‘Top 5 songs about death: a Laura’s Dad tribute list. Okay? Okay. Leader of the Pack. The guy beefs it on his motorcycle and dies, right? Dead Man’s Curve, Jan & Dean. Tell Laura I Love Her. That would bring the house down – Laura’s Mom could sing it. You know what I’d want? One Step Beyond by Madness. And, uh, You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’
‘No. Immediate disqualification because of its involvement with The Big Chill.’
‘Oh god. You’re right!’
* * *
Dick and Barry are wrong. Their myopic syllogism flows something like this: ‘The Big Chill is bad [too derivative, too calculating, too sentimental. too whatever], and anything associated with something bad must also be bad, therefore You Can’t Always Get What You Want must be shunned. Because it’s bad.’ How sad.
Of course, Dick and Barry may be on to something in their disdain for The Big Chill. The film apparently opens itself up for criticism as a ‘slickly engineered complacency machine’ that passes off a mediocre script on the back of a hit-heavy soundtrack. Riding on coattails. I haven’t seen it, but I know the slick, skulking type. Pushing all the right buttons, triggering emotions, and dissipating like a noxious fog leaving you with the unnerving sense that something innate to your self has been used against you. Which it has.
The truth of the matter is that people walk the earth bearing on them an imprint, true during all things, which binds all up together into the whole of humanity. An image reminiscent of something ultimate that long ago caused an interpersonal unity that history and prehistory of dischord and murder and blood could not unwind. Knit of the same yarn. Whatever frays and stains cut us out into tribes, that common brand remains, incontrovertible, and from it may come unexpected ties and common joys if our hearts are able. The offering of a melody, an image, a word can draw out a response from our interior depths, glowing like the magma from which all earth is made. Some such offerings strike a deep resonance that sounds below tribe and dischord and reverberates through the common foundation awakening a longing native to all. A longing that tone and beauty call to the surface.
Alas, and there’s money to be made. People actually pursue music and art that reaches down to that deep genesis. Like dusty wanderers offered a place to lay their head they even give good money for it. The deeper the resonance, the more people respond and there it is: profitability. If one could mock up some shadow, some copy to exploit the remnant image that beauty and greatness reveal, a tidy sum might be made. Find the heart strings and follow them down to the wallet.
Wherever there’s a whiff of money, the suits are lurking not far off building the marketing machine. Hunched in a luxury suite, they plot. ‘If it goes like this: the fourth, the fifth… add a minor fall, a major lift. Yes, get everything in its right place and it could be made into a monster. If we all pull together as a team.’ The suitcoats say there’s money to be made. The factory lurches awake and out comes some sickening soylent of sound dispassionately calculated to hit all the right notes, tug all the right strings in spite of which it still leaves you feeling bloated and let down. Until you get used to it.
Like all machines, this one demands efficiency as its highest tribute, and it repays true fealty with riches and prosperity beyond even fevered dreams. An aspiring penitent has a twofold path to appease the machine. Slave and calculate to crack the code of greatness. Xerox revelation and so slip a finger into the pocket of the broad base. Or hire consultants, wolves in sheep-dog clothing, to herd people into neatly fenced target markets with tastes predictable and easy to sate wholesale. Classified, codified, demographied—divided, conquered. Trace behavior and preference just deep enough to strike a demographic, then feed it what its kind has swallowed before and so bleed it. A predatory act. Fracture the common foundation, exploit tribal divisions, fray the ties that bind, reduce complexity into predictability so that the exact dollar value of every note is measurable as a pound of flesh. Whether so fractious or so disingenuous, the penitent’s burden of finding an audience lifts, leaving only the lean, rote chore of luring a steady supply of starry-eyed young artists and fame seekers to fill the hopper. Auger talent and aspiration through the grinder and crank the hits right down the gullet of the slavering horde lined up at the gory teat. It’s a world Upton Sinclair might recognize on spiritual terms. Welcome to The Jungle. No wonder Dick and Barry are suspicious.
Whether it’s a Big Chill cueing up the oh-so-sad sadness with just the right song and BAM! watch the tears flow and folks line up around the block to feel it again, or whether it’s top 40 radio, teeming with songs like three-eyed trout, like vapid yet unsettlingly effective three-eyed trout, it’s undeniable that the main stream is a murky, polluted place and certainly enough to make you cynical. People like Dick and Barry respond by seeking out the margins. Obscurity becomes the highest form of flattery. To them, the main stream is pure-grain toxic sludge, blistering and dissolving everything it touches. Destroying and assimilating. In pursuit of integrity, they conflate broad appeal with malignant manipulation and shun anything with a whiff of such radioactive menace. But while it may be advisable to avoid swimming in the main stream, there’s no reason you couldn’t at least fish in it.
There are two (almost) distinct tributaries to the main stream: greatness and artifice.
