For Topic, Jen Doll dives into the world of the band Phish and their followers, known as “phans.” She discovers a hippie-esque subculture of “you do you” people dedicated not only to a band renowned for live jams, but a shared appreciation for uninhibited drug consumption, joyful escapism, and making new Phish-following-friends at every show.
I wander toward the edge of the lot, where I’m introduced to Boogie and Leroy. Boogie looks and talks exactly like Joaquin Phoenix might if he were acting in a Grateful Dead biopic; Leroy has on colorful knee-high socks and boasts a peppy energy. “How did you end up on tour?” I ask them. “I was hiking the Appalachian Trail, and I met this guy, and he was like, ‘Have you ever heard of Phish?’” Leroy says. “I was like, ‘No, man, not at all.’ And he said, ‘They’re playing in Virginia.’ We’re in Georgia, it’s 1,800 miles away. He’s walking to see them and asks, ‘Do you want to go with me?’ I said, ‘You have 1,800 miles to convince me.’ It was the most epic summer of my life.” This was two years ago, and Leroy hasn’t looked back. “It was the camaraderie of the people. The music is incredible, but just that family aspect, everyone takes care of each other.”
“Hey, has anyone given you a pin?” Boogie asks. I shake my head, and after some deliberation, he and Leroy present me with a “Stealie,” the classic red-and-blue lightning skull icon of the Dead. “Make sure you tell them that came from Leroy and Boogie,” they instruct me. I nod, trying to figure out where it should go. “You should always put it on your jacket,” Boogie says, and a woman who’s been sitting with us pipes up: “It’s your pin, honey, put it wherever you want to.” Boogie gives me his phone number so when I’m done with this story, I can call him and arrange to come on tour with the Dead. I can’t say part of me isn’t tempted. “You’re a ball of light, and you bump into him, you bump into me, you take some of that light and you move on,” he’s saying, and it’s time to do exactly that.
Maybe it sounds weird, but that doesn’t take away from how real any of it is; how seriously, even in moments of joy, fans take the music, the band, and the overall experience. You can take try to deconstruct the magic—Phish’s word-of-mouth-based popularity; their improvisational talents and creativity; the way the music pairs so well with mind-altering drugs; the way they supported the taping of shows and trading of tapes early on, creating a culture of sharing even before the internet; the way they speak to their audience and ask their audience to respond; the inside jokes and private terminologies through which you can learn and feel a sense of belonging. In some ways, though, all this dissection ignores the point, which is something much larger, the sum of so many parts.