Not Fade Away

On May 25, Phish—the wildly popular Vermont jam band—called it quits. Five days later, I saw the first bumper sticker, slapped on a shiny new Japanese pickup driven by an aging weekend hippie. THANK YOU, TREY, it read.

In a message posted on the band’s Website, guitarist-vocalist Trey Anastasio had declared that Phish would be breaking up—for good this time, in contrast to the “hiatus” the group took starting in 2000. The time of death would be this August, after 21 years, almost a dozen studio albums, and one final sold-out tour. “Phish has run its course,”

Anastasio wrote. “We should end it now while it’s still on a high note … We don’t want to become caricatures of ourselves, or worse yet, a nostalgia act.”

These are admirable sentiments: Nobody in rock and roll ever breaks up anymore, least of all with any semblance of grace or before nostalgic pandering or Spinal Tap–like self-parody sets in. Disbanding could be the most original thing these excess-prone improvisers have ever done; it is certainly the least self-indulgent.

The roster of artists hitting the sheds this summer is full of acts that have broken up or “retired” at least once or twice, only to return like a stubborn bout of the flu. Among them: Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Fleetwood Mac, Patti Smith, Primus, Eric Clapton, the Cure, the Pixies, and Van Halen. Madonna and Prince are doing big business with greatest-hits shows, vowing that maybe—just maybe—this will be the last time. Not even the death of key players stops anybody anymore; witness the ridiculous spectacles of the Doors of the 21st Century (with former Cult screamer Ian Astbury filling in for the still hot, sexy, and dead Jim Morrison), and the Who (down to only two of its four original members). Not to mention Creedence Clearwater Revisited (CCR sans main man John Fogerty—who is out touring on his own).

“Disbanding could be the most creative thing these excess-prone improvisers have ever done.”

We can count on one hand the number of great rock bands that broke up and stayed that way, determined not to disgrace their legacy once their initial spark was snuffed out. We have the Beatles from the sixties, the Clash from the seventies, and the Smiths from the eighties. It’s too early to tell with the alternative era, but we should pray for the continued success of Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters and Krist Novoselic’s political activism, lest those two be tempted to recruit Bush’s Gavin Rossdale for Nirvana of the 21st Century.

Greed is, of course, one reason why rock acts never throw in the towel. According to the concert-industry trade publication Pollstar, Phish grossed $35.8 million on the road in 2003. That’s certainly a compelling reason to keep shilling a stale brand, but there’s also the fact that performing in an arena—even if the crowd has shrunk—has to be the most potent drug in history, and junkies need their fix. Keith Richards has finally kicked smack, but we can still count on the Stones’ playing “Brown Sugar” for years to come.

I’m not without sympathy for the plight of the addict. No one is advocating setting aging rockers adrift on an ice floe, but it would be nice if they could move past the formulas they established in their twenties. In the sports world, athletes past their prime on the playing field have to develop new careers as sportscasters, assistant coaches, or celebrities for hire signing autographs. So why do we pretend that reunited or long-running rock bands that haven’t made vital new music in two decades are anything other than oldies acts, cover bands, or flesh-and-blood versions of Disney’s singing animatronics?

I blame the audience, especially nostalgia-obsessed baby-boomers, who refuse to admit that they (much less their heroes) will ever grow old. The fans defiantly cling to the past, vainly trying to relive their glory days instead of seeking out the music that’s worth hearing today. There was another way to read that bumper sticker, as sarcasm: Plenty of Phish fans feel betrayed by Anastasio’s decision to end the group, as if it weren’t his right.

Unlike many rock superstars, Anastasio has never had any trouble envisioning a musical life after Phish. In the midst of the group’s first break, when he was touring as a solo act with the backing of a ten-piece band, the guitarist told me that the expectations of the Phishheads often freaked him out. Some virtually demanded that he put the band back together. “Don’t they have lives?” he asked.

Back then, Anastasio yielded to the pressure, and Phish regrouped after a two-year vacation. This time, he insists that the band will stay buried, but die-hard fans shouldn’t despair: We can probably count on the inevitable reunion by 2011, if not sooner.

Not Fade Away