Friday, July 8, 2011


I’ve tried to dial in the specific time frame in which the word “meatstick” first graced my ears, but the effort fleeted before it formulated. I do know this much: I was working the broiler at Steamworks Brewing Co. and a dreadlocked brunette server –- Robin, I think –- had been after me to treat my every responsibility like a Frisbee with no recipient. She wanted me to do what I’d always wanted to do: get out there and see an entire Phish tour.

This infuriated me. At the time –- I think it was mid-summer 1999, although it’s entirely possible it was ’97 –- the state of my finishing-college, paycheck-to-paycheck life had looked, for about five years, like so: full course load, full-time job, try and catch one or two shows a year when feasible. Attending school where I did enveloped my high-school experience and expanded upon it. Between the ages of 15-18, I worked more hours than most I knew, and in those last two, I enrolled in Consortium, which allowed me to get out of school early to go to work and get credit for it. As a senior, I was out by noon most days of the week.

Sophomore year, I bought this car. It’s fascinating to think about how many people still think of that car first when they think of me, since I’ve owned five vehicles since, but it was pretty hard to miss. Reba, as I called my 1982 baby-poo-brown Toyota Corolla, had character to say the least. It’s a little unfair to say she was baby-poo brown. She was more of a rust-colored brown, but the problem was that her plentitude of unsmall rust spots, strayed from the true hue of rust, and looked more like spent coffee grounds. That car, though, was abused, sinister-style, by its previous owners, and had me to thank for some 50,000 miles late in its life.

I didn’t want that car, but by the time I saved up a grand, my dad had a patience span about the width of a penny, and when we found it, he wanted to pull the trigger, mark it off the list. With my high-school income, I could save for a vehicle, purchase it, pay the taxes and insurance on it, and fill its tank with gas. What I could not afford, were the plentiful repairs that would accompany our four-year journey together, and suffice to say, my father’s impatience paid his wallet great, unwanted dividends.

It’d be interesting to know what took place in that Corolla for the nine years and 99,000 miles it inhabited the road before its title bore my name, so I can only imagine: One or more less-than-good drivers motored around in it, avoiding normal maintenance and stowing twin infant elephants in the back seat for the duration. I don’t know for real what went down behind the two front seats, and I’d like to think it wasn’t a whole bunch of disgusting fat-people sex, but Lord –- the hardware and suspension that were ostensibly stiff and sturdy in the early ‘80s resembled an elderly rubber chicken trying to clean and jerk world-record weights a decade later. I mean, you know it’s a rough deal in a car seat when the most comfortable thing about it is its seat belt.

Anyway, I put some nice six-by-nines in the rear dash, and bumped cassette-tape music through them courtesy of a sweet deck I put in, and the tunes, accented by an toddler-sized pair of Air Jordans that hung from the rear-view mirror, failed to disguise the lack of muffler that graced Reba’s undercarriage. You could say that I heard the phrase, “We heard you a block away” was uttered a time or two. It’s important then, to note that I attended high school in the richest county in the state of Kansas, a learning institution regarded as “the school where most students drive nicer cars than the teachers.” That was the joke heard every time you answered the where-do-you-go-to-high-school question, and the truth about it was that it was far from a joke, even if it made folks chuckle. The point being that when you drive a loud, eroding turd whose horn shrieks of dying unsexiness, you sort of stand out.

I said all that to say this, though: I never thought I would be surrounded by such wealth, ever again. Then I went to college. It’s true that, by college time, I’d sold –- a looser definition of this particular word has yet to be published, which is a story for another day -– Reba, and acquired Pale Face, an ’85 Toyota pickup with a camper shell. It’s accurate that at this time I no longer shared a mailing address with my mom, but one thing followed me from high school into college: poverty. This was no big deal to me, really. In fact, I’d never given it a second’s worth of consideration. I think I thought: This is college. Everybody’s broke.

The thing was that, in high school, I wasn’t good friends with many people that had rich parents. Their cars and their clothes suggested wealth, and if someone happened to point out a home, the hint was considered verified. I have no idea if the kids I attended college with came from wealthier families than the ones with whom I grew up, but these students came from all over the country, oftentimes in brand new SUVs, occasionally collecting mail from mail boxes of the brand new homes their parents bought for them –- hey, it’s cheaper than trying to rent a place for four years, and an investment, too! -– and having zero qualms associated with publicly discussing whether or not a five-grand-a-month allowance was a sufficient parental stipend.

I’m uncertain as to whether or not Robin was one of these Trustafarians (Editor’s Note: I didn’t make that up, and if I had I might not take credit for it, but that’s actually what we called them.), but when someone sends their kid from the Jersey area to a mountain town for college, and that kid doesn’t really need a job, but gets one to make their parents happy, then almost never works, there begin to be too many clues to overlook. This trend wasn’t necessarily her case, rather she had a much more admirable approach: Work as many shifts as possible, spend zero of those dollars until Phish tour, then live off of that money, hopefully leaving on good terms with the boss so that you can get back on the schedule when tour’s over.

Such an approach, then, felt taunting, one that I envied, one that, for all of my glistening moments of irresponsibility, was impossible. I needed every dollar I earned for rent, the groceries and utilities, a car payment, vet bills, on down the line. When I could get away for a show or two, it meant that frugality –- a concept I’ve never even come close to mastering –- on the road and at venues ensconced my every move; when the cash’s gone, it’s gone. There was no ATM, no slush fund, no merch I could peddle -- although I did, one summer, sell cups of peanuts that came with a free pint of Colorado microbrew. And, inevitably, I’d have to delay the payment of one thing or another upon my return, having allotted myself too much in the way of expenditures.

Robin’s efforts at persuasive speech, though, were the antithesis of successful.

