The Great Divide*

I smell absolutely terrible – a combination of secondhand cigarette and pot smoke, un-showered neighbors, sweat, and any number of illicit drugs. It’s on my skin, in my hair, and seeped deep within my clothing; despite it being midnight, there’s no way I can go to bed without showering tonight.

In case you hadn’t guessed, Nick and I just returned home from a Phish show.

This may surprise you, what with my Disney lovin’ and the Harry Potter reading and the Looney Tunes birthday and my Starbucks addiction, given that the stereotypical Phan (yeah, I went there) wears clothing that may not have been washed in days (nor may they have bathed themselves), smokes enough illegal substances to fail every drug test for the next three years, and writhes about during the show as if speaking in tongues, but it’s true. Further, this was not my first time seeing Phish, nor was I coerced into attending. In fact, it wasn’t my fourth or even my tenth time seeing them, but somewhere between my dozenth and twentieth concert (I lost track along the way). To keep it real, I hadn’t seen them play since we last Denver twelve years ago, so that’s been a pretty long hiatus, but make no mistake about it: I love me some Phish.

I hadn’t even heard of Phish when I entered college in the fall of 1993, but my roommate’s brother was into them – and she, by extension – so she had brought a few of their CDs to our dorm. Additionally, among Nick’s a cappella group’s repertoire was Phish’s “Bouncing Around the Room”, so I, somewhat quietly, but firmly, became acquainted with the band.

As freshman year went on, my acquaintance progressed past the Oh yeah, they’re cool stage and into the OH MY GOD THIS IS THE GREATEST BAND EVER IN EXISTENCE stage. Their songs – with their kooky, often nonsensical lyrics and their long, occasional rambling jam sessions – just grabbed me in a way that no other band’s music had. And, like so many ever-impressionable teenagers, I decided that liking the band meant more than just listening: it meant living Phish. Breathing Phish. Becoming one with Phish.

phish tix1
One of the – if not the very – first times Phish played MSG.
The heavens opened and angels sang. Amen.

Undoubtedly to my parents’ utter confusion, once I came home that summer, I sought out shops that sold Phish-like paraphernalia (also called “Head Shops” – in those days, anyway – because of the large Grateful Dead-themed and associated material). I’d enter through the beaded curtain that substituted for a door and be hit with the near-visible wall of fragrant patchouli burning from at least half a dozen incense holders. I ran my fingers, awed, through the flowing tie-dyed skirts and gazed with rapture at the posters of peace signs and dancing bears. I was only too happy to slap down my babysitting money for several different kinds of incense burners (one of which was a tie-dyed turtle made of Fimo), even though I knew that burning the incense at home would give my parents a headache, so it would have to wait until I was back in my dorm room the following fall. (‘Cause there is nothing more fabulous than a ten-by-ten foot room overflowing with the scent of White Sage and Fire Earth.)

phish stuff
The tie-died incense turtle has long since disappeared, but I did find these in the basement. Why I never actually adhered them to anything is a mystery. Ah, youth.

I became the proud owner of scores of tie-died t-shirts, absurdly thick and hairy sweaters made from, like, wool from humanely-fed alpacas (which itched like hell but sure looked nice and earthy), and one pair of Tevas that were practically glued to my feet. (In fairness, the Tevas had come a few years earlier when I went to camp, because they made great canoe-tripping shoes, but they came into even heavier rotation after my Phish infatuation began).

us phish tevas
Nick joined me on my Teva-wearing devotion. What else do you wear with your button-down polo for the plane trip back home after visiting your girlfriend, from whom you’d been unbearably apart for at least three weeks?

The summer of ’94 also marked my introduction to toe rings (purchased at the aforementioned Head shop), a fad which I was told by numerous older folks I would soon grow tired of… but my toe ring remains on my foot to this day. That may be because, at this point, it would require the Jaws of Life to remove it, but whatever.

phish toe ring
Fall, 1994 foot selfie. LOOK AT ME, SO AHEAD OF THE GAME.
Taken to show off my friends’ and my recently acquired toe rings, but which also nicely shows my dramatic Teva tan. ANYTHING FOR THE MUSIC, people.

Right around that summer, Phish really began to make it big. They’d gained a growing (but highly devoted) following prior to then, but their mass popularity really took off around 1993. As such, there were no shortage of Phish shows for me to attend, and two of my best friends and I made the pilgrimage to our first one that July. I don’t remember much about it, except that I wore a tie dyed shirt and Tevas (duh), the show itself took place in some farm-like setting (we had to walk for what seemed like miles to get there) with an expansive lawn (I believe the venue is now defunct), that we thought we’d died and gone to heaven actually hearing Phish – live! – for the first time, and that we were greatly annoyed with the many sobriety checkpoints on the way home.

