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19 in ’19: A Summer on Phish Tour

ignatius Riley 19 in '19

Preface (June 9, 2019)

Less than two weeks until I embark on an adventure unlike any I have experienced — three weeks on the road with PHISH!  23 days, 16 shows, 7 venues in 7 cities and 7 states. Before this tour kicks off, my show count rests at 12. The first was 12/29/09 in Miami and the most recent was 12/31/18 at Madison Square Garden.  7 of my 12 shows were in 2018.

With this upcoming Summer Tour run, followed by Phish Dick’s over Labor Day weekend (here begs the age old question: is Phish Dick’s Summer Tour or not?!), I am going for 19 in ‘19.  As David Byrne asks in the Talking Heads classic, “Well, how did I get here?” to what, for me, seems truly like a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Why only 5 shows from 09-16, then 7 in 18, and now 19 in ‘19?  It’s not like Phish was a band I accidentally stumbled into those 5 times over 7 years.  I grew up listening to (studio) albums in my mother’s car (she loved Jibboo and Bug most).  My best friend’s older brother played 90s videos and tapes while we played NBA Jam and Mario Kart in his hazy, funny smelling room (“It’s incense!” the refrain to the ceaseless questioning of the mystery scent).  My main pot dealer always had Phish on as we smoked from his Fishman muumuu patterned Illadelph and made sure to leave me with plenty before he headed on tour himself (spoiler alert: there was no amount of “enough” he could ever leave me).

So, again, why so few shows over such a long period followed by a seemingly outrageous burst in less than a calendar year?

The short answer: years spent in active drug addiction and getting clean (and remaining so since) in the Summer of 2017 (right as the famed Baker’s Dozen run kicked off).

My first show was bought and paid for by Dad, as I’m sure was the oxycontin I bought that night at the show (and, admittedly, most of the ensuing drugs I would consume over the years).  This was the formative time of my drug addiction, when it still felt like and seemed fun but was becoming problematic beneath the surface.

I made it to the 7/3/10 and 7/4/10 shows in Alpharetta less than a year later (I feel guilty, but not terribly so, about getting a Harpua at my fourth show).  By this point, I was fully immersed in a 500-800 milligram per day oxcontin/8-12 milligram per day xanax habit. My aforementioned best friend asked me at setbreak of the July 4th show, just a few blocks from the neighborhoods we grew up in, to be a groomsman in his wedding, and while I was vigorously accepting the honor, in my head I was thinking there was no way I would be alive by the time of his wedding the following year.  At this exact moment in time, my mother was dying, a little over a month into treatment for Stage IV metastasized colon cancer.  She would pass less than a month later on 8/1/10, the same day one of her heros, Jerry Garcia, was born.  I was already lost, and now the map had disintegrated.

The next few years were filled with the various, unglamorous scenes that play out on the stage of most addicts lives.  Lying, stealing, manipulating, burning bridges to a crisp, jails, rehabs, relapse, homelessness, isolation, harm of self and anyone in my path, withdrawal, living for absolutely nothing but the next one, wanting to die but keeping myself barely just alive enough in the hope that one more would finally, at long last, do the trick, without even really knowing what said “trick” was.

In 2017, after 7 or 8 months clean, I went back out.  I was abstinent from drugs, but had made no progress or growth as a human, son, brother, or friend beyond not using.  In hindsight, this relapse was inevitable because of this lack of change.

In the hours of the night when not much good happens (see ~ 2 in the morning) on Wednesday, July 12, 2017, I headed to the city to cop some dope from an internet stranger.  It was a risky move, but is reflective of the level of desperation I was at and went to in order to obtain the feeling of not feeling. The exchange went off without a hitch and on the train back I contacted Hewey, a guy I had met in recovery circles.  I knew he wasn’t clean and I knew he loved cocaine and played in a Phish cover band.

