My friend Greg lost his battle with cancer last night. I met him when I was a teenager in a program called Girls State; later I worked with him on staff there. He was a friend and a mentor in life, politics, and music. He took me to my first Phish show and gave me my first tapes and introduced me to the women’s fan group the Phunky Bitches. When I wrote this essay about Coventry, I imagined reading it to Greg over beers. Life and death intervened. Godspeed Greg. Feel good.
I bought single tickets for the East Coast leg of Phish tour, August shows in Boston and New Jersey then a 3 day festival in Vermont. It was supposed to be field work for my dissertation, I was supposed to be interviewing Phunky Bitches, women who were members of a women’s fan organization, trying to get them to talk about feminism, if they identified as feminists, what they thought about feminism. Insider anthropology: I was a PB and a fan, traded tapes, then CDs, through the listserve, chatted on the message boards.
When we heard it was going to be the last tour, the band was breaking up, we scrambled to find tickets for T to go too. The shows were long since sold out. Concert tickets, plane tickets, rental car, notebooks, tiny tape recorder, trying to pull it all together last minute. The ticket for the first night in Boston didn’t come when it was supposed to. The day before we were leaving we called the phone number on the ebay listing so many times the kids mom finally answered and made arrangements to have it delivered to Galaxy Girl’s house in Boston. If all went well, she would bring the ticket and meet us in the parking lot before the show.
We agreed to meet under a flag that said “And then?”
Improbable as it all seemed it worked: got off the plane, threw our backpacks in the trunk, drove to the venue, found the flag, yelled her name, she had the ticket. They opened with AC DC Bag. We jumped the wall from lawn seating into pavilion, ran into the friend who had taken me to my first concert in Grand Rapids five years earlier just as Birds of a Feather closed the first set.
We stayed with Galaxy Girl and Ivy that night and the next, crashed on the floor in her parents living room. More friends arrived. John and Dirtgirl, Todd and Lisa, Bekka, Stardog. Hippie nicknames familiar from long hours on the internet, Secret Bitch gift exchanges at Chirstmastime. After two nights in Boston, Todd and Lisa headed north for Vermont, for the final shows in Coventry. The rest of us had tickets for one more night in New Jersey. Someone’s truck needed to be fixed, we left later than planned but still plenty of time to get to Camden for the show.
New Jersey kicked our asses. Hours and hours and hours of traffic on the turnpike. A gas station attendant called us fucking retarded because we tried to pump our own gas. By the time we pulled into the parking lot the first set had started. We scattered in the venue, agreed to meet back at the cars immediately after the show, get the fuck out of New Jersey and head for Vermont. We danced in the aisles to Sneakin’ Sally. Boston and New Jersey had been sunny and warm, but it had been raining all week in Vermont. Please don’t drive all night, Trey warned before the encore, give us time to deal with the mud and the flooding.
Our car, T and Bekka and I, pulled out of the parking lot, headed north on the turnpike. No traffic. No cursing. Bekka called Stardog, trying to figure out where we would meet up, how far to drive.
Where are you?
Why are you still in the lot? I thought we agreed no one was staying in the lot. We’re driving.
You’re still looking for a veggie burrito? Get on the road. Find them and get on the road.
I drove into the darkness, past the lights of the New York skyline, over the George Washington bridge. I should have turned on the tape recorder, recorded Bekka talking about the first shows she saw with Ivy, about the two them trying to recover her stolen bag from the NYC police after a Madison Square Garden NYE show. I didn’t record a single word, just drove and talked, looking for a cheap motel, windows open to the night air.
At the motel we said the rest of our group was still on the road, paid for a room for them, held it under the name Suzy Greenburg, showered, slept.
On the road to Vermont the next day: traffic getting heavier, cell phone coverage spottier. One more stop to pick up Stardog’s friend; we’re an hour ahead again because they stopped to fix some problem with the bike rack. We pulled over to write down the hotel name and room number, but the connection was terrible. Did he say room 314? 214? 304? I knock on the door and when it opens a crack I say,
Are you Frogman? Stardog sent us to pick you up.
Frogman comes out with a backpack and a Frisbee. We throw the Frisbee in the parking lot. The radio warns us that it is still raining in Coventry.
The traffic gets heavier and heavier, VW buses, minivans with Grateful Dead bumper stickers, kids with dreadlocks leaning out of sun roofs, trying to see what’s ahead. It’s raining softly. We drive until all the cars just stop, miles away from the concert site, in a tiny town whose residents are pleasantly surprised to be in the midst of a hippie migration. We park the cars in the road. People set up awnings, play cards, sell posters and ganja brownies and veggie burritos and beer out of coolers on skateboards. I don’t interview anyone. We listen to the radio. It rains. Tyler and Bekka go to a party at the fire station for somebody’s birthday. We sleep a little in the car, assuming that come morning, traffic will begin inching forward again. The sun comes up. It’s a beautiful day. We wait, and listen to the radio, and make bets on what they will play to open the first set. We have been parked for 18 hours. We hear rumors that on the main highway traffic has been stopped for twice that long. We wonder if Todd and Lisa made it in.
The official announcement comes over the radio. Mike’s voice is kind, but clear:
Go home. Please turn your cars around and go home. The mud is waist deep, no cars can get in or out of the venue.
People are sobbing, everyone is talking at once, I hear Ivy wail. No cars move. Then Ivy says, determined,
We will go.
She’s pulling her bike off the bike rack. I don’t have a bike but I think she’s right about this, I start saying it too,
We are going. Let’s go, everybody, we’re going. Get your backpacks, let’s go.