They were understandable, of course – more drugs were traded at that show than at a pharmaceutical convention – but that part just never appealed to me. Although I was Phish fan, I wasn’t ever into “the lifestyle.” No smoking. No getting high. I bathed regularly. I happily saw as many shows as I could, but I never “followed” the band, living out of my car or in a tent or maybe renting a cheap motel room, as many Phish groupies did.

phish tix

My adoration of the band was definitely Phish Light, in a Phanilow kind of way, but that was okay with me. I wasn’t into them because it was fun to get stoned, or because dreadlocks were a nice way of communing with the earth, but because of their music. I think many Phish fans are into the music – with the whole pseudo Deadhead scene appealing to them as well – because it speaks to them. It transcends. It is AWESOME, man. But Phish pulled out all of my geek music stops. I loved the contrapuntal solo lines that were traded amongst Trey (guitar) and Page (keyboards). Fishman’s (drums) intricate rhythms were fascinating, and Mike could turn the bass into a lead instrument, rather than a chord-keeper.

Each of them was deeply musically gifted – genuinely terrific at their instruments – and that virtuosity showed in their playing (even if their singing has always left something – okay, a lot – to be desired). “Jams” – which are what many fans find so “moving” – moved me, not because of the interesting wall of sound, but because the band members actually went somewhere. They’d find a musical idea and run with it, teasing with hints of melodies from familiar pop and classical songs, weaving through unrelated key changes before eventually arriving at the climax. I can absolutely understand why some people don’t like Phish – why their musical style just isn’t for them – but I will argue endlessly with anyone who attempts to assert that the members of Phish don’t have musical talent. And I will win.

Who really got me was Page on the keyboards. He brought a wealth of classical, jazz, blues, and bluegrass knowledge – and skill – to the table, and holy crap, as a pianist it is just awe-inspiring listening to him pull everything out of his bag of tricks. He’s damn good at what he does – easily rivaling pop pianists like Billy Joel or Elton John or Lady Gaga (yes, she’s a kick-ass piano player; check it out sometime) – and listening to him play was simply fantastic. I couldn’t wait for more.

One of Page’s solos from tonight’s show. He’s basically just being a goober and showing off, but he’s still stupendous.

My Phish-loving didn’t stop at the concerts, though. Even though I didn’t follow “the lifestyle,” the band and the music permeated my existence. I bought and traded entire shows – illegally obtained (in those days) – from music “dealers.” Looking back, I have absolutely no recollection of how I did so, given Al Gore hadn’t released the internet yet, but padded manilla envelopes containing cassettes (yes, cassettes) would routinely arrive in my college mailbox.

phish tapes
I got rid of many of them a long time ago, but these remain.
Can’t play them, because we don’t have a cassette player. But hey. Semantics.

I remember introducing the little girls I was nannying that summer – ages 5 and 10 – to some of the band’s more pop-friendly songs, a move that was slightly controversial because their father edited a classical CD magazine (I’d actually been hired in part because of my own – classical – music background, and a portion of my job involved helping out with the magazine’s distribution). Having gone with the family to several concerts at the Met and Lincoln Center, I knew that the little ones were not too familiar with other styles of music beyond classical and jazz… and I sought to remedy that by playing Phish in the car whenever we went places. Apparently, it made an impression on them, because I recently found these letters, sent to me by the girls:

phish letter from M2

phish letter from M
For the uninitiated, the circled words are actually lyrics to the Phish song “Contact.”

That summer show was the first of oodles, many of which occurred before we’d left college. We continued to attend shows after we moved to Colorado, but something had changed. The band just didn’t seem to be coming together anymore. Their “jams” were longer and more meandering, seemingly without an end or a point. The shows just weren’t as good as they’d been, and so once we moved back to New York in 2001, we took a break from Phish. We weren’t the only ones to notice this change; the band actually took a break from each other from 2004-2009, so we weren’t missing much anyway.

Even once they were back together, Nick and I didn’t have much of a desire to see them. For one thing, we’d already been there, done that, more than a dozen times. For another, quite frankly, we were worried that they wouldn’t sound very good, and shelling out big bucks to hear one of your favorite bands bite it just isn’t any fun. We also had, you know, kids, which made skipping off to a concert a bit more difficult.

But even more than that, we just didn’t know if we could do it. Although I still wear the toe ring, the itchy wool sweaters and tie-died shirts were donated to Goodwill long ago (so sorry, bargain shoppers). The Tevas eventually fell apart, and while I’ve got a bit of an obsession with scented candles, incense would just make me cough. And laugh. At myself. And how oh so very into Phish I had been all those many years ago.

