Back in my day (circa ’94-’95), when people wanted to participate in online discussions, they went to America Online. Amongst their music-themed chat rooms, AOL had some that catered to specific fan bases: the Deadheads had “710 Ashbury,” we Phans had “The Phish Bowl.”
Without fail, on a daily basis, someone from their room would come into ours and rant and rave about how Phish would never be as good as the Dead, how Trey wishes he could play like Jerry, etc. Without fail, on a daily basis, someone from our room would go into theirs and rant and rave about how the Dead was a bunch of washed up old geezers who’re running on fumes, how Jerry wishes he could be half as good as Trey is, etc.
Being a Boston girl, it always seemed to me to be a lot like the Sox vs. Yankees rivalry. No one was really out to convince the other side of their own superiority (which each side knew to be true), but it was fun to jab at each other in a playful, lighthearted way because although the teams were different, you still understood and respected each other for the mutual love of the game. Like the smack talk that always went on throughout baseball season, in those chat rooms, you rarely ever saw it devolve into nastiness. If it ever did, the majority in the chat room would urge the offenders to take it on IM and leave the rest of us in peace.
That was how it was… until Jerry died.
“I see you’ve got your fist out, say your peace and get out…”
Like many reading this, I remember that day quite clearly. I had a group of friends who were Heads first and foremost, but loved Phish too — I met them after having set up trades for Phish tapes. One of those friends had made it her mission in life to bring me, a Phish-exclusive phan, to my first ever Grateful Dead show. She got us tickets to the Boston Garden shows in September… and cue the groans from everyone else who had tickets to those shows that would never happen. I was excited to see them, if for no other reason than to pay homage in some small way to the inherited culture and value system I was claiming as my own as a newly minted, 20 year old adult.
After calling each of my Deadhead friends, I fired up my Hayes modem so I could check in on the regulars in “The Phish Bowl,” many of whom I knew to be both Phish and Dead fans. It wasn’t long before someone whom we all recognized as a repeat instigator from “710 Ashbury” came in, unleashed a torrent of profanity-laced nastiness and left immediately, before anyone could reply.
What followed among those of us who were there at that time was a heartfelt conversation about how we needed to be there for the Deadheads – as much as we could be – as they came to grips with their new reality. We all openly acknowledged that without the Dead, there would be no Phish. Although there was very little about their music that was even remotely comparable to the Dead’s, there was enough cross-over appeal to attract some of the same types of people who had a penchant for transcendental, exploratory improvisation to create a sense of kinship with the Deadheads. We saw them as part of our extended family; they were absolutely part of our tribe and we needed to help ease their suffering in whatever small way we could.
We collectively agreed that outbursts like the one we just witnessed were to be expected, but no one was to retaliate when others would follow. We agreed to remain silent and let them vent, or else to express our own sorrow and grief over the loss, but to not in any way challenge them or try to incite any sense of animosity. We all understood that they are going through hell right now – how would we feel if we knew that Phish, as we knew it, was gone forever? Given the nature of our being both complete strangers and Phish phans, we were prime targets for them to unload on and we knew it. Tightly knit group that we were at the time – there weren’t a ton of regular Phans on AOL back then – we all agreed to pass the word along via email to others who weren’t here for the conversation, or to IM anyone that we saw who seemed to not understand that this was how we wanted to move forward as a community in the weeks to come.
We did our best to be understanding and empathetic, and it was appreciated by many of the Deadheads who either noticed that the only ones who came by their room at all were those expressing their sympathy and when they’d lurk in our room, they’d see that we weren’t being combative or at all argumentative with those who tried to provoke us into a fight… most of the time, anyway. Not everyone was on board the majority; trolls plague every online community. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that those we dealt with back then are regulars on Phantasy Tour today. But I digress…
In the weeks that followed, most days saw a fairly even match of those who appreciated our empathy and understanding and those who suggested we were working on some kind of conspiracy to win them over, as if we somehow thought Phish could ever replace what they’d lost. They insisted that we saw Jerry’s passing as a golden opportunity to help Phish get bigger. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, on both counts. On most days, you’d find the majority of us lamenting how big Phish was getting and waxing nostalgic on the smaller, more intimate venues of days gone by – but there was no convincing that portion of the Deadheads of our sincerity. It seemed that for every one of them who held at least a glimmer of hope that they’d one day find joy in the music again — however bittersweet — there was another that couldn’t (yet?) see beyond lamenting what was lost.
