SCHOOL OF PHISH Fans: For these young, cotton-clad followers, epiphany is hearing their favorite band through a drug high.


STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The concert has just ended, and hundreds of dazed, dirty kids fresh from their nightly epiphany stream out of the arena at Penn State University and into the parking lot. They pass joints, share hummus, spin on the asphalt to the beat of a bongo.

Mike, 19, with a mangy nest of brown hair, a new beard and shoes held together with electrical tape, surveys the scene with satisfaction. It's like this after every Phish concert. Same kids, same drugs, same communal scrounging.

"Isn't this awesome?" asks Mike, who, like everyone else immersed in the Phish tank declined to give a last name. "The world would be so cool if everybody was a Phish Head."

Of course, just about everyone Mike knows is a Phish Head. No point in talking to anyone who isn't. Phish fans always swim tight. They look alike, dance alike, inhale alike and revel in the fact that their heads are all pointed in the same direction, like a school of unkempt minnows.

Their entire lives revolve around a four-member band that has just released its seventh album, "Billy Breathes," but has never -- cracked the top 40 with its meandering blend of calypso/rhythm&blues;/jazz. The band does manage to pack arenas all over the country, however. With almost no promotion, Phish drew 70,000 people in August to a former Air Force base in Plattsburgh, N.Y., for a two-day concert -- more fans than Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E. or any of the other heavily promoted, star-studded summer music festivals.

Yet it's the fans, not the band's mildly innovative music, that make it a phenomenon.

The fanatics who follow the band during its annual fall tour repeat the same rituals for every Phish show. They'll converge on the venue's parking lot hours before the doors open. They'll do whatever they can to scrape together money for a $20 ticket. They'll drown in Ecstasy, a psychedelic drug, while the band plays. They'll camp out, or sleep in cars, just so they can see Phish perform many of the same songs in another arena somewhere else.

It's this devotion -- and their circa-1968 appearance -- that has prompted comparisons to the followers of the Grateful Dead.

But where the Grateful Dead grew out of an era of protest, Phish fans could care less about politics. With the presidential election just weeks away, there is not a political sign, bumper sticker or T-shirt in the sea of rundown cars and makeshift booths at the fans' encampment.

"What's the point of voting, they're all wrong, anyway," says Craig, 18, his cheeks smeared with pink glitter and his eyes, hidden by a mass of blond curls, half-closed in a drug glaze.

And where Dead Heads preached live and let live, Phish Heads don't preach. They don't want converts. They enjoy being insiders.

As an earnest looking 19-year-old with dreadlocks puts it: "There are two classes of people who come to Phish, like an upper and lower class. The college boys who come to get wasted and spend the day are the lower class. The ones who really get the band, understand all the layers of the music are the upper. You can't just come to a show and, like, you know what it's all about."

He doesn't even bother talking about the untouchables -- those who don't listen to Phish at all.

Phish bass player Mike Gordon attributes the band's intense following to its "commitment to music. ... A lot of groups may think they're sexy, or they want to conquer the audience. We want to take them on a journey, an adventure with us."

He says the band's spontaneous jam sessions and constantly changing set lists make each concert a separate experience.

He and other band members admit to some surprise at their current success. "Our goal was never to get more fans," Gordon says. "Our goal is to stretch music limits, and our own abilities. ... I guess word just started spreading that we were a band that's devoted to music."

Living for Phish tickets

Hours before the doors to the Bryce Jordan Center are due to open, Phish Heads wander through an encampment near the Penn State campus, sharing food, drinks and marijuana. They sell the homemade clothes they wear, hemp jewelry, glass pipes and bongs, and, somewhat more discreetly, drugs. Their clothes are all the same: cotton, homemade and drab. Sometimes, paisley tank tops, sometimes skirts, on girls or boys, sometimes baggy pants, and when it gets cold, always enormous Guatemalan sweaters.

There aren't any bright colors; the few tie-dyes are long-faded. But the dead giveaway that an outsider is in the crowd is a logo. It's an unspoken rule, but not one a Phish Head would break. No Hilfiger, Nike or Baltimore Ravens. Logos equal consumption and Phish Heads live for tickets to Phish shows. To admit to wanting anything else is to swim upstream.

Erik, 19, has been following the band for two weeks, stone broke. He sold shoes for tickets and depends entirely on other fans for food. "Our motto is what goes around comes around. When I get some money I'll bring food and share it."

Few have their own transportation, bumming rides across the country from other fans. But it is clear that trust ends where Phish devotion wavers. No one hitchhikes, panhandles or grubs for food outside their encampment.

A group of young fans in search of a lift to the next concert twice refuse a ride from a reporter. Paranoia pervades the ranks; no one wants to reveal last names. Outsiders could be narcs and even if they're not, they would be tainted by their lack of insight into Phish.

