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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2012/06/22
by David Steinberg

What is Best?

“What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” – Robert Pirsig

I just attended my cousin Jeremy’s wedding – and the fact that it coincided with the Worcester run was just a happy coincidence. Really! – a few weeks ago. It was a chill affair with people playing lawn games and an air of silliness. One thing that stuck with me was talking to his brother Danny. We were discussing a Robyn Hitchcock live collection he had and he mentioned how difficult it was to decide which version of a song was the best.

While trying to tell the difference between subtle variants can be difficult, it can be equally daunting to figure out the best version of songs that are extremely different. One of my recent hobbies has been creating best of playlists with the one rule that there can’t be any repeats of songs, e.g. the best of 3.0, the best of NYE, and the potentially year long project of the best versions that I have seen. How can one decide if the 6/18/94 Bowie is better than the 12/29/94 one? One has the Mind Left Body jam and a very cool jam in the standard break. The other has an incredibly euphoric build jam and a twisted look into the mind of a serial killer, “Do it NOW! NOW!” When the versions are so different, it’s difficult to compare.

What complicates this search is that we’re always questing for the new and different. If Phish play a stunning jam of epic beauty in Long Beach, people will be amazed and floored and write epic poems about the quality of the music. Play it again at Bill Graham and the reaction will be, “This? Again? Come ON guys!” We worship so much at the altar of novelty, that we sometimes forget that the goal is quality. Yes, with repetition the spectacular can become mundane in the same way that winning the lottery just becomes one’s income level, but this is something we should try to resist instead of encourage. It can be hard to not grumble when a song that you love gets a little overplayed, but the trick is to try to remember why you liked it so much in the first place. Usually (but not always) the reason why one song gets played a lot and another is rare, is because the rarity isn’t as good of a song as the common one. It can be hard to remember that in the rush of, “Oh my GOD! They haven’t played this since 1968!” If there’s one thing Furthur’s raid of the back catalog is showing, it’s that there’s a reason why these songs were shelved.

The pursuit of novelty can happen in a different way. When I was Bard undergraduate, I heard a story about Aristotle. Sometime in the Dark Ages, there was a discovery of lecture notes for some of his works. “Wow!” people said if they spoke like modern teenagers, “This is so much closer to the real Aristotle.” They got so excited about that discovery that they lost the original work and this is all we have. The different perspective is cool but sometimes we let it supersede the original. If Phish played a version of Bouncing Around the Room in which all of the lyrics were sung in Swahili, people would be blown away and it probably would get many votes for being the best version ever, despite it not being a good example of it. And ultimately that’s where the conflict is. Sometimes we use the best version to mean the Platonic ideal. The 7/22/97 “Crackaboom” Taste during Tropical Storm Danny [1] is intense and amazing but ultimately is just the perfect version of the song, the ones that others aspire to be, one where the rain inspired the band to incredible heights but it’s still most definitely Taste. Other times though it can be different.

Suppose we had two versions of Roses are Free. One of them is well played and hits all of the changes and stops when the song does. The other has them singing the first verse instead of the second and Trey drops some chords in the middle of the solo but it goes into a 30-minute intense jam after it. 10 out 10 Phish fans would say the latter is a better version of Roses, even though clearly the former is better when it comes to the actual song played; in fact the bits of the jam that would be so amazing are likely to be tracked as “[City name] Jam” anyway. Of course, in a song like Tweezer or Ghost that’s defined by having a jam, there’s more of an overlap between the version that takes what it is and performs it the best and the best jam that comes out of a song, but that’s not always the case.

I don’t think we’ll ever move away as a community from preferring the unusual and bizarre examples of songs. Nor should we for that matter, as improvisation will always be an important and central part of the package. What’s important to remember though is that the goal is not to be unique as much as it is to be good. When you think about what might be a best version of a song, try not to forget why you cared about the tune in the first place.

[1] No relation to my cousin…

…that I know of!


David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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