Night of the Living Heads

Wednesday, December 29, 1:10 p.m.

I spot the first obvious Phish fan in an aging Volvo with Quebec plates and a dancing bear sticker on the bumper just past the I-595/I-75 split. The car, smeared with road salt, is occupied by four young gentlemen in sweatshirts sporting serious car hair, the kind you get from sleeping in your Volvo for 36 hours with your face mashed up against the glass and your buddy's leg across your lap. The four probably share space with supplies needed to sustain life in a cow pasture for four days: blankets, cooler, lawn chairs, Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos, Bud, Marlboro Lights. I can almost smell the dirty socks from the passing lane.

At the toll booth that marks the eastern boundary of Alligator Alley, workers are waving everyone through. No charge today. A little gift from the State of Florida. "Happy New Year," says a booth worker.

This turns out to be a challenge as much as a wish. Ten miles past the booth, traffic comes to a dead stop. As in, Put it in park and get out and take a stroll. People pile out of their cars, light cigarettes, and climb on the hood. A woman behind me grabs a guitar out of her white Chevy Blazer and butchers a Dylan tune while on the roof of her truck. The driver of a blue semi parked in the right lane shrugs his shoulders and laughs. "I'm just trying to get to New Orleans," he says. He has no idea what's going on. When I tell him, he gets on the CB to relay the news to a good buddy frozen in traffic five miles farther west. "Hey, man, looks like some band named Phish is playing, supposed to be 100,000 people, three days long, like a Woodstock thing."

The comparison is understandable. Any time thousands of people gather in a field to live in polyester Hoovervilles and listen to overamplified music that doesn't translate well outdoors 300 rows back, someone is sure to label the gathering "the next Woodstock." It's a reflex born of media saturation about that storied, muddy event. "Woodstock" long ago became cultural shorthand for "enormous, generation-defining, multiday rock concert."

Of course the fact that Phish fans have a tendency to ape the '60s, right down to tie-dye and a fondness for bongos, only adds fuel to the fire. And damned if this thing doesn't kinda look like Woodstock did in the movie, too. It's big, lasts a long time, and is packed with more freaks than anyone knew existed, outside of Berkeley.

Any similarity, however, is merely skin deep. Nothing important is happening out here in the swamp, unless you consider inhaling nitrous oxide, drinking champagne, and rolling on X at the same time important. And many thousands apparently do. Phish offers its fans all the drugs and degeneracy of Woodstock without that tiresome stuff about civil rights, politics, and the war machine. In that sense what's happening here is a fitting metaphor for a jaded age in which nothing is shocking and even the counterculture is a rerun.

There's also a lot of money at stake -- 80,000 campers paying $150 each equals big bucks. Especially for a band that sells itself by not selling itself out.

Under a cobalt blue sky on a 66-degree day near the end of the millennium in the vast stretches of Alligator Alley, however, lack of substance just doesn't matter. There's a palpable sense that this could be the thing everyone will be talking about in 30 years. Nobody wants to miss out on that.

But after five hours of sitting in stalled traffic, my own sense of adventure has ebbed. When a hackey sack game breaks out in the fast lane, I know it's time to head back to Fort Lauderdale and try again tomorrow. That's one advantage of being a local. I pull a U-turn through the median right in front of a Florida Highway Patrol cruiser. The cop doesn't bat an eye.

The eastbound lane is clear and affords a sobering view of what has to be the most psychedelic tie-up ever in South Florida. A few miles east, traffic snarls behind a smashed Chrysler minivan. Ambulance crews are working to put the occupants on stretchers.

Thursday, December 30, 3 p.m.

It's a safe bet that most of the people who paid $150 to get into this concert are temp slaves stretching their budgets to be here and don't want to miss a note. So they should already be in by now. At least that's my rationale for waiting until late Thursday afternoon to brave the Alley again. And I'm more or less correct. This time traffic backs up about five miles before Snake Road, a breezy, three-hour delay.

And then the promised land. Exit 14. A burly FHP officer at the top of the off ramp points to a 14-foot alligator lounging in the late-day sun in the swamp across the road. "There's your buddy," he says.

Traffic is moving now. It seems the delay is the result of police searching cars at a Shell station near Snake Road and the off ramp.

