Teach a Man to Phish | JamBandsOnline.com

Teach a Man to Phish

October 9, 2020

Article by
Dwayne M. Boyd

For me, following Phish is a fantastic pursuit that involves much more than just buying a ticket and driving to the next show. During the summer of 1997, my fiancé Karyn and I were fortunate to catch the band performing in Virginia Beach, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York and way up north in Limestone, Maine. Our final concert in August was a two-day festival on Loring Air Force Base, billed as “The Great Went.” Over the past couple years; the band has been closing out their summer tours with large shows in remote locations. It is almost as if the festivals are planned out as a game; for the fans, the object of the game is being able to find Phish and take part in the experience. It’s fun for the faithful, providing that a map is kept within constant reach while traveling.

Part of the fun is the challenge of making the trek. If half the fun is getting there, the other half is surviving the quest. The camp-out shows are endurance tests. Modern-day nomads from all over the country descend on the concert site. The area is then transformed into a small nation for a weekend. Tents canvas the landscape. Almost as fast as tents go up, vendors begin selling their wares. This population explosion has quite an impact on many different levels.

As a disabled live music veteran who attends numerous events, I do my best to navigate my crutches through the crowd to see the sites and explore the colorful surroundings. The diverse collection of Phishy folks at shows resemble many of the life forms one might encounter on the ocean floor. Strange, unique, and beautiful people mingle and mill around, all of them gathered in the spirit of fun; to share in the vibes the band creates. 

The effects of our long drive from Darien Lake, New York made both Karyn and me feel a bit hazy. Corey and Crystal, our caravan partners for “The Went” journey were also a bit groggy. Nevertheless, it did not take long for excitement to overtake us. Pitching our tents in the 6 a.m. mix of rain and twilight gave our surroundings a surrealistic glow. We were on the verge of something extraordinary.

Feelings of anticipation filled my mind before I surrendered to sleep. I knew I had to get some rest; we were a long way from the stage. I awoke sometime around 10 o’clock feeling a bit like Rip Van Winkle. When I popped my head out our tent door, an overcast sky greeted me. Activity was all around us. Strangely, an eerie stillness made the whole scene unfold before me like something out of a silent movie. Moments later, my ability to discern the sounds of my surroundings returned. Pre-show electricity charged the air, as if lightning were about to rip across the sky. I heard the familiar polyrhythms of a drum circle and this strange land immediately felt like home. The beat began with soft footstep sounds until it grew into tribal thunder.

Emerging from my tent, I noticed vehicles of various shapes and sizes enveloped our little makeshift neighborhood. Right outside the flap of my tent was an orange V.W. microbus from Florida with a sticker displaying the lyric, “The Ocean Running Through Our Veins” displayed in the shape of a fish. Busses and stickers are trademarks of citizens of the Phish Nation. I crawled out of my tent to kneel on the damp grass. Peeking around the van, I spied my next-door neighbors. We didn’t say much beyond an initial hello, but there was immediate rapport. The Florida folks smiled, and we wished each other a good show.

Karyn made several trips back and forth to the car to bring more supplies and clothes back to our tent. She brought back a folding chair, which I quickly perched on. Before long, Karyn was attempting to start our Coleman stove for the morning coffee ritual. She hadn’t fussed with the stove very long before she noticed our backdoor neighbors had boiling water on their grill. Karyn quickly moved to their vicinity and started making new friends. I sat on the chair, awaiting her return. She borrowed some water for a clumpy cup of instant coffee. Upon her return, Karyn sat and sipped at her coffee for a moment. She then assisted me with my leg braces and shoes. Alas, I was finally all put together. 

The two of us then advanced toward the stage after loading up my backpack with a blanket and a few essentials. I knew it was going to be a hike, but had no idea how long it would take us to reach the actual concert site from the campsite near the “big thumb.” The “big thumb” was a large art object hung on the side of one of an abandoned airplane hangar. It served as our landmark for locating our campsite. The “thumb” resembled Mickey Mouse’s gloved hand, positioned in a gesture of approval.

Our trek to the stage took roughly three hours. Before we reached the field where the stage was located, we stopped to eat some parking lot grilled cheese and explore the makeshift mini-mall set up by Phish-Heads. Handcrafted goods and so many varieties of foods were available for cash or trade. If one does not have the money to buy these items, most members of the Phish Nation will barter for a good trade. Karyn and I steadily made our way through throngs of eager consumers. We were in no rush; we were on a mission to find “our spot.” Every stop on our summer Phishing expedition was one step closer to “The Went.”

By the time we reached the make-believe town set up as a playground area, Karyn and I needed a break. The child-scale buildings were just big enough for us to duck in and out of. We paused near a station wagon set up on a spinner. The car seemed a bit out of place among the small, wooden buildings but it was, nevertheless, a symbol of “road tripping.” The slogan for this festival: “The Great Went – an easy drive from any direction.” This was irony at its finest.

