Phish Has Come to Terms With Its Life After the Dead

Trey Anastasio performs at Beacon Theatre on Dec. 11, 2014 in New York City.
Taylor Hill—Getty Images Trey Anastasio performs at Beacon Theatre on Dec. 11, 2014 in New York City.

Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V Club and a pop-culture writer who has written four book, most recently You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me

The union of Grateful Dead and Phish’s Trey Anastasio is rooted in a half century of defiance and acceptance

Correction appended, May 14.

When considering the overlapping legacies of Grateful Dead and Phish in advance of the upcoming 50th anniversary shows featuring Phish frontman Trey Anastasio performing with the surviving members of Grateful Dead, it’s worth noting that Phish never set out to create a scene. The band members aren’t fiery idealists like Fugazi’s Ian Mackaye or The Clash’s Joe Strummer. They did not set out to change the world through their music. For Phish, music was, and always has been, a cause onto itself, and obviously one they feel most passionately about.

But a scene sprung up around Phish all the same, rooted in the band’s devoted followers, the mind-expanding properties of various illegal, mood-altering substances, and epic, three-hour-plus concerts where the set list changed every night, and solos could last a seeming lifetime—especially if you were on some really good acid.

Phish was creating something new, but its foundation was built upon the history of American popular music, and its scene owed a debt to the Grateful Dead that is hard to overstate. At Grateful Dead and Phish show, the parking lot is as much of a show as the concert itself, and the crowd is as entertaining and colorful as the musicians onstage. Grateful Dead called the weird little miniature cities that seemed to spontaneously evolve near their concerts “Shakedown Street.” Phish fans call it “The Lot.” But their purposes are similar: They are a place for true believers to commiserate, procure $1 bottles of water, and grilled cheese sandwiches, and drugs.

In its early days, Phish was eager to differentiate itself from the generations that came before it. It didn’t want to be Grateful Dead Jr.; it wanted to be Phish. For Anastasio and his bandmates, the constant comparisons between Phish and Grateful Dead were a blessing and a curse.

If nothing else, the Dead comparisons gave fans an easy shorthand for describing the band. When I was writing my book You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me about the seemingly antithetical followings of Phish and Insane Clown Posse, and people who weren’t familiar with Phish would ask me what they were like, I would lazily but conveniently say they were a contemporary Grateful Dead.

But Grateful Dead comparisons also ensured that Phish was doomed to spend its career in Jerry Garcia’s outsized shadow. So it’s understandable why Phish and its fans might nurse ambivalent feelings about its most storied predecessors.

When Garcia died, it left a colossal hole in the lives of Deadheads. The surviving members of the Grateful Dead helped fill that hole by continuing to perform with each other in various combinations, but a lot of fans, particularly younger fans, gravitated towards Phish. Phish offered the shock of the new. Its music was rooted in the same improvisation and epic solos that defined the Grateful Dead, but it also had a playfulness and funkiness that set it apart. It’s telling that Phish performs lots of covers during its concerts, but it doesn’t cover the Grateful Dead as often as it does The Rolling Stones or The Talking Heads.

As people age, however, the young turk’s need to distance himself from older generations is often replaced by a weary acceptance of his role in the grand parade of history and a reverence for those who came before. Phish are no longer kids but rather old pros who have been playing together longer than a lot of its fans have been alive.

By this point, Phish isn’t competing with Jerry anymore; it’s competing with its own past. Anastasio and the band have never nakedly rejected the early comparisons to the Dead, but they never wholeheartedly embraced them either.

Now, however, Anastasio seems to have reached a place of acceptance regarding Phish’s relationship with the Grateful Dead, symbolized by his high-profile decision to join the remaining members of Grateful Dead for an epic set of shows at Soldier Field that quickly emerged as a hot ticket of the summer. (First, the surviving members of the Dead will be playing a tribute show to Garcia at Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion on May 14, without Anastasio but with lots of other guests.)

The ridiculous high prices of the Anastasio/Dead shows are another sign that Anastasio and his band are no longer cocky young men with a scruffy following, but a cultural institution, like the Dead, whose fans include powerful people with deep, deep pockets and way more money than I do. Although in keeping with the spirit of both acts, I very much intend to track down a bootleg of the Anastasio/Dead shows so I can at least experience vicariously what is a fundamentally personal and intimate experience: the delicate but powerful chemistry between a jam band and its fans.