When Nick learned that Phish would be coming to Rochester – for, we learned, the first time in fourteen years – we pondered whether or not we’d like to go. He’d heard that their playing was reminiscent of their earlier days, more musical, less wandering, more solid. That sounded promising, but still, we hesitated… Even if the performances were amazing, did we really want to brave the throngs of would-be hippies and Birkenstocks? Were we just too old, too stodgy, too boring to enjoy ourselves?
In the end, we decided, what the hell. Let’s pull off the Soccer Mom shirt and give it a whirl.

soccer mom
I mean that literally; my mother had sent me this and I’d worn it to Annie’s soccer game, removing it just prior to hopping in the car for the show.

As we approached the arena, it was clear that my Soccer Mom hesitations had been dead on. There were enough tie-dyed shirts to have stretched from here to the moon, and enough marijuana (in every conceivable form) to have kept the cops busy for weeks, had they decided to attempt to bust even a quarter of the people using it. (Then again, the cops were probably too busy busting up the people who left the used nitrous oxide tanks underneath the bridge by the arena. In the words of my children, I do believe those people made a very sad choice.)

Because of the large number of underage attendees – as well as those who just needed to start the show off already hammered – people were consuming copious quantities of alcohol before entering the arena, almost all of it in red Solo cups. (Did someone from the Solo company hand these out? Is this just how its done now? What happened to flasks and bottles of Boones?) Which, fine. If you want to have a drink – or five – before the show, have at it. In your red cup. But it was difficult to even enter the arena because of the number of discarded Solo cups and beer cans and iced tea bottles littering the sidewalk immediately outside of the doors. Right next to the (empty) garbage cans. Come on, people! I don’t care what beverages you’ve consumed, but surely your parents taught you how to properly throw away your garbage! Were you raised in a barn? Do you not see the irony of people who pride themselves on “saving the earth” and “communing with nature” dumping their trash all over the ground?

As we passed through “security” (said with heavy air quotes because pretty much anything except crossbows and AK-47s were allowed into this show), I actually debated apologizing to the woman examining my bag. I’m so sorry about all of the trash. And the smell. And the number of people who will pass out before the show is over. They were taught better, I’m sure! I’m a Soccer Mom! I know these things!

The lines for the beer easily trumped those at every other concert I’ve been to, clearly indicating that the majority of concert-goers were planning to drink their dinner alongside their ganja. As we made our way through the crowd, I actually got to giggling – out loud – when I remembered that our dinner had been gluten-free Autumn Chicken Pot Pie, eaten with Annie and Ella in the kitchen while we waited for the babysitter to come. Oh, Tevas. Were you really a lifetime ago?!

phish tix2
One of the last shows we saw. I definitely wore my Tevas.

The show had open seating, and the masses had crowded down to the floor of the arena to be as close to the band as possible, as well as enjoy the camaraderie of the undulating revelers. It was hot, it was packed wall-to-wall with people who hadn’t showered in a while, and the whole place was strewn with trash and garbage. Basically, it looked like the Super Dome after Katrina, except without the catastrophe that preceded it. Nick and I wanted to sit in a more secluded spot, as removed from the frenzied throngs as possible. In fact, the whole barefoot, stumbling, touchy-feely crowd was beginning to make me feel so out of place, I decided that I’d better take a couple of Xanax post haste so I could stop being such a judge-y Mc-judgerson and get on with enjoying the show. The irony of popping prescription drugs to better handle people high on illegal substances is not lost on me.

Given my love of Page, we opted to sit in the section right behind the keyboards, so I could see him play. To get there, however, meant crossing the entirety of the venue, and doing so was molasses slow. Everyone was moving as though weighted down or underwater, inching ever-so-forward, while simultaneously managing to touch every single person they passed – not out of some kind of sinister desire, but because they were together, man, and doesn’t everyone just need a hug? Considering that I practically slapped the hands of women who attempted to touch my pregnant belly, being stroked by stinky, teetering strangers was exactly how I’d hoped to spend part of my evening.

Perhaps it seems rude of me to keep mentioning the collective stank, but it really was hard to ignore. In addition to the ever-present fog of pot and cigarette smoke, many of the attendees seemed to have… not bathed… for quite awhile. And I’m not just saying this because of their unkempt hair, but rather because of the actual dirt on their clothing and faces. Plus, you know, they… smelled. As we crept across the arena to our seats, we spent most of the trek behind a tall, broad-chested gentleman with long, wavy hair, wearing a woven poncho emblazoned with the Grateful Dead dancing bears that smelled like it had been washed not with Tide but an actual vat of patchouli. Because of the extreme closeness of the concert-goers, more than once I found my nose literally pressed into his back, just below his cascading hair, and I began to have flashbacks of my tie-dyed Fimo turtle. Nick commented that at least this gentleman’s size shielded us from the more outgoing attendees. I felt like we were following Hagrid to his hut.