It was here that we encountered Bonni, Karyn’s friend from U Mass. who had been off the Phish tour for a year while in Israel. After exchanging hugs and hellos, Bonni alerted us that she had just “stickered” Mike Gordon, the band’s bass player. Stickering is a unique Phish fan practice at shows. People walk around randomly placing colorful decorative stickers onto people and appropriate objects that they deem worthy of marking with this token of affection or admiration. Mike Gordon passed within a few feet of me so I tried to greet him. He replied, “Now then!” and he kept on walking. I’ve heard that “Mike” sightings are the most common at shows. However, for me, it was my first Phish sighting.

Spotting Mike inspired me to head closer to the stage. Karyn and I wished Bonni a good show and arranged a time to meet before Sunday’s show. We left the small village and headed for the main gate to the stage. The open field was filling very quickly. Security searched my backpack, patted Karyn down, and we were on our way to find a spot near a video screen.

At the moment my crutches touched grass and mud, a woman in a golf cart hailed us. This woman, Beth, invited Karyn and me to climb aboard her transport for a ride. Karyn hopped in back while I sat next to Beth. We introduced ourselves and then began to move. While the cart churned through the wet grass and mud, I told Beth about our three-hour trek. I also mentioned that I wanted to send the Phish staff a letter to regarding disability access at festivals. She answered: “I’m a member of Phish staff. You can send me a letter with any ideas you have. Mail it Attention: Beth and I’ll get it.”

Hearing those words, I became a bit more excited. I had just seen Mike Gordon and second, I had met a member of the Phish staff who invited my suggestions on how to make Phish festivals more disabled-friendly. Already, The Great Went was shaping up to be pretty amazing, and the band hadn’t even played a lick yet.

Beth dropped us off near a video screen by a lighting tower. Karyn and I shook her hand and thanked her. I asked Beth for a lift back to our tent after the show. She couldn’t promise us a ride. However, she advised us to look for a security guard to contact someone with a cart by radio. With this information, we parted company. Karyn and I found our spot to plant ourselves among the herd of folks gathered for the show. My anticipation was peaking.

Shortly after 4 p.m., Phish took the stage and grooved into “Makisupa Policeman.” Their reggae beat was infectious. Heads were bobbing up and down as far as the eye could see. Everyone was engaging in the flow. The collective energy seemed to affect the weather as well. Bright sunshine broke through the overcast, like a light bulb illuminating an idea. The band smoothly segued into “Harpua.” This song, about a dog, written while Trey Anastasiso, the band’s guitar player, was working in his musical thesis at Goddard College was the closing tune of The Clifford Ball, last summer’s festival. The song had been cut short last summer when a fan jumped onto the stage. This year, the band picked up the song right where they left off.

Part of the fun of attending a string of Phish concerts is following the song threads that the band spins. Songs become stories and sets become chapters. Turning the pages of these stories to discover what happens next is a major lure to attract fans. The spontaneity of their performances is one element that sets Phish apart from others.

Throughout the first set, the band played a good balance of older material with newer songs. “Punch You In The Eye” served as a bridge into “Ghost.” The combination set the crowd in frenzy. The latter song is one of the compositions that Phish road tested in Europe. The fans that made it to Maine appreciated this mix.

During the set break a middle-aged man with a cane informed me there was a platform built “just for folks like us.” Karyn was trying to get some rest lying on our blanket. I asked her if she wanted to head over there. I wanted to stay among the freaks in the field. Karyn mirrored my sentiments. She continued to rest and I took in some of the sights.

I watched a girl doing a space dance to the music being pumped over the P.A. system. She was making wide loops, spins and turns; I imagined her as a feather on the wind. I didn’t pay much mind to the suggestion the man with the cane made to me. I was enthralled by my surroundings. Karyn was unable to sleep, shifting around and leaning against my shoulder. I froze for a moment thinking about the man with the cane and the platform. Lost in my thoughts, I snapped back to reality when a familiar creature bounded into my line of sight.

The Easter Bunny, a fan from Darien Lake who was dressed in a white rabbit costume was hopping along when he noticed me. He promptly bounded over to where I sat propping up my fiancé. After greetings and hugs, we chatted quietly about the drive from Darien to Maine. We didn’t speak much above a whisper, but it was great to see someone so festive. Phish gatherings are great places to meet unique friends. In fact, a random couple asked Karyn if she was from San Francisco. They were commenting on her Metallica shirt with the Bay City’s name on the back. We shook hands with the passers-by. With the vast number of people who attend these shows, there was a good chance we would see them again. 

After nightfall, Karyn and I wove through clusters of people to try for a different perspective of the stage. “Wolfman’s Brother” kicked off the second set, seamlessly moving into “Simple.” This song stopped me dead in my tracks when I heard the band play the theme to “The Odd Couple.” The catchy number evolved into an amazing jam session. The musicians on-stage play off each other in such a way that the members of the band communicate through their own, distinct sounds. The result is often a piece of music with an ebb and flow. Somehow the band’s lighting director, Chris Kuroda was able to follow certain queues and the results were brilliant. 

By the third set, we made our way close enough to the platform that we were invited to sit on earlier. We decided to give it a try. Karyn was almost asleep on her feet. The miles we’d put on during tour were taking their toll. I trudged through mud that covered my sneakers. 