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the venue where the Grateful Dead and Trey Anastasio are performing this summer. It’s Soldier Field.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Media

Jon Stewart’s Comedy ‘Mission Accomplished’

Jon Stewart during a taping of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" in 2011.
Brad Barket—AP Jon Stewart during a taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2011.

Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V Club and a pop-culture writer who has written four book, most recently You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me

He changed the world of comedy and groomed the next generation of talent. He deserves a break.

When I moved to Chicago not long after the attacks of 9/11, I made a point of taping every episode of The Daily Show on my VCR so I could watch, then re-watch them with my girlfriend, who lived elsewhere and did not have cable. Of course, The Daily Show did not invent the concept of fake comic news—I was working in the entertainment side of The Onion at the time. But Jon Stewart’s vehicle took the form, televisually at least, to new heights. There was a sense that the show was not just funny and impressively consistent but also important, even essential and dangerous at times.

Now, a decade and a half after Stewart took over The Daily Show in 1999, the state of fake news looks very different. The curious art form has never been stronger. The Daily Show, while still important and consistent, no longer feels as essential to our culture as it once did. This is largely because Stewart did his job so well that he almost single-handedly changed the face not just of comedy but of news as well. Under Stewart’s lead, The Daily Show created, through the show’s series of “correspondents” who each had a distinct and often brilliantly crafted persona, the comic geniuses who would be Stewart’s heirs and carry on his legacy.

Stewart and his writers and producers forged the next generation of major comic talent. They did so not by creating an army of Stewart clones—professional mini-mes parroting Stewart’s self-deprecating, neurotic yet fearless persona—but by mentoring talent that was complementary to Stewart but also extremely different.

These breakout stars include blundering alpha-male, uber-gentile Stephen Colbert, who brilliantly hid behind the fake persona of a WASP blowhard with all of the cockiness and none of the competence in the world. They also include Larry Wilmore, the brilliant and bone-dry African-American writer and performer who would go on to take over Colbert’s slot when he left the Stewart-co-created-and-Executive Produced The Colbert Report to assume his rightful place in the comic hierarchy as the heir to the retiring David Letterman.

With the possible exception of Louis C.K, it would be hard to imagine a comedian with more heat right now than John Oliver, who followed Colbert’s lead from very ably taking over as guest host of The Daily Show when Stewart was away to running his own consistently brilliant, influential, and red-hot vehicle, Last Week Tonight. Oliver has captured the cultural zeitgeist in the same way Colbert did in his prime and Stewart did during the entire Bush administration, when the comedian turned trusted newsman spoke truth to power not just about the President and the wasteful wars he was waging but also about his lapdogs in the press, particularly FOX News.

Thanks to Stewart, who worked closely with ex-Onion editor Ben Karlin to re-tool The Daily Show following former host and sentient smirk Craig Kilborn’s departure, the world of comedy is smarter, more incisive, substantive, genuinely satirical, and better than before he made the transition from well-liked, if minor stand-up comedian to one of the cornerstones of contemporary pop culture.

The strain of producing such a high-quality show has clearly taken a lot out of Stewart. His job has aged him physically the way being a President ages a person, and, at this point, only FDR was President roughly as long as Stewart helmed The Daily Show. So, while it’s sad on some level that he’s leaving such a valuable comic institution, there’s also a sense that, to borrow a term from Stewart’s bête noire and greatest target/subject, Stewart has accomplished his mission of re-shaping comedy in his image. He is more than entitled to enjoy a good long rest before embarking upon his next big move.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Music

Weird Al: Pop’s Last King

Weird Al Visits Visits Music Choice's "You & A"
D Dipasupil—Getty Images "Weird Al" Yankovic visits Music Choice's "You & A" on July 14, 2014 in New York City.

Pop music has shattered. Parody is now the language that transcends cultural and generational boundaries.

When Michael Jackson died, people mourned the death of a giant, but they also mourned the death of the cultural consensus he represented. They mourned the passing of a figure so huge and so central to pop culture that seemingly everyone knew him, no matter where they fell in the cultural divide. In that respect, I suspect that part of the tidal wave of excitement greeting the release of Mandatory Fun, the ecstatically received new album from pre-eminent Michael Jackson parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic, comes from the re-emergence of a figure whose popularity transcends cultural and generational boundaries, who can truly be said to be a household name. The album charted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in its first week, a first for the artist.

The mainstream that Jackson personified doesn’t seem to exist anymore. The pop-culture world has fractured too violently into too many different warring factions for the center to hold. If a mainstream exists at all anymore, it can be pieced together, makeshift, from the base components of an album like Mandatory Fun. The album cements Yankovic’s status as an invaluable uniter in a wildly divisive music world.

