Weekend Reading: New Phish Bio

 

With the second leg of
their summer tour about to kick off next week what better summer reading than
the recent authorized biography, penned by respected
Rolling Stone contributor Parke Puterbaugh.

 

By Jedd Ferris

 

After Phish reunited last year after two break-ups (the
first deemed a hiatus in 2002, the second supposedly final in 2004, longtime
fans were hoping this authorized biography from former band in-house writer
Parke Puterbaugh would answer a lot of questions. The jam kings spent two
decades building one of the most loyal underground followings rock ‘n’ roll has
ever seen, but their abrupt crash-and-burn ending in 2004 – concluding with two
of the sloppiest shows the group ever played at their own festival in Coventry,
Vermont – left many loyal Phishheads with puzzled emotions.

 

Author Parke Puterbaugh, too, is an admitted fan. He came to
the band through a 1995 Rolling Stone assignment and ended up becoming the group’s staff writer. Along the way, he
not only compiled plenty of interviews with each member of the quartet – guitarist
Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon, keyboardist Page McConnell and drummer Jon
Fishman – he also tasted the magic of their adventurous live shows and stayed
along for the ride for pleasure as much as profession. As he plainly states in
the book’s intro: “I firmly believe they are one of the great American bands – and
not just jam bands.”

 

The author’s personal fascination both helps and hurts the
authorized Phish: The Biography. He
clearly understands the geeky minutiae of the Phish experience – tracking every
show set list and distinctly defining the band’s different musical eras. The
book is a solid overview of the group’s gradual rise from crunchy college kids
in Vermont playing dance halls and local bars to regional New England
grassroots favorites to theatre-level mainstays to arena rock heroes.

 

 

Along the way, Puterbaugh covers all of the band’s notable
highlights. He looks into the early years when they created many of their
compositionally driven rock epics like “You Enjoy Myself.” He also discusses
much of the band’s underground lore, like an onstage secret language and the
fictional back-story of Gamehendge, Anastasio’s college thesis turned never
fully realized rock opera. With these quirky elements and boundless sonic
exploration, the band was able to earn fans one at a time with little
mainstream recognition. With persistence they eventually lured the multiplying
herd to big arenas and their own massive festivals, including the all-night
millennium marathon at Florida’s Big Cypress Indian Reservation. For the
outsider, this is a comprehensive read through Phish’s unconventional and
intriguing story of success.

 

On the downside, hardcore fans have little to learn here.
Besides briefly discussing Anastasio’s upbringing in New Jersey, Puterbaugh
doesn’t offer too much background on the individual band members before their
formation. He also doesn’t offer much more than what’s already known about the
break-up. In initially calling it quits, Anastasio admitted fatigue and
insecurity about the band’s ballooning, self-sustained organization. It also
became apparent that drug use was a factor – fully revealed with the
guitarist’s 2006 arrest. Limited details surface at the book’s conclusion. Even
in an epilogue Q&A interview with Anastasio, it feels like Puterbaugh’s relationship
with the band made him skittish about asking the tough questions about what
went wrong. Not that the band owes anyone any juicy tales of debauchery, but a
deeper explanation would have been appropriate, especially as the band seems
fully invested in their third chapter.

 

Phish starts the second
leg of their extensive summer tour on August 5 at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley,
California. Dates at Phish.com – sorry kids, but most of the shows are already
sold out.

 

 

 

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