Upon reaching the ramp, I belly-flopped onto the plank safely out of the mud. I was able to see the entire stage from this vantagepoint. I was lit in an eerie blue light. I was actually looking over the heads of the people closest to the stage. The man with the cane and his wife were sitting to my right, resting. The man was rubbing his wife’s back. Another onlooker sat behind me sat in his electric wheelchair. I waived to the man with the cane; and he returned nodded and a smiled. He was welcoming me into his secret world. This structure served as an island in the ocean of people. The stage was the horizon. I attempted to relax, but was unable to do so.

I noticed another familiar face. Someone I had met in the accessible-seating section in Pennsylvania was making his way to the ramp in his wheelchair He was powering through the mud like a sport truck, his hands covered in mud. I couldn’t recall his name, but we recognized one another. He greeted me with a big “high five” then situated his chair for a good view. He had a friend with him whom I also recognized from Pennsylvania. I traded “war stories” with him about the journey from the Star Lake Amphitheater.

One point we both agreed on, was that moving around this place was a workout. His right leg was amputated. I couldn’t even imagine rolling through this mud in a manual wheelchair. Back in 1994, I’d taken a wheelchair to the twenty-fifth anniversary of Woodstock, but I had “a little help from my friends.” This guy pushed himself. My shoulders ached, just thinking about it.

My weary bones were energized, and my pain was almost erased by the adrenaline rush triggered by hearing the beginning of a rare Talking Heads cover coming from the stage. “Cities” was part of Phish’s early club repertoire. This song had been all but out of the band’s active rotation for years. Everybody on the platform was ecstatic.

The man with the cane shook violently with one hand on the rail of the platform for balance. His injury hadn’t stopped him from expressing his enthusiasm. His wife didn’t even try to keep pace. She danced right by his side in her own little two-step groove. Others on the platform were definitely struck by the funk. Each reacted uniquely. Karyn and I swayed to the beat. I was too awestruck by the music to worry about keeping time with the tune. My amputee neighbor quietly sat shaking his greasy locks. The visor on his baseball cap resembled a suede duck’s bill pecking for breadcrumbs. Folks on crutches and in chairs may not dance in the same way others do, but we move any way we can when the music takes over.

My euphoria lasted throughout the entire set. I was lifted even higher during the encore. The band treated us all to a rare version of “Contact” and they brought the show to a rousing end with one of my sentimental favorites. “Loving Cup” is a Rolling Stone’s cover that Phish has added to their arsenal. It was also the show closer at the first show Karyn and I traveled a long distance to see in Albany, New York during a whirling snowstorm back in 1995.

With the chorus of the song still echoing in my head, Karyn and I headed down the platform ramp and trudged through the mud toward the surreal glow of parking lot lights. My faithful sidekick and I began our search for a security guard with a radio. It took three tries before someone who would offer any real answers paid any attention. The first two guards I asked simply said, “I don’t know how to find anyone to give you a ride.” The third person was a uniformed policeman who asked me to wait by his side until he contacted a security dispatcher.

He was unsure of exactly how he was going to get me a ride, but he was at least willing to try. I left Karyn’s side and followed the orange-jacketed policeman. While standing beside him, I overheard there was a missing child situation. In the midst of that, a missing purse was returned to him. All the cash, cards, and personal belongings were still inside. I never thought he’d get a chance to help me. There were 62, 000 people forming a river of humanity with a limited numbers of staff to control the flow.

Suddenly, I noticed a golf cart dart in the direction of the exit. Luckily, the policeman noticed the cart as well and yelled to the driver to stop. He ran toward the cart and it halted. I looked closer at the cart and its pilot. He wore a fuzzy, warm, Russian-style hat, which I recognized from watching the band on the large video screens. The guard motioned me to walk toward the cart. I moved quickly and Karyn joined me a few feet away from the vehicle.

I was stunned when I saw who the driver actually was. It was Jon Fishman, the band’s drummer. He pointed at me and said, “You, you need to be in this cart.” The cart already looked loaded down with passengers. Jon had three girls along for the ride. Before I knew it, everyone had readjusted to make some room. Pointing toward Karyn, I was still in shock, I asked, “Can she come with us?”

Without missing a beat, Jon replied, “I don’t care where she sits, as long as she’s with us.” Jon then added, “This is my real job! Playing drums in the band is what I do for fun. I get paid $4.25 an hour to do this. It started when the other guys used to let me drive the van.” His tongue-in-cheek statements made me wonder if he might really be getting a little extra cash on the side. 

I climbed in next to Jon and Karyn jumped onto my lap. I tightly gripped her around the waist. Once we were positioned properly, Jon hit the accelerator. We moved in the same direction as the crowd and it took a minute before Jon asked where we were actually headed. The golf cart was humming along at a quick pace. With Jon happy to inform us that the governor screw that regulates speed was removed in this particular vehicle. I shared a story with Jon about a Ben & Jerry’s golf cart that we rode in at The Clifford Ball last summer. We reached speeds close to 22 mph. on that ride. He didn’t hesitate in saying, “We’ll beat that.”

