A Decade of Live Phish: 6/28/1995-2005

About a month after my 14th birthday, in the summer of 1993, I heard Contact for the first time. What the hell is this? Who are these guys? This is hilarious!

Then someone played Weigh and Bouncin’ for me, and Sparkle soon followed. It’s like, they’re like They Might Be Giants, only better. Much better. So much better. But they’re not just funny fockers, they’re awesome. Listen to these guys!

I bought Junta, devoured it and re-played it all hours of the night. Rift made its way into heavy rotation pretty quickly. Nearly every day after school I went on a double date with Reba, Esther and David Bowie (Reba was mine, Esther was Bowie’s, he’s the one into weird chicks and necrophilia). Okay, I really dig this music. I can get into this.

A friend then introduced me to the Prime Cuts Music Emporium, a Long Island fortress of aural pleasure that had hundreds of dubbed bootlegs ready for purchase — there was no better enabler in the universe, this place was the crackhouse equivalent. We’d go on occasion and grab a handful each visit, although at the time I was still buying mostly Grateful Dead tapes. New Years ’92 and ’93, Arrowhead Ranch, Waterloo ’93: my real introduction to live Phish.

By no means, though, was I a diehard. I still listened to many other bands — the Dead, the Samples, bands like freakin’ Toad the Wet Sprocket and Live. Hell, I was only two years removed from the “Black Sheep Era.” But I knew I could fall for this Phish band; I felt that connection to which I’d later succumb.

There was only one thing left to do: catch the circus when it came to town. Since none of my close friends listened to a lick, I enlisted my brother, who’d be home from college and able to drive to the show. So six days after my 16th birthday, I gave myself the best present I’ve ever received (well, aside from the Letterman set last year perhaps).

Ten years ago today — almost to the second as I write this — four dorky demigods walked out onto the Jones Beach stage and launched into Axilla II. And as much as I wish I did, I honestly don’t remember almost anything from that cherry-poppin’ show. I do recall being largely out of place — no facial hair, mouth full of braces, sitting down when my feet hurt. And I also can recount leaving after my first While My Guitar Gently Weeps encore with my head spinning, a stoned boy becoming a stoned man. This was my Bar Mitzvah, performed by Rabbi Trey and Cantor Mike.

But because I went away during the summers and over December breaks, and because most of my friends had no interest in Phish, I never dove right in. I only saw one other show in high school, my first foray with Phish at Madison Square Garden, 10/21/96. It wasn’t until I got to college and met my friend Donnie that I became a rabid fan, an innocent dupe willing to spend thousands of dollars in the name of a good time.

Next thing I knew I woke up in a Howard Dean speech: I went to Ohio and Virginia and Nevada and Wisconsin and Michigan and Georgia and North Carolina and Vermont…Arrrgh! All told, I have been fortunate enough to see The Boys 42 times in 13 states and the District of Columbia. I’ve seen them play 211 different songs live (Wilson edged out Harry Hood by one to take the title at 16 times played), and each song drove me to emotions I’ve never felt from any other live act. I can reel off some of my personal highlights here, but that’s the beauty of the band: For everyone it’s completely different, the experience is totally unique.

There’s nothing in the world quite like this band. And there really never will be. There might be another top touring act, the way Phish took over for the Dead, but there will never be another band like them. There just can’t be. What they did musically, night after night, what they did mentally, what they accomplished in 20+ years on the road…it’s impossible to quantify. Not in a condescending dickhead way, but I genuinely feel sorry for people who never got to see the Phish from Vermont.

As I reflect on the shows I’ve seen, the places I’ve traveled, the friends I’ve met, I wouldn’t trade it in for anything in the world. Because when you break it down, Phish is the greatest inside joke in the history of music. And I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the inside. I’m laughing with you, you’re laughing with me.

What about you? How bout your first experience?