REVIEW COORDINATOR: Kurt Milberger
'Pulsating with Love and Light’
A Case Study on Phish and the Vibe
The commonly used phrase “the vibe” is a cornerstone of public discourse, present within songs, commercials, sports commentary, comedy sketches, literary works, spirituality, and beyond. We feel vibes, catch vibes, give off vibes, and vibe together. The same is true for Phish culture—vibe lingo is a cornerstone for both the band and its dedicated fans. Despite these numerous references, rarely does anyone define or explain the term. What, exactly, are we talking about? Does “the vibe” act as an all-encompassing metaphor for unspecified emotional responses that we are unable to clearly articulate? Or does it refer to a unique ontological phenomenon that begs for its own classification and terminology? Are we referring to the light and sound vibrations that travel through air and hit our retinas and ear drums, or are we referring to some transcendent, metaphysical, and/or spiritual experience? Working from phenomenological insights, I offer up a particular way of understanding the vibe, which I refer to as bodily emanation—our bodies emit a tangible, felt energy that can be used as a form of communication, as a way of knowing, and as an existential guide for moving through the world. This essay applies this theoretical framework to the Phish experience. In doing so, I hope to give readers a better understanding of both Phish and this thing we call a “vibe.”
“‘Pulsating with Love and Light’:
A Case Study on Phish and the Vibe”
Jason Del Gandio
The Vibeological Lexicon.
The commonly used phrase “the vibe” usually refers to an experience or exchange of energy. We feel vibes, catch vibes, give off vibes, and vibe together. There are also variations like “vibing” and “vibrations.” The phrase is unique, though, because it’s ubiquitous without consensus of meaning—everyone uses it but never defines it. For example, philosopher Michel Foucault described a particular experience as “immensely vibratory.”(1) Che Guevara envisioned Fidel Castro as a tuning fork that summons forth new vibrations in his listeners.(2) William Burroughs explained his ayahuasca trip as a “vibrating sound-less hum”.(3) General Motors has a line of cars called “Pontiac Vibe.” There are movies like Vibes (Columbia Pictures, 1988) and Vibrations (Dimension Home Video, 1995). A tripadvisor.com post writes, “walk around London and feel the vibe”.(4) And on a personal trip to Lisbon, Portugal, I saw two separate pieces of street art written in English that said “Vibes.”
Music is particularly rich with references. Searching lyrics.com reveals 3,656 lyrics, 10 artists, and 72 albums that include the word “vibe.” Results range from Paula Abdul’s “Vibeology” and 2 Chainz’s “It’s a Vibe” to Demi Lovato’s “Summer Dance Vibe” and Bobby Hutcherson’s “Vibe Wise.” There’s also VIBE magazine and hip-hopvibe.com and the musical festival “Gathering of the Vibes” that ran from 1996-2015.
All of these references are interesting, but what exactly are we referring to? Is the vibe an all-encompassing metaphor for unspecified emotional responses that we are unable to clearly articulate? Or does it refer to a unique ontological phenomenon that begs for its own classification and terminology? Are we referring to the light and sound vibrations that travel through the air and hit our retinas and ear drums? Or are we referring to some transcendent, metaphysical, and/or spiritual experience? Is the vibe reducible to, or is it separate from, physically measurable energies like electromagnetism and biophotons?
I believe that all of these interpretations are worthy of consideration and contribute to a larger conversation. But my essay has a particular focus: I want to view the vibe through the Phish experience and view the Phish experience through the lens of the vibe. Doing so hopefully gives readers a better understanding of both Phish and this thing we call a “vibe.”
Phish and the Vibe.
References to the vibe are abundant within Phish culture. As of November, 2019, a Google search for “phish vibes” turns up 705,000 hits. The top hit is “Vibes - Phish.Net.” Clicking on “more results from forum.phish.net” turns up 7,170 results. Doing a general Google search for “forum.phish.net vibes” turns up 233,000 hits. The band also has at least four songs related to the vibe.
