Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Untimely Reviews: A Preview to a Review: Remembering Phish in Las Vegas, 1996

Last night I returned home from a trip to Colorado to see Phish for three nights at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. We left a little after five a.m. Friday morning, and returned home around six in the evening. I’ve assembled some notes and will post reviews of the weekend, but because I heard the phrase “this one time in Vegas” about 14 times this weekend, I recall the last time I bookended a show with nine-hour drives on either side.

The first (and last) time I wrote a review about a Phish show, I was in college, and I did so for the Arts & Entertainment pages of Fort Lewis College’s The Independent. Being that I was the editor of those pages, I didn’t have to plead for a freelance opportunity, or submit a piece and hope for it to be accepted. I went, came back, and in the sentiment of the old college try, put the thing together at the last minute. And it was kind of a disaster. I mean, I was proud to have a nice chunk of my pages represent Phish, but I didn’t take a camera, so I had to pilfer a picture from somewhere, and that was far from the worst of it: I didn’t do a thorough copy-editing job, and being that it was way past deadline when I submitted it for layout, our staff copy editor had already gone home for the evening.

There weren’t glaring typos or misstated facts about the performance, but there were two primary flubs: 1) I did nothing but rain praise on the band, which I’d just done two months prior in an album review when Phish’s Billy Breathes had been released. Here’s where it gets tricky: Every ounce of praise for both their sixth studio album and the show –- Las Vegas, NV, Dec. 6, 1996 –- was deserved. That record ranks near, if not in, the top three of all their non-live recorded material, and that concert –- chock with Elvis impersonators, professional yodelers, and a guest appearance from Primus –- was epic. But, you, in my opinion, can look foolish when heaping gob after incessant gob upon an artist without even a sliver of negative criticism.

Not that big of a deal. What was, was 2) me not fact checking. Primus had recently switched drummers (again), and I was not keen to the band’s lineup. What I did was include drummer number two’s name –- Tim Alexander -– in my original draft of the story. Dave, one of the fellows with whom I attended the show, happened to be the A&E Editor I’d replaced, and at the time, he was a pretty good friend of mine (Editor’s Note: That friendship has encountered a few difficulties in the 15 years since, namely his current 11-year prison sentence, but we’ll file that tidbit in the some-other-time folder.).

Anyway, he mentioned that Brian Mantia had replaced Alexander at the kit, and as I was wont to do with information received from Dave, I decided I needed to verify it. In the interim, I changed Alexander’s name to Pat McGroin, and slapped parentheses around it, assuming that that would stick out enough to signal my eye for a need to edit. My organizational skills were a touch in the lacking department back then, though, and, well, that’s how it went to press.

In hindsight, though, it was fitting that the piece was a bit of a disaster because most everything about the trip was, too.

At the time, I was about 16 months into my stay in Durango, and had just moved into my fourth residence. The first was the master bedroom of a wood-burning-stove-heated house about 20 minutes north of town. The girlfriend with whom I’d moved to Durango –- we both had been accepted to FLC as transfer students -– had a rough go of things. She got a job delivering pizzas for Little Caesar’s and I got a job as a line cook at this dingy sort of Applebee’s-of-the-Southwest kind of chain. My starting wage was $5 an hour and I closed five nights a week.

It took me less than two weeks to move from salad to Mexi’ to the fryer, and before long I’d be working sandwich/grill back, and finally grill, which meant I was running the kitchen and making a bit more money. But for that winter, I was on fry for a while because that station had a heavy demand that most college-town kids simply couldn’t handle. Our room at home had no shower in its bathroom, and so five nights a week, several beers after my shift, I’d drive out to our place, and get in the tub, constantly trying to push the grease pockets away from my skin as I bathed.

My girlfriend and I were both taking 15-plus hours, which meant nine a.m. starts, which meant early departures. In short, we never saw each other, and when we did have free time, I –- being four years her junior -- was too immature to recognize the importance of spending it with her. By semester’s end of ’95, we’d agreed to move out on our own, which was a shame, because Amelia was one of the sweetest human beings I’d ever met.

