A Phish Tale

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

Does Gordon ever fantasize about telling such obsessives to "get a life," as William Shatner did in a memorable Saturday Night Live skit that placed him at a Star Trek convention? He chuckles briefly at the thought. "If you look at some of those unofficial Phish books that are out there, or some of the stuff on the Internet, it definitely seems like some people just have a lot of extra time on their hands," he says. "Like when they analyze the statistics of how many times we play a song and all that. And sometimes people--especially the people who come to all the shows on a tour--get mad at us when we play one song too much, whether it's an old song or a new song, or they get mad at us for not playing a particular older song. But we try not to get caught up in all that. I guess we'll occasionally joke around using the William Shatner tone, but mostly we just talk about how lucky we are.

"Here's the thing: It would be a shame to laugh too hard at them, because these are people who really are willing to follow the music even if it gets weird, even if we're taking chances--and the nature of taking risks is that sometimes it's not going to work out. But they like that. They like it best if we go out and do something we've never done before, and that's so rare. Usually the most that people want when they go out to see a band is to hear a great version of a song on their album done with the same energy that it had on that album. And our fans would hate that if we did it. If they like the songs on the album, they want to hear good versions, but they're really a cross section of the population that happens to like living in the moment, and the music symbolizes that. So if occasionally we do the standard making-fun stuff, it's not the norm. Because we really do feel fortunate."

And well they should. A sizable percentage of Phish fanatics uses the group as an excuse to gobble loads of hallucinogens and otherwise opt out of society for a spell ("It's a phase some of them are going through," Gordon concedes), but many others transcend stereotypes and are open to the band's eclecticism. Moreover, Phish crowds are generally mellow, and trouble at concerts is a rarity--although there are exceptions. A notable example took place during a sold-out four-night run at Red Rocks in August 1996. The town of Morrison, located just below the amphitheater, was overrun by music-loving vagabonds, many of them sans tickets. This temporary population explosion, which overtaxed local facilities and caused grumbling among a handful of residents and businesspersons, boiled over when a minor traffic accident escalated into a confrontation between Phishheads and cops. Daily newspapers and television stations in the area portrayed the incident as a full-scale battle--a considerable overstatement according to many people on the scene (see "Something's Phishy," August 8, 1996, and Feedback, August 15, 1996). Gordon, too, believes that the Red Rocks scuffle was blown out of proportion.

"I don't think the problems were all that bad," he says. "I think it was more of a media thing than it was an actual thing. There were a lot of people who came but couldn't get in, and it might have been too small a venue for us at that point--and because there are only so many roads going into there and there wasn't any camping that had been planned out or suggested to people, they didn't have anywhere to go. But over the years, we've learned from the Grateful Dead what to look out for and what to avoid. People who travel around have a community in the parking lots where we play, and sort of knowing in advance that it can get out of hand helps us to take steps to avoid having that happen. And we have a really good crew and security people, so a lot of extra thought goes into it. Things have been running pretty smoothly lately."

That's true on other fronts as well. Because of Phish's success, reviewers who'd never shown much interest in the band are suddenly deciding that the group was pretty good all along, and quite a few radio execs are allowing "Birds of a Feather" onto their airwaves. As a result, Gordon feels that some of the specious assumptions previously made about Phish--"that we sound a lot like the Grateful Dead, and that we're more psychedelic than we actually are"--are slowly beginning to evaporate. But he sees others taking their places.

"The average person and the media think that our music is happy music," he says. "And since we would like life to be a celebration, it is joyous in that sense. But a lot of our lyrics and, hopefully, the nature of a lot of our jams have a lot to do with darkness and tragedy and scariness. We would rather a jam be scary than fluffy."

Gordon doesn't go so far as to imply that his band is more about postmodern alienation than aural tripping--and even if he did, his relaxed hey-dude earnestness would undercut his argument. But he takes pride in Phish's eagerness to swim upstream. "We're not an angst-ridden Nineties band, where we think life is stupid and we're going to sing about that," he says. "We have a sense of humor and we like life, which are two things that are not in vogue right now. But we're not really known for following the trends."

Phish. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 4, McNichols Arena, $23.50-$26, 303-830-8497.

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