Friday, February 21, 2020
Phish Tales: A Rock Legend on the Importance of Being Kind

Photography by Matthew Bourgeois

Phish Tales: A Rock Legend on the Importance of Being Kind

The middle school boy stood patiently in line, and then he stood face-to-face with his hero, one of the most iconic drummers in rock history. He froze. Jon Fishman gave him a big smile and asked his name. 

The kid gathered every ounce of courage and whispered, “Would you autograph my drumsticks?” 

Fishman had a condition, “I will, but only if you autograph mine.” The boy’s face lit up, fear gone, and suddenly it was just two drummers talking about their love of music.

Performers deal with fame in many ways. For Fishman, the answer is now obvious: Just be kind. And like all fish tales, the story of how that came to be is a good one.

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Born and raised in Syracuse, New York, Jon attended the University of Vermont right out of high school. Of all the colleges he could have attended, it almost seems fated that he would select the same school as his future bandmates. Had he attended Champlain College, also in Burlington, Phish might never have had its “once upon a time” moment. 

“Two months into being on campus, I was practicing my drums in my dorm room when Trey [Anastasio] walked in and said, ‘Oh my god, it’s you!’ which was funny because I didn’t know him and I didn’t know how he knew me.”

Apparently, Trey and his friend had been sitting on the library steps during orientation week. As students walked by, they created fictional backstories of why each person was there. “A girl would walk by and they’d say, ‘oh she’s here to go to med school.’ A guy would walk by, and they’d say, ‘he’s here to play hockey.’ They would just make up stories. Apparently, I walked by, and they were just on the floor laughing. ‘That guy doesn’t belong here. At all.’”

“It turned out they were absolutely right,” he recalled. “Neither Trey nor I belonged there - other than to meet, I guess.”

After showing up in Jon’s dorm room, Trey went to grab his amp and guitar and brought his friend Jeff Holdsworth over as well. 

“We just immediately started playing. We never even had any conversations about ‘what kind of music do you like?’” They didn’t even bother to introduce themselves until they had been playing for some time that day.

Shortly thereafter, Trey started hanging up signs around campus looking for a bass player. “He and our bass player Mike [Gordon] met at the same pole hanging up signs. Mike had signs looking for a band.”

Mike had a formal musical education, while Trey had been writing songs since the eighth grade. With fate on their side and the basics in place, Phish was born.

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Jon lives by the Dizzy Gillespie quote, “The only thing I take seriously is music; the rest is up for grabs.” He performs in dresses or his birthday suit and is known for his ability to turn an Electrolux into a musical instrument. With such a larger-than-life personality, it might seem that fame would come easily. In fact, it was a skill that had to be learned.

Phish had always been disciplined about preserving their unique identity and sound, about not sounding too much like other bands. For that reason, one could forgive them for distancing themselves from the Grateful Dead, with whom they were closely associated in the public eye. In fact, they consciously chose not to play Dead songs for roughly two decades.

“I remember the exact moment it happened. We were playing at a venue in Burlington sometime between ‘86 and ‘88; there were probably five people in the room. And there’s this guy. He’s fucking huge, like this bear of a man. The stage was about a foot high and incredibly small. That whole set, regardless of what we were playing, that guy was standing right in front of Trey just screaming, ‘Jerry! Jerry!’ The guy was high and screaming Jerry Garcia’s name in Trey’s face. Trey was so fucking mad.”

Jon laughs while recalling the story. “So we get off the stage, and Trey is fuming. He goes ‘That’s it! We are never playing another Grateful Dead song as long as we live. Never.’” 

Thirty years later, in 2015, they finally broke the ban, for the 20th anniversary of Garcia’s death. They played “Terrapin Station” as an encore. “It was all in honor of this great musician who we loved, one of the most musical guys who ever lived.”

“I’m really glad we did stop playing Grateful Dead songs so we could carve out our own career and be known for our music and be an original band. It felt good to play ‘Terrapin,’ knowing that we can do this now without it being a threat to our own existence.” 

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Garcia, then 53, had died in August 1995, abruptly altering the Grateful Dead. While the band continued to perform without him, many fans began to be drawn to Phish. Both bands were known for their long solo performances and improvisational work, though Phish had its own style and sound.

When Napster came on the market, the Recording Artists Association of America encouraged artists like Metallica to openly and aggressively oppose file-sharing. Jon noticed that a significant percentage of the file shares were Phish songs. While bands were lamenting lost revenue from the direct peer-to-peer file sharing, Jon was finding that Napster had suddenly boosted Phish’s fame. He broke from the industry and became an outspoken advocate for it, much to the chagrin of some of his fellow musicians. It would not be the first time Jon would use his outsized voice to advocate for causes he believes in. As it turned out, Napster made Phish exponentially more famous, and suddenly Jon was recognized everywhere he went.

“I remember going through this period around 1997 where I was just a jerk for like a year because I didn’t know how to deal with a regular flow of people coming up to me. Of course everybody means well, and they’re only saying nice things,” but he still had to find a way to deal with this graciously. “I think psychologically human beings are not cut out for idol worship.”

