Trying out a thing here on Phish.net. A new, occasional series of essays/posts from phans who are either in academia or have an intellectual bent.
While Phish was broken up, some fans used the time to go to grad school. There are plenty of fields where a die-hard Phish fan might find an academic home. In addition to more established fields like ethnomusicology, popular music study and media studies, did you know there is now a field of study (interdisciplinary in nature) known as fandom studies? (You can check out the fairly new Journal of Fandom Studies online.) There’s even a term, “aca-fan” (it’s clunky, to be sure), used to describe fans (of, really, anything) who are also in academia.
This essay is from Jnan Blau (self-professed aca-phan). He’s a tenured professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, in the Communication Studies Department. He got his Master’s and Ph.D. at Southern Illinois University, specializing in performance studies and intercultural communication, and actually wrote his doctoral dissertation on Phish and what he terms “the Phish phenomenon.” In a nutshell, he theorizes the hell out of Phish and phan culture, articulating how and why what they do onstage is so special and powerful, and how this radiates into the audience to become a thriving culture that mirrors and extends what Phish accomplishes through their music. Jnan is one of the first to publish about Phish in peer-reviewed academic journals - check out some of these papers here. This piece was written recently (in, according to him, a flash of inspiration), and his first impulse was to share it with us. We do hope you’ll check it out and enjoy it.
You just never know when it’s time: time to let Phish work on you -- time for some quality time with a Phish jam. You never know when it’s time to step out of the time you were in (with, say, mundane home chores), and into time with Phish (with, say, a jam that inspires you so).
Such a time-shift happened to me, recently. And I had no idea it was that time ‘til — well, ‘til it was that time. (Cue Phish-y time-related puns here, if you will: liquid time, time turning elastic, time loving heroes, party time and such? And I may not be done with these yet…)
Bear with me, phriends, I’m getting there.
In a very real sense, it could have been any video of any jam, but this one showed up in front of my eyes and ears at just the right time, and just grabbed me and pulled me into its time, stirred me to attempt to write, yet again, about Phish (a task that is always both futile and fertile for me).
This writing was sparked by the LivePhish video for the Baker’s Dozen “Tube” from 2017-07-26, which was posted in the Facebook group Addicted to Phish (tip of the hat to Tyler Maddox for the original post).
I was immediately moved to share this stupendous “Tube” on my own Facebook feed, knowing all too well that a lot of folks out there are not phans. So, in a way, a good deal of this reacting and writing was for them (though I gave up my active Phish proselytizing long ago, I do harbor still a tiny evangelist’s spark). But it definitely was and is for me—and for us, the phans.
So, what follows is pure reaction. And if you’ll indulge and hang with this (proudly) nerdy academic, it also serves up some good morsels for thought.
This, right here, this delicious jammed-out “Tube,” is pure manna for me. I know it’s not for all ears, and I know not every one of my FB friends will have watched this. I fully assume it will be uninteresting to a few people, boring or even lame to others. Some will dig it to some extent or another, give it more than half a chance, but they’ll perhaps not watch/listen to the whole thing. Or even if they take the whole thing in, they will not be overly moved by it, or be moved to seek out endless amounts of this stuff. You know—the way we do.
And of course, all of that is okay. Phish is not for everyone—I get that. But, for those that do care, here is an elaboration (among so many) of why I love it, what it does for me, paired with a recent line of reading and thinking I’ve been digging.
I think the most vital thing to understand here, what lies at the core of my attraction to this this band and its music—and this sort of extended jamming—is the way it takes its time. Actually, better put, the way it takes time.
This jam takes time, time itself, and in a very real sense ignores it, or at least cares not a whit about it—even as it is, of course, in it, in unfolding, elastic time.
Here’s what I mean…
Others, again, will watch this and find it drawn out, or will experience this jam as going on for far too long; will perhaps accuse it of not getting anywhere or doing much at all. “What’s the point of this?,” they might ask. “Not much is happening here to sustain my attention. When is something going to happen? This is just drawn out, too long.”
I do understand, and even accept, that many will experience this video and this jam in that way.
And if I relativize my perception and my evaluative criteria—if I put myself in the perspective of those who would react in this way to this jam—I do get it. It’s not an invalid, or even an inaccurate, reaction—from certain/typical frames of reference, especially as compared to most music and most approaches to live musical performance. This kind of jam(ming) is not only not for everyone, it is also something most people have no experience with, the likes of which they have not seen/heard.
But any frame of reference is only ever one frame of reference. There’s always another frame you can throw around art—and when you do that, the art itself, or at least (y)our understanding of it, just might change.
See, to me (and to a whole legion of us phans out there), this supposed aimlessness, this jam’s seeming lack of direction, this jam’s going-on and going-long, is precisely its value; especially in a world so driven to relentless forward motion and speed, especially (if I can put on my intercultural communication professor hat for just a sec) in a “doing” culture, not a “being” culture.