Now, here we are, 20 years later. AOL has been replaced by Facebook and Twitter, but people are still connecting online to discuss the things they love and hate.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
“Yes, I get the gist of it, but it’s alright…”
I love the passion, the positivity and rampant idealism that governs our little corner in the world of near-psychotic musical fanaticism. I love that humming live wire feeling while walking around the lot as you absorb the energy, smiling so much your cheeks hurt because you’re finally there again, in the moment, waiting for the show to start. I love bringing newbies to shows who walk in having no idea what to expect and walk out peppering you with those insatiably curious questions that tells you they’ve got one foot planted firmly on the steps of the bus. I love that it’s become easier than ever to stay connected to all our far flung friends between tours, and to even do couch tours when we can’t be together for shows, which becomes more and more common as we have to prioritize children and other responsibilities over concert tickets, gas money and hotel rooms. But on the flip side – and there is always a flip side – sometimes if you’re not vigilant in making a conscious effort to keep that perspective firmly in place, that passion can turn to apathy, that positivity curdles into negativity and that idealism can devolve into pessimism.
Since the announcement of the 50th anniversary shows , my Deadhead husband and I have been happily responding to excited, anxious and overjoyed posts and texts from friends and family who’re spread out all over the country. We’ve had more discussions on our 4th of July plans in the past few days than we typically have in the weeks leading up to the holiday itself. Given that the vast majority of people we know are both Heads and Phans, they’re all super happy and excited about this, vowing to find a way to Chicago one way or another. There are very few friends of ours that fall squarely into the Deadhead-only camp with no interest whatsoever in Phish. Of those that do, they’re either cautiously optimistic that Trey can pull it off, suspiciously quiet, or else despondently vocal about how perfect this would have been if only…
While we’re on the subject of Deadheads, I should clarify that although as the wife of one, I’ve been exposed to more music, trivia and mind-numbing statistical minutia than any mere mortal should be able to tolerate over a 15 year period (love you, Bill!), I cannot claim to be a Deadhead myself. I have seen just about every variation that’s come within driving distance to me since Jerry died, and I do absolutely love the music, the vibe and everything about it. If the stars had aligned, I absolutely would have been a Deadhead, but having never seen Jerry in person, I will always remain outside of this circle of people who can count themselves among the fully initiated. And I’m ok with that.
I don’t lament missing out on Jerry with the Dead any more than as a teenager, I lamented never getting to see Led Zeppelin – the timing just wasn’t right for me. For those of us born (or introduced) too late, recordings are all there will ever be. As in all things in life, my perspective and feelings about it are entirely up to me. I can either make peace with reality being what it is and focus my efforts on a live experience that _is_accessible to me, or I can waste my time and energy on mourning an impossibility. As Monty Python once so eloquently advised, I prefer to “always look on the bright side of life…” (You’re welcome for having that song stuck in your head for the rest of the day).
I’m pointing this out about myself because I want you, Dear Deadhead Reader, to understand where I’m coming from as you read this. I don’t know what you know. I haven’t seen what you’ve seen. I haven’t felt what you’ve felt. But I have my own story based on what I have known, seen and felt over the years with my own band and my own community of fans. I’m sharing it with you here in the hopes that you can understand why I’m looking at these shows as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see your band – the one that paved the way for mine — playing with the guy who has been my version of Jerry since I first started listening to them over 20 years ago. I know the vast majority of Deadheads get that and respect it the same way Red Sox and Yankee fans share both that rivalry and camaraderie, but being the starry-eyed idealist that I am, I can’t help but wish that there was a way to please all of the people, all of the time.
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