REVIEW COORDINATOR: Shoshana McClarence

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January 20th, 2020 8:53:08 pm

We Are Everywhere

Phish and the LGBT+ Community

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Abstract

On the surface, Phish concerts seem an unlikely place to foster LGBT+ self-acceptance. The band is made up of four cisgender heterosexual white men and plays for a fanbase that also seems overwhelmingly straight, white and male. Further observation and testimonials from queer fans support that the music and scene these musicians have created provide a surprisingly welcome space for outcasts, especially LGBT+ people, to thrive.

  1. We Are Everywhere

1.1 Introduction

This paper observes the Phish community as a place that can foster growth for LGBT+ individuals. The music of Phish, honoring individuality and experimentation, is a metaphor for what the band and surrounding scene offer its fanbase: a refreshing space to celebrate identity, self-discovery and growth. Phish’s LGBT+ fanbase reports that the environment the band provides is a mostly healthy place to travel on their queer journey.

On the surface, Phish concerts seem an unlikely place to foster LGBT+ self-acceptance. The band is made up of four cisgender heterosexual white men and plays for a fanbase that also seems overwhelmingly straight, white and male. Further observation and testimonials from queer fans support that the music and scene these musicians have created provide a surprisingly welcome space for outcasts, especially LGBT+ people, to thrive.  

The word “queer” today is the popular umbrella term for the LGBT+ community. The technical (Oxford dictionary) definition of the word does not point towards the LGBT+ community but rather encompasses anything that is strange or odd. Utilizing the technical definition of the word, queer is a perfect way to describe the band Phish, their music, personalities, community and career operating away from mainstream music. Phish’s example of embracing their “queerness” is part of what makes the Phish community an increasingly hospitable place for individuals who are queer in the LGBT+ sense of the word.

The band’s music can most accurately be described as genre bending; at any given show you may hear elements of jazz, classical, funk, reggae, bluegrass, barbershop, calypso and psychedelic rock n’ roll. From their inception, Phish has presented as nerdy, unapologetic misfits. Their music has been performed at over 1600 distinct live shows. It’s distinct in its character, grounded by a signature sound and thoughtful, structured compositions while also allowing plenty of space for musical improv. Their success providing a unique brand of music can be seen as an example of the rewards that come when we honor the characteristics that distinguish us; our personal eccentricities or queerness. They remain true to their identity as a band while always exploring further. In this way, the music serves as an ideal metaphor for a healthy self-realization while their concerts provide an ideal place that allows fans to process through their own individuality. Such places are hard to find elsewhere in society.

This is not lost on the LGBT+ community within the Phish fanbase. For these fans, Phish and their music can be seen as an analogy for the rewards that come with embracing our gender and sexual identities. For many queer fans, Phish’s music and community have played invaluable roles in their journey. It’s further encouraging to these fans that the band has often paid homage to queer rock icons, most notably David Bowie and most recently Stephen Sondheim.

“We are everywhere” is a rallying cry that both the Phish community and the LGBT+ community use often to honor their scope despite seeming invisible to mainstream society. “Family” is another word used by both the Phish fanbase and LGBT+ community to praise the connection the communities provide. “We are everywhere” was adopted around the onset of the gay liberation movement in the early 1970’s and is always a good reminder that whether people are out and you see them or not, LGBT+ people are everywhere. LGBT+ fans are increasingly finding their queer family at Phish shows. This paper explores the experiences of LGBT+ Phish fans and how Phish has cultivated a surprisingly inviting environment for queer growth.

1.2 Isn’t Phish Queer?

1.2.1 The New Year’s Gag: “Isn’t It Queer?”

New Year’s Eve is annually the hottest ticket for Phish. Known for their love of pranks, the band delivers an elaborate high-budget gag to surprise their adoring audience every year. In recent years, including 8 of the past 10, Phish has favored hosting New Year’s Eve in the heart of New York City at the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” Madison Square Garden. These shows have featured aerialists, disappearing acts, pirate ships and flying hot dogs among other things. Phish is a band known for keeping its audience on their toes. Fresh set lists are played each night and the only certainty heading into a Phish show is to expect the unexpected. In the surprising world of the music of Phish, a New Year’s gag is one of the few constants fans can count on. Each year it is nearly impossible to predict.   