Ten miles north, yellow-shirted workers wave cars into a freshly graded dirt lot where more yellow-shirted security people exchange tickets for wristbands. They also search trunks for fireworks, tanks of nitrous oxide, pets, stowaways, and impossibly huge caches of narcotics -- about all they are likely to uncover in the cursory ten-second checks.

The concert grounds are relatively compact, walkable in the space of a half-hour. They're cordoned off in sections by dirt roads constructed for the occasion. Each road has a name (the Front, Third Street), and each section is numbered. You pull in and pitch a tent behind your car. Of course not everyone is roughing it in a tent. The VIP section is an impressive display of 30-foot-plus motor homes with satellite dishes on the top and awnings on the side. Life on the road is a little less squalid for some Phish heads.

I pull into the Front, row 304-306. My new neighbors are Greg Carney and his girlfriend Shannon, who slurred her last name so badly and so often I never did get it. They're a twentysomething couple from Chicago down here on vacation. He's skinny, almost gaunt, with a crop of spiky black hair. She has a round face, drowsy eyes, and short, unkempt brown hair.

They don't have a tent, so they sleep on top of one another in the back seat of Carney's battered Mercury Sable, their bodies a tangle of brown corduroy and itchy sweaters. Soon enough I was calling them Crash and Burn respectively.

5:40 p.m.

When the band finally cranks up, the amplified music floats all the way back to the campgrounds. By the time it gets there, though, it's a mush of strained guitar notes and high piano riffs.

Though I'm no Phish fan, I believe any clutch of hirsute guys from Vermont who can turn weirdness into a paying gig at least deserves respect. The drummer, Jon Fishman, wears a dress and plays a wicked vacuum cleaner. He turns the machine on, sticks the business end in his mouth, and comes up with some unearthly sounds.

Critics run hot and cold about these guys. Some think their lengthy jams are tight and inspired and their eerily accurate covers of rock classics are just shy of brilliant. Once Phish played the Beatles' White Album in its entirety, and fans are still nattering on about it.

Others, and I'm squarely in this camp, think all these hourlong jams run together after a while, fusing into some kind of amorphous musical glob that occasionally rises to brilliance but more often runs tepid. There's something to be said for a catchy, four-minute pop tune.

The stage is about a half-mile directly north of my campground. In between are dozens of Port-O-Lets, vendors selling handblown glass pipes (with prices of up to $250), a medical tent, food stands, a full-size Ferris wheel ($5 a ride), a general store (a six-pack of beer for $8), a post office, and a row of building façades dubbed the Delta. On one side the fake fronts resemble genteel Southern mansions, on the other they look like bayou swamp shacks. The swampy side has a boardwalk running in front of it that leads to a footbridge. The bridge spans a small canal and leads to a grove of cypress trees illuminated from within by flashing red lights. Nearby is a 15-foot sundial and a time capsule dubbed the "Meatstick" after a Phish song of the same name. Fans are encouraged to fill the Meatstick with items that will help future generations figure this whole thing out. Assuming they give a damn 2020 years from now. I throw in a business card. The guy beside me contributes a piece of Nicorette chewing gum. "That'll keep them guessing," he says.

These trippy touches are Phish trademarks. And they keep fans coming back. "Phish put this all up for us," says Angela, no last name, an 18-year-old from Boston. "It's just art. It's fun to look at, and it's fun to play with."

Yes, fun. But is there deeper significance to it all? With the façades, for example, is the band challenging our assumptions of permanence? Are they asking us to examine the socioeconomic stratification of the South? Are they just messing with the heads of kids who've been up all night on X pounding out trance-inducing rhythms in scattered drum circles?

Ashley doesn't know. But she thinks it's cool that the production company hired Phish fans to come down here and build the sets. "Two weeks before the show, they started," she says, twirling her long brown hair between thumb and forefinger. "You got free airfare, three meals a day, and a shower."

Her friend Jake, no last name, 19, also from Boston, doesn't know either. But he has seen Phish 19 times this year, quitting jobs when necessary to follow the band. "Right now I'm a busboy."

Jake begins to explain how every Phish show is different, how it's possible to see dozens in a year yet never the same one twice, when Ashley cuts him off. "Oh my God!" she screams. "They're stepping on the rock garden! They shouldn't be stepping on the rock garden."

The rock garden is a formless pile of stones that people have assembled under the sundial. I point out that rocks are difficult to damage and that a spontaneous act such as traipsing around on them might result in a new arrangement every bit as artistically valid as the one it replaced. Performance art.

