"Now, man, that alto man last night had 'IT' - held it once he found it: I've never seen a guy who could hold so long. I wanted to know what 'IT' meant.
- Jack Kerouac
Loathe as I am to parrot the sociopathic stylings of Ayn Rand the Objectivist Bear, I have to call Shenanigans on the concept of altruism. Yes, I’m one of those people. Our goals may serve a true and universal good, but our motives are rooted in self-interest. Even our sacrifices tend to be little more than temporarily inconvenient trade-ups. When we take one for the team, it’s only for our own enjoyment of the game, and my readiness to take one for the team at the northernmost edge of the contiguous United States was pure selfishness.
In my early twenties I smoked Brobdingnagian amounts of marijuana. Enough to make sense of a Jodorowsky flick. Being a music fan I did the lion’s share of my smoking to an ever expanding soundtrack. I smoked to John Coltane (duh), Electric Wizard (very duh), Yes (yes – Yes), too many to mention. And then there was Phish. It took a little while for me to get it, but once I took the plunge into those limpid, phatty waters, my lips locked onto a hydroponic regulator and I never wanted to come up for air. When the band’s whalesong (yeah, I know – eat me) trumpeted a new festival in August, 2003, my friends and I set sail.
I’m done with aquatic metaphors.
The IT Festival, dubbed so after the Kerouac quote that opened this opus, was being held on the decommissioned Loring Air Force Base at the northernmost tip of Maine, a beautifully verdant state so sparsely populated it has town named after Battleship positions (“14F?” “You sunk my commonwealth!”) My one friend, Bloodvessel, lived in Boston and was responsible for getting the rental car and camping gear. Fucktoad lived in Los Angeles and was only responsible for getting himself to the East Coast. Having only to drive from Philadelphia to Boston it was my responsibility to procure the herbal refreshment. I bought half an ounce, figuring that would be plenty even with the three of us being the three of us at a weekend-long Phestival.
The ride to the festival was smooth until about five miles out, when the traffic suddenly became a parking lot. I shrugged and thought, Well, that’s to be expected. Phish’s previous festivals had drawn sixty thousand or more, and IT was not going to be an exception. What I didn’t expect was to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for SIXTEEN HOURS.
Fucktoad, being six kinds of douche, curled up on the backseat and absconded with Morpheus the Dream King while Bloodvessel and I inched along through the night, making the best of it. We listened to Phish’s hour-long soundcheck, which they generously broadcast over the radio for the benefit of those of us trapped in our cars. Bloodvessel and I talked about the band, speculated on what they would play that weekend. We grabbed snacks from a convenience store we passed for an hour and watered the roadside. As high as my ire grew throughout the night, it all became worth it a little after five o’ clock in he morning. Bloodvessel and I smoked a bowl and watched the rising burgundy sun paint the sky over the forests of Maine as we listened to Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.”
Of course the full weekend of live, unencumbered Phish helped make it tolerable too. I won’t wax poetic about the music itself. Nothing I write will turn you into a fan if the music can’t do it. But what made the entire weekend something approaching a transcendental experience was the harmonic convergence of seventy thousand strangers. Seventy thousand people from divergent walks of life and contrary points of view congregated peaceably with a common purpose. Everyone endured the lines for the sinks and the bathrooms with grace and humor. People who had never met helped one another pitch their tents or hand out leaflets warning you to steer clear of the bad acid. The merchants compromised with the customers who just a little shy the price of that spiffy glass pipe or vegan enchilada. You could make someone’s day simply by acknowledging that their tank top was an exact replica of Kurt Russell’s in Big Trouble in Little China. To have something as trivial as a rock band bring out the best in seventy thousand otherwise disconnected souls may sound silly, but after experiencing it, the word “miraculous” doesn’t feel like hyperbole.
So, Tony, when do you get all selfish and take one for the team already?
We had set up our tent amidst all the others, but kept our valuables locked in the car until we needed them. As show time drew closer each day, we retrieved our valuables (the ganja, the bowl… and that’s it) and headed to the stage area. The stage stood at the bottom of a small valley on the northern edge of the Air Force base. Before the stage was a four hundred-yard penumbra of closely cropped grass surrounded by a fifty-yard ring of dirt. Wait – did I say, “ring of dirt?” I meant, a swamp of mud. It had rained heavily the previous two days and turned the dirt into a viscous morass of brown. Fucktoad, Bloodvessel, and I found a patch of grass about a hundred yards from the stage, close enough to see the band clearly and far enough away to enjoy Chris Kuroda’s light show in full effect. That was generally our spot for the two days of Phish. Both days were the clearest explanation of why I love Phish, but it was on Day Two that I took one for the team.
