A Phish Grinning in the Office Aquarium

In which the author, drowning in his workplace, drowns his workplace in Phish music.

The lift doors open, I step in, the lift doors close, I wait, the lift doors open, I step out. I key-card through my workplace’s outermost door, through the second door, through the third door. I curl a weak smile for a colleague and, twitchy from the exertion, let it unspool immediately. I retrieve my laptop, take my seat, boot up, exhale, blink, stare at the raindrops on the windowpane, type my username and password, open Outlook, and wonder if my sensorium will survive another day—or if it’s already too late.

I’m trawling for today’s Phish concert—my goal is to listen to 150 Phish shows this year—when our department’s ultracrepidarian bursts loudly through the door. I jam my headphones on and get serious about finding that concert… ah, here we go, July of 2000, Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto. I smash the play button. Phew. My sensorium groans with the unreal pinch of yet another workday, life after yesterday’s finish line, the dream not being over. I begin scrolling through the slew of new emails while the crowd cheers the first few notes of Reba.

After hundreds of workdays at a huge company, you know the sameness so well that it’s hardly the same at all. Nothing is real. Everything swims through your mind like reading fiction, underwater rainbows of story arcs. Your inbox is a playlist of original music whose composers and performers are fraught with doomed heroics, comedic nerves, and wonderless deadpans. A little picture, a rank, and a department complete the profile of each artist, just enough information to lend credibility to every suggestion of character that you see in them. Here’s Jeremy Glynn, who orders, not asks, despite his modest rank—whose clipped sentences show that he wants it known how busy he is—who copies half his department on everything. Here’s Pol Mercier, who follows up every forty-eight hours no matter what—who riffs on thank you and kind regards like a moronic robot—whose disuse of punctuation leaves each message open, on an inhale, like an obnoxiously unresolved fourth.


I listen as Reba’s staggered duet, formed of trey-strings and page-keys, transmogrifies into the onomatopoeia of fishman-drums, a paragraph I know well but haven’t read in a few days, maybe even a week. A Reba kind of day, then—yes, the evenly punctuated groove follows, one of my favourite narratives, never exactly the same, but always reading just like Phish. That’s how it is with Glynn, too, his tones variable but his mind not. There’s a story in the office of when Glynn turned up late to a meeting and, checking his watch, announced without sarcasm: “You’re lucky I’m here.” I wasn’t present but, through hundreds of notes from Glynn, I recognised this as so Glynn-like that I honestly was there: when I heard it, the experience oozed into my sensorium just like everything else.

Crowd noise and keyboard clacks. The oeuvre spans so many shelves that there’s no use hoping or guessing at which song is next. I stare at the screen. Unread emails: 0. I can’t believe yesterday wasn’t the end of all this. I was so exhausted yesterday. I’m just starting to become aware of my surroundings when First Tube bursts open right as Outlook pings: bang on cue, an uptempo number from Britta Netowitz. Can’t get to 10:00 a.m. without one.

Before my Phish project, different songs and artists and playlists composed each work-hour, little obsessions wearing themselves out over a couple of days. I felt pressure to mood-match, was constantly jerked back to YouTube to find the next, next, next song. Hans Zimmer, Vulfpeck, the La La Land soundtrack (only tracks 1-2), Maynard Ferguson, the Greyboy Allstars—all exquisite, but each song the same every time. Striking copy/pastes. I ended up craving studio finishes from the likes of Glynn and Mercier and Netowitz, protean mistakes of people, and I just wasn’t getting them. No, I was getting banger after banger instead: new outrageous stories, new backhanded insults, new gleeful fakery, new tactless requests, all of them coming fast and loud, no warning, no prelude. I hated it. But now, First Tube’s hypnotic bass-line turns this distortion into poetry. The mike-plucks and trey-strings spiral down, or perhaps up, through my being. More, I think. More! My sensorium glows and hums, Phish widening its chamber of dramatic ironies which had partly closed up overnight.

My job inhabits a comfortable space between pseudo-journalism and creative writing, and permits me to rewrite whole drafts if I want to or leave it at minor retuning. The business-side people bring the content, I bring the wording, that’s the deal. As I’m working, Outlook pings an incoming draft, I get another message urging me to shuffle my priorities, and the time signature jumps needlessly in the doc in front of me. I close my eyes. Trey says boy! in my ear and I think, man… if I weren’t in the middle of You Enjoy Myself I might just have to smash my keyboard to bits. But when I open my eyes I’m rabid, gaslighted, rearing, and lucid.

Prolonged Phish exposure can induce a hypnopompic state in which you exist between the familiarity of the music and its simultaneously being shape-shifty and organically strange. It’s indebted to jazz, of course, but it isn’t just improvisation that I mean: there are uncopiable qualities like its deceptive simplicity, the strangeness of its depths, the grinning creatures swimming through each song, the honesty in Trey’s voice, how all four members contribute to the gravity/buoyancy balance. Purists may spar with me on this, but I almost think it best if you’re only paying partial attention when listening—by splitting your focus, you let some phrases pull you above the surface and other ones groove you under. New Phish songs aren’t even objects of primary anticipation, as you don’t quite know them yet, the span of their personalities. Same as a new colleague: I’m not so interested in Patrick, yet, as it’s his first day today. Let’s see if he freaks out under stress, or is a desperate ladder-climber, or seeks to rip off the company—it’s a big book, and he must arrange himself amongst the other characters. Last chapter’s intern once emailed the whole department to say Teamwork makes the dream work! and my sensorium didn’t recover for a week.

I sit back in my chair. Limb By Limb opens up as it starts to pour outside. Unread emails: 7. I grin.