“You’ve got to go,” she said.

“I can’t afford it,” I said. “I can barely scrape together enough gas money for two shows.”

“You can sell something,” she said.

“No,” I said. “I can’t. To sell something, you have to have money to buy something to sell, which I do not.”

“You’re cheating yourself,” she said. “You’ve always wanted to go on tour.”

“I have a job,” I said. “A job I need to pay my rent, my car payment, and my bills.”

“You’ll figure it out,” she said. “Those things will be there when you get back.”

“Actually,” I said, “they might not.”

“Even better,” she said. “Less stress in your life.”

This banter went on throughout a week’s worth of shifts, and I never want to suppose that somebody has/had a crush on me, because that’s kind of an egotistical thing to do, and it could be insulting if you’re wrong. I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t wonder about Robin’s feelings for me a time or two during this debate.

Completely unaware of her financial situation, and completely assuming that it was associated with some notion of limitless, there was more than one moment in which I wanted her to pitch a legitimate offer, like, You can stay with me and my friends, or, Just pitch in a few bucks worth of gas here and there. But there was never that. Not even a hint of it. It was just, You have to do this. Before it was over, I got angry. I eliminated the dance, the suppositions, the inability she seemed to have regarding seeing this situation from my perspective. And then, I dropped it on her.

“Robin, if I didn’t have to borrow from the government to pay for tuition, and if I didn’t have to work 40 hours a week and take 17 credits a semester, and if my parents provided me with a car and an allowance, then, and only then, would going on tour seem feasible,” I said.

She got red in the face, walked away from the line, and didn’t speak to me for the rest of the night. I’m never a fan of hurting someone’s feelings, and this was no exception. There’s one other thing my folks failed to give me, though, and that’s a high ceiling for tolerating frustration. She wouldn’t get it. It seemed as though she couldn’t get it. I had to put Robin in her place, I decided, and once the words had been launched, I could not take them back.

The next day I apologized. Part of me hated to apologize. I’d been pissed. I had always wanted to go on tour, and the couple hundred bucks I had to my name wouldn’t get me very far. What’s more, is that, had I gone, I’d’ve immediately become one of those kids on tour that begin to depend on others –- friends, strangers, authorities –- to take care of their every need. I hated those kids. They’d begun to come in droves in the summer of ’95 when Jerry Garcia died, and the timeless vehicle that was the Grateful Dead tour sputtered to a halt, and all of those aimless rogues that are on tour more for the way of life (Note: This way of life, while admirable to a small degree, typically translates, in my opinion, to three words: burden on society.) than the shows and the music themselves.

Because Phish has almost never come real close to where I live, I’ve almost always had to travel to see them. There’s a term that cycles in and out of the Phish network: jaded vet. I think there’s even a dude on Twitter with that handle, but the point, in case you couldn’t guess it on your own, is that things were always better when…But, being a guy that travels, time is always precious, and I’m seldom to the lot early, almost never in town the day before. So, you see these kids, one lone, grubby finger hoisted lazily above their heads, usually meaning they need a ticket, usually meaning the last possible expectation they could ever have being actually trying to obtain a ticket ahead of time, or, God forbid, paying face value for it in the lot.

Catching just the occasional show, though, and seldom having abundant time in the scene, you can brush off these types, verbal engagements ranging from one to three seconds. Embrace the irresponsible, though, and go on tour with minimal funds, and I become one of them. Not my thing. Gotta be able to hold my own.

We spoke, though, Robin and I, my end admitting that it was a slightly dickish thing of me to say, her end a suggestion that she understood my perspective, but I felt as though there was an underlying tone of you-must-not-want-it-bad-enough in her words. The subject, then, was dropped for a day or two, until she broached it once more, this time with a you’ll-be-missing-out sort of vibe. This was true, too, a feeling I’d had with every tour that’d come and gone in recent years. But I still considered myself lucky, fortunate enough to see them over a dozen times since beginning college, and back then, when the primary setlist source was word of mouth, I got a feel for the frequency, albeit mild, of repeated songs, the seeming rarity for a special theatrical moment at a show.

The missing-out angle faded, and then, she approached me, again at my broiler station on the line. Hand on hip, a serious look on her face, she said, with seriousness so deadpan, it would be a shame to attempt to do it justice with description,

“You’re not going to be there for the big moment,” she said.

“The what?” I was confused.

And then she hit me with it:

“The Meatstick,” she said, "is going to sweep the nation.”

I had no idea what this meant. I had a flash of an image, one in which I pictured some Phishheads, meandering on the outskirts of a carnivalesque venue, dressed in caveman attire like in the B.C. comic strip, everyone gnawing on ginormous fried turkey legs. I also simultaneously heard Frank Zappa’s voice, a la Mothers of Invention at the Fillmore ’71, singing about the “Mudshark,” how “it’s sweepin’ the nation.”

“What?” I must’ve looked stunned.

Muuuuuuuuuud. Sh-Sh-Shaaa-aaaarrrrkkkk.

“The Meatstick,” she said. “You have heard about the Meatstick. Haven’t you?”

“No,” I said, struggling to keep a grin from forming, one that wanted badly for me to ask her if this Meatstick was climbing the charts, with a bullet! “I have not.”

“Well,” she said. “The Meatstick is a new Phish song, and it has this really cool dance…”

And she demonstrated this dance, and I was amazed, not at her ability to do the dance itself, but that she was doing it from memory, having seen it at a recent show.

That was over a decade ago, and I, a self-proclaimed huge fan of the band, had never heard a version of “Meatstick,” or seen it live. Only in setlist tweets, and posts on sites like had I seen it mentioned. And then, writing progress notes in my office on a June Friday, I had a browser open, and was listening to this 100+ song mix –- all Phish -– that a YouTube user had compiled, and somewhere in that thread of tunes, the December 31, 2010 rendition of “Meatstick” at Madison Square Garden surfaced.