I moved in with a few buddies I’d met up on the Front Range performing one of my other glorious bits of employment -– housekeeping -– and was with them for less than two months; dogs were not allowed in this condominium unit, and my lack of responsibility in the poop-scooping department got my operation discovered, my dog and I booted. A few friends from the restaurant invited me to move in with them, which I hastened to accept. This was a two-bedroom unit with a tiny kitchen and bathroom, in which seven people (and one other dog) slept. Only one of which was a girl, and she’d long since given up cleaning anything, given that she lived with half a dozen slobs.

She became an immediate fan of mine when I moved in and promptly scoured the bathroom. I didn’t have any actual real estate in the home, so I placed my twin mattress, my box spring, and my pickup truck full of possessions in the shed across the sidewalk. It had no heat or running water, which made for a cozy Colorado winter, but with a decent North Face sleeping bag, a stack of blankets, my dog, and a gas-powered space heater, I survived. The building, I should mention, was partitioned and very wide, and there were four guys and another dog living in the other half of it.

As the weather warmed, and some roommate shuffling occurred, I was able to move to a bed in the corner of the living room, but as summer’s end drew near, the California landlords surprised us with a visit, informed us that they were going to remodel the home and remove the partition, to then re-rent it as a single unit. This may or may not’ve been true; they (Note: And by “they” I mean she.) was aghast that somebody had spent the winter in the shed – my bed was now occupied by someone else, and was stricken with a paranoia of someone dying on her property. Either way, we were told to go.

That summer had seen the primary couple of the home split, two guys leave, and a pair of sisters from Grosse Point, MI move in. One was a server at our restaurant, the other waited tables down the block. For about a week, I had the luxury of sleeping with the younger one, but quickly found out I was but a link in her boy chain. One night in the middle of that delightful stretch, after over-serving myself at our restaurant, the sister with whom I was sharing sheets was in the bathroom getting ready for bed, and her elder sibling and I were on the couch watching TV.

I think my confidence level must’ve been pretty high at the time, because I bum rushed her with a big, long kiss, thinking in that cosmically dark cavern of a brain, that this would only have one result: some kinky sister-sandwich action. She obliged in the lip lock for five or six seconds, and towards the end of the moment, she’d even raised her hands to my head and run them through my hair. She made a quick transition, though, and used them to push my face away from hers, saying, “Dude. No. What the fuck? My sister’s in the bathroom right there.” My response was less than good.

“Yeah,” I said. “I know.” I’m not positive, but I think there was a semi-sinister grin on my face as I nodded to complement those three words, but she leapt from the couch and zipped into her room, slamming the door behind her, just after offering a few more: “Whatever, man. That’s fucking gross.”

Needless to say, I did not attempt anything like that ever again.

The Grosse Point sisters, however, did agree to sign a year lease with myself and the guy from the primary couple, so the four of us and our three dogs moved into a place about 15 minutes west of town. It was an absolute train wreck of a situation, as said dude immediately began to stay with in-town friends, as did the sisters. Admittedly, it was a wicked Durango winter in terms of snow fall -– one storm left parts of our neighborhood chest deep -– and the drive from town was entirely uphill. The girls literally never even unpacked.

But we were there for about four months, and I was working full time, going to school full time, and doing a three-day-a-week internship at a school 30 minutes from town, starting at nine a.m. My attendance at this internship was spotty at best, and I probably reeked of Guinness on most occasions in which I was present. What’s worse is that the La Plata Electric Association had begun installing -– per individual home owner request -- these thermostat-keypad devices that controlled the home’s power. This meant that one had to drive to LPEA, submit a payment, and have a card activated. One would then drive home, swipe the card in the device, and boom –- power.

When the amount in your account dropped below $20, it would beep incessantly and if you didn’t swipe again –- obviously with new money -– by the time it hit zero, then boom –- no power. As in, no heat, no light, no nothing. As the only quote/unquote regular resident of the home, I was seldom there, given my schedule. But I slept there every night, and upon arrival, had to deal with all three dogs having been cooped up all day and on some nights, I’d toss and turn through the beeping. On others, I’d shiver, longing for my scarcely heated shed.

Somewhere along the line, a girl named April started waiting tables at our restaurant, and she took a liking to me, which typically never happened. I mean, I had plenty of stints with girls, but seldom, if ever, did a girl aggressively pursue me, and April made it clear from the very beginning that she wanted to hang out after work all the time. It didn’t matter that I stank -– I was running the kitchen by this time –- and that I always wanted to do the same boring thing with the same folks every night after work. She wanted to be there.

