Backwards Down the Number Line
Music/Lyrics: Anastasio, Marshall
Vocals: Trey (lead), Mike, Page (backing)
Original Artist: Trey Anastasio
Historian: Martin Acaster (Doctor_Smarty)
Last Update: 2015-10-02
The number line of an individual's life has fixed endpoints. We are all born. We will all eventually die. How we enumerate the rest of the experience of being really depends on what each of us hold to be important. As a consequence there are infinite potential milestones along the way. Our lives can be divided into infancy, childhood, teens, young adulthood, thirty-something, middle-age, senior citizenry, or if we are lucky, Methuselean timescales. There are dates that by flawed calendar design are important to only a few people (2/29). There are dates that are with much regret memorable to many (9/11). Each of our individual number lines can overlap and are thereby forever cross-linked in a dizzying web of interconnectedness.
One of the most common methods of counting up or down our respective number lines is in observing the number of orbits we have made around the sun since the glorious day of our birth. Over the years, we each may develop special birthday-related rituals; perhaps cake and candles, spankings and candle wax, or a glass of scotch with a pre-embargo Cuban. Here again, the infinite possible combinations depend on our individual fetishes.
Trey Anastasio & Mike Gordon, "Backwards Down the Number Line" – 7/6/08, Rothbury, MI
As stated clearly in its lyrics, "Backwards Down the Number Line" was born out of such a birthday-related ritual. This tradition of composing a new birthday song each year initiated a long and fruitful career of songwriting for the Anastasio/Marshall duo. By observing the ritual on Trey's birthday in 2007, and sending the lyrics in the form of a poem, Tom unwittingly provided the spark that would reignite the fire of creation for the pair of dear, far from old, but unfortunately at the time estranged friends. Within a few hours of Tom having sent the lyrics to Trey via e-mail, he received the song in response via a phone call from Trey. After traversing the scheduling issues inherent in Trey's new way of life, Trey and Tom began writing songs together again. Seven of the twenty or so odes they composed during this time made their way to Joy. Of these magnificent seven, "Backwards Down the Number Line," despite its lyrical simplicity, comes closest to approximating the spirit of the words that eventually became the Friedrich Schiller/Ludwig van Beethoven classical hit "Ode to Joy."
Befitting its role as the song that must be viewed as the moment of conception for the rebirth of Phish, "Number Line" is the opening track of Joy and as such provides a fitting launch vehicle for the rise of this musical Phoenix from its own ashes. The first rule of "Number Line" is that each and every year, upon the birthday of your friend, you must sing, whisper, or write him or her a song that begins with the words "Happy, happy, oh my friend." From there, much like your life or your relationship with that person, you decide what it contains and how long it goes. The same appears to be the case for individual performances of "Backwards Down the Number Line;" while many are pretty true to the album version, a notable few have expanded exponentially.
Phish, "Backwards Down the Number Line" – 6/12/10, Cuyahoga, OH
"Number Line" made its debut near the end of Trey's solo acoustic set (and first public headlining performance in over a year) at Rothbury on 7/6/08, with Mike sitting in on bass. Trey explained the origins of the song, as well as the fact that he "taught it to Mike five minutes ago." It was clear Trey was excited about this new song, as "Number Line" was played in four of eight shows on the brief Classic TAB tour in October 2008 (it would subsequently become a fixture in 2010 TAB shows, but as solo acoustic renditions).
"Number Line" made its Phish debut on 3/6/09 as the second set opener for the first of three nights of reunion that emerged from the birth canal of the mothership. The song was slightly reworked after the Hampton performance with a new verse ("And when I see you coming down the line...") added over the bridge connecting the verses and the guitar solo.
Of the fourteen subsequent versions in 2009, five occupied this same all-important mood-setting second set slot in the lineup. Most notable of these is the 8/16/09 SPAC version which veered so far out into jam space that the "Number Line" upon which it had been based definitely formed some imaginary numbers before resolving into "Twenty Years Later." The version that opened the third set of the 10/31/09 Festival 8 show was heavily infused with an essence of Exile and served as the perfect way to start the celebration of one of those moments that will be forever marked on the "Number Line" of all those in attendance... and those who were not. Of the "Number Lines" that followed in 2010, only the 6/12/10 Blossom and 8/17/10 Jones Beach versions approached the number of significant digits the song deserves.
Phish, "Backwards Down the Number Line" – 5/28/11, Bethel, NY
In keeping with the notion – now made quite clear thanks to Facebook notifications – that every day is somebody’s birthday, “BDTNL” has maintained an average rotation of every three shows, with fifteen performances in 2011 and thirteen performances in both 2012 and 2013. The Bethel version (5/28/11) may well mark the terminus of the Type II heyday of the song, as most if not all of the subsequent versions have tended toward a blistering Type I jam rather than letting the Type II present slip outside of the box. The more lively of these versions include 6/1/11 Holmdel, 7/7/12 Saratoga (so hot it had a “Blister in the Sun” tease), 7/3/13 Bangor, 10/25/13 Worcester, and 7/30/14 Portsmouth.
Though most commonly a second set energy boosting utility player, “Number Line” has also appeared on three occasions to date as an encore. In each case, it came as the icing on a particularly well baked birthday cake. The first (10/19/10 Augusta) followed a particularly strong “Reba” as it appeared in an encore for only its third time. The second (9/4/11 Commerce City) was the standalone conclusion to the first of many glorious weekends at Dick’s. The third (7/13/14 Randall’s Island) and most recent encore performance served as the launch pad for the “Tweeprise” that would close the books on another example of why you should never miss a Sunday show...especially if it falls on the Mudshark’s birthday.