And I was hooked.

Right away.

You know how it is. You’ve got a browser window open, the one in which you’re working, and maybe your iTunes or your Pandora or your media player is open as well, cranking out the audio crack that keeps you firing away, and you’re doing a good job. That is, you’re staying focused, not clicking out of your work window too often, not getting distracted, not toggling over to Facebook every 90 seconds to see which one of your HINAFIs is winning the drive-you-clinically-insane sweepstakes.

Oh, you know what a HINAFI is. Don’t pretend like you don’t. We’ve all got anywhere from two to 10 of them on our friends list. A HINAFI (high-NAFF-ee) is exactly what you think it is. It’s that person who, when you hear their name, you think to yourself, It’s a little disturbing how much I know about this person’s life, considering that I see them once every five or 10 years. That person who, when a friend says their name, your first reaction is, Oh, child -– what has s/he gone and said now?, instead of your brain simply suggesting that you tune into your friend, that what your friend has to say might be something of interest versus another two pints of drama into the stock pot.

Yes. A HINAFI is that person on your friends list –- remember, we’ve all got two, 10, or somewhere in the middle –- who, when you go to your home page, and you see his or her face and name in your news feed, you don’t really see his or her face in your news feed. What you see, actually, is a big, bold-fonted, all-caps plea, an on-the-knees request to the Baby Jesus himself, a multi-exclamation-point gasp that says, Help. I Need A Facebook Intervention.

You know all of the whos I’m talking about in this situation, and if you’re sitting there jaw-dropped and furrow-browed, shaking your head at these words with Baptist-preacher-like disagreement, then I regret to inform you, that you, are a HINAFI. And this is a serious issue, one we won’t spend much more time on, but I just want to say two things to all you HINAFIs out there in InternetLand: 1) My free advice to you is this: Choose a word, a special word to you and only you, and practice saying it aloud every time you pick up your phone to go to your Facebook application, or every time you sit down at your computer to check Facebook. Say your word is “nectarine.”

See? You should’ve said “nectarine” aloud when you checked Facebook in between those last two sentences. Practice this for one whole day. Yes. A whole day. As in two dozen winds of the clock. Oh, yes. I’m aware this means you’ll be saying “nectarine” a ton. The point is that, by the 25th hour, you will have made yourself verbally aware of how often you’re getting out your social-media crack spoon, and once you’re aware of that, you can then begin to ask yourself this simple question: Is what your child, or the lady in line behind you at Target, or the bumper sticker on the car in front of you just said to you really, truly status-update worthy?

I know. This is where it gets tough. You’re planted in a super-tough spot right now. No, no. I get it. Someone, maybe the giant from Jack & the Beanstalk, has physically placed you in the middle of a hollowed-out cucumber and dunked you and your new vegetable cocoon into a mason jar of salty, sugary, white vinegar. Literally, you are in a pickle. You’ve followed along this far –- Ah, ah…say it with me now: “nectarine.” –- and for that you deserve one more free tip: If your child, the lady, the bumper sticker did not reveal to you either a) this week’s winning Power Ball numbers, b) a foolproof, precise weather forecast for the week -– tricky one there, in that you’d have to actually wait for a week to lapse -– or c) peace-yielding solution to what to do with and in Israel, then it’s probably not status-update worthy. At least not seven seconds after the words register.

Think on it for a minute. Take a deep breath. Say “nectarine.” 2) I have DVDs for sale, am available to give a seminar to your book club, your choir group, your poker-night clan, or any appropriate people cluster that may find my techniques valuable. Just send an e-mail to the address at the bottom of the screen.

But back to you. The you that’s plugging away at work, happy for the opportunity to have some music on, yet not running away with your liberties and spending the entire day fiddling around on the computer. Then, that one song kicks off. That song that, nine seconds in, you’re bobbing your head, and with a certain level of vigor, too. Only, this isn’t your typical head bob. This isn’t the dome thrashing that kicks in with the early drum smashing in “Hell’s Bells.”

Oh, no, no, no, my friend. This is the kind of head bobbing wherein three things occur: The first is that, unbeknownst to you, for a few seconds anyway, your neck and shoulders are conducting this mini freak dance of a symphony. See, in the “Hell’s Bells” head bob, your dome just rocks back and forth, the way one would work a ball on a swivel that has rusted a bit on the interior. It’s as if the skull boasts an independence from the rest of the body. In this situation, though, your shoulders begin some sort of conga-line sway, but not the upbeat, rapid sort associated with a percussion rhythm. No, this is like a docked boat that has just, for the last eight or 10 minutes, felt the evening tide begin to shove.

It’s a slow-but-slowly-building-steam sort of float kind of thing your shoulders are doing. The second thing your neck controls and it resembles the tautness of the rope that holds the docked boat to the eyelet fastened to a plank of wood when the rippling in the water has managed to maximize the distance between vessel and boarding place. Imagine an army. Rows of soldiers. Tens of thousands of them, arranged and resembling a sea themselves, a sea that will not yield to another force of any sort. This is what your neck’s doing. It’s preparing for a fight-to-the-death-if-need-be battle, a battle that serves a purpose, a purpose that isn’t a queen, or democracy, or human rights. It’s a purpose called your head.

