Mick Jagger sings “Paint It Black” from the point of view of a man whose lover has unexpectedly died. This happens in real life, of course: it has not happened to me, I hope it never does. But it’s happened to friends of mine, one very recently. When it happens to someone you know, you find yourself saying things like, it’s impossible to imagine how they must feel. And I think it is. You may find yourself awed and moved by their public strength, or by their eloquence, but for many of us the most we can offer is friendship, not empathy.
Which of course doesn’t stop me thinking, what if -? what would i -?, and then feeling ashamed somehow for thinking it, indulgent and intrusive. What does this have to do with “Paint It Black”? Only that something I often ask myself, listening to songs, is whether or not a singer “convinces”, sells me on the situation they’re in. A lot of the time the test of that conviction is whether I can inhabit the song, how much I can enjoy its emotion vicariously, swaggering out a rhythm or swooning into mock heartache. This is something pop is fantastic at, letting us try on emotions and poses like clothes, feeling their fit. To apply that test to “Paint It Black” feels grotesque at the moment.
But here’s the thing – until I sat down, tonight, and listened to it properly I had never realised what this song was about. I had always misheard or misremembered the crucial line – “I could not foresee this thing happening to you” – as “I could not see the same thing happening to you”. That would change the song completely, making it a self-loathing lash at someone who doesn’t share Jagger’s black mood. And that I could empathise with – my own periods of depression, for instance, have always been accompanied by a nagging feeling that I shouldn’t make so much bloody fuss. (Even typing “my own periods of depression” is accompanied by a reflexive spasm of embarrassment.)
When that was how I thought the song went I didn’t pay much attention to anything else in the lyrics. I instead homed in on Jagger’s Jekyll-and-Hyde performance, which switches between a disgusted snarl and a kind of flamboyant fastidiousness, between savage and camp, and then finds a backing in some eerie humming which I read as self-mocking. I was already inhabiting that performance, feeling it and adapting it (and major credit to the music’s nervous drive). So when the penny dropped it was more of a shock: I listened hard to the – melodramatic, brutal – lyrics at the same time as I tried to disentangle my older and newer reactions.
The meaning of the record changed for me: Jagger’s performance, or what I heard in it, didn’t. It still swings between pantomime misery and lunging anger, it tries to keep a distance, it re-establishes and loses control in each verse. It’s a hugely powerful song and I don’t feel I can comfortably do it justice.