Yield

Yield

Kentucky must bear two contentious election cycles in a row right now. State and local politics in 2015 (mercifully over) and the presidential race in 2016, already odious and not even fully conceived. In the midst of all this throat-cutting clamor for power, er, uh, democratic pursuit of your trust and confidence, let’s talk about music. Let’s talk about an album that ought to be one of your favorites from the 90s (that decade now apparent as the last reel of warm, pulsing film before the atomizing storm of the digital revolution). Let’s talk about Yield, if not Pearl Jam’s greatest record, then one that captured a unique and wonderful moment in the evolution of the last great American band, one born in the dying light of an era we didn’t realize was over.

Yield is a proclamation of freedom, incongruously named for the act of giving way. Limitless potential hemmed in by the boundary of wisdom. To understand what makes Yield special, you need to know a bit about Pearl Jam’s history. Now, there is a full-length documentary about this story, but if you trust me to be your guide, here it is.

A brief history of Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam is a world-conquering band made up of five guys who never went on a conquest. In the capricious business of pop culture, the music these five guys cobbled together from the raw materials each brought with them was released into a public hungry hungry for a big emotional punch. Ten was a blockbuster. In the span of a single year, these young, earnest musicians were remade in the image of honest to God titans, expected to define a generation of American youth. But remade by whom? To what end? The music hadn’t changed. How could it? Pearl Jam had still only made their first record. No, the market changed around them, closing in like big teeth.

Imagine going from playing for a hundred people in a club to pouring your heart out in front of a literal sea of people just months later. Propose that scenario to any striving musician and they’re liable to say it sounds like a dream come true. They haven’t lived it, though. More than only the musicians dream this dream and some of the dreamers would just as soon roast your ambition on a spit and eat you alive. We call such dreamers ‘executives’, always serving up a banquet to the consumer. For a fee.

Building the brand

Executives make their living in the formless world of brands, empty notions ready to be inflated by what hot air the PR machine can generate, in this case from five guys making music in a room together. Executives are practiced in the art of appetite. Feed the creature what it wants and it will want more. A new band makes a popular record and the PR machine grinds into action. Radio play and music videos generate demand for a tour (hey, you get to play your music every night and isn’t that what all musicians are after?), which leads to the demand for more music to recapture the feeling of the live experience. Soon, the appetite for Pearl Jam was everywhere.

The thing about appetite, though, is that to be fed, it must consume, and we cannot consume anything without destroying it. This is true of everything I can think of: food, resources, God. So, in a very real sense, the appetite of the consumer is the appetite of the destroyer.

Executives measure themselves by how much they can feed this appetite and the brand is the tool by which they scale up production. A brand makes the band into an abstraction, a disintegration that separates their image from their actions. From bodily creature to ubiquitous entity. The brand is more than five guys making music together. It is what the band says and what is said about the band. It is what the band wears and who wears the band. It is the thrumming impression of the band that can be everywhere that Ed, Mike, Stone, Jeff, and [insert drummer’s name] cannot. A brand in full fledge can stoke the appetite—and the ensuing consumption (nicely monetized)—to amazing heights, which in turn gives rise to the music industrial complex[1].

For Pearl Jam to submit to such branding would mean their end. On a human level, it’s the end of being a neighbor and the advent of being a celebrity, an isolated object of curiosity and gossip. Anyone who performs for a living will be known without human connection, so some degree of celebrity is inevitable, but this can be inflamed to an unhealthy degree. The inevitable result of branding is such inflammation. Eventually, branding also ends the music, one way or another. To meet demand, the band would be expected to stop creating and start reacting, riding the market like a wave. Either the members grow increasingly bored until one leaves (they did start off as artists, after all), or the market begins to leave them behind and, in trying to keep up they find their creative muscles have atrophied and their ‘new sound’ falls in the chasm between imitation and retread. Either way, a band actively caught up in branding has begun the end of their vitality. Of course, the executives draw their vitality from a deep roster of exploitable talent cued up to slot right in when one band fails in endless succession. The machine churns on. Staring down this road, maybe not seeing it all clearly, but having the instinctive unease of an animal sensing a predator, Pearl Jam began to react.

