critic Anthony DeCurtis at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. He said if he should find himself back onstage with his "buddies" (as he sweetly referred to drummer Greasy Fizeek, bassist Cactus, and The Chairman of the Boards), that he would be "the happiest person in the world." What a carrot! Orange as the mop of Captain Happy Hands himself, the scrumptious, crunchy vegetable gleamed, just outside the limits of imagination. The elation was a distant tremor, but the animals of my inner kingdom squealed with awe and dread and wonder, at prescience of some unseen event...

It all came to pass the weekend of March 6th, 2009, when I, ironically, was en route to Stowe, VT, to spend a weekend doing something I always thought I'd never do. For fear of heights, the unshielded body at fast speeds, wetness and cold combined, and grievous skeletal harm, I'd avoided skiing to the best of my muster. However, with many other obstacles and sticky wickets unstuck over a good half-decade of surmounting seemingly Sisyphean scenarios, I said "Damn it all!" and got on a bus with a big group of fellow adventurers for a weekend on the slopes.

On the way up in the bus, I stared quietly out the window, a veritable smiley face expanding over my solar plexus. Down in Virginia, a giant, squat, white, pointy latticework cylinder of a Coliseum was filling up with a swarm of intense glee made flesh. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it when, 14 hours later, heavy Burton boots lashed to my legs and poles in hand, I discovered an alien muscle-set between my upper thighs, lower ass, and knees, that allowed a magic expansion of my shins, and tilt of my ankles, pushing the "purchase" (as my hot & rugged instructor, Matt, illustrated) of my inner skis into the soft, fluffy snow. Suddenly, I wasn't falling anymore; I was aglide, legs pushing apart and focus grasping the horizon line, poles tucked under each sweat-soaked axilla, knees soon bent and aforesaid ass a-jut, then, much to my disbelief, rocketing down the bunny slope.


At the bottom, still standing, having used those foreign sinews again to tilt my tentative ankles in unison, to turn hungrily towards the lifts, I shuffled with poles picking through the snow, towards the swiftly passing chairs. I positioned myself with eyes ablaze, poles up! Legs bent! And whoosh! Up again! And down! And UP, AGAIN! And down! And...!!!

This went on for about 5 more ecstatic runs, my moment of perfection of craft, time, experience, chance, the newness of mastery a single, piercing note sustained for a period approaching otherworldly magic, the influence of a Greater Force absolutely undeniable.

After lunch, the sky had darkened and the warmth of the morning had given way to a murky fog, and conditions far less suitable for beginners' skiing. Balls to the wall, though, with strength refreshed on a tuna wrap and Red Bull, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and decided to forego "Amateur Hour" on the Bunny Slope, and take my chances on the hilariously-named intermediate slope, "Easy Street."

You can pretty much do the math for the answers on what happened there. The next morning, humbled and sore, after a great night of food, rest, contemplation, SCRABBLE and fireside cocoa-sippin', I decided to humble down and try my luck going back to basics, for a few more lessons back on the Bunny. After seeming to have forgotten everything I'd learned about the mysterious physics of my nether regions, I dejectedly (yet determinedly) took a few runs up and down, before we headed back to NYC that afternoon. On one lift up, a father urged his barely-past-toddler son onto the lift with me. Somewhat aggravated and silly-feeling, I decided to humor the Great Spirit and let it uncork its infinite jest upon me...

Daniel (as he stated his name with quiet erudition) informed me he was in his second day snowboarding, made apparent by the clumsy apparatus clamped to his tiny legs, upon which I saw below kids thirds and fourths my age, turning glorious somersaults through the bright, crisp air, landing without flaw on the powder. Miserable but resigned, my crusty city-dwelling self decided to have a chat with Young Daniel.

I told him it was my second day skiing. I asked how long he'd been skiing; my eyes welled up when he replied, barely audibly, "Six yeaws."

"How old ARE you?" I blurted.


I thought I was gonna puke. I suddenly felt very old, and very dumb. "Well dude, you got me beat for sure."

Then, like a young Jedi Padawan, Daniel fell quiet again, and raised his right finger as if to expound some great, ancient wisdom only uttered (as they say) from the mouths of babes:

"Skiing is easy to leawn, but hard to remembew. Snowbowding is hard to leawn, but easy to remembew." His bendy little speech impediments made the quixotic nature of his intonations even more deliriously dreamlike.

It's like life -- more specifically, life without Phish -- was, for me. It was easy to live without the inspiration of a stream of intuitive improvisation, the likes of which began my entire journey with the genre in the early 1990s. It was easy to give up a life that, in the end, scarcely resembled anything worthy of that title. Sure, it was hard at first to envision a life without drugs and alcohol, but with time, surrender, and opening my mind to new methods of reliance upon others, service and self-sacrifice, I felt a sense of realness and usefulness I'd longed for my whole life.