So, again, if it seems to some—operating and therefore judging from their particular perceptual vantage—like this jam is going nowhere fast, it’s because it isn’t. That is exactly what it’s (not) doing.
Phish work in, from, and toward a special, unusual place.
Yup. Dig this way of praising our boys: Phish’s modus operandi—this sort of a performance paradigm—is a rebuke to narrative neatness, a counter to experiential conciseness, and, in a way, a challenge to the presumed inexorability and relentless efficiency of forward motion itself.
Thy destiny, at least when Phish is involved, shall be unbound.
Phish work in, from, and toward a very special, unusual place.
Yes. Phish’s work onstage thumbs its nose at the need for a constantly-controlled-and-scheduled life. Step into the freezer for a while; leave that sort of life, that use of time, behind.
What Phish do presents an alternative to, maybe even resists, an ever-in-sync-with-the-rhythms-and-demands-of-our-modern-society existence. Surrender to the flow, people; you’ll have a better time of it that way.
As cultural studies theorist Sarah Sharma—in her book In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics—puts it: “That the world is getting faster is an incantation uttered so often by media pundits, promised in ads for new technologies, and exclaimed in boldface from magazine covers and newspaper headlines that the conceit is rarely second-guessed. But in a world ostensibly short on time, there appears to be plenty of time to be had” (16).
Our being strapped for time—stressed in/for time—sure feels like a real experience, but it is not a reality per se. Don’t get me wrong, those feelings of being trapped in time that we struggle with in our daily lives, those experiences of stress, and the consequences to our minds, hearts, and bodies, are not not real—that shit is real.
Let’s put it this way: there’s a difference between subjective truth (which I’m all for heeding) and objective truth.
All I’m trying to get across here is that our experiences-in-time are, all at once, both absolutely real and so totally a perceived reality: both an undeniably lived and felt reality and so totally a constructed and agreed-upon reality. And it is a reality whose conditions (and therefore, whose effects) are set in place before we step into it. Our society, our culture, has made decisions and put into play policies and expectations, strictures and structures, that do indeed pre-determine what our lived life, our subjective experience, is going to be like.
Yes, without getting fully into it here, what I am putting out there is “a conception of time as lived experience, always political, produced at the intersection of a range of social differences and institutions, and of which the clock in only one chronometer” (15).
In other words, time is way more of a thing than we may be used to thinking about (or, ahem, taking the time to think about).
Setting Einstein and physics aside (or maybe not?), time, in this view/frame, is not a thing that exists outside of our experience of it, and of our conceptualizations of it. There may be, and of course there is, time outside of us; but we only access it via our own consciousness and our own lived experience, which is not really ours, since it, in turn, has been shaped, poked, and cajoled by the cultural forces around/in us.
So, time is—yes, thank you, Einstein—relative. (Albert would’ve so been a phan!)
Put yet another way, time, and our experiences in and of it are not ever the same; and those differences matter. Our time-experiences are, indeed, structured by myriad forces outside of us. Time matters, differently, to different people.
Ask, say, a janitor how he experiences time on the hourly clock, and then, say, ask a surfer how she experience time on the waves. Ask a single mother working two jobs what her time-experience is like, and then ask a wealthy prince on vacation how he is experiencing his time. Think about all this and you begin to grok what we’re getting at here.
But, I’ve digressed. Let’s get back to Phish.
Actually, getting back to Phish, but putting one more out there: ask a phan how quickly that killer show she took in went by, and then ask her how long her day at work at that desk job was. Ask my dear friend Teddi how our week in NYC for the last five of the Dozen went by both so slowly and entirely too fast, and then ask me how long it feels like I’ve been working on this essay. You get my drift(ing)…
Yeah. Time is relative.
So: to jam like Phish do so often and so well, is a bit of a radical act.
What Phish do, really and truly, is they take time, and they tactically and strategically use that time, marshaling its undischarged utopian potential like there’s no tomorrow. Like only now matters. Left in the now, with a wondrous glow. (Hell, Phish have been practicing and cultivating “mindfulness” way before it was an overused term and rampant fad.)
This “Tube” jam has a lot going on, not the least of which is the way it is full of pregnant, not-much-seeming-to-happen moments. Taking a piece of music, in a live moment, and just playing with it, seeing where it leads, no need necessarily for solos (Type II and III jamming rules, right?), no rush at all, come what may, let’s just share in the groove… literally, what a concept! And, for us phans, what an experience.
Seen in this light, these jammed-out, stretched-out, in-no-hurry, time-turns-elastic moments in (but also out of, to the side of?) time are veritable (borrowing one last time from Sharma) “invitations and expectations to recalibrate time” itself (18). The only rule is it begins.
