University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Caleb Daniloff ’94

Requiem for a Jam Band

Nectar's on Main St.
Photo by Mario Morgado

Departments / Alumni Voice

Requiem for a Jam Band

by Caleb Daniloff ’94

It was perhaps Burlington’s most famous birth. Phish. Midwived in large part by UVM dorms and buildings, the foursome slipped from the city in the mid-1980s, each band member a native son, none a Vermonter. Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell migrated north from New Jersey, Mike Gordon ’87 from the Boston suburbs, and Jon Fishman from upstate New York. (All but McConnell started at UVM, Gordon the only alumnus).

The band’s name, with its soft-nosed whimsy, has become synonymous with Burlington — with Nectar’s, with The Front, with Battery Park. Together, the four students tapped the spirit of the city. Or was it the other way around? For many UVMers, similar spiritual transactions took place here — among friends, within oneself, between a professor, toward the landscape.

The band’s mythology is rooted in Burlington and Phish-heads the world over descend upon Nectar’s Lounge. But the stories go back even further — to UVM, to Redstone Campus, to Harris-Millis and Slade Hall, to early lyrics posted on dorm-room doors, to a cafeteria gig drowned out by Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

As a freshman in the late ’80s, I twice saw Phish perform, once at The Front on Main Street, and the second time at a converted fraternity house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Visiting a friend at Hampshire College, I’d been dragged to hear “this great band.” The place was packed, and tacked to the walls were half-full bags of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish with the fronts cut away (an ingenious calling card for the little-known band). I was surprised to learn it was Phish, and shouted over the music, “Hey, I know these guys,” even though we’d never met. My first flush of Burlington pride.

But for whatever reasons, I never Let Go and Let Phish. I had been raised on American hair bands and Soviet death metal. With their jabberwocky wordplay and prankster jams, Phish offered more fun than I was looking for. Though I secretly found Trey Anastasio’s sky-tickling licks, his growling guitar capable of producing the same nine-foot tall, stepping-over-buildings sensation that metal gods once delivered.

During my first summer in Burlington, “Run Like an Antelope” and “Fee” served briefly as anthems. Hearing those tripping, unbridled melodies today whisks me back to lazy July afternoons, lounging on porches and rooftops, watching the summer sun slip behind the Adirondacks.

When the album A Picture of Nectar came out some years later, UVMers were reminded of another institution. No matter where in the world we’d landed, there were those gravy fries again, being passed through the take-out window to a swaying, sweaty, exuberant crowd. There again was Nectar Rorris manning the register with his mustachioed smile, the swirl of bartenders behind the horseshoe bar, the black-clad waitresses with drink trays for hands. There again was Huntington Gorge, North Beach, and parties at farmhouses rented by the friends of friends. Some of those friends, friends with the band.

Much has changed since the late ’80s. Nectar’s is under new ownership, the Front is an office for The Ski Rack, and after an epically muddy farewell festival in Vermont, Phish is no more. But each fall, new mythologies start taking shape, stories to be read years from now — of inspired times and lousy times, of friends and antagonists, of bar stools and diner booths. And each fall, new circles of students gather on the rickety porches of old houses on Buell Street or North Winooski or Intervale Avenue, taking in  their own nascent soundtracks.

Originally published in the Fall 2004 issue.

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