Killing the brand

To the executives’ squealing delight, the golden goose did lay one more batch of solid gold hits: Vs. Their second album displayed ‘the Pearl Jam sound’ perfected. Distilled into a kinetic rush of guitar riffs and youthful solidarity. Vs. sold 1 million copies in its first week and was used to establish Pearl Jam as the hot commodity of 1992. Then their third album, Vitalogy, topped the Billboard charts on the strength of early-release vinyl sales alone (and this was in the barren age between the time CDs killed LPs and the late renaissance of the wax medium). But, on Vitalogy, we find a Pearl Jam already about the study of how to stay alive while being fed into the jaws of a ravenous market. It is a caustic, angry record layering obnoxious, thorny bits with heavy doses of blistering critique aimed at those trying to eat them alive. It’s also brilliant and the executives surely cried all the way to the bank.

In 1973, Wendell Berry wrote the greatest poem ever. It closes like this:

“As soon as the generals and politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection”
Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front

 In 1996, Pearl Jam released No Code and supported it with the most hard-headedly alienating tour they could. Boycotting any venue affiliated with Ticketmaster, contrary to the eventual non-monopoly findings of congress, left only a frustrating string of out of the way places hardly equipped to handle the logistics of hosting the most in-demand concert ticket in the country at the time. Now, No Code is not a bad record. Time has been very good to it, actually, but in 1996, it was the most un-Pearl Jam record imaginable. As for the tour, only the most hale and hardy fans had the fortitude to find and attend the shows. They may have been richly rewarded, but the tour was not a success in any business sense. Critics and executives alike thought Pearl Jam had lost their minds, committed career suicide on the day of their coronation. Pearl Jam™ was dead. The music industrial complex moved on (to boy bands. While Pearl Jam was confounding its predators like a fox, Lou Pearlman was manufacturing N*SYNC to put a stake in the heart of rock and roll). Pearl Jam blew up the brand. The dust settled and there was a band, freed of expectations.

What’s to love about Yield?

Despite the titular instruction of No Code (do not resuscitate), Yield was Pearl Jam’s resurrection. The loosest, most confident and enjoyable record in their now 10-album catalog. This is my love letter to my favorite album, not just by my favorite band, but by any band.

What makes Yield such a delight? It’s all in the timing. For one thing, there’s the matter of the band’s internal dynamics. They had actually become friends. (Given their brush with blinding stardom, it’s forgivable that it took them seven years.) This combined with their musical familiarity lends the record a tightness that comes across totally effortless.

Mike McCready and Stone Gossard truly find a great blend as a four-armed guitar monster. Gone is the standard division of labor (Stone’s arena-sized riffs driving Mike’s blues-drenched soloing). Instead, you have a record stacked with great guitar parts woven into a perfect tapestry. They spent Vitalogy and No Code dismantling the Pearl Jam™ guitar logic and Yield is the fruit of good labor.

Eddie Vedder’s voice is also at its on-record peak. He had matured past the soaring baritone that made early Pearl Jam so iconic (and then so imitated, and then so parodied), and he hadn’t yet reached the point where years of screaming his lungs out on tour took their toll. He’s singing at the peak of his dynamic and tonal range and it’s like a vintage tube amp—ranging from warm and rich to a broken-up growl depending on how hard he hits it. If the last time you heard Eddie Vedder sing was “Daughter”, you owe it to yourself to listen to “Brain of J”.

Then there’s the rhythm section. Admittedly, this is the area in which I am least articulate, but I will say that Jack Irons is my favorite of Pearl Jam’s many drummers. Instead of Dave Abbruzzese’s always huge all the time playing or Matt Cameron’s overly-intellectual approach, Jack Irons is expressive, a little off kilter, and always locked into exactly what the song needs. Alongside, Jeff Ament isn’t putting on a bass technique clinic. He’s just laying down a bottom end that’s so consistently spot on that it’s almost subliminal.

As an aside, the political timing of Yield is also just right. Midway through Bill Clinton’s lame duck presidency, the political anxiety of the W. years wasn’t even foreshadowed yet and the H.W. years were far enough past that Eddie Vedder was able to look away from his clear political enemies and explore. He’d also shaken the industrial demons from his back, and so he writes from a place of freedom he hadn’t experienced since he wrote the lyrics to Ten as a complete unknown. All of that earnestness is back, but matured and more contemplative. Lyrically as well as musically, the energy is consistently high and the gloom is consistently absent.

