One of my earliest memories is so vivid that I can close my eyes right now and picture it: I’m sitting on the brown shag carpet-covered steps that led down into the living room of my childhood home and wiping dried tears from the corners of my eyes while my dad plays the song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on his acoustic guitar and sings to me.
The lyrics of that song are fairly literal, but the first few times I heard them they sent my four-year-old mind reeling. “I saw her today at the reception,” my dad would sing, and my brain would conjure up an image of a woman sitting in the waiting room of my friendly neighborhood dentist’s office—the only kind of reception area I’d ever seen. “With a glass of wine in her hand,” my dad would continue, but I had never seen a glass of wine in real life. In my mind, it looked just like blood.
The strange plays on words and the larger-than-life details of the song would continue to push my imagination down equally psychedelic and disturbing paths. Who was this woman? What had she done with the dentist? Was the dentist Mr. Jimmy, or was he some other extraneous character? And what was my dad trying to tell me with this grotesque tale?
Yet at the core of all that wondering and wandering, there was also a clear message: You can’t always get what you want. In fact, not getting what you want is a fairly common occurrence. I was being a brat, and my dad had found the kindest and most creative way possible to tell me to forget about whatever tiny injustices I had been stomping around about and that everything was probably going to be okay.
Even at such a young age I recognized these little moments with my dad as experiences to be treasured. He was trying to connect with me and guide me, and seeing him play music right in front of me felt so intimate, and so fleeting. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” meanwhile, became embedded in my subconscious on the same level as the ABCs and songs from Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, and over the years it became a kind of theme song for my family.
Because I had discovered the song at such a young age—I don’t even think I would figure out that it was by the Rolling Stones until years later—and because of just how deeply it was entrenched in my psyche, it would pop up and and knock me over in the strangest and most unexpected ways.
There was a night in my early 20s when I settled in to watch The Big Chill for the first time in the basement of a friend’s house, and within the film’s first 15 minutes I had tears streaming down both of my cheeks. The characters in the movie had barely been introduced, but as soon as one of the actresses in its opening scene stood up in her church pew at her friend’s funeral and sat down at the organ to play “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” my heart jumped up into my throat and sank down like a brick into the pit of my stomach. I didn’t let anyone else see that I was so moved by it, though, because how could I explain? It wasn’t like my personal memory of the song was painful—at least not beyond the way that all nostalgia for the carefree days of early childhood seems to be accompanied by vague pangs of sadness—but hearing it affected me in an embarrassingly over-the-top way.
A few years later I would watch the first episode of Californication and have a similar response to the song’s presence in the background, even despite the show’s blue humor and general depravity. Could I not even enjoy a simple crude joke in peace?
But I loved the song wholeheartedly, and despite the twinges of sentimentality and nostalgia it could cause, it also brought me a great deal of comfort. At one point I realized that I had accidentally purchased three different copies of the LP the song appears on, Let It Bleed, just so I could have it nearby, and that wasn’t even counting the copy my dad had picked up for me when we were browsing together at a record show. I also own it on CD and have the track in my iTunes library, and if needed I could sit down and play it on piano or strum it out on a guitar or, in a real pinch, hum it through a kazoo. I love that damn song inside and out. And although Keith Richards and Mick Jagger are credited for creating it, that song doesn’t belong to the Rolling Stones anymore, and least not in my mind. It’s mine, and Keith and Mick are just going to have to deal with it.
I guess I wasn’t thinking of that song or anything in particular this past spring when, in the middle of an otherwise run-of-the-mill, typically busy morning at the office, I looked down to see that my cell phone was ringing and that my dad’s name was on the display. It turned out that while I had been running around filing stories and posting photos of musicians to Instagram and otherwise living my chaotic and ridiculous life, my graceful, sweet grandmother—my dad’s mother—had peacefully passed away.
It was the first time I had ever lost a grandparent, which I realize is a fairly rare thing for a person in their early 30s to be able to say, and it felt like someone had picked me up like a piece of discarded construction paper and slowly torn me in half. As my brain scrambled to process the news I felt oddly hollow, like this whole adulthood thing had merely been a big game of pretend and my dad had called to tell me the jig was up. I suppose that’s just another way of saying that it felt more serious and real than what I had originally prepared to deal with that day, but I knew I had no choice but to get in my toy car and steer it back to the house that my parents still call home.
A few days later I traveled up north for the funeral—back to the place where I grew up, where my surviving three grandparents still live, and where I’ve attended numerous funerals for distant relatives, acquaintances, and childhood friends. The whole town turned out for the visitation and service, and I stood between my husband and my parents in a daze, taking it all in. Although the service was filled with plenty of reassuring sentiments I found my attention wandering, gazing up at my grandmother’s elegant grey and silver casket and then out the window at a matching grey and silver hearse that was slowly backing up to the church’s front door. White flakes were starting to fall—the weatherman predicted a snowstorm that day, despite the fact that it was the middle of April—and as the congregation stood up to sing a hymnal I just kept staring outside. Everything felt so distant and sad and quiet.
The entire church was invited out to the cemetery but only our immediate family was brave enough to venture out onto the gravel roads in the quickly worsening weather, and I found myself riding in the backseat of my parents’ car, clutching my husband’s arm and watching while the hearse came into view, then disappeared in the wash of a whiteout blizzard, and then came back into view again ahead of us. When we got to the cemetery I watched in awe as my husband and cousins lifted the casket out of the car and over the fresh snowfall to the open gravesite, then huddled together with my aunts and uncles as the storm whipped ice into our tear-stained faces. One by one, we touched the casket one last time and said hurried goodbyes as we ducked away from the arctic wind and ran back toward our cars.
“This feels like a movie,” my mom exclaimed, brushing snow off her jacket as she climbed back into the front seat. And as my dad steered back onto the county highway, all of a sudden, just like a movie, there it was: The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” coming across the airwaves of Duluth’s classic rock radio station and out of the car’s speakers like it was set into rotation by Grandma Alice herself. The whole car suddenly filled with laughter, then softened as we all looked at each other in disbelief, then broke out in wild, cackling laughter once again. As Dolly Parton says in Steel Magnolias, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” and I can’t think of another time I’ve ever felt so connected to and supported by my family.
I may never figure out what Mick Jagger really meant by the verses of that beautiful, gaudy song, but I do know he was right about one thing: If you try, sometimes you just might find you get what you need.