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.

Help Wanted

Image

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Remember standing in a wide open field at night. Encompassed by a flat horizon and capped by infinite night, by depths ornamented with pinholes of light stretching out, out, out in unending succession. Connected to innumerable predecessors who had experienced that same strange alarm at the sense of an entire universe bearing down. One day seeing a tiny blinking light passing between the stars and that’s us now, that lonely, drifting light. That’s us high above the analog world, pacing the geometric corridors of the digital realm so sleek, beveled, and cool. Metal and glass joined seamlessly, light invading and being swallowed up by dark. We pace in solitude, the tiny echo of our footfalls punctuating the immense, vacant silence. Looking out at a downward arcing horizon, we almost know how it must have felt to be present ahead of the beginning, hovering over the void.

I came across a digital advertisement. A man was advertising for a babysitter. One that he could, upon sneaking home early, drag into a coat closet to have his way with. ‘Wife must NOT KNOW.’ ‘Good with kids a plus.’ His plan was to bring a total stranger into his home, whom he would have to admit possessed questionable if not downright alarming scruples, intending to entrust this imagined trollop with the care of his own blood. And the assurance that she wouldn’t dismember the kids, bury them alive, or mince their bones for a pot pie, that was a just a plus. You can bet that if he had been required to run that little classified in the paper and accept letters of application to his house, much less phone calls that anyone might answer, he might have given this whole scheme a second thought. Maybe even reconsidered altogether and just settled for his secretary. Hell, I bet a newspaper wouldn’t even have run the ad. But here we are in the digital world where nobody has to know nothing and there are just too many people to even keep track of them all anyway, and some bastard’s pitiable dynasty is about to get babysat by God knows what Grimm tart just so dad can scratch some depraved itch. This whole scene, mystifying as it is, was posted on a humor blog for folks to shake their heads and laugh at alongside pictures of cats and schoolbook-graffiti-quality devotion to Dr. Who and bacon. It’s beyond me. I guess the situation is a bit funny, or you had better find it so. The alternative being to get near suicidal thinking about mankind and especially about those kids. I bet they weren’t laughing. The wife either.

Oh what does come out to play when it thinks it can get away with it.

This bizarre scene heralds the individualism conceived in an ivory tower during the Age of Enlightenment having found its fullest expression in the ethereal tower of the Digital Age. A tower reaching high above the atmosphere atop an invisible mountain of signal, a bedrock of transmission. A mighty fortress with curious walls at once transparent and a shroud, pristine in both modes. Did the pursuit of individualism drive us to this place, or did the discovery of this place finally give people the freedom to live out their philosophy. Distilled to its pure form, individualism is isolation and the digital world, granting unaccountable choice in all things, fulfills its demands perfectly. In unrestrained anonymity, the individual unfurls, thrives.

To be truth for, in, and of oneself could only ever have happened if the individual could be fully in control of its presence in the world and so sovereign to itself. Out from beneath those it might disappoint, no longer shackled to those who might catch it out in a lie, plain facts become relative and the self-projected image of the individual becomes the absolute authority by which truth is determined. Locked in our ethereal towers (from the inside, mind you), we can finally be alone and figure out what kind of person we’d have been all along if we could have just gotten some space. We have the privilege and leisure of kings to issue doctrine about our selves and have it accepted unblinking by our adherents. (Of course, people can still smell a rat, so we may keep it subtle in some forums.)

A lament for the crush of the crowd back in the analog world: That old time seems so claustrophobic now, like a slow asphyxiating death narrowly escaped. A serpent had tried to bind us, but we turned to vapor and slipped its coils. As anecdotal evidence, consider the address, the great constrictor. An address used to demarcate a finite location packed with people. A house, an office building, a shop. A place to send and receive mail. A place to sit. A place to rest. But, we could only be in any one those places at a time and we actually had to physically move to get to another. The address would encircle and bind our presence, and our every move only served to tighten the grip of our limitation. What is an address now? A tiny coded signature by which we navigate the cloud. A place to send and receive tiny digital missives. A place to store pixels. A place to plug in. No longer a place to be but a representation of being. A new address takes just a moment to create. We have dozens and can be present in all at once, or none at all (though even in our absence we leave benevolent remnants of our presence, messages like scripture to assure our faithful that we haven’t abandoned them and shall return). An address isn’t a matter of location anymore, but one of will. Presence is now our private mystery to effortlessly multiply and disperse according to inscrutable whim.

Switching from location to communication, consider the telephone, a once-serpentine device. In the analog world, there was one softly hissing phone line going into a home. If you needed to contact someone immediately, you dialed a number and the signal passed undeviating through rubber-clad coils—the very picture of predestination—and rang a bell at the end. You never knew who you were going to get at the other end of the line. The interaction was complex and spontaneous yet completely contained. (Like a snake eating its own tail, you could even dial your own number, hang up quick, and have the line ring–the lazy man’s way to talking to someone downstairs.) Now, though, there is one phone number per pocket. The slithering network of linear wire has been multiplied ad infinitum until it became a permeate fog of radiation ascending to the heavens and falling back to earth. Signal has escaped the old coiled prison and life in the ether has subdivided our interconnectedness to cellular level. Precisely individual. (Sometimes even more finely grained than that—we all know someone with a work and a personal phone. One for each individual within the individual.) We don’t dial numbers, we press names and we always get the expected individual. The banal, unsurprising act of connecting with someone has become quite innate. We don’t answer with, “Hello?” anymore. “Hey.” The mystery is gone, evidenced by the blanked mind of a caller on the rare occasion when you answer someone else’s cell and an entire brain must reboot its expectations.

