Swimming With Phish at MSG

January 04, 2014 0 Comments

I was actually hoping Mayor Bloomberg would show up. Where was he when you needed him? Phishermen (no need to feminize, the ratio of men to women at a Phish show rivals a Rush concert) seemingly keep glow sticks in one hand and a lighted cigarette in the other, between joints that is.

While not flashy, frontman Trey Anastasio, nominated for Tony in 2013 for a Broadway musical Hands on a Hardbody, and Phishmates Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon, and Page McConnell give the Phish faithful what they want.

I admit, seeing Phish for me was like watching NASCAR. The crowd totally immersed in the experience, reacting to every movement and utterance, while I was without a clue. The noted jam band, able to sell out Madison Square Garden four nights in a row, Phish turned the packed MSG into a united epileptic fit.

The crowd, 99.999 percent white and 90 percent male, was proudly un-rhythmic. The high priest–Trey–even directed his brethren to clap out of time early in the first set.  Phish has a faint connection to jamband pioneers, The Grateful Dead, but, born in the 80’s, we saw many more yamakas in smokie MSG than tie dye.

Mayor Nanny State recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the Smoke-Free Air Act—one of the first major health initiatives Bloomberg pursued as mayor.  “People want to come here because we are healthier,” Bloomberg said, describing the results of the bill as “very gratifying.” He added, “I think it’s fair to say that nobody wants to go back to the way things were.”

Bloomberg claims the law has prevented at least 10,000 smoking-related deaths in New York. He draws a straight line from the smoke-free legislation to stats showing the life expectancy of New Yorkers is longer than ever—80.9 years, three years longer than the national average.

I’m afraid the soon-to-be-ex-mayor declared victory too soon. He should get out more. It wasn’t the pungent aroma of marijuana wafting through Madison Square Garden on opening night, that’s always easy to tolerate. The smoke of thousands of just plain old cigarettes choked the place.

The only visible evidence of Bloomberg’s policies at the venerable arena full of Phish fanatics, was the concession menu listings that included calorie counts. Three hours of secondary smoke might choke you but at least you’ll know how many calories you’re ingesting to cure your case of the munchies. The Geeks seemed blissfully ignorant their treats contained considerably fewer trans-fats.

Bloomberg credits stop-and-frisk with making the Big Apple safer these past dozen years and Madison Square Garden adopted the same policy for its concert attendees. While the mayor was selective in his S&F policy, everyone going to the show was wanded, turned, and, wanded again before entering the arena in addition to the usual bag search.

A California fan, sitting next to us, flew into the area just to attend all four shows. Traveling solo, he intended to commute from a Red Roof Inn in Jersey City to the venue. The 40-something computer guru from Los Angeles, ponytail falling past his shoulders from under his Henry Fonda-On-Golden-Pond fishing hat, came face-to-face with the MSG stop-and-frisk. The zealous MSG guards confiscated a couple things he had confidently hid in his cigarette pack that were to enhance his enjoyment of the concert.  The MSG sentries took no issue with his smokes, handing his cigarettes and lighter back, while offering a cheery “enjoy the concert.”

Surely Mayor Bloomberg would have confiscated the tobacco as well, or at least lectured the concertgoer not to light up.  After all, New York is smoke free.

The paper of record editorialized that numbers man Bloomberg has resurrected New York’s finances and the city is now operating with a $2.4 billion dollar budget surplus.  The mayor has used some accounting tricks to stay in the black and “left the structure essentially untouched and the tax burden even heavier than he found it,” writes E.J. MacMahon for City Journal. “Tax collections have doubled since Bloomberg took office in 2002, growing about twice as fast as New York’s economic output during the same period.”

The city continually bludgeons its citizens with taxes. It has an income tax, on top of New York state’s income tax, on top of Washington D.C.’s income tax. “Thanks to the federal and state increases, the highest marginal income-tax rate in New York City is now 52 percent, the highest it’s been in nearly two decades,” writes MacMahon.

But it’s property taxes are where the city really makes hay. “New York’s property-tax system is widely acknowledged to be a complex and inequitable mess,” says MacMahon. Single family homeowners are given a light touch at the expense of commercial property owners.  Property tax collections have more than doubled since 2002.

City Hall is not flush with cash because Bloomberg, in the words of Aaron Renn, “went on a massive spending spree—total spending rose by more than 70 percent on his watch—on everything from schools to parks to streets. Per pupil spending on schools grew 73 percent under Bloomberg, and teacher salaries grew 40 percent, even as test scores were mostly stagnant and polls found parents saying the schools gotworse under his administration.”

 Populist Bill de Blasio will take over for Bloomberg in the new year after campaigning on a platform to use government force to close the gap between the city’s haves and have nots. However, urban analyst Renn explains it is New York’s thicket of real estate regulation from rent control, ever-expanding historical districts, “affordable housing” mandates, to nearly-impossible building approval process that keeps the city unaffordable to anyone not well off or well connected.

Washington’s bailout of Wall Street has papered over New York’s big government mess. However, income tax collections fell $2.4 billion in 2009 after the crash and haven’t recovered to pre-crash levels despite Wall Street’s Fed fueled bubble. The next crash will likely devastate city finances.

So what makes so many go to Phish from so far and so many times?  The band’s lyrics are gibberish. In a short piece for Vanity Faire, Michael Hogan promised five tolerable Phish songs. He could actually only come up with three.

About his number one pick–”Stash”– he first quotes the lyrics “She yanked down my tunic and dangled my stash,” and then provides his reasoning, “The salient facts are that this is a song with (a) a blatant drug reference and (b) a minimum of white-boy reggae rhythms, which makes it about as good as a Phish song gets.”

About “Cavern,” his number two pick, “And even a double dose of LSD couldn’t beat any sense into these lyrics. But the tune is catchy, and I dig the organ.”

The number two pick of a Phish fan site is the illuminating tune “Run Like an Antelope” which begins

Rye, Rye, Rocco

Marco Esquandolas

Been you to have any spike, man?

Followed by the word “Run” repeated 125 times.

The Phish faithful happily sing along with every nonsensical word.

“The people of this city have chosen a progressive path, and we set forth on it together, as one city,” mayor-elect de Blasio said on election night after winning by a 45 percent landslide margin.  He spoke first in English, then in Spanish, from a podium topped by a “PROGRESS” sign, looking out at a throbbing crowd that packed the streets waiting to get into the Park Slope Armory YMCA.

As it has the past three New Year’s Eves, as the ball drops in Times Square, Phish will bring in the new year at MSG. Ironically, they will usher out the Bloomberg era in a cloud of smoke. In come the de Blasio years with the promise of equality for the Big Apple.

Will de Blasio, like Phish, give the people what they want, even if it’s foolishness?

He’ll try, like Bloomberg tried to stop the smoking. Thousands love the sound of it.

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