The “Phish Song Cognition Theory” Explains What Types Of Phish We Like & Why

first_imgRecently, writers Andy P. Smith and Jason Gershuny released a brand-new book on the beloved jam act, Phish. Titled 100 Things Phish Fan Should Know & Do Before They Die, the book spans Phistory from the band’s earliest days until today, offering 100 concise chapters ranging from the band’s history to notable performances, albums, and sit-ins to the band’s and fan’s culture and intertwining symbiotic relationship.Below you can read an excerpted essay from 100 Things Phish Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, which talks about the “Phish Song Cognition Theory”—a concept Smith and Gershuny introduce that explains how and why people view this prolific group so differently. Check it out for yourself below, and head here to pick up a copy of the book.64. The Phish Song Cognition TheoryIn Ed Levine’s 2010 book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, he interviewed Sam Sifton, the New York Times food editor. Sifton describes what he calls the “Pizza Cognition Theory.”Sifton says, “There is a theory of cognitive development that says children learn to identify things only in opposition to other things. Only the child who has learned what is not brown, the theory holds, can discern what is ‘brown.’”“Pizza naturally throws this theory into a tailspin. The first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes (and somehow appreciates on something more than a childlike, mmm goood, thanks-mom level), becomes, for him, pizza. He relegates all subsequent slices, if they are different in some manner from that first triangle of dough and cheese and tomato and oil and herbs and spices, to a status that we can characterize as not pizza.”In short, your first encounter with something defines how you identify with that thing in your heart and mind.“The first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes…becomes, for him, pizza. You cannot teach a child what pizza is, this explanation of pizza cognition asserts, by providing him with oppositional ingredients or styles. The love of pizza simply doesn’t work that way. Invariably, if a child’s first slice of pizza comes from a deep-dish Chicago pie or is a slick, chewy pillow of Sicilian or half-hour-guaranteed-delivery cardboard Frisbee or a frozen French-bread travesty, semolina-dusted ‘Creole’ or sweet pineapple and plastic ham ‘Hawaiian’ pie, then, well, that is pizza to him. He will defend this interpretation to the end of his life.”I would like to propose a theory for Phish based on Sifton’s claim. While the first slice of pizza a child enjoys defines all other slices, the same can be said for Phish fans and their favorite songs or type of songs. We can all agree that one’s first Phish show is a special experience. No matter how many albums or live shows you may have heard, there is nothing that compares to that first live show. In many ways, you cannot teach someone what Phish is. (At best, we can only suggest 100 Things.) And like Sifton’s pizza theory, I would propose that if someone’s first Phish show is deep, dark, and funky, well, that’s what Phish is to them. If that first show is loose, ambient, and spacey, that’s their Phish.Or perhaps this is best understood with regard to the 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 eras. For those touring in the late 1990s, Phish may only be “cow-funk” Phish, and all other Phish is simply subpar. Whereas someone catching a bunch of 2.0 shows, well, Phish for them may be “Seven Below” and “Walls of the Cave.” Our younger fans may absolutely yearn for “Fuego,” while older fans will scoff it off. These youngsters are just victims to the Phish Cognition Theory: that first Phish will always be your true Phish.Personally, if I had to choose just one favorite Phish song it would be “The Squirming Coil” from 1990’s Lawn Boy. Now, I hadn’t discovered the band until some years later and still wouldn’t see Phish live until 1998. So this doesn’t quite seem to prove my theory. Or does it?Looking back at my first show, my first live Phish experience at The Gorge in 1998 (July 16, 1998), I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Phish had indeed opened with “The Squirming Coil.” While I had no strong memory of this, it has clearly left an indelible mark on my psyche, and I still get chills every time I hear the band play “Coil.” And for those of you thinking, They opened with Coil? I hear ya.Yes, traditionally the song closes a set or fills the encore slot. In fact, according to, of the 351 times Phish has performed “The Squirming Coil,” they have only opened a show with the song four times: twice in 1990, once in 1997, and once at The Gorge on that beautiful summer evening in June of 1998.And it just so happens that “Coil” is not only my favorite Phish song, but also the very first Phish song I had heard performed live. Now, who wants a slice of pizza?last_img