As one of America's most famous cult bands, Phish has already inspired a mini-shelf of books over their 26-year career. But with fans whose devotion to detail borders on the sabermetric, most of these tomes are filled with set lists, statistics and song summaries that are strictly for devotees.
By contrast, Parke Puterbaugh's Phish: The Biography sculpts a story from the trivia, retracing the band's path from Vermont farm shows (attendance: 100) to Florida festivals (attendance: 100,000). First assigned to cover the band for Rolling Stone in 1995, Puterbaugh became both fan and occasional band publicist, which granted him the access to observe Phish at their peak and through their drug-addled nadir. We talked the week after Phish wrapped up a year of comeback concerts, a triumphant return that afforded Puterbaugh's book its tidy, happy ending.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You didn't come into writing about Phish first as a fan. Do you think it changed the way you interacted with them and eventually wrote the book?
PARKE PUTERBAUGH: I think so. Coming to it cold gave me a different perspective, and I was trying, even through the writing of this book, to tell the story with some journalistic objectivity and detachment, because I get into the warts-and-all aspects of it. But I think I tried to do so respectfully and not sensationally. So yeah, I think being a fan but at the same time being a journalist who was trying to keep some objectivity gave me a pretty good perspective. I am very enthusiastic about the band, but I didn't want to be like an Elvis Presley hagiographer who just denies that things like drugs ever happened. In a way, including that stuff and it coming to the outcome it has this year makes the whole thing all the more dramatic and rewarding. They were able to rebound from that and do some incredible work on themselves and come back arguably stronger than ever.
So before you heard about the reunion, how would you have ended the book so that it wasn't just cripplingly depressing?
[Laughs] I think I would have probably have ended it, well, Trey's in a better place, he's been through rehab, and it will be interesting to see what his next move is, and Mike and the rest of them ... [Laughs] I don't know. I hate to even think about it. I would have probably tried to write some kind of epilogue that pointed to all the positive things they'd done in their 20-year history and crossed my fingers that they would have put it back together at some point. But I didn't have to.
In reading your account of how drugs began to affect the band from the late '90s through the 2004 breakup, I found myself really disappointed in them in a weird way, that they would succumb to this Behind the Music arc. How did you feel about that part of the band's story?
I was disappointed, too, and frankly kind of surprised that they went down that whole drug road. And when I say they, we're saying basically Trey and the others to a lesser extent. He was sort of a fearless leader, and as he did, so they did. But yeah, it just seemed like this whole minefield of rock 'n' roll clichés that I thought they were above, coming from the background they did, being upper-middle-class kids who actually made it all the way through college and had their degrees. Also, I thought they had been able to witness enough rock history and the outcomes of careers, including The Dead's, to recognize and avoid these pitfalls. What was disappointing to me, personally—I didn't see any of this stuff happening. They kept it pretty well hidden and guarded. For the most part, you could even go to the shows—2003 was actually a great touring year for them—and not be disappointed in the way you would have been disappointed in the last 15 years of The Grateful Dead's career, where the shows were just poor for the most part. They gave good shows, with a relative handful of exceptions, even as the drug thing was coming on and insinuating itself into their world.
On the other hand, I don't think I've ever read a rock biography that mentions practice and rehearsal so much; it seems another part of their downfall was abandoning their regular rehearsals. Why is practicing such a big part of who Phish is?
It's a big part because everybody's into the improvisation and the sort of miraculous, spontaneous compositions that they do on stage, but they rehearse to get to that point. The rehearsals were all about getting to know each other musically and practicing different exercises, so that it was like four minds operating as one. Even in a somewhat unstructured jam, they take off, but they could track each other so well. That kind of intimacy and intuition came from all those countless hours they spent practicing. And I've heard it from all kinds of people who worked with them and that were around them that those guys really worked. And having witnessed the rehearsal myself, I completely see how it made them into the band they were on stage. It also explains why they're a much more interesting jam band, why people would follow them around from gig to gig and not want to miss a show. Even with some of the best of the other jam bands, I don't think you could say that there was that level of sustained interest that attended every note they played.
You started the book with four vignettes marking different eras of the band. If you had to add a fifth one from the reunion this year, what do you think that would be?
Probably the Hampton stand [the band's three-night comeback run in March] or Festival 8 [their Halloween festival in California]. Just being there at Hampton and seeing them come out and launch into "Fluff's Travels" and just give an amazing reading of this difficult piece of music, basically throwing down the gauntlet and saying, "We're back, and look how nimbly we can execute this stuff now." That was just a great moment. The roar of the crowd, and the band had their families on stage in the wings—it was just a very touching experience. I'd probably go with Hampton, although Festival 8 was another high point. To see them do Exile on Main Street, to be near the front and just watch them kill that record, a double album, making it look easy and having the backup singers and horn section. There are times like that where I look at Phish and just marvel at what they're capable of.
And they're practicing again, right?
Yes, they are, and they're practicing in private. That's what was important: Trey said when it got so big and there were all these people around, it was difficult for them to communicate with each other like they were able to do when it was just them in a room. I think they've taken steps to make that situation happen again.
Rob Mitchum is a science and music writer based in Chicago. Puterbaugh signs copies of Phish: The Biography at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh Wednesday, Jan. 27, at 7 p.m.