The Phish Book
by Richard Gehr & Phish
Review by Parker Harrington @tmwsiy
In a nutshell: Coming off the heels of one of the most extraordinary eras in Phish history, The Phish Book nicely chronicled the life of the band, on-stage and off, from the waning moments of 1996 at the New Year’s Eve show at the Fleet Center in Boston through the glorious European & US Tours of 1997. Billy Breathes, Slip Stitch & Pass and Story of the Ghost of course get prominent discussion as does the spectacular Great Went. Undoubtedly one of the most exciting periods both musically & professionally for Phish with tons of things going on both on and off the stage.
Format: Through a mix of photo-journalism (there are hundreds of pictures scattered amongst the 188 page book), interviews with the band presented in a conversational manner, Gehr ties it all together with his thoughts and analysis. The writing credit of “Phish” is given because of many detailed conversations that were chronicled affording an intimate look into the band that is rarely seen. (just turned that part inside out)
Thoughts: Much like a Phish show, The Phish Book has high-points, incredible moments, subtle points that can be enjoyed better on a second-pass, stuff you’ve heard before without much more to add, fans that found it amazing (“the best book I’ve ever read!”) and fans that found it boring.
“Like sports fans, Phish cognoscenti maintain an ongoing buzz of high expectation. This segment of the audience accords Phish the most authentic coin of the realm simply by paying attention to the band night after night in city after city. Some fans mythologize the musicians, finding glory, solace or disaster in a guitar riff or bass line. Others enter the fold through poring over stats, timing jams, and analyzing set lists with Epicurean finesse. Since seating for tapers is made available at virtually every show, Phish completism is available to anyone with the modem, blanks, and postage to pursue it.”
Phish completism. While it is has never been easier to track personal stats as Phish.net continues to add to a rich feature set, collect shows as bandwidth and storage space increase while prices plummet, and “The Spreadsheet” continues to fill in all the missing gaps, to be a true completist would be to have all scholarly attempts to document the band through the years.
So is “The Phish Book” worthy of adding to your library?
In a word: Absolutely.
Weaving through conversations with the band, tons of tidbits of Phish history are revealed and explained as if you are relaxing on a couch with a cold beer and in on a intimate conversation. While at this point, thirteen years after the book was initially published, and even when the book initially came out, nothing is earth shattering. Though perhaps not revelatory or ground breaking info, it is great to hear discussions on things that have become part of the historical lexicon and shows that are now considered sacred. Take for example Trey discussing “Cow Funk”.
“What we’re doing now is really more about groove than funk. Good funk, real funk, is not played by four white guys from Vermont. If anything, you could call what we’re doing cow funk or something. I only know when I’m playing it, I feel like a big ass floating in the water”.
Another great thing about “The Phish Book” is the reader gets insight on exactly how the band feels about particular shows, albums, and tours. More often than not, barring a few brief comments or nuggets from sporadic interviews with the typically tight-lipped and close guarded band, we have no idea what they actually think of their shows. Take this frank assessment from Trey:
“All through 1996 we felt as though there was something new for us to discover about ourselves out there, but we didn’t know what it was. And we were a little dissatisfied with having played the same way for the last couple of years. And then suddenly our February Europe tour felt like a breakthrough. We were playing slow and funky, but in a distinctly Phish kind of way….Our second night in Denver (11/17/1997), we felt, represented another breakthrough performance”
To me, that’s some powerful stuff right there. One of the many such self assessments throughout the book that give an insight into what the band thought of where they were at the time. Acknowledging that performances may have fallen flat and pin pointing particular shows that turned it around and attempting to identify the intangible aspects that make Phish “Phish”.
There are many particular shows and moments throughout the book that are discussed. I find it thoroughly enjoyable to read the book, and when it gets into discussion on a given show, like the aforementioned Denver show, to put the book down, and listen to it. While even if you only listen to a handful of songs from that date, you will have a deep appreciation and understanding on how the band developed personally and musically at this amazing point in their history. Likewise, just reading Trey discuss the difference between New Year’s 1996 and New Year’s 1997, gives you a good understanding of how the band developed throughout the past year.
Another enjoyable component of the book is the discussion on the musical influences of the different band members. From several pages on Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead & the interesting influence they were (and were not), influences from Zappa to jazz legends to bands they’ve shared the stage with are all discussed & help the reader understand better how the band developed.
“The Phish Book” is a fantastic coffee table book as it lends itself perfectly to picking up, flipping anywhere and reading a few pages. While packed with info & pictures, it by no means is a definitive biographical take on the band, and more of snap-shot in time with some additional background information. If you haven’t read the book yet, it’s unlikely you will unearth anything that blows your mind and you didn’t already know. However, it is highly likely that you will enjoy the anecdotes, stories, pictures and thoughts from the band. While the Grateful Dead recently released the glorious Europe ‘72 complete box set, perhaps one day too, Phish will see fit to do a complete archival release of both the Winter and Summer European tours. Until that time, you can enjoy ‘The Phish Book’ as a window into this epic & extraordinary period of the band’s life.
Read the fucking book.