There are certain bands that draw audiences that just magically all become best friends; it's probably unsurprising that Phish is one of those bands. And old habits die hard, so despite 2014's breakup with the boyfriend who took me to my first 15-ish shows, I still do my best to make the pilgrimage to Dick's Sporting Goods Arena near Denver every Labor Day Weekend for a three-night run and tent camping in a soccer field with a few thousand other debauchers.
A little background: I'm probably the only kid on the planet on whom DARE ("Just Say No!") actually worked. I made it through high school and an arts college without ever touching a drug harder than caffeine. In September of 2015, I had just turned 30, and years of singing lessons and the "never smoke anything ever" rule had made me demur every time marijuana came my way at parties.
Expectedly, Phish shows are straight-up bacchanalias. There are always families with kids and there are usually AA meetings onsite, but it's generally much easier to get high than it is to not. Super-relaxed after having spent a day lounging in the sun, that Friday of the 2015 Labor Day run I headed into the stadium and parked on a cold bleacher. I struck up a conversation with three dudes behind me, and they asked if I was there alone. I said yes.
"Oh, man! Congrats!" one said. He rummaged in his pocket. "You smoke?"
He pulled out a partially smoked pre-roll. "We killed half of it but there's plenty left."
I took it and said thanks. I tucked it in my pocket as we waited for the show to start. The night was getting cooler. I had no one to answer to. I was 30 fucking years old and I had earned the right to smoke some weed, dammit. It was legal where I was. I wasn't singing any time soon. I was with 27,000 of my best friends.
So I took a hit. I coughed like an idiot. It didn't feel like anything. I took another. Okay. I'd wait, now, I guess.
Tracking back through obsessively kept set lists from the savants over at Phish.net, I was able to confirm my memory that it really kicked in during "Bathtub Gin." An easy YouTube search brings me to the recording of that exact performance. And yep, there he goes—pianist Page McConnell starts going off on tangents, there's a cluster of guitar noodling, and falsetto voices came from what felt like nowhere.
Whereas the music had always been fun to listen to and the light shows had always been fun to watch, suddenly, it all made sense. I could hear the main melody buried deep in the noodling. I got it. Further: Music theory made sense. Something about steps and tonal systems, endless variations on a theme? I don't know.
As a teen I dreamed of being a musician, but eventually quit because I wasn't very good at the intellectual understanding of the art. But this night, music became a language that I spoke fluently. I could get inside the song; understand its nuts and bolts. The lights became a language, and I knew what parts of the music meant what color light. The notes turned inside-out (black and white for piano notes and blue frogs for the guitars). Music made so much sense.
According to the 1972 Canadian Le Dain Commission document Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, "many profound changes in thought and perception are reported by [cannabis] users;" the document—which puts the word "high" in quotation marks, by the way—goes on to reference "the rather amorphous psychological effects of cannabis," but eventually references a "lack of statistical analyses of the data." (Not surprisingly, more recent peer-reviewed studies about the cognitive effects of THC only discuss impairment, and the continued puritanical views of its recreational use—not to mention the injustice of millions of "criminals" jailed for selling a substance that I can now use freely—add infuriating layers to the equation.)
Of course, at that second, if someone had sat me down in a practice room at Oberlin and quizzed me on music theory, I would have flunked it. But I really felt like I understood. The things I do not understand are beyond me simply because I don't speak that language. The way in which color functions in someone else's head is the way in which grammar functions in mine; I speak word-language, and maybe dancers can't understand that just as I can't understand dance-language.
So I sat and stared. The drum set become a stegosaurus. My sunburned cheeks radiated heat. And I was fine knowing that soon, I'd lose all this knowledge—because, in the end, it wasn't mine to know.
Jusinski is SFR's copy editor and theater writer.