According to a post on phish.net, Phish’s “Vibration of Life” is a mix of dialogue and noise rather than a traditional song. The post explains that Trey, the leader singer, “usually introduces its arrival as something that will ‘energize you . . . for the rest of the evening’ (2/20/93). He has said: ‘healers have been known to get their hands to vibrate at seven beats per second’ (11/17/94 . . .). He also called this rhythm the ‘theoretical universal glue’ that will ‘tune you up with the energy of the universe and fill you with incredible energy (11/19/96).”(5)
Phish covers “Golden Age” by TV on the Radio, which includes the lyrics “And the vibes that rise/Like fireflies illuminate our play.”(6) The band also covers “Energy” by The Apples in Stereo, which opens with:
And the world is made of energy
and the world is electricity
and the world is made of energy
and there's a light inside of you
and there's a light inside of me(7)
And then there is Phish’s “More” that includes the lyrics “pulsating with love and light” and “vibrating with love and light.”(8)
These findings reflect my own Phish experience. I have been a fan for more than twenty-five years, with my first show in the summer of 1993. I have seen approximately eighty shows at various venues, have roamed numerous parking lots and interacted with hundreds if not thousands of fans, and have heard both friends and strangers use “the vibe” as a way to describe the band; specific shows, songs, and jams; lights and sound; venues; police and security guards; and fellow fans who might be warm and loving “phriends” or perhaps cold and sketchy assholes. The vibe is a cornerstone of Phish culture.
Clarifying the Vibe.
I’ve been studying the vibe since my late teens, writing my first paper on the topic as an undergraduate student in a class on nonverbal communication. I went on to use my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation to reconceptualize the vibe as “bodily emanation.”(9) For now, I’ll define bodily emanation as a palpable felt-energy that perpetually radiates from our bodies. Given the constraints of Western academia, as well as my own early arrogance and naivete, I had originally focus almost exclusively on Western philosophy. As far as I know, no established Western philosophers address the topic.
To transverse this gap, I relied upon Eugene Gendlin’s understanding of the sentient body.(10) Gendlin argues by way of phenomenology and psychotherapy that the body is a sentient organism that responds to itself and world in a felt manner. This sentient experiencing precedes and exceeds language, symbolization, emotion, and even perception. That is to say, we are sentient creatures, first, and these other processes come only secondarily. If this is true, then we now have a philosophical space for thinking about “the vibe”: Our bodies not only feel, but also emanate feeling. This bodily emanation is evidenced through experience, itself, and the more we attend to the experience, the richer and more detailed it becomes.
For example, the experience of “connection” is a common criterion for a romantic date. But connection can be registered in many ways—shared interests, compatibility, sexual attraction, good conversation, unconscious mimicry of gestures, emotional bond, etc. Each of these is usually described in terms of feeling. You can feel the connection, which usually leads to another date. But I argue there’s also a vibrational connection. That vibe is not simply a metaphor or catchall phrase; it is its own register of experience, and it takes conscious effort to learn how to experience, understand, and articulate it with specificity and acumen. Upon doing so, you realize that there is always a vibrational connection, but it can take different form—good vibes, bad vibes, weird vibes, romantic, sexual, or platonic vibes, etc.
The vibe relates to but is also different from the other experiences of the date. Perceived compatibility among both partners will presumably produce a good vibe, but not necessarily. Both of you might share numerous interests, but for some strange reason, you’re just not vibing together. The opposite can also be true—the vibe between both partners is wonderfully romantic, but there’s no good surface reason for it.
