We’re blissfully heading into autumn now, and this year we happen to land on the 20th anniversary of Phish’s 1997 fall tour. For those who run in certain circles, it may be considered the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll tour of all time.
One of my favorite writers, Walter Holland, published a book in 2012 about that tour and its place in his life. It was called A Tiny Space to Move and Breathe, which is a lyric from “Dirt,” which, in turn, has a deep and resonant meaning in my own. It’s a lovely book, split almost evenly between critical reviews of the shows that fall and exacting personal actualization in journalesque form. It’s quite a niche, you could say.
But I’ve drawn from Holland’s writing style in more ways than I could even know. I got to meet the guy at a 1/9/16 reading event in New York City, and he signed my copy of his latest book (also about Phish). (A lot of things were happening in my life that winter, and there was a sort of crystallization taking place in my mind on that last night of my trip. I had been in New York for a few weeks by that point, attending Phish shows with friends and wandering around Brooklyn and generally being very introspective before making a few decisions about what 2016 would be like for me. This is all a way of saying that Phish and its many endearing fans have been a steady thrum in the background of my life.)
Here’s Holland, writing not in Tiny Space but in his 2009 phish.net review of the 12/6/97 show in Auburn Hills, Mich.:
“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.”
There’s a precision to his writing that I’ve found to be rare among even, like, good music writing. He uses punctuation like David Foster Wallace does, in a talking-it-out kind of way that I think lends character to the text. There’s an authoritative thing going on here, and anyone who’s closely followed Phish criticism (HA HA HA) over the last decade knows that Holland’s one of the few who do it well. (He’s @waxbanks in the digital sphere.) If you’re writing to an audience, you should aspire to be the very best while maintaining your voice. Play from your heart.
Anyway, the intro to Tiny Space is one of the best primers on Phish that I’ve ever found. There’s a bunch of other stuff in that book that I quite like, too, but it’s the scene-setting that I admire so much about the book. I deeply love the Fall 1997 tour, of course; sometimes it’s almost too much to listen to and have to realize that I’ll never experience it firsthand. Reading about it through the words of someone who was there and who has taken the time to really think about it is the next best thing.
When I was getting into the band and tracking my own education in a journal, I eventually came to be fascinated with the landmark moments in the band’s history — the sort of pivots that would destroy a lesser band. Holland breaks down the pre-1997 transition moment with a stark presentation:
“On Halloween , they played Talking Heads’ afropocalypse nerdfreak party classic, Remain in Light — a near-perfect album, the album that contains one of the greatest nerviest pop songs of the ’80s, Once in a Lifetime — and all at once discovered the joys of minimalist dance music. The rest of the year was perfectly fine but that’s the moment, right there. This is important: in 1994 they covered The Beatles (the ‘White Album’) and learned about jukebox madness; in ’95 they did Quadrophenia and grew as large and loud as a band could grow; and in ’96, not knowing what the hell to do with themselves, they began to dance.”
And I think that’s interesting for two reasons: 1) Anyone curious enough about the band can take the time and put in the work to map that progress, that evolution. It’s all there. All of this stuff happened. (It’s also just fun to listen to.) And 2) There are moments in our own lives that change everything for us — that change our direction on the pathless path — though it’s often difficult to perceive when and where they’re happening until we revisit them in hindsight, with wiser eyes.
Phish means the world to me because they reflect a greater sense of meaning in my life that I’ve discovered along the way. Holland just happens to be really good at describing what it was they were doing all that time, at giving definition to the puzzle pieces while I listen and learn.