In the summer of 2012 I embarked on a road trip to The Gorge music venue in Washington to see Phish with a few friends. I was not then, or am I now, a Phish fan, but I have never been one to turn down a road trip and an adventure. I have always been aware of the large gatherings of people that travel from abroad to watch Phish, and even the few that follow them around the country, and this fanaticism is something that I thought would be interesting to explore in further depth. What is the attraction and why do their fans follow and flock?
We arrived and set-up camp on a Thursday, and for the most part it was like car camping in a grass parking lot with an allotted camping spot that was as big as a parking spot. Upon arriving we were on the outer rim of the sea of campers, but that was only temporary. The field continued to fill up and within no time we we became completely submerged and in every direction all I could see was people, cars and occasional hackie sacks gliding through the air.
We cooked dinner, built a tent and, very quickly, night was upon us. Our camp was a significant distance from the market and even though we were relatively close to the bathrooms it was dark, in fact, it was very dark. He had our head-lamps and tiny lanterns strung up with shoe string and bubble gum, but that only illuminated a small patch near us— we were all camped in bubbles of light in a sea of dark. Out of context and costume we could have been an army resting from a grand march to the battlefield to defend our ideas, or pilgrims exiling to another land— eager and desirous for solace.
In the darkness and in the shadows beyond our bubbles of light— our bubble of communitas— I saw shapes scurrying about. I heard people whispering, piercing high-pitched noises and feet scuffling about in the dirt. I leered down the narrow path between the cars, squinting from the LED lamp that danced in my foreground, and all I saw were shadows moving about— darkness interweaving with more darkness in abstract and random forms. It was my inclination, and perhaps my instinct, to be afraid of what lived beyond the light. It felt wise and prudential to keep the darkness at bay. I slept clutching my head-lamp in my hand and with one-eye open, as they say. The night was filled with explosions of celebrations that permeated in every direction— this was, as they say, the calm before the storm.
On Friday I awoke abruptly, as if I was supposed to be on guard, but fell asleep on the job. It took me several moments to figure out where I was and why I felt a rush of panic and immediacy. It was warm out for being seven in the morning and I knew it was going to be a hot day— I rose, stretched and then left my camp in a sleepy daze and I wandered the earth in search of coffee, while brushing my teeth. I found the market and a line that stretched for miles and I patiently waited and then bought a bag of ice, a cup of coffee and a breakfast burrito. I awkwardly carried these cumbersome objects that were either too damn cold or too damn hot back to camp in relay-race increments.
The rest of Friday is a complete blur of hot nothingness. I failed in bringing a book to read or games to play, as I assumed the adventure was pre action-packed. My only memory is acquiring squirt guns in some hippie barter and shooting friends and strangers in a cool stream of temporary bliss from the omnipresent sun— watching their face go from ARGH! don’t shoot me to WOW! that felt amazing, do it again. However, I was apprehended for my lawless indiscretions and was given a proper finger wagging. As the Phish police have no way of deciphering between water guns and colorless-and-odorless-liquid-drug guns, as it’s a crime to randomly shoot people with LSD.
We all gathered in the camp in preparation for the first performance and our neighbors started to proclaim how excited they were for me, as it was my first time. They told me about their first time experiencing Phish and out of context it sounded like they were describing their first mystical experience— their first contact with God. They explained that every Phish show comes with a few covers and Phish always outperforms the original artist and then they on a banter of reminiscing over various covers they have seen in the past— I do not remember any of these.
We left the camp and marched out the gates and started down a path towards The Gorge. In preparation for this journey I grabbed a coat, a water bottle filled with a booze and some freshly made poutine from a vendor. I consumed the cocktail and poutine during the long journey. Upon arriving at the gates of the gorge my guide became overwhelmed with glee and anticipation and floated down the grassy hill side. The Gorge is comprised of a standard concert stage with a trussing system which sits perched on the edge of the columbia river and beyond the river, serving as a backdrop to the stage, is a towering cliff. The patrons sit in raked seating that, from a sectional view, look like giant steps— steps with a 4’ rise and a 6’ run. The runs are covered in grass and the rises are made of stone. Each step is deep enough for a blanket and a few people to sprawl out— this is how most people constructed their pews. The seating had a slight arc to align everybody to the stage, maybe 30°, at best.
I sat and watched the concert. They played between two and three hours— mostly songs I have never heard of before. They closed with Fire by Jimi Hendrix and although I have never seen Jimi perform, I am doubtful that they outperformed Hendrix— I was alone in this dissenting opinion. At the end of the concert we all funneled out, but on the way out everybody walked slower. Some danced their way back as if in a euphoric trance and others walked quietly, as if marching towards their death. If the concert was their heaven and the dark void of the camp was their hell, then by all means, this is their march through purgatory — back to hell we go. The evening in the camp was like the previous night to the power of ten. The dark void of shadow play became alive and active— it exponentially grew in size like a virus. We all sat in a circle, maybe to ensure we have eyes to protect us in every direction. They all began proclaiming that we just witnessed the best performance Phish ever, however, they must have forgotten that best was used to describe every other Phish performance they spoke of earlier— apparently they do not understand the meaning of the word best. I, once again, slept with one eye open.
