The Case Against Phish: Why A Once-Great Band Should Have Stayed Dead

May 29th, 2009 // 33 Comments

In 2005, at the height of Coldplay’s popularity, The New York Times published a scathing essay by Jon Pareles. “The Case Against Coldplay” argued that the self-pity of the Chris Martin-fronted band was calculated, and that its grandiose sound was built to prey on an unsuspecting populace. On the eve of Phish’s first summer tour in years, kicking off with a show at Fenway Park in Boston, Dylan Stableford offers a similar argument.

Four years after playing what they said would be their last show in a muddy field in northern Vermont, Phish made their triumphant return in March, playing three sold-out nights at the Hampton Coliseum, a spaceship-like arena in Hampton, Virginia.

By nearly all accounts, it was a joyous, cerebral, downright cathartic reunion for a band that had seemingly imploded under its own Dead-like weight—and for its rabid fans that spent four years musically destitute, with nothing to blindly follow. Everyone, it seemed, missed Phish—everyone except me.

I loved Phish. One could even say I had a borderline unhealthy obsession with the band throughout high school and college in the ’90s, attending somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 Phish concerts (including an entire tour in the summer of ’96) and keeping my large collection of live recordings in heavy rotation when I wasn’t “on the road.”

The band was a gateway drug through which I became addicted to music. Their selection of covers and, more often, their selection of house music in between sets led me to the heavier stuff—Zeppelin, Hendrix, Miles Davis, James Brown, Talking Heads—as well as designer aural narcotics—Medeski Martin & Wood, Pavement, Primus, Sun Ra, Tom Waits, Ween.

In interviews, the band has said that its downward spiral began shortly after Big Cypress, their weekend-long, millennium-eve festival that took place at Big Cypress Indian Reservation in the Florida Everglades. That show ended with an eight-hour set that spanned New Year’s Eve 1999 and New Year’s Day 2000.

For me, though, Phish actually peaked much earlier: In the fall of 1997, on a tour in which set lists were shortened so seemingly every song they played could veer into long, spooky, funky, unchartered territory—a sound not far removed from Headhunters-era Herbie Hancock, or James Brown’s Live At The Apollo. This isn’t to say that other peak moments didn’t happen in the ensuing years: If Phish only played remote, abandoned Air Force bases for the rest of their career like they did during the 2003 It Festival–set at the Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine–the world would be a better place.

“We were lost for a couple years,” Anastasio said in a PBS documentary about that Maine show. Jon Fishman, the drummer, added: “Are we just gonna coast along, make a living and be this thing people follow around? If we’re gonna go forward, there has to be a renewal of purity of purpose.”

And you’d be hard-pressed to find a band with purer intentions. Anastasio told The New York Times recently, “For people in hard times, we can play long shows of pure physical pleasure… They come to dance and forget their troubles. It’s like a service commitment.” (Don’t expect Phish to truly stimulate the economy until the drug laws change, though; Hampton police arrested 194 people and seized narcotics with a total street value of $1.2 million over the course of Phish’s three shows there.)

But Anastasio’s addiction to heroin and painkillers accelerated the band’s decline. (The band’s “last” show, a 2004 concert in Coventry, Vt., was the Seinfeld finale of rock concerts: sloppy, forced egregiously unsatisfying.) And it led, ultimately, to his eventual arrest for DWI and drug possession in 2006. (Anastasio said he told the arresting officer “thank you.”)

Anastasio’s rehabilitation and subsequent return to playing music is inspiring—particularly when you consider what happened his spiritual forefather, Jerry Garcia. And in 2003, Anastasio told PBS: “If we are going to be able to kickstart this group, something’s gotta change.”

The problem is, not much has changed since 2003—except, perhaps, that Phish got a Twitter account. The March shows in Hampton were a hodgepodge of greatest hits, with only three new songs out of the 85 making up the set lists and very little pushing, or even leaning against, the envelope.

