Whether you know its work or just its reputation, you’ve probably already made up your mind about Phish. Maybe you love the band and its music, maybe you can’t stand them, or maybe you liked them and have since moved on to other things. Phish is one of the most dynamic and celebrated live acts in all of music, with a loyal community any artist would envy, but it’s also divisive. This is a band that inspires passion with its multipart compositions, meandering improvisations, playful (often nonsensical) lyrics and unwavering positivity. For the same reasons, it also courts punchlines from its fervent detractors.
When people find out I used to be really into Phish in high school, I always try to qualify it by explaining that where I grew up — your typical sleepy suburb in Kansas City in the mid-to-late 1990’s — jambands like Phish were our so-called alternative music. Grunge and Britpop were practically gone, and me and my friends wouldn’t know about good hip hop or “indie music” until much later. So if you weren’t listening to the increasingly narrow and bland pop and rock radio, you tended to turn to Phish.
But I’ve particularly never felt shame in that, nor wanted to sweep that musical period under the rug, the way many now-hipster-adjacent people I know might like to. In a way, loving Phish became a gateway drug… to other types of music. The band’s diverse repertoire brought together classic rock and prog rock, jazz and funk and so much more. And with frequent full album covers of Velvet Underground’s Loaded or Talking Heads’ Remain In Light or The Who’s Quadrophenia, Phish served as a rock history course and buyer’s guide for what album I should seek out. And even those lengthy, meandering songs actually introduced me to Miles’ Bitches Brew and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and essentially opening me up to improvised music and jazz.
Still, that messy hippie reputation lingers around this band like three-day-old patchouli.
In his latest book, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse, and My Misadventures With Two of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes, former A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin gets at this type of social stereotype, following Phish and another equally-derided and misunderstood band Insane Clown Posse around the country, and in the process, Rabin finds out a lot about his own mental makeup. On the surface, Phish and ICP may not have much that connects them: one is known for feel good jams, oddball lyrics and general hippie doo-dah-ing, while the other is built around rap rock with violent imagery and the Juggalos with their love of Faygo soda and extreme black and white clown makeup. And yet both Phish and ICP are incredibly beloved within their diehard fanbases with surprisingly strong communities built around positivity and togetherness.
Rabin’s book is a hard read, especially as he begins to delve more and more into his mental anguish as he’s diagnosed as being bi-polar. But as you dig in, you can begin to see the appeal, if not for the music, then at least in how both acts are actually framed more around lifestyle and surrogate family than band.