The Duality of Jon Fishman

The unique combination of stunning musicianship and silly humor that vaulted Phish to their iconic place in music history was fully embodied, all along, by their dress-clad drummer, Jon Fishman.  This dichotomy that popularized Phish can be readily illustrated by the multiple roles played by “Henrietta.”  While spending most of any given show providing the adhesive for Phish’s extra-terrestrial jamming, Fishman was just as well known for his onstage antics, tongue-in-cheek covers songs, and Electrolux vacuum solos.  A central factor in defining Phishiness, “The Greasy Troll” was both the foundation for cosmic travel and a stand-up comedian all at the same time.

hamptonphish_18_74Too often overshadowed by his zany stage presence, Fishman is a drummer to be reckoned with.  Allowing his silly persona to permeate the Phish community, Fishman could just as easily lay it down for an established jazz trio, or just about any other musical ensemble.  His versatility behind the kit was a central reason Phish explored so many musical feels, while his sub-conscious communication with Gordon consistently created one of the tightest rhythmic pockets in the business.  Trey’s Jedi guitar chops and Page’s virtuoso playing could only go so far without their cornerstone.  Yet, what was special about Fishman, was his ability to improvise and communicate with multiple band members at once.  While always glued to Gordon, Fish consistently echoed Trey, toying with, and mimicking his guitar patterns.  This dynamic created enhanced textures in which the beats not only provided the backbone for the melody, but complemented it as well.  Resulting in an extremely active musical motion, we have come to love this musical interplay, and take it for granted as Phish improv.  Fusing elements of  jazz, rock, breakbeats, funk and beyond- Fishman carved out a personal niche for himself in the drumming world.

p000056686It was not always how infectious his beats were- and they most always were- but the delicacy in which he played them.  His subtle layers of shimmering cymbals at the onset of a Slave jam; his gentle textures in the ambient intro to YEM; his precise poly-rhythms of  “Limb By Limb” or his accented grooves amidst so many “Reba”s illustrate a sophisticated, yet precise side to his playing.  While his driving groovier beats in Mike’s, Split Open, or “Tube” jams show another side of his immense talent.  Fish’s drumming is part and parcel with the dance-based experience we call Phish, and his playing is integral to our esoteric journeys.

In addition to his drumming prowess, Fishman also scribed some Phishy classics.  He is responsible for “My Sweet One,” “Kung,” “Lengthwise,” “Ha Ha Ha,” “Faht,” and “Bye Bye Foot,” while writing the lyrics to “Gumbo” and “Rock A William.” (He also co-wrote “Harpua,” “Tube,” and “Dog-Faced Boy.”) Yet, what Fishman will always be known for is not his songwriting, but his absurd on-stage antics.

10.31.95 - End of Quadrophenia

10.31.95 - End of Quadrophenia

While holding the music together with determined efficiency, his humor spiced up shows throughout Phish’s career.  His appearance, alone,  illustrated Phish’s more wacky side.  The guy rocked a dress commando- not just once, but for twenty years!  Minus some time in ’97, with his black Italian suit, this has been one of the constants in Phish’s career- their drummer wore a dress.  The drummer’s wardrobe was one of the first things that suggested to you that this was not your normal rock band.  The dress brought intrigue to that goggled monster ripping the smoothest beats you’d ever heard.

0145051What made Fish so amusing, was his ability to be serious and absolutely joking at the same time.  Throughout the band’s career, during intense jams, Fish was known for letting out howls, cat-calls, phrases, and other mutterings that signified that the band was raging.  Whether it be the midst of a ’94 Antelope or thick in the 12.30.97 “Black-Eyed Katy,” when Fish was feeling it, he let you know.

The veritable class clown of the band, Phish always made room for the late second-set Fishman Song.  Generally used as comic relief from heavy improv, these cover songs were also a gimmick that new fans walked away from the show talking about.  “Remember when the drummer with a dress came out and sang ‘Purple Rain’ like a beluga whale?”  Always introduced with the ’70’s anthems of Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up” or Foreigner’s  “Cold As Ice,” Fishman songs were his own little comedy act.  Singing a wide spectrum of classics over the years, from Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” to Syd Barret’s “Bike” and Neil Diamond’s “Crackin’ Rosie,” Fish took these compositions quasi-seriously in providing the audience with some genuine laughs.  After a bunch of shows, these interludes certainly lost their novelty (for me), but as always, Phish wasn’t just playing to one person.  Often accompanied by several laps sprinted around the stage in celebration of his song, you couldn’t help but laugh at him while high on anything.

