Just over two years ago, the late, great writer and comedian Harris Wittels died at the tragically young age of 30. (If you’ve never heard of Wittels, this recent Guardian story is a good primer.) Today, Wittels would’ve turned 33 — to mark the occasion, his sister Stephanie has organized Harris Phest, a comedy and music festival in their hometown of Houston.
The occasion also seems like a good excuse to a share a story about my brief but memorable encounter with Wittels.
In 2013, I was a writer for Grantland working on a story about the polarizing jam band Phish. Wittels was among Phish’s most famous fans — sorry, I mean “phans.” He was the co-host of the very funny and insightful podcast Analyze Phish, in which Wittels would try (with little success) to convert his skeptical friend, the comedian Scott Aukerman, into a Phish follower. While Wittels was self-deprecating about his devotion to his favorite band — he even played a dopey stoner in a Phish T-shirt on Parks and Recreation, a thinly disguised version of himself — he was also earnest and unapologetic when it came to one of the great loves of his life. When I somehow found myself becoming a Phish fan after years of blithely dismissing them, I found Wittels’ unironic sincerity in the face of widespread derision endearing, even inspiring.
I thought it would be great to get a quote from Wittels for my story, so I fired off a quick email that posed two questions: 1) Why do you think Phish is so despised by “outsiders”?; 2) What makes Phish a great band?
I assumed Wittels would fire off a pithy response, if he responded at all, and that would be it. Honestly, all I needed was one witty quote. But Wittels had other ideas — he instead wrote an achingly heartfelt defense of his favorite band that went on for 600 words. I loved it, but it was way more than I needed. Wittels had essentially written his own Phish article. Ultimately, the only quote I used came from a follow-up email in which I asked if he’d ever had any success with turning non-believers into Phish fans.
“Only with girlfriends,” Wittels replied. “Semi-successful, but I don’t think any of them are listening to Phish in the car or anything.”
For Wittels’ birthday, I thought it might be nice to finally share that 600-word email about Phish. The man is gone, but maybe Wittels’ words can finally turn somebody around on his favorite band.
here are my thoughts on your questions:
1) I think we live in a culture in which group mind rules all. We also live in a very stubborn culture and once the group decides its opinion about certain things, it’s hard to reverse course. Britney Spears will always be crazy. Dane Cook will always be a hacky jock comedian. The short-lived show Outsourced will always be racist. But if you look at those things closely, Britney is kinda good again. Dane Cook has some very funny jokes and Outsourced wasn’t as bad as people wanted it to be.
“Phish is a dirty hippy band.” It’s an easy sentence to say to someone at a party to establish common ground. People want to fit in. And to fit in to the cool hipster community, that is the opinion you must have on Phish. But those same people would like Phish if they let their guard down. Those same cool hipsters like Velvet Underground and The Talking Heads and the Beatles. Phish not only pulls its influences from those very bands, but literally plays those bands’ songs on a nightly basis. Personally, I don’t give a shit if Phish gets mainstream acceptance. In fact, I hope it never happens; it’s hard enough to get tickets to shows as is. I would hate to see what would happen if a million more people tried to get in to shows. Luckily it will never happen. People are too stubborn, too cool, too blah. It’s their loss. Phish is a great band to go see with your friends and get fucked up (or stay sober) and dance like an idiot and have the time of your life without judgement.
Also, The Dead had the privilege of living in a time before music blogs, before ravenous internet group-think.
2) Why is Phish the greatest band? For me, Phish is the most fun band on the planet to be obsessed with. They fill that part of the brain that most people reserve for sports stats or Star Wars knowledge. They have a never-ending mythology that you can spend your whole life learning about. They have played a different setlist every show for 30 years, which you can study like a mathematician or methodical serial killer.
Musically, they are four virtuosos who came together against all probability. It’s so insane that these particular four men found each other in 1982 (Page a couple years later). All with their own skillset and taste in music. They combined to form a band that has something for everyone. You like funk? Listen to “Ghost” (I suggest 11-17-97). You want rock? Listen to Carini (I suggest 6-14-00). You want a catchy pop song? listen to “Bouncin around the Room.” Or do you want all of those genres combined? Listen to pretty much any “Fluffhead” or “Harry Hood.”
Phish is a band that anyone can and should be into. They have mastered their instruments and mastered every genre you can possibly play with those instruments.
There is no greater feeling on earth than the lights going down at a Phish show. Because you have no idea what the fuck you are in for. Maybe they’ll play an 8 hour set until sunrise like 12-31-99. Or maybe they’ll play Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon like they did on 11-2-98. Or maybe they’ll fly over the crowd in a giant hot dog like they have done on two occasions.
Once the lights go down, you’re hoping that this will be “the perfect show.” But truth is, they’re all perfect, because they are all a piece in the gigantic, ever-expanding puzzle that is… Phish.