We Live For Live: Phish And The Greek(s)

Given that Phish and serendipitous synchronicity seem to go hand in hand, it’s not so strange that within a matter of days I will have pondered ancient Greek performance history and attempted to land coveted tickets to Phish’s three-night stand at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre.

Earlier this week, as a new quarter got underway, I gave my opening-day “On Performance of Literature and Performance Studies: A Primer” lecture to students in my solo and group performance classes. And not four days later I will have battled Odyssey-like odds to wrest a few Greek tickets from the fiendish, infinitely cold-hearted, and treacherously powerful nemesis known as Ticketmaster.

It's all about liveness. We fans know this, and so did the Greeks of yore. Let me elaborate by relating an interesting tidbit of knowledge – and scholarly controversy.

Most of us have enjoyed/endured Homer’s epic Odyssey and  Illiad. Well, the thinking these days is that it’s probably not accurate to think of Homer as the sole author of these texts (or even, according to some scholars, as an actual person). To understand this, we need to think backwards (down the number line) to the day and age we’re dealing with. Homer’s epic compositions spent a good deal of their life as oral texts, since the only available forms of written communication at the time were a chisel and stone, or some sort of crude papyrus. These monster jams did not appear in print at all until the fifteenth century. In fact, ancient Greek singer-poets, known as the Homeridai, spent their entire lives learning and reciting these texts. They would then travel around – basically go on tour – and give live performances of these venerable grand narratives, for the entertainment and edification of the locals. It's only reasonable to assume that these performers invested a good deal of energy into their craft. Indeed, those who were good at this stuff and made solid careers out of it, would have internalized not just the words themselves, but also the messages, characters, themes, and subtle nuances of feeling and understanding that made these stories worth keeping alive for hundreds of years in the bodies and minds of so many.

The reason it makes more sense to regard Homer as a collection of authors rather than as a single creative agent is that it’s folly to think the Homeridai wouldn’t have left their own fingerprints all over The Illiad and The Odyssey. Any artist worth his or her salt is not merely a vessel for the text being communicated, supposedly intact from the mind of its creator to the senses of the audience. Those aren't the performers we want to pay good money (much less aftermarket ticketbroker prices) to see. Rather, in taking it in, a worthy singer-poet leaves, almost by necessity, his or her existential mark on the thing performed. The text encountered is of course rooted in an original creative impulse, an initial spark of artistic vision and personal expression. But the mark of all great performable art is that it continues to appeal to future interpreters, who work with and respect the original source material while also letting their own sensibilities work with/in the piece. So props to Homer for setting in motion what have become stalwart anchors of the Classics canon. But long overdue props as well to those singer-poets who played their small but no less important roles.

The same is true for the singer-poets of today, especially those who join this long-standing tradition of live performances of others’ works.  There’s a reason we‘re such suckers for the art of the cover, for example. After all, both the jamband and jazz worlds have long-standing, healthy relationships with covers. Whether it’s the Grateful Dead’s “Not Fade Away” or String Cheese Incident’s “Take Five”;  Les Claypool’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” or Leftover Salmon’s “Late in the Evening," the live experience is somehow made richer by these sorts of repertoire choices. It situates us all in a performance trajectory wherein the interconnections between people and art are rendered manifest, plain, and undeniable. A cover, properly handled, is not just good fun but important sociohistorical work – a sort of musical archeology.

In particular, I can scarcely imagine the Phish phenomenon without this sort of thing being central to the whole experience. So, I’m not sure I even care to hear the original version of “Ya Mar” anymore (and I’ve tried to track it down, believe me). And while I very much appreciate Robert Palmer’s original “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” (written for him by the venerable Allen Toussaint), it kind of pales in comparison to Phish's funkified and stretched-out version. Let’s not get started on what can happen to Ween’s “Roses Are Free” in the fingers of our phaves. And given this line of thinking, we could obviously spend days hashing out the significance of Phish’s Halloween sets!

Live music, then, is no “mere” entertainment. At its best, it's a fantastically dynamic reflection and refraction of the yin-yang ball of past/present, of the productive intermingling of back-then/back-when with right-here/right-now – of the human condition itself, really, which is nothing if not an amalgam of all that ever was and ever shall be. Though we may not realize it as we do battle with Ticketmaster, I’m fairly certain this is one of the main reasons we so fanatically seek out our phixes. It’s powerful stuff!

So let those of us lucky enough to get hold of some "Phish at The Greek" stubs relish the opportunity afforded. The Greek amphitheater, whether in ancient Greece or present-day California, is timeless. The sacred ritual of gathering ‘round to take in live art remains the same. It is one of the more enduring stories of human interrelations: that of the attentive, appreciative audience bonded raptly with talented and genuinely caring artists. We all live for the live moment and that live moment lives in us. So good luck this summer!

Dr. B (Jnan Blau), who teaches in the Communication Studies Department at Cal Poly, devotes (some of) his energies, both as a scholar and as a fan, to understanding and writing about music's power.