A slight variation from alphabetical order: song-by song thru Madness and Morals: For Certain

Yeah, this is a weird song.  “For Certain” gives me a good chance to talk about theme since I think this song has a theme, but I don’t really think about theme.  I remember the composition of it quite well.  I guess I have to revise my earlier statement that I usually write the chorus first because here is another example of starting with the verse.  Many times, I won’t say most of the time because it’ll prove false, many times I write in my head often while taking a walk or driving.  But this time I wrote pretty much the whole song with a guitar, an acoustic guitar as it happens, in my hands.  The riff is quite obvious, guitar brothers.  Play a double-bar B at the second fret and alternately pick your index finger (finger 1) up and put it down.  I wrote what ended up as the second verse first:

I’m pretty sure I’m not my mother
I’m pretty sure I’m not my father
I’m pretty sure I’m not the president

When I came up with those lyrics for the verse, I knew what the chorus had to be.  At least I knew the first six syllables:

I can’t say for certain

What I couldn’t say for certain was not quite so obvious.  I thought of the rather lame joke, “I can’t say for certain that I do not know.”  The joke remains a bit lame lame, perhaps, but I think it’s redeemed somewhat by turning it into an address:

I can’t say for certain that you’ll never know

Now, this is pretty cool.  Not overwhelmingly amazing (we’ll get to that), but cool.  There’s kind of a double or triple twist here: I can’t read minds so I don’t know what you know, I can’t foretell the future so I don’t know what you will know, and I don’t know everything that is possible so I don’t know what knowledge that you might not currently possess but will come someday into your possession.

Slight digression, not completely irrelevant.  A couple of years ago Roger Waters of Pink Floyd made the statement that everything his band did came out of the blues.  Everybody knows that that band had formed when blues were all the rage in England and that they had acquired their name from the names of two American blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pink_Floyd.  I got into a friendly dispute with a musician friend of mine, a big Floyd fan (as I am), who claimed that Pink Floyd were great precisely and exclusively because they had put the blues behind them.  My position was, and is, that you don’t have to be a musicologist to hear the blues in most of what they did, especially in David Gilmour’s guitar playing.  Snobs will of course point out that Gilmour joined only after Sid Barrett’s departure, but while Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a great album, the band’s greatest artistic successes–certainly the stuff I like most–is from the Gilmour era.  And indeed, I argue that when rock bands exclude or simply lack the element of the blues, their sound is usually thin, insipid, earnest and safe.  This is my critique of much rock music since the punk era: white bread.  So Gilmour provided a salty flavor that drove Pink Floyd far past the purveyors of “progressive rock.”  Well, the situation is much simpler with Louder Than Dirt, since we play quite a bit of straight up actual blues.  Digression on a digression: there is considerable art in constructing original blues, as opposed to adding new lyrics to existing blues songs.  Also, only an idiot would think that all blues songs are the same.  So some of our tunes are blues, but virtually all have an audible affiliation to the blues.  For example, “Beloved Tease” is actually 12 bars, going to the IV chord in the fifth bar.  Similarly, “For Certain” wants to go to the IV and then back to the I.  I’m just saying.

Back up to the first verse.  Having catalogued some stuff of which I’m pretty sure I’m not, I figured I’ catalogue some stuff I wasn’t sure about at all:

Where does that tree begin and end
What was the cause of the Crimean War
What was it that you said I need reminding of

Admittedly, while I’m okay with unsolicited reminders, I don’t like it when people determine withoout asking me that I need reminding of something.  That is, I’m pretty sure I’m not a mind reader, so how did you get this super power?

And the last verse is a special and controversial case:

Long time ago somebody spoke it
Long time ago somebody wrote it
They wrote it down in Aramaic into Greek

The last line pretty explicitly specifies that I’m talking about the New Testament.  While I can’t say for certain that you’ll never know, there sure are a lot of time and a lot of steps, translations, between the present and the origin of that text.  You’ll probably never know, but it’s not my place to say so.  On the other hand, a lot of people claim that they do know, and I guess that’s the real conflict in the song.  It’s like the second verse exhausts all the possibilities for certainty: I’m not my own mother, etc.  Anything else, be a little humble.

I must here insert that with Madness and Morals I gave my imagination more free rein than I ever have before.  I didn’t try to take any stylistic direction or even think about matters like key or tempo.  And I think the writing of “For Certain,” though not so much the performances, evinces perhaps better than other songs on the CD this open, unrestricted approach.  Thematically too, though I hate to consider theme, the poem says “Don’t be too sure.”

A very simple song that the band worked up quite easily.  The words, I guess, are sort of weird, but I particularly enjoyed working with Lord Erudite to weird up the mix.  This is another song that we recorded the old fashioned way, a four-piece band, live in the studio.  When we first worked it up, Joseph played a steady beat all the way through.  The process of of rehearsal became, for Jo, a process of winnowing away until he was left with pretty much the bare minimum that the drums could do.  Everybody else just played the part that immediately came to hand.  But the lyrics and to some extent the musical element too evoke the mentally unstable, the, shall we say, opening of consciousness.  In short, the song cried out for a psychedelic treatment.  Indeed, that idea was already present in the composition.  There is in “For Certain” a 4-bar connective tissue between the verses consisting of a chromatic descent from the sub-dominant (E) to, with a slight detour, the tonic (B).  This descent is accented in such a way as to define a part of a whole-tone scale E, D, C, B-flat.  Well, the chromaticism here is not that of Stevie Wonder-style funk (audible on Oily Little Rainbows in “Get a Little Buzz On”), but rather, the psychedia of–wait for it–Pink Floyd.  And not just any Pink Floyd, but the Pink Floyd of Syd Barrett and The Piper at the Gate of Dawn.  Our mission was clear: to make “For Certain” into a psychedelic soundscape.

I don’t know whether Julian knew of the psychedelic scheme when he performed the vocal track, but his part is perfect.  Somehow he achieved a calling-in-the-distance effect that is very, er, effective.  My backing vocal part was both easy and peasy, nay, lemon squeezy.

Now Lord Erudite became El Commandante.  First, I must double the guitar part with electric 12-string.  Next, Adam must add 60’s style Vox organ.  Then, add a piano over the chorus; this Lord E “detuned” to create the bizarre effect the French call “I Don’t Know What.”  Finally, and most mind blowingly, I must add a guitar part in the spaces between the vocal lines in the last verse.  But the playback of the last verse would proceed backwards, so that, when it was played forwards again, my guitar part would be backwards.  Certainly it would easy enough to play a guitar part in the spaces, but it would have to make melodic sense against the ostinato riff in on the basic tracks.  This fact, combined with Lord E’s insistence, okay, preference, for one-takes made the backwards part stressful.   I guess it worked.  Dom. Erudito panned the resultant backwards guitar back and forth and mixed it super hot.  Well, the overall effect does qualify as psychedelic.

My only misgiving about this song is possibility of excessive literalism.  On the other hand, on the level of pure sound I think it’s a winner.

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