Conversation: Phish Chroniclers Richard Gehr And Parke Puterbaugh

Parke Puterbaugh and I have at least a couple of things in common. We've both covered music for some of the same magazines, and we've both written books either with or for or at least tolerated by Phish.

The Phish Book, published in 1998 and, ahem, currently out of print, was a collaboration with the band, who kindly submitted to long hours of interviews in order to let the band tell their its story in their own words amid a lot of stunning photographs.

Parke, on the other hand, went the biography route, having previously worked as Phish's unofficial in-house writer for album-release biographies, press releases, and festival playbills. His new book Phish: The Biography, covers the band's earliest days through its breakup and subsequent reunion last year. Where I caught the band at what many still consider to be the peak of its career, Parke carried through the trials, tribulations, and unexpected redemption. It's a terrific tale, almost a love story, about a band, its community, and the forces that draw them together and/or tear them asunder.

We two helping, friendly chroniclers spoke recently about our respective tomes and the ever-evolving nature of all things Phish.

Richard Gehr: You write in Phish: The Biography that Rolling Stone didn't run the Phish feature that they'd assigned you for nearly two years, which must have been frustrating. Why do you think the mainstream music press resisted reporting on the band for so long, despite their obvious popularity?

Parke Puterbaugh: I got the assignment in 1995, at which point they were ready to do something big on the band. Between assignment and delivery, however, there was a shakeup in the music department and the new guys who came in - Keith Moerer and Jim DeRogatis - their orientation was much more indie-rock. I think Phish were somewhat of a victim of indie-rock snobbery. Even so, they realized they had to run something on them, and every half-year or so Moerer would call up and say, "Hey, I think we're going to run that Phish feature after all. Can you freshen it up for us?" And I'd be sent off to some big event of theirs, like a New Year's Eve concert, and totally redo the story and bring it up to date.

It was a blessing in disguise, as it turned out, because I really got to know them and it laid the groundwork for doing the book by giving me the opportunity to write for them. Every so often their management would call me to write an album bio or “Phishbill” or something along those lines. I did that two or three times a year starting in '96, and basically continued through the breakup and even afterward with some of the solo projects. So I have no complaints about how that Rolling Stone episode turned out, because when the piece ran, it was an enormous story. It may have been one of the last huge rock 'n' roll features in the magazine. It all worked out, oddly enough.

Gehr: I always felt that few bands were as indie as Phish were during the nineties. I wrote a piece about the Grateful Dead for the Village Voice in the eighties, and my take was that the Dead were unfashionable for all the wrong reasons, because no band is more indie or do-it-yourself than the Dead had been when they had their own label. And I always felt the same way about Phish even though they were on Elektra. You can tell that their relationship with Elektra was almost completely on their terms - and practically invisible except for Elektra distributing their albums. They did their own tour support, didn't make videos, and existed in their own cave within the Warner Records empire.

You also write books about wetlands and beaches. How does that overlap with your music writing?

Puterbaugh: I double-majored in English and sociology as an undergraduate, but I'd always been interested in the environment. So I got a Masters degree in environmental science, which was an outgrowth of some travel books I'd been writing about beaches. I was fascinated with the notion of development at the beach, about why it's a bad idea. I didn't really understand the science of it, so that propelled me to get my grad-school degree in environmental science with a concentration on coastal-zone management, coastal geology, barrier island formation, that kind of thing. It was wonderful; I really loved studying that stuff. I was starting from scratch and had to take two years of undergraduate science courses just so I could qualify to enter grad school.

So I was writing books on the California and Florida coastlines concurrent with music writing. In fact, I was in grad school when the whole Phish assignment started. I'll never forget coming back from seeing them at Red Rocks, going to a class and the professor saying, "Parke, I understand you write about rock 'n' roll. Have you ever heard about this band called Phish, but it’s not spelled with an 'F'?" and I said, "Yes, coincidentally I'm writing a story on them at the moment and I just got back from seeing them play. Why do you ask?" And he said, "One of my students is the sister of somebody in the band." And it turned out to be Kristy Manning, Trey's sister. So he got us together for lunch and I got to know Kristy independently of this Phish assignment. These strange coincidences happen all the time with Phish.

