Common Ground

You can download a PDF of the guitar tab or musical score.
You can download a recent version of the song in mp3 here.


Common Ground was another song that had a 20 year gestation period.  It started life as an instrumental sketch for a song under the working title of "Mumble" some time in 1986 - 1988.  Two demo takes were made over a lamentable Yamaha drum machine.

Take 1 was just a minute long and demonstrated an unhealthy fascination with harmonic figures.  Take 2 took the tempo down, added a bassline and had a neat bendy, compressed guitar figure which I'm sad to say was removed as the song evolved, as it would have been far too "busy".

The working title was a tiny joke in that I envisioned the song as being an R.E.M.-like number, and no one could parse Michael Stipe's lyrics at the time.  The most unusual part came right at the end before I simply stopped playing -- the key changed and the entire feel of the song was replaced by another signal that had no further sense of what it was doing there.  My presumption was, "oh, I'll just take that crappy part out!"

The two takes together demonstrated the elements that would make up the bulk of what would 20 years later become Common Ground:  a lot of ninths with the top 2 strings played open (E to D, and then rather surprisingly, C# to B), and arpeggiated figures and yadda yadda yadda.  What was lacking was any sense of how the song would GO.  This lack of vision doomed the song for decades of purgatory on a 4 track cassette.

In July, 2007, my musical activity was starting to pick up again as I had just joined a former bandmate on stage at Eddie's Attic as he played a set of his music.  I wanted to continue the trend of dusting old songs off and finishing them that I had started with "Bit of String" 7 months earlier.  "Mumble" was the next old song idea taken out of mothballs.

I started by making a few new recordings of the song (here is a take from July 28, 2007), eager to hear it without that drum machine pounding it into oblivion.  You can hear I've slowed it waaaay down, and made the whole thing much more pensive.  The confusion guitar figures over a C and G chord have been replaced by a figure that one could actually imagine singing to, and only the most delicious harmonic passage is left, and there is a reinvention of the tremendously awkward ending of Take 2 from the old tapes -- it now sounds like an anthemic round like the playout to "Hey Jude".  However, the overall feel is still that of the 20 year old concept.

Not sure of just what to do, in the following months, I sent tapes of the song as it now stood to Andrew Hyra and Karen Barnicle, asking for their ideas on key sections.  I recall holding back some of my recent thinking so as not to confine their thinking, but I got precisely zero back from them.  This is as such things ever are:  when you want some help or advice, you always get more or less than is desired.  So I plugged along and made a few key choices.

First, in a Gordian-knot-solving move I also applied to  "Your Cheerios" and "You and Me", I decided to just add a frigging simple verse that was just 2 chords and a simple melody.  I immediately adopted the idea that this song was about conflict and how to deal with it.  I think that happened when I first sang "It's so tough" and started to outline someone who was frustrated by a partner who was being unfair.  And, over the E9 -> D9 section, I sang something about "undiscovered common ground."  

To the verse was bolted a new section that resembled pieces already on hand:  Am, Eaug, Cmaj7, D7 (and, when I'm feeling weak, sometimes a Dmin7... despite the fact that I hate flatting thirds), and this was the essential piece that allowed the lyric to start talking about the conflict having two sides, and that the protagonist is really not helping anyone by failing to see the other side.

The simplified C->G section with its distinctively singable melody phrase came next, followed by the harmonics and it really broke it down:  "I am here.  She is there.  Between us somewhere lies an..." and -- BAM!  -- we have a song!  Tack on the "undiscovered common ground" bit and the sermon is on.  Tack on a second verse that alters the conflict from relationship to armed struggle, sprinkle in some clever shit, and this is not bad.

A demo from September 16, 2007 showed the progress, and even included some harmonies that were occasionally on.  But the last part is not quite happening yet.  The transition to it ends playfully with the observation that the common ground is "not a puppy dog, after all", and I left off the anthem altogether.  It had suddenly occurred to me:  this is a frigging nice song, and that anthem is going to be so horribly preachy.  I frigging HATE "Kumbayah" songs, because, frankly, no one ever dares to play them for Al Qaeda or the Taliban (presumably, this is the one area in which these scoundrels demonstrate some cultured taste).  If I wanted this to work, I had to make it get its message across in an entertaining and thought-provoking way.  So I did what T. S. Eliot would have done:  I made a serial punspiel on the topic of footwear.

I recalled many years ago writing "Dr Scholl's Battle Hymn", which was sung to the tune of "Halls of Montezuma" and extolled the inspiring virtues and bravery of these podiatry aids.  It went roughly, "They will fit in all your Pumas, sizes A to triple-E.  They will sop up your foot odor and fell your arch enemies," etc.  I started writing some ideas, and soon had enough to sing the anthem once through.  But if that would have satisfied T. S. Eliot, I wanted more.  I wrote the same again so the anthem could be a repeating sequence of 2 statements.  Now, I had something I could stand up for.

A demo from October 19, 2007 adds in some nice drum loops and demonstrates the song in its final form.


The lyrics wound up like so:

It's so tough.
I've had enough.
Where the hell'd she come up with this stuff?

But if we took a step back we might see
our circumstance has a simple symmetry:
I am here.
She is there.
Between us somewhere lies an undiscovered common ground
where we can lay our head,
a lover's lane to a Chinatown where the fortunes all end, "in bed."

Bomb attack
and rifles crack.
They kill ours, so we kill back,

But if we took a step back we might see
our circumstance has a simple symmetry:
We are here.
They are there.
Between us somewhere lies an undiscovered common ground
at a table with two seats,
a place of concord where trust compounds as lies and hatred deplete.

But we won't find it on a map
and it won't leap in our lap;
it's something we must seek.

We can live our lives just as we choose.

But if we ever tried swapping shoes,
we may find our foes wore those with the crushed toes
and we will find out just how bad it feels
to be stilettoed by callous heels
who pursue their goals by treading on our souls.

Performance and evolution

I do not perform this one too often, as the melody can expose my voice's weakness in a dramatic manner.  But one satisfying aspect is that sometimes some of the audience laugh and giggle at some of the lines in the anthem, and then when it has run its course, they sit there thunderstruck at what it actually said.  That can seriously make my night.

Here I am performing Common Ground at the Lizard Lounge on November 5, 2007: