[SoundStage!]For a Song
Back-Issue Article

September 2006

You Can’t Always Get What You Want*
by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

I saw her today at the reception,
A glass of wine in her hand.
I knew she was gonna meet her connection.
At her feet was her footloose man.

You can’t always get what you want.
You can’t always get what you want,
But if you try sometime, you might find
You get what you need!

I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse,
Singing, "We gonna vent our frustration."
If we don’t, we’re gonna blow a fifty-amp fuse.

I went to the Chelsea drug store
To get your prescription filled.
I was standing in line with Mister Jimmy
And man, did he look pretty ill.

We decided that we would have a soda;
My fav’rite flavor cherry red.
I sung my song to my friend Jimmy,
And he said one word to me and that was
   "dead." I said to him …


I saw her today at the reception.
In her glass was a bleeding man.
She was practiced at the art of deception,
Well, I could tell by her blood-stained hands.


* Words and punctuation from Rolling Stones LP Let It Bleed (1969) and Songs of the Rolling Stones: 111 Jagger/Richard Rock Greats. New York: WK/ABKCO Music Inc., 1975.

The Cost of Freedom: "You Can’t Always Get What You Want"

"You Can’t Always Get What You Want" appeared on the classic 1969 Rolling Stones LP Let It Bleed. In the classic yuppie movie The Big Chill, the song shapes the viewer’s understanding of the death that brings together long-parted college friends. The song builds on a platitude used to teach children the value of delayed gratification, but the details that illustrate the platitude portray grownups indulging themselves as if they haven’t learned its crucial lesson.

The tension between the refrain’s main clauses -- "you can’t always get what you want" and "if you try…you might find, you get what you need" -- describes people who don’t learn that lesson. Unable to forego instant gratification to pursue something worthwhile, they chase momentary pleasures, find themselves incapable of serious commitment, and ultimately destroy themselves. Unable to get what they want by pursuing valuable goals through self-discipline, they must get what they need by throwing tantrums, feeding addictions, and attaching themselves to other directionless people.

The singer’s distance from the people described in the song is reflected in his referring to them only as "her," "she," "her connection," "her footloose man," "we," and "you," naming only Jimmy. This singling out of one man, whose name is sung once as "Mister Jimmy" and a second time as "my friend Jimmy" and with whom he has a soda, suggests a subtle aspect of the song’s message.

Disconnected by connection

Already holding a legal drug, a glass of wine, when the singer sees her, the unidentified woman of the first verse is attending a reception -- ostensibly for someone’s art exhibit or wedding -- to obtain illegal drugs through "her connection." That one’s "connection" is one’s drug dealer is striking in itself, since drug use, especially addiction, is associated with a loss of connection to family, friends, and work, the basic components of social life. The woman’s using an important event in someone else’s life to obtain drugs implies a lack of connection to the honored person or persons and a lack of respect for another’s accomplishment or milestone that may reflect a lack of self-respect.

The man "at her feet" is "footloose." Free to go wherever and do whatever he pleases, he assumes a submissive posture in relation to someone who herself apparently can’t offer him much of what he wants. Maybe she provides something he needs, and vice versa. His being footloose suggests he might not be at her feet for long, anyway. She has apparently chosen him as her escort for his lack of importance to her. She’s after her drug connection, not human connection. Maybe she’s using him for protection.

Considering all of this, in the song’s refrain and title perhaps "what you want" is meaningful relationships and activities and "what you need" if you lack them is self-indulgence and addiction..

Demonstration as ventilation

Going to a demonstration -- ostensibly for an important cause -- to "vent our frustration" again subjects a supposedly meaningful activity to mere self-indulgence. When the song was released, demonstrations were frequent and often large. Many people with little political sophistication or commitment took part to feel a part of something big and to feel connected to other people. Many took part to "vent" at "the system" or "the establishment" -- to express free-floating anger -- in addition to whatever the organizers’ purpose might have been. Some no doubt experienced frustration from a lack of purpose owing to the inability to delay gratification, or from a mistaken belief that the political structure was supposed to please everyone. The song says that, if they did not use these political activities to express frustration, they might do something more destructive.

