30. In the grand scheme of things, 30 years may not seem like a long time. But, in the world of rock music, it’s a lifetime. Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison – none of those superior talents even lived to see the age of 30. Which, brings me to this column. On Wednesday, Phish will embark on the start of their summer tour, kicking off their 30th year as a band. It’s kind of eerie to think that the grandfathers of our scene, The Grateful Dead, only lasted 30 years themselves, before the passing of Jerry Garcia. And while both Phish and The Dead have crafted a legacy for our scene that will last a lifetime, as we compare their 30th years – things couldn’t appear more different.
In the summer of 1995, Phish were nearing completion of the leap to playing summer sheds and amphitheaters regularly, while the ill-fated summer tour for the Grateful Dead would sadly, be their last. While Phish would inadvertently and unofficially (or officially, depending on how you look at it) take the torch from The Dead a few months later with Garcia’s passing, they continued to fly mostly under the radar, except for a newer generation of fans (ironically enough, mostly in our 30’s now). Not to try and beat the dead horse of comparing these two bands – because, they are vastly different in just about every way – but if one looks at a snapshot of where both bands were/are entering their 30th year, it’s almost tough to ignore a few blatant points.
For Phish, 30 years together seemed impossible a decade ago, and in many ways they were almost on the same darkly lined path Garcia and The Dead forged before them – before extinguishing overnight. While the Vermonters’ first hiatus started in October 2000 and lasted through New Year’s Eve ’02 – ’03, a quick recharge that mirrored The Dead’s respite in 1975, Phish officially called it quits in 2004. This “breakup” lasted nearly five years. While Trey Anastasio did in fact get arrested for drug possession in 2006, the fact that his main band was on break allowed him to seek treatment which he admits saved his life. (I firmly believe Phish might not have made it this far without that eventful night for Anastasio).
Now, starting in 2013, Phish isn’t likely to deliver a doomed tour full of death threats and gate-crashing as The Dead did in ’95, but rather one of true second chances and celebration! As Ben Heckscher says in his April 2011 blog, A Modern Deadhead, the Dead were doomed on their final tour: “There was also the rash of misfortunes on this so-called ‘tour from hell:’ two fans fell from the upper level on June 30th, death threats against Jerry forced a show with the lights up and metal detectors at the gates on July 2nd (and a Dire Wolf: ‘please don’t murder me’). On July 3rd the show had to be cancelled when the police refused to secure the arena, citing gate-crashers. House lights stayed on July 5th as well and 100 people were injured at a nearby campground later that night when a porch roof collapsed on fans seeking shelter from the rain. It’s quite possible that these events, which must have affected the band members, further hobbled the already limping beast. It’s unfortunate that this had to be their last tour, if only because they never had a chance to go out on a high note.”
Phish is invigorated and alive, playing fantastic shows nearly, if not, every night in this era, much more so than the Dead in their final days. It’s almost as if Phish came to a fork in the road in the past few years, and for the first time, took the other path than the Dead did by making the hard decision to break up and walk away before someone died. Now, they are back and stronger than ever. “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” as the saying goes. It’s appropriate here, for sure.
From what I have gathered, Phish fans are genuinely enthused for the upcoming tour, with expectations running high, and a true celebratory atmosphere surrounding the impending tour. This is not viewed as “going through the motions,” or dare I use Trey’s loaded “caricature of themselves” phrase, but rather something good, whole and true to themselves.
While Summer ’95 for the Dead felt like the band had a monkey on their backs, and even had to write a letter to fans to cut of the bullshit and childish behavior, the machine that eventually wore them down continued to take a toll on the band’s health, too. Today, for Phish, backstage is a far cry from the traveling circus and Betty Ford clinics that once were. Instead backstage is reportedly a safe place for the quartet with no temptations and is very family oriented.
Maybe it’s because I’m of “The Phish Generation” and never saw the Grateful Dead in the ’60s and ’70s. Maybe it’s because I refuse to believe that we are all getting older, but something about Phish at 30 feels much different than I remember it feeling for The Dead at this milestone. It feels “better,” and as if the band is simply on the right path to continue to blaze new chapters in their legacy, instead of trying not to tarnish their legacy as they continue to drag along. Or maybe, it’s just that Phish has learned from their own – and possibly The Dead’s – mistakes and are determined to not let it destroy them the same way. Whatever it is, it’s working, and we should all be thankful.
While 30 years seems like an eternity it’s not impossible to think that Phish – continuing on their own terms – could keep this up for another 30 years. Let us all hope to be so lucky!