We throw some things in a backpack hastily, trying to figure out what we might need, how much we can carry. Grab the tent, the tape recorder, all the clean socks. Somebody T met at the fire station last night offers to drive us so we pile in his truck. It’s clear that no one is turning around. People are walking, biking, riding skateboards, pulling coolers on wheels. Cars are left where they stopped yesterday or the day before, in the road or in driveways, on the shoulder of the highway. Eventually the dirt road to the venue is so full of hippie refugees that our ride has to pull over and let us out. We walk the last few miles, find a place to pitch the tent, get something to eat, head towards the stage for the first set.
I still haven’t done any interviews. My tiny tapes were all blank.
The first set opened with Walls of the Cave.
I know you heard the question, but you didn’t make a sound,
And when it fell you caught my heart before it hit the ground.
But if you ever need the names of those you couldn’t save,
You’ll find them on the walls of the cave.
We were a couple hundred yards from the stage, dancing on a muddy hill. I had a small bag with a notebook in it, plans to talk to women at set break, try and capture something on paper. But the stage beckoned. I started inching my way down the hill, sliding between little groups of people, moving toward the front.
A crowd of 20,000 people looks impenetrable, like there is nowhere to move, but when you’re in it, it turns out everyone is moving, dancing, shifting a little side to side as they pass a pipe, hug a friend, look for their bottle of water. I’ve honed my ability to see those gaps and move through them. The key is to be confident, and if people hesitate, to simply say, “Sorry, I’m just trying to get back to my spot,” like that opening in the front row is already mine, waiting for me to inhabit it.
They played for four hours that night. By the time the guys came back on stage for the encore, I had made my way down close to the rocks separating the audience from the band, huge boulders filling the gap between the waist high fence and the stage. I had called Hood as the first night encore: when I first started trading tapes, listening to whole shows in my car on the long drives between Iowa City and Grand Rapids, Hood was the song that hooked me. I collected shows just to hear new versions of it, rewound the tapes to listen to it over and over.
Trey talked quietly in the opening, joking with the audience, explaining that the stage set up had to be changed because of the flooding and so there was much more space than usual between the band and the audience. It was sad, and funny, and intimate, if there’s such a thing as intimacy between tens of thousands of strangers and 4 guys in a band on a stage in rural Vermont.
Hood unfolds through several stages: a light reggae opening—Harry (the crowd yells Hood!), Harry, (Hood!) Where do you go when the lights go out?—a soft, upbeat bridge dominated by piano that leads into a darker middle section (Thank you Mr. Minor!)—then the piano comes to the front of the sound again in a lengthy jam usually accompanied by glowstick wars in the crowd. Then the closing section, bright and upbeat: you can feel good, good about Hood.
Trey moved out onto the rocks during the jam, guitars and piano and drums build and crescendo, tumbling over one another. I have heard versions of Hood that were more technically perfect, the notes tighter, the sound more refined, but this Hood, this last Hood ached, wrapped us up in longing and bittersweet and beautiful imperfection and when the moment came for the lyrics to pick back up Trey motioned to the crowd. The voices swelled around and through me
You can feel good, good, good about Hood.
You can feel good, good, good about Hood.
20,000 voices, singing Hood, Trey standing on the rocks with his guitar silent, maybe 20 feet away from me.
We drank and smoked around the campfire, bought pancakes the next morning from two guys from Jersey with a griddle and a card table and an institutional sized box of Bisquick. The guy behind us in line, raised Jewish, tasted bacon for the first time.
It tastes like salty candy. Like chewy, salty, candy.
That night they opened with Mike’s Song, I pushed even farther forward, Tyler and the rest of the crew content to stay back. The music was a mess, songs stopped and restarted, everything out of tempo, out of key. Page wept audibly into the mike trying to get the words out to Velvet Sea
I took a moment from my day
Wrapped it up in things you say
Mailed it off to your address
You’ll get it pretty soon unless
The packaging begins to break
And all the points I tried to make
Are tossed with thoughts into a bin
Time leaks out my life leaks in
They played Chalkdust Torture, I shouted Cant this wait till I’m old? Can’t I live while I’m young? the guy next to me nodding appreciatively. Everybody’s got a song. There were fireworks.
By the time Trey took the mike for the encore it was clear they were spent. We were spent. For the first time it felt like maybe it was okay that this was all coming to an end, maybe we needed a break more than we realized. Trey talked about coming full circle, closing the show with one of the first songs he wrote, living in an unheated cabin on Lake Willoughby. They played The Curtain With. The band cried. I cried. Somebody passed around a bottle of champagne. I didn’t write anything down, not even a set list.
School buses arrived the next day to shuttle people back to their cars. We drove to Lake Willoughby with Dirt Girl and John, hiked in through the woods to go skinny dipping. Cold clear water, hot sun, silence for the first time in days. We rinsed off the mud, tried to wring the smell of campfire out of our hair.
That fall, Bekka started her medical residency, Dirtgirl landed a job as an academic librarian, Galaxy girl went back to school, Ivy rode her bike down the East Coast, I emailed my committee and said it was over. The tiny tapes were all still blank. I unsubscribed from the listserve, vacated the message boards. I had no words for the way those days had left me both gutted and restored. I unpacked boxes in the new house, old versions of Hood blasting through the speakers.
Ivy? Kristen? Phunky Bitches past and present? I would love to hear from you. To know if you remember these crazy days differently, and to hear what you’ve been up to since. Comment away, please!