By the time we arrived in the seats behind the keyboards, the smell was threatening to overwhelm me – not from marijuana, but from cigarettes. I don’t remember when exactly it happened, but sometime after restaurants and bars banned smoking, I became all but completely intolerant to it, physically. The only time I’m really surrounded by cigarette smoke is on the rare occasions I’m in a casino, and every time – within minutes – my throat begins to ache and my voice comes out sounding not like me but a very hoarse frog. After croaking a few sentences to Nick, I realized I needed some (slightly cleaner) air, so I headed out to the concourse to grab something to eat and drink. The only alcoholic option was beer, and I might have joined the mobs and considered getting one had it not, you know, contained gluten. Since I was already fairly full – on Autumn Chicken Pot Pie, thank you very much – I decided to really live it up, and returned to our seats with Twizzlers, a bag of peanuts, a Diet Coke, and a water.


By the time I sat back down, the Xanax had kicked in, and I began to look at the electrified crowd through slightly different, less judgmental eyes. The early twenty-somethings, I could relate to. I remembered. I knew what it was like to live, sleep, and breathe this band, to buy clothes and bumper stickers that made you feel like you fit in, to attend a concert and feel yourself come alive. To be honest, I couldn’t quite relate to the forty-somethings who were still wearing their tie-dyes and Birkenstocks (Nick was particularly perplexed by these folks), but just because our lives have taken us from beer and incense to pot pie and babysitters doesn’t mean that anyone else is doing it wrong. Just different. And maybe a little smelly.

Right before the band came onstage, it dawned on me: we’d seen our first Phish shows before many of these kiddos were even born. (Insert actual incredulous gasp.) And, for some of them, this was their first show. Maybe they’d just gotten to know the band – maybe they’d just become aware of the Phish universe, to have found THE GREATEST BAND OF ALL TIME – and they were practically vibrating with excitement at seeing their heroes in the flesh. That feeling? I’ll never forget it.

And then the band arrived.

10.22 phish live

So, okay, Page had balded significantly. Mike looked a little like Egon from Ghostbusters. Fishman had lost his crazy mop of hair but was still sporting a dress. Trey looked similar to himself from a dozen years ago, although his bangs blowing in the wind from the fan onstage gave him a goofy, beachy appearance. Older, yes. Kinda like Nick and me.

But all in all? The same riveting, talented, fan-freakin’-tastic band I’d fallen in love with back in 1994. It was awesome, man.

Trey reaching the apex on “Maze”. My favorite part? The guy behind me who yells with awed satisfaction when the song finally settles down again.

There were still a few things I found… confusing. Many of the lighting cues included the use of black light, and although I didn’t get the black light memo, many of the floor-crowd did, and were dressed in clothing that lit up when the black lights went on. A ridiculous number of glow sticks had been brought into the arena (or perhaps they’d been purchased there?) and, at seemingly random times, would be tossed wildly amongst the fans, or even toward the stage. The Soccer Mom in me was quite perturbed – but you could hurt the equipment! Who’s going to clean up all of these glow sticks when they’re all over the stage?! – but the band didn’t seem to care, so I let my annoyance go. In fact, as some glow stick-filled balloons bounced our way, I commented to Nick that we should bring them home because the girls would love them. He muttered something about “not knowing what’s touched those” and suggested that we create some glowing balloons for Halloween instead.

Okay, Soccer Dad. Sounds good.

Reminding us once more just how strongly we were fish out of water, we had to leave early to make it home in time to relieve the babysitter. On the way out, we noticed that the Rochester police were out in force, clearly bracing for the onslaught of over-indulged concert-goers who would be soon to exit. Ambulances lined the side streets, outnumbered only by taxis. Come to think of it, Nick and I didn’t even know that so many taxis existed in the entire city of Rochester. Whether they’d be hired by choice or at the strong “suggestion” of the police, we weren’t sure, but they must have known they’d have a guaranteed fare after this show.

In the end, I was damn glad we went. Yes, I felt older and stodgier than I had in ages, but I was also reminded of how much I like our lives now. I wouldn’t go back to my Tevas and Berkenstocks for anything; plus, I have the toe ring, in case I need a reminder. And Phish was everything I’d hoped they’d be; I remembered exactly why I’d fallen for them in the first place. It was truly a privilege to hear them again.

On the way out, I couldn’t resist buying a t-shirt, and was quite pleased to discover they had a cute purple one in a women’s cut.


After I got it home, it dawned on me that the girls will definitely recognize it, because I bought a shirt very much like it back in 1994.

us phish 1994

That shirt has held up remarkably well, and is still being worn. Weekly, in fact. Because it’s Annie’s school art smock.

My nineteen year-old, tie-dye-wearing self would be so proud.

*Yes, the title is taken from the lyrics from the Phish song “Wedge”.
And also, this was written last night, but wasn’t published today, in the name of honesty, amen.

3 thoughts on “The Great Divide*

  1. Pingback: Thin Ice | All Together in a Scattered Sort of Way

  2. Pingback: Thin Ice | All Together in a Scattered Sort of Way

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