On that note, I told Jon our tent was set up out near the “big thumb.” “Where’s that?” asked Jon and his friends in stereo. I could only respond, “It’s way out there.” Jon pumped on the gas pedal and we bounced over the grassy landscape. “We’ll get there.” The bumpy terrain awakened something within our driver; he became obsessed with the idea of reaching our desired destination in record time. The cart jostled around like an old Ford in a chase scene from “The Streets of San Francisco.” We rolled down a steep hill and took to the air at the bottom. Karyn practically bounced off of my lap into the mud. I had to bear hug her to keep her from flipping out. The whole scene reminded me of the chant entitled, “Kung,” which mentions staging a “runaway golf cart marathon.” At this very moment, I felt as if Jon Fishman was transporting us to Gamehendge (The mythical setting of Trey’s thesis). 

After this stunt sequence, our transport bogged down in the mud briefly until a back tire caught some grass and the cart broke free. With six people piled on this vehicle, it was a miracle we escaped. Spinning tires and wet grass awakened me from my Gamehendge trance. In the blink of an eye, we reached a paved area. Our cart weaved in and out vendor booths, people and parked vehicles. One man’s lone cry was heard above the din. “Kind brownies, Phatty, kind brownies…” Fishman smiled and said, “We’ll be going back there later.”

We took a sharp right and began moving steadily away from the bright glow of the main vendor area. Cruising out toward the camping areas I attempted to make small talk with Jon. With Karyn was practically asleep on my lap, Jon spoke to me like we were old pals. Jon’s friend “Tash” asked where we were from and showed genuine interest in my spin on our Phish-tales from the summer. Jon became interested in the details of our three-hour walk from the tent to the stage earlier in the day. He did a double take and said, “You are a trooper. I don’t know if I’d walk that long to see me.” We all had a laugh over that, but I was touched by the sentiment of his words. Following a brief silence, Jon actually thanked me, humbling himself even more. “Wow, there are a lot of people here; I would never have seen this if you didn’t take me out here.” I thanked him for the ride and my chest filled with pride. Jon Fishman had actually thanked me. The line between rock star and common man was erased.

I complemented Jon on his skill as golf cart pilot and drummer. Then, I took a risk; I asked Jon if there were any way to avoid the three-hour walk for Sunday’s show. He answered me with a question: “What time do we go on?”
“It says four o’clock on the ticket,” I answered quickly in anticipation.
“I’ll be awake by then,” Jon said jokingly.
“I think we can work something out,” Jon replied.
Before being able to respond, we were approaching the “big thumb.” Our ride was almost at an end. I searched for the red jeep landmark for our tent. When I spotted it, Jon pulled up right beside it. Karyn jumped out, I sat for a moment to see if Jon really would arrange transportation for us in the morning.
“What time will you be up?” Jon inquired.
“I don’t know if we’ll be up in time for the naked photo,” I answered, hoping for a laugh. As part of the “Great Went” festivities, a photographer was attempting to set a world record by taking a nude picture of as many people that would oblige his request at 10:30 a. m. Jon simply stated, “I don’t think I’ll be awake for that either.” Karyn looked at us both strangely; I couldn’t tell if she was either tired, or reacting to my feeble attempt at a joke.

Jon again warned me that he was not going to be an early riser. Karyn then suggested that we meet at 1 p.m. next to the red jeep. Seconds later, Jon raised his arm and used it to measure distance between the jeep and the “big thumb.” He turned his head and murmured a bit. I couldn’t hear what he said, but judging by Jon’s sounds and gyrations he might have been doing a variation of a Native American rain dance or signaling an alien mothership for a landing. When Fishman was done plotting our position, he climbed aboard the golf cart and informed me that if he were unable to pick us up the next day, he would definitely send someone.

Those words made me wonder if we’d ever see Jon again. The twenty-five minute ride from the stage to the red jeep was more than anyone could have asked for. Jon Fishman had taken time out if his evening to help Karyn and me. This gesture was much more magnanimous than just a lift to conserve the tread on our boots. Fishman is the drummer and namesake of the band. He has a myriad of responsibilities, far removed from assuring the two of us made it safely to our tent. Instead of passing us by, he’d extended a helping hand. For that, I was so very grateful.

Karyn and I expressed our gratitude to Jon and his friends with smiles, hugs and handshakes. I watched the cart pull away, elated by what had just happened. Events like this restore my faith in human nature. Karyn, on the other hand, was barely awake. I think the entire episode passed her by like a twisted dream sequence. She kept asking me, “Did we really just get a ride from Fishman?” I reassured her we had. I thought for sure that Corey and Crystal would have returned by now. Nonetheless, we didn’t see any activity in our camp.

We passed by Corey’s truck. He and Crystal were inside the cab spending some “quality time” after the show. I couldn’t contain my excitement and blurted “We just got a ride back to the tent from Fishman!” Our travel companions both expressed disbelief, “No Waaaay!” was their collective statement. Relaying a bit of the story to them, they started asking questions, showing genuine interest. Corey asked, “Was he wearing his dress while driving the cart?” This would appear to be an odd question to anyone who is unaware of Jon’s antics. It’s part of his stage persona to appear in a gray dress, decorated with large orange polka dots with holes in the center of each one on it. I told him that we hadn’t seen the dress, but he was wearing the same hat he wore while on-stage.

