53 Minutes of Musical Bliss (Phish 7/12/13), Or How My Life Was Saved By Rock And Roll

To truly appreciate the bliss I felt last Friday night, you need to think back to the original ecosystem for distributing free music, creating an audience, and introducing young ears to rascally new sounds: broadcast radio. In my case, it was an FM radio given to me by my Uncle Jack, the man from whom Bubba takes his middle name, and a guy who liked his electronic toys (including the first-ever phone I’d seen in a bathroom, long before cell phones made that common). I loved that big, faux-leather covered radio, with its shoulder strap (it was the size of a Costco cereal box, and only slightly heavier), and after one of our annual dinners at his house, he gave it to me as a door prize. It stayed tuned to a New York station, and during the fall and winter of 1972 I sat faithfully by its side waiting for Deodato’s 2001 to come on. Eventually I figured out that there wasn’t a set, timed playlist, and the song would play at some point, if I was patient and enjoyed whatever the DJ and music director spun in the meantime.

Eumir Deodato, Brazilian funk keyboardist, was my first rock star hero, and 40 years later his riff on Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” seems oddly appropriate: he picked up a song that had entered the public domain, created a funky, fun jam out of it, with Stanley Clark on bass and Billy Cobham on drums, two musicians who would power my morning jazz shows on WPRB-FM a decade later. It was the first 45 RPM single I bought. The fact that it is a complete, thorough and tortuous trip to the woodshed of Stanley Kubrick’s opening theme to “2001” (the first sci-fi movie I saw on the big screen) is just icing on the plate of shrimp. But I’m still in the middle of the jam, teasing what’s next.

Friday July 12, 2013, Phish at Jones Beach, second set: 53 minutes of near perfect musicianship, a listening experience intensified by the fact that we’d been rained on for nearly 4 hours straight up to that point, and the skies had finally drained just as Trey hit the opening chord of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll.” The next hour was my musical life in review.

“Rock and Roll”. A perfect song for a New York show, recorded by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. Read “Heebie Jeebies at the CBGBs” or “Love Goes To Buildings on Fire” for a sense of the glam rock-to-punk rock transition that was happening in New York in the mid 1970s, fired out of the canon of the Velvet Underground’s “Loaded” back in 1970. The song holds a special place in my musical heart on multiple counts. It’s the only song I ever played on bass guitar, taught to me by “The Rat.” I’d never heard it before, but as soon as I had the chord progression down I had to figure out exactly who Jenny was and how her life was saved by rock and roll. It was my first and only live music experience, sitting on the steps of Wilcox Hall, and I never learned the surname of our other guitar player. Out at Jones Beach, the jam on this one is fierce, on pace with a Q train crossing the East River en route to Queens, taking us into….

“2001”. A treat for me, as it was my first Phish cover of Deodato covering Strauss. You can sense it with the drum intro that drives the gap between “Rock and Roll” and “2001,” the kind of “is it or isn’t it” anticipation that makes each Phish show a unique experience in time and space. Page completely tears the cover off the Korg on this one, and for a full ten minutes I was ten years old again, bopping along to that transistor radio in its big black case. As the the final chord reverberates and regenerates through Trey’s echo pedals, we enter the freezer….

“Tweezer”. One of the first Phish songs I heard (album version, and I didn’t get it, at least not until I heard a live jam version). This one gets a bit spacey but comes right back to the funky bass riff again and again. It helped that I was wearing my Tweezer shirt. About 11 minutes in, Trey begins teasing the other end of the New York glam-to-punk scene with some David Byrne and we find ourselves modulated into….

“Cities”. The transition is so smooth that it took about four chords for most of the crowd to realize it was Talking Heads time for the 2nd time in as many shows. So I’m rocking out, completely soaked through to the skin, with the Bubba, the Cincy cuz, and some good friends. The Talking Heads were a staple of my life on the other side of the big black radio; as a college radio DJ the complex rhythms, obscure lyrics and non-one-two-three-four battery was a novelty. If monaural Deodato frames my first listening experience, singing “a whole lotta bad points” with Bubba – a budding college DJ and now the source of at least half of my new musical discoveries – is the live music equivalent and other current bookend. A night I won’t forget, a tonal memory to file away, wrapping up with…

“The Wedge”. Another perfect segue, hinted for the last 15 or 20 bars of the “Cities” jam winding down, and a perfect way to conclude nearly an hour of continuous, high-energy music.

I took the big black radio apart for parts since there was no internet to fuel the inventory of a basement experimenter. Ostensibly I wanted to see how it worked. There wasn’t much magic inside and it never worked again but in my memory it’s on and I can’t believe what I heard at all, classical music of my parent’s generation re-imagined with early synthesizers and a funky bass line. Flash forward to January 1986, when I put on another New York station, heard “Rock and Roll”, and I thought of my epsilon-duration bass career with the Rat. As the song ended, I leaned forward to change the station, and was rear-ended by a tractor trailer loaded with bricks; I likely wouldn’t have walked out of my crumpled car had I been sitting back in the driver’s seat. A few days later, I read the news of the Rat’s death in a car accident. Plate of shrimp moments indeed.

Take away the amazing jams, the teases that you only hear on a second or third listen, the joy of dancing in the drizzle with good friends and family, and here’s what remains from last Friday night: We tell stories about our musical experiences, and those stories cross generational boundaries. It’s acceptable to take things apart, whether old electronics or old songs, even if they don’t go back together again, if you enjoyed the look inside. And sometimes it’s good to take the slow route, to avoid the rush, enjoy the jam, listen for the next lost chord, and realize that sometimes, truly, your life is saved by rock and roll.

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