As a kid, my dad cornered a famous basketball coach at the airport to introduce his future basketball-star son. When the coach asked six-year-old Brock what I wanted to do when I grew-up, I replied, "Potions. Scientific potions." My dad stopped introducing me to celebrities after that. In college, I bullshitted my way into the final performance of Rent
on Broadway and lost my goddamned mind when I saw Stephen Sondheim at the after-party. "Hey!" I shouted while pointing, with the tone and volume of a man whose car was being stolen, "I love you too much!" I then attempted to hug him, vodka-sweat dripping from my brow, as if a moment of the man's embrace would allow me to absorb his power. Unfortunately, he ran off, to finish a hat or whatever Sondheim does. This was a good call. I was a degree away from the kind of man who demand to know the frequency, Kenneth.
[Ed. Note: For those who don't know know their 1990s REM and/or obscure Dan Rather references...context.]
I've always been bad with heroes, because I've always been me. And last summer, I aimed to fix that.
While on a nationwide tour with fellow comedian Brandie Posey
, we pulled into Chicago in mid-June. We had a week of shows scheduled in that ridiculous drunk-tank I once called home, but one in particular carried unreasonable personal weight, as I'd been invited to open for the final book tour date from my literary hero.
Nathan Rabin isn't a household name, so I'll do a thing that rarely accompanies this type of story, wherein I'll explain my hero to you. Rabin served as the first head writer of The Onion AV Club for nearly a decade, helping define so many tendencies and re-inventions of modern pop-culture writing. While there, he also coined the now revered term "manic pixie dream girl" and started the My Year of Flops project, wherein he re-visited films either panned or ignored by critics to determine if they'd carried secret merit. (Midway through reading this book, I wrote my own
in a similar caustic style.) I'd found his pop-culture memoir The Big Rewind
to be the kind of reading experience mostly closely associated with Nick Hornby, albeit a Nick Hornby you'd actually want to meet in real life, and Rabin felt as comfortable writing about country music or rap as he did covering cinematic fare like Southland Tales
[Ed. Note: Dear God. We aren't at the point where we're defending Southland Tales
now are we?].
But everything about my relationship with Rabin changed in 2013. He released a book, which I consider to be the height of music writing in this decade, called You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me
. What had begun years earlier as a celebration of the most disliked musical fandoms eventually simplified into an exploration of only two: Phish fans and Juggalos. This dive into contrarian sub-sub-cultures begat a dark journey into not only the followers and the shows, but into Rabin's own mind. The more he began to genuinely love jam-bands and evil rap klowns, the more he began to worry he was going insane; and to a degree he was right. His honesty about the hardships of this discovery hit particularly hard, as someone I loved was dealing with the same struggle. One night, while reading his book in the waiting room of a hospital, I broke down. I'd expected a mockery of people who liked universally shat upon art, and instead I got exactly what I needed to help me and another through an unexpected life detour. When I couldn't read anymore that night, I looked Rabin up online and wrote him a middle-of-the-night message that began with "Fuck you Nathan Rabin," and proceeded to thank him for the kind of writing that I knew had already changed me forever. Shockingly, he responded to a message that began so forcefully from an internet stranger, and a tentative form of friendship was born.
A year later, as I pulled into Chicago, he invited me to open for the final in-store reading from his tour for a book about Phish and Insane Clown Posse, and I could have died. I was going to meet my hero and most certainly definitely certainly not fuck it up by being me this time.
Two nights into my Chicago residency, Rabin surprised me by coming to a bar show I was appearing on and buying me a drink. Before we could say much of anything, I was introduced by the show. I proceeded to collapse on stage, as I had not prepared a set I deemed appropriate for introducing my style to my hero, and by the time my set was concluded he had already left. Shitty shitty fuckbang; I'd done it again. As I left the venue, distraught and distracted, I failed to notice the gang follow me down a side-street and I wound up in the first major fight/robbery of my life. I swear that at no point in the evening did I utter the phrase "How could this possibly get any worse?"
When I got back to the girl's apartment where I was couch-surfing and plugged in my (now damaged) phone, there was a message from Nathan. "Sorry I had to go before we could talk. Can't wait to see you at the bookstore on Sunday. Hey, do you want to hang out Saturday?" Of course I wanted to hang out Saturday. "Great, there's a Phish concert that night, do you want to go?" Um... Of course I wanted to hang out Saturday, and if this was the only way, well, here we are.
Turns out that when your hero wants to go to a Phish concert, you can make exceptions for everything you once thought to be true.
Saturday night rolled around, and I grabbed a cab from my second show to the concert venue, which turned out to be an island. Despite living in Chicago for four years, I had no idea there was a secret concert island, but that's where I was headed. To see Phish. With my hero. Because life finds a way.
Even making my way to the island, I could tell this was not the same kind of Chicago concert-goers I'd moshed with at the Metro or done drugs with at the Double Door (where my first and only fake I.D. is still proudly hung on their wall of underage trespassers.) Everyone here was constantly expressing how great they felt and how excited they were for tonight's show, and what it would do differently from the Phish concert the night before, or the Phish concert they'd all be attending tomorrow. No one here was attending their first Phish concert. No one here was even attending their first Phish concert of the week. And absolutely no one was here in a group of less than five. Except for Brock.
