Excerpt: This Has All Been Wonderful (A Travel Monologue From Summer 1994: The Year Phish Became Phish)

David "ZZYZX" Steinberg on May 7, 2014

Today is the 20th anniversary of Phish’s celebrated performance at the Bomb Factory (often referred to as “Tweezerfest” and later released as Live Phish Vol 18). David “ZZYZX” Steinberg, who later become known in Phish circles as The Timer, attended that show that night (along with a few hundred others, including Relix editor-in-chief Dean Budnick). In this excerpt from Steinberg’s new book This Has All Been Wonderful (A Travel Monologue From Summer 1994: The Year Phish Became Phish), he looks back on that evening in Dallas.

May 7, 1994 – The Bomb Factory

Dallas, TX

Saving the best for first.

Around the time I first started seeing the Grateful Dead in 1988, Ticketron and Ticketmaster were fighting for the right to provide ducat availability. Apparently, it was a better image to be the God of Tickets than to bring up memories of a science fiction movie as the Master bought out Tron in 1991. Unfortunately, that buyout brought the end of the best feature that Ticketron offered: I was able to go to Record Theatre in Baltimore in 1990 and casually buy a ticket to a Grateful Dead concert in Louisville, KY. Ticketmaster didn’t understand the needs of the subculture that thought it was important to see one or two bands in many different places, so they built an infrastructure that would only allow local buying. As a result getting tickets for this tour was complicated. There were few enough sell outs that it ended up becoming a trivial issue, but it was something that I was worried about before driving the nearly 700 miles between Las Cruces and Dallas.

With many more shows coming up and the end of the semester looming, it might not have been the most intelligent decision to leave at 2 AM on a Saturday morning, drive all day, and go see a concert the same night. Youth has its own logic, and it wanted to see an additional show or two. I just wanted to make sure that the effort would be rewarded. Long distance was not a free service then, but I spent the money to call the venue to see if there were still tickets available. They were non-committal. I figured it would be safe, but I made a few token “I need a ticket” signs and threw them in the back of my car. If nothing else, you never know when those could come in handy when you’re about to go on tour.

If you live near the Mexican border, you quickly learn about an obscure detail in Border Patrol law. They have extra powers within 100 miles of an International Border. What they do with that authority is mostly to have Inspection Checkpoints set up on any major road that winds north. All traffic has to exit the highway and talk to an officer. Usually it is a very straightforward task, but in the middle of the night around (Fine Wine) Van Horn, they can get pretty bored. That leaves things open for a classic game of Harass the Hippie! I was used to being queried about my citizenship, but it didn’t stop there. Where was I going? Where did I come from? And most of all, why did I have signs in my hatchback? He spent quite some time questioning me about three pieces of poster board with various Phish-related ticket jokes on them.

The difference between a customs checkpoint and a normal police stop is that the former can ask you what whatever they want and you don’t have the same rights. Put yourself in their position: When you’re sitting there bored, fantasizing about the medal you could receive for catching a smuggler, anything out of the ordinary is likely to raise flags.

Zzyzx Tour Lesson Number One: If your journeys are to take you past an Inspection Checkpoint, don’t give them a reason to suspect anything is off about you, or you will be there for quite some time.

I was finally able to explain that I was just trying to get concert tickets, and my journey continued. The stretch between Fort Worth and El Paso is incredibly empty. Large sections of that now have a legal speed limit of 80, but it’s not like people drove slower when it was still 65 through those sections. Even my poor Metro was pushed to 85 or so. I was scared that the hamster that powered the engine might die of a heart attack, but it was a trooper.

I arrived at the parking lot to discover that there were plenty of tickets; in fact, the show only ended up being about half to two thirds full. Ticket purchased, I had a different mission. At the time, I was obsessed with an idea I had come up with a year prior. Relistening to The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday[1], I decided that there was a different interpretation of the characters involved. Tela is accused of being a spy. The story works better if she’s innocent and the accusation is evidence that Errand Wolfe is already corrupt. I wrote an essay[2] explaining the idea but the Bomb Factory was my attempt to bring this to a new level. I bought a clipboard and made a mock petition explaining that Tela was being slandered. The idea was to get signatures and then eventually present it to Trey.

What we know now is that the amount of interest a topic has on the Internet bears little relation to how much people at large care about it. The concentrated attention on a subject makes one assume the entire world cares about it as much as you and your friends do. After all, if you’re talking about it all day, surely that means that there’s a massive groundswell of fascination. Generations of interaction based solely around geographic proximity and accidents of birth made us ill-prepared for a world where we self-select around mutual interests. We still think that our social circles are far more random than they are and that we can generalize from them to populace at large. The above is just a long way of saying that no one in the lot (Such as it was. The parking lot was only large enough for three or four dozen cars and there was no one wandering around trying to sell veggie burritos.)had the slightest interest in signing my petition. I brought the clipboard into the show with me, perhaps with the intent of trying to continue my doomed joke. Instead, I quickly discovered that it served another purpose, that of a setlist table.

I like to keep detailed setlists. It was a process that started when I was seeing the Grateful Dead. It wasn’t enough to track the songs. I’d make notes about how they were played. I found myself writing “JFU” (Short for “Jerry Fuck Up” as Garcia’s increasingly problematic health issues caused him to stumble his way through shows; at the time we tried to romanticize it as being charming, instead of the disturbing foreshadowing that it was.) as a song note quite a bit.