In recovery, it is common (and necessary) to celebrate the day you got clean and sober (the first day you didn’t get high).  Though I do celebrate this day, the last day I used, July 12, 2017, stands out so much more. It was the end of a long, harrowing, painful, dark, isolated era of my life that I never expected to come out of alive.  I had become so entrenched in this way of living over the decade past that I had forgotten what any different kind of life besides it might look like. I had long since resigned myself to dying from this.

Hewey picked me up from the train station and we proceeded to pick up the coke.  We spent July 12, 2017 getting high from 9 to 5 like we had punched time clocks for the day.  At some point in the day, with drugs still left, I told who or whatever God is that if I didn’t die by the end of this batch, I would give it up.  Recovery circles would call this my “moment of surrender”, and I suppose and believe it was, though my means of expression are far too limited to adequately explain the feeling, the thought, and the feeling of the thought in the moment.

Though I made the commitment to God and myself to be done if I got to the other end of the drugs alive, it is difficult to truly know or quantify the extent to which I “meant it.”  I know I meant it in the moment, but I had also meant it before, only to go back on my word.

Despite these broken oaths, they felt earnest to the marrow.  People can say and mean a lot of things in a moment of breathtaking fear only to renege the instant circumstances soften and settle.

A question frequently asked of a so called chronic relapser is “What is different this time?”  I’ve come to believe this question is not as important as it is made out to be, yet I admittedly can’t help but time and time again refining and tweaking and figuring out my own answer to it.

I know that my last period of using, what we call a run, was (perhaps ironically) quieter and less dramatic than past runs, but also more hopeless and far and away the loneliest period of my life.  I’ve had plenty of rock bottoms: from jail to rehab and back and forth again to getting ripped off repeatedly and ripping off the means and souls of others in ways I had previously admonished and sworn were off limits to selling my cherished records and books to get money for the next one.  None of those felt as lonely as that moment of inner dialogue on July 12, 2017.

Perhaps “What is different this time?” is not unimportant, but rather a misnomer.  Perhaps the more apt phrasing of the question is “What will you do differently this time?”

In the late afternoon/early evening of that July day, after the drugs, but not my pulse, had run out, I made a call.  I phoned my beloved friend Island Girl. I came clean about not being clean. I told her I was high as we spoke. Desperation and despair darker than anything I’d experienced, coupled with having to reconcile the fact I was still breathing, compelled me to be as unabashedly honest as I had been in over a decade.  This, despite being high, was the first thing I did differently. Within an hour she picked me up and brought my ass to a meeting. Because of my uncertainty of the lasting meaning of a lonely, foxhole “I’m done”, I firmly believe that that moment of desperation combined with Island Girl picking me up saved my life.  She deserves all (and more) of the credit she would never take.

A few days later, I was in a long term therapeutic community (an intensive, long haul type of inpatient rehab).  One of the next major moments of change for me was marked by my time at this TC. I agreed to go to rehab, wanting and expecting nothing more than a standard 28-30 day stay.  I was told the program ran a minimum of 3 months. I stayed for 6.

During those 6 months, I had the blessing of working for a woman who’s mere presence at the facility helped me as much as any of the direct, programmed treatment.  Natey was my employer, so to speak. At most TCs, the inpatient residents have jobs — you and your fellow rehab go’ers essentially run the joint. Jobs included facilities maintenance, landscaping, kitchen work, physical fitness instruction, and tutoring for residents pursuing their High School Equivalency Diplomas (formerly known as GED).  Natey was a legitimate employee (i.e. paid and not a resident) of the TC and was the head of the education department, making her my de facto boss. Among us residents, she had a reputation as someone whose office you got worried about being called to. She is tough, stern, no frills, direct. She is also, I believe, one of the most genuinely caring and concerned and understanding and compassionate employees of the facility.  Over my time working with her, I discovered that she is also an old school Head. We got to talking about our love of music and our musical loves — her sharing stories of tours gone by, me wallowing in regret that I let the drugs get in the way of similar experiences, her picking me back up again to say it’s not too late. Behind the door of Natey’s office, we spent countless hours poring over the connection among fun, music, and recovery.