Jump to a quarter til midnight on December 31, 2019. Phish steps onto an entirely naked stage in midtown Manhattan to musically usher over 20,000 present fans into a new decade. The fanbase has been speculating for months about the highly-anticipated prank. Phish, each member known for their instrumental prowess, steps onto a stage absent their signature gear; no instruments, amps, or pedals to be seen. The four members are each dressed head-to-toe in a solid color - red, blue, yellow or green - as they walk up to the only object on the stage, a single microphone. There they begin singing an a-capella arrangement of “Send in the Clowns” from renowned Broadway composer, and gay icon, Stephen Sondheim. Altering the lyrics by changing the word “Clowns” to “Clones,” taking turns with the lines of the Broadway classic. For four minutes the musicians sing their way through the song with guitarist Trey Anastasio singing the the line, “Isn’t it queer?” To which drummer Jon Fishman, (donning a donut-patterned dress as he does for every show) and bassist Mike Gordon echo, “Isn’t it queer?”

As the band finishes their rendition of “Send in the Clones,” four platforms are lowered from the rafters, each one carrying a different band member’s instrument. The color of each band member’s platform corresponds with the color of their outfit. They step onto their respective platforms and launch into an electrifying Anastasio-penned instrumental song called “First Tube.” As they begin, the platforms with the band aboard rise towards the rafters making room for forty “clones,” ten for each band member, to march onto the stage. The clones, dancers of various races and genders, are dressed exactly like their corresponding band member, complete with wigs to match their hair. For the next hour, Phish plays through beloved songs from their catalogue as the clones perform choreographed dances that mimicked the band and its fans. It’s a fun stretch to say that the clones in this colorful New Year’s gag represent the various different identities within us all. A more realistic assessment is that, like many things Phish has done over the years, it was queer.

1.2.1 Defining Queer

According to Oxford dictionary, the word “queer” means that which is strange or odd. It’s a term historically applied to outcasts. In today’s popular culture, the word has been adopted as an umbrella term to describe the LGBT+ community (more aptly, LGBTQ). A single word rather than a set of initials that can be attributed to people who fall into one or more categories of gender and/or sexual minorities. The LGBT+ definition of the word “queer” has become its most common use today. While the word’s non-heteronormative associations would lead many Phish fans to shy away from describing the band as “queer,” a critical assessment may find the word an accurate decriptor of the band and its fanbase. It’s likely that the bands technical “queerness” helps to foster a welcome environment for all fans, especially those identifying as LGBT+.

Phish is a band of proud misfits. Their music is purposefully hard to define. They established a unique sound early on, have been mostly together for over 35 years, and have acquired a massive and devoted following along their way. Their music deliberately defies genre pulling from musical styles as diverse as funk, bluegrass, calypso, barbershop, reggae, jazz, and psychedelic progressive rock. This genre potpourri is extremely rare in the world of successful music. An inability to pin down what Phish is keeps many at a distance, still very few bands, perhaps only the Grateful Dead, have amassed a following as large and devoted as Phish’s. A large percentage of Phish fans have seen the band over 100 times. It is all quite strange.

The band members themselves are a cast of oddballs. When they earned their place on the cover of Rolling Stone for its March 6, 2003 issue, they were photographed by Martin Schoeller resembling Muppets on ice, except Anastasio, who posed shirtless in a pink tutu. The rhythm section, Fishman and Gordon, challenge gendered fashion on stage. Fishman has worn a donut-patterned muumuu dress to every performance since the late 1980’s. Gordon often wears lipstick, nail polish and flashy scarves. These eccentricities are no reason to conclude either man is gender non-binary, Fishman has said he thought the dress was funny and made him look like “Barney Rubble.” Their quirks illustrate a fondness for embracing things out of the ordinary.  When the band formed its current lineup, adding keyboardist Page McConnell at the experimental Goddard College in Vermont, they frequently collaborated with a fellow student who was seemingly gender queer, Richard Wright (who at the time, everyone knew as Nancy). Wright wrote one of Phish’s most beloved early songs “Halley’s Comet,” which continues to be played frequently today. The lyrics, like many of Phish’s early lyrics, are odd. It’s cadillac rainbows and lots of spaghetti and I love meatballs so you better get ready. Steeped in the theater of the absurd, taking cues from such diverse sources as free jazz, musical theater, and experimental puppetry (see, e.g Vermont’s Bread and Puppets troupe), Phish has always embraced the bizarre and cultivated a community that follows suit. This “outside the box” approach to creativity and performance strikes at the heart of Sondheim’s question, “Isn’t it queer?”

