Making the Music Play

POST STAR, June 10, 2001, http://www.poststar.com

Making the Music Pay
Local Phish-Loving Couple Raising Cash and Giving It Away

QUEENSBURY — As the band members of Phish swim their separate ways this summer, the Mockingbird Foundation — formed by a local couple and a dozen Phish phanatics across the country — has taken flight and is soaring.

Jack Lebowitz and Kat Griffin (The Jackleens)Jack Lebowitz, an environmental lawyer in Saratoga Springs, has been penning recording contracts for a two-disc Phish tribute album featuring Dave Matthews, Jimmy Buffett, Arlo Guthrie and other artists that the foundation will release on June 26.

The “Sharin’ in the Groove” CD follows in the wake of “The Phish Companion,” a 915-page encyclopedic compilation of Phish phacts and lore that the foundation got Backbeat Books of San Francisco to publish on Nov. 30.

Lebowitz and his wife, Kathleen Griffin, who live on Garrison Road in Queensbury, were the art and photo editors for the book, and Lebowitz, the foundation’s counsel, wrote the chapters on taping and tape trading. The book’s first printing of 25,000 copies sold out in two weeks, and a second printing is going strong.

The board members, who mostly hail from the West Coast, aren’t in it for the money. They’re all volunteers, and all proceeds from the book and the CD go to children’s music charities.

The Mockingbird Foundation, incorporated in March 1997, has Lebowitz’s law firm in Saratoga Springs — Lemery MacKrell Greisler on Railroad Place — as its legal address. But the Web site — mockingbirdfoundation.org — is its connection to the world.

The foundation just awarded the first round of $10,500 in grants from book sales. Children in 11 rural village schools in Alaska will be learning traditional Athabascan music on native fiddles and instruments, thanks to a $5,000 grant. Other recipients include the New Mexico Jazz Workshop, where 15 scholarships for music camp will go to needy kids; and the Art Sanctuary program in Philadelphia, where 50 to 80 children in the inner-city will be learning West African drumming.

The next round of grants is due in July, and Lebowitz, Griffin and others on the grants panel are culling 225 applications from around the country and close to home.

After 17 years of touring, the members of Phish — who met as freshmen at the University of Vermont in Burlington and played their first gig in a UVM dorm in December 1983 — announced that their October concert in California would be their last for a while: they were taking a break. Singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio will go solo at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Aug. 5, but whether or not Phish ever get back together is anybody’s guess.

“The band is aware of the foundation. They’re moved that their music is bringing joy and good things to kids who are in need,” Griffin said. “Their music just keeps on giving.”

The foundation’s good deeds are getting noticed: the Mockingbird Foundation has been nominated for a Jammy Award, sponsored by Jambands.com, to be presented June 28 at a concert and ceremony at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City.

Lebowitz and Griffin might not make it to New York, but they’re bringing the whole family — daughter, Annie, 16, a junior at Glens Falls High; and son Gavin, 18, a senior who plays in the Glens Falls High orchestra and jazz band — to the CD release party at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on July 12. An East Coast celebration is being planned.

Annie and Gavin are thanked in the acknowledgments in “The Phish Companion” for handing out hundreds of flyers at Phish shows last summer. After being dragged to their first Phish concert at SPAC when they were 9 and 11 — “Can we leave now? When’s it going to be over?” Griffin recalls them saying — their attitude has changed dramatically through the years.

The family has piled in a van and headed north to Limestone, Maine, and south to Big Cypress, Florida, for Phish festivals, where fans are like one big extended family, Griffin said. The book includes a photo of their mini-van’s license plate: “DVD SKY,” short for “Divided Sky” — “my favorite, favorite Phish song” — and bumper sticker — “This car climbed Mt. Icculus” — a mythic Phish mountain strangers stop and ask about.

“Sharin’ in the Groove” is a family affair, too. Guest artists who performed with the band on stage or who were influenced by their music are donating their time and talent for a good cause.

RollingStone.com and MTV News Online has published blurbs about the tribute CD, which includes:
– Arlo Guthrie of “Alice’s Restaurant” fame, who followed in the footsteps of his famous folk father, Woody Guthrie, performs the Phish hit “Bouncing Around the Room” with his son’s band, Xavier.
– David Hidalgo and Louie Perez of Los Lobos perform “Chalkdust Torture” with their sons, Dave Jr. and Louis III, under the name, Los Villains.
– Dave Matthews, who opened three Phish concerts and shared the stage with them at least twice, performs “Waste,” his first solo studio release.
– Jimmy Buffett of “Margaritaville” fame, who played with Phish in Florida and has his own frenetic followers, performs “Gumbo” with his Coral Reef Band.
– The Tom Tom Club, with Chris and Tina of the Talking Heads — a big Phish influence — perform “Sand.”
– The Wailers play Phish’s only reggae original, “Makisupa Policeman.”
– Hot Tuna, with Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane, with vocals by Vanessa Kaukonen, perform “Alumni Blues.”
– The Vermont Youth Orchestra, which includes 83 kids from 27 schools in Vermont and New York , play “My Friend/Guyute.”
Little Feat, Lake Trout, Sons Seals …. the list of artists goes on.

“As this thing snowballs, we’re getting a lot of help from people in the music industry,” said Lebowitz. “People want to help out… It’s a feel good thing.”

