by Jeremy Levine
I have listened to it about ten or eleven times and heard three different versions, but it would be unwise to say that I know “Ghost,” one of Phish’s most beloved songs. Although its studio version is only four minutes long, “Ghost” tends to last for at least ten minutes in concert, with many noteworthy versions reaching around twenty or even thirty minutes. To make matters more complicated, “Ghost” often abandons its studio structure relatively quickly, relying on a relationship between a spacey, ambient sound and lugubrious funk in sprawling, exploratory jams. Fifteen minutes in, you might not even recognize the song.
“Ghost” has been played relatively frequently since its 1997 debut, appearing once every five shows. (“You Enjoy Myself,” the song heard most frequently at Phish concerts, is only heard once every three shows, so one in five is still pretty common.) With “Ghost” being performed 133 times to date, keeping track of this always-changing tune becomes difficult quickly.
Luckily for me, the good people at Phish.net recently reorganized the “Ghost” jamming chart. Like jamming charts for other major Phish songs, (such as “Sand,” “Tweezer,” and “Down with Disease,” all of which diversify their structures on a regular basis) the “Ghost” chart exists for fans to easily identify strong or unique versions of the song, so that they can dig up recordings of these shows and listen to them for themselves. Members of the jam chart team, all of whom are volunteers, explained their reasoning for the chart’s revision on the website, triggering 108 responses from fans who discussed the process of revision and the versions of “Ghost” that were added, bemoaned those jams which were taken off the original chart, and suggested their own favorite versions of “Ghost.”
If you like Phish, this seems like a completely worthwhile exercise. “Ghost,” after all, is an incredibly complex and fun song, and people who like it should be exposed to particularly good versions. If you aren’t into Phish, it makes no sense at all for a group of people to listen to all 133 versions of “Ghost” (and in many cases, re-listen), evaluate them, and present their findings to other people who are probably just as willing to listen to all 133 versions themselves.
“Ghost” is not a unique case. Phish.net keeps track of specific Phish songs, their performance count, and the type of jamming applied to the song in any given performance. All of the above statistics regarding “Ghost” performances were found on the site within seconds. Phish.net is a labyrinth of links and videos and suggested versions of all 300-ish Phish originals (plus covers, of which there are approximately a zillion). “Teases,” moments in which a band member plays a melody from another song during a jam, are also documented thoroughly. Then there are reviews of entire shows, full histories of every song, and infographics detailing even the most obscure statistics, such as how often the band’s three songs which mention nipples have been played at the same show (the answer, by the way, is twice: 8/17/89 and 10/26/89).
INFOGRAPHICS LIKE THIS ONE, WHICH CHARTS WHICH U.S. REGIONS PHISH HAS VISITED ON EACH OF ITS TOURS, ARE COMMONPLACE ON PHISH.NET’S BLOG. IMAGE COURTESY OF PHISH.NET/THE MOCKINGBIRD FOUNDATION.
It gets complicated quickly, but go on the website’s message board and you’ll find people recommending versions of particular tracks to others based on the era they come from or a desired mood, often using language which would befuddle anyone with a working knowledge of music theory. Phish fans have their own language for discussing the likes of “Ghost,” privileging “Type II” jamming over “Type I,” bemoaning the “ripcord,” and comparing “trance” jams with “ambient” jams with “tension/release” jams. Ellis Godard, a regular contributor to the Phish.net blog, wrote in an email that “This is a site where we rehash arguments about three kinds of song segues (comma vs. “>” vs. “->”) for literally decades, not to mention teases… and even song titles. Great fun!”
Jumping into this group and learning its music and culture is a commitment. This seemingly endless bank of information and opinion can be overwhelming. In most cases, learning a band usually involves listening to a few of its best-known albums and digging up the deeper cuts if you feel particularly motivated. One or two live shows can get the job done pretty easily as well. But Phish plays two full sets a night, no two sets are alike, and individual songs regularly go in strange directions. I have forty-eight hours of Phish music on my computer from fourteen shows, and I still wouldn’t recognize “Carini” (played every eight shows) if I heard it, and there’s no way I’ll ever get to know the band as well as those people who’ve been to hundreds of shows.
And while the Phish catalogue may be intimidating, it’s also refreshing. I’m excited by a band that’s so complex and varied that it takes months to get a good handle on the music. It requires you to be more invested in what you listen to, to pay closer attention, and to treat the hard work of a group of people as more than just background noise. Sure, I’ll probably never get to the point where I get frustrated over the changed contents of a jamming chart, but being exposed to an expansive landscape of music is nothing short of thrilling.
Many other groups deliver predictable performances. If you go see The Who in concert this summer, you can expect to hear “Baba O’Riley” played pretty much the same way it’s been played since 1973. But no matter how many times you listen to or see Phish, you won’t know what’s going to happen. When you hear the opening riff to “Tweezer,” you don’t know if you’re in for ten minutes or thirty-five. Improvisation means a constant sense of newness, which generates constant excitement. Anything can happen, and anything will. And for those of us who are late to the game, it’s worth keeping track of all those times the band took big risks and changed the face of “Ghost,” so that we know where to look for those moments that nobody saw coming.
Jeremy Levine is a senior at Clark University and Editor-in-Chief of The Scarlet, the student newspaper there. He also works at the Clark Writing Center and Admissions Office and is delighted to have interned for The Worcester Journal this semester.