And what your head is already engaged in -– the third thing, by the way -- is a seldom-seen freedom to do whatever it damn well pleases. The irony, though, is that this freedom has an order to it, and it starts with that bob. It’s a gentle bob, though, not the aggressive, rudimentary, back-and-forth banging, if you will, that has a reach limit –- kind of like your geometry-class compass –- in place that prevents your head from snapping off, hitting the sidewalk with the pish of a smashing watermelon. This bob has rotation in it, and, like the docked boat, it uses its motions to build momentum, like a carnival ride that takes a cycle or two to build speed, but once it hits that stride, you look at your cartmate with that oh-shit smile that says, It’s true we might die on this thing, but I have a hunch we’ll have a few laughs first.

That’s the sort of bob your head takes on with "Meatstick." The rotation that builds momentum, boasts a little flexibility, teases a little smile out of you, simply because you’re thinking of the ridiculous grinning you’ll be doing in a few moments. But this isn’t all that’s going on with your head. No. Your chin, for one, is kinda like that kid that barely squeezed onto the carnival ride because he sneaked a tippy-toe look under the you-must-be-this-tall sign in line. In a flash, he looks big enough for the ride, but if you did a few measurements, you might conclude that the possibility of him getting launched from his buckled seat in the throes of the thing is pretty high.

That kid is your chin, and just as the dance party in your upper body has gotten underway, your chin begins to force a sweaty-palmed clutch on that bar across its waist, thinking to itself, I have zero reason to believe that this thing’s going to keep me in place.

Your head also has developed this bizarre ability to engage in a most-impressive form of multi-tasking. It’s bobbing, weaving, flexing, dipping, shaking, zipping, and it possesses the ability to halt all of that, throw in a quick shimmy, and resume. You know the kind of shimmy I’m talking about. It’s as if your head was, for four or five seconds, a dog that just climbed out of a river, or just wrestled himself free of your efforts to keep him pinned to the bathmat while toweling him off out of the tub. The baffling speed with which this motion occurs can only take place in one of three places of which I’m aware: 1) the wet dog, 2) your mid-groove, funkified head, or 3) Shakira’s ass*.

*The funny thing about getting old is that you find yourself doing the thing that, as a kid, drove you more nuts than anything: complaining about the way the world is today versus how it was when you were growing up. We are all guilty of it, myself included. There are lots of things about my generation’s upbringing that, in my opinion, are detrimental to today’s youth, via simple non-existence. Like, say, outdoor exercise, for example. That said, there is something magical about the ability of typing “Shakira’s ass” into the search box of YouTube, and having more results than you have time for pop up.

If you want to cut out all of the descriptiveness, imagine yourself, inspired by this jam, using a liberty afforded you by your neck, as a more limber, even nerdier Bill Cosby. There are several other details that may describe the actions of your mouth, your cheeks, and even your ears, while this above-the-chest samba takes place, but the one worth mentioning involves your eyes. In this moment –- remember, you’re only nine seconds into the song -– your eyes are being tricky, in that they, too, are multi-tasking. Your eyes have two challenges before them: 1) Cast a zany enough look that says, The stuff’s about to get crazy up in here, so look out, to anybody that walks in the room, and 2) Bug out a bit, shoot from corner to corner in a fashion that resembles internal reflection, a reflection that says, God damn! if this isn’t the most badass song in the universe right now, and God damn! I can’t believe I’ve never even heard it before. I have to find out right now –- and you do just that, breaking your stretch of productivity -– what this song’s called.

That’s right. You’re in the midst of song virginity, and right now, there is so much going on that you can’t process it all. You’ve already catapulted yourself into that don’t-want-this-to-end feeling, the feeling that has a trajectory associated with bliss and joy, pain and confusion. On the bliss-and-joy end, you are enjoying the shit out of yourself. This is like the first time you zipped, taunting the realm of the uncontrollable, down a hill on your bike, where the rush of speed outweighed your very real awareness of how ugly a crash would be at this moment. Or the first time you were giggly from a sleep-deprived slap-happiness, or sampled your first taste of euphoria, be it based on summiting a mountain or winning a championship/award, or toying with intoxicants. That’s the bliss part. The joy part hinges on the epicenter of brethren, the human-being-charged feeling of having your day made.

I don’t mean that in the sense where you’re the kind of person who has, more often than not, five out of seven genuinely crappy days, and the fact that, from time to time, someone or something will grace you with the favor of not having to do one of the mundane, ugly things you hate about your routine. An accident, if you will.

No, I’m talking about an effort of the positive variety, a gesture or occurrence that puts you on board the Great Space Coaster of your day and carries you through it to the other side, the kind of joy that you experience, that you love experiencing, that you know will not be complete until you’ve shared it, until you’ve paid it forward, if you will.

The pain-and-confusion intersection is a busy one, too, though. As your groove continues, crashing the shores of your inside left and right, there’s a dull sting associated with this flavor of cherry pop, and it’s a weird one. It hurts because it’s the first time, and now you wonder whether or not the fact that it took this long to happen feels fair and justified. Yet, a mist falls over you, as if drops falling from tree leaves in a breeze. It’s tough to tell whether a new storm moves in, or if this is residual from the previous, but somehow, the confusion transforms into a loose, kind-of-glad-this-is-the-first-time translation.

For over three weeks now, I’ve been struggling to put a finger on what it is about this song, this particular version of it, this particular clip of that particular version that blasted me into a gravityless orbit from which I have yet to return. And I think I’ve finally found the answer: The hype and the buzz of this event sparked, then fizzled out about six months ago, right around the time I was watching the terrible network coverage of Times Square New Year’s Eve on my living room floor with my wife and newborn daughter. And the next day, taking in a soggy Winter Classic, then seeing January flash past like the glare of an afterburner all afforded me the opportunity to allow the massiveness of this event to soak in at its own rate.