038In Fish’s most acclaimed stunts, he would take individual solos on an Electrolux vacuum cleaner.  Admittedly a large proponent of psychedelics in his adolescence, I can only imagine an 18-year-old Fishman, tripping balls in his dorm room, perfecting the art of sucking and blowing into a vacuum cleaner for hours on end.  However over-the top they were, he always received huge ovations for his novelty contributions to the show. And every now and again, he actually got a nice little vacuum groove going.

A jester who approaches music with a self-avowed “religious attitude” and a drummer who jokes around as part of his job, Jon Fishman defines the ethos of his band.  Playing music with a humble determination and reverence, while never taking himself too seriously, Fish seeks uplift the spirits of his audience.  While sharing a playful nature with the rest of his band members, Fish is no doubt the clown-prince of the entire community.

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“Love You > HYHU”  4.29.1990, Woodbury, CT                           (ABSURD Footage!)

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NICKNAMES: Some of the more absurd nicknames Trey has dubbed Fishman over the years are:  Norton Charlton Heston (10.25 & 11.2.96), Luke Skywalker (12/29/94), Bob Weaver (Summer ’98), Tubbs the Beast Boy (11.19.92), Sneezeblood Eyeball (6.13.95),  The Yo Yo Ma of Vacuum Cleaners (4.17.92), Moses Yastrzemski (2.7.89), Hankrietta; The Hardest Man in Show Business (11.13.91), Sammy Hagar the Horrible Horn Section (11.13.98).  The name of his alter ego for the night was always a slice of humor in its own right. (Thx to The Phish Companion)

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INTERVIEW: Here is a great interview with Fishman from July 11, 1996.  In it, he discusses his love for Bob Marley, his teen-aged habit of taking two tabs of acid at 5 am so he would wake up at 7:30 ready for school, and Phish’s approach to music.  (Some nuggets of info were taken from the interview for my post.)

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DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:

12.11.95 Cumberland County Civic Center, Portland ME < LINK

port2585Keeping it real with December ’95, we have Phish’s second visit to the intimate Civic Center in Portland.  Busting out “Dog Log” for the first time since ’93, Trey led the crowd in diverse renditions, claiming they were recording them for a forthcoming “Dog Log” album.  Balancing their humor with ferocious jams, this show features standout versions of “Stash,” “Reba,” “The Curtain > David Bowie,” and “Harry Hood.”  Warren Haynes joins the band for “Funky Bitch” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” to close this chilly night in Maine.

I: My Friend My Friend, Ha Ha Ha, Stash, Prince Caspian, Reba, Dog Log#, Llama, Dog Log*, Tube^, McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters, Julius, Cavern

II: The Curtain > David Bowie, The Mango Song > Fog That Surrounds, Scent of a Mule, Harry Hood, Suspicious Minds > HYHU, Funky Bitch**

E: While My Guitar Gently Weeps**

#Trey explains that they are supposedly making an album of a bunch of “Dog Log”s and they need the audience to help make different versions.  *Lounge-lizard style, along with high pitched screaming on command. ^In thanks to audience for helping with the “Dog Log” album.  **With Warren Haynes on guitar

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I received an overwhelming number of requests for shows yesterday, have started a list, and will get to all of them.  (Today is the first!)

One favor, when requesting particular shows, please email me at mrminer@phishthoughts.com, rather than post requests to Comments.  I will be able to keep track of your requests much more easily, and we can keep the comments for discussion. Thanks!

-Miner

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24 Responses to “The Duality of Jon Fishman”

  1. John Campion Says:

    Regarding Fish…..not only is he an amazing talent behind the kit, but he actually has a really really really good singing voice. Simple example is Sweet Adeline. He is front and center durring that song and belts out the ending. Glad you mentioned the fact that when Fish is feeling it durring a jam he lets out a “yelp”. Always love that!! One thing I wish he would bring back is the green drum kit from the 90’s (I know he sold all the parts to it in 2004/2005)But his drum sound changed when he went to that smaller black kit. In one mans opinion, i liked the sound of the bigger kit. Anyway, thanks for hitting on the Fishman topic.
    P.S. At Great Woods 2004…..I voted “YEY” for the Fishman tunes.