Among a couple of other minute details, this clued me in early that April had a little bit of baggage. Not a big deal. We all do. Hers was just a touch more on her sleeve than most in my circle, but she was in to me, and there’re a few deals about April that you should know: First, she was very intelligent, and second, she was very attractive. Third, she wore her hair very short, which I hated then, and still hate now, but fourth, she had this fragrance about her that very few women have had, but it’s one that, while the most intricate details about it have escaped me over the years, the bulk of it has not.

We talked about it on several occasions, and even laughed about it more than once, and I’m pretty certain it was her perfume. Some girls have that freshly shampooed smell about them at all times and it can be dangerously intoxicating. Every once in a while, you’ll meet a girl who just has a natural scent to her that stays with you for a bit after spending time with her. And even rarer: the girl that, no matter where she is or what she’s doing, she’s staying perfumed when you’re not looking.

This was April. I’d give her a ride home, and bam –- April smell in my truck for five days. She’d come over and spend the night and my sheets would smell of April until I washed them, and sometimes even for a while after.

One final detail about April: her boobs. She had -– and probably still has –- the greatest breastesses I’ve ever had the pleasure of befriending. They were quite large, healthy, real, proportionate to her body, and capped with some gorgeous nipples. One more final detail about April: I knew her boobs so well then, and still know them well now because boobs were where the game ended with April.

No matter how significant the bonding of an evening, no matter how many drinks we’d had, no matter how cold the electricityless bedroom of mine was, there was a mission statement posted between April’s hips, and it said this: Make no mistake; these panties are staying on.

Believe it or not, this was the second of four girls in my time in Durango that liked me enough to spend multiple nights in my bed, mess around with me, and then, when the contract was ready to sign, rip the pen from my hand and ask what I was doing in their office. I’m not going to go into the shenanigans associated with the other three because we’re talking about April here, and one night, my male roommate was out with April and I, having drinks, smoking butts, chewing the fat. And he decided to come home with us, too, for some reason.

It was the strangest thing. We got there, hung out chatting for a few minutes, and then April went into his room –- the room directly across the hall from mine –- and as I sat there trying to figure out what was happening (Note: We had power this particular evening, so there was no beeping and the house was warm.), the door shut. Next thing I know, there’s music playing, and the bedroom light emitting from beneath the door disappeared. When I woke in the morning, they were gone.

I avoided as much engagement with April as I could for about 10 days, and when it became clear that her badgering would not relent, I hung with her one evening, remaining somewhat cold and distant, even when she all but insisted that she come home and spend the night with me. I brushed my teeth, turned out the light, and got in bed, my back to her. She displayed a fair amount of affection, which, translated, meant any whatsoever, as it was usually me trying to assess, time and again, whether or not this would be the night I was tall enough to get in line for Magic Mountain.

I resisted, though, as the fat, obvious cloud of awkward hovered over us, and when her efforts became verbal, then emotional, I turned on the light, propped my head in my hand, and listened to her tale of how my roommate had, according to her, been inappropriate to the nth degree on the night in question.

Now, I don’t know what went down across the hall from me that evening, and I’m not going to use any form of the word allege, and I’m not going to say that anybody was lying, but the gist of her version of the tale kind of leaves my then-roommate wearing a certain black-and-yellow sports jersey, with a particular digit on it that may or may not be a popular uniform-number choice for other athletes that play that same position.

Why, then, she would choose, nay, insist, to return to such a residence still baffles me, almost as much as April’s self-invite to join Dave and I on our journey to Las Vegas to see Phish.

Allow me to clarify: I’m not sure where April was from, but I know that her mom lived in Las Vegas, and this was a free ride to visit her. But it was in my pickup truck with a camper shell with a) a dude with whom she had a peculiar-at-best relationship, b) a guy she’d never met, and c) my dog, who she adored, and again per her insistence, she would share the truck bed with for both legs of the journey, which if you remember, is about nine hours each way in non-winter travel. This was December, on a weekend no less.

That Friday morning, I picked up Dave a little after five. He and his then-girlfriend rented a studio apartment with a Murphy bed, and they were always bickering. This morning was no exception. Dave was up, pulling bong hits, and had the TV on, which were not the quietest two things for that early, and given that it was snowing pretty hard, I wasn’t exactly silent upon entrance either.

