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I park my car along the side of a narrow road at 7:10 Sunday evening, August 4, and begin running up the incline toward Red Rocks, where the Vermont phenom Phish is due to take the stage in less than twenty minutes. My speed and technique certainly don't put Michael Johnson to shame, but as I zig and zag through the unwashed masses, one teen--his grimy hair festooned with beads, his complexion so pale you can practically see his skeleton through it--is impressed enough to hit me with his highest compliment: "Dude!" Closer to the top of the hill, a second young man--this one clad in a once-yellow Cheerios T-shirt that looks as if he'd recently used it to clean up his incontinent grandmother--asks, "Cash for your extra ticket?" When I reply that I don't have any spares, he looks puzzled. "I said cash," he points out.
Actual folding green is indeed in short supply among a sizable percentage of those who've flocked to Red Rocks from across the country for this date; how they've managed to come so far with so little in their pockets is as mysterious as their prejudice against showering. But what matters more to them is that they are here. And if they don't get into the venue tonight, well, there's always tomorrow night. And the night after. And the night after. In a summer notable mainly for low ticket demand, Phish is the exception. Only the Grateful Dead could have sold out four consecutive nights at Red Rocks as quickly--and with that band in the grave, at least for the moment, Phish (featuring guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon Fishman) is the principal act reaping the benefits. The reason why is something I, a live Phish virgin, am hoping to discover--with a little help from some friendly Phish-heads.
Julie Kelly, the editorial administrator for the Houston Press, one of Westword's sister publications, has agreed to act as our guide into the Phish universe. She first caught the group five years ago--long after some of its first supporters, but still early on in what remains a fairly nascent sensation. "When I saw them in Austin in 1992, they were playing a theater that held maybe a thousand people," Julie says. "I even got a chance to meet them when their bus came in; there was nobody around but me. They were really nice guys." She's seen all of the combo's Texas and Louisiana gigs since then, and when she heard about the Red Rocks engagement, she immediately booked a flight to Denver. She's crashing with Bridget McKeever, a Denver-based editorial assistant for Westword's parent company, New Times. Like me and my wife, who's also accompanying us, Bridget has never seen Phish in concert, but she's laid a groundwork for the experience. "One time when I was driving with some friends to Florida," she reveals, "we listened to this one Phish tape for thirteen hours straight."
After hooking up with our party, we're herded onto a stairway, where a crush of attendees is waiting to be searched. A security guard hollers, "Anyone who wants to tape, go to the left. And everyone else should have your backpacks open when you get up there."
"Are they going to smoke what's in it?" wonders a fan.
"Yeah," calls out a shaggy-haired guy peddling "Ticketbastard" T-shirts, amid a chorus of good-natured whoops. "Marijuana to the left, too."
"That's the beauty of it, dude," the first fan responds. "I don't have any marijuana." This earns a big laugh. According to Julie, nitrous oxide, mushrooms and acid are the average Phish-head's music enhancers of choice. But given the fact that my contact high already has me feeling as if my mouth is made of Styrofoam, they're clearly not the only ones.
A moment later, a tie-dye-clad man appears with a stack of papers bearing the moniker "The Pharmer's Almanac Tour Extra." (The two-volume Pharmer's Almanac is devoted to all things Phishy.) "These are European set lists," he announces. "Pass them around--if you don't want one, don't just throw it on the ground." He needn't have added this last reminder; the Phish-heads handle the mimeographs as gingerly as they might the original Magna Carta.
Inside the amphitheater, Julie and Bridget instinctively head down an aisle in the direction of the front segment, even though this portion of Red Rocks is packed tighter than Imelda Marcos's shoe closet. As we move up and down rows, stepping over blankets, purses and the occasional unconscious person, the chances of us finding a place to stand together strike me as considerably more remote than the possibility that Dick Lamm will be the next president of the United States. Moments before the lights go down, though, we manage to wedge ourselves into a spot near the bathrooms. We're cramping someone's space in a big way, but not only does the victim not complain, he doesn't even seem to notice.
If these apostles were any mellower, they'd be on life support, yet the vibe is surprisingly pleasant. The throng is a blend of young, rather straight-looking types and their more hygienically challenged peers. The latest techniques in weaving, bundling and arranging hair so that it needs no shampooing are on display, but not all of them are successful; the chap in front of me has so many lice eggs perched among his follicles that his coiffure resembles a junior high science experiment. When he starts swinging his head from side to side, I back up for fear that the vermin will start flying at me like screws from a pipe bomb.
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