Gehr: That's so true. Just like the way fans travel thousands of miles with no money and still end up inside the shows they want to see. That never ceases to amaze me. What was the first show you went to?

Puterbaugh: Red Rocks in June '95 was my first experience of live Phish. It was summer but cold as heck. It was drizzling and made the most amazing backdrop for Chris's lights. As much as I enjoyed getting to know Phish through their records, I was totally captured after these two shows.

Gehr: Did you have any adventures writing the book that didn't make it into the final manuscript? I remember driving up once to talk to the band and coming back into Burlington late at night only to find that my hotel room had been given away - and there was a convention in town so nothing else was available. I ended up spending the night in Burlington's single no-tell motel, a really creepy place that reminded me of a haunted bunker.

Puterbaugh: There was this one day in Vermont where I was driving all over to talk to people. I went to Paul Languedoc's house. Chris Kuroda came over and Paul fixed us this wonderful lunch. He's a good cook, who knew? And we had a heavy, lengthy conversation that went on for most of the afternoon. From there I drove way north of Burlington where this guy named Tom Baggott lives and hung with him. His wife fixed us dinner. We drank a lot of wine and had a great interview. Then I came back into town and talked with someone else in the Phish orbit. By the end of the day I almost had no voice left, because none of the interviews I did about the band was ever just, like, forty-five minutes. They were more like four or five hours, and we never stopped talking about them. The all-time winner in that category was meeting [Phish archivist] Kevin Shapiro for the first time. That was a six-hour interview. And there were lots of others after that.
Which brings up a question I’d like to ask you, Richard. When you wrote The Phish Book, you didn't have to write about certain areas I had to write about, which is everything that happened from '97 onwards - the dark side, in a way. Do you think you were fortunate to not have to go there?

Gehr: I don't know if The Phish Book would've been written after '97. I think the band members became more private or reclusive and more inward-turning in various ways after that. I posted something here about a month ago correlating Phish's rise and fall and rise to the last three presidential administrations: There was the peaceful and prosperous Clinton years, the dark and destructive Bush era, and then the indeterminate Obama era, and who knows what's going to happen next? I feel fortunate to have worked with Phish during their nineties golden age, before anything was particularly tarnished. How did you negotiate the latter days? Did anyone ever tell you they'd appreciate it if you backed away from certain topics, such as substance abuse?

Puterbaugh: No, not at all. They never did. I didn't actually talk a lot about that subject with the band members per se; it would come up incidentally. I guess I talked about it with Trey without even realizing it. It took me a while to catch on to the fact that they were having these kinds of problems. Like you said, they were turning inward when that stuff was happening in their world. I remember a statement Trey made to the effect that, "I thought everybody knew what was going on in our world; I thought the scene was so transparent." But I don't think that was necessarily the case.

Gehr: It wasn't so much the people as the music that seemed to be changing and becoming sloppier and less assured. Their recording process seemed to be getting convoluted and overly angsty. I particularly enjoyed your accounts of their later albums, especially Story of the Ghost, which I still find beguiling, although that could be the point.

Puterbaugh: It's a real moody one, and it has a weird vibe to it. You can tell something isn't quite right, and it's an oddly constructed record. There were other issues at play that went beyond drugs - interpersonal things. For many years they had those marathon rehearsals, practice sessions that they approached like a job, lasting five hours a day, but that started going away.

Gehr: I always assumed they'd stopped rehearsing at a certain point, perhaps around the time in '97 when they made the rule about no post-show critiquing.

Puterbaugh: A lot of people really loved that year. Brad Sands made the point that that was when the dark side started to creep in.

Gehr: One of the things that always came through the Grateful Dead's music was a profound acquaintance with mortality, going back at least to the death of Pigpen. And I think that depth of emotion was something hardcore Dead fans didn't hear as Phish started to replace the Dead on the road. Phish was obviously a smart and interesting band from '91 or '92 on, but in a way it seemed all fun and games. When I first heard them in '94 I though, "Here are four very privileged white boys who've experienced relatively few traumas in their lives, and it's going to be real interesting to see how they deal with it once life kicks them in the ass." Which it inevitably did, in one way or another.