  2. The Fishman of novelty vs. one of the best drummers in the last 20 years? In the beginning, I loved the novelty. My personal favorite Fish moment(s) was Deercreek 7-25-99. His first set birthday wish to Kuroda was hilarious, and his Purple Rain bustout in the 2nd set was so fun (even if he forgot the lyrics). His drumming, particularly during Bowie, has always been a thing of wonder to me. I can’t imagine another drummer being able to cover so many genres of music in one night, and do it so fluidly. His goofy stuff eventually, I believe, wore thin at the 2004 Vegas show with the failure of the musical body suit thing. While I will love the rare Fish vaccum solo, I prefer the drummer part more.

    Oh, I guess a close second Fish moment was the 11-7-96 Lexington, KY show. Out of a HUGE Gin, Fish busted out Bike thanks to my friend in college who had made a Bike sign and was front row. Trey said “We’ll let Fish out of the penalty box”. Classic!

  3. I judge fish by his liver. And by the looks of it, thats definately the liver of a great drummer.

  4. ^^^I’m not sure I agree about Fish having a good voice. You can disguise, or blend, a voice within a barbershop ensemble. Fish on his own is not good. It’s Phishy, and fitting in the context, but held to true scrutiny, it’s not a good signing voice. See Bye Bye Foot. A nice song, but it was his attempt at a somewhat serious song that was quickly shelved because his voice couldn’t meet the demand.

  5. Joe England Says:

    ^Jeff that 10-27-95 Wing Stadium show(your 3rd my first) had this goofy drummer come out in a cape and sing Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” to end the first set if you remember. Needless to say along with the rest of the night it was that stunt that made me feel like I was at an event more just another rock concert.

  6. What, no touching on his occassional penchant for on-stage nudity? I guess that’s not really all that unusual for drummer though. They’re a strange breed. The goaltenders of the rock ‘n’ roll world.

  7. It wasn’t until the 2/28/03 show that I truly respected Fishman’s drumming capabilities. Granted my co-pilot for the evening handing me a tiny piece of paper prior to the night’s event, but I never seen Fishman drum like that. In due part to our seats being behind stage. Typically, I’ve always watched/listened from in front of the stage. From that vantage point one dosn’t get a true look at how and what the drummer is hitting. Usually it is Mike and Trey where you get to watch their movements. Even Page’s hands are hidden from sight due to the instrument. But with the seats we had in Uniondale looking down and from behind I saw him move. And he moved! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always had an appreciation for his drumming based on what I listened and how he can play just about anything genre-wise, but to see the man move was impressive.

  8. I’m cool with all of Fish’s hi-jinx, mainly because it showed me he was having a good time. It was always important to me that the band was having fun, or it seemed like we shouldn’t be. I was never much of a fan of his songs though. But as memorable as his antics are, it’s his drumming that I think is the more remarkable.

    Maybe the most impressive thing about Fish’s drumming to me is the originality of his beats. Very few of his beats remain within a classical framework. Especially earlier work that was less groove based (think Foam, Maze). And even with songs that are in a standard time signature, he’s throwing a polyrhythm over it. Also, his ability to mimic Trey’s guitar rhythm is phenomenal. I love when they go back and forth.

  9. I met Fish once when he was playing with Jazz Mandolin Project at The Terrace in Madison. When I shook his hand, I was amazed at how soft and baby-like his hands were. Not the type of hands you would expect from such a versatile and prolific drummer.

  10. Oh yeah, especially in light of bhizzle’s comment – you have to actually watch him play to truly appreciate everything he’s doing. Simply listening you can take for granted the number of sounds he’s producing. I had the opportunity to sit about 15 feet above and 3 feet behind him on the side balcony at the Lucerna in Prague ’98. I spent the entire show just watching him and it was one of my favorite Phish experiences.