Some people, he noticed, are good at it. “I remember going out to see Tenacious D at this little theatre in New York City, and David Bowie and Iman came to see the show. I’m just sitting at my little table and in walks Bowie and Iman, and Bowie looked like he was about to go on stage. He was wearing this beautiful white suit, and she had a white dress. Meanwhile, I was wearing my sweatshirt and jeans. But they were coming out to see a band no one had ever heard of, and they were dressed to kill.”

“The thing that struck me, it clicked in my brain – that’s a skill set. He’s good at that. I’m not good at that particularly.”

Around that time, he received a letter from a young fan, Max, who asked if Jon might meet him and his grandfather – legendary author Kurt Vonnegut.

“I don’t remember much of the conversation because the whole time, I was like ‘Oh my god, oh my god, I’m talking with Kurt Vonnegut’ – I was a total groupie! It was a good experience because it put me in the frame of what it must be like for some people when they meet me. I don’t think there’s any big deal about meeting me, but I’ve got to honor the fact that for some people, they’re probably going to have a hard time getting words out, and I need to be nice about that,” Fishman admits.

“I remember being a blubbering idiot talking to Vonnegut, and he was so nice. Finally, I asked: How do you deal with fame?”

Vonnegut looked right at him, “Well... you have to be kind.”

Vonnegut’s grandson would later invite Fishman to do a talent show at his school. While the elder Vonnegut read lines from The Canterbury Tales from memory in Olde English, Jon was onstage running a vacuum. What started as an awkward intersection of prose and cleaning noises turned into a rhythmic comedic routine.

“Weeks later, I get this big box in the mail – a big framed picture. I open it up, and there’s this beautiful piece of art that Vonnegut did because he was getting into silkscreening.” The top had the band name Phish, and on the bottom it read, “Hook, Line and Sinker.” 

In the margin, Vonnegut wrote, “Jonathan, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame asked some of us to do artwork for cover art for real bands for albums that never existed. This was my submission, a silkscreen print, and here’s a copy for you.” The art adorns Fishman’s home today, a constant reminder to just be kind.

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When Phish broke up in 2004, Jon faced a new challenge: What next? 

At roughly 40, he had more than achieved his dreams. “I had 21 great years doing exactly what I wanted to do. All my dreams have come true. Not a lot of people can say that in the course of their entire life, let alone having a lot of life still in front of them.” 

He now had a young family, and he started asking, “What does my wife want to do?” 

Jon’s wife, Briar, had fond childhood memories of a family camp in midcoast Maine. Her dream was to buy a farm and homestead and see how much food they could grow for their kids. Jon knew Maine as a welcoming place, having played in Limestone for many years. They found a farmhouse and settled into Lincolnville where their family continued to grow. A few years later, they purchased the Lincolnville General Store, which Briar runs. 

Their general manager, Dawn, also happened to be the chair of the selectboard in Lincolnville. She joked with him, “Jon, you have a big mouth and a lot of opinions, why don’t you run?” As a strong Bernie Sanders supporter, Jon is passionate and vocal about putting power back into the hands of real people. Fishman now serves on the selectboard, and Briar serves on the school board.

“Part of the process I went through in deciding to run is that I realized that I had not been part of a community since I was 18, other than my band. My band was my community. Phish was rooted in Burlington, but I wasn’t rooted to a location.”

He had purchased houses and was a resident of various Vermont communities, but he never felt grounded in those communities or engaged in them. One of his homes served as the after-party spot for a local venue. While he was on the road, performers like Wu-Tang Clan stayed at his place. Once, he came home late from a long tour and woke up to two adult circus performers casually cooking pancakes in the nude. 

Lincolnville has been different. He and Briar have consciously invested time in the community. Meanwhile, now that most of the band members are parents, the nine-month tours have thinned down to five weeks at a time, including two shows in Boston and two in Bangor this summer. 

In 2016, Maine voters created numerous new laws at the ballot box, only to watch politicians in Augusta repeal one after another. Or, in the case of adult-use marijuana, slow the process down to a snail’s pace. 

While Phish is linked in the public imagination to weed, Jon notes the smoke hurts his lungs. Still, he said, “The idea that human beings would look at a plant that’s been growing for millions of years before we existed and go ‘that’s illegal’ – that to me is a form of insanity.” 

Another referendum, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), was essentially repealed by lawmakers just as Maine’s gubernatorial race was heating up. Jon’s face lights up when he talks about the election reform, which allows voters to rank their candidates in order of preference, operating as an instant runoff. 

“Ranked choice voting is a more democratic way of voting, which gives more power back to the individual voter ... It is a more neutral, more unbiased way of voting, which puts more voice and power back into each individual voter’s hands. It is a unifying force.”

After lawmakers repealed the people’s referendum instituting RCV, Jon stepped up to help with the people’s veto to block the legislative repeal. The weather got too frigid for the signature collectors’ pens to work, so Jon hosted a jam session in Portland. Phish fans lined up to sign petitions while Jon extolled RCV’s impact and importance between sets. That boost helped get RCV back on the ballot, where Mainers overwhelmingly voted to protect it for primaries and federal elections.

That night was also the chance of a lifetime for one boy who went home with an autographed pair of drumsticks and a huge Phish tale about how his favorite drummer had been kind enough to ask for his autograph.


Diane Russell is a former state lawmaker who built and shepherded the movements to legalize marijuana and create Ranked Choice Voting in Maine. She serves as the Editor of the Maine Cannabis Chronicle.