As my discharge date approached, a scramble among family, staff, and myself ensued regarding my post-treatment plans and living situation.  Initially, I pleaded for the age old (and time-and-again unsuccessful) comfortable confines of living with and off of family. Island Girl, the same friend who dragged my higher than a giraffe’s ass to the meeting on my last day of using, shared with me her experience of sober community living upon the beginning of her own recovery.

I was hesitant.  I didn’t want to hear it.  But I also didn’t want to keep coming back to places like the one I was about to leave.  I didn’t want to come anywhere near the feeling of empty I felt that day. The person sharing this experience with me was the person who saved my life that day, so I knew I could trust her.  I decided to buy into the idea that if it had worked as a springboard to recovery for her, maybe it could work for me. This was a crucial and necessary step for me, choosing to believe and be guided, to follow a suggestion of someone who has gone before me.

I got out of the TC late December, 2017 and moved into a sober house that runs concurrent with an outpatient program.  I moved in with 20 other dudes (not as bad as it sounds when you’re coming from a place with 90). It was right before YEMsg 2017, but a handful of factors (money, curfew, the raucous environs of a Phish show and their potential effects on someone new in recovery) left me with no choice but to miss another run.

Two months later, after becoming employed, I moved to another more independent sober living house (down to 6 dudes!).  I started step work with a sponsor, made coffee at meetings, gave and received rides and engaged in conversation during the rides, and showed up.  I began to practice honesty and open-mindedness. I reached out to others when I felt uncomfortable or uncertain or needed guidance making a decision.  I also made sure to share moments of joy or growth with those who helped me realize those moments as well as with those who might use some bit of said joy and growth to spur along their own recovery.

By the time Summer Tour 2018 rolled around, I had gained a new level of stability spiritually and mentally.  So what did I do but make some plans?! Exciting, but not overly ambitious, I bought tickets for 2 nights at Camden and a full event pass for Phish’s 2018 camping festival, Curveball.  As those approached, I made a tough decision to sell my Camden tickets in order to be more comfortable for Curveball. If you’re a phan, you know how that played out, or rather, didn’t.  If you’re not a phan, well, that shit got cancelled from flood induced water contamination.

Active addiction and recovery have a handful of overlapping lessons that often (at least for me, a slow, touch-the-stove type of learner) are learned best through experience.  One of these lessons is that life throws you curveballs (I apologize for invoking the lowest of the low hanging Phish fruit of the last year).

I was dismayed — this was supposed to be my way to celebrate reaching my 1 year clean milestone and my return to “the scene.”  But by this point I learned how to better roll with the punches, so I rolled my sad heart back home with a new friend in tow. Big K hopped in my car on a recommendation from Island Girl (she didn’t have enough room in her car…and again, i TRUST this gal!).  The 6 hour ride home with a previous stranger felt more like an hour long cruise with a lifelong buddy. As it turned out, Big K and I had/have a lot more in common beyond our adoration of The Phish from Vermont. We remain friends and our relationship continues to grow nearly a year later.

So Summer was a bummer (really, I mean Curveball week just SUCKED — as if the cancellation wasn’t bad enough, that same week the woman I had been dating and I split open and melted).  I set my sights ahead, as recovery taught me, doing what I could now to get to where I wanted then (i.e. the future).  Barka, a bit of a Phish mentor to me (sometimes referred to as GO Barka (Grossly Overrated Barka, because he holds the outlandish opinion that the 12/29/18 Wolfman’s Party Time is “grossly overrated”)), but more importantly a recovery running buddy, tagged along to Albany for the Fall Tour 2018 opener on 10/16/18.  On the way up, we saw a Hood milk truck and got a Harry Hood that night.  He told me of his favorite Cities and Moma, and we got those too. We must have called or referenced a half dozen songs that night.  Barka has attended upwards of 200 shows and swore that one was one of the best tour openers of all time. Fresh off my 6th show, who was I to argue?