Skeptics may beg the question and ask: But is the vibe a real phenomenon or am I just developing a linguistic lens by which to differently interpret the experience? This is a legitimate question, but it flirts a correspondence theory of truth. Western philosophy has traditionally used empirical evidence for evaluating truth-claims. This framework is helpful for understanding many but not all kinds of experience and knowledge. Such traditions as phenomenology, hermeneutics, Gestalt psychology, and post-modernism and post-structuralism demonstrate the limitations of this framework, and I argue, in brief, that reality is a malleable process that is perpetually constituted through our interactions with each other and the world.(11)
At the very least, for instance, Phish’s vibe lingo acts as a particular speech code that both constructs and reflects the ethos and material practices of the overall culture. That is to say, the vibe is a communicatively-constituted knowledge within the Phish community.(12) Judgment of its truthfulness is suspended, so to speak, since everyone is acting on its presumed realness. However, at a deeper level, we might also argue that the vibe is a particular type of reality that is evoked through a particular way of being-in-the-world—i.e., that one’s particular orientation to the world evokes different aspects of the world. In this sense, then, the Phish community is evoking/creating a particular reality that is no more and no less real than the reality of those who don’t know, understand, or experience “the vibe.”
This argument raises serious ontological, epistemological, and even ethical questions that are beyond the scope of this essay. But here is another example to consider: I personally do not believe that physical bodies can walk through physical walls, but that debate, itself, is relative to a particular way of being-in-the-world. Some cultures claim that shamans can ingest particular substances and transport themselves to nonphysical realities that engender different universal laws. Within these cultures, humans can attain clairvoyance, commune with nature and nonhuman entities, and communicate with deceased ancestors. Arguing from a Western perspective that these experiences are not real is intellectually chauvinistic and akin to epistemological erasure. A more open, decolonized approach would acknowledge and accept, however apprehensively, that different ways of being simultaneously co-exist.(13)
For me and my fellow Phish fans, as well as millions of other people (see the numerous opening references), the vibe is an experiential reality. This reality, like all realities, is not beyond reproach. But it is worthy of postulation and consideration, and I take it as my intellectual calling to clarify and concretize that reality.
Bodily Emanation: A Heuristic for Phish.
I argue that bodily emanation can be approached as a form of communication, as a way of knowing, and as an existential guide for moving through the world. I also argue that it can be detected and delineated on different levels of experience: the interpersonal, such as one-on-one interactions with other people; small and large group settings, such as concerts, classrooms, restaurants, conferences, assemblies, protests, religious ceremonies, and sporting events; the local and regional, such as towns, cities, and even countries; cultural vibes like that of the Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, French, Canadian, and all others; sub-cultural vibes like that of hip-hop, hippies, ravers, and gamers; and a global vibe. On the global level, the logic follows like this: every human body is emanating a vibe that then generates a collective vibe; but that vibe is difficult to detect given its ever-present nature—it’s like fish swimming in the sea. However, through practice, we can learn to attend to it and allow it to guide us to and from people, places, events, and interactions.
In recent times I’ve been pondering the possibility of a universal vibe—a vibe that exists beyond the West’s narrow understanding of human beings and nature. If human bodies emanate a palpable felt-energy that influences our experience of the world, then why not the bodies of animals, insects, and microscopic living organisms? Why not the bodies of trees, plants, and the blades of grass that dance with the wind? And this might be a stretch, but what about the Earth, moon, sun, and stars? I personally have no way of knowing if these are true or not. But given the diversity of world cultures, outright dismissal epistemologically egotistical. People throughout history and from across the world study and discuss Prana, Qi, Lung, Mana, Orenda, Ruach, Pneuma, eternal and primal energy, life force, élan vital, prima materia, and corresponding phenomena, concepts, and practices of auras, halos, chakras, subtle energies, meditation, yoga, tai chi, and “alternative” healing and medicine. These are not necessarily synonymous, but they do signify a global interest in human energy systems. The vibe is part of that ongoing conversation.