1.3 THE LGBT+ EXPERIENCE AT PHISH

1.3.1 Meaningful Links between Phish, their music and the queer journey

Phish’s music and the community it has cultivated aligns with the LGBT+ experience for many of the band’s queer fans. There is a discernible likeness between the Phish community and the LGBT+ community; both hamlets for proud misfits. The similarities between these two communities are not obvious to an outsider, but for many LGBT+ Phish fans, their identity as a queer person and as a Phish fan are meaningfully linked.

  • Michael Lowe is a 47-year-old gay man who attended his first show in 1994. He recalls this about driving home from a show in Champaign, Illinois in November of 1996: “To be honest I don’t really remember much about the show itself but the drive home was long and I had a lot of time to muddle through my thoughts, and it was during the five or so hour long drive home that I decided it was time to come out to my parents, so for me Phish is tied tightly with my coming out process.”

On the surface, the members of Phish present as unlikely heroes for the queer community. We have four cisgender, seemingly straight white men in their ‘50’s playing to a non-diverse fanbase that presents strongly similar to the band. Most environments filled overwhelmingly with cisgender hetero white men do not seem like a welcoming or even safe space for minorities of any kind to explore their identity openly. But, many fans who have explored the Phish scene beyond this off-putting first impression have identified how the band not only creates a culture of experimentation, and self-discovery, but also one of acceptance, diversity and pride that is nurtured by the fanbase. The band’s unwavering commitment to who they are as musicians, and the success they have gained with that commitment, has created a wonderful model for fans to embrace who they truly are. This explains why queer folk and other self-identified outsiders may be attracted to Phish while having difficulty fitting into mainstream society.

A hallmark in Phish’s music is its improvisational nature. It is not uncommon for a Phish song to stretch over 10 minutes with long periods of improvisation; traversing unique and ever-evolving musical ideas. The band takes the audience with them through their exploration; discovering textures and sounds emulating a wide range of emotions from erie darkness to joyful bliss. The music, grounded by precise compositions and guaranteed to launch into exploratory jams is an ideal metaphor for the control and chaos of life.  

Their music provides offers an ideal touchstone to anyone honestly confronting life. One 26-year-old bisexual fan found paralells to the journey in listening to Phish, saying “Phish’s music can get a little dark, sometimes really intense, and you have to be up for the twists and turns, but isn’t that just how life goes? Their uplifting songs break you out of the darker times, and the experience feels to me like a valuable life lesson.”

There is no shortage of life lessons Phish fans draw from the band’s music and lyrics. Some of these life lessons can be invaluable to healthy growth as a queer individual. For example, one of the Phish lyrics you’ll hear repeated endlessly in the Phish subculture is to “surrender to the flow.” It’s a quote from one of their earliest songs, “The Lizards,” written as part of Anastasio’s musical thesis at Goddard College. It is both a wise way to approach listening to Phish’s music, being open to any direction it may take, and a wise way to approach life. The lesson of freeing yourself to the world and to the unexpected, or queer, is meaningful to gender and/or sexual minorities.

1.3.2 Testimonials from LGBT+ Phish fans

Whether an LGBT+ person is a Phish fan, their ability to live with happiness, confidence and self-love often depends on “surrendering to the flow.” This is one place where queer theory and Phish philosophy intersect in a relevant way for many LGBT+ fans. In the space of listening to Phish’s music, fans describe an ability to relax and release their worries. Listening and dancing at shows can be a time of reflection and self-discovery. In preparing to write this paper, we gathered testimonials from several queer Phish fans who described Phish, their music and subculture as an essential part of their queer journey.