"I can't believe they're doing that," she says.

By now I've missed the band's first set entirely. They're scheduled to play twice tonight and twice tomorrow, finishing out the concert with a marathon seven-hour jam from midnight to dusk New Year's Eve. In all, some 14 hours of music.

I witness maybe 20 minutes of it. About an hour before every set a tide of humanity surges from the campgrounds to the stage area. At the end of each set, the tide flows the other way. But I'm slow on the uptake and dawdle along the way, preferring the surreal scene in the general area to a square foot of space on a blanket listening to the band. By the time I get to the main stage area and start working my way forward, the sets always seem to be just ending. That leaves me parting a sea of bare-chested men in dirty dungarees; bare-chested women with their breasts painted red, white, and blue; and out-and-out freaks in Dr. Seuss hats three feet tall.

Everybody is white, and eerily docile. They smile but don't laugh. They talk quietly in groups of three or four. They don't push or shove. It's unnerving. Night of the living heads.

Friday, December 31, 4:20 a.m.

Crash and Burn are home. From inside my tent a few feet from their car, I bear witness to their noisy, destructive return.

Crash has done too much X, and his keys are missing. But he's not freaking out about it.

"Dude, maybe your keys fell out when you were dancing on top of that RV," says Burn.

"Fucking shit," he replies.

"Maybe they're in the cooler," she says.

So he rummages through the Coleman. No keys, but he does come up with something that may work just as well at getting the car open: an empty Bud longneck. "What do you think it would take to break a window?" he asks rhetorically. Then he starts beating on the passenger side window with the bottle, which breaks before the window does. "Shit."

Next he tries the trunk, which doesn't latch anyway since the last time he locked his keys in the car and had to break in by prying the trunk open and kicking down the back seat. He manages to squeeze his skinny frame through the divide between the trunk and the back seat and pop open the back door.

Burn is grateful. "I'm going to get naked now," she announces. Then she opens the door and falls asleep on the seat with all her clothes on.

But Crash is too wired to sleep. He retrieves his boom box from the trunk and cranks up the Beastie Boys. The tinny speakers are overwhelmed by "Fight For Your Right to Party." By the time he works through his tapes to "Sabotage," I'm dressed and on my way back to the concert grounds. Crash is sitting on his trunk, sweatshirt hood pulled tight over his head against the 50-degree morning air. He's hunched over, rocking back and forth to the music.

5 a.m.

When Armageddon comes and cities are swallowed whole by great fiery rents in the earth, the stragglers who remain will look a lot like predawn Phish fans.

Along the Front there's a guy picking out a stoner rendition of what sounds like an Appalachian mountain tune on a banjo. His audience divides its attention between the music and hits off black balloons of nitrous oxide filled for $5 each from a nearby tank. Just down the road a rave is in full bloom.

A few food booths have been open all night. At one of them, a young woman wearing a filthy apron and a tam is heaping runny scrambled eggs and cold bacon on a kaiser bun. She stumbles around the greasy grills and can barely keep her eyes open. "Pork products," she says, handing me a sandwich. "Disgusting."

Hippies are crashed on the faux porches of the faux Western street, sacked out in the dirt near the cypress grove, and sleeping on stools at a coffee bar. One guy is stretched out in the grass near the now-dark Ferris wheel, contemplatively smoking a joint.

Steve Shaughnessy, 22, from Minneapolis, and his friend Caleb Getz, 20, Fargo, drove 26 hours to get to Alligator Alley. Then they sat in their car on Alligator Alley for another 14 hours to get into the campground Thursday afternoon. They haven't slept since. Getz surveys the predawn scene and smiles. "Look at this whole atmosphere that [Phish] has created," he says. "They bring all these people here. Everybody loves it. Nobody gets mad. It's great."

Shaughnessy is dressed like a nice young man from next door -- jeans, sweater, sensible shoes. His hair is cropped short. This is his first Phish concert, and he's totally sold. "The Dead drew this kind of crowd," he says. "But this is a whole different generation. Everybody is good to everybody else. Everything is hugs and kisses, organically grown."

There is an undeniable vibe in this place, a certain ease in the air. This is a big crowd, some 80,000-plus people in 50,000 vehicles. But it's a well-behaved mob. Seminole Police Chief Thomas Hernan confirms that after the show. "The crowd never got out of control," says Hernan. "In fact, when my officers would approach people in the campgrounds, people would come up and want a group hug with the officers. It was amazing. Law-enforcement officers don't see that happen very often."