See? Here we go.
During the day’s second set break, before the last set of the weekend, the three of us looked at how much pot we had on us and thought we might benefit from having a little more. You know, just in case. Not a problem: there’s plenty back in the car. Problem: who’s going to get it? We looked back at the mob we would have to trudge through. Let’s say it was fifty thousand deep. Then there was the quarter-mile walk back to the car, then the walk back. Plus, we were facing a ticking clock. The band was going to retake the stage in about ten minutes, and none of us wanted to miss a note.
Fuck it, I said. I’ll go.
I set off through the jungle of audience. In the middle of the night, with little illumination beyond the flame of a lighter being brought to bare on the THC conveyance of choice, I dodged through swaying, dreadlocked branches and various inebriated trees that weaved and threatened to topple. The going became more Sisyphean when I felt my feet sink into the mud. I was now struggling not to just to get to the car and get back before the band returned but also to not fall into anyone. I don’t know if you’ve ever done it, but walking in sandals that are freshly caked in mud is a wee bit hazardous. I finally emerged at the perimeter of the crowd, and as I tried to speed-walk to the car across the asphalt drives of the old base, briefly wondered if the concertgoers on the perimeter were at all embittered. Soon I heard the crowd roar behind me and the band launch into “46 Days.” I turned to look – why, I don’t know since they were well out of sight at this point – lost my footing and fell hands first into the asphalt, cutting up my palms. They weren’t quite like paper dolls after a kiddie-scissors class (bonus aquatic metaphor!), but they still hurt. I moved on, cursing out loud since no one was around to hear me, and finally reached the car. I reached into my pocket and –
Where are the keys?
Fucktoad has the keys.
God. Damn. It.
I hung my head for about three seconds before heading back. I took better care to watch my footing until I plunged back into the crowd, the entirety of which, now that the music had resumed, was dancing or whatever you want to call a Phishhead’s mid-song gyrations. That was when I first thought, How am I going to find them? I knew basically where they were from our perspective of the stage, but that was all I had to go by. The music blared and the lights swirled as my legs were whipped by flowing skirts of, I guess, paper mache and potato sack. My face was slapped by flailing arms and dreads. Halfway across the quagmire my right sandal came off in the dark mud, and I had to blindly fish for it with my foot.
During my trek back I entertained the idea that Fucktoad would feel bad about having the keys on him, making me go through all that for nothing, that he would go get the weed this time. Nope. He just handed me the keys with the silent smile that only comes from six kinds of douche. I dove back into the patchouli gauntlet, this time abandoning both my sandals in the mud and walking across the asphalt in bare feet so that my soles matched my palms, giving little consideration to what items and fluids I might be traipsing through. Health update: I’m clean as a whistle.
So… I got the weed and got back to Bloodvessel and Fucktoad just in time to catch the last five minutes of Phish’s forty-minute rendition of “46 Days.” I didn’t rant at my friends about my arduous journey through the shrooming Sargasso, or not giving me the keys, or losing my sandals, or my cut-up extremities. I just packed a bowl, fired away, and enjoyed the rest of the show.
On any other occasion I would’ve likely let my anger get the best of me and proceeded to scorch the earth, but in this instance I didn’t. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to ruin the weekend for my friends, or because I volunteered to undertake the Quest for Fire in the first place, or anything so frustratingly rational. No. Earlier that weekend Phish had ordered you – meaning, me – to enjoy myself – meaning, us, the crowd, not the band. I mean, they told me to enjoy myself, but they said you, but they meant… fuck it – they played “You Enjoy Myself” and I had intended to.
I’d taken one for the team, and time has proven it to be a temporarily inconvenient trade-up for my team of one. Every obstacle we negotiated has proven to be a sparkling baguette in the jeweled crown that was that weekend. I had a fantastic time, but I would not have enjoyed myself had I not been sharing the experience with two of my best friends. To be able to turn to Bloodvessel and share the thrill of a particularly blistering solo of Trey’s. To lock eyes with Fucktoad in mutual appreciation of where the band had taken the jam. And to look around and realize that the three of us where just a thread in a web of seventy thousand swirling around in the same musical holism. An isolated experience would be no comparison.