  • Mike Ksenyak is a 38-year-old gay male who started seeing Phish in 1998 and shared his experience of freedom from shame and guilt. “I first heard Phish when I was 14, and I was immediately hooked. The music was open, and magical and freeing. Around 14 was also the time I really started figuring out my sexuality. I had known for years that I liked boys and that the world said that was wrong. Being raised Catholic, God said that was wrong. Everything was rules and restrictions and dead ends. I didn’t care if it was wrong and I committed to my authentic self. Phish brought me to a new world where I could escape reality and just be me. I could listen, float away and get lost.”

  • A 50-year-old transgender woman shared how Phish aided her self-discovery and acceptance: “My first show was at Blossom 1995. Transition wasn’t even a word in my vocabulary then, but I’ve always known I’m trans. Dancing at shows allowed me to surrender to the flow and just be me - no gender, no fear… just dancing in the light. Flash forward to 2017 and I was a mess. Deep in the closet, overweight, sad and no plan for coming out. I headed to the four YEMSG NYE (Madison Square Garden New Year’s Eve) shows partially for an adventure, partially to find myself, partially to figure shit out. During “Wading in the Velvet Sea” on night four I stood there with tears streaming down my face. I knew I had to come out or I’d be doomed to repeat this sad pattern of existence for the rest of my life.”

  • A 26-year-old fan shared their ability to find solace and calm: “Phish shows can feel like a beautiful escape in that way, where I’m not thinking about the stress of everyday life, confusion about personal problems… finally for a brief moment, I’m not thinking about anything at all in particular, aside from the blissful enjoyment and connectedness between people singing and dancing to Phish’s music.”

  • A gay woman who met her first love on summer tour in 2003 said: “I think the journey of discovering myself in so many ways during the flow of being on tour that summer led directly to the openness to see myself and what I wanted differently. I had never felt so purely like myself with the scene and the music and the traveling and beautiful camping… and then it all culminated in this huge self-discovery that changed my life.”

  • This is an excerpt of a letter Ivy Schlegel sent to the band about their experience as a queer fan:  “Being a queer Phish fan can be weird: it’s sometimes lonely and the sheer hetero-normativity can feel suffocating.  But that’s similar to the rest of life. Coming out was just not easy for me.  There have been a limited number of places where I have felt like I can truly be completely comfortable in every molecule of my body:  riding my bike,  having sex with other queers, and listening to Phish. Things happen at shows that I cannot explain and when I try to, I shed tears of wonder, humility and awe. Phish helped me understand myself, and coming out as a queer helped me learn to give myself permission to love.”

Phish’s spirited music and unique personalities provide a scene at Phish concerts where many fans feel more free from society’s judgement; something critical for queer people coming to terms with their identity in our heteronormative world. It’s a place where fans can express and explore themselves more freely.

Beyond the musicians on stage, the people in the crowd reflect a wide-spectrum of human creativity and expression. Fans play music, sell food, crafts and other inventive merchandise. People often wear flamboyant outfits featuring patchwork, sequins, neon, sparkles, boas and leather. Phish concerts are not only concerts, but gatherings, parties, bachannals, and to many, safe spaces. A sense of weirdness and otherness is a uniting feature of this community; it’s a place where people feel comfortable embracing their oddity. This is where place where people learn to embrace their queerness.

1.4 “WE WERE PRACTICALLY INVISIBLE”: THE LGBT+ PRESENCE AT PHISH TODAY

1.4.1 Brian and Robert and a growing LGBT+ presence at Phish

The LGBT+ presence in the Phish community has been most visible in the band’s recent era, nicknamed 3.0. This era dates from when the band returned from a hiatus in 2009 and continues through today. The increased presence correlates with the fact that the LGBT+ presence across America has increased over the past decade as strides towards proper representation of LGBT+ people, acceptance and equal rights have been made. Earlier on in Phish’s history, there are not many accounts of a visible queer community among Phish’s fanbase. This has slowly been changing with the help of a network of queer fans called Brian and Robert.