Yankovic’s music unites his older fans with their past, with the MTV or radio-obsessed kids they used to be and the central role he played in their musical education. But it goes beyond that. Yankovic’s polka medleys are a brilliant microcosm for his take on pop music. Mandatory Funs obligatory polka medley, “NOW That’s What I Call Polka,” is essentially Girl Talk for the middle-aged and out of date, a high-energy mash-up of seemingly every inescapable single of the past three years.

One of the overlooked benefits of growing older is the freedom from having to follow pop music closely, from feeling obligated to have an opinion on every important new act or flash in the pan. Part of the brilliance of Yankovic’s albums is that he follows pop music and the rampaging idiocies of the pop chart so that his often middle-aged fans don’t have to, content that dear old Uncle Al will translate the ephemeral ditties and one-hit wonders of the day into language they understand, the musical vocabulary of the genially wacky spoof.

Mandatory Fun might just be the ideal way to experience contemporary pop music. It offers the catchiness of “Blurred Lines” without the rapey gender politics, leering sexism and Robin Thicke’s pervy personality; Miley Cyrus without the twerking and lascivious tongue waggling; and LMFAO without, well, everything that makes them obnoxious, which is everything.

Yankovic famously released eight videos from the album in eight consecutive days, including the zeitgeist-capturing smashes “Tacky” and “Word Crimes.” It’s a strategy that allowed the savvy and prescient Yankovic to leverage his connections with Internet dynamos like Nerdist, Funny or Die and College Humor (needless to say, at least some of those kids who grew up worshiping Al ended up in positions of power inside corporate suites), who helped produce the videos and publicize the album, while highlighting the broad-based appeal of a release that includes not only relatively timely takes on smashes from the likes of Lorde, Imagine Dragons, Iggy Azalea and Pharell but also brazenly untimely homages to Southern Culture on the Skids, the Pixies, Cat Stevens and both a polka and Yankovic’s first-ever march (“Sports Song”).

The every-song-a-single approach is particularly savvy, given the central role singles play in the pop landscape. People aren’t buying albums the way they did before; Robin Thicke’s new album Paula, for example, is flopping, while the infectious beat for his signature song is doing great things for a man who is impishly using it to play grammar bully to a delighted populace.

YouTube was to supposed to maim, if not destroy, Yankovic’s career by flooding the site with a slew of younger, hungrier and lewder parodists who didn’t need a major label to put out parodies, just a video camera and some goofy new lyrics to a familiar song. Yet in 2014, the parody market is still “Weird Al” Yankovic, followed distantly by everyone else. Considering the ways the industry has changed over the past 10 years, it’s remarkable how little progress everyone else has made. Nostalgia undoubtedly plays a role; the release of a new “Weird Al” album can’t help but inspire wistful memories of long-ago days watching Al goof his way through videos spoofing Madonna, Kurt Cobain and countless other giants who are either gone or irrevocably changed, whereas Al never seems to age.

For all the changes in the industry and outside it, a “Weird Al” Yankovic parody of a hit song still feels official and important in a way no other spoof does. For all the pretenders on the Internet, when it comes to parodies, it sure seems like folks still want the 54-year-old they grew up with and who still represents the gold standard for funny music.

Pop-music parodies occupy one of the smallest, least respected ghettos in pop music. Yankovic has never been one to think small, however, and from the very beginning, his domain has been all of popular music, not just the tiny little subsection devoted to his particular specialty. That mind-set is paying enormous dividends right now. It is a halcyon moment for an inveterate uniter with a view of pop expansive enough to fit the totality of recorded music snugly inside one of his fat suits.

Nathan Rabin is a staff writer for The Dissolve and the author of Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

TIME Taste of America

The Secret Lives of Juggalos

Insane Clown Posse
Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images

With album sales crumbling, these sly rappers have turned legal action into a colorful marketing opportunity

To outsiders, the scene that played out last week in Detroit presented an image so preposterous it seemed to belong in the hyperbolic realm of satire rather than real life. Two middle-age men in clown make-up, individually known as Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope and collectively known as Insane Clown Posse, sat politely while Michael J. Steinberg, the suit-clad legal director of the Michigan A.C.L.U, announced to reporters that it would be suing the F.B.I for classifying Insane Clown Posse’s fan base, known as Juggalos, as a “loosely organized hybrid gang” and violating their constitutional rights to expression and association in the process.

