Postcards From Page Side: 30 – Phish Reaches Dead’s Last Year

30. In the grand scheme of things, 30 years may not seem like a long time. But, in the world of rock music, it’s a lifetime. Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison – none of those superior talents even lived to see the age of 30. Which, brings me to this column. On Wednesday, Phish will embark on the start of their summer tour, kicking off their 30th year as a band. It’s kind of eerie to think that the grandfathers of our scene, The Grateful Dead, only lasted 30 years themselves, before the passing of Jerry Garcia. And while both Phish and The Dead have crafted a legacy for our scene that will last a lifetime, as we compare their 30th years – things couldn’t appear more different.

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In the summer of 1995, Phish were nearing completion of the leap to playing summer sheds and amphitheaters regularly, while the ill-fated summer tour for the Grateful Dead would sadly, be their last. While Phish would inadvertently and unofficially (or officially, depending on how you look at it) take the torch from The Dead a few months later with Garcia’s passing, they continued to fly mostly under the radar, except for a newer generation of fans (ironically enough, mostly in our 30′s now). Not to try and beat the dead horse of comparing these two bands – because, they are vastly different in just about every way – but if one looks at a snapshot of where both bands were/are entering their 30th year, it’s almost tough to ignore a few blatant points.

For Phish, 30 years together seemed impossible a decade ago, and in many ways they were almost on the same darkly lined path Garcia and The Dead forged before them – before extinguishing overnight. While the Vermonters’ first hiatus started in October 2000 and lasted through New Year’s Eve ’02 – ’03, a quick recharge that mirrored The Dead’s respite in 1975,  Phish officially called it quits in 2004. This “breakup” lasted  nearly five years. While Trey Anastasio did in fact get arrested for drug possession in 2006, the fact that his main band was on break allowed him to seek treatment which he admits saved his life. (I firmly believe Phish might not have made it this far without that eventful night for Anastasio).

Now, starting in 2013, Phish isn’t likely to deliver a doomed tour full of death threats and gate-crashing as The Dead did in ’95, but rather one of true second chances and celebration! As Ben Heckscher says in his April 2011 blog, A Modern Deadhead, the Dead were doomed on their final tour: “There was also the rash of misfortunes on this so-called ‘tour from hell:’ two fans fell from the upper level on June 30th, death threats against Jerry forced a show with the lights up and metal detectors at the gates on July 2nd (and a Dire Wolf: ‘please don’t murder me’). On July 3rd the show had to be cancelled when the police refused to secure the arena, citing gate-crashers. House lights stayed on July 5th as well and 100 people were injured at a nearby campground later that night when a porch roof collapsed on fans seeking shelter from the rain. It’s quite possible that these events, which must have affected the band members, further hobbled the already limping beast. It’s unfortunate that this had to be their last tour, if only because they never had a chance to go out on a high note.”

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Phish is invigorated and alive, playing fantastic shows nearly, if not, every night in this era, much more so than the Dead in their final days. It’s almost as if Phish came to a fork in the road in the past few years, and for the first time, took the other path than the Dead did by making the hard decision to break up and walk away before someone died. Now, they are back and stronger than ever. “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” as the saying goes. It’s appropriate here, for sure.

From what I have gathered, Phish fans are genuinely enthused for the upcoming tour, with expectations running high, and a true celebratory atmosphere surrounding the impending tour. This is not viewed as “going through the motions,” or dare I use Trey’s loaded “caricature of themselves” phrase, but rather something good, whole and true to themselves.

While Summer ’95 for the Dead felt like the band had a monkey on their backs, and even had to write a letter to fans to cut of the bullshit and childish behavior, the machine that eventually wore them down continued to take a toll on the band’s health, too. Today, for Phish, backstage is a far cry from the traveling circus and Betty Ford clinics that once were. Instead backstage is reportedly a safe place for the quartet with no temptations and is very family oriented.

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Maybe it’s because I’m of “The Phish Generation” and never saw the Grateful Dead in the ’60s and ’70s. Maybe it’s because I refuse to believe that we are all getting older, but something about Phish at 30 feels much different than I remember it feeling for The Dead at this milestone. It feels “better,” and as if the band is simply on the right path to continue to blaze new chapters in their legacy, instead of trying not to tarnish their legacy as they continue to drag along. Or maybe, it’s just that Phish has learned from their own – and possibly The Dead’s – mistakes and are determined to not let it destroy them the same way. Whatever it is, it’s working, and we should all be thankful.

While 30 years seems like an eternity it’s not impossible to think that Phish – continuing on their own terms – could keep this up for another 30 years. Let us all hope to be so lucky!

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16 thoughts on “Postcards From Page Side: 30 – Phish Reaches Dead’s Last Year

  1. Doug-E-Lama Reply

    the parallels are scary… the paths that the band and the phans take will determine the future.. The analog that the GD provided is a path that we cannot afford to take…

    Please.. Be cool… Be kind… Love the music!!

  2. MIghtyIcculus Reply

    Great read. I turn thirty this year and so does Phish. It feels right! I can’t wait for tour to start on Wednesday!!!