  • Aaron a 39-year-old gay phish fan who saw his first show in 1997: "I saw over 70 shows in the late 90s and early 00s, but i was a closeted gay man and i saw shows with my college friends who were all straight. By 2009, when Phish returned, I was an out gay man, and had a long term boyfriend.  We went together to the first shows at MSG (Madison Square Garden) that December, and saw more over the following year (including the Meatstick NYE where my boyfriend-now-husband completely fell in love with the band), but it wasn't until summer 2011, at Superball, where something magical clicked. That is where i met a dozen or so Brian and Robert queers, and my phish phandom and my queer love and expression met. I found such camaraderie in that, and have found my favorite phish shows are now the ones with a small gay army proudly shaking it in a general admission field. There is power in numbers, and there is power in being queer. Sit up and take notice, tell it like it is" 

Michael Lowe also recalls there being not much of a queer presence in the 1990’s. “I don’t remember the early Phish scene being all that accepting a place for the LGBT community. It wasn’t actively homophobic. I just don’t recall ever seeing any real queer presence in the lots, maybe an HRC sticker or a discreet rainbow flag at a random campsite but little else. We were practically invisible. I didn’t start seeing positive queer presence at Phish till the 3.0 era. I finally made friends who were both out and Phish fans. I discovered Brian and Robert and the existence of the larger queer Phish community. For the first time I knew with certainty that I wasn’t the only one and that was a wonderful thing.”

Brian and Robert is a group for LGBTQ Phish fans that started in the late 1990’s. It’s based on a song of the same name that the band debuted in 1998 that appears on the album The Story of the Ghost. Written by Phish’s guitarist Trey Anastasio and his longtime writing partner Tom Marshall, the song speaks to lost and lonely souls. Its verses are dedicated to someone lacking connection in the world.

When the song debuted in 1998, people in online Phish forums discussed whether the song could be about two gay guys. The verses reflect the loneliness that can accompany the LGBT+ experience. By all accounts from Anastasio and Marshall, the song is not about two gay men and actually takes its name from storied musicians Brian Eno and Robert Fripp. Still, online discussions of the song “Brian and Robert” were the first time the group’s founders had heard any gay-related conversation in the Phish community at large. According to brianrobert.com, it was during these online discussions queer fans were saying “I know I’m not the only one, but sometimes at shows I feel that way.” After these discussions, the group Brian and Robert was founded for queer fans and today, the group has over a thousand members on its Facebook page. More recently another group for queer people in the Phish community to network has formed called Mike Side Dyke Side.

Being part of a positive community can foster confidence that’s important to someone embracing their identity. Mike Ksenyak recounts a story from 2003 when he felt empowered to stand up to anti-gay rhetoric for the first time following a show:

“My first show was in November 1998 in Cleveland. It was amazing! I was there with my best buddy and also ran into friends from a few years ago who I hadn’t seen since. The scene was full of love and I felt so encouraged to express myself. Phreaks unite! This was a community of saying yes. In 2003, I saw Phish in Cincinnati for two nights. We ended up staying and partying with some guys that my friend’s friend knew. They were not phans, and they were not friendly. At their house after the first night, those guys started questioning me and then antagonizing me about being gay. There were guns and drugs in the house, and I had no idea who these guys were. Needless to say I was kind of scared and freaked out. Anyway, I stood my ground and told them what it was like growing up as a gay kid and who I was as a gay man. They insulted and bullied me, and I countered right back. It was a pretty upsetting night but I told my truth and I didn’t die. It  was definitely not the first time I had been confronted for being gay, but it was the first time I felt fearless standing my ground. I had had a good night of phishing and felt fortified by the music I love. Music that frees me, lifts me up, and makes me feel things I can’t express in words. Phish has been a companion on my journey as a gay man for more than 20 years. Phish is a part of my life. We’re all in this together, and we love to take a bath!”

Phish’s community and the LGBT+ community are not overtly connected and the crossover between the two communities can sometimes be hard for even LGBT+ fans to imagine. Becky Stephens, a 36-year-old lesbian recalls thinking her identity as a Phish fan would not mesh with her lesbian identity.

