Vocals: Trey (lead), All (backing)
Historian: Martin Acaster
Last Update: 2012-12-04
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,” “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 “Brad-stock” (6/6/97) the neophyte “Piper” made its Phish show debut 6/14/97 at the S.F.X. Center 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 (e.g. Vienna 6/19/97, Strasbourg 6/24/97). “Piper” was most conspicuous in its absence from two shows in Amsterdam (7/1/97 and 7/2/97) which featured multiple references to riding the worm, highlighted by “Wormtown,” a demonic variation of Steve Miller’s “Swingtown,” which included 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 show in Nuremberg (7/3/97). During the U.S. portion of the tour “Piper” all but vanished below the surface of the pile, appearing only at Ventura (7/30/97) and Deer Creek (8/11/97) after making its U.S. debut at the opener in Virginia Beach (7/21/97). During the fall of 1997 “Piper” rose from its burrow during one show each week of the tour, where it transformed gradually from a brief yet energetic portion of multiple song sandwiches (e.g. Salt Lake City 11/14/97 or Hampton 11/22/97) into a voracious monster space worm (e.g. Worcester 11/30/97 and Albany 12/12/97).
Fattened and lengthened by the Bearsville Story of the Ghost sessions, “Piper” was much more bold and experimental throughout 1998. “Piper’s” first appearance in 1998 during the island tour at the Nassau Coliseum (4/3/98) 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 the Merriweather Post Pavilion (8/8/98) and Las Vegas (10/31/98) performances. The latter was released on Live Phish 16.
Many other versions from 1998 that remained within the confines of the pile yet will certainly “enrich” the listener do exist however; among these are Prague (7/6/98), Shoreline (7/19/98), Lemonwheel (8/16/98), Hampton (11/20/98), and Madison Square Garden (12/30/98). Fat and juicy worms which were played in subsequent years include the “Bug” spewing “Piper” from Great Woods (7/13/99), the fiery 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 “Piper” from 7/8/00 Alpine Valley show that was released as Live Phish 05 that squirms into “Rock and Roll,” and the “Crosseyed and Painless” “Piper” which dropped from the beak of “Birds of a Feather” at Deer Creek (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 Madison Square Garden “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. Other notable performances from 2003 include the following: the 2/16/03 Las Vegas version which is 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 “7 Below” before soaring skyward into the “Weekapaug Groove” that got lost the night before; the second set opening 7/12/03 George “Piper” which tries to bore its way into the freezer several times before finding its reflection in “Two Versions of Me”; a particularly hard rocking 20th anniversary show rendition that gets hot enough to cause blistering before petering out into ambient noise; and the show opening 12/29/03 Miami version that should make you feel the heat of the second set that followed.
With the exception of its first appearance in 2004 (4/17/04 Las Vegas) and a solo Trey acoustic version (11/16/05 Boston), "Piper" has assumed a primary role as a solid and supportive second set mainstay. Foremost amongst these performances is the deeply burrowing exploratory version of 6/19/04 Saratoga. Recent versions have been notable for the teases they contained: "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" 6/21/09 Alpine Valley; "Llama" 8/8/09 George, and "Spill the Wine" 8/14/09 Hartford.
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 & Pecked by the Dove; then pick a worm, any worm, and see how far it has evolved since.
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