Right around this time, I got my Curveball ticket refunded.  I figured this money was intended for Phishy things, so why not re-invest?  The perfect storm hit when Island Girl mentioned plans for Phish in Vegas. A hotel room with a soon-to-be new friend, Ernie, was already booked, so we got our plane tickets and it was off to Sin City for some desert Phish.

One of, if not the best things about hitting the road, sleeping in hotels, and sharing in the groove with these recovery friends is at any moment our space and conversation can be filled with any combination of laughter, joy, gratitude, tears, heartbreak, recovery wisdom, empathy — the whole gamut of what it is to be human.  Phish provides a vehicle for all this in a manner that breaks from my everyday recovery, but is just as healthy and important. It is a sort of inner circle within an inner circle, yet without any exclusivity. I know that doesn’t logically (or linguistically) make sense, but not much of life as I’ve experienced it does.

It doesn’t hurt that the guitarist/lead vocalist/co-lead songwriter of Phish, Trey Anastasio, has a lot in common with my friends and me.  Once you get past all the mind-blowing, face-smelting (a level above face-melting, which few besides Trey can reach) stuff he does on stage, you’re left with his most impressive achievement: getting and staying clean and sober.  I could be at a show alone where everyone in the building is on something and know that in a particular book, Trey and I are on the same page. We’ve never met and likely never will (although I did have the chance to give him my 1 year keytag as he walked off stage at the end of a recent TAB show), but if we did, we’d be able to share something with each other that is integral to recovery.

2018 culminated in being able to attend the entirety of the YEMsg run, an afterthought just a year prior.  Night 1 was spent with Barka schooling 3.0 n00bs Big K and me on all things Phish.  Night 2, I brought a friend, Shawny, who’d never seen (let alone heard) Phish.  On the train ride in before Night 2, I had a chance encounter with a phan, Roose, and we spent the ride in getting to know each other and picking each other’s respective knowledge of The Helping Friendly Book.  As it turns out, this dude had recently stopped playing in a Phish cover band. I proceeded to tell him about being in recovery, to which he offered big congratulations. He told me that the Phish cover band he used to be in had recently lost one of their members to addiction, to which I offered my condolences.  It wasn’t until we met up again on the platform before heading in for Night 3 that it all clicked. I asked Roose his band mate’s name, and sure enough it was Hewey. I shakily and nervously proceeded to tell Roose that the last time I got high was with Hewey. He was the last person I used with and I had just found out he had passed.  A strange mixture of gratitude for making it out alive, guilt for surviving what so many others have not, and sadness for the repose of Hewey’s soul swept over me. I thought Roose might suddenly have some ill regard toward me, but he nodded his head in disbelief of the diminutive size of the world and told me he was glad I was still here and that I had a lot to look forward to.  He was right in so many ways I have realized since and will continue to be surprised by in the future. Night 3, (which, by the way, phans, was better than Night 2) I flew mostly solo.  And for Night 4, New Year’s Eve, I rang in 2019 with a few old and a dozen new recovery friends.  After each night, on the way home, a feeling of gratitude for the experience and my cognizance and awareness swept over me.  Finally, I’d been allowing myself to connect with a part of this world I kept myself away from for so long.

Spring brought with it a pair of Ghosts of the Forest shows (with Island Girl and Ernie) and a 4 pack of Trey Band gigs.  All were spent with friends, old and new, though in the bigger picture they served as a warm up or bridge to this adventure now less than two weeks out.

God willing (and, believe me, it is a God thing, whatever in Gamehendge that even is), I will celebrate 2 years clean on July 13, 2019, the second night of this year’s Alpine Valley run.  I can’t think of a better setting to spend this day in. Music in general, and specifically Live Music, is as integral a part of my recovery as anything.  Every show I have been fortunate enough to make since getting clean serves not just as a platform of fun and friendship, but as an enveloping experience affirming the decision to change, to do things differently.  Make no mistake — this entire thing is a culmination and strictly a result of hard work and a cosmic change of thinking and acting spurred on and made possible only with the guidance of some Icculus type figure and a whole bunch of like minded and inspired Phriends and family.

See you on the road…

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