So what? People have cell phones and dozens of online accounts. They make life efficient. Having a unique outlet for every type of expression gives us greater freedom, and we move from forum to forum without even the effort of standing. Being reachable as an individual gives us autonomy, not to mention mobility. No more waiting for someone else to finish using the phone. No more answering unknown numbers (or known numbers that we’d rather avoid). Just think of how many unwanted conversations caller ID has empowered us to avoid. Custom-tailored communication across all mediums. Get with the future.

This is all true, sure. We are in more control as individuals and stronger in some ways. But think of what we don’t know anymore (besides anyone’s actual phone number). We have lost a dimension of accountability, of others knowing where we are or where we’ve been, of others knowing when we get phone calls, and even knowing who calls us. And of us knowing the same things about them. Even as we have become more interconnected, we have become more blind, more able to willfully blind one another. For some, unrestrained turns to unhinged. Think of those kids and that wife who just might have had one less deplorable memory in an analog world with a dad required to be slightly less invisible.

But, here we are in the digital world. Weightless in the void and completely alone. Millions of people are just a tap away, but we can banish them a million miles away with another tap if it suits us. In this vacuum, we are answerable only to ourselves. Perfectly singular. We speak and it starts to feel like divinity, revealing our presence as our digital world vibrates in response. We are in complete control and lonely hangs the crown. What inky parts of our nature loose their chains and escape their cages?

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is often a time to reflect on the humble nature of the Kingdom of God. Here comes Jesus, received as a king, but riding unexpectedly on a donkey. Not a horse, not a chariot. Not born on a litter carried by slaves or even angelic host. A donkey. How about that? The way down is the way up. Jesus was so humble, so meek and mild. He didn’t need horses and armies on his mission. Just a little old donkey. And that’s all true of the story, but it falls short in a couple of ways. One, it frames the whole story from an overly narrow (if not outright blind) perspective. As a result, two, it doesn’t really tell what’s going on.

True, the way down is the way up. But that’s true for us. Not for Jesus. It’s true for us because we have to get off our stupid high horse in order to accept another king. Was Jesus ever actually down? Or is it possible that our vision of power, rule, and authority is so blurred that we can look at a Warrior King in the midst of his triumph and think, “Poor guy.”?

I’m pretty sure Jesus was never down. His victory may have been obscure to us because of our expectations of what true power looks like, but he was never down. In this way, Christian culture could learn a lot from old kung fu movies. The quiet master rolls into the corrupt town reviled and laughed at, at least by the big bosses, but when the dust settles, the bosses are dead and the master hasn’t disturbed a single hair on his head. Thinking of that old donkey as such a humble, laughable steed reveals more about our expectations that it does about the advance of God’s Kingdom. The donkey reveals our blindness to true power.

We look at the palm frond and the donkey as an ironic pairing, but we have to remember that it’s only ironic to us with our shrouded view. Zoom out a little and you see the donkey fulfilling a generations-old prophecy, revealing a Kingdom that is actually writing history, not just enacting it. The donkey, far from being merely a humble choice, is a triumph of this Kingdom, acting out a sovereign, undeterrable decree. We look at suffering and death as defeat. That’s a pretty dim view as well.

During the season of his incarnation, Jesus rolled through history like a juggernaut on his way to storm the evil fortress. Heaven invaded enemy territory with his birth and Jesus played the long game. Steadily marching on the gates of Hell, accessible only by passage across mortal country. Entering by the only way: death (which he brought on himself by striking at the foundation of the power of his day, knowing that they would eventually execute him for it). Death was a genius act of war, an entry through an impossibly narrow corridor. You could look at it like the Persian army at Thermopylae, if the Persian army had been one man cutting through the 300-man phalanx as a scythe through wheat.

The whole story rolls out as a straight line from Heaven, through birth and death, into Hell, bursting out the other side, and returning to Heaven. A meat hook through the skull of a dead, darkened world, dragging it back into life and light. You could see that death as a humiliation, but it wasn’t. If death, then, looked so much like humiliation but was actually part of a perfect, unstoppable assault, what does that tell us about what is an is not weakness?

What I see from the donkey, and from everything in Jesus’ life that we call weakness, is that God’s Kingdom advances with unstoppable force and it mocks earthly power every step of the way, either through subversion or outright conquest. When we look at the passage of Jesus through history, we look through a darkened glass and we get confused. The bottom line is that a greater reality played out in our midst. In a theater fundamentally unable to fully understand what was going on. Jesus wasn’t an ironic king on Palm Sunday. He was just a king (but precisely the King). We see a king on a donkey and think, ‘That’s an odd scene.’ The scene isn’t odd at all. We’re odd. We expect odd things and so we miss great things.

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!’

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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.