When I told our travel companions that he might return to get us tomorrow afternoon, they entertained the idea of hanging around to see if I was telling the truth. They seemed too caught up in the party atmosphere to stick around for any length of time though. 

Upon retiring to our tent, I climbed into my sleeping bag. Karyn went for a short walk, before falling asleep. When she returned she told me about some friendly guys she met and handed me a free, half-finished beer. I took a swig and Karyn then extracted a package of hot dogs from the cooler. The two of us relaxed side-by-side and chomped away on the food while basking in the glow of our good fortune. Just before drifting off to sleep, I wondered what else could happen to us.

I slept until the sun was up high and bright. Karyn woke earlier. She was probably in need of her morning caffeine. When I arose, Karyn and I hung out with Corey and Crystal and shared tales of our adventures for a short time. Then, Karyn, Corey and Crystal set out in search of a clean port-a-potty. I stood guard in front of my tent while the others were away. Some people were negotiating with campers to move their tents to set their vehicle free. They needed to head back home early so their driver could return to work, but their station wagon was wedged in, surrounded by tents and people. I sympathized with their plight, but the scene was comical. Two young girls from the trapped car camp were pleading their case. They even asked me if they could move Corey’s tent. Unfortunately, I couldn’t answer them. Corey was indisposed. 

Nearby, three guys from a neighboring campsite were laughing and cheering while playing with an electronic box with a handle on it. While they were taking turns casting like a fishing rod. I wandered over to look at this machine just as one of the guys started reeling one in. Before long, I was casting and reeling and playing right along. 

The game was electronic bass fishing. I became so enthralled with this activity, that the three experienced electronic anglers had a giggle or two as I failed to react fast enough to the pulses that indicated when a fish struck. After dropping a virtual fish off of the line, the others offered me a beer from their private stash. A celebration of a near miss was about the best I could hope for. My new “fishing buddies” were kind enough to refrain from teasing this rookie. 
When the others returned to our campsite, I was failing miserably at the fishing game and laughing with the guys. Karyn came with some grapes and offered them to us. She announced that it was almost time to eat and that 1 o’clock was drawing closer. I bid my new palls good-bye. Then, Karyn and I and decided to check out what was happening in the parking lot. I hopped along slowly following her. 

There was no way I could lose sight of her; she was wearing her “Phish dress.” This dress, hand-crafted by Karyn, featured a collection of tropical fish printed on a beautiful, blue background. She has worn it to numerous Phish shows; it often sparks admiring compliments from fellow fans. 

We set up next to a couple selling cheese and crackers not far from the red jeep. The lot was teeming with excited fans and peddlers. We giggled a lot and patted a few passing pooches. Many a tour-head brings a trusty dog along. Festivals like these are much more inviting to pets than the shows at indoor venues.
Hunger began knocking on my belly, and I wasn’t answering. Karyn must have heard the thumping, because she disappeared from her perch in search of food. Two competing groups of people selling grilled cheese opposite one another were trying to entice fans by offering shots of Jack Daniel’s or Jose Cuervo with the purchase of a “Phatty grilled cheese.” Each group of grilled cheese chefs was competing for cash by adjusting their prices and upping the ante on the amount of alcohol served with each sandwich. This fight was less commercial, than the “cola wars” between Coke and Pepsi, but it was much more twisted, and funny.

Karyn appeared after a few moments carrying two cheese sandwiches. She passed me one saying she got them from some guys behind us. “They were quiet and not as obnoxious,” she said referring to the booze-pedaling folks that were under the effects of their own medicine. 
Suddenly, a silver sedan of an undetermined make and model rolled up in front of me. The driver was an older man wearing a baseball cap with a Phish logo. The window rolled down and he peeked out. “Are you two waiting for Jon?” I nodded, and in the blink of an eye, Jon appeared from the other side of the car and grabbed my backpack from me to lighten my load. “Get in,” he barked in a friendly tone. I crammed in the back seat as fast as I could. I could hardly believe Jon was whisking us away in a car. The driver promptly introduced himself “I’m Len, Jon’s Dad,” I could not believe Jon would come with his own father. Jon then apologized for not coming get us in the cart. “Sorry, someone stole it last night,” he confided.

Jon’s father seemed delighted by what was going on around us. “Jon, look at those kids on top of the party car ahead of us.” The car in front of us had people on the trunk, the roof, and piled inside tightly. The kids were yipping and Ya-hooing. They were acting out exactly how I felt inside. Jon directed his father to move around the car.

I asked Jon how his night had fared after dropping us off. “We went to a disco party and jammed on some little Casio instruments, the kind of stuff we’re {the band members} not used to playing on. It was a lot of fun,” Jon relayed. I questioned him further about unconventional instrumentation. 

“Jon, how come we don’t see you play the vacuum more often?”

“I play it when the spirit moves me,” he replied with conviction. “It’s like the old days when we’d go on-stage with a setlist and just abandon it. Now, we don’t even bother with a setlist. We just go out and play what feels right,” Jon continued.

