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How I Fix My Life With Phish

For 15 years, I've been going to see Phish play at shows and festivals — not just for the party, but to center myself when I need it most.

Courtesy of Shaun Kessler

“Dude, I can’t believe you’re hearing ‘Lizards’ right now, for your first Phish show ever!” I shouted to my boyfriend, Rahul, through the thick cloud of smoke enveloping Madison Square Garden.

He smiled back at me, as happy as someone who doesn’t know the difference between the song and the reptile could possibly be, and I hoped he was having a good time. Like, really hoped, in the same way I really hoped my parents would like him when they met him for the first time, even though it would’ve been technically OK if they hadn’t.

You’ll be relieved to find out, although probably not as relieved as I was, that Rahul did have a great time. And I think that, throughout the course of that show in January, somewhere between the 22-minute rendition of “Tweezer” and the epic “The Lizards” encore, he even started to understand just how much this band has shaped me. I had told him about the formative role they’ve played in my life, but Phish is, above all else, a live band — so I knew he had to experience a show himself to truly understand the impact this band has had on me, and all of my fellow phans.

My older brother, Tom, first introduced me to Phish (if you’re not familiar, a Grateful Dead-esque, four-man jam band) when I was 14 years old. I was a happy but fairly dorky little shrimp of a freshman in high school, as evidenced by my monogrammed teal L.L. Bean Deluxe backpack, and he was the all-mighty senior. He came home one day with an album called Billy Breathes (one of Phish’s big hits), and declared, in a way only big brothers can, that “Theme From the Bottom” was his new favorite song.

I latched onto his endorsement, and soon enough I was all Phish everything, too. I decked myself out in homemade patchwork skirts and hemp necklaces, pored through The Pharmer’s Almanac and The Phish Companion to get up on my Phish trivia, and bought enough Live Phish CDs to fill an entire black nylon CD carrier.

When I got my driver’s license at 16, I drove my friends to our first live show — and we were hooked. How could we not be? There were dudes in clown costumes selling “gooballs” (basically peanut butter and Rice Krispies held together by weed butter), ladies prancing around in glitter and sparkly fairy dust, and $1 grilled cheese stands at every corner of the parking lot — and that was all before the show had even started.

courtesy of Annie Daly
courtesy of Annie Daly

The performance itself was a thrilling three-hour roller coaster ride, not least because “the boys” had (and still have) this magical ability to control the energy of the entire audience. When they played “Meatstick,” one of their funkier jams, the crowd started doing the synchronized “Meatstick” dance. When they played the more mellow “Divided Sky,” someone started a massive glowstick war — and everyone knew exactly when to pause for a moment of silence before the band erupted into song again. I’d read somewhere that Phish shows are like hanging out with 18,000 of your closest friends, and I finally understood why: This was a crowd where everyone was fully invested in helping each other have a good time.

When you think about Phish phans, if you think about Phish phans, you probably think about some version of the tribe I just described. Perhaps you saw the episode of Broad City where the co-op guy asks Abbi (a documented phan IRL) to name her favorite Phish album, and views her answer as an actual window into her soul. Maybe you think about the people who’ve been to hundreds of shows, who can recite exact set lists dating back two decades (“Dude, night two, set two of The Great Went in ‘97, so dope.”). Or the people who can sit and debate the musical merits of each lingering note for longer than most people can sit still without checking email. Or the people who, whether you know it or not, are quietly living and breathing the Phantasy Tour message board, a forum where hardcore fanatics with usernames like “GiantDanks,” “HigherFrequency,” and “FirstNoob” gather to dissect Phish minutiae, each one hoping to out-Phish the next.

I hear there might be a few people out there who roll their eyes at Phish’s goofy, cult-ish vibe, but to me, the community is at the root of my unconditional love for the band. Back in high school and college, being a Phish phan was a defining part of my identity. It gave me something to belong to at a time in my life when everyone was just looking for somewhere to belong.

courtesy of Annie Daly

I met some of my best friends in college through our mutual love for the boys; I co-hosted a radio show called “YEM: You Enjoy Music,” named after one of Phish’s gems; I sort of dated a guy whose AOL screen name was PHISHIE100 (lol); I went to dozens of shows and festivals.

When I studied abroad in England during my junior year of college, I even relied on Phish to help me transition into my new life overseas. I missed America so much when I first arrived, namely because, for one of the first times in my life, I felt like an outsider. And so, while other homesick students cooked their favorite comfort food, I blasted “Harry Hood” and “Funky Bitch” and, my favorite, “Strange Design.”

Not only were the lyrics themselves reassuring — “Just relax, you’re doing fine, swimming in this real thing I call life” — but the songs transported me back to the shows, back to a place where I knew I belonged. And knowing I had such a loving and welcoming community to go back to made it easier to search for a new and different one overseas. (Phish had actually broken up before I went abroad, but everyone guessed they’d get back together at some point, so I wasn’t too worried.)

After I graduated college, I moved to New York and started working in magazines, at which point I toned down my hippied-out look and focused mostly on my career — but my inner love for the band and the community stayed strong. I’m 31 now, and even though my Phishiness doesn’t define me in the same all-consuming way anymore, my deep-seated phandom certainly hasn’t gone away. And maybe it never will.

courtesy of Annie Daly
courtesy of Annie Daly

When I was 28 years old, I was fired from a job just three weeks after I’d started. It was clear from the beginning that it was the wrong fit for me — it was in fashion, of all things, and unfortunately, my strong background in tie-dye shirts and hemp necklaces was not helpful. But still, the whole thing left me spinning, questioning my own judgment. Rather than search for a new gig right away and risk falling into another bad-fit situation, I decided to go freelance for a bit. It was a bold move that filled me with doubt: Could I really do this? Was this the right thing? How did I even get here? My mind couldn’t stop racing.

Enter Phish. Just weeks after I’d declared myself my own boss, one of my best friends, Julie, saw me struggling and suggested we go see the boys in Hartford, Connecticut. We hadn’t planned on seeing them on this tour, but we knew, just knew, that a show would help me see the light and feel like myself again.

“You just need your dose of Phish to get you back on track,” Julie assured me, and I knew she was right. Phish is my comfort music, our comfort music. The community as a whole is so welcoming and kind; I can’t help but feel immediately at ease the moment I set foot on the concert grounds.

Phish shows are, literally, my happy place — a little slice of bliss that I can take back into the real world once the show is over. They feel like home, in the sense that going home can realign you and reconnect you to your core self, no matter where you are in life. And that reconnection can heal you, both in the moment and beyond.

Turns out that the Phish effect, as I call it, worked just as well in Hartford as it did across the Atlantic. That show centered me like no show has centered me before. Phish closed with the song “Birds of a Feather,” which many think is about how Phish phans themselves are birds of a feather, united in our love for the music and the heady vibes.

I remember staring out at the thousands of smiling people in the audience, dancing their faces off, and then hugging Julie, and knowing at that moment that everything really was going to be OK. I may not have a place in every group of people, I thought, but I always have a place among the birds — and birds can fly anywhere they want.

This essay is part of a series of stories about the meaning of home.

Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed

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