10 Life Lessons I’ve Learned From Seeing Over A Hundred Phish Shows Over The Past 18 Years

This is an actual photo of me, trying to get a ticket to my birthday show, Summer 1999. [Photo: Teresa Christiansen]

I saw my first Phish show at the Worcester Centrum on December 28, 1995. I was sixteen, it was freezing, and my only warmth was a chunky, brightly patterned wool sweater that smelled like the patchouli-laced BO of the old Deadhead who sold it to me. I was in the middle of a crowd pushing its way to the venue doors, when a patchwork-clad, glitter-covered girl handed me a plastic necklace with a reindeer on it. “Here mama! It’s an antelope!” she said, referencing one of Phish’s iconic, frenzied jams. Then suddenly, some drunk dude next to me peed on my leg, soaking my wool socks and patchwork pants. And in that moment, I learned the first of many important life lessons that one can only collect while devoting a good portion of their life to following a band of four, nerdy Vermonters around the country.

1. Be prepared for anything and everything.

Always be prepared: bring your backpacks, coolers, and clown wigs to every show. [Photo: GettyImages]

Sure, this is obvious, but it cannot be restated enough. Inevitably, you will get your period at a Phish show, or a headache, or someone will puke on your shoes. You’re not just going to a concert, you are going to war. A very chill war where your main weapon is a glow-stick, and your fellow soldiers are very kind people and the battlefield has lots of great veggie burrito options – but still, be a soldier. And bring extra socks if you think you might be standing near someone with an overactive bladder full of cheap beer.

2. Not everyone is going to get you or your fandom. Who cares?

A flag at a Phish festival campsite. [Photo: GettyImages]

Phish is a band people love to sh*t on. “LOL Phish is the worst, you dumdum!” says the person in the Creed/Belle & Sebasiatian/Bon Jovi/Indigo Girls/KRS-One t-shirt. It is the one thing that unites even the most different of people; they can agree on just one thing, and that is that it is cool to hate Phish. Stop trying to change people’s minds about the thing you love, and instead enjoy celebrating it with the people who get it. Some people are never going to understand the greatness of a “Mike’s>Hydrogen>Weekapaug” or care that you were at the show where the band played “Destiny Unbound” after a 12 year hiatus. So who cares? I think Benedict Cumberbatch has the charisma of an unsharpened pencil. Sometimes we’re just not going to get each other, and that’s okay.

3. Be kind to your fellow fans (and everyone, for obvious reasons) – especially the new ones.

Fans outside a show decked out in “Slave to the Traffic Light” shirts and Jon Fishman-style muumuus. [Photo: GettyImages]

When I was 13, Jon, the hiking/rock climbing counselor at my all girls camp played “Fee” at our weird, campers-only dance. The next day, as I awkwardly rappelled my giant teen body down the climbing wall, I was all, “What was that amazing song about nipple-slicing that you played last night?” He then made me a tape of Phish’s music and even bought me a Phish hat—just like his—when he went and saw them on a night off. Newbies should never be looked at with disdain – they are just learning to love the thing that already means a lot to you. Show them the way. And keep the hats your camp counselors buy you so you can post a picture of yourself wearing it on Instagram twenty years later.

4. Drink a lot of water.

You may have 99 problems but hydration should not be one of them. (And yes, that’s Jay-Z performing with Phish on Coney Island in 2004.) [Photo: GettyImages]

The sun is hot. Driving in the car for long hours is tiring. Beer (and other things) dehydrate. Water is free. Go nuts.

5. Do dumb things in your youth but be smart about it. 

An adorable kid selling grilled cheese sandwiches – a Phish tour and lot staple. [Photo: GettyImages]

I spent the summer of 1999 driving up and down the east coast on Phish tour with my best-friend Teresa. We’d see a show and after we’d drive until four am, sleeping at a rest stop with the windows cracked, covered in towels to block the sun. The next morning we’d brush our teeth in a McDonald’s bathrooms. Sometimes we’d rent out a motel room intended for two people and cram ten smelly hippies into it. We ate grilled cheese for every meal. We wore a lot of glitter eye shadow. Now that I am old I am slightly appalled by all this behavior, but it was the most fun I ever had in my life. You’re supposed to do stupid things when you’re younger. Enjoy it. Just make sure you employ the buddy system and don’t be an idiot…if you can help it.

6. Be okay with being an old.

At Phish shows in 1999 (left) and 2013 (right). Note the differences in hair, clothing, and sangria consumption. [Photos: Kate Spencer, Mary Baldwin]

It’s been 18 years since I saw my first show. I used to have dreads and a billion piercings and a car covered in bumper stickers about loving Mother Earth and I slept in a tent a lot. I now have two kids and a job I enjoy and I like to go to sleep by ten o’clock. My favorite hobby is looking at houses on my iPad Redfin app. Rather than trying to recreate your youth, own your oldness. It just means your legs get a little tired from dancing and you go to bed right after a show instead of twirling at drum circle until 2 AM. But think of all that sleep you’re getting!

8. Know when to quit.

Phish takes a bow at their “final show” at Conventry. [Photo: GettyImages]

Phish broke up in 2004. The music had been sloppy for a while, Trey Anastasio was battling drug issues, and the fan scene was excessive and bursting at the seams. Fans were devastated when they called it quits, but in hindsight it was the right thing for everybody involved. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is take a break and sit things out for a bit. Quitting isn’t failure, it’s a conscious decision to stop something that isn’t working to improve the state of your life. Quitters do win, a lot of the time.

7. Grief is messy but important.

Fans stuck in the mud at the IT Festival. [Photo: GettyImages]

In 2004 Phish broke up, and at the time fans all assumed it was the end (spoiler alert: it wasn’t). Phish’s “final show” in Coventry, Vermont was a literal sh*tshow. Not only was the outdoor venue a murky brown sea of wet, oppressive mud, but the band was falling apart onstage, crying and rambling and at times unable to sing their songs because they were so overcome with emotion. Fans were weeping all over the place, hugging each other. It was straight up nutso. But it was necessary. Let the sads out. It’s the only way to get through life.

8. Sometimes the internet is magic. 

A glow stick war at a show. [Photo: GettyImages]

In high school I spent a great deal of time hanging out in AOL’s Phish Bowl chat room. (Er, and posting to the Phish Poetry message board.) In 1996, while Phish was recording Billy Breathes, bassist Mike Gordon would login to the chatroom and talk to fans. I used to chat with him often, never quite sure if I was being trolled or not. A few months later I met Mike when he was driving a golf cart around the camp site at the Clifford Ball and identified myself by my screen-name, the now-mortifying DVDSky420. Not only did he know exactly who I was, he let me hang out with him on that golf cart for hours, driving around the venue and talking to fans. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. (And if you are a famous person reading this: be nice to your fans. What is just one conversation for you can be life-changing for them. Also, hi! What’s it like being famous?)

Also, that moment lives on forever in a documentary included in the Phish Clifford Ball box set, which I discovered recently. You can watch it here.

9. Comfortable, sensible shoes are the most important element to every wardrobe.

The band walking in the mud at Coventry – please note Fishman’s very hazardous footwear choice. [Photo: GettyImages]

That summer I was on Phish tour I wore a pair of DCs that I thought were so damn cool. They were also a half-size too small. And you know what happened after dancing for hours, day in and day out, in those too-small shoes? Both my big toe nails fell off. (I know this is gross, but sometimes life lessons are disgusting!) Looking cool is meaningless if you aren’t comfortable.

Also: flip flops aren’t shoes. They destroy your feet and you will inevitably end up stepping in barf. Wise up!

10. Dance like EVERYBODY is watching.

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