I sat quietly noticing that we were not headed toward the stage. We began to circumnavigate the logjam of people in the lots. While heading toward an open spot in the lot, I recounted part of my history to Len and Jon and explained that we had spoken with Beth, and how she suggested that I draft a plan regarding disabled access at future Phish festivals. Right away, Len piped up. “Why don’tcha do somethin’, Jon? Why don’tcha?”

Jon also suggested that I send him a letter. My mission was clear. If Beth and Jon both wanted to know what was on my mind, I would spell it out clearly to them and mail it out quickly. Moments passed by with few words being exchanged. Karyn and Jon were exchanging small talk and I interrupted them.

“Jon, if the stage is that way, why are we going down here?” We were driving past the hangar buildings quite a way from the main lots. “I want my Mommmmy! We’re being kidnapped by the drummer from Phish!!”

“Relax, you’re with me today,” Jon comforted Karyn. “You’re going to be on-stage,” Jon assured the both of us. 

Karyn immediately reacted with sarcasm. “Oh, that would suck,” she said with the biggest smile on her face.

I restrained myself from elbowing her. I didn’t want to jinx this. Karyn continued her mock protest. I couldn’t believe our luck. Then, just as I thought nothing on earth could go wrong, a police cruiser pulled alongside us with lights flashing. Apparently, the cops didn’t recognize Jon. Len pulled his vehicle over and Jon showed the officer his band laminate and his driver’s license and stated, “I’m with the band. If you stop me the show doesn’t go on.”

Without hesitation, the policeman let us proceed. Len guided the car onto a road through a natural tunnel. It felt like we were moving toward the Bat cave. The light at the end of the tunnel revealed the backstage compound. Len parked, and Jon hopped out of the car. “I’m gonna go get you guys some stuff, and I’ll be right back,” Jon said before disappearing.

“Jon will take care of you two today,” Len stated. With those words still hanging in the air, I thanked Len for taking the time to help us. He offered to help me out of the car and I bounced right out. Karyn gave Len a huge hug and a kiss on the cheek. Jon then returned. Len left us, saying “I’m gonna go see what your Mom’s up to, Jon. I’ll see you all soon.”

Jon held out a laminated pass on a nylon cord. “We were out of VIP stickers in the trailer. So, I have to give you guys an all-access laminate. With this, you are as powerful as me. You can go anywhere. The only thing I couldn’t get you was meal tickets. You can go out to the food vendors and come back in,” Jon instructed.

I stood before him attempting to make sense of what was just said. Jon must have seen the glaze come over my eyes. “Who wants it?” Jon asked and I motioned that he put it around Karyn’s neck. He placed it on her like she had just earned Olympic gold. “Now you can ditch this guy and go wherever you like,” Jon added jokingly.

“I’d never leave him,” Karyn answered. 

With those words, I beamed. Jon politely excused himself and invited us to enjoy the rest of the day. We puttered around backstage for a bit and ran into Beth. “Hi, what are you guys doing back here?” she asked. Speaking as if I had just been knighted, I told Beth about meeting Jon and how he helped us out. “Jon’s my direct boss, he’s a great guy. Have a good day.” She walked away in a hurried shuffle.

We observed some local orchestra musicians. At these summer festivals Phish invites an orchestra to play between sets on one of the performance days. It adds a different spin on a “rock” concert. The result is often relaxing; lending a bit of “culture” to what many outsiders feel is a counter-culture free-for-all.

With the pass safely around Karyn’s neck, guards let us pass without question. I felt almost invincible. I paused to kiss Karyn. As we parted, I asked her if I could wear the pass. “You can only wear this for a few minutes,” she instructed in a playful manner.

While passing by a lighting tower, we were stopped by the three girls that were on Fishman’s golf cart. They began talking to us as if we were now members of an elite club. “Tash” told us that she had known Jon for “about two years” and how they were flown to “The Went” at the band’s request. She let Karyn and I know that once Jon knows you, “he never forgets a name.” She went on to say, “I think Jon was touched by the fact that you walked for so long.” In addition, she stated “that he’s a very sweet man who has never tried to take advantage of her like a stereotypical rock star might.”

While “Tash” was being candid, Karyn and I asked her questions about any aftershow parties or craziness that may ensue with the close of the summer tour after tonight’s show. Tash and the others said that they would see us backstage and we should hang out afterward and “see what happens.”

Armed with that information, we moved toward the vending area. I was in search of a T-shirt to commemorate this experience and as well as a gift for my mother.

We found a clay artisan’s tent and stepped in to examine his wares. He had a number of handcrafted jewelry items, candle holders and all sorts of fimo clay beadwork. The artist’s name was Juan, from Florida. Juan had submitted his portfolio to Phish and they invited him to sell his crafts to fans at “The Great Went.” I selected a decorative metal candleholder with four black cats playing drums around a fimo and glass inlaid votive candle. It was the perfect gift to complement my tale of meeting Jon Fishman. Karyn bought a fimo fish barrette to tie back her long, brown tresses.

Karyn took the backstage pass from me and hung it around her neck. I scampered over to a tent that was selling T-shirts and I purchased one that looked like some sort of an Air Force workout shirt with an eagle on it. I stashed it in my pack and Karyn and I moved back toward the stage. We were eager to find a good spot to catch all the action.

