On October 29, 2013, Phish will make their debut performance at the
Sovereign Center Santander Arena in Reading, Pennsylvania. I know what you are thinking. “If it is their debut performance, how can we step into a yesterday that doesn't exist?” Well, in the first place, Reading has played an integral role in both the history of Phish, my life, and my relationship with Phish. Secondly, while Phish has never played in Reading, and the venue itself was only constructed in 2001, it was built atop the rubble of the Astor Theater.
The Astor Theater is a venue with its own rich history; the ghosts of which are sure to be lively as we make our way toward the feast of Samhain. Originally designed by architect William H. Lee and constructed in 1928, its intended purpose was a 2,478 seat Art Deco movie theater. The Astor Theater opened October 3, 1928 with an opening night program that included dedication of the theater, an overture performed by the Astor Concert Orchestra conducted by Vincent Kay, a Movietone newsreel, vitaphone presentations by banjoist Eddie Peabody, comedians Shaw and Lee, Larry Ceballos’ Under Sea Revue a stage presentation by the Circus Follies, the feature film Street Angel starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, and exit music for a film, in this case “Angela Mia,” performed on the Wurlitzer Cathedral Organ. What a night! The Astor was in use as a movie theater through 1975, with its final days as such being of the X-rated variety. After going out of the movie business, the Astor Theater experienced a brief but undeniably awesome period as a music venue with 31 performers gracing the stage from late 1975 through 1978 that included Hall & Oates, Billy Joel, Kansas, the Charlie Daniels Band, Jeff Beck (with the Jan Hammer Group), Bonnie Raitt (with Johnny’s Dance Band), Hot Tuna, Jerry Garcia Band, Riders of the New Purple Sage, Phoebe Snow, Rush, Barry Manilow, Blue Oyster Cult, and Todd Rundgren. The Astor was placed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 1978 but despite renovation efforts led by Red Skelton, the theater fell into disrepair during the 1980s, was subsequently razed to make way for the Sovereign Center in 1998, and delisted from the NRHP in 2000.
Considering its foundation on hallowed ground, the
Sovereign Center Santander Arena itself has been no stranger to concerts by major artists since opening in September 2001. Notable performers to precede Phish include Pearl Jam, Slayer, Rob Zombie, Neil Diamond, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marilyn Manson, Godsmack, Kenny Chesney, Matchbox Twenty, Cher, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Sting, Kid Rock, Andre Rieu, Evanescence, Barry Manilow, Eric Church, Steve Miller Band, Dolly Parton, Bob Seger, Carrie Underwood, and Van Halen. The 7,083 seat multi-use arena has also hosted a number of professional sports teams including current tenants the Reading Royals (ice hockey) as well as former residents the Reading Rockets (indoor lacrosse) the Reading Railers (baseketball), the New York Majesty (lingerie football), and the Reading Express (arena football). The building is clearly built to withstand the awesomeness that is Phish, perhaps something we should touch on in a regional sense.
As indicated above, Reading was a major turning point in my life and also played a pretty pivotal role in my development as a Phish fan. I moved to Reading in June 1994 while I was in the process of completing my MS in Geology at Syracuse University. I was working as an environmental geophysicist for a local firm and as such was spending many long days in the field and many long nights at the Northeast Taproom. When first taken there by my boss Rocky, I was introduced to Uncle Pete, the Taproom’s former proprietor as “a big Phish fan!” Little did I know, Rocky was doing me a major solid with this introduction because, as I soon learned, any friend of Phish was a friend of Uncle Pete, and pretty much every other character that habitually frequented this legendary tavern; up to but not including the pride of Reading, Mr. Brad Sands. The thing was, at the time of Rocky’s proclamation, I was really still a gigantic noob having only seen four shows by that point. I decided I should live up to this descriptor, thus my time in Reading was my time of transformation as a fan. This metamorphosis included a series of epic “Phish Bus” experiences wherein all the patrons of the Taproom holding tickets would pile into either passenger vans or tour coaches destined for nearby shows.
The first of my Taproom “Phish Bus” experiences was to the Stabler Arena show at Lehigh University (10/7/94) which included the passenger van we rode in making a backstage delivery of some choice microbrews to Brad and the band, my first live “Tweezer,” the debut of the completed “Guyute,” the debut of the acoustic “Foreplay/Longtime,” and an inadvertent blast of mace in the face from a Kutztown police officer chasing a perpetrator who ran by me as I exited one of the watering holes we stopped at on the way home. Truly unforgettable experience. The next long strange trip took place the following summer as the Taproom crew made its way down to the second of two Mann Music Center shows in Philadelphia (6/25/95). This luxury coach trip included multiple kegs of Stoudt’s, more meatsticks than any man should care to eat, a stop at a “K-Mart Brewpub” and one hell of a show; the high point of which was an insane Mike’s Groove which included a freaky “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” the requisite post-Fishman “HYHU,” and some “Jam.” According to Rocky, I dissolved from our pavilion seats sometime during the first set “Taste” and didn’t re-materialize until I found myself at the back of the lawn sharing in the groove. I found Rocky hiding under the bus.