Under this view of things, the physical confines of Madison Square Garden (where this particular jam of this particular instantiation of “Tube” happened) don’t just present us with a realm apart from Manhattan and the wider world—a different place altogether. The jams that ensue in there when the guys stretch out like this present us with a (liquid) time apart—really, a different space altogether.
This music is not really going anywhere, because, well because this is band-and-audience inhabiting a place and a space—in and through and as—groove. We are just tickled pink right where and right when we are, dammit!
Phish—and all of us phans so blissfully along for the ride—are oh so happy to just kind of/totally stay, in the right here right now. The only rule is it begins. We decide what it contains, together.
In fact, we swear, we wouldn’t mind living in this funky-ass, joy-filled combo of rhythm and melody and harmony, for quite some time (and maybe, in theory at least, for ever?).
So, fellow phans. Now hopefully you have an even better appreciation for what Phish do on that stage.
And now you know why it’s so hard to leave and go home after a good show—especially after a good run. When you leave NYC after the BD, or when you leave Denver after a Dick’s run, or when you leave The Gorge… or, really, when you leave any show… You’re not just leaving Phish and our beloved music behind. You’re not just leaving your phriends and phamily behind (even as you head back to your friends and family, which you guess you miss and want to be with too).
No. When you leave a Phish show, you’re leaving behind this particular realm, and this special time. You are leaving behind and stepping back out of this wonderful world-apart from the daily grind and usual order(ings) of your somewhat banal “regular” daily life.
So, now we can perhaps appreciate and understand Phish anew.
They’re not just playing songs and instruments up there;
during this party time,
so very much more.
The BD “Tube” is, in a very real way, an existential exercise of the highest order, a veritable trial-run for what life on Earth might be like under some drastically different (temporal and material and experiential) conditions than the ones we normally spend our time under.
“Let’s see what happens if we just chill here for a while, see what the possibilities around here are,” is what is being metacommunicated.
Not that I was setting out to do this at all, but I guess you now have a way of speaking back to those non-phans who just don’t get it! (But remember, any way is only a way.) Hip your non-phan folks to this: as far-out and far-fetched as this may sound, at Phish shows, all of us, band and audience, are testing out new ways of being—in the musical as well as the extra-musical world.
That seeming lack of focused, decisive direction, that seeming absence of clear and purposeful forward motion, we now see, is both purposeful and productive. It’s just a different—no, it so fully is a different—kind of purposefulness and productivity.
If not much seems to be happening, it’s because the band members are exploring the subtle shifts and different possibilities that are in place at a very particular moment in time and space, that are always and already there when you open up music to unplayed territory (or is it unplayed territory to music?).
It’s almost as if the band members are pulling riffs and flourishes and musical touches out of an eternal, bottomless magician’s hat. Yes, that’s what they’re doing! They’re pulling musical rabbits out of the Great Beyond.
And, again, the thing is they—we—could do this all night, really. Or, at least for 14 minutes, with this particular “Tube,” on this particular night.
They’re not just playing songs and instruments up there;
during this party time,
so very much more.
“What if I shift over to my new keyboard that I added to my rig this summer,” says Page, “and see what this wash does to the sound, to the feel, to the eventual direction of the jam?”
“Hmmm. How does the groove groove on if I don’t pick out a solo for some time, but rather slice off some funky strums?,” ventures Trey, settling in for the ride.
“Oh, nice,” Fishman chimes in. “Well, I’ve been keeping a steady double-time hi hat and double-hit on the snare for some time, but now it feels like it would be nicely complemented by a sweet, crisp little fill, a flourish if you will, on my roto-toms, which then drops us back into it rather nicely, right back into the groove—but with a different feel and flavor now.”
“Mmmm,” says Mike. “Okay. I guess it’s time to pull back on the thumping bass and settle into a less-is-more approach now, maybe with an envelope filter to add some spacier texture to this thing…”
“Ah, yes,” remarks Denise in the audience. “Kuroda, of course, is right (t)here with us. I’m digging the switch from the bright, glimmering yellow beams of light to that more moody, deep purplish-blue wash.”
They’re not just playing songs and instruments up there;
during this liquid time,
so much more.
So very much more…
I do hope this bit of writing adds something for you, maybe helps you see and hear a bit more.
It is my most sincere hope that it further strengthens your understanding and appreciation of Phish as a band, and of phandom as both a community and an activity—and of all it as, to use a more academic term, a praxis. Our time together is special.
Lastly, I hope it helps you take seriously the need to seek out these sorts of precious moments in time. Be on the lookout, listen closely. Let time do its thing(s). For you never know when it’s time. And when it is, sweet heavens, cherish it ever more, wherever (and whenever) you find it!
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Mike Gordon: March 23, 2011
7 years ago
Encore: Takin' It to the Streets
 Mike Gordon debut; Dude of Life on vocals.
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