I climbed my way up the steps to the scaffolding on the left, where Page McConnell’s, keyboards sat. We had full view of the entire stage and could look out onto the expansive crowd. 

I marveled at all the equipment and the stage tech running around securing every piece in place before the start of Day Two of “The Great Went.” It felt like a Christmas Day. Karyn was excited, but much cooler than I was. I was doing my best to pick up every little detail possible.

Underneath the platform we were seated on I noticed some of the instrument cases and amp boxes were emblazoned with stickers sporting slogans like, “Work Sucks, I’m Goin’ On Tour.” and one that looked like a yellow, diamond-shaped “Antelope Crossing” sign, in honor of “Run Like an Antelope” from the “Lawn Boy” album. It was great to see the band stay connected with its fans in little, but personal ways.

Karyn and I got comfortable hovering above Page’s keyboard set-up. Other people began to gather around us. Showtime was approaching. Len Fishman came and stood right by us. Reporters and photographers crushed in behind us. 

I spoke at length with a reporter from Caribou, Maine, named Elizabeth. Her enthusiasm and willingness to learn more about the Phish scene was really refreshing. Her take on “The Great Went” was shared by many of the townspeople living on the fringes of Loring Air Force Base. She thought that the festival was giving the economically depressed area a big boost. Her hopes were also high that the optimism and feelings of unity she had felt growing up in the sixties were alive and well at this festival. “There’s hope for the future here. All these people coming together in the spirit of music and community, it’s a beautiful thing,” she said.

Elizabeth was really touched by the experience. She seemed genuinely pleased to meet Karyn and me. She even drew us a map to her home, and she invited us for a hot meal and a shower at the festival’s conclusion.

Soon, Phish took the stage and I was astounded by how close we actually were to the musicians themselves. The perspective was indescribable. The show opened with “The Wedge,” This song was welcomed with open arms by most fans, but for me it will be specially marked as the first tune played on the day I was on-stage with Phish. One of the things I will always remember is how stage sound is different from what blasts out of the sound system and over the crowd. There are lots of echoes and one can hear Trey barking out directions during jams or calling out song titles. 

A couple of newer songs were played, allowing the band to stretch its musical muscles and limber up, before working over familiar favorites like “Maze” and “Bouncin’” I thought Trey was having fun acting like a “guitar god” during the middle of “Vultures.” He banged his guitar as it ripped the air with sound. Then the band experimented by playing the country-flavored “Water in the Sky.” This song was one of Karyn’s favorites. “I hope Corey is listening to this, it’s one of the songs I told him to watch for,” she commented to me. 

Although Karyn was not one to talk much during the set, she managed to discover while conversing with Len Fishman that he is a fan of Phish’s older stuff. He likes tunes like, “Divided Sky,” or the beloved “Suzie Greenberg.” Len enjoyed himself throughout the first set, despite the fact that the band didn’t play either of his favorites. He was tapping his hands and feet right along with the beat. He even managed to step on Karyn on a couple occasions. This did not make her too happy.

The band launched into “Tweezer.” Karyn feels that this song is drawn out and repetitive. I happen to think that the tune can be quite powerful at times and the repetition is part of the song’s hook. In this version, however the band took off into a “Cities” instrumental jam session. This was not typical rendition of “Tweezer” by any means. This song will forever remain a source of debate between us.

One of the moments which will remain with me, as I look back that special day on-stage, took place just prior to the close of the first set. The band members gathered at center stage for an a cappella rendition of “Carolina.”

In the seconds before the four band members raised their voices in unison, Trey caught site of Karyn’s “Phish dress” and brought it to the attention of the other band members. They appeared to have a chuckle over it. I couldn’t believe that Karyn’s dress was a subject of the band’s amusement. The apparent snickering embarrassed Karyn. I could sense she wanted to hide. I, on the other hand, am touched that they noticed her. “The dress is famous,” I kept repeating.
When the reporters and other onlookers had cleared the scaffolding, Mike Gordon appeared behind us. The stage was being prepared for the Great Went Orchestra’s set. I said “Hello” to Mike again, and he greeted me with a wide-mouthed grin. As I descended the stairs from the scaffolding Karyn scolded me for my attempts to address him as Mike when I had not been formally introduced.

I had no way of defending myself, so I changed the subject to food. Karyn and I worked our way toward the dining tents and got bounced back and forth like Ping-Pong balls between the tent for local staff and band staff. We went back out to the vendor area. We had to pool our last six bucks to get lamb gyros for dinner. 

While jockeying for position in line, a girl with her hair tied back, wearing a white T-shirt approached Karyn and I. “You guys are friends of Cliff’s, right?” she inquired. The only Cliff I remember from the Phish scene was a guy we met at the New Year’s Show at the Fleet Center, in Boston. He was in a wheelchair and gave Karyn, Corey and I stickers with a lyric from “Dog Log” on it. We’d also run into him on tour in North Carolina this summer. This girl was his girlfriend, Kim. To me, it’s a miracle to be spotted and remembered by people on tour. However, being on crutches also makes me a bit easier to spot. Disabled Phish-heads are showing up at concerts in greater numbers. There’s a growing population within the Phish Nation.