And you can hear those problems in the band’s newest studio release, which is now for sale on iTunes. “Time Turns Elastic” is a 13-minute mini-rock opera filled with every bad Phish cliché imaginable: odd time signatures and rhythm changes, whimsical lyrics cribbed from a Sierra Club calendar, progressive noodling. (It sounds as if Anastasio has been listening to a lot of Zappa in rehab. Or the Disco Biscuits.)

One of my favorite Phish concerts of the ’90s wasn’t a Phish concert at all—it was a one-off show by Anastasio at the Denny’s-turned-rock club Higher Ground under the name “8 Foot Florescent Tubes.” He threw down a set of ’80s-inspired dance-rock replete with synchronized dancers, keyboard loops, lo-fi props and costume changes—nearly a decade before American Apparel and Williamsburg made Day-Glo-mining cool.

Inspired, unexpected, awesome.

If only Phish had reinvented itself this time around. Maybe as a punk band, or a pop band, or techno or jazz or country or bluegrass or death metal (hey, Mike Gordon already wears the cutoff t-shirts). Maybe even—gasp—with a different name. Perhaps something else people are allergic to, like “Knuts.”

  1. They should have remained a done deal. Now they risk turning into a self-parody…AC/DC comes to mind but, really, there are so many examples out there. As for “Everyone, it seemed, missed Phish – everyone except me” – I thought my boyfriend was the biggest Phish fan but his interest has also waned. He could care less, at this point, about what the band is up to. Bands retiring and coming back reminds me of sports figures retiring and coming back. It’s totally lame.

  2. for such an open-minded, enlightened music listener, you seem to have your mind made up already. based on … ? some reunion shows that were a gift to their fans and celebration of their history (you seem to miss the point there) and a single released studio track – (on which someone who “loved phish” would know better than to judge them).

    perhaps listening to the LIVE TOUR – you know, with your ears – and then forming an opinion would behoove you. weakly supported argument. lots of irrelevant info in there. fail.

  3. I think I was the only person at that 2000 show in the everglades that was there and did NOT like Phish. I didn’t even watch them play. I was just down for the road trip, but the 12 hour traffic jam along alligator alley thoroughly sucked. I had a really good time on that trip, but listening to Phish was not part of that.

    I walked around and marveled at what an illusioned culture it all was. That is what Phish has to come back to, it fills their pockets.

  4. I still like Phish and i’m probably going to buy that new album when it comes out. But that’s just me. The official tapes of the Hampton shows sounded pretty good (except that Trey kept laughing/messing up words in that “OMG, it’s great to be back” kind of way), and so will the Fenway show (which a friend is personally taping for me)

  5. @cheesebubble: I would argue that you are wrong about AC/DC.

    If someone asks you to name the one definitive ROCK AND ROLL band, one band that just sums up “rock and roll” – you would point to AC/DC. (among others).

    If someone were to ask you to name a meandering, noodling, and self indulgent band who compose forgettable and direction-less 10 minutes or more “jam” sessions, and who’s concerts are attended mostly by college students / trust fund sycophants / and cultural drop outs – you would point to Phish.

    Bands retiring and coming back suck you say? I saw the Vaselines two weeks ago and it blew me away.

    I guess it mostly matters on what you choose to listen to in the first place.

  6. AC-DC and the Vaselines both have the advantage over Phish in that they have the option of simply recreating their rehearsals on stage. Nobody expects AC-DC to spend 8 hours changing their life.
    On another hand;@Vulture.Protein: If someone were to ask you to name a meandering, noodling, and self indulgent band who compose forgettable and direction-less 2 minutes or more “jam” sessions, and who’s concerts are attended mostly by college drop outs / marketing sycophants / and cultural elitists – you would point to the Vaselines.
    If someone were to ask you to name a meandering, noodling, and self indulgent band who compose forgettable and direction-less 4 minutes or more “jam” sessions, and who’s concerts are attended mostly by highschool drop outs / welfare sycophants / and cultural pariahs – you would point to AC-DC.
    See how that works?

