I write to you tonight as a full-time volunteer for the Obama Presidential Campaign in Northern Virginia. I also write to you (somewhat more humbly I might add) as a former evangelical devotee of the band Phish. For those of you unfamiliar with Phish, they were--and reportedly will soon be again--a quartet of furry Vermonters who, at their peak, were nearly as musically dexterous as they were nimble with their psychotropic experimentation. Over the course of a storied 20-year career, Phish became a modern-day pied piper to legions of wayward sons and daughters searching for acceptance, belonging, and a righteous jam.
Arriving on the music scene when the Grateful Dead were self-medicating themselves to death and the Internet was just taking off, Phish became one of the first bands to propel to stardom through electronic word-of-mouth and the obsessive tape trading that followed their varied and unpredictable live sets. It did not occur to me that, in coming to Virginia to hit the campaign trail for the six weeks leading up to the national election, I would immediately find myself embedded within another subculture of transient young people.
Last month I was invited to help ferry Barack Obama and his running mate Joe Biden (along with their staffers and traveling press corps) to a rally in Fredericksburg. Waiting on the tarmac at Reagan International for the campaign planes to land, I was afforded the opportunity to shoot the breeze with the other volunteers and on-the-ground campaign staff. These folks are a strange breed: Like my dreadlocked brethren of yore, they travel with a supreme sense of loyalty to the icon that they serve. For these suited gypsies, November 5th looms with a deep significance and bittersweet uncertainty. It's the perennial campaigner's version of the drive home following the last night on tour.
Like the Phish gang, the campaigners also weave their own legends in each free moment on the road. In tones that engendered comfortable familiarity -- obviously this story had been told many times -- and often a complicated hint of wistful false modesty, I was told by one fellow, "Yeah, I've pretty much been working on campaigns off and on since early 2004...Dean campaign... up in New Hampshire...you know, before he got big..." The word "before" clearly and self-consciously baring the full weight of legitimacy. Another guy, the "motorcade lead," reclined with the perfect nonchalance of one who has worked hard to perfect their calm, cool, and collected. He kept rehashing how comparatively easy this motorcade was to coordinate. "Yeah, I was in Denver for six months before this gearing up for the Democratic National Convention...This shit is easy, man...Back in Denver I had to coordinate like, 100 vehicles, you know? All the time...at least 100 vehicles....man the Clintons are so difficult...everything has to be perfect..." If name dropping were a currency...
The parallels between the dueling peaks of adrenaline and boredom that fuel these tales and the idle chatter of the Phish gang are astonishing. To a certain extent, popular music wouldn't be popular music without the perennial debate over when (insert favorite band here) "sold out" and whether you were a fan prior to that date. With the Phish tribe though, it's not a mere matter of being "old school" or a "newbie." Personal stats, including number of shows seen, longest distance traveled to a show, longest time on tour, most landmark or legendary show, etc, are scrupulously kept and committed to memory so that at the slightest provocation, one can flex their superiority as a fan, or bow in awe of the guy who "saw 'em in Providence back in '89, man..." Do some of us come primed for adherence to an interest that blossoms into an obsession? At what point does a group of people unified by an obsession blossom into a cult?
In the spring of 2004, Phish decided for the second time in four years to call it quits, announcing the news to their fans with what, in retrospect, is a profoundly cringe-worthy letter and an appearance on Charlie Rose. I was shocked! Tears were shed as I made plans, along with thousands of other heartbroken patchouli scented dirt bags--like so many Peter Pan's suddenly trapped out of Neverland--to hit at least one show on Phish's farewell tour. My father compared this last migration to that of parasites jumping ship when their host has given up the ghost. "Don't worry pal, you guys will all find another warm body to latch onto."
A similar moment of truth is, as I write this, just days away. A recurrent and increasingly urgent topic of conversation is "What are you going to do when the election is over?" The guys I met on the tarmac, surely eyeing the impending drop-off in adrenaline and funds, are probably on the verge of a nervous breakdown. My comrades, many of whom have been working seven days a week since before the primaries, know nothing but the "fierce urgency of now." They're beginning to make bemused references to the "other" lives that they'll soon be returning to. Assuming Barack Obama is confirmed on the evening of this November 4th as the 44th president of the United States, we will dance in the streets, sleep for a day, and then begin to contemplate the fierce urgency of "Now what?"
Ryanne Hodson gears up for National Video web blog Posting Month 2008 (NaVloPoMo for those of you in the know). Read more …