It’s all in the timing. Pearl Jam finally found some breathing room and all of that extra oxygen has the engine firing on all cylinders. There wouldn’t be Yield without the four records of frustration that came before it. The limitless potential purposefully surrendered makes this record what it is. That theme of retreat surfaces again and again. In “Given To Fly”, maybe the best Pearl Jam song of all, on “In Hiding”, and most poignantly in the album closer, “All Those Yesterdays”. “Don’t you think you ought to rest?” The song opens with the question that set the tone for all of Yield. After years and miles of fighting each other and an army of demands with hard-headed tours and albums, Pearl Jam finally got to a place where they could do what they do best, what they had always set out to do: make a rock record. The relief and joy is palpable. Yield is the sound of a dead band washing away their yesterdays. I love it so.

yield back

*     *     *

[1] All that money attracts a multitude of feeders. Besides the record label with its army of lawyers, accountants, and marketing departments, there’s media. Radio stations. TV networks. Magazines and other print outlets. These all use the band to attract eyeballs, eyeballs that will also look at ads, ads that pay the bills. Then there’s concert venues and promoters who make a killing selling seats and beer. And, of course, all of these have their own lawyers, accountants, and marketing departments.

What is the influence of the music industrial complex? The easier it is to define and sell to a market, the more smoothly the music industrial complex runs and with less waste (I.e. money spent failing to attract the wrong audience). So there’s a lot of pressure to easily and effortlessly match music to audience. This pressures the musicians to make easy-to-package songs and it pressures the audience to conform to easily charted zones of taste. This is why you get so many disparate bands lumped under a term like ‘grunge’—a term they did not choose for themselves— and why you have so many bands that sound suspiciously like established artists. This is also why you are so aggressively sold a particular image to aspire to: the image carves a market segment out of the population. The ease of making money leads to all kinds of subtle attempts to turn people into either markets or products, which is a reduction.

‘Shake It Off’ In the Dark City

‘Shake It Off’ In the Dark City

With her ubiquity that may be second only to the omnipresence of God, Taylor Swift finally cornered me with her song ‘Shake It Off’. I really kind of liked it. I have no way to place this in the overall cannon of Swift tunes, but it is catchy as can be. And striking in a way I wouldn’t have expected.

Verse one introduces the disembodied voices swirling around Swift, murmuring gossip and vitriol. In the chorus, she, well, shakes them off. In verse two Swift paints herself like Muhammad Ali in the ring: always moving, improvising. The haters even dream of beating her and they better wake up and apologize. She’s untouchable. The song is a massive hit and as such it has earned a Grammy nomination. Why does this ideal of the untouchable individual resonate with us?

The release of Swift’s new album came alongside her exhaustively publicized move from Nashville to New York City. The country girl is now a bona fide city woman, or so the narrative goes. This move microcosms Swift’s life, exchanging a small world wherein she knew most everyone who knew her, for a global world, where she is on constant display before people who don’t know her personally, that is, as a person. I think if we look at this song through the lens of our own country to city/small to global transition, we can get our minds around why ‘Shake It Off’ strikes a nerve as it does.

Over the past hundred years, the global population has undertaken a mammoth—and accelerating— migration from countryside to city. This has had a profound impact on our lives and relationships.

Tim Keller has said that cities have the highest concentration of the image of God per square inch anywhere in the world. The city, given its dense collection of humanity, has vast potential for purpose and goodness if its people live out what’s best and most true about the human creature. If cities are the largest concentration of God’s image bearers, though, they are also the largest collection of people trying to cope with the searing rupture between them and God. Such collective cosmic pain must shape the city because it cannot help but shape the residents of the city.

Jacques Ellul, a brilliant 20th century French sociologist and lay theologian, said, “Just as Jesus Christ is God’s greatest work, so we can say, with all the consequences of such a statement, that the city is man’s greatest work.” In The Meaning of the City, He argues that Cain, having murdered his brother, was cursed by God to wander the earth, detached from secure roots. Reeling with insecurity, Cain responded by building security in his own image, apart from God, and this is the first, prototypical city. The wanderer settled down in defiance. Wendell Berry, I think, would say that the city manifests the victory of mankind’s desire to exploit over his ability to nurture.

