Vocals: Trey (lead), Mike, Page (backing)
Historian: David Steinberg (zzyzx)
Last Update: 2013-09-15
Like all good song histories, this one will start with an Oom Pah Pah.
Oom Pah Pah, Oom Pah Pah, Oom Pah Pah, Oom Pah Paaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.
“Harpua” is the most frequently requested Phish song. Insane amounts of ink, paper, balloons, Frisbees, and vocal chords have been wasted in an attempt to get Phish to play this song. Phish is playing to a small crowd? That means that they should play “Harpua” to mock those who blew it off! The attendance set records? They have to play it to please the multitudes. The logical extreme of this can be heard on a heavily circulated audience tape of Big Cypress: during a long lull between songs, one fan screams for his desired song every ten seconds. So what is “Harpua?” What makes people beg for this more than, say, "Jennifer Dances?"
"Harpua" is at its heart a simple tale. Boy gets cat. Boy loves cat. Boy gives cat silly name. Boy lets cat outside. Cat meets dog. Cat loves dog. Dog loves cat... for dinner. Storm passes through. Boy mourns cat. Dad suggests goldfish. Boy mocks dad. Boy gets dog. Fans go nuts. However there’s a lot more going on than that. This – along with “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” – is one of the few songs where Trey tells us a story. Phish fans are like kids at bedtime. “Tell us a story Uncle Trey,” we cry. When he delivers, it’s always worthwhile.
Early versions of “Harpua” varied little from the basic story. Sure Jimmy would always be listening to a different song on his “stereo” – giving Phish a reason to play snippets of songs such as “Sunshine of Your Love” (11/10/89), “Funkytown” (6/9/90), “Smells Like Teen Spirit" (5/9/92), and “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues” (11/28/92) – but the basic parts of the story stayed pretty much the same for years.
”Harpua” 10/31/94 – Glens Falls, NY (Part 1)
”Harpua” 10/31/94 – Glens Falls, NY (Part 2)
The weirdness crept in slowly. At Red Rocks on 8/20/93, Harpua had shape-shifting powers that he used to turn himself into a giant iguana before being petrified by prehistoric Posterus Nutbagus’s magical gaze. On 7/16/94 (released as Live Phish 02), in honor of the comets that were currently crashing into Jupiter, Poster Nutbag died by being crushed to death by a comet. Halloween '94 revealed that Barney’s Greatest Hits played backwards sounds a whole lot like “War Pigs,” and the following year Mike recited a dream that everyone in Jimmy’s village had about “many raccoons in the bedroom.” The Clifford Ball version ended abruptly mid-tale leaving the entire audience in a state of Harpuius Interruptus, an act so confusing to the fan base that Trey himself felt compelled to make a public statement on the internet. The attempted airplane stunt tied in to the Clifford Ball motto – “A beacon of light in the world of flight.” That motto was actually previewed more than four years earlier, during the “Harpua” at Ziggy’s on 3/26/92, where Trey used the phrase in reference to Page.
These changes were hinting that something had happened to our story. This would be formalized in winter.
”Harpua” – 12/6/96, Las Vegas, NV
The first clue happened in Vegas on 12/6/96. There, “Harpua” was played with the help of members of Primus, yodeling cowgirls and singing Elvii. Never mind our story, we have to have Fishman duel with the Elvis impersonators. Although wounded, the obituary didn’t run until 12/29/96. There, Trey told the crowd that he was going to ditch the preliminaries to get to the “meat of the story.” If we didn’t know it, he suggested that we ask our neighbor to tell it to us. Like Calvin’s dad asked to read Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie one time too many, Trey was just sick of telling this. He knew that we all knew it and the days of the audience being amused by just mentioning the name “Poster Nutbag” were over. As the story unfolded about the Über Demon Tom Marshall, an era was ending.
Perhaps it’s due to this perception that a more interesting story would be needed, but “Harpua” took to hiding in the hall closet after this performance. Excluding finishing off the Clifford Ball version at The Great Went, “Harpua” has only made six more appearances to date. The pent up desire created by the rarity of its performances is amplified by the fact that most of them were amazing.
On 12/30/97 at MSG Trey told a long but fascinating story that started out sounding like a plausible tale of growing up with a TV (and one of Trey's favorite shows, Lost in Space) and a grilled cheese fascination, but slowly got more and more surreal, revealing the "Pentagram Harpua," a guest appearance by Tom singing "I'm Gonna Be 500 Miles" and setting up the "Udder Ball" NYE gag the next night. Many call this the best “Harpua” ever.
”Harpua” -> “Bittersweet Motel” -> “Harpua” – 7/29/03 Burgettstown, PA
The Utah “Harpua” on 11/2/98 isn’t that impressive as a story, but it sandwiches a surprise performance of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety; the segue from “Eclipse” back into “Harpua” is particularly impressive. This show is often cited as the epitome of YSYL ("You Snooze You Lose") given the half-full venue two days after the much-hyped Halloween performance in Vegas, the trip from which formed the basis of Jimmy's story in Utah.