Phish’s lead guitarist and vocalist Trey Anastasio would most likely agree. He describes his pre-show preparation in terms of “energy,” which, in this instance, is the same as the vibe. By his own account, he spends all day drafting possible setlists, gathering suggestions from fellow band members, writing and rewriting lists before finalizing the night’s show. He then tears it up as he walks on stage and allows the audience’s vibe to guide him. As he explains:
“[W]e walk on stage without a song list because I don’t think that decision could be made without the introduction of the audience energy. . . It’s kind of like martial arts to me in that there’s an enormous amount of preparation into not having any thought at all. . . When I walk on stage I’ve trained myself to go completely blank until . . . I pick up my guitar and I know what to play.”(14)
The collective vibe he’s describing is a generative process. Trey himself is emanating a vibe, both consciously and unconsciously. His body, like all living bodies, is radiating vibrational energy. We might envision this as a low, steady, perpetual hum that fluctuates throughout the day depending on his mood, emotions, and psychological state, all of which are affected by events, interactions, and environment, as well as personal history. But he spends his day getting himself into a state of “live performance.” Trey’s approach is similar to a Buddhist philosophy of an open mind; to enter a situation with the intent of being open to whatever may arise; to be one with, but also an active agent within, the ever-arising situation. At this level, he is now consciously directing his ever-present hum toward particular ends, purposefully emanating a vibe of invitation and collective participation. As he states:
“The music exists in the universe, and if you’re lucky enough, or strong enough, to get your ego out of the way, the music comes through you. The audience that we have is open to that. They understand that conversational transfer of energy. Their being open to it makes it easier for the energy to pass through.” (15)
The other band members follow suit. Page McConnell on keyboards, Mike Gordon on bass, and Jon Fishman on drums. They too have their own hums, or what we might refer to as vibrational signatures. Each is unique, with everyone emanating their own felt personalities. Together, their four hums generate a fifth hum. This is a triangulated vibe that exists between, but that also emanates beyond, the four band members. This vibe is symbiotic, relational, co-creative, and participatory—it’s based on how each person’s vibe relates to and meshes with each of the other vibes. Even people of the periphery help generate the band’s vibe. Managers, lighting designers, sound engineers, roadies, and stage security all play contributing roles. They too hum vibrational signatures and carry their own intentions to each and every show. Peter Shapiro, promoter of the Grateful Dead’s 50th birthday of which Trey participated, stated that opening more stadium seats would help “accommodate more people and have more of a vibe.”(16)
Then there’s the crowd’s collective vibe. This vibe is generated in very much the same way as that of the band’s. Each audience member vibrationally hums. Those hums fluctuate with the details of and reactions to each and every situation. Even if there was no show, a large collective of hums such as this generates a unique group vibe. Placing bodies in close proximity to one another intensifies and thickens the vibe; more bodies generate a greater magnitude of emanation. This is why large events feel different than small events or private interactions. Additionally, each vibrational signature takes up a relationship to and meshes with every other signature. But this “mesh” is complicated as vibes gel with and/or repel against each other. It’s a law of attraction-and-repulsion that helps explain initial impressions and reactions: some people feel like long lost friends while others perpetual strangers; some we intuitively trust or distrust; some turn us on or off; some impressions stick with us while others are instantly forgotten. All of these vibrational signatures are continuously generating, meshing, and producing a collective vibe that then influences our thoughts and behaviors. It’s like the wind at our backs guiding us to and from people and interactions.