We thus have to take the city for what it is: a place both strikingly beautiful for what it contains, and darkly sinister in its foundation. The city is a place of insecurity, felt at a tectonic level, filled with people striving for the most efficient path to feelings of financial, physical, and relational security. Nothing has yet silenced these appetites. Rather cruelly, they actually seem to grow more pointed when fed. This introduces a compounding thirst for novelty to the calculus of the city. And so we cluster together and scrape up against one another in an urban environment obedient to the commandments of scarcity and competition. Hungry and growing hungrier. Cities need salt and light because they are, by nature, decomposing and dark places.

This darkness disturbs the city in many ways: with crime, with poverty, but also with the shadow of urban anonymity. Dedicated urbanites prize their independence, enjoying the privacy of the crowd. We think it nice to be buffered from busybodies who can rather effectively aggravate our insecurity because they know us by name—inescapable in the kind of small communities we find in rural America—but in escaping those busybodies, we have severely strained the bonds of accountability found in a small, named community, where people know and are known to one another and therefore cannot escape the joy or grief of one another. Absent such interconnectedness, acknowledged by the simple act of addressing someone by name, strange things happen.

The devil who has always weighted our shoulder and plied us with lies about being our own god and deserving a taste of whatever forbidden fruit du jour whispers that we must look after ourselves, we must get ours, we must compete with these people. Our insecure flesh drinks this in and its appetites growl. We begin to see the humans around us not as a community to be nurtured, but as capital to be exploited, and this is made easy because we no longer know anyone personally. Aren’t cities built with human capital? Any reduction in personal knowledge, even namelessness, paves the way for exploitation.

How do we exploit each other? Not as cartoon villains do, but as regular people navigating a crowded supermarket or a rush-hour freeway. We curse the other driver, we leer at the other shopper, all bodies to which we cannot give a name. This may seem harmless, the presence or absence of external aggression is a shallow measure of harm. In the Sermon on the Mount, anger is not just closely tied to but equated to murder. How can this be? It all hinges on what happens to us in our anger, not what happens to the person at whom our anger is directed. Even hidden, our anger harms its objects because it strangles our desire to admit them into the circle of our care.

The other driver, the other grocery shopper, crosses our path on the cutting edge of their long life, as complex and full of grief and joy as our own. Yet the minute they impede us, all of that long life vanishes from our sight (if it even ever was there). We no longer see a person but an object in the way and this is the assassination of their humanity in our heart, an unspeakable reduction. We have severed the ties of mutual life between us and them by denying their full life our consideration and therefore our patience, to say nothing of compassion or love. And for what? For a feeling of superiority to compensate for a moment’s inconvenience. We have used them to lift ourselves up. We have exploited them. In a city on a busy day, we can do this dozens and hundreds of times until the urban landscape becomes a bloodless genocide. One which we all survive only by blind biological measure.

When we do not see the person in front of us as a human being in full flesh, as we inevitably do in the crowd of the city and as we often choose to do in our anger or even mere annoyance, we deny ourselves the chance to give regard that we owe, regard that we ought to get rid of because to store it up in ourselves is to poison our own mind and soul. And so we do not truly survive the bloodless genocide, not as a whole unit of body and spirit. Anonymity, augmented with anger, must kill our own sense of the value of someone before it can drive us to physical murder, and even if it never ends in real bloodshed, grievous harm has already been done.

There is no sliding scale of acceptability when it comes to making people objects. When we attempt to reduce what should be irreducible, we lose something essential to being human together. Yet it seems the city demands this kind of reduction of us in a unique way. Perhaps it’s just a function of human limit; we have a relational limit that the city far exceeds so we have to imagine people as objects in order to comprehend the sheer number. This cannot but entail a co-reduction in their value, their complexity. The city may present us with more people than we have the spiritual capacity to pay attention, but that doesn’t absolve us of being a community in which each member matters and is deserving of their full human dignity. I mean dignity in an old sense of an intrinsic value that no one may diminish because it isn’t given from man to man but rather given to all men by their Creator.

Of course, these impulses to anger, to thinking others less so that we might feel like more come out in small, named communities. But in those places where you look known people in the face, it is difficult to keep them hidden. So they tend to emerge, as feuds and gossip. The invisibility of anonymous anger makes it a cancer more peculiar to the city, which hides the known person from us in a crowd. So the shape the city has taken is closely tied to what Ellul argues was the original impetus for the city, that is to murder and its ramifications for our human spirit. In our desire to feel happy, we can accept, even willfully ignore, of gross poverty. Our panicky clinging to our stuff leads us to expect of crime and therefore suspect The Other. Our hunger to secure promotion and pay increase spurs sometimes treacherous competition in the marketplace. All of these insecurities are profoundly abetted by our ability to reduce our imagination of others into disposable quantities. This reduction in imagination owes a great debt to the vast relational pool of the city, to how such a sea of faces gives us permission not to know our neighbor well.

