The Religious Experience of Phish

This article was originally published in the Fall 2010 edition of Surrender to the Flow Magazine. – ed.

Having grown up going to church each Sunday, I always enjoyed the religious experiences surrounding the weekly ritual, but later realized that while the ritual was fun, my beliefs had changed as I grew older and wiser. About the time I stopped going to church, I started getting into Phish. Looking back, I didn’t think much of it, but after a few years, I found myself seeing more Phish and music than I was going to church. One form of religious worship replaced another. I revisited this coincidence a few weeks ago and started to expound on the possibility that Phish had some sort of religious nature to the band and their following.

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As we travel around the country seeing Phish, we make pilgrimages to these venues and locations, houses of worship if you will. They are setup with an altar at the front (a stage), everyone dresses up to some extent for the event, and our attention is at the front and nowhere else for the next hour. We talk along at times, akin to saying prayers, allow some improvisation (a homily, if you will), take the slight errors with the perfection, and occasionally we are met with truly religious songs, bridging the gap from musical experience to religious experience. Think “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday” > “Avenu Malkenu” – serene, calm music segued into a cry for “Our Father, Our King”. The multiple levels here are apparent, particularly that Col. Forbin steps through the mirror to confront the evil king Wilson, as well as a parallel with half the band being Jewish singing a common Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur prayer. But we don’t look at it like this because our band, Phish, has personalized the music to themselves. The overt religious references aren’t there, unless you look closer at them. But they are there.

When I wrote PhanArt: The Art of the Fans of Phish, I researched the origins of Shakedown Street for the article The Historical Origins of Shakedown Street and noticed a link between our own vending practices surrounding a show and those of the saint shrines and religious worship centers throughout Europe, as well as in Japan and Mexico. It was not uncommon for a pilgrim in the Middle Ages to purchase a pin or pendant representing the saint whose shrine they have just visited, just as one can procure various items of Buddhism as you walk up towards shrines throughout Japan. Where there is a buck to be made, an entrepreneur has thought of a way and acted upon it. In Mexico City, at the shrine for Our Lady of Guadalupe, the gift shop is overflowing with more memorabilia and souvenirs than you can imagine. Walk outside and the local vendors have more.

Like early religious folk, and current religious centers, we navigate vendors selling items that are of significance to those making the ‘pilgrimage’. What’s the connection between Europe, Japan, Mexico and Phish? We all do the same thing – go into the show, partake in the glory of the pilgrimage site, spend time there, and perhaps be moved in ways that do not happen back at home or at work. As we entered the venue and later left, we were enticed by multiple offerings from other travelers, some local, some on a journey just as we are. These creations are made with the purpose of providing you with a keepsake of your journey to this venue, this shrine, the hallowed ground, as well as providing the maker of the keepsake satisfaction that they aided in your quest for something greater, not to mention a few dollars for their trouble.

Phish didn’t do this intentionally, it just sort of came along with the territory, just as religion didn’t create the market, it simply inspired it. When we are all there, having a moment with the band, being moved to dance (like the Shakers who would writhe and shake in impressive dances), had tears streaming down our faces, screaming loudly as the peaks of the night are sent out at us, we are all having a collective religious experience.

The larger the concert you go to, the greater the odds are someone will refer to a band member as a ‘Rock God’. They are revered, can do little wrong, even in their weakest hours, and are discussed freely in conversation as being beyond human. Our own fellow human beings, by mere fact that they can A) play an instrument and/or sing, and B) have people who will pay them money to have them play/sing equates with the religious experience of attending a concert. But in our case, when you have four ‘Rock Gods’ on stage, the level of infallibility is at a higher level than any other band, causing fans to become so accustomed to the small errors that we can watch these four ‘Gods’ interact as one. It’s not a trinity, perhaps a quadrinity?

Phish is not a cult, simply because you can’t leave a cult, but you can get off tour. That’s a major factor here. Sometimes friends of mine will say “Oh we’re all in a cult”. I immediately say, “No, we are not in a cult. We have choices and this is all created by us, not for us.” There is no pressure to do more than you want, although the more ardent fans may preach the good news to you more than you would like; we’re missionaries like that. Phish isn’t ‘Join us or you’re going to be miserable’, instead it’s ‘Join us, it’s fun! No? Well, OK then, more dancing room for me!’ When you introduce friends to Phish casually, it’s one thing, but to bring them to a show, that’s another. You might have to sell them on it, saying, “Come on, it’ll be fun! We’ll dance and everyone there has so much fun, it’s a great time”. You may as well just say “Come with me and take part in this nearly religious experience.”

What about those songs we like? Ever had a moment at a Phish show when the music hit you, the chills crept up on you although you were sweaty as hell? We’ve all been there. Some of us live for that moment. Think of the “Icculus” from 8/14/09 (or more recently, the “Tahoe Tweezer”), the first in just over 10 years. Trey waxed philosophic for a few minutes but that simple guitar strumming, that one chord had half the crowd putting their hands on their heads in complete and total disbelief as the sound grew louder, and then Trey hit us with it: he mentioned the book. IT was written! Yes, but by whom? We all know his name, but to hear the name of the wisest man in all of Gamehendge called out with gusto after a buildup that goes on and on? You cannot describe this to anyone but a Phish fan because seeing an “Icculus” is the pinnacle of the Phish religious experience. This is why it is so rare. We don’t get an “Icculus” every year, every decade even. It’s the sacred cow we dare not expect, for expecting it will not make it come any faster.

When I went to Hartford in summer 2010, I made sure to walk by the spot where I was standing when I saw “Icculus”: Fish-side, the walkway between lawn and pavilion. I pointed it out to my friends both nights. The energy was still teeming from that spot. It always will.

But that isn’t the only song Phish has of a religious nature. Think about “Light.” “And the light is growing brighter now (purify our soul)”. You don’t need to have majored in theology to figure this one out. Instead, just watch Kuroda’s lights as the song builds to its peak, the lights growing brighter, whiting out the crowd all around you, nearly blinding before Trey hits the mark, everyone around you arms raised. Yeah, that’s the stuff Christian rock bands do, but Phish isn’t a Christian rock band. They’re much better than that. We’re all there and without reservations to take part in the music. Plus the music is much better. Much, much better.

Sometimes the songs are a bit obvious, like “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem City of Gold). The 12/31/99 “Meatstick” brought us from the old millennium into the new one. “Tomorrow’s Song” as well. “Divided Sky” was written as a song The Lizards sang around the Rhombus. Search the Phish canon, there are more examples to be discovered.

While Phish may not be a religion, the experience of a Phish concert and tour is indeed a religious experience. Some may doubt this, but if you’re still skeptical, think about this: The best shows of summer 2010 were on Sundays: Hershey, SPAC, Merriweather, Alpharetta and Alpine.