But we left, and picked up April, and drove to Vegas, where we had precisely nothing more than tickets to the show arranged. I remember getting to a parking lot down the street from the Aladdin Theater, and feeling like a complete shmuck. Not only could I not really afford to make this trip, but I’d just seen Phish four consecutive nights at Red Rocks Amphitheater that summer, and taken my own bed-of-a-truck ride to New Orleans to see them that spring. I was overextending myself and my budget on this one, and, in the process, leaving my dog in my truck for a three-hour show, after having him back there for over nine hours.

Which is worse, I’m unsure, but the other element was leaving my fragile friend April in a Vegas parking lot in pre-cell-phone times was not sitting well with me, either. Into the show we went, though, and while the show itself would later be unanimously dubbed solid, I was not of the right mindset to enjoy it. Just before the house lights went down, Dave produced a bag of mushrooms from his jeans pocket, which caught me off guard. I’d been unaware of their presence in the truck, and I was not really that far removed from being done with psilocybin altogether. In short, I’d begun taking them with a ratio of 99 parts enjoyment to one part gut problems and over the course of many trips, that ratio had flipped. Dave was a little surprised that I didn’t enjoy the surprise, and after repeated offers, nibbled away solo before putting the rest back in his pocket. As the first set matriculated its way through the evening, the bag came back out, and, for all I know, the remainder of the contents were consumed. It didn’t help that we were in seats, either. I couldn’t walk around and scope the scene, a practice to which I’d become accustomed.

Instead, the troubles on my mind, coupled with an obnoxious repetition of trying to asses Dave’s intoxication via glances –- I’d never not taken mushrooms and hung out with someone who had, so I didn’t know what it looked like from a sober perspective –- distracted me from the show. By the time the first set ended, I’d relaxed a bit, but frankly, by the time the historic encore with Primus and the like was taking place, I was ready to go, and by “ready to go” I mean preoccupied with where we’d sleep.

What I remember most about the show was post-conclusion, when the venue emptied onto the Vegas streets. It was like a pocket of Mardi Gras had been dumped into the Nevada night. The buzz of show goers reached in all directions, and not a single person seemed to have their wits about them. We got to the truck, and let the dog out. Some ticketless lot inhabitants voiced their concerns for his well being, and before long, we were driving. I don’t know what direction we went, or where geographically we wound up, but I do know that it was away from the strip, and on the shoulder of a curved highway on-ramp.

We pulled over and crawled into sleeping bags in the bed of the truck, hardly leaving McConnell, my shepherd, any room to curl. It didn’t take long to fall asleep, and it didn’t take a whole lot longer –- around two a.m. -– for a cop to wake us up via camper-shell-window knocks with his flashlight. I fumbled for my bag’s zipper, hushed my barking dog, and slid the window open.

“What in the hell,” he said with a pause, “do you guys think you’re doing?”

“Sleeping, sir,” I said, blinded by the beam he projected into my eyes.

“Uh-uh,” he said. “Can’t sleep here. Illegal and dangerous.”

Dave had not even pulled his bag down over his head.

“Okay,” I said, “but we don’t have any place to go, sir.”

“I don’t care,” he said. “You shoulda thought of that before you left Colorado.”

He was, of course, right about that, but this only heightened that been-pulled-over feeling I was now experiencing, recalling the beers I’d had at the show, and the fact that there was certainly some weed on Dave’s person or in his duffle bag.

“What do you suggest, then, sir?”

“I suggest you get your ass outta here before I start writing you a ticket,” he said.

I got out of the bed, still calming my dog, and Dave now arose, too, and as we were climbing into the cab, the cop continued.

“What happens if a truck driver falls asleep at the wheel and hits you guys? Did you think about that? You’d be dead; that’s what.”

I apologized and pulled away, astonished that there’d been no further repercussions.

Where we chose for our second spot of slumber is also unclear, but it was far from the city, and on some side road surrounded by miles of sand, and buildings stretching the horizon. It was also very bright and surprisingly warm when we awoke.