In the past 15 years, things have taken a turn for the truly surreal. The enormity of the city has entered the echo chamber of the Internet and suddenly the world is simultaneously more vast than even the greatest city and yet more claustrophobic and inescapable than the smallest town. Our animosity towards one another—which tends to dehumanize unless kept in check by the unavoidable humanity found in personal relationships—found in the city an anonymous place to go to work on fraying our communal bonds. But we couldn’t, or at least often wouldn’t, act out our anger face to face because we’d have to witness its true effect. Now, though, we have our global digital city. Like the city, it is an unprecedented collection of human creatures, of the image of God, and so its implications are both wonderful and fearful to behold. The digitopolis has a dark underbelly, an open platform from which our inner troll has the power to strike at anyone and the choice to remain anonymous. As we broadcast our lives into this digital uncivil-ization, we make ourselves vulnerable to tabloid insult and paparazzi voyeurism; in short, we put ourselves in a position to feel how Taylor Swift felt when she wrote ‘Shake It Off’.

So why does ‘Shake It Off’ allure us? Well, what could be more alluring in this modern world than an emotional suit of armor? Taylor Swift’s brilliance is her insight into one of our chief collective anxieties: being on the receiving end of abuse from which we have no expectation of refuge or release (because it’s just the way things are in the wired world). To this kind of world, Swift presents herself as the invulnerable ideal. ‘Shake It Off’ is an anthem of empowerment against haters and heart breakers. And it has a nice beat. And you can dance to it. No wonder she’s a queen of pop culture. But, is ‘Shake It Off’ good medicine for our time?

For everything there is a season, even shaking it off. Swift has leaned into the modern world and, having endured its full effect, must shake things off in order to survive. Perhaps not in such high volume, so must we to the extent that we navigate the nameless crowd. The dark parts of the city—digital or analog—would bleed us dry us if we didn’t have thick skin. This is doubly true if we try to bring some light into dark corners. The city loves freedom of thought, but hates advice. A life that subverts the darkness in the city will suffer its own portion of slings and arrows. Speak or live a message that protests the animating forces of consumerism and self-centeredness, a message that encourages reunion with God and therefore with neighbor—often at the expense of so-called personal liberty and satisfaction—and you are likely to meet a round rebuke. People are liable to kick at something they see in the light that pricks their cosmic rupture. In that time, why shouldn’t we think of ourselves as lighting on our feet? In the Christian faith, which, when well-lived, should run counter to much of the city as I’ve described it, Jesus punctuates his beatitudes, his own sublimely subversive anthem of empowerment, by telling his followers that they are blessed when others revile them and speak all kinds of false evil against them on his behalf (on behalf of his message of light shining in darkness). He tells them to rejoice and be glad—shake it off!—for great is their reward in heaven, in that place which dwarfs the city. Taylor Swift may not have had such an interpretation in view when she wrote the song, but there it is all the same.

Yet, there is a time for everything under heaven, even not shaking it off. Criticism isn’t always unfounded and ignorable, and it’s fatal to the soul to presume so. Sometimes we need to let a punch land. Sometimes we need a wound to save us from total self-destruction. We cannot find that kind of wound in the din and mayhem of the city, though. For those times, we must seek out that vulnerable community of people who know one another by being mutually given for one another’s well-being. There we can take off our city armor, decide together to lay down our instinct to exploit relationships for personal gain, and instead realize our ability to nurture one another, even if by pruning. If Taylor Swift has a song about that, I’d love to know about it. I think she has the insight and emotional touch to write a good one. I’d cue it up alongside ‘Shake It Off’ on and have a cosmic dance party.

Imagine

Imagine

Nelson Mandela died recently and every news network and program has rightly devoted a good deal of time to remembering his legacy. By  plain fact he did good as he lead his people. He was a flawed man, but those flaws reveal a complexity of character that should be an assurance to anyone that their failures and their weaknesses are no death blow to accomplishing real good, nor are they an excuse for failing to do so. I don’t know every nuance of his biography, but I know that the story of a young, frustrated man passing through such a crucible as 27 years in prison to be poured out as a humble leader of inexorable strength pushing to end apartheid is a beautiful story. Nelson Mandela’s legacy of justice matters.

