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Monday, August 17, 2009

How to Stay in the Jam: Lessons From the Road with Phish

What is the jam? It is a difficult question, complicated by more than just the usual fog of language and social habit. The fog—jam is misused as a term for R&B and hip-hop songs that most of the time have little or no connection to the jam. Dr. Dre high on his living room grand piano experimenting with a hip-hop version of Holst’s “The Planets” is more in tune with The Jam then any of his 3-minute ‘jams’. How about ‘jam bands’, an increasingly popular form of rock music, wherein the popular radio format is eschewed for long live songs obsessively recorded and deconstructed by traveling fans? This is closer, but most of these jam bands play jam songs—songs that announce themselves as anti-pop—and thus the element of magical extension and duration is undercut by sonic familiarity.
The Jam can be accessed everywhere and by everyone in tune with it—in this sense it is akin to George Lucas’s ‘Force’, which I think is best likened to love, which in turn is best rescued from self-help and Hollywood via the formula articulated in the most unlikely of places—U2’s neo-disco surfaceslipping anthem “Discoteque”:
You can push
But you can't direct it
Circulate, regulate
But you cannot connect it

The Jam traces the kind of intertextual, interstitial, international matrix best described as ‘rhizomatic’ in the most jammed-out book ever written—Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. If you haven’t read it, no worries—LSD costs less and only takes up 5-6 hours of your time.
My comrades and I began this summer under the aegis of the masters of The Jam—Phish, led by one of the few real-life Jedi knights, Trey Anastasio. How exactly does the jam work? It doesn’t work exactly, but Phish will serve as a useful microcosm-cum-macrocosm. The problem with anyone, any song, any event, any film, or any moment whatsoever that doesn’t JAM IT OUT is that life jams. It’s OK to want your art to be prettier, more succinct and digestible, and have more closure than life itself tends to have. The problem is we start to confuse this kind of art and daily practice with life. But life does not have closure, does not lend itself to clear beginnings and endings, to ‘authors’ (read: creation stories). It’s not only that Phish refuses to play the 3 ½ minute pop song, the anti-life format par excellence. Unlike other jam bands, jazz cats, or classical composers, they do embrace the pop song…and then they bend it and stretch it into oblivion. They do what David Lynch did to television with Twin Peaks, what Michael Jackson did to music videos, what Joyce did to the novel, what Kubrick did to science fiction(and—little recognized act of genius—what whoever the hell directed it did to science fiction with Star Trek: The Motion Picture).
But like the rhizome, the jam would merely be a caricature of what it intimates if it had a time and place. You may have heard there is a time and place for everything. That time and place is the jam. The jam doesn’t take place, it creates it. It cannot be clocked, only engaged with greater and lesser awareness throughout life. Vanessa Carlisle was the first in our travelling rebel brigade to articulate this. At her 3rd straight show at Jones Beach, Long Island, she turned to one of us and said: “I had it all wrong. I thought I was coming to a Phish show. I am merely entering the easiest-to-recognize part of the Jam.”
Here is how it happens: the house lights go out and the band starts playing music. This gives the illusion that some ‘thing’ has begun. We get lost in a 15-minute, manic “Maze”, which blends seamlessly (though seemfully) into a dark-and-stanky spelunking trip through the most intractable parts of our disease (“Down with Disease”. The jam begins so triumphant and joyous we forget the name of the song. This is the first step to becoming as brilliant as a child—forgetting the names of things. Soon you forget time, lose simple boundaries delineated by words such as ‘this song’, ‘this band’. Then greater boundaries go: ‘MY self’, my country, performer vs. audience, the show vs. the night-at-large etc.
