Phish, Insane Clown Posse and the Saving Grace of Chaos and Community: Nathan Rabin’s Psychospiritual Odyssey Among Two Lost Tribes of American Pop Culture
Written By: Josh Fleet
Nathan Rabin is no stranger to manic descents into the darkest corners of mind, body and soul. His memoir, The Big Rewind, told through the lens of pop culture, is rife with trauma, heartbreak, neglect and often-debilitating neuroses.
So, perhaps it’s not surprising that soon after setting out to research and write You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse and My Misadventures With Two of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes, the freshly pressed book about two bands he initially embraced in a spirit of knee-jerk ridicule and mild hatred, Rabin tumbled in a downward spiral to the pits of emotional hell.
Also, he took copious amounts of drugs. In ego-defying, awe-inducing combinations. “Full-on gonzo.”
What is surprising — to the author and his dear readers alike — is that the initial wanton derision he felt toward Phish and Insane Clown Posse blossomed into full-blown love and obsession.
“Going to see Phish,” he said, “is now one of my favorite things. In. The. World.”
Documenting two years of following Phish and the ICP to the farthest regions of soul and sanity, Rabin’s new book is a chronicle of his teshuvah — repentance and return — from the sin of the Golden Cliche.
As a Jewish fan of Phish whose devotion to the music regularly veers toward heresy, snagging an advance copy of You Don’t Know Me was for me like finding the keys to the Holy of Holies while the High Priest is out on paid leave from his Temple duties: The book was a revelatory, face-to-face dialogue with divinity.
Opening the book for the first time and discovering that Rabin’s introduction to the whimsical world of Phish was in Miami in 2009, and that his quest for jamband understanding had a lot do with falling in love with a girl, a hunch I once had about the deeply spiritual, serendipitous underpinnings of Phish’s music and the surrounding scene began to seem all the more real.
[Nathan Rabin – Photo by Charlie Simokaitis]
Three years and some months ago, I made the same pilgrimage to Miami for four consecutive nights of Phish at the American Airlines Arena. When my favorite band broke up in 2004, presumably forever, I was in high school. The colorful caravan of intoxicating music, myth and camaraderie had seemingly passed me by, and the two innocent shows I’d managed to convince my parents to pay for and let me attend taunted and teased my memory. So Miami ’09 was an emotional homecoming. The venue was mere hours from my college, friends from every facet of my life would be there, and, after following Phish’s reunion shows with spine-tingling jealousy earlier in the year from my apartment in Jerusalem, I had tickets to all four nights of rapturous, musical bliss.
Those shows planted a seed in my soul: I would write a book about the connection between Phish’s nightly feats of improvisational wizardry and the laughably ubiquitous presence of other members of my tribe — the Jews — within Phish’s universe, framed as a review of the four shows in Miami ’09.
After graduating from the University of Florida in 2010, I hopped a one-way to New York City and hoped the One True God of Everything Including Employment would shine upon me. Somehow, I finagled a paid internship for The Huffington Post’s Religion section, and one of the first stories I wrote as an intern was “Going to Synagogue at Madison Square Garden,” about the very Jewish experience of dancing ecstatically on New Year’s Eve 2010 at a Phish concert.
Fast forward a few years and I’m now engaged to an amazing, Phish-loving Jewess whom I met because of that story. A few weeks from now, we will pack the car and hit the road to follow Phish along the East Coast before moving to Jerusalem later this summer.
So, maybe Nathan Rabin and I aren’t so different. He’s a prolific author of hilarious tomes of pop culture criticism, who is much-loved for his wit and candor; I’ve got dozens of half-baked Google Docs listing ideas for chapters in a book that’s taken me three and half years to not write, and a Catholic blogger for HuffPost once told me my weekly Torah portion summaries were “faintly youthful enough” to get her teenage kids to read them. He recently gave up a tenured position as head writer of The Onion‘s A.V. Club to help trailblaze Pitchfork’s new film site, The Dissolve; I will soon leave my position at The Huffington Post to move halfway across the world with no job lined up and only a phantasmic nest egg for security. His prose is consistently, highly creative; I stole this literary device from his first book. It’s like we’re twins!
In You Don’t Know Me, albeit a thoroughly secular source, I found confirmation for my theories about the holiness of Phish’s music. Rabin’s account of the first night at Bethel Woods in 2011 is a snapshot of the ecstatic epiphany train that barrels down upon so many souls at any given Phish show.
“When you have these kind of transcendent concert experiences, it has as much to do if not more to do with the audience than the band itself,” Rabin told me on the eve of the book’s publication. “There are so many stories at every show, at every festival, at every concert, and they just don’t get told. And this was an attempt to tell one of those stories, or a couple of those stories, and preserve for posterity what is almost by definition kind of an ephemeral, transitory thing: being at a show and feeling these emotions, connecting not just with the music, but to this world, to this history, to this whole kind of tradition.”
Rabin doesn’t go to synagogue, or necessarily keep the ritualized traditions of Jewish life, but he says it informs everything he does, this book included. For him, Judaism is a neurotic mentality that can be shackling.
“You go to a Phish show, and you take the right drugs, and that gets you out of your mind, that gets you out of your head, and you stop being so neurotic for a couple of hours,” he said.
The music is what pulls the thought-bound “person” from the throes of distraction and making distinctions and intense mental anguish. The musicians act as shamanic vessels: “I remember very very distinctly having the thought, ‘Oh! I see what he’s doing. Trey is taking our ugliness and transforming it into beauty through his art.’”
In his deftly told tale, Rabin transforms the ugliness of popular stereotypes about hippies and Juggalos alike into the true beauty of these two uniquely American phenomena: ICP fans evolve from an illiterate horde of trailer trash-talkers to an all-embracing family of misfits in clown makeup, while the denizens of New Gamehendge shed the collective patchouli-stained drug rug of privileged iniquity and emerge as care-free spiritual seekers of the highest degree.
(The eye-popping dispatches from gathering with his now-beloved Juggalos — a widely reviled tribe one writer from Vice as having “eaten as big an amount of shit over the course of its existence” as no other group, aside from “the possible exception of the Jews” — is alone well-worth the price of admission.)
“Out of night comes day and out of day comes light,” sings Matisyahu, another heady-rags-to-spiritual-riches seeker who did serious time on tour.
And thus, the author himself transforms on the road. Instead of compulsively obsessing over the past in order to manufacture some perfect, impossible future, cavorting at ICP and Phish’s respective carnivals of darkness and light opened his eyes to the “sacred present.”
Rabin takes this living-in-the-momentness to its logical — possibly sacrilegious — extreme: He has never listened to a Phish show that he didn’t personally experience. Even planning for future tour dates is a conscious act of come-what-will nonchalance. Asked if he’ll be spotted on tour again this summer, his response was telling.
“God willing,” he said, before laughing maniacally.
Nathan Rabin’s You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is out now from Scribner Publishing. He may or may not raging Page side this summer in Chicago and at the Hollywood Bowl show with the guys from Analyze Phish.