A Phish Tale

Bassist Mike Gordon explodes some myths about Phish--and confirms others.

Gordon admits he used to believe that size matters. "I was into length--I really liked things that were long," he says, seeming less like a nymphomaniac than you'd expect. "And when we're doing a show, I still am into it. I just feel like you can't have too much of a good thing. If I'm having a musical adventure, I want to still be having it in an hour. It's like if you could learn how to fly by flapping your arms, and you were one of the first humans to ever do that: Would you just want to do it for five minutes--just go up over your house and then come down and start calling all your friends? Probably not. You'd probably want to go out for at least an hour or so, and so would I. That's why it's ironic that the essence of these long jams was capturable in just a few minutes and that I liked doing it so much. It was great to be able to chop things down to make a nice, concise song."

If this claim seems unlikely, that's appropriate coming from a band whose career has gone through enough improbable twists to fill a book--specifically, The Phish Book, a just-issued tome edited by Richard Gehr. (The group is also the subject of a feature film by director Todd Phillips that's slated to debut next year.) Anastasio, Fishman and Gordon first got together in 1983, when all three were freshmen at the University of Vermont. With guitarist Jeff Holdsworth, who quit the band in 1986 and subsequently became a born-again Christian, the trio played its first show in a dormitory lounge under the moniker Blackwood Convention. Phish lore holds that the show ended when attendees decided that they'd rather listen to a Michael Jackson cassette.

With Holdworth's departure and the addition of keyboardist McConnell, Phish's lineup was complete, and regular tours of the East Coast college circuit established a strong audience base. By 1988, the performers were eager to try their luck in other parts of the country--and an invitation from Gordon's future wife, Cilla, gave them the opportunity they'd been seeking. At the time, Cilla was waitressing at Roma, a restaurant/bar in Telluride, and she called Gordon to say that her boss, Warren Stickney, had offered to book a tour that would carry Phish from Vermont to Colorado and back again. He also promised the group $1,000 for a two-night engagement at Roma--but when it came time to formalize these details, Stickney proved elusive.

"I think I talked to him a month ahead of when we were going to go out there, but I could never get him after that," Gordon remembers. "So on the day when we were supposed to leave, we had this meeting and decided to go anyway. We went with just our light man and our sound man in a van, and we went for forty hours straight. We didn't even stop at a rest area; we'd just pull over to the side of the road to relieve ourselves and then kept going. But when we got to Telluride, nobody had ever heard of us, and the owner wasn't around. So we made signs with pictures of us on them that said, 'New England's most naive band: We drove 2,000 miles because Warren Stickney promised us a thousand dollars,' and stuck them up all over town. When he came back to town, he was kind of bummed about that."

Phish eventually made the money that had been promised, but it took longer than advertised: The foursome played ten nights' worth of shows at Roma and a joint across the street before reaching its goal. This windfall was short-lived, however. "We were staying at Fish's old roommates' house in Aspen and left the money in a notebook in the kitchen--and someone took it all," Gordon says. "All that was left was a $165 check that Warren Stickney had written. And, of course, it bounced. When we called the bank, they just laughed at us." But there was a happy ending, Gordon adds. "At those shows in Telluride, there were five or six people who were taping, and those tapes got around, and eventually word of the band spread because of them. When we went back a year and a half later, we had a lot of fans."

This herd continued to grow in Colorado and elsewhere, and Elektra Records eventually took notice: In 1992 the company put out Junta, which Phish had self-released in 1988, Lawn Boy, a recording the Absolute A Go Go imprint first delivered to stores in 1990, and a fresh effort, A Picture of Nectar. Rift and Hoist followed in 1993 and 1994, but it wasn't until the arrival of A Live One, in 1995, that the industry truly paid attention. Many of the songs on the package are long-winded; it's two discs long but contains only twelve songs--and many of them fail to convey the undeniable jolt the musicians regularly produce on stage. Nevertheless, the already committed helped make Live the first Phish effort to go platinum, thereby serving notice that the band's concert receipts were no fluke. Like the fabled Deadheads, who turned the Grateful Dead into an incredible cash generator, the so-called Phishheads proved to be exceedingly loyal. They don't always bathe regularly (traveling around the country on a shoestring budget plays havoc with hygiene), but they go to Phish gigs again and again, swapping tapes and song lists of favorite performances and otherwise exhibiting the kind of devotional behavior that invites ridicule from outsiders.

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