One news program, though, made an odd choice in its coverage. 20/20 ended an hour-long special with a pair of children’s choirs singing “Imagine” by John Lennon. Nelson Mandela had the courage to imagine a world without apartheid and so children, our hope for the future, should honor his legacy with this inspiring song. But the message of Lennon’s song totally undercuts any talk of legacy, of lasting good, so an hour of tribute to Mandela’s courage and meaningful conviction ended with this weird moment of meaninglessness, albeit cut with wistfully diluting sentiment.

Lennon opens with an altar call of sorts, a hymn of invitation to “imagine there’s no heaven/it’s easy if you try/no hell below us/above us only sky.” His song preaches that people only kill and starve each other to serve religion or government. Whether The Man or The Man Upstairs, any such authority ends in abuse. Therefore, Lennon prefers to imagine the end of such authority. God is greater than government, so he ultimately envisions a cosmic power vacuum. What if join him in this? No devils, no angels, just dirt below and clouds above. With no heaven and therefore no hell, the sky will indeed be empty. Will we find people living for today, eruptions of benevolence and brotherhood? Or will we lose more than we might imagine by tossing heaven and hell onto the trash pile of ideas we’ve outgrown?

In our modern age, the afterlife is heated and hammered, like iron in a blacksmith’s tongs, into all sorts of shapes to serve all sorts of masters. Even as it changes shape, the theme of ultimate justice endures. Good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell—that dichotomy pervades vast swaths of human culture across time and place. How the sheep and goats get sorted is a real source of contention, but the winnowing is nearly universal. Perhaps from boredom with all the variations on this theme or perhaps from irritation at a continual vague sense of guilt, it’s become fashionable to throw out the idea of hell altogether (maybe people just don’t want to think about going there). But then you get into trouble.

Not so deep down, we all know there is evil in the world that doesn’t always meet its proper end in this life—neither redemption nor justice. Hell would certainly make sense, but we’ve imagined that away. If you believe in a heaven without a hell, though, you have to get cozy with the idea of bunking next to Hitler in the sweet by and by. That won’t do, so Lennon rightly realizes he must dismiss the afterlife completely—no heaven, no hell, just nothing everlasting I guess. Setting aside the idea that being unmade in such way sounds more like hell for everyone, it remains that life and doing—good or evil—become pointless. You either wind up in the same place as everyone else no matter what so who cares, or you cease as though you never were and what matters then?

When Lennon tosses heaven and hell he loses two things he probably wishes he’d kept: the ability to tell whether anything is good or bad and any real motivation for self-sacrifice. On the point of good and bad: without an outside vantage point life spirals down into a relativistic cesspool. In the parable of the blind men encountering the strange beast and making claims based on what they felt with their hands, they’d all be correct without an outside observer to say the perceived snake, rope, and tree trunk actually added up to an elephant. Of course, the sightless men would all be wrong, too.  It’s the problem of polytheism: without one God to set the standard by which good and evil take weight, you have many gods and many standards and no way to weigh any one against the other (at least no peaceful way). They all weigh the same and they all might as well weigh nothing. Morality is unmade and a great darkness awakens.

What happens when two gods and their two truths come into conflict? Which will sacrifice for the other? Which could? Each must certainly want the most pleasure and power in this life because each faces death, the absolute end with no beyond and no hope for reward or dread of justice. Why on earth choose weakness and risk death or discomfort with the strength to avoid both? In a world of nothing and unto nothing, that is an unanswerable question.

Even if, if one of those gods, John Lennon perhaps, chose a noble sacrifice, how could he ever reasonably expect others to follow suit having imagined no heaven, no hell? His plea could only come from arrogance, from the untethered conviction that his desire for lower, broader prosperity is better than their desire for higher and more narrow. A weightless request easily ignored.

