(Everything I need to know I learned from Phish. Actually, it started with surfing.)
When I was 17 years old, I went with my girlfriend and her parents to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. School had just gotten out for the summer and life couldn’t have been better. After all, I was only 17 years old and I had my own set of wheels, a beautiful teen model for a girlfriend, and the Atlantic Ocean all to myself. High School relationships being what they may, I had only been going out with Jenn for two-months. By high-school standards, I thought we’d be choosing the best man and bride’s maid by autumn. I was wrong, of course.
After a 10 hour drive from Philadelphia, we arrived in Duck, NC. While Jenn’s parents went grocery shopping and settled into the beach house, she and I went for a walk on the beach. We held hands, like teenage fools, and gazed into each others eyes…but then I saw the waves. Stark mad naked, silhouetted by the moonlight, the waves made the sound of a thunder so impassioned, so pure, that it echoed from the beast within, unleashing visionary lashes of stone cold madness. And yet, even while galloping through insane, the waves remained at ease. Crashing violently against the beach and yet always with a calm, level coolness.
The next morning, I rented a wet suit and a board – I was going to learn how to surf those waves. The waves that galloped through insane, the waves that crashed violently against the beach – I was going to ride them.
“That’s a good attitude,” said Joe, “but don’t confuse ‘ride’ with ‘control.’” Joe was the only surfer in the world who was patient and gracious enough to be my teacher. Ironically he was also the reason why Jenn would leave me two weeks later. Oh, he didn’t know about her silly schoolgirl crush, but he was quick to point out that things weren’t going great between her and me. The next day when we hit the water, he looked at me and said, “You know what, man? You’re forgetting the first rule of surfing – you gotta be young, you gotta have fun.” He was right, you know.
Just then I wiped out. Hard. The undertow whipped me down, smacking my head against rock bottom, before spitting me out as if to cast me out of the ocean, out of North Carolina and all the way back to Pennsylvania.
It was on that lonely drive back home that I learned the second rule – “You can’t control the waves but you can learn how to surf.”
Six months later I saw my first Phish show. It was in Worcester, MA for New Years Eve, 1993. Outside, New England was whitewashed – nature furiously gnashing its teeth through the mouth of a snow-breathing dragon.
Inside the Centrum, however, it was warm and cozy, faces lit with the undying joy of those who get the magic that is Phish. By the time Auld Lang Syne rolled into a third set jam, the levee snapped and I was back on the beaches of North Carolina watching four surfers do their thing – Trey, Page, Mike and Jon were out on the waves, riding them all the way in to the sandy banks. And by the time Split Open and Melt hit, I was right out there with them, catching tubes and harnessing the curl. I often wonder if it is a coincidence that this is the only Phish show to date in which the band members themselves dressed up in wet suits.
I have gotten wet many times since then. Soaked even. From what some fans call “The Golden Hose” but what I simply know as surfing. Real surfing. And that is what music, all good live music anyway, has as its heart. It is about surfing – being young, having fun and not controlling the waves but riding them.
Every New Years Eve since that first one in Worcester, I have made the pilgrimage to wherever Phish is playing. In 1996 it was in Boston, MA and immediately after the show we went to a friend’s party. It was there that I saw The Slip play – by the time we got there they had been playing for a couple of hours already and they continued to play until dawn. The room they were playing spoke a mellow scene – a red brick basement with a few scattered sofas, spilled beer and overflowing ashtrays. Faces radiated warm glows and wide scintillant eyes glistened with owl-like wisdom as The Slip filled the air with notes of sense and color. It was as if the notes they played were already there, wading in the sea of candles, dimly lit smoke rings and burning incense, and The Slip was just there plucking them. Like gardeners…or surfers. They, as a band, could ride big waves, tsunamis, pulling out rip curls and double-backs and god knows how many other moves they had learned and practiced. But instead they chose to ride this small, soft-spoken one, because it was the one wave that was there at the moment. And with grace they rode it to a waiting shore. Those of you present for “The Ambient Set” at this year’s Lemonwheel know exactly what I am talking about. The waves you ride are the waves that you are on; not the ones on the horizon, nor the ones already breaking on the sand. I remembered the second rule of surfing: You can’t control the waves but you can learn how to surf.
And it was here that I learned the third one: You can’t get stuck riding yesterday’s waves…nor can you get stuck playing yesterday’s jam.
Bands that are successful at true live improvisation – reigning kings such as The Allman Brothers and Phish to the new kids such as The Disco Biscuits and Lake Trout – they all know these rules well. They all surf. You catch a wave, you take a risk, you ride it gloriously to its end or you wipe-out somewhere along the way. Either way, you get right back up ready for the next one because, if you hesitate, you just might miss The Greatest Wave Of Summer. You get knocked down, but you get up again.
In those moments of live musical splendor, when the leviathan rises and is met with thunderous applause, I close my eyes and I am thrust into the edge of the Atlantic. I would like to say that I am cast back to the shores of Nags Head, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but I am not. Those were the waves of yesterday. Right now, I’m just a part of the jam.
It is July, 1993 and I am in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I am staying with my girlfriend and her parents. School just let out for the summer. I am 17 years old and life couldn’t be better. After all, at 17, I have my own set of wheels, a beautiful girlfriend and two more weeks before we break up. My father is still alive. I have yet to meet, and later lose, Missy Kuhn. I still don’t even know where I’ll be going to college. I have just bought Picture of Nectar and listened to it once.
I know nothing else about Phish. I like Jane’s Addiction, though. And the Grateful Dead. My mother is still healthy and heartwarming, my brother is still happy. I have not yet been to Colorado nor have I lived in Northampton, MA. I have never worn a fedora hat. It will be three more months until I lose my virginity; three years until I lose my shit while en route to State College, PA. It is July, 1993 and I am about to learn how to surf…
Benjy Eisen was the Northeast Division-A Bowling Champion of 1978. He was 3 years old.