Puterbaugh: The music was good because their friendship was so strong. It was when they started to pull apart from each other that things began to get tricky.

Gehr: I was a little shocked to read in your bio that Trey and Page didn't speak to one another for a year after Coventry. That sort of rift certainly couldn't have happened overnight, or even after a bad weekend.

Puterbaugh: It did get very dramatic. When I originally started writing the book, there was no talk of a reunion. I signed the contract a week or two before Trey got busted. Fortunately, they got back together and I was able to end it on a positive note. As a writer, I think musicians are entitled to a certain amount of privacy. And so I chose to talk about the drug issues in general terms, or as explicitly as they wanted to talk about it, but I didn't see it as my job to track down dealers or depict grotesque scenes. I wanted to put all that in the context of an entire career and not just have it become an exercise in sensationalism. The larger story, to me, was much more fascinating.

Gehr: Did you catch any shows last year?

Puterbaugh: I went to two of the three Hampton shows in March, to a show in Asheville, and to Festival 8 in Indio, California. How about you?

Gehr: I caught a show at Jones Beach and the Madison Square Garden run. My initial response was that they were really good fun and solid rock shows, but something was missing. And what was missing for me was a sense of recklessness, that anything-can-happen feeling that used to come with every gig. But now I'm revising that opinion because I just downloaded a big file of somebody's idea of the year's highlights. And there's hours of music there as good as anything they've ever played. But overall I think 2010 sounds more Apollonian than Dionysian, as it were.

Puterbaugh: Yes, the era of Dionysian productions – pun intended – is over. Trey's shortly going on tour with the Classic Trey Anastasio Band. Well, I thought a good part of the 2009 tours was classic Phish. It was a statement of regained strength, and at the Hampton shows, it felt like they were throwing down the gauntlet. Maybe you didn't get the most adventurous jams in the world, but you got solidity, a recovered group dynamic, and you had them giving good, accurate, and detailed readings of their repertoire. I saw it as a demonstration of passion that they wanted to sound so good, that they were all clean and sober and on the same page. And the level of musicianship was just really high. They seemed to be starting to find a fresh approach to jamming as the tour rolled on, too.

Gehr: I agree. The harder I listened to them the more I began to get out of what they were doing. Trey almost always sounds good, but Mike, Fish, and Page all seem to be playing with more gusto and subtlety than ever. But I still wish they'd stretch out more. And play "Harpua," of course.

Puterbaugh: They were all on their game at Hampton, but Page seemed to be even a step further, putting 110 percent of what he had into it. They all raised the level of each other's game. It struck me that they're still able to pose these challenges and rise to them. It was good to see in a band that's been around for almost thirty years.

Gehr: That was always the transcendent balance they displayed - on the one hand to be able to do really well-arranged material and in the next moment to do stuff that was completely left-field and spontaneous.

Puterbaugh: One of the questions I asked Trey in the book is, "Can you differentiate between musical risk-taking and personal risk- taking?" He had a pretty good answer, I thought. They're bright guys. I think they can figure their way around corners and still come up with fresh approaches. Musically I think the sky is still the limit for them.

Gehr: Looking back, I've been listening to Undermind recently, which I think is the most underappreciated Phish album. Both title and music seem to allude to their creative spontaneity while falling apart at the seams. Plus they had a real producer - Tchad Blake - for the first time in a while.

Puterbaugh: I would put Round Room in that underrated category. It doesn't get a lot of credit, does it? Yet there was never a studio Phish album with so many long jams on it as that record. That part of it works for me, actually, and in that sense I think it's underrated.

Gehr: My feelings about it have changed, but only slightly. I thought it was odd to release an album of what were essentially demos after being away for so long and sell it to your fans at full price. That seemed slightly insulting to me at the time.

Puterbaugh: Their take on it was they wanted to document the sound of them in a room together making music for the first time in two years. I thought the short songs, as opposed to the jam songs, could've used some work. But I do like the wildness of the longer jams.

Gehr: And now they're back again for the very second time. Thanks for chatting with us, Parke.