Entertainers who promenade publicly as sinister clowns do not generally take legal action against powerful law enforcement agencies. Yet within the context of Insane Clown Posse’s career, it was a savvy and characteristic move, morally, professionally and commercially.

Insane Clown Posse is a unique group. No major American musical act has a fanbase more devoted or publicly reviled, or such an unusual set of rituals, from the popular greeting of “Whoop Whoop!” to the group’s habit of spraying fans with off-brand soda Faygo during its wildly theatrical concerts.

Yet Insane Clown Posse is subject to the same trends as the rest of the music industry. Insane Clown Posse regularly went gold and platinum in the 1990s, but its most recent album, according to The New York Times, 2012’s The Mighty Death Pop sold less than one hundred thousand albums. Like seemingly everyone else in pop music, the group isn’t making money from albums or radio play so it is forced to look for alternate revenue streams, including a Fuse television show called Insane Clown Posse Theater and its extraordinarily successful clothing line, Hatchet Gear.

(MORE: Insane Clown Posse Sue FBI For Calling “Juggalos” A Gang)

Insane Clown Posse will likely never go gold again but they have two huge overlapping assets commercially: an intensely devoted and public fan base and merchandise sales. At a 2010 Halloween Insane Clown Posse concert in Detroit I attended while researching my book on musical subcultures You Dont Know Me But You Dont Like Me, I was surprised to find the line for the bar next to the venue exceedingly short and the lines for the merchandise table exceedingly long.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, since t-shirts and hoodies and jackets emblazoned with the group’s “Hatchetman” logo are the instruments Juggalos use to broadcast their status as Juggalos to an often hostile world. Loving the music of Insane Clown Posse makes someone a Juggalo but they’ll need a shirt, jacket or tattoo with Insane Clown Posse imagery to let the world know that, in the parlance, they’re “down with the clown.”

The older Juggalos that I spoke with while researching my book even had a derisive nickname for younger fans they felt were into Insane Clown Posse for the merchandise, partying and notoriety rather than the music or the group’s message: Merchalos.

The gang designation directly attacks Insane Clown Posse’s two biggest commercial assets. It essentially criminalizes a form of fandom and makes the very merchandise that is the lifeblood of Insane Clown Posse’s business grounds for cops to pull cars over or frisk people. The gang designation makes people who sport Insane Clown Posse merchandise targets for law enforcement, and that has done awful things for both the lives of Juggalos and the group’s bottom line. In the press conference announcing the ACLU’s move, Violent J conceded that merchandise sales “are just about cut in half” following the FBI’s intense interest in their fans over the past few years.

(MORE: Insane Clown Posse Explains Insane Clown Posse)

The FBI labeling Juggalos as a gang has been bad for Insane Clown Posse’s commerce but that is far from the only setback it has suffered as of late.

Attendance at the group’s notorious annual “Gathering Of The Juggalos” is way down from previous years. The event has been forced to change locations following a flurry of lawsuits from unpaid vendors following last year’s event and Insane Clown Posse’s label Psychopathic was recently sued for sexual harassment by its former publicist. As if all that wasn’t enough, Insane Clown Posse’s proteges Twiztid, the second most popular act on Psychopathic, recently left the label.

The lawsuit is a brilliant public relations move to shift the narrative from the group’s professional troubles to its legal advocacy on behalf of its fans, spinning the group and its followers into a David versus Goliath struggle against a corrupt authority.

Insane Clown Posse has always been about standing up for the underdog and erasing the boundaries between fans and stars. While hip hop has often extolled materialism, Insane Clown Posse glorified being poor and reviled and outside the mainstream. Where other rappers bragged about a lifestyle far beyond the means of all but the chosen few, Insane Clown Posse rapped about the kinds of simple pleasures seemingly anyone could afford.

By legally taking on the F.B.I with the help of the A.C.L.U, Insane Clown Posse is putting legal muscle and money behind its longstanding solidarity and affiliation with the largely poor and ostracized underclass that constitutes its imperiled fan base.

The genius of Insane Clown Posse’s move is that it does not need to succeed legally to have positive consequences. Regardless of the eventual outcome of the legal wrangling, the case has already generated priceless positive publicity for a group skilled in the art of public relations and it has helped cement the impregnable bond between the group and its fans. Just by taking a righteous stand, these sly clowns have already scored a substantial symbolic victory.

Nathan Rabin is a staff writer for The Dissolve and the author of You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me: My Misadventures With Two Of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes, a book about musical subcultures that focusses on the fans of Insane Clown Posse and Phish.

MORE: Creepy Clown Freaks People Out in Britain

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