May 22, 2004

Strange Design: A Vegas Story

By Tenzin McGrupp © 2004

Only in Vegas can I wander around drunk, stoned, hopped up on pills, and tripping… and still be the most sober person in the room. In between sets of the Phish concert, I scribbled down a few notes on the pen and stationary I had lifted from the Excalibur Casino. I glanced at the set list and turned my head when I felt someone tapping me on the shoulder. Sadie unfurled her hand. In the middle of her palm sat two small seaweed-green pills.

“Only take one,” she warned me, with a smirk and a hinge of condescending sarcasm, like when your mother tells you to wear a sweater because it’s cold outside.

I popped both and turned around to finish my conversation with the rowdy guy from Michigan next to me.

“That first set was a little heavy on the desert funk,” I pontificated.

A huge fan of the funky side of Phish, I relished in the moments when the band got the funk factor kicked up into high gear. Perhaps it was the sign that hung from a section on the other side of the stage which read: “Funkify Your Life!”

A bold statement indeed. A warning? Perhaps. A wish list? Most likely. And they guys who originated cow funk, from the green mountains of Vermont, concocted a hearty stew of phrenetic desert funk.

In Miami, during their four show New Year‘s Eve run at the end of 2003, I witnessed history when George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic jammed out in a session of Sunshine Funk for almost an entire set with the boys. But that was a different city and Vegas was an entirely different planet. The Vegas Phish shows took on a Wild West frenzied pace and you never knew what was going to happen next. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, or the three day long narco-alcho orgy, or all the fervid sun, or how the shifty desert drove the sanest people towards the brink of insanity, but the energy picked up to a tornado-like funnel and swarmed around the venue that night. It captivated the alacritous fans that filled the audience, as well as the curious newbies, who wanted to see for themselves what all the cultish, religious-like-experiences, and buzz were all about.

The Vegas crowd was an interesting mix of neo-hippies in search of a higher meaning in life (supported by Daddy's credit cards), wandering college kids, prosperous middle-aged fans - a nice splattering of cyber-geeks and ultra-hipsters and yippies; - and the normal collection of freaks and miscreants that you’d often find at a Phish show. Like the scrawny girl with the beard and fourteen nose rings, or the fat naked girl handing out Tootise Rolls, or the guy wearing a 420 t-shirt with purple and orange dreadlocks, and the drunk girls dressed up like bumble bees, and the odd assortment of barefoot guys with beards, shaved heads, and dresses wrapped around their waists. I sat next to two 32 year-old yuppies, a lovely couple from San Francisco who after exchanging business cards with me, inquired about buying a handful of Ritalin off of me for $60. Earlier in the day, I had found a group of fifteen-year old crocked girls in Shakedown Street asking me to help them cut up their eight ball of cocaine in the back of Daddy's SUV. Don’t forget about the scary girl all dressed in black, with black fingernails and a dog collar around her neck trying to sell me grams of Molly for $30, when I knew that the short, hairy armpitted Phishy chick with the thirsty, panting puppy popping its head out of her backpack would sell it to me for $15, solely because “she dug my vibe.”

For three hours each night, the boys took chances and risks, like any gambler in Vegas would do. They made a few mistakes and hit some home runs and as the shows got later each night, and the party raged longer, I found it harder and harder to take legible notes. Somewhere, I scribbled down: Taste the fear.

Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from New York City.

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