But a Phish show brings with it a collective intention. Granted, there are all kinds of intentions in crowds of 20,000 people. Some are excited and joyful, others bored and tag-alongs; some lifelong fans and others first timers; some drunk or stoned, others speedy and anxious; some passed out and wishing they stayed home; others beaming with anticipation. But the overwhelming majority of fans know what to expect—they’re looking to feel the vibe and experience the grand “it” that has come to define the Phish experience. This collective intention produces a collective vibe that both the fans and the band tap into; that’s what Trey is referencing when he says that he cannot choose a setlist without feeling the audience’s energy. For Trey “it’s a give and take. The audience makes it too. That’s where the audience really takes control. You definitely get a vibe from the crowd. They react when we take risks and go someplace we’ve never been before. You sense that.”(17)
In other words, it’s a mutually generating process in which both the band and the crowd produce their own vibes but then transcend their respective signatures to produce one grand vibe. It’s not like the band’s vibe and the crowd’s vibe are separate. There’s no empty space; it’s all interrelated, flowing from, through, and beyond each locale. There are the band members, the crowd-goers, the roadies and show designers. But also the ushers, security guards, and concession workers. The scalpers, scammers, dopers, and cops outside. The folks driving by utterly unaware of Phish. Then there’s people populating the town or city and greater regional area. But there’s still more, with a diffuse, barely detectable vibe ebbing and flowing across the country, oceans, and faraway lands, all of which is part and parcel of a global vibe. And perhaps there is more, still, with a universal vibe.
Despite my idyllic description, I do caution against over-romanticizing the vibe. Just as we can pulsate with love and light, we can also pulsate with hate and darkness. Anyone who has experienced the seedier side of the parking lot scene understands what I’m describing. There are rip offs, shady deals, nitrous gangs, turf battles, drunken fights, pick pocketers, and sexual assaults. These too are vibrational experiences. Sketchy dealers, for instance, are defined in part by their sketchy vibes. Even if they look legit you can feel their ill intent so you walk on by. But then there are the true rip-off artists. They use the vibe to entice the innocent into false securities. The vibe is part of their game. But no game is fool proof. A mere fleeting thought or self-doubt on their end reveals their true intentions. You feel it and you’re out. And if you’re looking them in the eye they’ll know that you know. Their vibe then over-compensates, only reinforcing the experience. That is to say, the vibe is a multimodal phenomenon, and it is to our existential benefit to learn about and attune ourselves to its many dimensions.
This is why Phish makes for a great case study: the Phish experience involves all kinds of vibes, not least of which is the grand Phish vibe. This grand vibe is commonly experienced during moments of egolessness, when the band is taking us on a magic carpet ride with ups and downs, peaks and valleys, riffs, teasers, footnotes, and of course, plenty of jams. You suddenly realize that your little peephole of a mind is really just a self-defense mechanism. Yes, the ego serves its function as a protective shield, and it even brings with it its own set of pleasure principles (see Freud). But the intoxication of vibing 20,000-strong helps us realize that there are protective gears that precede and exceed the ego; that the vibe engenders its own laws of magnetic attraction and repulsion; that your hum-and-mesh is guiding you with or without the ego’s self-defense mechanisms. You close your eyes, flail your arms, shake your ass, and think, “This is awesome!”
We suddenly remember, in some faint Platonic sense, that we are not reducible to our thoughts, mind, ego, or even these specific moments in time. Yes, we are constituted, in part, by these and other experiences; the facticity of our lives matters. But we are always more, and our living, breathing bodies are contributing to and participating in a universal human process without definitive beginning or end. This felt recognition often produces joyous, celebratory, even liberatory reactions. This helps explain the carnivalesque costumes and dancefloor shenanigans: glitter, glow sticks, unicorns, blinking balloons, and plenty of jumping, jiving, yelling, screaming, squirming, and wiggling. Bodies are moving without looking and communicating without talking. It’s the way of the Jedi, the samurai, sensei, witch, and wizard. Yes, there are plenty of bumps and “excuse-mes,” but that’s part of the vibrational dance. We’re all feeling it in our own unique ways. It’s a decentralized spontaneous dance; a oneness and differentiation, simultaneously. As the band sings:
In a world gone mad a world gone mad
There must be something more than this
We're vibrating with love and light
Pulsating with love and light
In a world gone mad a world gone mad
There must be something more
Anastasio, Trey. “Happy Birthday Trey Anastasio: Fall 1994 Interview With Steve Silberman.” Interviewed by Steve Silberman. Jambase.com, September 30, 2018. https://www.jambase.com/article/phish-trey-anastasio-interview-fall-1994-steve- silberman
Anastasio, Trey. “Trey Anastasio Discusses His Phish Show Day Rituals On SiriusXM.” Posted by Scott Bernstein. Jambase.com, December 18, 2018. https://www.jambase.com/article/trey-anastasio-phish-show-day-rituals
Burroughs, William S. and Allen Ginsberg. The Yage Letters. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1975.
