Trust fund hippies everywhere collectively jizzed in their cargo shorts when Trey Anastasio of Phish assumed the role of the late, great Jerry Garcia during The Grateful Dead's farewell tour this summer.
It's almost too easy to make fun of Phish fans and latter-day Dead Heads. So easy, in fact, that I can't even bring myself to make the tone of this post predominantly funny, as I started out intending to do. Having been to more than my fair share of these shows, and admittedly loving this genre of music, I know just how much fun it can be to mock the people who listen to it, myself included.
In a sweeping generalization, it's safe to say the modern incarnation of this "scene" is/was white, upper-middle class suburban kids pretending to be down-and-out Haight-Ashbury hippies. Pretty girls with perky A-cup boobs, blonde dreadlocks, and fairy wings. Kids doing nitrous in a parking lot full of Jeeps with northeast liberal arts college bumper stickers; saying "right on" after every sentence; telling you a sob story about their friend going to jail for weed; and selling grilled cheese for a dollar.
Now more and more, it's those kids grown up, with bank jobs and baldness and bad backs and babies and the financial solvency to travel far distances and pay exorbitant ticket prices that would make anyone who went to Woodstock (or even mail ordered a Phish ticket in 1992) die a little bit inside. It's all very "first world" and hasn't been anything but for decades.
At my 15 year college reunion I got my hands on a brochure with a list of that year's degree recipients. Some guy had just received his PhD in ethnomusicology for doing his graduate thesis on Phish, The Grateful Dead, and jam bands. A fucking PhD in JAM BANDS? That's a new one on me. But I'll tell ya, that kind of "research" sounds a lot more fun than that of the person whose name preceded his. She was getting her PhD in chemistry for discovering a lipid that was maybe going to cure liver cancer.
This juxtaposition brought to mind another time long ago, when I was visiting friends in Philadelphia and a guy who was "out on Phish tour" stopped to stay the night between campgrounds. He was granted the prime real estate of bedrooms and accorded due reverence for his committed pilgrimage to fake-hippie Mecca. He sat there playing BB King's "The Thrill is Gone" soulfully on his acoustic guitar while a semi-circle of disciples gathered approvingly at his knee. It was objectively ridiculous and utterly devoid of self-awareness and perspective.*
If you take away the ganja goo balls and the glow sticks, though, you still just have music. Music that some people love with good reason and that some people hate, also with good reason. Someone said The Grateful Dead is like licorice or cilantro. Lots of people hate it, but the people who love it really love it. Despite my misgivings about this "scene" (and scenes in general, which I dislike on principle due to their inherent group-think bullshit) I am firmly in the latter camp. I still love the music. It still puts me in a good mood. It still makes me feel nostalgic. And I'll still sometimes spend more money than I should (or have) to see it live or stream it over the internet. We all have our vices, I suppose.
Don Henley of The Eagles nailed it back in 1984, long before tech bros invaded The Mission, when he wrote "The Boys of Summer" with that haunting, keenly-observed lyric: "Out on the road today I saw a Dead Head sticker on a Cadillac. A little voice inside my head said, 'Don't look back. You can never look back."
That line always makes me smile, because Don, so to speak, was right on the money.
*Since publishing this post, it's come to my attention that a small but vocal minority of my loyal readership believes it's a conflict of interest for me not to disclose that I am married to someone who arguably fits elements of the entire above description. I'm not sure why that could be true, since the prevailing theme of this whole blog is me insulting myself, this post being no exception (obviously). But in the interest of full disclosure and journalistic ethics, let it be known that I am married to a Deadhead/Phish-head ex-suburbanite who arguably fits elements of this entire description.