A Real Phish Story

Max Creek, circa 1972 at The Rockinghorse Pub in Hartford, CT    -    Bob, David, Mark & John

It was just before Christmas. A fresh, clean snow blanketed the world outside my window, a fire crackled in the wood stove and the warm glow from the oil lamp colored the room in orange hues. The scent from a large simmering pot of freshly-made butternut squash and parmesan soup wafted throughout the room, mingling with the faint suggestion of woodsmoke. 

I was alone in my head, draped on my comfy, old recliner balancing a warm bowl of popcorn and my old cat in my lap. It wasn't lost on me how times had changed: it used to be that I balanced a cool drink and a young woman in my lap, but...nothing stays the same!  
Behind my eyelids, in full technicolor and surround sound, was playing a re-run of an old memory of rock 'n roll days gone by. 

Before acoustic guitars - which I preferred, and still do - had pickups in them, one had to tape cheap-o Radio Shack mics inside, plug into the ol' Fender Bandmaster and hope that the feedback didn't rip the top off the guitar - or your head!  It was time of padded, gold-flecked naugahyde Kustom PA columns loaded not-always-so-carefully into the back of a '65 Chevy van replete with a generous plate of bacon ‘n eggs painted on its blunt nose; the floor and ceiling lined with multi-colored shag carpet and a glove box full of rolling papers, gum and incense. 

I wandered my mind's backlot, getting lost in the late '60s and early '70s, the landscape of my formative years in the music biz. At age 16, I had made my first tour: a local music store sponsored my 6-piece, Tijuana-style horn band, The Solteros Brass, on a tour of the 1967 Montreal World's Fair. We floated around on an island in a lagoon in front of the Russian pavilion - two shows a day – before thousands of fair goers. I suppose this is when I caught the “tour bug”.  It continues to infect me to this day. 

Fast-forwarding a few years, I am there at the 1971 birth of Max Creek and those halcyon days when all we wanted to do was avoid the draft - the Viet Nam conflict raged in the background - party and make music.  While attending music college in Hartford, CT in '68 as trumpet players in the college's wind ensemble, John Rider (who was teaching himself bass) and I (struggling to develop my guitar skills) began working out traditional folk song arrangements while venturing into our own songwriting worlds.  Bob Gosselin was my long-time high school friend - we enjoyed our English sports cars and attended our first Grand Prix race together at Watkins Glen.  Bob also laid out a pretty solid drum groove so I asked him to make us a trio. Max Creek was birthed. 

We rehearsed in the basement of Rider's Theta Chi frat house and played all the hip watering holes Hartford had to offer. Both of them. We also played for camp outs, weddings, frat parties, and even a regional strip-club where we had to actually read music charts for different acts each week.  We met many ladies who got paid to take their clothes off and baggy-pants comedians who introduced us to the seamy-glamorous world of professional show-biz as they traveled from city to city plying their dying trade.  I recall Creedence Clearwater Revival's “Proud Mary” was a particularly popular tune amongst the younger strippers.

After graduation, we all moved into a secluded country house in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, sharing stories, expenses and household chores as together we created our sound which was gleaned from American country/folk/roots music while tapping into the West Coast sound that was gaining space on the radio airwaves.  It was during this time that I contracted appendicitis, ending up hospitalized with peritonitis for several weeks.  The band had gigs booked and wanted to honor that. This situation lead to Rider to ask his frat-bro and keyboard genius, Mark Mercier to take my place. Mark added his perfect pitch, sparkle and color...and Fender Rhodes piano, too!  After my return it was decided he should stay on with us. Now we were a quartet. 

When I learned that my long-time trumpet student, 15 year old Scott Murawski, was secretly a monster guitarist I invited him up to the house to sit in with the band. His brilliant lead guitar fit right in, making this Max Creek band sound like nothing else. It was lots of fun for a few years for me, until... 