I didn’t attend the show, so I wasn’t talking about it, and I was out of the Internet loop so it didn’t flash across my Facebook page (Note: Take it easy. I ain't no HINAFI.). I didn’t trip over it on my Twitter feed, and nobody e-mailed me a link to it, either. There are two podcasts to which I subscribe. One of them –- typeIIcast –- is Phish-related, but becoming a parent resembles the drive across Kansas: You’d better have some good wheels, ‘cause help’s a long way away.

I remember hearing the typeIIcast panel discuss the New Year’s run, though, and I remember these words about NYE 2010: “I suppose it was kind of neat to see all of those people from all of those countries singing ‘Meatstick’ in their own language.” This phrase made me think two things: 1) Wow, that sounds really cool, and I want to learn more about it. I even told the wife. 2) There’s that damn “Meatstick” again.

Now, having been catapulted to the other end of the “Meatstick” spectrum, that learn-more pang overtook, so I did the first thing any sensible Phishhead does, and I went to the song history at Please allow for two sentences of soap box: The amount of researched-and-detailed work that goes into a free fan Web site like has got to be, on some level, a thankless job. has been absolutely killing it for over 10 years, and because I know your interest is piqued, they have a great-cause donation icon on the home page.

The song, then, debuted in France. Twas June of ’97, and was played again in November of that year, this time stateside, which is where I imagine Robin first heard it, and reported back to me regarding its awesomeness. Live versions popped up again two years later and with even more frequency in 2000, oftentimes boasting Japanese lyrics. The cut reappeared in 2003, showed its head the following year, and worked its way into a few 2009, 2010 setlists as well, but all in all, in relative terms, it has remained a medium-rare play.

I mean, there are songs that have between one -– like Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” –- and four –- like “Something” by the Beatles –- plays, which obviously don the red-for-rare flag. Then you have something like “You Enjoy Myself” which has graced the stage 546 times. So, 31 renditions for “Meatstick” suggest, to me, medium-rare frequency.

What seems less-rare, though, are the alleged origins of the song, which apparently stem from one of those 1997 show dates. The anecdote hints that one particular refrigerator was loaded with nothing but items from the sausage family, and if you’ve ever seen the Phish documentary, Bittersweet Motel (Editor’s Note: If you haven’t, stop reading this very second, and don’t come back until you have. Unless you promise to watch it after, of course. Either way, we’re cool.), there’s a segment in which Trey Anastasio participates in a section of interviewing that discusses the band’s songwriting process.

Well, actually, the edit has the section start in with Anastasio answering a question that would appear to have sounded like, Why do you guys have so many non-sensical lyrics? Anastasio does an impeccable job of explaining precisely why the lyrics of Tom Marshall -– longtime co-writer for the band –- has a knack like no other for taking literary snapshots of life in its most peculiar moments and crafting a sort of poetry from them. Anastasio, by the way, is holding a guitar while he’s explaining this, and he then plays “Sleep,” a then-brand-new song for the interviewer, which couldn’t have worked out better, because the lyrics of “Sleep” are something to which we can all relate. And by “all,” I mean all:

“I can't describe the feeling when
I'm in my bed asleep and then
I wake up with a vision blurred
And all my efforts are deterred
To reconstruct this image lost

There're certain things my mind won't do
And even though they're very few
The image glistens like a gem
Repairing is not one of them

So I'm awake though in my mind
The image that so unrefined
Is calling to me from the deep
Tempting me to fall asleep”

What’s fascinating about “Meatstick”’s lyrics is that the refrain –- “Time for the Meatstick, Bury the Meatstick, Take out the Meatstick time. Whoa-oa! Shocks My Brain!” sounds precisely like the sort of thing one or more of the band members would write, and those lines jive with the sausage-stuffed European fridge. The verses, however, sound like vintage Tom Marshall. As Wikipedia suggests, they “seem to concern the joint experience and attempted communications between at least two individuals who have embarked on a psychedelic/entheogenic journey together.” I, for the record, had to look up “entheogenic,” and it, apparently is a nicer, more-subtle way of saying psychedelic. I think Wikipedia’s on to something with the supposition of lyrical translation in this instance:

“I'm trapped here as my senses bleed
I can't recall which things I need
You show up late and stumble in
Unsure if you are still Corrine

My captive gaze inside your eyes
Reveal a thing you've tried to hide
Attempting to record this view
Reflections drive me out of you

But long before this scene concludes
The end I'm seeking still eludes
My every effort to apply
My will to moments passing by

But every time we say goodbye
The pain I can't identify
Reveals to me the hidden door
That leads to several moments more”

If you’ve never eaten hallucinogenic drugs, then first and foremost: If you’re 18 or younger, wait. Don’t eat them now. If you’re 30-plus and never have, your time may have run out, and if it has, shame on you. You, my friend, missed a serious boat. No soap box here. I’m not going to parade around atop my drugs-are-awesome float. I know they’re dangerous and illegal, and many tens of thousands of human beings have found a palatial level of happiness without them. I’m just saying that a few mushrooms or a piece of acid open up the mind’s eye in a way that no other thing on earth can. Allow me, nevertheless to parse through these lyrics.

No human experience matches tripping. None. Skydiving comes close, but as you might imagine, it’s over quick. Okay. Culturally insensitive of me, I know. I've never been shot or stabbed or hit by a bus or dangerously malnourished or tortured or imprisoned. I acknowledge the possibility that there exists a human experience that could match tripping. Taking a psychedelic journey, though -- and yes, we're right back in Pleasantville -- can last all day and into the night, or vice versa, depending on your moment of consumption. If you’re in the right mindset, you can get trapped in a good way. A real good way. If you’re not, you could be in deep shit, and let’s be honest: If you’re going to eat a hallucinogenic drug when not in a positive frame of mind, you’ve got some issue sorting ahead of you. Or behind you. Again: perspective.