The band takes a break. Our conversation and physical interactions with the audience soon take on an improvisatory tone until we realize the jam is still happening. We are jamming out the set break. The next set begins. In between the third and fourth (?!) song the band stops to confer—this too seems like a spoken jam. The guitarist jams according to motions of woman in the third row, who moves according to his jam—a perfect dialectic. Except that there are so many other elements jamming, it’s a polylectic. As the music reaches its frenzied climax, the complex system of lights jams with it. It would be oversimplifying to attribute this light show however to a light rig or the lighting designer, since the setting sun, arena lights, and manifold lights produced by the audience are part of the jam (glowrings in the thousands, like constellations loosened and losing both their place and our place). Soon, if you are tuned in, your memories, your identity, history itself is revealed as jamming with the band. This wisdom is not new of course—think of Buddhist entreaties to recognize the interconnectedness of all things. Or Qui-Gonn Jinn (Star Wars Episode I) entreating Obi-Wan Kenobi to “pay attention to the living force”, or telling young Anakin Skywalker that “your focus determines your reality.”
The show ends and the walk to the car is part of the jam. As such, we do not fall into the trap of thinking that it’s over. It’s merely that the onus is on us now to improvise with this Jedi-level of attunement to each other, to our city, to history. Nothing ends and nothing begins. We drive down the coast to Lindsey’s father’s house in South Carolina, and carry out the jam there, utilizing a downloaded version of Phish in Knoxville, TN, each of us jamming with whatever was at hand: caffeine (Aaron), aderol (Lindsey Kate), heartbreak (Vanessa), ghosts of Phish tours and marriages past (me). When Bruce Springsteen joined Phish onstage at the Bonnaroo music festival, both Springsteen and Phish fans were a bit put off, as many of them have imprisoned their band of preference in ‘genre’ or ‘style’. But there is no need to experience this particular coupling as anything but a natural and archetypal moment in each band’s performative history. That’s how it was us, for Bruce and Trey, and for anyone who can stay with the jam, free of the violent, compartmentalizations that form default everyday consciousness: ‘early Michael Jackson’ vs. ‘later Michael Jackson’ (cf. also early vs. late U2, Star Wars, Godard, Bob Dylan); the concert vs. the workday; the personal vs. the public sphere. French sociologist Henri Lefebvre attributes this compartmentalization to the way space must be invented in capitalism—“geometric—neutral, empty, blank—mental space”—posited in order to avoid the unpleasant, contradictory nature of social space (jam space!!!), which it displaces.
As a space where strategies are applied, abstract space is also the locus of all the agitations and disputations of mimesis: of fashion, sport, art, advertising, and sexuality transformed into ideality. (Lefebvre, 1991, 309)…We need space to be abstract to preserve the formal unity that gives our space-time meaning: capital. The heterogeneity, the conflicts and contradictions, are not disclosed in this formal unity. Things, acts and situations are being replaced by representations, and this homogenous abstract space is divided safely into sectors or systems: transportation system, school system, the work world; the world of texts, the money market…Ideologues, whether technocrats or specialists, convinced of their own freedom from ideology, isolate the sectors, with the end result of a tautology masquerading as science and an ideology masquerading as a specialized discipline. (Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 1991)
Capitalism has always been bad for the jam.
The band moves on around the country. Fans slip off and on tour. Songs appear three days after their last incarnation sounding totally different. Sometimes they sound the same but recent events (Michael Jackson’s death, the umpteenth illegal U.S. meddling in South American affairs, a friend finding out they’ve contracted an incurable disease) mean you jam with them differently. Then we come home from tour and back to our work. Some of us to writing (you are jamming with that right now—jam it out in the comments section!), some of us to our computer programming, some of us to our own music (wifey—although anyone who understand the jam never holds a proprietary position in respect to their music…or their land, lover, life). And we continue the jam. Phish will tour again next fall, then next summer, but this isn’t a separate tour. It’s all a continuity, and, as Leonard Cohen reminds us in Beautiful Losers, “it’s all diamonds.”

The Sacred Dice - A Revolutionary Salon

The Sacred Dice is a salon of musicians, scholars, poets, sound sculptors, activists and artists of all kinds committed to art that is committed.  That could get us committed (to an asylum).  That disdain's art for art's sake and artists who have no idea why they do what they do.  We know why we do what we do--to create and celebrate community in a country still stuck in capitalist fantasies of individualism.  If you want in, you're in.  If you want out, don't worry--you already are.