  3. Darren Reply

    It’s great how Phish have been able to re-group, grow-up and get to a place where they professional. There’s nothing wrong with a good time, but usually bands that go a long distance have to navigate the transition from kids to men. Keith Richards is the exception and not the rule – and god love him for it. I think there’s a lot to be said for how the remaining members of the Dead also stepped back, did what they had to do and have continued to this day to Wave The Flag… I know these haven’t been ‘official’ years of the Grateful Dead, but they’ve been pretty good. Looking forward to this summer and thanks for coming back to Canada Phish!!!

  4. PotvinRocks Reply

    I definitely feel that there is more excitement with Phish’s 30th then the Dead. But since 1995 Phish has played a fraction of the shows the Dead played from 1977 to 1995. Granted there are two hiatus in there but the Dead played spring and winter show, whereas Phish is primarily a Summer/Fall/New Years band.
    The Dead also never got the scene out of the backstage area because Garcia refused to say “no” to anyone.

  5. toewsey Reply

    Dig it Brian. I have never seen this letter before. thanks for sharing.

  6. Kye Reply

    Nice read. Never knew about the death threats and the chaos of 95 for the dead. Crazy how police wouldnt secure things just seems moronic to not secure something that has already been broken in to. Thanks See you all soon… I hope

  7. RAGE Reply

    1st show for me was 1990 in Saratoga, so it comes full circle for me this weekend. Woohoooo!!As someone who saw the Dead from the mid-80′s until the end, I think it’s worth noting, as Brian did in this great article, that there are some major differences with the 2 bands at the 30yr mark. Particularly, the Dead of the 90′s was a greatly diminished product relative to what Phish is putting out nowadays, which for my taste, is their best since the mid 90′s. To use Trey’s quote, the Dead DID seem to be a “caricature of themselves” by the time ’95 rolled around and it was equal parts sad and off putting. We would go to the shows out of blind loyalty, like you would to your sibling’s school play, expecting very little in the way of a good show and being there to cling to what was…not what is. As Phish fans, we should all be “grateful” that present day Phish is as good as it is and that not only are the guys not shells of themselves musically, but they are also on the right track personally, which helps to maintain longevity, musical creativity and innovation and a vibrant scene for both fans and the band. Happy 30th Phish and thanks for the memories..both those from over the past 30 yrs and those sure to be built on this tour and those to come.

  8. Vinny Bagodonits Reply

    I enjoyed this article and the site in general. Born in ’72, I straddle both communities having been at Dead shows in 80′s & 90′s and Phish shows since ’92. I think part of the reason Phish feels so much better at 30 is that they learned from the Dead’s experiences and have triumphed over some of those same pitfalls. Now the future is so bright, I gotta wear my shades!!!!

  9. Alan Reply

    Excellent article. Worth noting too, though, that Phish has never achieved the massive popularity of the Dead that forced them into stadium shows for many summers, which brought a whole new vibe to the scene (and not a good one). That said, I agree that the main difference lies in Phish’s ability to turn off a life-sucking path and reinvent their own scene while the Dead never could. Hard to imagine that Phish didn’t benefit from the hard lessons the Dead had to learn themselves. I’m just glad they’re still here and playing like demons! Can’t wait for the Gorge!

  10. Maggie Reply

    well said! it does feel right. the boys will begin their 30th year on wednesday night, july 3rd. to me a special day as it’s my 34th b-day!! it’s almost too right;) be safe, have fun, and love the music!! see ya at the show.

  11. yossarian Reply

    Heres my personal awesome stat for this summer… My first phish show of the summer, at the gorge, will be my 111th show…matching exactly how many GD shows I saw with Garcia… the next night I will pass my GD stats.

    111 = 3 (3.0)

    On to my personal next level of phandom! Long live the best music of our lives!!!

  12. Yuval Reply

    I’m glad that Brian pointed out Trey’s arrest in 2006, and how important that was. I, too, believe that Phish would not be here today if not for that eventful night. If you haven’t done so already, look up some video of Trey talking about the importance of the Drug Courts system. He expresses how grateful he is for the experience, and shared that he even thanked the officer who arrested him. Trey works a good recovery program, and he works it hard. It is something I admire him for, as much as for the music he makes.

    • bryontreece Reply

      Well said. Great article, Brian.

  13. JMA Reply

    The Dead never really went on hiatus from playing (only touring) as they played 4 shows in San Francisco in 1975. Phish did not play any shows in 2001, only NYE in 2002, and nothing in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008. So Phish is not really entering their 30th year of playing, it’s only their 25th.

    The other main difference is that Phish has all of their original members (well, after the main configuration was set). The Dead lost Pigpen in 1973, Keith and Donna left in 1979, and Brent died in 1990. The dynamic and sound changed significantly after Vince joined.

    One more thing, the Dead I think were all mostly older, at 30 years since the founding, than the members of Phish.

    That said, the Phish hiatus gave the band an opportunity to recharge and they are now playing as good as ever. The Dead would have benefitted from a break after Brent died; on the other hand, maybe Jerry would never have come back.

  14. custyfan1 Reply

    Well done once again.

    There are certainly parallels, but as you eluded, Phish is definitely in a much better place than the dead at this point in their careers and we all stand to benefit from it. So do they!

    Here’s to a great summer tour and another 30 years of Phish.

    Let it Loose!

  15. Jacob Reply

    Fantastic article, Thanks for the great read.

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