Del Gandio, Jason. “My Journey with Vibes, the Nexus, and Alteration: A Performing Philosophy.” PhD diss., University of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 2002.
----. “From Affectivity to Bodily Emanation: An Introduction to the Human Vibe.” PhaenEx: Journal of Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture 7, no. 2 (2012): 28-58.
----. “Extending the Eros Effect: Sentience, Reality, and Emanation.” New Political Science 36, no. 2 (2014): 129-148. doi: 10.1080/07393148.2014.883799.
----. “Rethinking the Eros Effect: Sentience, Reality, and Emanation.” In Spontaneous Combustion: The Eros Effect and Global Revolution, edited by Jason Del Gandio and AK Thompson, 97-118. Albany: SUNY P, 2017.
Ferrer, Jorge N. Participation and Mystery: Transpersonal Essays in Psychology, Education, and Religion. Albany: SUNY P, 2017.
Fricke, David. “Inside the Grateful Dead’s Final Ride: Trey Anastasio on the Band’s Historic Reunion Shows this Summer.” Rolling Stone, February 13, 2015. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/inside-the-grateful-deads-final-ride- 240699/.
Gendlin, Eugene T. “The Primacy of the Body, Not the Primacy of Perception.” Man and World 25, no. 3-4 (1992): 341-353.
Guevara, Ernesto Che. “The New Man.” In Philosophy for a New Generation, edited by A.K. Bierman and James A. Gould, 312-322. New York: MacMillan Company, 1970.
Godard, Ellis. “The Vibration of Life.” Phish.net, last modified February16, 2016. http://phish.net/song/the-vibration-of-life/history.
Ho, Evelyn Y. “Behold the Power of Qi: The Importance of Qi in the Discourse of Acupuncture.” Research on Language & Interaction 39, no. 4 (2006): 411-440.
lumpblockclod. “Golden Age.” Phish.net, last modified November 5, 2016. http://phish.net/song/golden-age/history.
----. “Energy.” Phish.net, last modified February 14, 2016. http://phish.net/song/energy/history.
Macey, David. The Lives of Michel Foucault: A Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Phish. “More.” Big Boat. JEMP Records. Released 2016.
The Apples in Stereo. “Energy.” New Magnetic Wonder. Simian Records, Yep Roc Records, and Elephant 6. Released 2007.
“Walk Around London and Feel the Vibe.” Tripadvisor.com, June 15, 2016. https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g186338-d218015-r382878914- Westminster-London_England.html.
- Macey, The Lives, 254.
- Guevara, “The New Man,” 314.
- Burroughs and Ginsberg, The Yage, 46.
- “Walk Around,” n.p.
- Godard, “The Vibration of Life.”
- lumpblockclod, “Golden Age.”
- lumpblockclod, “Energy.”
- Phish, “More.”
- See: Del Gandio, “My Journey”; Del Gandio, “From Affectivity”; Del Gandio, “Extending”; and Del Gandio, “Rethinking.”
- See, among other sources, Gendlin, “Primacy.”
- In general, see works of: Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Judith Butler.
- See Ho, “Behold the Power.”
- For a similar argument, see Ferrer’s “participatory spirituality” (2017).
- Anastasio, “Trey Anastasio Discusses,” n.p.
- Anastasio, “Happy Birthday,” n.p.
- Fricke, “Inside,” n.p.
- Anastasio, “Happy Birthday,” n.p. Emphasis in the original.