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The Price of Certainty on a Sigma Dreadnought

This month I ask a big question, “what is the price of certainty?” I first asked this question over these chords in response to 9/11, when I became overwhelmed by a sense that zealotry was about to be met with zealotry. For sixteen years I had only the question and the chords. I’m not sure I’m better off, but at least I wrestled with the question and got a song out of it.

About the song

I tend to veer away from writing these type of songs, since I think pop/rock is great at exploring our personal emotional landscape, but not so great at tackling big societal issues. Nevertheless, current events had me back pondering this question again and wanting to finish this song. To move things along, I imposed an artificial deadline, challenging myself to post the song on 9/11, which I feared was kind of drama queen in nature, but appropriate, none the less. I was, as usual, stuck lyrically when quite out of happy coincidence, karma, an ironic universe, etc. I watched Jon Batiste, the amazing musician who leads Stay Human, the house band on Colbert, interview congressman John Lewis as part of his Barbershop Stories. During a very genuine exchange between Batiste and Lewis, Lewis recounted a quote from Martin Luther King that just sort of knocked me out “I have decided to stick with love…Hate is too great a burden to bear”. It just makes me cry and pretty much says it all.

The lyrics are straight forward:

Tell me the price of certainty

Tell it to me slowly, first I want to know

What it is you think you know

Is it that God is on our side

The cost of this is likely to be high

God always seems to want someone to die

Love does not require, these judgements on our part

The burden of our hate, is costing us our hearts

Tell me the price of certainty

Is it our nature or our nurture, to believe the lie

And truth uncertain, demonize

Love does not require, such judgement on our part

The burden of our hate, is too much for our heart

Tell me the price of certainty

As your child is washed away, into the sea, we drown

Asking, “where is our safe, our certain, solid ground?”

Love does not require, these judgements on our part

Love will only ask, our open mind, our open heart

Structurally and sonically the song owes a debt to Sam Phillips. The album Martinis and Bikinis was a favorite around our house for a long, long time, and those familiar with that album will recognize its influence here. I always thought that album did a good job of tackling some heavy subject matter in a pop rock setting, which I think is just about impossible. I was very worried that I would come off preachy. And a person questioning our society’s easy certainties and judgements, shouldn’t present a particularly dogmatic viewpoint, right? My great fear was that in navigating this sensitive terrain I would lapse into Bruce Cockburn, If I had a Rocket Launcher, territory, which I take as a model of how NOT to handle this kind of subject matter. It’s fine to be pissed off, and punk rock handles that fine, but don’t pretend you’re making a rational, thoughtful argument. Just howl. But I didn’t want to just howl. Too many people are doing that at this moment. So here you have me taking inspiration from a second-hand Beatles album to try and say things that John Lennon addressed to perfection in Imagine. So. the world doesn’t necessarily need my song. But I need to think about these things. And writing songs is kind of my therapy. So, there you have it.

About the guitar and the recording

Sometimes you need a big dreadnought, and fortunately my mid 80’s Sigma never fails to deliver that big steel string, ringing, thumping thunder that dreadnoughts are prized for. Good balance and bottom. We first tried a single microphone, but lacking the patience to work out balancing the guitar and vocal performance, we simply opted to add the second of Doug’s stereo pair Sony microphones. I love these microphones. They capture my voice pretty much as it sounds to me. Which isn’t great, because my voice isn’t great, but is better than what I get out of other microphones, which often accentuate the negative and make me sound even worse than I am.

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