True, some folks do make small sacrifices, but only in order to gain tangible benefit; we have tribes and nations, collections of people willing to give up some freedom for strength in numbers and reliable trade. (Funnily enough, it seems we desire the moral autonomy of gods and yet try to weasel out of total self-sufficiency that a god ought to possess. We want to live as though we have no limits, but we know to play society games in order for others to be willing to shore up our weaknesses. And how we seethe at having to stoop even a little to buy from the efforts of others who can do what we can’t, who have what we have not. We want godship, but we could never pull it off. Oh what fury, what frustration.) Some sacrifice serves self-interest, collective-interest. At some point, the sacrifice cuts too deep and instinct kicks in. This is it! THIS IS IT! There is nothing else coming. Survive as long as you can and drink deep cup of pleasure and power while it lasts. Be vicious if you have to. It’s not like you’ll ever have to pay for it. Even with small social sacrifices, eventually tribe will come against tribe and, absent the watchful eye of heaven and any ensuing restraint, one will force the other to bow or bleed.

Isn’t this exactly what happens, what happened in apartheid? Apartheid was actually good for a lot of people: the white people in power. One pale-skinned South African tribe beat down competition from the other tribes and so flourished. They served their truth like gods unaccountable as though there were not bigger truth that might condemn. Spooky. We imagined there was no heaven and we wound up with apartheid. It’s starting to come clear why ‘Imagine’ was such a strange choice to honor Nelson Mandela. It’s a lonely song.

‘Imagine’ is a paradox. Half of its aspirations create the very world that the other half longs to undo. Clearly, it’s not just that you imagine; what you imagine matters. John Lennon thought his misguided dreaming would help him find peace and equality, but he dreamt the very root of the war within himself and every self around him: the war between wanting to be God and longing for the world to be the way God made it. Imagine there’s no heaven? We already have and look where it got us. Alone and run amok.

How do you hope in Loneliness? If life came from nothing and ends in nothing, you simply can’t assign any enduring meaning to it. Without posterity, it just won’t matter if apartheid had crushed Mandela or if his noble struggle had slowly won over hearts and minds to bring the institution to its end. It won’t matter if you were at the bottom or the top of the ladder of cruelty if the human race is merely a chance eruption of consciousness and matter unheralded in its birth and unmourned by a void in its eventual death. Children would be no hope for the future, just a hope unto themselves to outwit or outfight, to be cruel in order to avoid cruelty, to deprive in order to prosper. Zoom out far enough and the sun explodes, burning up all our molecules, leaving nothing behind with no one to remember whether good or bad had transpired during the brief blip of time during which we lived. Will there even be time without anyone there to count it?

This is all silly. We know in our hearts that oppression is a great evil and men who fight oppression do good. We know in our hearts that children, new life among us, do bring hope. That’s why we do our best to raise them well, to pass along any wisdom we may have. Very few people tell their kids to go and take as much as they can by any means necessary, at least not outright. We teach our kids how to share because we know that sharing is a part of friendship, a part of being in the human community. And this isn’t some cold, calculated strategy to gain strength through tribalism. Not in our hearts it’s not, not in the moment of teaching our child. No, we don’t want our children to grow up alone because loneliness is pain and cruelty is evil. This is written deep, deep inside us. Eventually, yes we lose sight of it turn to injustice as we grow older and find our desires fast outpacing our resources. But, it wasn’t God or heaven or hell that changed us and that we need to unimagine. It was arrogance; we changed our own damn selves and twisted God into something that would justify our injustice.

That twisted image of God and its contemptible beneficiaries are what John Lennon really wants to toss onto the trash heap of ideas we’ve outgrown. I join with him. I long for the banishment of the awful so-called gods of injustice and tyranny that obscure the view of an actual God of justice and dignity. But you can’t fight subjectively from untethered conviction. That’s arrogance easily ignored. You must fight from humility, submitting to the strength of an objective authority greater than any of us that quite clearly declares us each of equal dignity, each debased or exploited only through evil. Suddenly, justice is back in town bringing with her motivation and endurance to resist tyranny. It’s a leap of faith, an act of imagination if you will, but the right response to the wrong God isn’t no gods, but the rediscovery of the right God to wage a war of conscience against all our false gods.

I don’t know what Nelson Mandela thought of heaven or hell or God, but I know that his long fight against apartheid bore many signs of submitting to an unarguable authority. Any long and arduous fight against injustice and tyranny, whether the fighter admits it or not, happens under heaven and by its guidance. There’s just no other way. To try to honor the legacy of such a dignified battle with a song that erases the very concept of justice, as 20/20 tried, rings dead and hollow. Heaven offers a far better legacy.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

‘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.