Many fans speculated that our favorite dog wouldn’t re-appear post hiatus. Those fears were assuaged on 7/29/03. Sure the story committed the ultimate heresy in letting Poster and Harpua live together, and seemed to exist solely to poke fun at the parking lot rumors of Fishman’s interest in forming... close bonds with... "certain elements" of the fan base. But it’s an increasingly rare modern example of Phish returning to the silliness of their early days. Besides, the point of the “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” speech (“And then basically God handed him a little girl, and this big girl, and maybe another ten girls or something, maybe boys, who knows…”) is supposed to be “Jimmy” finding that the purpose of his life is in loving his family and children, not his interest in finding more fans with whom he could have "intimate relations." Get your head out of the gutter!
”Harpua” -> “Killing in the Name” – 7/4/10 Alpharetta, GA
Perhaps most surprising at all was the Alpharetta performance on the 4th of July, 2010. Yes, the "Killing in the Name" was impressive and got a massive crowd response, but the real news for puppy fans – especially on the heels of the nearly story-less 8/16/09 SPAC performance a year earlier – was the focus on the classic tale. Yes, there was some wackiness about the holiday and the "true history" of the United States, but that was more of a flavor to the tale than a replacement.
That might have been a one time experience. The next version on 6/19/11 in Portsmouth, VA didn't repeat the story at all – there wasn't even the traditional cover song break – but rather took advantage of Father's Day to have the role of the dad in the story performed by the actual fathers of the band. Jack McConnell really got into it, saying, "Your goddamn cat died," causing the crowd to go wild and Trey to crack up.
Two years later, Trey was left out of it completely. In the midst of a rain plagued tour that caused a show to be delayed, one to be shortened, and another to have a long set break, the temptation to announce, “Look, the storm’s gone,” could not be resisted. Mike had performed with Chicago’s improvisation troupe Second City after the first two nights of a three show Chicago run; 7/21/13 was their chance to return the favor. A prank was set up early in the show where Trey pretended to not understand a sign. Later that night it made sense that a different sign saying, “Poster Nutbag – The Right Way,” would also cause confusion. At first it seemed like Trey was just asking for an explanation as he invited the fans to explain the message, but as they started to tell the purported real story of “Harpua,” it became obvious that this was planned. They went off on a tangent, which devolved into a rap from the character of Al Gore and then the chanting of “Kittens,” and “Puppies.” Unfortunately, thirteen-year-old political humor didn’t appeal to the crowd in general; it went over so poorly, that some fans speculated that it was intentionally bad as a message that fans need to stop demanding that Phish do their bidding.
After they left the stage, Mike described their appearance as “odd.” He was then egged on to tell the story himself. It was a surreal telling, as anyone who has ever read a Mike’s Corner would expect. Regardless of where people fell on liking or hating the Second City guest appearance, most loved the Mike story variant. Rumors of a fan group named “People for a More Talkative Mike” forming are unconfirmed at this time.
While there was some concern among the more literal-minded fans that Trey’s comment from Star Lake that “there’s one story that is thus yet untold” meant that performance would be “Harpua's” last, later versions showed that the occasional urge to tell a story still exists. When we’ve all given up on it for the current year, it’ll come out at a random show:
Oom Pah Pah, Oom Pah Pah, Oom Pah Pah, Oom Pah Paaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.
”Harpua” 7/21/13 Chicago, IL
Recommended Versions: 1987-08-09, 1989-11-10, 1990-06-09, 1991-05-03, 1992-03-26, 1992-11-28, 1993-02-12, 1993-08-20, 1994-06-17, 1994-10-31, 1995-10-31, 1996-08-17, 1996-12-06, 1996-12-29, 1997-08-16, 1997-12-30, 1998-11-02, 2003-07-29, 2009-08-16, 2010-07-04
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One thing that's missing here, though, is the fact that Harpua is more than just a story song. Part of the reason I think many fans love it is the amazing musical conclusion to the story:
The closing riff is in measures of 20 beats, which absolutely throws off any expected rhythmic patterns. Trey repeats the same exact pattern of only two notes back and forth four times, while the rest of the band goes through a gorgeous 4-chord descending progression. It's what the rest of the band is doing during this final section that really makes for musical drama, as the volume and texture increase with more and more Fishman activity. Finally, we get that glorious, "seeing G-d" moment where Page, Trey, and Mike all harmonize together on long sustained notes, and it's like everything we love about Phish's music all compacted into one large gesture...
I've been lucky enough to witness the the 7-29-03 version and the 7-21-13 one this summer. Very cool to have Fish come out and do a song in 2003 plus the Bittersweet Motel, and I don't think I've ever heard Mike talk so much on stage during the Chicago story telling. Great stuff!