The process escalated in December 1991 when my mom bought me a watch that had a built in stopwatch. Originally out of curiosity, I started timing the length of the sets and writing that down. Eventually that led to timing individual songs. I did this for two reasons. The first is that live music has an intense power. When caught up in a jam, I find myself unable to pay attention to mundane reality like the passage of time. Keeping a watch going lets me know that actually we’re just 20 minutes into the set and there’s still plenty of music to go. The more important reason is that it’s a focusing device. I discovered that I could have a bad tendency to zone out at shows. Keeping a lot of notes prevents one from suddenly snapping out of a train of thought to discover that three songs have passed.

Taking notes though requires a lot of paper. I tried bringing in loose leaf notebooks. They ended up just getting lost. During Spring Tour 1993 I would grab a dozen of the Rift promotional postcards they had at the merchandise booth and use the back of them for notes. They were solid enough to be easy to write on, but they only had them for that one tour. It turned out that the perfect solution was to bring in a clipboard. Decades later I’d still be lugging a sticker festooned piece of particleboard into concerts. Throughout the years I have fielded many questions about what I was gathering signatures for; little did they know that that was the original plan.


[1] On the off chance that someone picked up this book without knowing this, The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday was Trey’s senior thesis. A song cycle set in a fantasy universe named Gamehendge, it contains many of Phish’s classic songs. There have been a select few shows where the songs were played in order, with narration between them to explain the story.

[2] Available at http://www.ihoz.com/Tela.html.

Armed with stopwatch, clipboard, and pen, I was ready to take notes. It turned out that it was a good thing I had the space as this is still on the short list of best concerts I have ever seen Phish perform. In fact, if you’re – say – writing a book about Phish in 1994 and wanted to do some background research on the Bomb Factory, you’d find out that a majority of the links Google returns for the venue return are about this show.

One thing that gets forgotten about this show is that it had a rather strong first set. There are all sorts of gems lying around that no one ever thinks about. The “Llama” mid instrumental breakdown, the short but very cool surprise jam connecting “Horn” to “Divided Sky,” Mike’s fun little bass punctuation effects during that song, it all is foreshadowing.

The first sign that this would be anything more than just some playing around the edges happened during “Split Open and Melt.” This is an extremely inventive version that builds up to an intense, dark space. Just as it seems about to drop into the coda, there’s a detour. The jam gets quieter, leaves the main theme and becomes very Page heavy, leading to a unique ending. In many shows – including quite a few later in this tour when I go on for a bit about the “Melt” – this would be the highlight but this instance was more akin to a stretching exercise. The sprinting would come in the second set.

During the long drive across the Texas desert, I listened to a tape I had just managed to acquire from the previous summer. It was from Tinley Park, IL and centered around a 30 minute “Run Like an Antelope” that had other songs sandwiched in the middle. I wished that we would somehow be receiving something similar in Dallas, but that sort of show didn’t come around often. Little did I suspect that the second set would be even more improvisational.

The second set opened up normally enough with “Loving Cup” and “Sparkle” but then it got weird. The “Tweezer” that followed consumed 26 minutes. Just that fact alone was rather shocking for the era. Jams of that length were completely unheard of; even the length of the “Antelope” mentioned above was padded by the mid-jam digressions. Fortunately this wasn’t just aimless noodling. There were a few nice build jams and a heavy metal section with Phish singing, “Yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeeeeeeah!” on top; I was told that was a Gwar song titled “Gwa” played in honor of the theatric heavy metal band playing next door at the Deep Elum. It was a lie. No such song was teased.

“Tweezer” eventually resolved into “Sparks.” This would be my only version of the song until the Dick’s “S show.” [3] That’s too bad because it works really well as a transitional song, filling the space from an end of a jam to the next song inspiration. In this case, it segued into the then rare “Makisupa Policeman.” That was a lot of fun but I figured we’d go back to a normal Phish set afterwards. Instead, the end of “Makisupa” morphed into a Digital Delay Loop Jam. Trey and Mike have unusual tones over the loop; for a few minutes it sounds almost like a Pink Floyd outtake. Then though, it returned to Phish playing a rock and roll styled jam that segued into “Walk Away”. OK, surely now we’re going to go back to a normal Phish show?Nope, back to the jam. This section was very Page heavy. He plays some beautiful chords for a while over a quiet jam. At one point the music threatened to become “It’s Ice”, but that was a little too standard for this show. Instead we’d get a one time cover of the Breeders’ “Cannonball” because, sure; why not?

Fishman singing “Purple Rain” was almost a relief. The show had been so weird, mixed with intense jams, rarities, and bustouts that it was nice to be able to relax for a second. Don’t blow it off too much or you’d miss Jon channeling his Royal Purpleness to scream, “And that means you too, Dallas, Texas!” “Hold Your Head Up” started, but instead of some banter followed by a break, Trey and Fish play the drums together for a while. The jam builds. It considers segueing into “Weekapaug Groove” for a while. Finally, the intro chords to “Tweezer Reprise” are hit and the madness ends, well over an hour after we were asked to step into the Freezer of Coldness.

May 7 was just the first of the twenty-six shows I would see this summer, but it immediately reminded me why I would do something as stupid as drive for twelve hours each way to see a pair of concerts. Sometimes what was shaping up to be an ordinary night of music in a refurbished bomb factory becomes an explosion of a different sort.

In addition to being one of my all time favorite sets to listen to, this night had one more lasting effect on my life. During the extended “Tweezer,” the easier to read setlist let me notice how long it was going on for. I occasionally would drop an aside, “We are 50 minutes into ‘Tweezer.’” The Greenpeace table staff seemed interested in my chronological updates, so I kept them posted. What I didn’t know was that that got back to the band and a nickname was created. From then on, I would be known as The Timer. Yes, the cape was a later invention, but everything else that is known about me – the clipboard, the name – it all comes down to the Bomb Factory.


[3] Phish played a concert in 2011 where every song’s title started with the letter S, providing you pretend there’s no “The” in “The Sloth.”