Either way, time, in every definition of the word, can, and likely will, warp your mind in 10,000 directions by the trip’s conclusion, and the notion of a trap suggests a metaphor for this form of intoxication. The lens through which you view the world while on mushrooms or LSD reeks of permanence, elicits a stuck feeling that, again, can be a magnificent thing. Picture a smokin’-hot redhead in line behind you at the DMV. Ladies, imagine David Hasselhoff in a leopard-print banana hammock, or…whatever it is that gets that itch wanting to be scratched. Red/Hoff’ taps you on the shoulder and says, “We’re gonna be here forever, may as well enjoy ourselves.”

What? Public fornication in a government building wouldn’t fly in your world? Fine. Make this difficult. What if, at the end of the year, God cut you a check for the total number of minutes you spent in church?

No? Blasphemous and impossible? Okay, okay. Your spouse will do your least-favorite chore for you for the next six months. Can we get back to the story please?

You’re trapped here while your senses bleed. This is killer. If I were in a band called Eat Good Drugs, “Bleeding Senses” would be the lead track on our self-titled debut. There have been chunks of every trip I’ve ever had in which I felt like I had dog ears, meaning that that conversation you had on the third Thursday of May in 1995, the one in which you and your cousin whispered outside your cabin door about how foolish it was for the boys to skinny dip in the lake at 2 a.m. in Lake Minnetonka...I heard that. From Portland.

Without a doubt some weird, primitive-seeming things are going on with taste and smell, and everybody knows about the visual hallucinations alleged to happen for everyone every time a hallucinogen is consumed. Totally false, but not important right now.

I could write eight billion words on it, but suffice to say that I’ve rubbed my jaw against a concrete wall, felt my left leg convulse (while driving a stick shift in no real direction while pounding orange juice), smoked cigarettes with a fake arm in my shirt, danced to live music while repeatedly checking to see if I'd peed in my pants (I hadn't.), and swayed my arms like elephant trunks in the hallway of my college dorm building. All of those things felt like distinct, blissful orgasms, in parts of your body that aren't supposed to orgasm, and were it possible, I’d bottle that bliss, absorb all of the expense myself, and distribute it to 500 of my closest friends. The point is that when you’re tripping, your senses are stuck pigs. Or hemophiliacs. Take your pick. It’s pretty awesome, though.

“I can’t recall which things I need.” Only the Phish songwriting team could pair the awesomeness of that initial line with this killer follow-up. Endless hilariousness would ensue if I tried to describe the concept of trying to be attentive enough to order a thought like remembering which things one needs when reeling from some magic mushrooms or a square of Orange Sunshine. Let’s put it in real-life terms: If paramedics were under the influence of hallucinogens, we’d be dying by the thousands.

That third line is perfect because the perspective of tripping could be associated to either the speaker or the observed. On either side, lacking punctuality and coordination are appropriate. To that same end, I’d never rule out the possibility of confusion associated with trying to identify a person, even if I’d just done so five minutes prior. In the second verse, stuff gets deep, brotha’man. Real deep.

Go back to that idea of bleeding senses. Imagine holding a thing in your hand. Now imagine that this thing is the coolest, most beautiful object in history. You marvel in its awe. You want to share its rare beauty, but you can’t pull your eyes away. Sober, this shocking sensation might last four or five seconds. On LSD, all bets are off. You might marvel at this thing for 10 straight minutes. Maybe even an hour and-a-half. And that’s just looking at a thing.

Staring into someone else’s eyeballs is a whole other flavor of intense. It seems, though, that there are a couple of ways to interpret that line, and we’re back the speaker/non-speaker debate. If it’s the speaker, does the person he’s addressing have some sort of mirror-like eyeballs? Can he see himself spacing out in Corrine’s orbs? Or is the “inside your eyes” part referring to his awareness of her staring at him staring at her?

Then, a moment of revelation flashes, and the feeling is sort of like a giant gasp, a never-experienced shock, as if you were the kid who was somehow able to hide in the pool when the lifeguards have demanded evacuation due to lightning in the area, and by God di that lightning hit. Don't try and tell me you know someone to whom that happened. I won't believe you.

From that moment, the ambiguity is as thick as frozen jelly. That third line is like that beholder of that beautiful thing, struck by the concept of never wanting the intensity of the moment to fade. Either that or the moment of gasping-shock has forged a hurt feeling of a won’t-forget-this variety. In a bad way. Bad, as in best-friend-just-slept-with-your-spouse kind of bad. And in that final pre-refrain line, it’s as though the whole surprise has snapped the two out of their eyelock.

Between verses two and three we’re graced with the maybe-we’re-being-overtly-vulgar-maybe-we’re-not chorus, and to kick off three, the speaker has carried us back to this now-jostled bleeding-senses gaze. And the speaker just cannot get the light bulb in his head to illuminate. I mean, the words invoke some actual scalp scratching.

He’s trying damn hard, too, like, pre-this-generation, no sidetracking, no millisecond attention span, no fuck-it-lemme-Google-it hard, but rather a scour-the-house-for-your-car-keys-for-15-minutes-only-to-find-them-in-your-pocket hard. And though we’ve covered it before, the idea of passing time -– saturated in an around the human experience as it has forever been -– does not, in this instance, disappoint. Nor do the songwriters’ intents.

As best as I can tell, two life experiences look like moments passing by: being really old and really ill and literally waiting to die, and tripping. I know, I know. Culturally, socio-economically insensitive. I feel it every time I write it, like the buzz of touching the side in a game of Operation. I get it, and thank you, but I don't need you to remind me.

But think about it: In every other situation, we’re doing something that passes time. We’re killing time. We’re in a race against time. Not on acid, though. And this is a nice return to the trapped image, too. If you happen have a time piece with you when tripping, some seriously skewed perceptions regarding time’s passage are inevitable. It’s possible that the speaker, under specific circumstances, spent seven hours in this fixed gaze, confused, determined, and mind-blown.

