Night of the Living Heads

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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?

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Bob Whitby