Seminole police made only three arrests: one person tried to blow through the ticket booths and ran into a ditch; one person stole a small utility vehicle used by medics; and one person was drunk and disorderly. Civilian security personnel handled small problems that cropped up inside the campground, while police stayed out of sight, ready to come in should the need arise.

Hernan took a refreshing live-and-let-live approach to law enforcement. It's just as illegal to possess drugs on Seminole lands as it is in downtown Fort Lauderdale, he says, but he wasn't about to bust heads over someone smoking a joint. "I'm not going to go invading someone's life unless they draw attention to it," he says.

6:20 a.m.

The field hospital is located due north of the campgrounds in a bunkhouse on the tribal rodeo grounds. For the three days Phish is playing, it's the busiest emergency room in Hendry County, says Dr. Joe Nelson, the physician in charge this morning. "We've seen lacerations, burns, a lot of things you would associate with camping."

Asthma has been a big problem because of the dust and the cold night air. And medics have dealt with their fair share of overdoses. Mostly mushrooms, for some reason.

Near the hospital, a shrewish, haggard-looking woman is marshaling the day's temp security workers. She's handing out yellow shirts and pleading with the ragtag crew to stick around and finish the job. "I know you want to have fun out there, but you've got to show up tomorrow, OK? According to the contract you signed, if you don't show up, you've worked for nothing."

As the workers turn to leave, another supervisor gives a last bit of advice. "Everybody know what today is?" the man asks. "It's the 31st. We have to be very careful. The kids are going to do as many drugs as they can. We have to ensure their safety and be proactive. This is the most important day of the show."

11:10 a.m.

Crash staggers from the back seat, stands unsteadily on his feet for a minute or two, then falls back on top of Burn in the back seat.

12:15 p.m.

Crash re-emerges, strips off his sweater, and sits on the trunk wiping his bleary eyes in the hot sunshine. "I'm sorry about last night," he says to me. "I was just really fucked up." He lights a cigarette, then rummages through his cooler. This time he comes up with a full bottle of champagne. He pops the cork. "Get up, goddammit, it's New Year's," he yells at Burn, who has moved from the back seat to a sunny spot in the grass.

She raises her head and manages a smile. Her eyelids look like they weigh a pound each. "Yeah," she says, her voice hoarse and cracking. "We're going for a spaceship ride tonight." Her head falls back to the blanket.

"Lazy ass," he says.

As Crash works his way through another bottle of champagne, a couple joints, and a few beers, he gets talkative. It turns out he's an independent film producer whose claim to fame is a documentary about an Indian reservation in South Dakota. He's also a poet. He recites a few lines:

Mad meaning makes

Misery and masturbation

Mischievous mishaps

Living a lifetime of sin in a night

By late afternoon he's out of his skull again. He apologizes once more for assaulting his own car with a beer bottle, then hugs the poor Sable to prove how much he loves it. "This thing is tough," he shouts. And to prove it, he starts kicking the doors as hard as he can. "Tough! Tough! Tough!" It's a pathetic, yet oddly hilarious, display. The more I laugh, the harder he kicks. "Tough!"

Burn, meanwhile, has a good buzz on too. She's stumbling, laughing, falling down. After dark all three of us head for the show together. But Crash and Burn are so wasted they can't maintain any kind of pace at all. She falls to her knees at the Port-O-Lets, and I walk on. Their company has grown stale.

In fact the whole scene has grown stale, and the peace-and-love thing has also worn threadbare. When the numbers come in, Big Cypress will prove to be the country's top-grossing New Year's Eve concert. According to Amusement Business magazine, Phish will pocket $11.6 million for two days' work. Despite guitarist Trey Anastasio's peace-and-love message beamed round the world via ABC-TV, this show is all about the bread.

December 31, near midnight

Phish cruises through the chock-a-block crowd to the stage in a giant hot dog, a reprisal of their 1994 New Year's show, during which they flew over the crowd in the same prop. Once on stage they tear through "Auld Lang Syne," then launch into a seven-hour jam.

At least that's what I understand went down. I wasn't there. I left before the clock struck 12, just as the love started flowing and the vibe got going. Just when the spinning, patchouli-soaked crowd was coming to the realization that they were having a peak experience. Or maybe they were just peaking.


Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address:

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Bob Whitby