Girl goes to fairground. Girl meets Armenian man. Armenian man gives girl doll. Girl flies around and encounters many angry people. Girl jumps naked into lake. Doll pulls girl beneath surface of water, drowning her. And so the thread of yet another human existence is cut short by the scissors of badness.
One of Trey’s purely solo works, this tune made its live debut relatively late compared to its Junta compatriots, not showing up until 9/12/88. Even then, it featured different, decidedly less macabre lyrics than the version that ended up on Junta. These original lyrics, aside from containing various differences of detail (“a hot summer night,” “a wrinkled old man,” and so forth), feature a story that takes on a “just desserts” theme rather than the wonderfully demented “ruination of an innocent” theme that the final draft lyrics eventually gave us. These darker, more familiar lyrics that most fans are used to first appeared at the song’s second appearance, on 2/7/89 (audio).
“Esther’s” music is lyrical, evoking a circus mood, soaring flights through the clouds, and helpless drowning. Unlike most Phish songs, many fans agree that the quintessential version of “Esther” is the Junta studio version, since it is such a delicate song, easily harmed by the unavoidable vagaries of live performance. In fact, its very fragility is perhaps one reason the song is now such a rarity in the Phish live repertoire. In regular rotation from 1989 through 1994, “Esther” has been performed infrequently since then, with only six appearances from 1996 through the end of Phish 1.0, and none in Phish 2.0.
After nearly a nine-year absence and to the delight of the crowd at Red Rocks, "Esther" returned to the stage on 8/1/09 (audio). She has been an occasional visitor since with notable appearances on 11/1/09 at Festival 8, 6/18/11 in Raleigh, and 8/30/13 at Dick’s as part of the “MOST SHOWS SPELL SOMETHING” gig.
Although she doesn’t play any role in the central The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday story, Trey has mentioned that Esther does hail from a part of Gamehendge. The so-called “flying jam” in “Esther” also appears as the transitional music between several of TMWSIY songs when performed live (3/22/93, 6/26/94, 7/8/94), and on the Senior Study recording. Additionally, Mike’s bass line for this “flying jam” is identical to the playing he does during Page’s solo in “McGrupp.” Trey has even commented on this, noting how many lyrical and musical themes interweave in his numerous compositions. Even one of the “Secret Language” cues – the “random note” – is signaled by the same “circus” theme that kicks off “Esther.”
Phish, “Esther” Music Video
Perhaps most enigmatically, “Esther” was also the first subject for a Phish video. The computer-animated piece was designed by an acquaintance of the band, Scott Nybakken. Playing more like a slideshow of still images than a full-motion cartoon, the video was shown between sets at the 7/19/91 Somerville Theatre gig.
On a hot summer night in a small western town
At a carnival down by the water
A young woman walked through the fairgrounds alone,
Esther, the Arch Bishop's daughter.
She walked past the carousel down to the lake
Where she spotted a wrinkled old man
Who stood by the side of a broken down hut
With a bucket held firm in his hand.
The old man approached her and whispered his plea,
"Won't you please take this gift that I offer?"
A beautiful puppet of violet and gold,
Of velvet and satin and lace.
And he looked at the girl with a powerful gaze
And she stared at the bucket bewildered
'Til he lifted the doll for the young girl to see
And a giant smile grew on his face.
The doll was as pretty as any she'd seen,
And she thanked the man quickly and ran to the church...
[the lyrics at this point are pretty much the same, although mixed around a bit in spots. Then, at the end...]
As Esther stood and shook her head, the joggers were approaching
And she knew she had no choice left but to swim.
As she dove into the water she saw a flicker in the distance,
It was the place she got the puppet that had made her life so grim.
When she reached the shore she pulled her icy body from the water,
Saw the carnival and then she saw the shack,
And she ran across the fairgrounds to the old man with the bucket
And she took the puppet out and gave it back.
Up from the water came thousands of souls,
Joggers and muggers and church-going folk,
And they all ran past Esther towards the old man,
Like a raging stampede, they dissolved in a huge cloud of dust.