Outsiders don't know even the history: that the band began by begging for gigs and playing semi-formals at the University of Vermont in 1983; that by 1988 they were a successful bar band; that by 1991 they were building a national reputation; that they now regularly sell out concerts in the United States and have just finished their first European tour.

Even worse, outsiders don't know the basics: that the lead singer wrote a score for his senior thesis and the band plays it only once a year; that if someone outside a show holds a finger in the air, he's in need of a ticket; that if they get "miracled" a generous Phish Head gave them a ticket.

Phish Heads are young. Most are 16 to 20, on leave from college or not enrolled or high school dropouts. A popular greeting is a hug followed by a question: "How's school?" Response: "I dropped out." Reply: "That's cool."

Another topic is far less popular: parents. When asked what their parents think of their Phish fanaticism, some changed the subject, others replied: "What parents?" One 19-year-old fan, who lives with his parents half the year in Boston, says they are "sketchy about it, but I pay my own way. What are they gonna do?"

And most fans don't plan going home anytime soon. They see their future as permanent Phish followers. "There would have to be a major change in my life to give up this lifestyle," says Erik, 19, a college freshman who isn't making it to many classes this fall. His friend, 18-year-old Seth, who proudly reveals "my goal in life is to make art for Phish."

The 19-year-old from Boston, who sells hats at concerts and does odd jobs to raise money for tickets, says: "I'm doing this forever. I'll be 30 and still be out here."

There are the occasional older fans, in their mid- to late 20s, like Tom and Maureen from Baltimore. They use vacation days to follow the band a few shows at a time. They camp out in the summer, but take shelter in a motel when the weather turns cold.

"We're definitely on the older side," says Tom, who works at a health club. "It's the younger fans who are into the scene, the craziness. ... We come along 'cause we like the music, and it's a great way to see the country."

Making Phishtory

Inside the packed arena, the lights are low, the band is poised to come on stage, and the atmosphere is electric. The cheers are deafening as the four men walk onto the tiny platform.

Jon Fishman, wearing a loose cotton dress, walks directly to the only elaborate thing in sight, his drum set. Page McConnell, tall and gawky, heads for his keyboards. Bassist Gordon, with a frizzy head of hair, jeans and a dark T-shirt, stands toward the back, between two candles. And the slightly balding lead singer, Trey Anastasio, takes his spot up front. Without a hint of showmanship, their presence whips the crowd into a bliss-filled frenzy. It doesn't end until they close the set.

The music is a jazzy, rhythmic mixed bag that frequently descends into drawn-out jam sessions. It is rarely lyrical, sometimes repetitive, often engaging, but hardly as inspirational fans describe. In truth, it is the fans who are mesmerizing, their bodies moving identically to the music.

Far from the body-contact moshing that characterizes many rock concerts, Phish fans are respectful of each other's space, preferring to shut their eyes and swim with their hands, their feet firmly planted on the floor. They dance alone. And they dance the same.

They know every song within seconds, and remain totally fixated, leaving the arena only if they are caught with drugs and escorted out by police. Their single-minded worship isn't over until the band walks offstage as unceremoniously as it arrived. At that point, fans scramble for pens to record the order of the songs.

"It's history," one fan gushes. "It's allegiance," says another.

Mind expansion, Phish-style

Afterward, a few hundred hardcore fans meet up at a closed ski resort, Tussy Mountain. They set up tents, spread their merchandise on blankets, sit in intimate circles and contemplate the stars. Marijuana's scent wafts through the campsite, nitric oxide is sucked from large balloons, and tiny herbal Ecstasy tablets are passed around. One dreadlocked boy crouches next to a car and sucks crack out of a pipe.

A girl points out constellations to her friends, all sitting Indian style on the grass. "Orion is the one that looks like a baseball

field," she says.

A boy walks through and asks who wants "to puff nuggets." Three raise their hands. Drugs are part of the culture. Many fans insist they are necessary for mind expansion, for understanding the complexities of Phish. There are some who don't use them, but not many.

Eventually everyone falls asleep, exhausted from the concert frenzy and the drugs. Only to wake and do much the same thing.

This morning, it's off to Pittsburgh. The weather is bad, and by the time the Phish Heads all meet up outside the Pittsburgh Civic Center, it is pouring. Beyond selling their wares from the back of cars, however, they refuse to acknowledge the rain. No umbrellas, only drenched, drab cotton clothes and Guatemalan sweaters heavy with water. No one leaves early. They'll just DTC sleep in a car at a rest stop tonight. It will all be worth it when the band starts playing.

When the lights go down in Pittsburgh and Phish takes the stage, the fans roar again. At the same time, paramedics surround a young girl in a drug stupor in a Civic Center hallway, At the same time, a few dozen people are left outside with their wet fingers in the air. At the same time, a girl in the parking lot starts to give away the hummus she's selling. She'll get in next time, and she'll be cheering.

It's all worth it when you're with your own on the inside.

Pub Date: 10/28/96

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