At first I thought Charlie Dirksen was a dick. I mean, seriously, who was this guy to tell me what was good and what wasn’t in any particular jam song, especially ones that I witnessed. He wasn’t there; he didn’t feel that rush, that excitement when the first notes of Tweezer (or Mike’s Song or YEM) were played. He didn’t feel the rain on his face, pelting down as the band started Tweezer at my first show and yet he had the audacity to give it a C- grade. Charlie’s reviews were always popping up on the old rec.music.phish news group and they always had an air of knowing more than the rest of us, “just my two cents,” just seemed so condescending.
After reading a lot of those reviews, and his other comments about Phish and the Phish scene, turns out Charlie did (and still does) know more than most of us. Even a cursory glance at the archived song reviews the output of Charlie is staggering, literally hundreds of reviews, grading the songs and providing so many of us who couldn’t make it to all the shows where to look, what to listen to from a given tour. Sure, tastes might differ, but I’m willing to wager if you listened to all of the “A” grades Charlie gave a song from say, 1995, you were going to find something you liked, probably more than one.* It may have been his two cents, but they were two damn good cents.
NB: anything that Charlie didn’t give a grade to because it was just too out of the ordinary is worth your time. Go to the spreadsheet right now and find them. I also like to call those versions of songs, HC for Hors Categorie. That is the term used in the Tour de France for mountains that are so large, so difficult that they are classified “beyond category.” Geek worlds colliding.
It wasn’t just the prodigious volume either; it was the writing. Charlie accused Phish at times of mailing it in, but I can’t say I’ve ever read one of his reviews and thought, “wow, he really just phoned that one in.” Ever review is detailed, thorough and though they could easily push passed 1,000 words* they were concise. Pick any review, and Charlie walks you through step-by-step, minute-by-minute, shift-by-shift. He could pick up teases like nobody’s business and ultimately, if he said a tease wasn’t there, it wasn’t there, just wishful thinking. Also, this was serious business for Charlie, but he approached it with humor and wit and as I read more, true love. His love of Phish and their music comes through in every word he wrote, the high praise, the anger about blowing a jam and the joy found in an excellent version of a song.
*It wasn’t until I started blogging that I realized that 1,000 words is a lot of freaking words. It takes a lot more work than just sitting down and dashing off a thought or two.
It wasn’t just reviews. Charlie was (and is) quite committed to the Phish community. Way back in the dark ages, when we traded tapes, Charlie was always one of the first to offer to trade, or more to the point, spin tapes for blanks and postage. (I still miss seeing B+P on the internets.) I think over the years, he spun me at least four shows. That might not sound like much, but considering that I was usually one of around ten people per show, it was quite a bit of work. He also was instrumental in starting the Mocking Bird Foundation, a charity organization that is still around, still run by Phish fans. Charlie was available too. He, along with some of the other “celebrity” phish fans* have made themselves available to talk, debate and just enjoy being fans of Phish before some of the big shows before the break up. And that first Tweezer review that made me dislike him? I replied to it, telling him about my experience, what I thought and why I think it was a bit of a low grade. (It wasn’t. As nostalgia has worn off, musically, it ain’t that good. 6/23/94 BTW.) If you have been on the internet at all, you might think he responded with defensiveness, derision and dismissiveness (yay! alliteration!) You would be wrong. Not only did he thank me, he encouraged me (along with other people over the years) to share my perspective. As a matter of fact I remember him often telling rec.music.phish to add our thoughts, that it was important to the community to have many voices. I got the feeling that he wasn’t always comfortable being an authority, but he was an authority in the best sense of the word, someone who cared about the community and could be trusted.
* “Celebrity Phish fans” are people who really have come to be known throughout Phish circles through their extraordinary contributions to the Phish fan community, not celebrities like Al Gore. For me, the Mount Rushmore of these folks is Andy Gadiel, Dave “ZZYZX” Steinberg, Charlie and Rosemary something. Sorry I don’t know Rosemary’s last name, but her digest of rec.music.phish was some of the most anticipated and enjoyable reading of any given day. When a post of mine made it to the digest, I felt like I had really done something worthwhile.
I can’t say I know much about Charlie, except that he lives on the west coast and is/was a lawyer. I think I saw somewhere that he has a child, but honestly I don’t know. I like to think that as he slowed down in his output of reviews, he was like many of us, getting into other areas of life, perhaps having a family and the like. What inspired this post was a great recap of Summer 2013 that he had written, including a review of the Tahoe Tweezer that brought back so many memories, I had to wipe them away from my face. It was nice to see that like Andy Gadiel, ZZYXX* and the Phellowship folks**, one of the people who added so much to my experience of Phish was still involved, still doing his thing, if on a more limited basis. I know I would have enjoyed Phish over the years without Charlie, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable. Thanks for everything Charlie and thanks for sticking around. Just my .02 (sorry, couldn’t resist.)
* Honestly, I’m not sure if ZZYZX really exists or if through the computer program that bears that name, is just a clever ruse by Skynet to stop work productivity and eventually enslave us all.
** The Phellowship folks and my experience therein is another blog post entirely. Suffice it to say that it was a cornerstone of my show going experience as well as my sobriety. I’m very glad to say that I remain in touch with Mama Paige and I would love to go to a Phish show together once again to celebrate our mutual 25th anniversary of continuous sobriety.