That fourth verse I’m not even gonna touch. That’s some Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole stuff right there that only the speaker understands. Trying to understand it on his level would explode my brain, and besides, enough about the lyrics already, right? Before we shift gears, though, it’s important to note that the interpretation of the verses being about the experience of tripping was based solely on the “Meatstick” Wikipedia page, which means three things:

1) I’m not a real writer. I’m a blogger, which is obvious because I’m basing serious chunks of information on junk I found on the Internet.
2) Chuck Klosterman, along with many, many people I went to grad school with are, this very minute, heating the IDIOT branding iron, since I read Wikipedia, and quoted it.
3) Any information related to that so-called experience of tripping was obtained from other sources. As in interviews. (Editor’s Note: See, look? I AM a journalist!) Why would I take the time to mention that? I dunno, really. Maybe I just wanted you to know that I myself have never done drugs. Drugs r’ bad, mm-kay?

Moving on.

Oh, wait. About those Japanese lyrics I mentioned earlier: Some band from Japan taught Phish to sing the chorus in Japanese in June of ’99, I think, which they frequently include in live renditions today, which is pretty badass when you think about the idea of trying to get this dance to sweep the nation. Er, I mean, globe.

Muuuuuuuuuud. Sh-Sh-Shaaa-aaaarrrrkkkk.

So let’s look at the dance. This handy image will tell you all you need to know about it, save that it’s repeated four times, until the quarter turns at the end of the refrain have brought you full circle. Then it’s complete, and you are free to either a) repeat it one-27 more times, or b) return to your previous engagement, more globally recognized as the White Person Shuffle.

We, then, are almost through my very-rough “Meatstick” outline, so let’s take a moment and watch the 12/31/10 rendition that I mentioned earlier, and before we do, I’d like to warn you that it’s 20 minutes long. You probably already saw that in that handy little YouTube timer-counter thing under the video, but I thought I’d note the length of the video so that I could note the length of this post, and offer you a gift. Yes: a gift.

If you make it through this entire post, and you watch the entire video, then you, my friend, are entitled to a free House of Georges shirt. That’s right. Send me a tweet for more details.

A few thoughts then, about the clip itself.

Phish’s efforts with trying to break the world-dance record, their shenanigans with the giant flying hot dog, have been documented on the Web, and it’s pointless to rehash them here. What blew my mind about this portion of this show is what, on many, many other occasions, has blown my mind about this band: They stop at nothing when it comes to keeping it fresh and new.

Sure. It’s been stale a time or two, and I’ve even had my moments where I’ve given considerable consideration to not traveling to see them anymore. Like I mentioned earlier, seeing Phish involves some travel, more for some than others, which is a point I should clarify: Earlier, I made it sound like I have had to travel more than most to say Phish, which sounds whiny, and is actually inaccurate. I suppose that people outside the country have had to travel more than I have to see Phish, and I know, and am friends with many folks -- especially west-coasters -- that travel to see them here in the States.

The point being that they’ve not been to Kansas City in eight years, and between 1996-2000, they didn’t play anywhere that wasn’t at least six-plus hours away from where I lived. Not the end of the world, I realize, but I think the feeling goes that the further east you live, the less you have to travel, and the greater the distance the further west. It makes sense, given that the four band members are all from New England, but it doesn’t make it any easier to stomach, any less painful to manage time, and to reach into the wallet.

But the notion of freshness…

I started working on this piece before the weekend of July 4th, which was the weekend in which Super Ball IX, Phish’s ninth weekend-long camping-and-music festival, took place. It included some seven or eight sets of Phish, and there are plenty of articles and videos that detail all of the greatness about the festival, so I won’t bore you with those, but nine times they’ve done this. (Note: Ed Rooney voice here kids. Say it with me now.) “Nine times.”

The first four were so ridiculously far away, they were almost in Canada. No chance I could’ve financed a trip of that size and distance as a poor college kid. But you know who did? Seventy thousand people. Seventy thousand. For four straight years.

That’s like, almost a sellout at Arrowhead Stadium. And that’s a commitment. That’s no drive 20 minutes to the stadium and eight hours of tailgating and football later you’re home. That’s like, driving to Niagara Falls to sleep on the ground for the weekend, and then driving back. All so that you can listen to the same band all weekend.

Since those four original festivals, they’ve mixed it up location wise, but the fresh element remains. At The Great Went, they attempted to set the Guinness Book of World Records for largest group photograph in the nude. At It, they played a late-night set from atop an air-traffic-control tower, and had neon dancers rappelling down the sides. At Big Cypress -– New Year’s 1999 on a Seminole Indian Reservation -– they had a flatbed truck drive them around in the middle of the night as they played an unannounced set, and later that weekend, they played from 11:30 p.m. until sunup.

Two years ago, at Festival 8, they hammered out eight sets of music, the sixth of which was in the morning, all acoustic, with free coffee and donuts, and down at Super Ball IX, they had everything from fresh-ice delivery, compost bins, a 5K run, a 2 a.m. mystery set played from inside some façade where only their silhouettes could be seen (Note: I’m probably flubbing a detail or two there.), and audio of the whole thing was streamed live on the Internet. I was fortunate enough to be able to tune in for the final set Sunday night, and guess what? Yup. “Meatstick.” I totally teared up. More on that in a second, though.

They’ve also donned “Halloween costumes” six or seven times, wherein they cover an entire album from another artist as set two of a three-set, October 31 show. On the fall ’95 tour, they held a chess match with the audience, in which, each night, a member from the crowd would come up and make a move on a giant drop-display chess board, against the band. I could talk about cheap ticket prices, taping policies, charitable causes (of which there are many), family involvement within tours and shows, and I wouldn’t even get to the inspiration that the music instills.