[Ed. Note: You've never lived until you've heard Peter Jennings try to explain the concept of jam bands to his viewers in the 90s.]
As I entered gate six on the island, I texted Nathan to inform him I'd reached the point we'd agreed to meet. The sun was setting on Phish Island and the first of many sets that night had just begun. Here I was, alone, hearing the ultimate living jam band for the first time, and I was woefully under-prepared. Having listened to only a small sampling of album tracks over the years, to confirm that I was indeed not a fan, I'd assumed Phish would be the traditional interpretation of a jam band. Instead, they were more like if a panic-attack had learned to improvise around a Mixolydian scale. Large chunks of time were buried under noise, only until a sudden transposition would make you wonder "Is this a cover of Smoke on the Water?" until you realized "Yes, this absolutely is a cover of Smoke on the Water." This happened three times that night.
After one hour of no response from Nathan, I attempted to text, call, email and Facebook message him, just like the kind of person you'd never want your hero to think you are: a spazz. I'd come to realize that cell reception on Phish Island was less than stellar, and decided it was time to brave the crowd in search of my potentially jazz-guitar hypnotized guru. As I braved the Phish Horde it became clear that, like the earth's surface, there were distinct layers. The outer crowd membrane was comprised entirely of high-fives, sometimes six or seven at once, usually accompanied by delighted shouts of "Can you believe this?" No sir, no, I can not. Beyond the fiving forest were the casual performance artists; dancers who were interpreting keyboard solos and large quantities of mushrooms but only within three foot square spaces, so as to not bump too intrusively against the stationary outer membrane. Finally, finding Nathan nowhere here, I ventured into the interior of the island, where the crowd seemed to be auditioning for a Cirque du Soleil production that God refused to strike down. If you can't tell by now, my reaction to all things hippie-culture are on par with Cartmen's own.
Suddenly, the act ended, and in the silence I received my first communication from my host. A text that simply read: "How are you liking the concert?" What a complicated question. Did this mean Nathan was here and observing me? Was this the kind of trick that Phish fans regularly pull on non-Phish fans to trick them into "digging the scene?" Or had Nathan failed to come at all, placing the burden of his representation on my head? "I'll meet you at the merch tent," he texted, and I knew my longform solo nightmare had ended. I pushed to the back of the island where the tent for Phish merch was located, and purchased two domestic beers which cost nearly a combined forty dollars. I stood by the tent, which was abandoned except for staff, because who on Phish Island was going to buy a vinyl copy of Fuego
before returning to the six hour mud-circus?
Another half hour passed as I stood there, both beers in hand, while the merch workers became more and more concerned about the only lonely boy on Phish Island. My phone battery was nearly dead, and I was sure this would where I'd spend the rest of the night, waiting for a hero who I'd started to believe was pulling some fraternity rite-of-passage. A text: "Sorry we can't make it back there. Turns out there's a big crowd between us. See you tomorrow."
I'd been stood up by my hero; abandoned on Phish Island. If you saw me in that moment, you could hear the sad Peanuts music play, and then slowly morph into its own cover of "Smoke on the Water."
I returned to the masses and as I did so, the band began to play a track off of Farmhouse
, the only album of theirs which ever found crossover success, and therefore the only songs I knew the lyrics for. The sea-change which accompanied the song convinced me I should stay, and rather than chalk this up as a loss, I should throw myself into my (certainly) only Phish experience with complete abandon. Suddenly, there was a bass solo that sounded broadcast from the bottom of the sea, and every person in the crowd tossed glow-sticks into the air, like it was the starting pistol they'd waited all night to hear ring out. A girl accidentally hit me in the head with some type of glowing device, and kissed my cheek by way of apology. A dude from the high-five forest offered to put me on his shoulders because, in that psychedelic moment, he believed such an act would not sever his spine. I bumped into a woman who screamed and called me a giant, then apologized for body-shaming and handed me all the drugs she had.
Sometimes I feel awful that we live in an apology culture, but sometimes it gets you high.
I saw the rest of my Only Phish Experience through to the end, and at some point it transformed into an honest delight. For all the distance I'd put on a band whose lead singer started taking voice lessons at the age of forty-nine, the experience of surrendering to a night where I was never expected to solve the musical in-jokes expanded my ability to keep my own caustic perspective in-check within strange new situations. It was an opportunity afforded that I would have missed completely if Rabin had ever found his way to me. It was a perspective of solo reflection that I'm sure few Phish fans have even discovered themselves. It didn't sell me on the band or even the genre, but it gave me an experience so far outside the box that nothing "mind-altering" will ever brush its surface again, because it took from me long before it gave.
I had my show with Nathan Rabin the next day, and an amazing evening shared over vodka and take-out, so every ounce of situational ill-will mentioned in this story was summarily obliterated. He apologized for how it all played out, but he didn't have to because I'd gone from the only sad boy on Phish Island to losing myself in the spirit of a musical enemy. And that's a gift only your true hero could give.