“I was always so worried about how the queer community would judge me for liking Phish and how the Phish community would judge me for being a lesbian. I always felt that the two spaces could not be more different and I really struggled for a while to reconcile these differences - these two parts of me that were so very important and radically different. And maybe all of the stereotypes that go with belonging to both groups by the “other”. It took a long time for me to do so. I’ve been to about 15 shows- only 3 with my wife(she’s not really a fan) and 1 with our 5-year-old son. I’ve always been so taken by what a straight male dominated scene it is. Which generally has me on edge but I’ve never felt safer or more welcome somewhere before. I’ve never experienced any issues related to my gender or being a lesbian and am so thrilled that I can finally be as open about my love for Phish as I am about my sexuality.”

1.4.2 An Imperfect Refuge

While many LGBT+ Phish fans embrace the subculture Phish’s music has harvested as a welcome space for LGBT+ self-discovery and recognize parallels between the two subcultures; they also recognize the reality that LGBT+ people are subject to a type of isolation and marginalization that Phish fans do not have to return to after the show. There is a song called “Mike’s Song” containing the lyric “sharing in the groove” and many fans like to evoke the lyric to demonstrate a sense of community at Phish. It’s a great lyric but as one trans woman points out, “We’re there side-by-side ‘sharing in the groove’ as the song goes. But the song of being trans is more lonely.”

She summarizes an important difference between these two subcultures of misfits or “queers” while referencing the aforementioned song “The Lizards.”

“The thing about this subculture is that people are weirdos. Seriously. There are some strange people “on tour” with bands like Phish. And you know what? It’s okay. No one bats an eye (with the exception of someone running around naked - naked people still attract attention). When I’m at a show I never feel like I need to pretend to be someone I’m not. I can laugh or cry, be outrageous or subdued, anonymous or known, connected or in my own space - it doesn’t matter because no one is paying attention. No one is discriminating, or violent or wants to beat you up because you love Phish. There are no religious cults standing outside with signs that read “God hates Lizards.””

While both these subcultures share their outcast-y traits; the Phish community undoubtedly enjoys a sense of security that remains a long way off for the LGBT+ community.

While Phish concerts are largely reported as inviting spaces for the LGBT+ community, the Phish community is not completely absent of the homophobia and bigotry that plagues society. The LGBT+ fans we spoke with reported their experiences as “mostly” positive but still discuss instances where they have either received or overheard homophobic slurs and microaggressions at concerts. Queer Phish fans point this out that this occurrance happens more rarely at Phish than in everyday life but it is still existent.

Time spent with the online Phish community reveal a scene where homophobia and bigotry are more present than LGBT+ fans report experiencing at actual shows. LGBT+ fan Ivy Schlegel brought their now wife to a show in 2012 and reports a bad experience that they hope may have been turned into something positive for other fans.

  • “...at this show that someone tweeted a photo of us kissing, captioned with homophobic garbage, and it got picked up on Phantasy Tour where it accumulated more homophobic garbage, and the hetero-normative suffocation felt heavy again. I felt guilty, like I’d exposed Robin to something bad, but all we can do is be true to ourselves.   If our queer existence triggers a shitstorm of Twitter epithets, then let our queer existence also be the brightest, glitteriest, gayest stars.   Every show I feel like I see more and more queer folks.  Maybe one of them saw our photo and said, “Hey, maybe I, too, could be out at a show frolicking with my love.”

These disappointing instances prevent the Phish community from being truly endorsed as a haven for LGBT+ fans, and the loneliness of that journey continues when these instances occur.

1.5 Conclusion

In the first minutes of 2020, as Phish was playing from their suspended platforms, a technical malfunction occurred and lead composer Anastasio became stuck mid-air, alone, suspended near the famous ceiling of Madison Square Garden. For several minutes no music was played as Anastasio braced himself as attempts were made to bring him back to stage level. As a sold-out arena watched, Anastasio made a joke “at least this is gonna be one of the great rock n’ roll deaths that you’ll all be part of.” After several minutes being stuck, repeatedly getting down on his knees to brace himself, Anastasio said “I’m just gonna play it from up here… fuck it… just leave me up here.” He went on to play another 45 minutes of music in his predicament.  

Isolated from the masses, briefly frozen before surrendering to the truth of his situation, Anastasio unintentionally provided an abbreviated glimpse of a reality that his LGBT+ fanbase is familiar with. In the face of crisis, Phish did what they do best, they improvised.  It was a moment in a long queer career that LGBT+ fans could relate to.

Footnotes

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