My final “Phish Bus” experience would find us heading to Hersheypark Stadium the following summer (8/14/96). This last adventure was the most poignant because it set the stage for the rest of my life. Having visited Portland, Oregon during July 4th weekend, I had decided to move west to the city I consider my home. For reasons I will touch on below, other than the tiny confines of the Taproom, Reading never really felt that way. This “stadium” show also preceded the Clifford Ball, which of course I attended as part of my trip west to Oregon. After again ingesting my fill of keg beer and cased meats, I made my way onto the field for yet another killer show in the land of Chocolate (I had also attended the 12/1/95 Hershey Arena show with the absolutely insane “Mike’s Song>I am Plutonium>Weekapaug Groove” the previous winter). High points of the final “Phish Bus” show included my second “Jam” coming out of the show opening “Wilson,” my second live “Tweezer,” a hilarious Fishman rendition of “Cracklin’ Rosie,” and another best “Julius” ever dedicated to Sandsio’s brother Matt. When the bus finally got back to the Taproom, I spent a good long while talking to Uncle Pete about our respective futures, we wished each other great success, and I drifted off into the night toward my future.
If I were to tell you that seeing Reading in my rearview mirror was one of the happiest moments of my life, it would be an understatement. The two years and two months I spent as a resident of the city were incredibly soul crushing. With all due apologies towards my friends with Reading roots, to those of you I don’t know personally who are from there, have lived there, or are living there now; Reading, Pennsylvania, to my eyes, represents everything that has gone wrong with the American Dream. Reading was once a prosperous city, the namesake of the Reading Railroad, an integral cog in the heavy industry and manufacturing that lead this nation to economic stability and post-depression abundance. Reading’s population and prosperity peaked in the late 1930s and has been in a state of accelerating decline ever since, owing mostly to the nationwide disintegration of making anything other than (largely imaginary) money in the latter half of the 20th century. This decline was further fueled by an explosion in crime, both organized and otherwise. Believe it or not, according to the New York Times, as of 2012 Reading actually edged out Flint, Michigan as the nation’s poorest city. Reading is the real canary in our nation’s economic coal mine it seems.
If it were possible to ignore the economic malaise that abounds in the city, there is an even uglier component to the strife that has befallen Reading. No, I am not referring to the malodorous scent of mushroom farming that sometimes permeates Berks County. This putrescence is far worse. I’m not quite sure how it got this way and I certainly don’t know how to go about fixing it; but Reading is without a doubt the most racist, homophobic, misogynistic place I have ever been. If I were to attempt to unravel the source of this unfathomably deep pool of hatred, I think I would have to start with the life history of Reading’s poster boy for intolerance Roy Everett Frankhouser Jr., Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon, American Nazi, government informant, and security consultant to Lyndon LaRouche. Although I did not have the displeasure of meeting Roy during my time in Reading, I did cross paths with many of his disciples. Whether it be my only visit to the curiously named (unless you dig into history) Jackson Democratic and Social Club, which at the time of my visit only admitted white males, or the swastika emblazoned tattoo artist who explained his Italian-American co-worker's lack of understanding regarding the symbology of Celtic runes with the simple observation that “he isn’t white;” I was left with a feeling of incredulity that this type of thinking still persists in our culture. I had to get out and in August 1996 I did. I haven’t looked back, until now.
Fast forward to 2013 and Phish of all things has finally given me a reason to consider returning to Reading. I’m almost certainly not going to do it mind you, but if you go to the Phish show at the
Sovereign Center Santander Arena, I urge you with great vehemence first and foremost to be careful while in Reading...it has some dark and dangerous places. There is however a beacon of light in this world of blight. With this in mind, my second exhortation would be for you to do some or all of your pre- and/or post-show revelry at Mike’s Tavern. Although the Northeast Taproom still exists, it is a shadow of its former self and Mike’s Tavern is now the place to find Uncle Pete. Though I haven’t seen him in person in over a decade, Pete is one of several people I met during my time in Reading that I still consider to be a good friend. He loves Phish, good beer, and good times as much as you do. If you go to the Reading show, Mike’s Tavern is open, and Uncle Pete is actually behind the bar, please tell him that Miracle-Mart sent you. I got mine, but the City of Reading needs one too. Perhaps Phish coming to town is the first step toward the Light.