Tuesday, November 4, 2014

First Impressions: Mansfield 2014

A different version of this appeared in my WordPress blog. As I have found that medium to be a little cumbersome, I am switching over to Blogger and dragging some posts with me.

I hate to sound like an oldster, but life seems to be a continual mash-up between limitation and possibility, past, present and future, constraint and freedom. All of this applies to the Phish show I recently attended at “Great Woods” as much as it applies to other past, present and future experiences.  This is the Golden Age, always already was.  In that vein, I have a similar memory attending the “Merry Pranksters Reunion” at the Aladdin, a smaller theater in Portland, OR, maybe 1997 or so, and it has been on and off my mind ever since.

That night, Ken Babbs and Ken Kesey and Paul Krasner were going to regale the audience with stories about the heyday of the bus and the books and the booze and the insanity and the orange juice, of course, but they wouldn’t keep a single course and no one could get a straight answer from them.  Kesey read from The Last Roundup, Babbs interrupted, cheerfully, and Krasner complained about not having the proper forum.  When I asked Babbs and Kesey to sign a book I’ve since lost, Kesey whipped out three different colored highlighters to make a goofy triple fluorescent signature.  I asked, “What do you think about the tension in the Grateful Dead’s music reflecting the Nietzschean tensions of the Apollonian and Dionysian drives in art?”

Kesey looked at me dumbfounded, as if I had asked him his name for the first time, and, after a long pause, he said, “Well, what about it?”  Obviously, he knew.  Not only that, he was not impressed with the epiphany which had recently shook my foundations, and he might have even been tired of such discussions late into the night with people whose names he couldn’t remember and whose lives in which he wasn’t really that interested.  Babbs offered me a glass of straight vodka.  Apparently, that’s what their pitchers of “water” had been for the evening.  They both laughed and tipped their prankster hats.

Never trust a prankster, right?  Just be here now.  And how can it be that in 2014, Phish’s fanbase wants Phish to be the Phish that we knew and loved in 1994?  When I drove into the Great Woods (now Xfinity, formerly Cricket and a slew of other dot com names, gag) parking lot on July 1st, I expected a “scene.”  Who knew that everyone else in the world had a different idea?  My brother-in-law and I drove right up to the gates of the shed, dreading the fact that we were first in: it was 4:30.  Times have changed, and this got me to thinking about transitions.

How does one shift from workaday life to suddenly existing in Phish parking lot I’m-supposed-to-have-transcendental-experience mode?  Can it be manufactured?  Can it be sought?  Much in life pushes and pulls within this strange tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian drives, if one even embraces the latter.  Last year, I tried to manufacture the latter for myself during the Bangor tour opener to disastrous results.  I was overeager.  This year was the opposite.

Once people arrived and we headed into the show, I began to feel the onset of summer.  Didn’t people, back in the day, celebrate the return of heat and light and fertility with some sort of exuberance?  Would they show up late to the Maypole gathering?  Would they talk during the crowning of the Lord and Lady of May?  Did Merrymount disregard its musicians with chatter and yawning contests and cocktail talk?  I adored the display of new music--5 or 6 songs from Fuego--and lauded the band for their efforts generating joy for the new material.  The crowd?  It felt like the back 40 behind a Cape Cod bar.

Ralph Ellison wrote about the limitation and possibility in the blues, that tension one feels waiting for transcendence while others are prattling on about their days.  This is the core element which drives our music--structure pushing up against the lack of structure, joy and exuberance blossoming forth from wistful sorrow.  My only complaint in the era of smartphone shows is that few seem capable of waiting; waiting for IT to happen, listening in such a way as to facilitate IT happening.  The community tends to the zeitgeist as acolytes tending a small fire.  Nietzsche looks for a common experience, but if everyone is talking, Jung has taken a hike.

How can one connect all the dots, bring it all together, make IT happen again?  Derrida’s overused phrase (guilty as charged) always already indicates a world which is always slipping into the past.  Foucault hints at obedience, and clearly, at the onset of summer and joy, that’s the last thing I want to consider.  Schiller comes to mind often, though, play drive and form drive coming into contrast with one another, a place of tension where creativity exists.  In fact, this is not a new thought to critics, and it is one I need to remember.  Somewhere between perception and phenomena like music, it is happening.  The question as the tourist, the short spell traveler, is whether or not I can let go of ego.

Walking into the Great Woods show, form drive, play drive, Schiller and Nietzsche were far from my thoughts.  Rather, I was mulling over the idea of transitions.  There were grown American men watching the World Cup on a portable widescreen in the parking lot.  Many other dudes were seeking veggie burritos or grilled cheeses that were simply not available.  This was not a Dead lot from 1989 where Bacchanalia took on a whole new level.  Dionysus was waiting in the shadows of the heated day. He or she was, however, hiding.

How could Apollo actually appreciate the lot scene?  There was an appointed hour, and in this case, everything was well orchestrated even without a map.  We were all coming from work or family scenes, catching a glimpse of the World Cup where possible, hotdogs and kids, napkins wiping faces.  Few fans showed up for the show before 7:30 despite a 7:00 ticket time.  What was up with that?  I suspected that we were losing the older forms of our community, that formless form of lots strewn with vendors and complete, pre-show, throw down insanity.  Instead, Apollo’s joy, we parked between the lines.

When the music started, it was difficult, too, to discern the music lovers from the mass.  Chatter aside, the new tunes (for me) provided an excellent example of the tension between structure and improvisation, form and play drive, tension and release.  No, we did not ooze into some orgiastic NOW of Dionysian bliss.  I had to wonder, though, would this crowd even accept that state of mind?  As much as I want the music and the scene to derail into an undulating bowl of oatmeal bliss, I also have to wonder whether the current zeitgeist includes such behavior.  Even way back in 1985, the Grateful Dead were hot, but they weren’t dragging their summer shed friends into the abyss.

The possibility of abyss is always there, though, and I oozed joy over the new material., shuddering with satisfaction.  New structures were created to contain the exuberant melancholy.  It seemed, in the first set, as though every other song was new.  Rather than bemoaning, I was feeling chills, genuine chills, at the preponderance of new material.   No, the depth of the blues expressed was nothing close to what Ellison describes, but Phish are modern American tricksters, donning a variety of veils while evoking familiar lost memories.

It’s difficult to describe, really, the absences, the excesses, the dearth and the plethora, the tension between all those things we must do and those things we are yawningly obliged to accomplish.  The feeling of letting them go is even more difficult to describe.  In those few moments of bliss, I am transported.  For an example, the transition between Ghost and Weekapaugh Groove was so deep in the pocket that I was no longer in my head noise.  There was a blank space where my mind should have been.  There was no mind.  It was done in the not doing.  We were, for a moment, in the now, in the one.  This is the Golden Age.

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