But what was missing was the challenge. I'm not talking gauntlet-style, Death Race 2000 challenges, because those almost seem simple in comparison. When I got home from the trip, the first thing I read in my email when cell service returned to my iPhone was from one of my Phishhead phriends, Jamie, about the LivePhish limited-time free downloads of the Hampton shows. That was my first (glorious) whiff of 21st Century Phish. Phish 2.0 was, in my estimation, not quite 21st Century Phish as it has most recently been expressed in Phish 3.0. Phish 3.0 offers, for better or worse, instant gratification in line with all of the spoils of orgiastic technological frenzy. Much debate unrolls daily in this new era from newbies and oldbies alike, about the meaning of these alterations in the PhanStream. As far as I'm concerned, what the hell are you gonna do? Time waits for no phan, and if it means I can get a taste to whet my rabid thirst, who am I to complain, "Noooo, take it back!!" You must be kidding.

And yes, while a shitty 3rd generation AUD recording on a bad TDK tape brings with it a very solid sense of nostalgia, it's both EXTREMELY gratifying, scary, exhilarating and illustrative to get the coughs, whirs, vibrations, breaths, nosehairs and warts of the ultra-crisp, fully mic'd SBDs that are rolling out into the fray these days. Every extraneous "Oooh!" and giggle, even (as with 6/18/09 in Burgettstown, PA) when a great big fudge-up goes down, maybe not quite at the show, but definitely by the SBD, we can pretty well hear every snort, to whit Trey eventually quips jovially, "Can you guys hear what we're saying? It's supposed be a secret that Page blew the wrong note," which caused a hilariously strained "Grind" and much nonsensical onstage banter and huddling.

I'm beginning to understand there's a lot more story left here to tell, before I even get to my currently-occurring revisitation of the Summer Tour. But let me be brief about this next point:

When I'd finished downloading 3/6/09 and fumbled to get it started, the sloppy ceremony and haste with which I prepared this seemingly mundane, yet gallingly momentous task were like something from a Charlie Chaplin movie, rife with abruptly interrupted attempts at carefulness, derailed with a kind of hilarious, predictable grace.

The sound of the crowd in the Coliseum before the band comes onstage is electrifying. Then, it is incredibly, arrestingly, jaw-droppingly clear when they do, because the roar is beyond deafening...it is enriching, the sound of a thirsty man too long in the desert, crawling wretched and aghast upon the moist sand of the Oasis. I heard the sound of the audience in my optic nerves. My people were bearing witness, like long lost relatives standing at the airport gate. My skin bumped up and the blood just under the surface ran white-flame cold, and my brow icy hot. My eyes welled up and my throat choked...and because I hadn't first looked at the setlist (let's call it "foreplay"), when the first curious dawn dew-droplets of "Fluffhead" began to fall from Trey's guitar, the roar in the house turned to a wave of euphoria that rose in a quivering gelatinous mass from hands, wrists, scalps, eyes and hearts, unscrewed the psychic roof of the Hampton Coliseum, and let the sound of Phish reunited once again make its way home, towards the reaches of stars both near and far.

Those three Hampton shows, to me, carry magic so peculiar and particular, it may never be recaptured by Phish, which would be downright dandy. While completely picayune and persnickety, the monumentality of energy captured those early March evenings are like my first launches down the face of Bunny Stowe: elemental, transient, heaven-propelled and extra-special. Phish played in a way that night that cannot be recreated, which is also fine, because for those nights, they did just what they had to do, for who was present, and what was happening.

Some of the moments were downright disastrous; after my initial trembling stilled a little, I began to hear the mighty buckle under the weight of years of absence. But then, as now, and probably forever, I listen to those shows (Nights One and Two in particular), and I am drunk with dismay and awe. A window into the wall of my past popped open as I stood on the future side, glancing in a random direction, and suddenly demanded my attention. I'm listening to the "Rift" from Night One right now; the tense, terse jubilation is heard clearly in Trey's voice as he sings the first verse, the insistence of Fishman's brushes, Page picking out strident splays of high and low tones, Mike hanging back riding the froth shaking off Fish's cymbals. Trey winds into the refrain dizzily, and whirling, they careen back into the last verse.

"Rift" is one of those Phish tunes that makes my eyes roll back into my head with near-epileptic overwhelm. The pulse quickens, the heart flutters, the voices and rhythm driving into a love-filled cavern of complete abandon, the kind of crack in the earth into which one plummets and comes out the other side, changed utterly.

It took almost three weeks to finally listen to all three shows in their entirety, and they have not left my iPhone since. When, upon a slice of happenstance, I should meet Trey in early May, I had the Hampton Gumbo in my ears just moments before. Needless to say, life would not be the same, and I was being given a very clear message that it was alright, and meant to be that way. The past had become safe to open the door on again, and what's more, it was no longer the past...it was the present. What a gift.

That being said, the ghost arms and heart that went missing are back, and with them, I'll continue onward in this strange, many-headed love affair, smiling in a way that threatens to crack my head in half, my skin boiling silently as I slide about the city streets, air drumming and strumming in ways that make people I know on the streets of Greenpoint say, "We thought that might've been you, but I said Carol wouldn't do that!" Little do they know...so precious little, as they watch me being tossed head and shoulders above, and again, landing to re-form...

[Pic by Rob Ostermaier, VA Daily Press, March 6, 2009]


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