Phish: The Biography
Hardcover; 352 pages
When Phish completed its triumphant return to the stage in March 2009 in Hampton, Virginia, it was the first in a sequence of events in which the seminal jamband revisited virtually all the significant touch-points of its history. A biography was inevitable, but Phish: The Biography is one of the least successful contributions to Phish lore in a year that included a concert at Fenway Park in Boston, a return to Red Rocks in Colorado (after being banned in 1996) and the group's own multi-day run in California, "Festival 8."
As author Parke Puterbaugh tells it, his biography came about in part due to multiple delays on an article he was assigned to write for Rolling Stone magazine. Its metamorphosis into this book says something about the mindset of Rolling Stone over the yearsbegrudgingly covering the movement Phish spearheadedas well as Puterbaugh's own approach to his work. Unlike a good improviser, he goes with the flow of his work without taking charge and giving it direction and purpose.
Largely through anecdotal means, Puterbaugh is able to piece together the process by which the Vermont-based group became what might be called the modern definition of a rock and roll band. His tale of how "Amy's Farm" came to be, for instance, is a charmingly ingenuous insider's look at the germination of a band and the community that supports it. Following that narrative with a hyperbolic description of Phish's first real festival, in 1996, "The Clifford Ball," is an artful study in contraststhe effect of which is undermined by a somewhat superficial account of what was, at the time, designed to be the last Phish performance ever, at Coventry, Vermont in 2004. Here is where Puterbaugh lets slip the lack of objectivity that colors his story and calls his credibility into question.
It's not so much the factual errors. Comparatively minor in that regard is notation of the muddy season in the Green Mountain state (it's March and April, not August). More significant is mistaking keyboardist Page McConnell as the man who joined bassist Mike Gordon and guitarist Trey Anastasioat the Vermont show in 2006 with The Duo. More telling still is Puterbaugh's unwillingness or inability to depict the debacle that was Coventry with the same emotional thrust as the previous two events.
No one could write a book on Phish from the obsessive point of view that afflicts so many of its fans, but if Puterbaugh hasn't developed a healthy sense of detachment about his subjects and their work over the years, he's destined to compose a puff piece. Phish: The Biography is not exactly that, but it's not as penetrating as it might have been. The author's best success is his dissection of the band's iconography as rooted in Anastasio's magnum opus "Gamehendge," and the formalized quirks of Phish's relationship with its audience. The development of the "secret language," for example, is an unusual overture on the part of a band to connect to its audience and the extent to which it did connect with the nascent Phishead nation is unusual to say the leastbut Puterbaugh says virtually nothing about it. It deserves at least an attempt at explication.
Puterbaugh obviously worships Phish. But that passion is misguided to the extent that it prevents an incisive authorial approach. It almost, but not quite, camouflages the author's lack of a broad perspective on modern music as well. He astutely observes the progressive element in Phish's music but goes no further in dissecting how that influence coalesces with the rock and bluegrass components of the group's style to create an ensemble sound as distinctive as its style of improvisation. Puterbaugh can't help but succumb to a reticence constructively to criticize as a means of analyzing Phish's evolution: why else ignore the process by which, in its later years, its development was so seriously hampered by an inordinate effort to include an ever-widening inner circle?
The inclusive, overly-friendly attitude was indulged to the extent that, in a vain effort to recreate the close-knit feel of its early fan base, Phish effectively created an obstacle to its continuing refinement of playing and songwriting. In addition, it didn't rehearse as in the past, while an uneasy democracy arose around the creative process within the band. Anastasio's prolific nature became not only his worst enemy, but an obstacle to the free-flow of ideas with other members of the band.
Little wonder then that Puterbaugh also circles ever so timidly around the group's self-indulgences in its later years without coming right out and calling it what it really is: the same surrender to demons (self-created or not) that has crippled so many other artists. Certainly, the less said about such phenomena the better, in part because it can't help but be rooted in gossip and innuendo, but also because it's redundant to anyone who's followed the exploits of bands such as the Grateful Dead, Aerosmith or The Who. Even more important, it's not enlightening in the context of this book because it's not placed in the proper perspective of the band's history, including its hiatus early in the 2000s, its pseudo retirement in 2004, and the process by which it reunited between then and Hampton 2009.
Puterbaugh's interview with Anastasio skims the surface of that latter interval because the author doesn't probe even in the most healthy way, seemingly reluctant to alienate one of his heroes. The conversation with road manager Brad Sands, in contrast, is extremely illuminating, because Sands is so matter of fact and non-judgmental about his subject, but also because he is simply a good interview. He is ready and willing to talk.
Rather than appear in hardcover form, Phish: The Biography might better have remained a special edition of Rolling Stone, accompanied by plenty of photos and other features, like the appended interviews. It's far too superficial to be a serious treatment of the band's history, such as the more organic The Phish Companion (Villard, 1999) or The Phish Book (Mockingbird Foundation, 2000), despite the length of time covered and the relative insider details. Parke Puterbaugh doesn't motivate himself to dispense the sort of genuinely discerning insight that would enlighten his readers (or himself), and there's no sense of discovery in his writing here (in stark contrast to the best Phish jams).
Ultimately far too cautious, the writer's standoffish approach defeats his chances of depicting Phish in the rarefied light the band deserves. Granted it's difficult to write a credible biography of a subject still living, but Phish: The Biography doesn't radiate the vibrant nature the group retains after over 20 years in existence.