  11. Trey also has called him “Russel Crowe” and when he did I must say that I lost it.

  12. R1 – our seats in Uniondale were some of the best I’ve ever had. We were real close to the stage. We saw a good portion of what everybody on stage was doing. We saw Mike wanting to meet everyone walking to and from stage. And when the lights went down and the glow sticks were flying, we saw them all, in triplicate thanks to the paper. However, i must say I’m not a big phan of glowsticks getting on stage!

  13. John Campion Says:

    his take at drumming started off as he never wanted to write the same drum beat twice.

  14. Fish’s ability to change up the beat and morph during a jam is a large part of what separates Phish from the Jamband Pack.

    Friends and Family will constantly say, “I can’t listen to a band jam it out for 20 minutes.” In most cases they are talking about a band that features a static rhythm section and a guitarist soloing on top – and I agree, I can’t listen to that either. It is boring.

    Obviously all 4 of them play an equal role meshing their sounds. But I have a hard time naming other drummers in the Jam scene that explore to Fish’s extent during a jam. Too often they just increase the tempo towards an eargasm and that is their contribution to the jam.

    Next time you are listening to a live performance of another band, check to see if the drummer is moving towards anything, exploring, or simply trying to be creative.

    Long Live Fish.

  15. Fish is one of the most musical drummers I have listened to and the subtlety and intricacy of his style is definitely one of the things that makes Phish so inexhaustibly interesting to listen to. As a few others have noted, his ability to accompany Trey is almost telepathic (listen to a good ’94 YEM for example). He’s not too heavy on the snare (except during Fall 95) but his work all over the cymbals and especially the ride is just glorious. I was listening to the 11/30/97 Stash last night (see Miner’s Picks – Phish Returns) and his playing is phenomenal on that, both during the normal Stash jam and then during the IT section. With all due respect to the other drummers Trey has played with, it’s only Fish that can elevate everything to the sublime.

    In an interview (possibly the one linked here – not sure, haven’t checked), Fish once said that among his musical philosophy is Sun Ra’s dictum to “Always play with a sense of urgency”, and I really think you can often hear that in his playing.

    For a rare example of a Fish solo, check out the Clifford Ball Scent of a Mule (can anyone think of any other examples?)

  16. Hi Miner, thank you once again for the article this morning. For sure, Fishman helped put the music of Phish in a league of it’s own. As much for the jaw-dropping drumming as the silliness. One particular contribution i liked early on was the Purple Rain out of the Tweezerfest in ’94.

    It just feels like the perfect release after the insane jam. I just laugh everytime when he plays his vacuum and Trey screams SUCK IT!!!

    P.S. Can’t wait to hear the WMGGW with Warren Haynes. I never heard it and i have to say December ’95 is my favorite month of Phish ever! The compilation you made sums to me Phish at it’s rocking best…

    Thank you Mr. Miner!

  17. speaking about fishman. Did anyone read that bunk article on a phake CNN page that fishman hurt himself, fixing a wind turbine in his yard. I found this on jambase, a link was posted on the board under phishs new live phish release. it has to be all nonsense RIGHT……. read it for yourself. someone must be real nice on their computer to create this bunky mess…

  18. jambase had nothing to do with this article. someone had a link under their post… OK

  19. There’s a part in The Phish Book where Fishman says that one of the big changes in 1997 was that he started listening to the bass. This underscores a crucial point: the core of the Phish sound is the way Fish and Trey play together. Sometimes it’s like they’re only listening to each other, and Page and Mike are left to follow along, or doodle around the edges. Mike in particular is prone to the sort of playing your junior high jazz band instructor encouraged but that real jazz players strenuously avoid–literal imitation of the riffs your peers throw off. Trey lucks into some beautiful melody, a once-in-the-universe accident, and then a second later Mike is sort of doing it, minus the magic. (Last night I heard a clear example of this while watercoloring to Reba from 2/20/93 (this Reba is no joke BTW!–if you’re looking for classic Fish, listen to him cruise into the terminal drum fill)) Fish responds to what he hears more abstractly, reacting without imitating.

