Friday, July 17, 2009

Happy Oswegoversary!

Reflections on Phish’s two-day summer festival and my 22nd birthday
In July 1999, I was living near my hometown in central New Jersey, working at a local Italian restaurant owned by two brothers from Queens, just before my last year of college. Phish was doing a summer tour and had conveniently scheduled a festival on July 17 and 18 (my birthday) at the Volney Airport in the upstate New York town of Oswego. Not really knowing many Phishheads, I ordered a ticket online and waited for the day to come, figuring I’d drive my aging Toyota Camry up for the event and see what adventures befell me. I was about to turn 22, and I was up for pretty much anything.
As the day approached, my friend Amy grew incredulous. “Joy,” she said, “You are not going to this festival alone.” She had a friend who was driving as part of a caravan going up to the shows. His name was Alex, and I would meet him the night we left town, at the show on the 16th at the Garden State Arts Center, in my neck of the woods, where Phish was also conveniently stopping right before the festival. (OK, it was called the PNC Bank Arts Center, but, to me and many others from in and around central Jersey, it will always be the Garden State Arts Center, thank you very much!)

All I knew about Alex was that he was going to be wearing a green shirt. I was to meet him at Will Call at 6:30 before the show. He was there, and prompt. We made plans to hightail it out after the show, and went into the venue.
That night, Phish played a great show where I danced all night up on the lawn. A highlight was the beautifully executed trifecta of “Mike’s Songà”I Am Hydrogen”àWeekapaug Groove” during the second set. Trey and Page, the guitarist and keyboardist, are from New Jersey and mentioned, for the encore, that “the greatest songwriter of all time” was coming out to join the band. They busted into “Born to Run,” the unofficial NJ state anthem.
Now, you have to know that The Boss, Bruce Springstein, was in the area for two weeks as part of the E Street reunion tour, so he was on everybody’s radar. When the dancing guy in the blue jeans, white t-shirt, and red baseball hat came out dancing, there were a few moments of disbelief…alas, no; it was Tom Marshall, the band’s lyricist, but the place was going absolutely nuts. A great start to the run. Alex followed me back to my mom’s house where I dropped off my car and hopped in his passenger seat. And away we went.
We drove through the night in a caravan of two other vehicles, arriving at Oswego sometime in the morning. The sky was bright blue, there were fields and forests, and the congestion of the suburbs was becoming a distant memory. And then we hit the traffic jam.
But as we were all just kind of sitting there, inching forward in our cars, everyone made the best of it. Shut the engines off, everyone—party by the side of the road! People were walking through the cars, selling food, looking for tickets, playing guitars. Alex and I got to know each other and had more than a few laughs on that trip, even though I caused us a slight delay at one point. Of course, I got out to relieve myself in the forest just moments before the traffic moved forward substantially, and poor Alex was stuck, waiting for me, getting passed by car after car!
The heat that day was over one hundred degrees. And our campsite was on gravel, next to an unusually large pile of rocks. But, I knew, as I stood atop that rock pile, seeing all the cars and tents stretched as far as I could see, and seeing that the older couple next to us in the Volkswagen minibus had planted a Grateful Dead dancing bear flag atop that pile of rocks, that I was going to have the best birthday a girl could have.

View from pile o'rocks
I had been to shows before, but it was my first Phish festival. The first time I saw the massive gathering on the airstrip of thousands of people selling, trading, partying, smiling (plus, it was summer and I was a sucker for skinny hippie boys with no shirts). Phish threw an enormous party, with two sets each day, and one each night. I don’t remember much about the 17th, but the 18th was a day I will never forget. I tore off the mental seatbelt and hurtled headfirst into the moments as they unfolded the rest of that afternoon.
Somehow, we managed to make it pretty close to the stage, by festival standards. Phish’s first set was lighthearted and fun, with “Farmhouse,” “Water in the Sky,” and “Bathtub Gun.” Then, they brought out bluegrass legend Del McCoury for “Back on the Train,” “If You Need a Fool,” “I’m Blue I’m Lonesome,” and “Beauty of My Dreams.” I’d never seen thousands of people high-steppin’ it to bluegrass with abandon before, let alone in the middle of an airstrip in a rural setting. There was joy, there was laughter, there were more than a few do-si-dos.
During the second set, the band played “The Meatstick,” which, for those of you who don’t know, think a large group dance like “Macarena” slowed down about a gazillion times so a bunch of stoners can follow along with the hand motions. Trey announced that we would be trying to achieve a Guinness World Record for “Largest Group Dance,” and that someone was on hand to document the event. So, there we all were, sixty thousand otherwise fully functional individuals, dancing choreographed motions to a song with these lyrics:
Time for the Meatstick
Bury the Meatstick
Take out the Meatstick Time
Woah, shocks my brain
Woah, shocks my brain!
Classic Phish. Apparently, however, the record was not set, we discovered later. Not for lack of trying, however. Not for lack of trying.
The last set that night was one of the stranger Phish experiences I’ve had before or since. Trey set an ominous vibe with “Wilson,” which, for the uninitiated, involves a few bass beats, followed by a second of silence, before the darkened crowd calls, simultaneously, “Wiiillll-son!” Rinse, lather, repeat. Add eerie chills as Chris Kuroda, lighting engineer, scours the crowd with multiple searchlights. The “Catapult” that followed was just downright evil—in the best way possible, of course. Then, during “Icculus,” Trey exhibited some manic behavior and I remember him at one point pounding on the keys with Page, screaming the lyrics, “Read the f-ing book!” while oscillating between “Smoke on the Water” and “Cat Scratch Fever” teases, trying to determine whether they were, indeed, the same song (think about it….right??) The night ended with “Quinn the Eskimo,” “Fluffhead,” and a “Harry Hood” encore. We headed back to the campsites, where the party would be in full swing for the rest of the night.
I don’t think I got much sleep that night, wandering from party to party in the parking lot. Campfires, drum circles, and the all-night strobe disco bus parties took most of my attention for the next several hours. By the time the sun came up, I was ready to get my few hours of sleep before the sun heated the pile of rocks to the point where my tent would become unbearable. Later in the day, we were some of the last people to leave the camp area, trying to squeeze as much from the weekend as possible.

Some fans practicing "Meatstick" hand motions
As we hit the first gas station on our way out of that farm town, I was reality-checked back to real life. The front page of the newspaper on July 19 read, “JFK, JR. DIES IN PLANE CRASH.” I had to read the thing a few times before it sank in.
And so for the rest of my life, I will remember my 22nd birthday with heartfelt fondness, but also an intense awareness of life and death and a newfound appreciation for love and friendship.
Alex and his friends, who were strangers to me one moment, took me into their group and made me feel like family.
Phish's versatility as musicians was beyond my realm of comprehension. At that point, I knew I knew had found a band that would never stop surprising me--and they never have.
The world took on a new glow for me after Oswego. I knew what it felt like to follow my heart.


David said...

Joy!! This is Alex's friend Dave (The Wizard). Great write up. If you have any more pics I'd love to see them. What a weekend that was for me too.

Anonymous said...

Dave!!! These, unfortunately, are the only photos I have of that weekend. Who knows if there were more or what I did with them. I'd love to hear your remembrances of that show. Thanks for commenting!

David said...

I just saw your response today. I too wrote a story about this weekend back in 2006. It was geared more towards the guys even though you are in there for a bit. I can send it to you but don't have your email address. Email me at and I can send it to you.