STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The concert has just ended, and hundreds of dazed, dirty kids fresh from their nightly epiphany stream out of the arena at Penn State University and into the parking lot. They pass joints, share hummus, spin on the asphalt to the beat of a bongo.
Mike, 19, with a mangy nest of brown hair, a new beard and shoes held together with electrical tape, surveys the scene with satisfaction. It's like this after every Phish concert. Same kids, same drugs, same communal scrounging.
"Isn't this awesome?" asks Mike, who, like everyone else immersed in the Phish tank declined to give a last name. "The world would be so cool if everybody was a Phish Head."
Of course, just about everyone Mike knows is a Phish Head. No point in talking to anyone who isn't. Phish fans always swim tight. They look alike, dance alike, inhale alike and revel in the fact that their heads are all pointed in the same direction, like a school of unkempt minnows.
Their entire lives revolve around a four-member band that has just released its seventh album, "Billy Breathes," but has never -- cracked the top 40 with its meandering blend of calypso/rhythm&blues/jazz. The band does manage to pack arenas all over the country, however. With almost no promotion, Phish drew 70,000 people in August to a former Air Force base in Plattsburgh, N.Y., for a two-day concert -- more fans than Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E. or any of the other heavily promoted, star-studded summer music festivals.
Yet it's the fans, not the band's mildly innovative music, that make it a phenomenon.
The fanatics who follow the band during its annual fall tour repeat the same rituals for every Phish show. They'll converge on the venue's parking lot hours before the doors open. They'll do whatever they can to scrape together money for a $20 ticket. They'll drown in Ecstasy, a psychedelic drug, while the band plays. They'll camp out, or sleep in cars, just so they can see Phish perform many of the same songs in another arena somewhere else.
It's this devotion -- and their circa-1968 appearance -- that has prompted comparisons to the followers of the Grateful Dead.
But where the Grateful Dead grew out of an era of protest, Phish fans could care less about politics. With the presidential election just weeks away, there is not a political sign, bumper sticker or T-shirt in the sea of rundown cars and makeshift booths at the fans' encampment.
"What's the point of voting, they're all wrong, anyway," says Craig, 18, his cheeks smeared with pink glitter and his eyes, hidden by a mass of blond curls, half-closed in a drug glaze.
And where Dead Heads preached live and let live, Phish Heads don't preach. They don't want converts. They enjoy being insiders.
As an earnest looking 19-year-old with dreadlocks puts it: "There are two classes of people who come to Phish, like an upper and lower class. The college boys who come to get wasted and spend the day are the lower class. The ones who really get the band, understand all the layers of the music are the upper. You can't just come to a show and, like, you know what it's all about."
He doesn't even bother talking about the untouchables -- those who don't listen to Phish at all.
Phish bass player Mike Gordon attributes the band's intense following to its "commitment to music. ... A lot of groups may think they're sexy, or they want to conquer the audience. We want to take them on a journey, an adventure with us."
He says the band's spontaneous jam sessions and constantly changing set lists make each concert a separate experience.
He and other band members admit to some surprise at their current success. "Our goal was never to get more fans," Gordon says. "Our goal is to stretch music limits, and our own abilities. ... I guess word just started spreading that we were a band that's devoted to music."
Living for Phish tickets
Hours before the doors to the Bryce Jordan Center are due to open, Phish Heads wander through an encampment near the Penn State campus, sharing food, drinks and marijuana. They sell the homemade clothes they wear, hemp jewelry, glass pipes and bongs, and, somewhat more discreetly, drugs. Their clothes are all the same: cotton, homemade and drab. Sometimes, paisley tank tops, sometimes skirts, on girls or boys, sometimes baggy pants, and when it gets cold, always enormous Guatemalan sweaters.
There aren't any bright colors; the few tie-dyes are long-faded. But the dead giveaway that an outsider is in the crowd is a logo. It's an unspoken rule, but not one a Phish Head would break. No Hilfiger, Nike or Baltimore Ravens. Logos equal consumption and Phish Heads live for tickets to Phish shows. To admit to wanting anything else is to swim upstream.
Erik, 19, has been following the band for two weeks, stone broke. He sold shoes for tickets and depends entirely on other fans for food. "Our motto is what goes around comes around. When I get some money I'll bring food and share it."