    Of course, some of my favorite Fish comes when he sounds like he is listening to no one but himself, and he is at the center of the music, blazing forward into the future (Sand from Big Cypress, 2001>Mike’s 12/30/93 (my vote for a livephish release–I’m a little disappointed by the pick of 12/30/97, though there’s a great part a few minutes into the AC/DC Bag jam where the sound opens up and Trey does these country bends

    3 of Fishman’s secret weapons:

    (1) His command of 16th notes. Even if you can’t tell where in the drumset they’re coming from (some combination of ghosted snare hits and extra hi hat ticks (you must watch his left foot!)), it is the groove of the implied flow of 16th notes that really defines his sound.

    (2) His use of the bell of the ride cymbal–the syncopation he busts out late in some jams (Ghost 11/17/97, Roses are Free 4/3/98, and Reba 7/6/00 are personal faves for this)

    (3) Fishman’s swing feel–sometimes I’ll listen to a Runaway Jim for 20 minutes before I realize he’s been swinging hard the whole time. Check out the climax of AC/DC Bag from 9/30/2000 (Live in Vegas DVD)–Trey cannot believe how hard Fish is swinging

  20. Having seen Fish come out from behind his kit for so many humorous and talented songs, the one that takes the cake for me is “Get Jiggy with It.” The mere fact that he brought out those huge cue cards and had all of Hampton chiming in during the “Na-Na-Na” section always brings a big smile to my face.

  21. really well written miner. a primo piece.

  22. Again, you help to keep the excitement alive everyday for what has surely felt like a dream come true 🙂

  23. @ Carl – I hear what you’re saying about Gordo rephrasing some of Trey’s licks, but I think there are plenty of examples where it’s the other way around, especially in post-hiatus Phish (SPAC Waves 04 for example). At other times, Mike plays as far out of the jam as it seems possible (that 12/30/97 AC/DC Bag for example where it gets very ambient, or the Stash 11/30/97 which I mentioned earlier for Fish’s playing). I think Mike’s ability to accent the music is as great as Fish’s (for example, compare the Rothbury Backwards Down the Number Line to the ones Trey played with Classic TAB – the song itself just sounds so much more dynamic even if it’s just the two of them – I can’t wait to hear Phish play this one).

    Also, sorry to be a pedant, but the “country bends” you mention in the 12/30/97 is actually Page playing his clavinet through a wah pedal. Trey is just playing the staccato rhythm underneath that, right on top of the bass line.

    Another great example where Fish feels absolutely central to the jam is the 7/12/99 Bowie (fantastic playing all around on this one, loose with loads of fresh ideas and playing off each other).

  24. Matso,
    I’ve often thought that Mike’s playing is most interesting when he is fully committed to a groove and not noodling. I see why it is tempting for Mike, given the layout of the fretboard and the desire of the hand to move in patterns, to, for example, outline minor chords during the Reba jam, and I see why they are permissable, music theory-wise, but I can’t imagine really wanting to hear those notes. I love Phish, but I think one of the strongest objections to their music is the way that Trey and Mike, when they are supposedly improvising, fall back on the sort of modal patterns and arpeggios and exercises that they would have memorized when they were learning their instruments. These exercises build neuronal pathways that are very persuasive, and when you get in the groove of a shape on the fretboard, you can totally space out and forget how to imagine cool melodies.

    Anyhow, I’ll listen to Mike more. It’s hard not to focus on Trey, especially 97 and up–each pedal he adds claims more sonic bandwidth for the guitar (that phasing sound kind of takes over everything (I was listening to set 2 of 12/6/97 tonight, and it sounded like Trey was trying to kill Jimi Hendrix! (That night they definitely bring the kindness, too!

    I can kind of hear that part of AC/DC Bag as clavinet now, though it sounds a lot like a double-stop bend, where you grab the 5th and bend the 2nd up to the 3rd to make a little chord. Kudos to Page, the most melodic improviser in the group (though weirdly also the weakest singer). I thought Trey had laid down a loop.

    Will seek out 7/12/99 if I have a snow day today (I should get some sleep in case we don’t, though the sunrise will look incredible through the trees (we are having an ice storm!

    Oh yeah, thanks for the 8/9/98 recommendation, Miner. It sounds weird to say it, since it’s supposedly always the same, but I loved this Sparkle–the details on this one show that they care about the music. Trey’s riff during the fast part is so friendly!

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