“This is the Golden Age.”
By: Keith Eaton, phan and educator
Cross posted at Keith’s blog.
One night in 1997, at a “Merry Pranksters Reunion” in Portland, OR, Ken Babbs and Ken Kesey and Paul Krassner were going to regale the audience with stories about the heyday of the bus and the books and the booze and the insanity and the orange juice, of course. However, they wouldn’t keep a single course, and no one could get a straight answer from them. Kesey read from The Last Roundup, Babbs interrupted, cheerfully, and Krassner took on the cranky cynic role. When I asked Babbs and Kesey to sign a book I’ve since lost, I asked, “What do you think about the tension in the Grateful Dead’s music reflecting the Nietzschean tensions of the Apollonian and Dionysian drives in art?”
Kesey looked at me dumbfounded, as if I had asked him his name after just having told me, and, after a long pause, he said, “Well, what about it?” Obviously, he knew. Not only that, he was not impressed with the epiphany which had recently shook me, and he might have even been tired of such discussions late into the night with people whose names he couldn’t remember and whose lives didn’t really interest him all that much. Babbs offered me a glass of straight vodka. Apparently, that’s what their pitchers of “water” had been for the evening. They both laughed and tipped their prankster hats.
Never trust a prankster, right? Just be here now. Having heard these messages over and over, how can it be that in 2014, Phish’s fanbase wants Phish to be the Phish scene known and loved in 1994? Though we may say we want that, do we really? How many times do we remember to forget? Driving into the Great Woods (now Xfinity, formerly Cricket) parking lot on July 1st, I expected a “scene.” Who knew that everyone else in the world had a different plan? My brother-in-law and I parked right next to the gates of the shed, dreading the fact that we would first in, last out: it was 4:30. Times have changed, and this got me thinking about transitions.
How does one shift from workaday life to suddenly existing in Phish parking lot I’m-supposed-to-have-musical-transcendental-experience mode? Can it be manufactured? Can it be sought? In a roundabout way, this seeking of that which cannot be sought represents the tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian drives (if one even embraces the latter).
Once the tardy phans arrived and an accumulated mass began to collect in the venue, I began to feel the onset of summer. Didn’t people, back in the day, celebrate the return of heat and light and fertility with some sort of exuberance? Would they show up late to the Maypole gathering? Would they talk during the crowning of the Lord and Lady of May? Did Merrymount disregard its musicians with chatter and yawning contests and cocktail talk? I embraced the evening’s helping of new music–5 or 6 songs from Fuego–and lauded the band for their efforts generating joy for the new material. The crowd? It felt like the back 40 behind a Cape Cod bar at times.
I have always believed that attentive listening is a way to facilitate the IT, that ineffable bliss, that self transcendence, disambiguation, falling into the moment many of us come to seek year after year. The community tends to the zeitgeist as acolytes tending a small fire. Nietzsche, too, looks for common experience to meld into the one, but if everyone is talking, such archetypal experiences are even harder to achieve.
How can one audience on one night connect all the dots, bring all elements together to make IT happen again? The question as the tourist, the short spell traveler, is whether or not one can let go of ego long enough to open up the space for the great melding to happen. While there were pilgrims seeking veggie burritos or grilled cheeses, this was not a Dead lot from 1989 where Bacchus breezed around, bright-eyed, cup spilling over. Dionysus was waiting in the shadows of the heated day, but he or she was hiding.
Apollo would have actually appreciated the lot scene. There was an appointed hour, and in this case, everything was well orchestrated. Apollo’s joy: we parked between the lines. When the music started, it was difficult to discern acolytes from the partying mass. Chatter aside, the new tunes provided an excellent example of the pressures between structure and improvisation, form and play drive, tension and release. No, we did not ooze into some orgiastic NOW of Dionysian bliss. I had to wonder, though, would this crowd even accept that state of mind?
The possibility of a lightning strike is always there, though, and I found it lurking in all the new material. New structures were created to contain the exuberant melancholy. It seemed, in the first set, as though every other song was new. Rather than bemoaning, I was feeling chills, genuine chills, at the preponderance of new energy. No, the depth of the blues expressed was nothing close to what Ralph Ellison describes in his essays on music in Shadow and Act, but Phish are modern American tricksters, pranksters, donning a variety of veils and masks while evoking familiar lost memories.
It’s difficult to describe, really, the absences, the excesses, the dearth and the plethora, the tension between all those things we must do and the releases we desire. The feeling of letting it all go can be the most difficult to describe. In those few moments of bliss, I am transported. For an example, the transition between Ghost and Weekapaugh Groove was so eloquent, so deeply in the pocket, that I was no longer in my own head noise. There was a blank space where my mind should have been. There was no mind. It was done in the not doing. We were, for a moment, in the now, in the one. It’s today. This is the Golden Age.