The band wanted to lean more towards the West Coast sound a la Grateful Dead. Nothing wrong with that, mind you, but the Dead were already the Dead! I was becoming enamored with early American country blues musicians and moving away from my flat-picking, rhythm guitar strumming to a more complex finger-picking technique. I had developed a curiosity about the diverse world of indigenous peoples and their rich musical cultures, rhythms and instruments. I yearned for Max Creek to be sonically and instrumentally "diverse". I mean, amongst us we had five songwriters, we had three trumpet players, and everyone played at least one or two other instruments - including percussion!  I was dabbling with drums, banjo, harmonica and lap-steel guitar and I wanted to add these colors to the band. I was fascinated by thinking of the permutations and possibilities! Why did we have to do yet another replicative version of Playin' In the Band, Casey Jones or Franklin Tower? 

I was outnumbered and it was then decided that I should fade away. I did, but not before I'd contributed a few tunes and helped co-write others with the band. 
The band went through its various phases and personnel transmogrifications over the years, and my contributions were largely eclipsed by these changes.

But one tune, a countrified, bluegrass-style barn-burner instrumental called "Back Porch Boogie Blues" - not a particularly creative or inspirational title, I grant you - seems to live on, even today, in the band's repertoire. It was that very tune that many years earlier convinced us that Scott surely had the guitar goods.

The band recorded it on it's first, eponymously titled recording and on the occasion that I sit-in with Creek for a reunion concert or festival show, we'll usually do this tune. Did I copyright the work? Nah. Didn't think of that kind of stuff in those days. None of us did. Besides, who'd a-thunk this wordless song would have had a shelf-life much longer than that of a box of pretzels? 

Energized by all the reminiscing about my ancient music history, I polished off the popcorn, tossed off the dozing cat and roused myself from the recliner. I wandered into my office and fired up the computer, fine-tuned the "quantized unreality control" and dialed up the Max Creek website, curious to see what the ol' crew had been up to. After all, it had been over 40 years since I'd left the band and they were still successfully chugging along.

It was fun to learn that Scott now also sometimes plays guitar in a trio with the Grateful Dead's drummer Bill Kreutzman and Allman Brothers' bassist Otheil Burbridge, and is working on a project with Phish's bassist, Mike Gordon! It was oddly flattering to see that the student had surpassed the teacher. I was proud of Scott. And seeing all their set lists, gig listings, etc. was a nice post-script to my earlier, private reverie. 

I navigated towards some YouTube sites that had concert footage of a couple of Max Creek anniversary reunion shows that I played, including the 30th at the Paramount Theatre in Springfield, MA in 2001, just a few months before the world would change on 9/11!  Hot damn, we could still rock - and rock it good!  Despite more snow  now falling outside my window, I was enjoying myself immensely, warmed by these memories. 

And then, I saw it: An amateur YouTube concert footage of indeterminate origin titled "Phish Covers Creek" And there they were, those Burlington, VT jamboys blowing the lid off of a scorching instrumental tune. And what tune do you think the world-famous jam band was kickin' around? None other than my ol' "Back Porch Boogie Blues"! 

At first I was profoundly alarmed, and even felt violated. “Who the hell authorized that?!? No one ever asked me about using my tune!”  Then I caught my breath and grinned. "How cool is that?!?" 

Really, how many of us unsung songwriters get to have major acts cover our songs, even if they don't know they're doing it? Did I copyright the song? Of course not. As I said before, who'd a-thunk the ditties we were churning out would have had such long lives? We were shortsighted youngsters who lived only for the moment. So what. It's been so long since I'd penned it back in that house in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts. I don't know how I could prove it anyway. It's said that "possession is nine-tenths of the law" and Max Creek has now possessed that song far longer than me, I suppose.  

I like the song alright, but they're welcome to it. So is Phish, should they ever decide to swim up-Creek again. 
I guess it doesn't matter who wrote it...it belongs to everyone now. And I am glad.

Max Creek's 40th Anniversary Reunion at The Inn Place, Simsbury, CT     Bob, David, John & Mark - April 2011

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