Dave had made it clear weeks before we left that he wanted to gamble. I had pretended to be interested, but knew that I would not have the funds to do so. What I had, at that moment, was a little more than $30 and an awareness of what it would cost us to get home. We drove back to the strip, however, parked, and walked a ways. Along the sidewalks were people with flyers advertising escort services, and it reminded me of all the previous evening’s insanity, the zooted concert attendees, the peddling of wares, the attempts to sell you sex of one sort or another.

Ultimately, we entered one casino, played a few slots, and got some breakfast. Dave wanted to find the right place to do some higher-end gambling and the noises and the windowless stretches and manner in which one casino blended into another without ever putting you outside slowly began to overwhelm me. I wanted to go home, but I felt some sick bug biting me that seemed to hint at money-making possibilities wherever Dave chose to stop.

It seemed like we walked for an hour and-a-half, and I began to remind him that we continued to get further and further from the truck, that all of these places looked the same. He was patient for a while, and when I actually began to whine and demand to know what he sought, he abruptly stopped walking.

Blackjack,” he said. “I’m looking for the right blackjack table, and we’re going to make ourselves a little cash for the ride back.”

Blackjack? I thought. I don’t even know how to play blackjack. Wait, I don’t know how to play any of these games, except for maybe five-card draw and five-card stud, and now I’m not even sure what the difference between the two is. Maybe blackjack is the one that’s just like 21.

Dave finally decided on a table, and sat down. I hesitated, and before long, each of the seats next to him and near him became occupied, save one. I felt my $27 through my jeans, and sat, without even the slightest notion of a casino strategy in my brain. The dealer passed me by, addressing each of the other table’s wagerers as he went. He saw the look on my face and during his next pass, he addressed me.

“You have to buy in if you would like to play, sir,” he said.

I felt my face warm a touch, and with sweaty palms, removed a five-dollar bill from my pocket and placed it on the edge of the table. This time, the dealer’s face changed colors a bit.

“The buy-in,” he said, “is $20, sir.”

As I clumsily swapped my five for my 20, any ounce of logic and rationale I had in that moment, was sucked away from the table like the sunlight had been at the time of the building’s construction. I of course knew by then that blackjack was in fact 21, and that I could play this game, and maybe even walk away with a profit. My 20 was replaced with three chips, and when the cards were dealt, I’d been given a seven first, a six second. Apparently, a wager was then placed because people were sliding chips forward, and there was a third pause when the dealer and I locked eyes again.

“The wager is $20, sir,” he said.

I slid my three pathetic chips forward, and when I knocked to indicate a hit, he slapped a king on top of my cards and the chips were gone. The whole experience seemed to span about nine seconds, and I stood up, backing slowly away from the table feeling a little faint and a little nauseous, my arms raised as if someone had just caused a huge scene in my vicinity, my culpability still in question.

I had seven dollars to my name and was nine hours from home, while my dog sat, probably uncomfortably warm, in the back of the truck in a parking lot some 45 minutes away.

I don’t remember anything that transpired between my lone blackjack experience, and Dave leaving the table. I think he told me as we walked back to the truck that he’d been up $140, but then lost $100.

I hoped he knew that at least half of that profit had to go into my gas tank.

When we did stop at a gas station, I dropped a quarter into the pay phone and called April’s mom’s house from the number she’d jotted on a napkin. Much like she had for the journey to Vegas, she slept almost the entire ride home, only popping into conversation when the Kane County police pulled me over for speeding just outside of Kanab.

I didn’t see April for months after that trip, and when I did finally bump into her, it was one of those awkward grocery-store encounters where everything feels weighted and forced. The following summer, Dave and his girlfriend moved to San Diego, that show in Vegas becoming cemented as our first and last together.

A show for the ages it was, and I knew it at the time, even though I didn’t really enjoy myself during most of it, unable to detach myself from a pool of bad decisions. Ironically, Trey Anastasio of Phish and Les Claypool of Primus would record an album together a few years later. On it, a track called "Shadow of a Man" recounted the tale of a man named Billy who'd come back from Vietnam. I don't liken my Vegas experience to post-traumatic stress disorder caused by war, but perhaps I left a shadow of myself somewhere near the Aladdin.

My experience at Dick's was nothing like that trip to Sin City, but as the rave reviews pour in, I felt compelled to mention that even the greatest of shows aren't great for everyone, regardless of what transpires on the stage.