Vocals: Trey (lead), All (backing)
Historian: Martin Acaster (doctor_smarty) & the phish.net song team
Last Update: 2014-01-18
The life of the common red wiggler worm seems simple upon first observation. A typical day in the compost heap for the red wiggler consists of drawing organic material into its gaping maw with the aid of a protractible pharynx. Effectively swallowed, the unwitting organic matter passes into the crop, where it is briefly stored before moving into the gizzard. There, it is smashed and ground into smaller and smaller pieces until sliding into the intestine where digestive juices dissolve and extract the useful energy. Ultimately the red wiggler disposes of the “useless” waste as a tubular cast of its sphincter. Of course what is useless as an energy source to the worm is very useful as fertile soil for the farmer. The farmer uses the enriched soil to grow new vegetables. Many of these vegetables in turn end up back in the compost heap to provide energy for the worm. The entire process is microcosm of the never-ending cycle of life and the exchange of energy.
”Piper” – 10/20/98, Sessions at West 54th, New York, NY
Piper, Piper, the red red worm of the Gamehendge compost heap, plays a similar role in the exchange of energy between Phish and its fans. The organic matter (listener) is unwittingly drawn into the gaping maw of the worm by a delicate pharynx wherein Page pours gentle piano rivulets over Trey’s “lightly strummed, simple chord progression.” The time in the crop is typically brief, allowing for Mike and Jon to settle into an exponential groove where the pace quickens and the pressure increases.
Cast into the gizzard of the worm, the muscular bass and drums pound the listener into smaller and smaller pieces while the maniacally repetitive yet glorious wash of keyboard and guitar pushes us onward into the intestine. Tom Marshall’s simple (yet certainly profound) lyrics repeated seemingly ad infinitum create a fifth instrument, which helps the worm to absorb the useful energy from the digested listener. Some listeners describe the voyage through the digestive system of the worm to be akin to sailing. In fact, throughout the repeated verse of the song, the distant wail of the bearded siren “Henrietta” can often be heard to proclaim just that (I’m Sailing). Finally discarded as a “useless” cast, the listener is typically spent yet enriched at the same time, imbued with the intoxicating glow of the Kava Kava root (Species, Piper Methysticum), fertile soil ready for replanting.
After bursting forth from its egg at “Bradstock” the neophyte “Piper” made its public Phish debut on 6/14/97 in Dublin, Ireland. The short, simple, red wiggler worm appeared frequently during the rest of the European leg of the summer tour, gaining somewhat in size and stamina while remaining a “radio friendly” length. “Piper” was conspicuously absent from the two Amsterdam gigs which featured multiple references to riding the worm, highlighted by “Wormtown,” a demonic variation of Steve Miller’s “Swingtown,” including a warning from Trey about the monstrous worms in the canals of Amsterdam. As if summoned by the black magic of the night before, “Piper” squirmed from the compost heap onto the stage to open the the next show in Nuremberg on 7/3/97. Fall ‘97 saw “Piper” rise from its burrow and grow into a voracious monster space worm; don’t miss the powerhouse versions offered in essential Phish shows on 12/6/97 Auburn Hills, MI and 12/12/97 Albany.
”Piper” – 8/9/10, Telluride, CO
Fattened and lengthened by the Bearsville Story of the Ghost sessions – though ultimately not making the cut for that release – “Piper” grew more bold and experimental throughout the late 90s. The 4/3/98 Island Tour version featured a closing jam segment which set the improvisational bar for future worms to attempt to surpass, something that many have done since. For pure otherworldly improvisation where “Piper” escapes the compost heap entirely seek out 8/8/98 Merriweather and 10/31/98 Vegas, the latter released as Live Phish 16.
Fat and juicy worms which were played in subsequent years include the fiery 25-minute 7/18/99 Oswego performance which was used as the base for the Farmhouse studio version of the song; the magically psychedelic “Piper” from Portland, ME (12/8/99); the glorious swamp thing found deep in the recesses of The Show at Big Cypress; the worm that digested Godzilla on 6/10/00 Tokyo, a 21+ minute excursion that anchored a five-song first set tsunami; 9/11/00 Great Woods, over 23 minutes and sandwiched by sublime versions of “Twist” and “What’s the Use?”; and the “Piper” which dropped from the beak of “Birds of a Feather” at Deer Creek on 7/12/00.
A good gauge of how much Phish likes and respects its devastating worm is their selection of “Piper” as the song with which they concluded the hiatus (and perhaps the champagne with which they toasted the New Year). The 12/31/02 MSG “Piper” really set the tone for 2003 – it crackles with the electricity of the moment; it is tight, yet molten and fiery, and somehow manages to find its way back to the burrow. 2003 was truly The Year of the Worm, with almost every version worthy of praise. 2/16/03 Las Vegas was a lively techno-boogie swirl that features several breakdown jams and has a diseased tail. The high-energy 2/22/03 Cincinnati worm that melts into a groove so deep that it almost reaches “Seven Below” before soaring skyward into the “Weekapaug” that got lost the night before. Summer 2003 witnessed one of the greatest back-to-back-to-back displays of improvisational greatness within a single song in Phish’s history, all opening second sets, all over twenty minutes, each in their own way stunning and essential listening: 7/19/03 Alpine Valley (chilling, with a “Tweezer Reprise” tease); 7/26/03 Atlanta (more twists and turns than a murder mystery plus a “Can't You Hear Me Knocking” tease); and 7/31/03 Camden (an emotional roller coaster that pushes and then erases psychic boundaries). A particularly hard rocking 20th anniversary show rendition that gets hot enough to cause blistering before petering out into ambient noise.
The most deeply burrowing, exploratory, and at over 32 minutes by far the longest version of “Piper” to date – the bootlace worm (Lineus longissimus) – took place on 6/19/04 at SPAC and featured a “Tweezer Reprise” jam. “Piper” made only one emergence from the soil during Phish’s break-up – a solo acoustic version by Trey at the 11/16/05 TAB Boston gig; acoustic aficionados will also want to seek out the only acoustic Phish version from the 10/18/98 Bridge School benefit.
Upon Phish’s return to the stage in 2009, “Piper” witnessed a less-is-more approach and – to the chagrin of some – a sometimes radical abbreviation of the slow-build intro. Interesting versions abound nonetheless: the high-energy improvisation of 6/27/10 MPP; the Dick’s sickness of 9/4/11; the swirling serenity of 12/30/11 at MSG; and the multi-dimensional monster’s return to SPAC on 7/8/12. Other recent versions have been notable for the teases or quotes they contained including: "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" 6/21/09 Alpine Valley; "Spill the Wine" 8/14/09 Hartford, “Theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind” 8/15/10 Alpine Valley; and “Guy Forget” 9/1/13 Dick’s.
For a good idea of how the song was initially conceived, check out the original four-track recording Trey and Tom released on Trampled by Lambs and Pecked by the Dove; then pick a worm, any worm, and see how far it has evolved since.
”Piper” – 12/30/11, New York, NY