Phish: The Biography
By Parke Puterbaugh
Da Capo Press, 318 pp.
I broke up Phish—according, at least, to the neutrally titled Phish: The Biography, a new book by Parke Puterbaugh.
They arrived from the wilds of Vermont in the late 1980s as a quartet of awkward-looking music dorks from an obscure experimental college in the woods, singing show tune-injected, prog-pop tunes whose very catchiness turned rock convention on its fat, stupid nose. They jammed, too, and they were as do-it-yourself as possible for parent-funded bros conquering the New England frat circuit. Ditto their cassette-trading Phishheads. Over the next decade, Phish morphed from thick-glassed oddballs into a massively popular arena act known for their fan base's Internet-enabled frothing and post-Dead penchant for obsessive debauchery. And then, they imploded with stunning efficiency.
By the time Phish performed in Las Vegas in April 2004, they'd already broken up and reformed once and had, by then, become seriously addled hippie heroes, looking literally uncomfortable in their own skins, especially leader Trey Anastasio. The complex music's collapsed architecture mirrored some unnamed corrosion. And, apparently, reviews I wrote bounced around the echo chamber to the band. A month later, they disbanded, my words having "nudged Anastasio to the tipping point," per Puterbaugh. They were the subject of Anastasio's "end-of-band meeting" and paraphrased in a breakup announcement, too. I got a lot of hate mail, but Phish's problems in 2004 weren't solved—as Anastasio would be the first to admit—until his 2006 arrest for possession of Vicodin, Percocet, Xanax and heroin.
The Greensboro-based Puterbaugh—who spent two years researching a 1997 Phish feature for Rolling Stone and eventually became the band's in-house writer for program notes and press releases—does an admirable job with a difficult task. Phish has been largely misunderstood, often by their own fans as much as music snobs who often still don't give the good-natured music a chance, so there's plenty of myth to sort out here. Puterbaugh presents Phish's story with an even keel. The four are likable dudes, and Puterbaugh does well with his access, turning up some nice small moments. "There was nothing but a box of wheat thins making the rounds," he writes of their first meeting, in spring 1995, before recounting one of the band's meticulous practices. It is this kind of breathing, in-real-time detail that is missing from too much of the text, which skips through the band's chronology with abandon.
And for a general audience curious about the band's history, that technique—and Phish: The Biography as a whole—will do just fine. But Phish listeners are rarely casual. There is far more to be told than what Puterbaugh uncovers in his 250 pages. In keeping the book focused, Puterbaugh—like the band's sometimes conflicted dalliances with extended experimentation—aims for a middle ground. He gets neither too dorky about the band's practically incestuous creative process (which included a secret musical language to cue modulations, tempo changes and reprises), nor too juicy about their eventual self-destruction (yes, there were drugs and creepy, unforgivable no-good things, but very few specifics). What's more, he avoids the two threads' knotty relationship (such as the abandonment of their intense post-show self-analysis as their drug abuse increased beginning in the late 1990s, and the band's decreasing ambitions). There was something deeply joyous going on, but something sinister, too. Puterbaugh never adequately resolves those forces.
Phish fans have already published several books of their own on the band, including multiple editions of the set list-filled Pharmer's Almanac and the 900-page (and strangely uptight) Phish Companion. Richard Gehr co-penned the band's wonderful but sadly out-of-print oral history, The Phish Book, in 1998. Hoping for a clear synthesis, Phish: The Biography leaves many vivid stories behind, perhaps due to their inclusion in Gehr's collection. The band members' childhoods are all but ignored, for instance, ditto the income sources that allowed them super-custom axes and amps while still but a Burlington bar band. (Day jobs? Parents?)
Many fans—myself included—might welcome, surely, 100-plus more pages of well-researched details on the band's formative period and another chunk about the band's social/ political context in the go-go Clinton years. After all, what does it mean that they became the most popular touring act of the 1990s?
Phish: The Biography feels incomplete, then, and perhaps that is necessarily so, considering the band reformed in early 2009, and despite an anemic comeback album, Joy, they have since been playing at a high level of creativity and precision.
Still, given the band's arc, it is those early years that contain whatever mysterious spark turned cornball cow-funk into something wild and magical and more special than you can imagine without having been there. Even if they did look like they were about to die on stage in Las Vegas.