As the orchestra played, Karyn and me scarf fed down our gyros, smothered in thin tomato sauce and big hunks of onion. It wasn’t much, but it was food. We didn’t waste much time eating. We wanted to ensure a good spot on the scaffolding again.

On our way to the stage, a man who asked me to “speak” to his son stopped us. Noah was a beautiful infant. He was diagnosed with a spinal cord related birth defect. His father wanted him to be meeting others with disabilities early on. The father said he “felt inspired” seeing me walk around “The Great Went.” I couldn’t speak to Noah in the way his father wanted, but I gripped his little hand trying to offer what I could. Ironically, as the child’s mother joined us, she recognized Karyn. “Are you the girl that we thought was from San Francisco, wearing the Metallica shirt?” she inquired. The five of us were momentarily connected. After a short pause, we parted. The brief exchange of positive energy made me smile.

Without another word, Karyn and I moved toward the scaffolding. This time we opted to perch behind Fishman. While searching for the access steps to that side of the stage, we stumbled into a chance encounter with Page, Trey and Mike. All three of them seemed to be practicing with cans of spray paint. Before either of us could figure out what the guys were doing, we were shooed away by some security guy in a pale, yellow shirt. This action was peculiar; couldn’t this guy recognize our pass? I guess it wasn’t as all that powerful. I kept feeling as that the dream was going to end and the alarm was going to wake me up soon.

Fortunately, instead of an alarm clock, I heard Mike’s bass thumping out the beginning to “Down With Disease.” Karyn and I were safely perched behind Fishman. Scoring a good spot to see, the second set was kicked off in grand style. Long and layered jams filled the second set from “Bathtub Gin,” “Uncle Pen,” and an extended “Also Sprach Zarathustra (Theme to 2001)” paved the way for something I have never seen take place anywhere else at a concert in my lifetime. Throughout different points in the set, band members would take turns painting wooden shapes with spray cans. These paintings became the band’s contributions to a collective art project that fans had been building around a metal bathtub all weekend located at stage right, was out of our view. I could not see the structure, but the art objects were passed over the heads of the crowd and added to the tower. 

The jam that emerged out of the adding the final pieces to the structure evolved into one of the finest versions of “Harry Hood” I have ever witnessed. I use the term witnessed, because the light show that the fans created by throwing glow sticks and neon lit bracelets was a spectacle that could have not been recreated by any electronic lighting rig. Trey even asked Chris Kuroda, to dim things down. Phish played as thousands of neon “shooting stars” streaked the sky.

Set three began with “Buffalo Bill,” a song that I had never seen live until this show. I had heard a few versions on bootleg recordings, but it seemed better up-close-and-personal. During a run through “NICU” a fire-breather belched flames into the air. The boys in the band pulled out a rare “Weigh” and a tasty “Guyute” that were solid. This song about an “ugly pig” is very danceable. It has been known to get fans really whipped up. Phish sprinkled a little “Dirt” into the mix and moved smoothly into “Scent of a Mule,” This tune which is noted for music “duels” between keyboard and guitar was instead marked by an extended improvisational mid-section.

The set ended with “Prince Caspian.” I personally identify with the main character in this song because he too, is disabled: “Ohhhhhh to be Prince Caspian, with stumps instead of feet.” I can’t help but wonder about the implications that those words have on me. The refrain stays in my head at times. I feel connected to “Caspian.”

The encore left me full of bittersweet emotions. “When the Circus Comes” is a Phish cover that evokes sad feelings within me. This has to have been one of the finest days in my touring career as a Phish fan, but I knew our time at “The Went” was almost at a close. At the conclusion of “Circus,” the band closed the show with “Tweezer Reprise.” Phish let the final stains of the song just ring out. As a final act, the massive art tower was set ablaze as like a huge torch symbolic of the unity of the band and fans.

Karyn and I waited until the scaffolding was clear before seeking an after-show party to crash. We came down the steps hoping to see the band members hanging out with friends and crew alike. Backstage after the show was not wild like I thought it would be, but we did see our share of oddities. A troupe of drummers and a naked juggler and fire-eater were part of the after-show attractions. Along with the entertainment was some very tasty draft beer which Karyn and I imbibed using spare change.

We waited around to see if Jon was going to make a final appearance or hook us up with a ride to our tent. We didn’t find him, but we managed to locate Marcie. She is, like Cliff, someone that Karyn and I met last New Year’s Eve in Boston. Following Phish is a great way to catch up with folks. In a matter of moments, the three of us were carrying on like old friends. We were all sharing in our own groove. Karyn and I momentarily forgot about having to return to the tent. We were content to pass time chatting with Marcie. 

The atmosphere that Phish creates, musically or otherwise is based on communication and connectivity between people on many levels. The bonds that result may be fleeting, or they may last forever. My experiences at “The Great Went” taught me a wealth of things about how miracles can spring from where one least expects them. Now it’s up to me to use what I have learned to assist others. Meeting Jon Fishman and other friends on tour has shown me to that no matter what paths we travel in life, one should never forget where the journey begins and that everyone needs help along the way.

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