Writing about writing about Phish

Here’s a really cool interview with Wally Holland, the author of the new 33 1/3 book on Phish’s “A Live One.” It’s like 60 Minutes on acid.

I credit Holland (“waxbanks,” to those who travel in certain circles) as one of the great writing influences in my career. He wrote a book a few years back about his life in the fall of 1997, where he transposed Phish’s revolutionary developments during that tour with the tectonic shifts going on in his own personal life at the time and since then. It’s an incredible book. (There’s a part toward the beginning where he essentially maps the band’s growth from mid-80s Burlington bar band to the Most Important Touring Band in American Cultural History. It’s dynamite stuff. Succinct and illustrative. If I had my copy handy I’d share a bit with ya.)

Even more than that, though, Holland’s phish.net show reviews became canon for me as both fan and young writer. Much like how David Foster Wallace described why he began inserting footnotes into his fiction, Holland is a master of using technical devices to fracture reality. (Also like Jon Fishman’s polyrhythmic breakdowns deep in the second set, say.) In particular, I’ve noted his hyphens and dashes and parentheses: These tools fundamentally change how the reader interacts with the material. It can be done poorly, or it can be done well — and that’s one of the great wrestling matches between writer and pen. It’s conversational, and it’s something that I’ve found very useful in my own work.

An example, from his 12/6/97 writeup:

“I tend to forget that the first set of this show even exists, because the second set is – maybe, I suppose we should say ‘maybe’ – the finest set of the finest year of Phish. Like the 11/17 show, this one’s got everything: knife-edge cow funk, classic rock homage, eerie soundscapes, that ambient-roar ‘space jam,’ and the whipcrack segues that would all but disappear a couple of years later. Twelve years after it went down, it’s the intense focus that gets me – the coherence: there are no dead spots, no throwaway moments, just continuous shared creation. Even Phish’s unfortunate musical dick joke (Sleeping Monkey) can’t dispel the breathless energy of the jam out of Tweezer. The suite of four tunes that opens the second set feels like an old-school Tweezerfest a la 5/7/94, though of course we don’t get back to the Tweezer theme until the set-ending Reprise. It’s all of a piece – Izabella is just a coalescence of the ‘space jam,’ Twist spills out of Izabella’s stop/start funk outro without breaking that loping rhythm, and Piper feels like gathering up shattered pieces of the three songs preceding it.

“Despite wandering freely between styles and tempi, the second set of this show feels like a single piece of music – certainly as cohesive as the previous week’s Runaway Jam in Worcester. It doesn’t have the upbeat catch-all catholicism of a show like 11/26/97, but it’s not meant to: this is a single statement. And I guess there’s a first set in there somewhere – probably right before the second set, now that I think of it – and if you’ve got an hour to spare you can probably listen to that one too. I hear the band’s decent.”

And from 12/7/97:

“Spectacular show, well deserving of SBD treatment. When 30something fans get nostalgic about the late 90’s, partly they’re longing for their college/grad-school freedom and irresponsibility, but mainly they’re thinking of astonishing setlists like this one. Phish doesn’t do first sets like this one anymore. Damn, just *lookit*: there really are four genuine segue arrows on the *first set* songlist, AND a couple of ridiculous bustouts, AND an old-fashioned Ice sandwich, AND an out-of-nowhere Tube Jam reprise that had phish.net readers excitedly/confusedly scratching their heads on 12/8/97 (I know I was). And that’s just the first set. The second frame is just ridiculous. And how good was Fall ’97? This superb show was just the lite’n’easy followup to the cataclysm in Michigan just 24 hours earlier.

“Get this show, obviously.”

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