Saturday morning was a carbon copy of Friday, except I was able to find a better vendor for my coffee and breakfast burrito. Saturday was exceptionally hotter than Friday, even by 8 o’clock in the morning. We all decided to leave for the afternoon and play in a lake down the road— this experience was several octaves higher in pleasure than the squirt gun experience. I swam, I played and, every now and then, slipped on moss covered rocks— it was a fun afternoon. We returned back to camp around dinner time and I ate something I found in the market, most likely poutine again. The concert on Friday night seemed rather anticlimactic to me and I was rather confused why so many people drove so far. So I decided to figure it out. I filled my water bottle with another cocktail and ventured out of the camp, which only felt safe because it was still light out. I went from camp to camp introducing myself and meeting new people. They shared their food, their drinks, their games, their music and their smiles. I met somewhere in the vicinity of fifty people before returning to our camp with my water bottle still full, as I was topped off multiple times. I did no find the answer to my question, but I was, by the time, with no doubt, completely drunk. Yet again, we gathered and we marched. Over hills, cross bridges and streams— like modern day explorers seeking refuge from the dismal realities of Samsara. Just like Friday my guide gleefully floated down the hillside and found us the “perfect spot” to view from. We draped our area with the blanket, removed our shoes, sat, relaxed and waited.
My guide brought, among other things, a box of Cheez-it crackers that were highly enriched in salt, synthetic cheese flavoring and high quality marijuana. They came nicely bundled in tiny little bags of doses— perhaps so I could moderate my consumption. I was drunk, I was hungry and they were salty and delicious— I did not self-moderate. I ate way too many. I consumed the snack while, for the most part, remaining in an idle position and because of this I was unable to judge my intoxication. After about an hour into the performance I had to use the restroom and I stood up and it hit me— I was in an entirely new state of being. I left to find the bathroom.
The journey to the bathroom was not terribly difficult and I actually felt as if I just floated across the grass— it was easy and calming. My return journey was rather unusual and I finally discovered why all these people gather— in short, I had a moment of clarity.
I walked back by cutting through the seating from the side and I witnessed the stepped crowd as a cross section. Every single person was standing towards the edge of their respective plateau and they were all in rows, concentric rows that slowly arced the stage. The sun had completely set and the deep saturated stage lights were the only source of light, and as I watched the concentric and single file rows of people they were blanketed in colored light that changed on every downbeat— from red, to blue, to magenta, to green, to cyan and so on. The layers, upon layers of color-changing Phish fans were all dancing in the same slow dance. The dancing was the progeny of 8th grade boys at a Sadie Hawkins dance and 1960’s b-roll footage of people dancing at a Dead show— whatever you’d call that.
The dancing, in of itself, was of no significance. What I realized is they are all doing the exact same dance, to the exact same rhythm and tempo— regardless of the tempo of the song. The audience was in sync with themselves and as I walked through the crowd, I felt like a ghost as I interweaved around people and their piles of belongings. They were fixated on the stage in a trance like state— which was my exact moment of clarity. They’re in a trance and this venue is their church— Phish is their religion. And just like the hordes of people that followed buddha 2500 years ago, Phish fans also follow. They follow blindly and faithfully— Phish can do no wrong.
Once i became awakened to this I stopped where I was and I slowly turned in a full 360° circle and soaked in the dancing, the flashing lights and the thousands of blissful expressions, as if they all transcended out of the dark dismal suffering of camp Samsara. I returned to the perfect spot and watched the remainder of the show with an appreciation for their art, their power and what every Phish fan knows but cannot explain— their je ne sais quoi.
The show climaxed with a sea of people throwing glow-sticks in every direction and the sky become glittered with thousands of neon green and yellow objects swirling about in their air and as quick as the show began, it ended. All the glow-sticks fell with abruptness and in the dark grass they faded into nothingness. The song, the experience, the trance, the weekend and the sermon all ended at the same time. It suddenly became dark and cold and the entire audience slowly exited their church — like monks searching for their sage, they slowly marched. The walk through purgatory was dark and quiet and hell was exactly how we left it— simple and normal. And like the thousands of mystics who have come before, the Phish fans, once again experienced the grace, the sacred, the divine and now they must hesitantly live with the Dark Night of the Soul— desperate and desirous to blissfully live in Nirvana, they will flock and follow at all cost, over and over.
A Western scholar asks:
“You know, I have now been to a number of these Shinto shrines and I have seen quite a few rites, and I have read about it, thought about it; but you know, I don get the ideology. I don’t get your theology.”
The Shinto priest politely pauses to respect the scholars profound question and then replies:
“We do not have ideology. We do not have theology. We dance.” (Campbell, 1988)
1.Campbell, J., & Moyers, B. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Doubleday.