When was your first show?
Red Rocks 95, that weekend [6/9 & 6/10]. First of all, what a venue to see anybody but especially to see Phish for the first time. It was so glorious. That weekend wasn’t raining but it was misting real fine mist and I remember Chris Kuroda made incredible use of that mist to project images and colors. I also remember chills going up my neck when they did “David Bowie.” I had filled myself in on the albums but the live experience was something else entirely.
I was also taking in the crowd, which was all over Morrison— the way they looked and the way they seemed to be plugged into every aspect of the ritual. And had their own rituals, flinging these little tortillas around. I remember telling Trey afterwards when I did this marathon interview with him and Mike the next day, that it seemed the crowd was this huge pumping piston and Phish was the fuel that was driving them. I guess that’s some kind of a variation of Carlos Santana’s observation about the hose and the flower bed. So after a full weekend of that as my first exposure to Phish, how could I not have been totally captured?
So you wrote the piece for Rolling Stone and then it was killed?
Between the time it was assigned and the time I turned it in, there was a turnover at the music department. This was right at the height of the indie rock movement and things like Phish were kind of uncool to a crowd that was totally into shoe-gazing. This new editorial regime in the music department didn’t care so much about Phish or someone like me who had written for the magazine for a long time. They wanted to come in and use their own people.
They didn’t kill it, they just didn’t do anything with it. It sat in editorial inventory and then every six months I’d get a call, “Well it looks like we’re going to run that Phish story after all, so why don’t you freshen it up? I hear they’re doing a New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden. Why don’t you to go to that stand and talk to them a little bit, get some fresh quotes and bring it up to date.” So I did. No complaint from me. Each additional layer was making it a richer story and I was getting to go to all these epic shows. The Clifford Ball was the next step and the finale was the Halloween 96 show in Atlanta. By this time I had gotten close enough with Phish that I actually wrote that essay in the Phishbill. So I had begun doing writing for them even though I had no proof this alleged piece I was doing for Rolling Stone was ever going to run. [Laughs] They were taking a lot on faith and that’s another thing that I am so grateful to them for because they just sort of rolled with it.
Your situation was somewhat akin to that of Dennis McNally, who was the Grateful Dead’s publicist and then went on to write their biography. Can you talk about any challenges that you may have faced in a similar content, particularly because you may have been privy to info that otherwise might have eluded you had you not been in that position.
I tried to be fair and I tried to keep things in context and I was always guided by the notion that in general terms there are things that are appropriate to include and talk about. I was trying as hard as I could to avoid sensationalizing anything or focusing on too much negativity and the specifics of it because I just think there’s a point at which people are entitled to their privacy.
Also, I think so much of their private lives were taken with music to begin with. I heard over and over from the people who worked around them just how relentlessly they rehearsed and what a preoccupying thing the music was. You can talk about private lives but think for instance, the day Trey flew back after the Shoreline show that began the hiatus, he started working on sheet music for “Guyute.”
I know Trey said something at one point to the effect of, “I thought our scene was transparent. I thought our fans knew everything that was going on.” But I don’t think they necessarily did. For heaven’s sake as much as I was talking with them, I had no clue. When I interviewed Jon about Undermind, I remember he told me, “This is just beginning to reach its potential and we’re going to be around for many years to come…”