“One of the reasons the foundation was formed was to assure people early on, and literary contributors, that we weren’t going to be making money off their efforts,” Lebowitz said.

In March 1997, the Mockingbird Foundation was incorporated, with Ellis Godard, a sociologist in Santa Cruz, California, as executive director. The only paid staff member is an accountant, for all the IRS charity filings, said Lebowitz, who does all the literary and record contracts and other legal work for free.

“My law office is the closest thing to a physical address,” he said.

After deciding not to self-publish, getting a literary agent was the next step. Griffin sent out letters of inquiry, and the rejection letters piled up..

“We went through a period when things were getting dark. We didn’t have an agent. People kept asking when it’s coming out. People were starting to say we were like vapor-ware,” Griffin said.

Then an agent found them and got a contract with Miller Freeman, now called Backbeat Books, six months later. The contract was signed May 4, 1999; the book was announced on Dec. 21, 1999; and “The Phish Companion” was published on Nov. 30, 2000, selling for $22.95 at major bookstores and on-line.

After the first royalty check from December sales, the next check in July will determine how much money can be given away.

Newspapers from Toronto to Hartford to San Francisco reviewed the book.

Forbes magazine gave it a plug in January: “Ever since Phish, the enigmatic Grateful Dead-esque jam band, went on hiatus this fall after 17 years of touring, its phans have felt bereft. Some business executives are so hooked on the quirky group that they privately admit to having rescheduled meetings in order to catch performances. Until Phish gets back onstage, here’s a temporary fix…”

Phish lyricist Tom Marshall, whose band Amfibian is featured on the CD, wrote the forward to book. But the fans were the primary contributors.

Several fans wrote about the Halloween concert at the Glens Falls Civic Center in 1994, one of the most memorable Phish concerts ever.

Dean Budnick of Cambridge, Mass., described the “the 8,000-seat arena built in the 1970s primarily for hockey” that is “nestled in the middle of a mildly decrepit old industrial town, forty miles north of Albany.”

The concert started at 10 p.m. and ended at 3:20 a.m.

“…The situation outside deteriorated closer to 9:30, with hundreds of the ticketless indulging in the Halloween spirit and antagonizing the crush of people pushing and struggling to get in,” Budnick wrote.

Phish played a cover of the Beatles’ entire “White” album, and the drummer pulled his dress over his head during the “you become naked” part of the Beatles’ song, “Revolution,” leaving nothing to the imagination.

First prize for best costume went to someone dressed as a “Mound” bar, a Phish song title. A guy dressed as a cobalt blue vacuum cleaner came in second, and a woman in a Hood milk carton came in third.

This summer, band members are off doing individual musical and film pursuits.

“They don’t know if they’ll ever get together,” said Lebowitz.

“Two of them have kids, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be … on the road,” Griffin said. “I can’t imagine that this is a permanent split. They’re going to go into Phish-withdrawal too” — something Phish fans have been suffering for eight months.

SIDEBAR: Phish Phacts

“The Phish Companion” traces every known performance and every known song — including the order and number of times and the days it was played — by the Burlington-based foursome, back to their University of Vermont and Goddard College days.

A sampling of their biographies:
– Trey’s real name is Ernesto Guiseppe Anastasio III; his mother Dina was editor of Sesame Street Magazine; and his father Ernie was executive vice president of Educational Testing Services, which administers the SATs.
– Keyboardist Page McConnell’s father, a doctor, helped develop Tylenol.
– Bass player Mike Gordon’s father founded the Store 24 convenience store chain.
– Drummer Jon “Fish” Fishman’s father is an orthodontist and sculptor.

Their first gig: Dec. 2, 1983. Trey, Mike and Jon play as the “Blackwood Convention” at a Christmas semiformal in Gordon’s dorm at UVM in Burlington, with Jeff Holdsworth on rhythm guitar.

Some local gigs:
– Aug. 21, 1987. Ian McLean’s farm in Hebron, Washington County.
– May 28, 1989. McLean’s party at Connie Condon’s farm in Hebron.
– March 8, 1990. Aiko’s bar on Caroline Street, Saratoga Springs.
– Oct. 5 1990. Skidmore College gym, Saratoga Springs.
– Oct. 31, 1994. Glens Falls Civic Center.
– July 10, 1994; June 26, 1995. Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
– Aug. 16-17, 1996. Plattsburgh Air Force Base.

Phish played at the Palace Theater in Albany on May 5, 1993 — Lebowitz’s first Phish show — and the band played six concerts at the Pepsi Arena in Albany, formerly the Knickerbocker Arena, from 1995 to 2000.

Notable photo in the book:
– “Halloween 1995, Jack and Kat,” p. 551. Lebowitz and Griffin, in costume at a Chicago Phish concert, wear wigs, goggles and the blue dresses with orange donuts made famous by the Phish drummer. A vacuum cleaner hose — one of Fishman’s musical devices — rests on her shoulders like a stole.

Phacts not in the book:
– As a Glens Falls High School student in the 1960s, Lebowitz was a stringer for the Glens Falls Times and Post Star back when Warren County Judge John Austin was city editor.
– A Grateful Dead fan at Wesleyan University, “a big Deadhead school,” Lebowitz met Griffin, a graduate of Ohio State, when they lived near Lake George. They married on Leap Day, 1980

Comments are closed.