The Squirming Coil

Originally Performed ByPhish
Appears On
VocalsTrey (lead), Page, Mike (backing)
Phish Debut1990-01-20
Last Played2023-12-28
Current Gap12
HistorianMartin Acaster (Doctor_Smarty)
Last Update2016-03-11


The lyrics of “The Squirming Coil” offer an enigmatic link between the demon seed horror of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Indiana Jones’ discovery of the well of souls in a “lost” city in Egypt, the hubris of Icarus during his escape from Crete, the adventures of Poster Nutbag’s primary pal, Jimmy, and the tragic murder of John Lennon outside The Dakota. Through ingesting the fictional tannis root, a fungus also known as Devil’s Pepper, we can decipher the riddle in the rhyme and discover we are being cautioned against seeking favor, fortune or fame, at any price. When we deal with the devil, the cost is invariably going to mean our soul.

On a musical level, “The Squirming Coil” is a fabulously energetic and cerebral pièce de résistance – not an epic of “Fluffhead” or “You Enjoy Myself” proportions – but a stolid landmark of an earlier era in Anastasio compositions. However, the compositional mastery is not the means by which one version of “Coil” can be segregated from another. The composed portion of the song is largely consistent in style and content. Where things can get interesting is in the often painfully sweet piano-based outro that Page tends to deliver in quiet solitude at the end of the set or encore in which it appears. Therein lies the key to finding the good stuff. “The Squirming Coil” proper, as defined by the Lawn Boy studio version, is roughly six minutes long. Any more than that, and you can bet Page was showing off in some way. “Coil” is therefore one of the true examples where longer is probably better.

”The Squirming Coil” – 7/20/91, Parksville, NY

Parsing the performances with this as our guideline, we see that the 12/28/90 Marquee version, wherein page fends off the arrival of Uncle Ebenezer, is the one to check out from “Coil’s” debut year. The following year seek the last (12/31/91 Worcester) of over eighty versions for a less combative approach to a similar circumstance. The 8/17/92 San Juan Capistrano encore gave us the most to swallow out of the following year’s flock of fifty-plus versions. If the 5/8/93 UNH “Coil” jam gives you the blues, and if you really need something to lean on, seek out the 8/12/93 Meadowbrook Music Festival version for support. 

Although the 4/16/94 UMass performance may include a “Thank You” from Page, it is that year’s terrific trio from Pennsylvania (10/9/94 Pittsburgh, 11/13/94 Erie, and 12/28/94 Philadelphia) for which we owe him that sentiment in return. Head down south for the warmth of the 11/15/95 Sun Dome set closer, then get back to 12/2/95 New Haven with bells on. Pro-tip, check out the “Tweezer” while you’re there. Perhaps burnt out after so many flights with Icarus in the previous five years, 1996 found the “Coil” appearing only seven times. For the goods from this bunch make the 10/25/96 Mothership connection then head on down to Sesame Street and the 12/29/96 Spectrum take. 

”The Squirming Coil” – 8/16/96, Plattsburgh, NY

Next, get weird in wormtown (2/17/97 Amsterdam) and check out the deep azure of the 7/29/97 Desert Sky for the finest of the following eight. In 1998 “Coil’s” number was trimmed to six with the best (12/30/98 MSG) saved for last. This version is quite unlike any other, and uncharacteristically explores full band ambient space making it a key part of a five song second set. The script is flipped for ‘99 with the 6/30/99 Bonner Springs set-opener slot again offering the whole band the opportunity to participate. The 10/8/99 Nassau “Coil” may also put a “Bug” in your ear. Do not “Sleep” on the 6/14/00 Drum Logos version for a final sample from the pre-hiatus collection. To really taste the hubris in Trey’s personal dance with the devil, play the 7/27/03 Walnut Creek and 6/24/04 Deer Creek offerings back to back paying close attention to the vocals. People thought Rosemary’s Baby was scary? Yikes. With the courage of Indy, he reached deep into the well of his own soul, got off the Devil’s Pepper, and made a life-saving recovery.

Since Phish returned from the dead in 2009, “The Squirming Coil” has been in fairly regular rotation and continues to show up most often as a set closer or encore. Among the 32 versions that were played between 3/6/09 Hampton and 7/29/15 Grand Prairie, there were three instances where the song took an extended break. The two versions most likely to garner further interest from this time period are the Led Zeppelin-infused 10/30/10 Atlantic City “Coil” and the 12/30/11 MSG performance that brings some “Silent in the Morning” wood. Forge the coin and lick the stamp! Little Jimmy’s off to camp.

”The Squirming Coil” – 12/30/11, New York, NY. Video by HarpuaFSB.

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