Back to the 12/31/10 “Meatstick,” though.

I don’t know how many dancers came on stage for that production. It looked like around 40, which is a lot considering the amount of space their rig and equipment take up. But, to start playing a song, trek out 40 dancers in different outfits singing in different languages, have the whole thing shift into English and choreograph a 15-minute-long piece while the band rockets back to stage in a giant hot dog to rejoin the dancers and transition the end of the song into “Auld Lang Syne” right as the new year is rung in has got to leave even Janet Jackson’s crew saying, Shit that’s amazing.

When I first saw this production, I was stunned, I couldn’t wrap my brain around it, “the end I’m seeking still eludes.” I had unanswered questions.

Are these people really from these regions of the world, or are they simply actors in costume? Did Phish rehearse this bit with them, or did they just expect the hired-out producer (Note: Thanks, Wikipedia!) to handle 100 percent of it, and the flow of execution would just have to work itself out? Were fans in attendance genuine in their appreciation for what they witnessed? Where, for the band, did this stunt rank in their history of tomfoolery? What did this bit represent?

Well, I don’t know what it meant for those in attendance, those in the band, or any of the other 109,000-plus people that have watched this clip, but for me, (Note: Cue the tree-hugger soundtrack.) it meant that each of the nations of the world could be unified -– language barriers, cultural practices, history of international relationships all aside -– through music and dance. And as a fan, that’s a large-scale feeling of what I’ve felt this band has been about ever since their live shows brought them out on the road, away from New England. Not to say that they had to get away from home for it to happen, or that it happened right away, but this connection between them as musicians and their fans, the collective energy that is shared at a show, is a lot of what my experience with this band has embodied.

Now, this might have, in that last half-paragraph, begun to sound a little hoity-toity, and that was not the intention. I get that every other band in the world has relationships with their fan bases. And I get that there’s energy at their shows, and that both sides feed off of it. My argument is that it’s just not the same kind of energy. Most bands take the stage and crank out the same setlist every night of tour, which has got to begin to feel stale for them. It’s got to. They probably develop relationships with songs, both good and bad. And I’m sure that happens with Phish, too.

What’s different with them is that they don’t really have a ton of repeats within a tour. Not anymore at least. Before, when they were touring enough to total upwards of 150 nights out of the year on stage, they were bound to have plenty of repeats. I’m sure certain cuts were shelved because they just got sick of playing them. In their favor, though, is the freshness with each setlist, with whether or not that setlist gets used, with the improvisation within each song.

And let’s be honest: They’ve got a lot of songs.

I recognize that many bands have lots of songs. Many bands, though, don’t play lots of their songs live, because they never became popular, let alone hits (Note: With a bullet!). They know fans aren’t coming out to hear those tunes, and that sets things up for some potential resentment. Maybe a few band members like a few of their non-hits, and they want to play them live, but the fans don’t want to hear that. They bought the tickets, and they want to hear the hits. (Note: On the charts!)

This idea of songs and circulation, though, is one of the greatest things about Phish. They have, I would argue, a deeper relationship with every song they’ve ever written and/or recorded, then any other band in history. By “deeper” I don’t mean better. I mean more developed. They have written/composed nearly 300 original songs, covered upwards of four or five dozen others, and have played over 1,250 shows. Granted, not all of those 300-some have been played, and some have gotten the call more times than others. Add to that that, in my estimation, the song quality in their discography dwarfs the majority of the touring/recording acts out there, giving the listener plenty of opportunity to build relationships with particular tracks, and in some cases, all of them.

Before the point I’m trying to make grows grotesque in its arrogance and disjointedness, allow me to simplify the point: I believe that the version of “Meatstick” just played at Super Ball IX was the 32nd occasion in which it was featured live. They have attempted to make a nuance out of this song, and it has become something special that, in some ways, will never compare with the frequency of some of their original favorites, or the rarity with some of the fan-base-favorite covers.

For reasons just like this, I get a hint of anxiety every time tour dates are announced. I feel overwhelmed with the notion of not being able to get tickets, or not being able to afford to travel to see them, for fear of missing out on what is always one of the greatest experiences in my lifetime. And all of that falls under the what-if-this-is-my-last-opportunity-to-see-them umbrella. It would perhaps be a touch misguided to quote the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” here, so I’ll channel a little bit of The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy instead: “There’s no place like” a Phish show.

I have the opportunity to either see them in Chicago next month or in Denver over Labor Day weekend, and right now, coming up with the funds to do so feels like an impossibility. So once more, that fluttering sense of panic has set in. I begin to wonder if I miss out now, have I missed out forever. The simple answer is that, no, with 30 shows under my belt, I have not. That insatiable hunger, though, continues to rumble and the live-music scene once they’ve hung up the instruments for good looks, in my imagination, abysmal.

It’s not that I doubt the existence of other great, well-rounded acts out there. I know they’re there, and I’ve seen a few. It’s just that none, hard as I’ve tried, compare to their sound, creativity, attention to detail, originality, and enthusiasm.

No other band in my life has made me invest so much emotion into relationships with their songs, and I doubt one will come along soon that makes me smile, dance, and sing with such instant warmth as Phish, even when considering a song as goofy as the one that nearly overtook the Macarena. I still haven't seen a "Meatstick" and I've long since abandoned the idea of going into a show hoping/expecting to hear a specific song. I will, however, always remember the day I discovered (Note: Thanks, YouTube!) the December 31, 2010 version of the song that Robin pleaded me to get after all those years ago.


Aimee G said...

Wowza - you can write!