You go to work. You go to school. You watch TV. You listen to the radio. After a while, you think you’ve got a pretty good idea of how the world operates. Then one day you come in contact with a different way of living, a strange and fascinating kingdom of Atlantis lurking right under your nose. It’s the underwater realm of Phish — the biggest cult band in America — and for millions of people it serves as a church, an obsession, a mall, a traveling cyberdelic caravan. Here, for both phans and neophytes, we swim in that alternative ocean: the music, the language, the history, the jam bands, the pilgrims who follow the quartet from coast to coast. Whether you know everything about Phish or nothing at all, dive in. If you worry that pop culture has become sanitized and predictable, you might be surprised…
Hey, youngblood. Yeah, you. Let’s get real: this new millennium is shaping up to be a drag, right? The summer’s a bummer, kicks just keep getting harder to find, and your musical options — rock-rap, pop pap, teen crap — all pretty much suck. Sure seems like music used to be better, doesn’t it? Like back in those blissed-out, mythic days of psychedelia’s first flowering, when sex, drugs, and rock & roll actually meant something, just like Mom and Dad always say. Lucky stiffs: They had the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Janis Joplin. Hell, now that poor Jerry Garcia has all eternity to ponder the cosmic implications of his band’s name, there’s not even a Grateful Dead to truck around after.
Buck up, kiddo. Phish are on tour.
If you had the technology to create a Star Trek-style hologram world, and you could transport yourself to one of those fabled tribal gatherings they had in ’67 or ’69, chances are the cyberscape would look a lot like the five-block radius around a Phish concert. Forget those images of flower children you’ve seen in Monterey Pop or Woodstock: Phish fans, mostly idealistic straight-outta-Scarsdale college kids with their tie-dyed glad rags and their aura of patchouli-dipped beatitude, are such a caricature of hippies that they seem more vivid than their actual prototypes.
It’s the Fourth of July. In a few hours America’s ultimate cult band will shuffle onto the stage of Camden, N.J.’s E-Centre and treat a crowd of 25,000 to two 70-minute sets of wildly improvisational jamming. The sweltering streets of downtown Camden look like Frank Zappa’s ”Concentration Moon” — a dry 1968 ditty about hippie detention camps. Yet these willing prisoners are content to while away the hours before the show hanging out, communing with fellow free spirits — and practicing a bit of grassroots capitalism.
”Ganja baklava,” shouts an emaciated blond, proffering a tray of pastries you won’t find at your corner Greek restaurant. A few blocks on, a kid on a skateboard zips in and out of the crowd, trailing 15 pounds of ratty dreadlocks and calling ”Who needs Molly?” (No, he’s not a pimp. ”Molly,” he informs a reporter, is a type of Ecstasy.)