In one you have the work of a craftsman and in the other, a charlatan bent of figuring out what that other guy did and hurrying a reasonable facsimile to market before the shine wears off. There’s a symbiotic war between art and manufacture. The artist searches for tone, interval, rhythm and labors at alchemy to bring something into the world by sweat and torment, and often by accident. The manufacturer eyes this world below while a lackey feeds him data and once a needle ticks above the right margin, plucks art from the maelstrom, clones it, and repackages into the world exactly what will extract what he needs to meet the earnings projections with minimal thought or effort. With efficiency. If he sweats at all, it’s only because it’s so easy to steal from him now and the machine is beginning to betray his servitude. (It’s an ironic twist in the story of this jungle: the people suits hate most, those who still demand art, are ironically the only ones still willing to pay for it. The quantity crowd found out they get more if they stop paying for it.)
Greatness comes from the artist and is like nourishment to our bones, and the manufacturer floods the market with artifice to make an imposter’s buck. While there’s a difference between creating something that turns out to strike a universal chord and constructing a convincing fake to recoup a nice percentage, the results can be eerily similar. Who can discern between the great and the fraud? Much of it is in the timing. Greatness tends to come first, even if artifice follows quickly. Greatness tends to endure even after the marketing machine has lumbered on to the next moment. And, precisely because greatness endures, when an architect of artifice needs just the right touch to pull the right strings, he tends to reach for greatness because he knows it will get the job done. Sometimes it’s the very blackness of the dark that reveals the light.
And that brings us, at last, to the song in question. The art in the artifice. You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Who could argue that this was a great song in its time? Especially bookended with the fear and outrage smoldering in Gimme Shelter, and especially in context with the rest of Let It Bleed—a parade of junkies, murderers, and despondents, all heartbroken and debauched, all careening out like chaos incarnate from the rape and murder that’s just a shot away. At the end of an anguished decade, at the end of an album that threatens to come apart at the seams at the next bridge, The Rolling Stones pen a song about death and disillusionment, and they start it with the improbable sound of high church via the London Bach Choir (rumored to have nearly withheld their name from inclusion in the liner notes when they heard of the decidedly not high church material pervading the balance of the LP). And that’s the genius. The saintly mingling with the grit.
How do you meet death and her bloodstained hands? Who can know how to emerge from that confrontation? The grief death inflicts is horribly personalized, indecipherable to the grieving, much less to anyone outside. She’s practiced at the art of deception. Who can counsel the bereaved. A natural part of life? The way of all flesh and bless your heart I’m so sorry? Talk it out. Don’t talk about it. Find religion. Find a way to acceptance. Rubbish. Self-absorption like so much cosmic vicodin. Acceptance of death? Of death? You’ll heal, sure. Until you die, too. Until you’re the poor fella bleeding in the lady’s glass at your own funeral reception. How, then, do you cope with that?
Setting aside the complete non sequitur of an introduction for a moment, the sound of the song captures The Rolling Stones at their best. It’s got a groove that gets deeper and deeper until you end up out to sea riding 50 amp swells of soul and catharsis. Add the verses, vignettes of small joys and overarching frustration; cherry soda, red wine, and bloodstained hands. The chorus starts to come into focus. A grieving heart knows that you don’t always get what you want. A grieving heart needs meaning, to discover something profound within the grief—longs to be told that you get what you need. Another consequence of the common imprint on our hearts is this hunger for meaning, true during all things. The need is so innate that even atheists unite to assure one another that the meaning is no meaning. Greatness and beauty speak to hunger, in this case the hunger for meaning in the midst of loss.
It had to be high church. Ray Charles had already brought the gospel choir into the main stream and besides, there were no such choirs readily available in London at the time and the gospel sound wouldn’t have stood out from what The Rolling Stones were already laying down in the studio anyway. Gothic stone and strict harmonic standards might have been the last sound that said church pure and simple. The last sound that could evoke God in the grit. Suddenly all the pieces lock into place and there it is. Transcendence. You get death, not what you want. But it’s possible to find that you get what you need, not in the midst of death and disillusionment but beyond. Who hasn’t longed for that major lift to dry their tears and make something more than meaningless heartache out of all grief in the end? What if death isn’t accepted. What if death is defeated.
It’s no wonder You Can’t Always Get What You Want strikes such a deep chord. It truly offers greatness in the unmanufactured, gloriously stumbled upon sense. It speaks to grief and hope at the same time, and our hearts reach for both. No wonder the marketing machine shackles it and bleeds out every red cent. The greatness is no secret and the suits are no dummies. But who cares about The Big Chill? If you have endured death’s visitation, and who hasn’t, then it’s reasonable to feel contempt for the slick profiteer trying to resurrect that hell of emotion in your heart, springing such a great song on you at the height of their manipulative endeavor. Is it, though, fair to criticize a great song on account of the latter day sins inflicted upon it? That only deprives the critic. You can cut You Can’t Always Get What You Want from your top 5 songs about death just because some suits did what suits do, but it definitely remains on mine. With a bullet.