  7. @dbagger: Im no Phish fan, but I would totally disagree that this is a weakly supported argument- he pinpoints the bands peak, documents thier decline. Not to mention that this isn’t a legal brief- its a personal account of why he didn’t think they needed to come back.

    your “fail” is unnecessary, man. You’re harshing mellows.

  8. @Vulture.Protein: My point was, not unlike Dylan’s article, that Phish and others pass their prime. They become irrelevant parodies of their former selves. Trumpeting AC/DC at this point in time is like telling me Aerosmith is still credible (Pump was their last really good kick at the can). I wouldn’t necessarily call AC/DC a Rock & Roll defining band, either. They’ve played long enough to start dismantling past credibilities. Some bands need to know when to call it a day – and keep it that way. If they aren’t doing something new and just pining and pandering to days of old, then it starts to get kind of sad.

  9. ing

    I stumbled upon your post via Twitter and am very disappointed. I had an inkling once I read the title, but am wholly unsatisfied. I thought you might have an actual argument, but in reading this post, I realize that you’ve just succumbed to the trend that has become Phish’s reuiniting. Just as you succumbed to the trend that was going to Phish shows when you were in college.

    The 200 shows that you’ve been to are irrelevant, as the facts that you’ve dictated to be your post is much more important and the minuscule personal story that you’ve put into it seems as though you just wanted to ‘add a little something.’

    As I appreciate your opinion, and mean no disrespect, I would have rather it come from less of a fact checker and more from someone who actually thinks about what they are writing. I’m guessing you went to all of those shows in college b/c it made you look cool and because you might have kissed a girl.

    As far as @cheesebubble’s lame sports comparison; Mario Lemieux, Lance Armstrong, Martina Navratilova.

    Another thing, I logged in just to post a comment, might as well use Captcha and watch your blog comments grow…..what, do we live in the year 2000?

  10. OK. Dude,
    You’re in a strong position to make the observations that you have. And I feel you’ve done a good job constructing your points regarding Phish. Here’s my .98 cents: The last 5 years or so has been turbulent and unsettled, not just for Phish, but for the country…THE WORLD. If I learned a couple things along the way, its this: survive, develop, stay true, expand, downsize, preserve, destroy, rebuild, get loud, stay cool, hold on, and let go.

    BUT…if this seems too confusing
    (which it is)
    pick up a guitar, and feel music.

    cause really, what would you do without it?

  11. @k-rex: I see that you have simply copied / pasted my post and changed some words around. You also made fun of the Vaselines and AC/DC which made me laugh.

    Maybe dropping out of college was a bad idea, I think you should go back. You can take this class called “critical thinking” that can help you develop your own ideas and thoughts; this will allow you to write posts that aren’t facsimiles of other people’s thoughts and ideas. It can also help your vocabulary too for example – instead of using the word “sycophant” twice, you could substitute the word “toady” instead. Redundancy reflects poorly on one’s intellect.

    Remember kids, eight hours of study is more life changing than eight hours of a Phish concert.

  12. @cheesebubble: I suppose if you truly like the band then you would support them no matter what.

  13. The argument that the return of Phish is uninspired, expected, unimpressive is ludicrous.

    While I respect that the author appears well versed on the band, pay no heed to his sediments. What the author fails to see is the sense of purpose. This band was not suppose to return to the stage together, a very clear statement when they dismembered.

    Everything I have seen leans towards new beginning, not a post script.

  14. talking to phish-heads about music is a ludicrous enterprise unto itself. in 2004 i was literally kicked out of my friends’ house when i stated that at the drive-in was a more important band than phish during a discussion of “5 most important bands of the 90′s”. naturally, they had phish #2, just behind radiohead. i didn’t have phish anywhere near the top 5. also, naturally, they had no idea who at the drive-in was. that precedent hasn’t changed since, although after three years of goading they finally succumbed to the idea that the dillinger escape plan’s “calculating infinity” is a more impressive document of musicianship than any phish record. moral victories abound.

    question to the phish fans: did phish pave the way for STS9 and all of the “live electronica” acts, a genre that makes absolutely no sense at all? furthermore, if such bands never toured, would the demographic interested in “jam” style music immediately catapult itself into the economic hierarchy from not dropping $40 fifty times a year on seeing the same 5 bands over and over and spending hundreds of dollars each show on recreational drugs and gasoline to get to these remote locales?

