Spots On the Dice Words & Music by Stuart Burns, Steve Gillette & Dan Paik
What is the role of chance in our lives? Give it a chance, one chance, one more chance, last chance, only chance, fat chance, take a chance, takin' a chance on love, perchance to dream ... Chance was the name Jerzy Kosiński chose for the quixotic hero of his novel Being There which took up many of the same questions about just how much control we have over the events that shape our lives.
The eminent philosopher Mother Goose gave us this rhyme in 1695:
For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.
In 1801 Friedrich Schiller expanded on that thought with: "Blessed is he, who has learned to bear what he cannot change, and to give up with dignity, what he cannot save."
In the early thirties, Reinhold Niebuhr adapted the idea in a prayer, but he put the emphasis on the need to change the things that must be changed. It's not surprising that chance might be seen in terms of faith, but Niebuhr definitely comes down on the side of a god that helps those who help themselves:
“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”
Niebuhr's prayer has undergone many adaptations and in 1955 it was published by Alcoholics Anonymous as "The Serenity Prayer."
But there's always someone who just can't accept his lot with equanimity. Maybe it's what Dylan Thomas was getting at when he urged us:
“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Maybe it's just plain old desire; I want what I want, I want it to be better than it is, and maybe I can be lucky and escape life's sell-by date. Maybe I can fly.
Who am I to say that we won't find a way to change what everyone thought could not be changed. Maybe there's a chance. Maybe Lady Luck will smile on me, maybe Dame Fortune knows my name, maybe if I stand on one foot and turn counter-clockwise and murmur a prayer ...
No getting around it, we're gamblers. Most of us don't bet the farm even if we have one. Most of us don't dabble in soy bean futures, but we are open to the benefit of some good luck. Who can deny that we've already been very lucky. It's amazing to me that those tiny little vessels in the brain chug along for decades without a single hiccough, and that the heart goes through all the yoga moves of excitement, ecstasy, terror, even heartbreak without a murmur.
Not any real difference that I can see between the guy whose house is hit by lightning, and the guy who wins the lottery — where the odds are pretty much the same whether you buy a ticket or not. “A tax on people who are not good at math,” as someone said. Ian Fleming wrote, “At gambling, the deadly sin is to mistake bad play for bad luck.” And I think that is the central point.
Said one owner of a casino, “Some days you win, and some days you win a lot more!” They generally don't gamble, unless it's to keep the high-rollers company. In America the roulette wheel has an extra number, a double zero, which along with the single zero wins for the house. In Europe there is only the single zero, one less square to land on and better odds for the players. The house advantage for the American wheel is 5.26% whereas the house advantage in Europe is only 2.70%.
It's easy to take cheap shots at the gambler but pity the poor guy who is convinced that his luck will turn and he can win back all his losses and more. Enough to ride home in a $300,000 Greyhound bus. Our song is about waking up from the illusion that you can push your luck. Those little indentations, those spots pressed into the dice are known as 'pips' and they have a way of getting the last word.
So many great songs have been written using the mythology of gambling. I think it's partly because we can all identify with the gambler's optimism, and even with his fatalism about fighting a losing battle. We all want to 'break the bank,' we want 'all the marbles,' we want to 'hold all the aces,' but 'when the chips are down,' all we can say is, 'read 'em and weep!'
Stuart Burns is an Austin songwriter and a fine purveyor of the blues and his own originals. He showed up at the song circle at Kerrville with an 'in progress' version of this song. He explained that he had started on it with a friend who had passed on in the previous year, and he wanted to work on it.
It turns out that his friend and co-writer was my old friend, Dan Paik. I've mentioned Dan in an earlier article. He was the fifteen year old kid, a year behind me at Whittier High School, who was my first mentor in the realm of politics. He was a subscriber to the Pacifica radio station KPFK, and brought the program guide over to my house so we could compare notes on folk music shows and performers. In later years he was a tutor on all matters of meditation and Eastern thought.
He had a Martin 0-15 from the '30s for which he paid $35. He took me to meet his guitar teacher who turned out to be Bess Hawes, the sister of Alan Lomax, and wife of Butch Hawes. She had been a member of the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. She gave us mimeographed sheets of songs with simple chords. One I remember was “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.”
Stuart and I corresponded about the song and did a kind of co-write by email. All along the way, we were aware of Dan's presence and followed our sense of what the ideas might mean to him and how he might shed light on the subject of self-reliance. How is one to work with the concept of chance possibly intruding into our lives, and how can we rise above the kind of 'Stockholm syndrome' of unwarranted fealty to the forces of darkness?
In later years Dan was a very good bass player and a fan of the jazz greats. He also understood the blues and so that was an element in our approach to a song which really is kind of a lament. It's a 'word to the wise' song. A kind of 'do as I say and not as I did' song. Of course we took refuge in the wisdom of love to conclude the song with the message that even if we must be subject to 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' at least we have love to smooth the way and ease the pain.
One last thought on the chord changes for the song. Right off, the listener will notice the departure from the key of D where the song resides. Right in the middle of the first line, there is a leap to the C major chord before settling onto the A. The A is the normal V or dominant chord of the key of D so that's expected. But to get there by way of a C major chord is striking. The notes of the C major chord are not found in the D scale, but are drawn from the notes in the G scale. And G is closely related to D.
The E chords in the third section of each verse and the third line of the bridge can be understood in a similar way. They relate to the song because they are based on notes from the scale of A, and A is the V chord or dominant of D. Borrowing is a good way to discover new harmonic flavors. Go ahead, take a chance.
Here's my video for the song:
Steve Gillette's recording of "Spots On the Dice." Video by Steve
My recording of "Spots On the Dice" is available for purchase as a digital download here, as an MP3 file or a lossless FLAC file.
For those who might want to sing the song here are the lyrics and chords:
But for a
I had my
You might be
But if you
And for such a
I would over
© 2016, Compass Rose Music, BMI
Stuart Michael Burns and Dan Paik