  15. This is probably the most hate i’ve seen directed at one Idolator article ever. Live Archive seems to believe that you, Dylan, are the writer/owner of the blog instead of Maura.

    I actually agree with some of them, too, as a Phishhead myself. Except with the whole “attack your intelligence” thing that i’ve seen from other responses around the web. It’s a well written piece. I simply don’t agree with it as I mentioned in my first comment.

  16. Dylan – the main problem with your post in not necessarily the criticism (I actually thought the Sierra Club line was very funny and accurate), it’s your confusing the very predictable reaction you’re having to a band which represents so much of your youth with the fact that you’re simply getting older. I remember Trey being interviewed by Charlie Rose after the break-up was announced and he remarked that the reaction he was getting from those 30 and older was much more understanding than those under 30.

    The Phish “obsession”, to the extent that you get it, tends to be very much within the province of a middle to upper class, white suburban youth experience. I’m also not making a clichéd commentary on age either. People enjoy music and go to concerts all of their life.

    But specifically the Phish “obsession” is something most people will lose with age given that it is a very whimsical universe. It’s a transition I would say most Phish fans will go through, depending on the circumstances and it’s not really something that can be explained. As Trey put it once, paraphrasing, the stuff that was funny at 18 in a UVM dorm just isn’t anymore.

    The error you are making is demanding that Phish bring you back to that feeling you felt in a completely different time in your life and then criticizing them when they don’t. As such, you’d rather them “preserve” something which you experienced by not touring any more and failing to make you feel blissfully 21 again on tour. It’s sort of a generational ownership thing…Phish was born, thrived, and then “peaked” during “your” generation, and thus the breakup was a convenient “period” at the end of the journey, after which, you moved on.

    The best approach to Phish for someone in your position is to simply appreciate them sans the obsession. If in town, go to a show and enjoy. Pick up the album, etc. But, don’t expect to be brought back to that feeling you felt 20 years ago. It’s not going to happen…be happy with that. There’s plenty of others to pick up the slack and I for one, wouldn’t want to discourage giving them the same opportunity to experience that journey.

  17. Here’s my thing: If you’re not interested in the band anymore, then just keep your money in your wallet and don’t go to the shows. Turn your ears elsewhere and pay no mind to Phish if their return rubs you so badly the wrong way.

    But it’s really selfish of you to say they shouldn’t get back together.

    With all due respect, who the hell are you to deny the joy, the good times, the unique live music experiences, and the future memories to other fans of the band?

    I live in Japan, where a lot of my Japanese friends are fans of Phish and the Grateful Dead. Many of them never had the chance to see Jerry live, and because of their great love for his music, that leaves an empty space in their life that they’ll never be able to fill. Without having known him, they still miss him. Many more either never saw Phish or only saw them once or twice when they came to Japan in 2000, but were left wanting more. Two of my good friends here (one American, one Japanese) will be heading to the U.S. next week to catch some of the upcoming shows, and for one of them it will be her first time to see Phish. And as jealous as I am that I can’t go, I am also at the same time incredibly happy for their chance to once again experience some live Phish, and I am looking forward to the time when more of us can catch some shows, too.

    So please take your 200 shows and cram them up your snout, because they don’t entitle you to any credibility at all if the way you’d “use” that experience would be to try to prevent people in the present and future from taking part in the same activity you were so fortunate to experience so many times.

    It’s not so much that you didn’t miss Phish. It’s more that you missed the point.

  18. i think my favorite bit about music fans, especially rabid jam band fans that say “you just don’t get it”, is that its like they’re discussing the quantum mechanics of thermonuclear fusion in a vacuum or something completely beyond the grasp of a simpleton such as the “jam band non-believer.” have you ever thought that if those who disparage phish actually did take the time to “get it”, that we would fall into some sort of “flowers for algernon” type of due to knowing so much that we in fact become depressed with existence? is that why phish fans eat “gooballs” and shrooms and all that stuff? i think i speak for nearly all haters of the jam scene when i quote “tommy boy” in stating that i could get a good look at a t-bone by sticking my head up a bull’s ass, but i’d rather take the butcher’s word for it. and all of my butchers say that nobody is “missing the point.”

  19. I love this thread so much. And I would totally go see Phish if they suddenly became a pop-punk band.

    I was in a bar last week and some joker decided to pick five consecutive live Phish tracks off of the internet-enabled jukebox. It wasn’t the excessive noodling and incoherence that ruined an otherwise peaceful evening as much as the fact that we had to endure the between songs banter that was appended to the end of each track. I tried drinking more and it didn’t help.

  20. Maybe Phish should pull a David Bowie and refuse to play any of their old songs. Including “David Bowie”. It’s the only thing I can think of that they haven’t tried yet. And they can always renige at at later time; ala the real David Bowie. Or retirement. (Someone needs to introduce pop musicians to the concept of the vacation.)

  21. Ahhh…. how I love these threads. They serve as a societal cross-section, ranging from the extreme poles of “for” and “against,” to everything in between.

    I adore phish. And though my musical tastes have spanned the globe since my induction into phandom back in 1990, I have never tired of their music. Phish is like comfort food that I can always return to and enjoy, no matter how much time has passed. And music, just like food,comes in many different flavors, colors,and presentations. Just because you don’t like a certain culinary style does not make it unworthy of others peoples pallets. I am not implying that Phish (or any other band for that matter) is above criticism. But I do tire of reading posts where the “I don’t like it, therefore it sucks” tries to pass as deep analysis. Improvisation is a viable conversational style of music,it’s not for everybody though. If you hate Thai food, chances are you’re not be the person reviewing it.

  22. @Vulture.Protein:

    I’ve never really understood people who claim to hate something yet can’t seem to stay away from it. Fine if you hate Phish but why do you feel the need to keep posting here? What’s next? Hanging out in the parking lot before Phish shows so you can renounce them in person? I mean, get a life. Sure ACDC is great, but people who actually appreciate music need a little more than some guy screeching along to 3 chords and a 4/4 time signature.

    k-rex made a very good point that was obviously over your head. Maybe you should be the one studying.

    Oh, and I was at Hampton this year unlike everyone who seems to think Phish is “past their prime.” I thought it rocked and will be catching several more shows this summer. Either enjoy it or leave it alone- but if you can’t find anything better to do than bash them on the internet, what does that say about you?

  23. @Chainsaw Dick:

    There’s not really much to “get”- either you appreciate Phish’s music or you don’t, that simple. The hallmark of their live shows is sponteniety and improvisation – and Phish will be the first to admit that sometimes it sounds like crap. But it can also be mesmerizing and inspirational. Sure “gooballs and shrooms” help with this but many prefer to see Phish sober and that is just a stereotype. Anyway, you’re “tommy boy” reveals what a closed-minded person you are so I won’t even try to argue any points but you should really think about experiencing things for yourself before forming such strong opinions. Don’t believe everything you read.

  24. I feel I have been sucked into these posts as of recent as I am also very interested in this reunion. First, it’s great the band is around and good for them for feeling great about it. If it makes them happy and the people paying out the a hole to see them so great. But as an older fan I have to say it’s a bit over for me. I still prefer a good… say amherst 12-5-95 to any show post cypress. It’s just a matter of taste. But let the new kids have a shot. i will say phish is still doing their own thing, no band even comes close to a phish show. Not even remotely close. We all have our own opinions as to why this reunion happened and they all have to be different, so just let that happen. Just once I would love to go to one of these forums and see respect rather than bashing others opinions. THe scene is simply not like it used to be, I started in 97. It has seriously changed, and some would argue for the worst. But at least the music is still there. Be happy about that, and be happy they recorded the 90′s so well so we can all go back and revisit when we want. Let it change!!

  25. I was “addicted” to Phish back in the hey day, too, and I see where you’re coming from. I think they’re capable of becoming relevant again, but that doesn’t appear to be their aspiration. Nonetheless, I’m still excited to see them again, as much for the music as for the road trip with my good, old friends. I still LIKE Phish, even if they don’t surprise me anymore.

  26. ojo

    @chainsaw dick -

    you’re speaking for everybody, and you know ‘everybody’ gets it?

    yeah, no chance you sound like an arrogant, inaccurate toolbag there, eh chief?

  27. ojo


    anybody who discovered led zeppelin or hendrix OUT of phish is going to be suspect at best, in my book.

    and you saw 200 shows?

    stretches your credibility a lot, in my book.

  28. justme

    how do you go from 200 shows to a clear distaste if not hatred toward these guys you wasted your youth on? Really harsh for a onetime fan. Not trying to be an ass, just an interesting situation.

  29. Phish Phan

    The biggest difference in Phish after their reunion in ’09 is that Trey is clean. They’re all enjoying each others company now and enjoying playing to their fans more than they had in the past. One of the big issues that was tearing the band apart was Trey’s ego. That coupled with a drug habit lead to lots of tension. Now that he’s clean and humble, they’re having a whole lot of fun. You can even see it in the way he acts on stage. In the ’90s, Trey would be a bit of a showman on stage sometimes. Now, when he starts acting like a showman, he does it along with the rest of the band instead of trying to hog the spotlight.

    The only thing I DON’T like about ‘Phish 3.0′ is the effects Trey uses now. His solos don’t have quite the variety they once had and sometimes are completely indistinguishable (that’s not to say Trey isn’t still a master of the instrument). What hasn’t changed, however, is the electrifying, but still chilled-out vibe that the audience has that makes every concert an experience even for someone completely sober; and that, as much as the music, is what Phish is all about.

  30. Phish Phan

    Oh, and F$%K Punk….. All Punk Rock did to music was teach people that you didn’t have to be skilled to be a band and make money. While that is a good thing for people who thought the music industry was some untouchable dream and humbling for other musicians, it took away a lot of what made music great…. skill. Real rock and roll died in 1976 with the emergence of Punk Rock. If Phish became a punk band, even with Trey’s skills, their music would get a lot simpler and more boring and more pathetic.
    If Phish became Punk, I might have to delete every Phish song I have and never listen to them again. I’d certainly never go see them again.

  31. MC

    This band has changed my life. 70 shows in 19 years. I think that I am a better person thanks to my experiences as a Phish fan. It is harder to go against the grain, or to swim against the current. As a Phish fan I have had to explain myself many times over the years. It is not like being a U2 fan or a Michael Jackson fan. It is not GAP or JCREW and it is certainly not a fraternity house or a country club. People pre judge you… Ohhh! A Phish fan! as if to say… oh… so you do drugs and don’t have a job! You have to make decisions in life and when I heard Phish play that first time, the decision was easy. I wanted to take a different road in life. I wanted to be different. I did not want to be a stock broker or a lawyer. My bank account has suffered a bit, but my soul is rich.

  32. luke

    stumbled upon this… at this point of 2012, the last 18 months of phish have been some of the absolute best since the mid-90s. in my opinion and 100+shows of experience, they have found another layer of fun. i think they are really starting to uncork it once again… in ’05 i would have bought this article, but funny how the internet keeps a record of old thoughts. albeit relics of the era. if you re-wrote the article, what would you say now?

  33. Scott

    If an artist derives more pleasure out of continuing to play/paint/etc than they would by basking in their intact legacy, then they should continue. For any artist (or athlete for that matter), its really not about the audience except for how that audience contributes to the artist’s happiness. The artist (or athlete) owes you nothing, so take it or leave it. Your entitled to your opinion, but just be aware that thats all it is.

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