That something is metaphorically described in the song as "blow[ing] a fifty-amp fuse." Blowing one’s fuse is an expression for exploding with rage or throwing a tantrum, even having a mental breakdown. It suggests a lack of self-control -- a personal matter, not a political one, as a demonstration should be. People dedicated primarily to their personal needs trivialize public affairs.

Jimmy and the drug store

I find it interesting and puzzling that, of the song’s five brief verses, the singer devotes two of them to his encounter with someone he calls Jimmy at a drug store. He goes there "to get" an unidentified "your" "prescription filled." In line with him is "pretty ill"-looking "Mister Jimmy." "Mister" sounds snide, since without more information, we assume "Jimmy" is a child’s name which ought to become "Jim" or "James" in adulthood.

Since the singer and Jimmy "decided that we would have a soda" while Jimmy is looking ill standing in line for a prescription drug, it would be consistent with the rest of the song if Jimmy were picking up methadone that he is using to help him withdraw from heroin. Perhaps his being in need of a fix accounts for his looking ill. That might explain why deciding to have a soda requires serious discussion. They invest inordinate energy in what is ordinarily a trivial matter. Jimmy is trying to get off drugs, so they won’t go to the pub as two grown men typically would; they’ll linger in the drug store and drink what kids drink.

"My song" that he sings to "my friend Jimmy" is probably this song’s refrain. He’s telling Jimmy he can get his fix in some form even if he can’t get what he wants -- some kind of meaningful adult life that is about more than picking up drugs and drinking sodas. The singer probably calls him "my friend Jimmy" in this instance because the "song" he "sings" is proffered advice, and because he’s learning something important from observing Jimmy.

But there’s irony in the phrasing. The singer senses the futility of this kind of advice and friendship, or there would be no serious point to the song. For at this desperate level of need, people don’t have to be told they can get what they need if they "try sometime." They never do anything but!

Back to that wine glass

Is the singer hallucinating when, in the last verse, he sees "a bleeding man" in the woman’s glass at the reception and refers to "her blood-stained hands"? Or is the singer perhaps seeing reflected in the glass the footloose man from the first verse and perceiving his misery? Is "she" "practiced at the art of deception" in that she charms men into doing whatever she wants them to do?

Blood-stained hands recur throughout history and literature. In this instance, rather than an actual stabbing, we seem to have emotional abuse -- perhaps taking advantage of the footloose man’s neediness. Each is getting what she or he needs, but their needs are inappropriate and destructive. Avoiding genuine connection makes weapons unnecessary; we destroy just by devoting ourselves to transitory pleasures. "The art of deception" here might suggest the reception is for an art opening and "she" is an artist in her own right, not creating beautiful works but exhibiting bleeding men in her wine glass. And to the extent that "a bleeding man" might not only be reflected in the glass but contained in it in some sense, maybe wherever the woman is holding a glass of wine, it represents her latest victim. She’s drinking away the thought and toasting her victory at one and the same time.

In referring to his "fav’rite flavor" of soda, the singer instead names a color -- "cherry red." This has several implications taken in context. First, it sounds sarcastic: Oh, boy, I get to sit with a drug addict and have a cherry soda. And it is reminiscent of how small children say they want "red" when offered a choice of hard candies, sodas, and other treats. Once we hear the last verse, it reminds the listener of the "bleeding man" in the glass. It also rhymes with the "one word" Jimmy says: "dead." Did Jimmy literally say only one word? Even though they "decided" to have a soda together? More likely, "dead" is the one word that sticks in the singer’s mind from spending a little time with Jimmy. This living for what you need will kill you, man.

The angel chorus we hear on their own at the beginning and in the background through much of "You Can’t Always Get What You Want" seems simultaneously to warn us from the land of the dead and exhort those who are physically alive but spiritually dead to "get a life." If we don’t learn life’s important lessons early, we’ll join them sooner rather than later.

All in a lifetime’s work

When the Rolling Stones came on the scene -- promoted as a nasty rival band to the fun-loving Beatles -- it was still easy to think rock bands were just groups of kids having fun, getting high, getting laid, and raking in the cash.

Decades later, the immense talents of the Stones and a very few others shine like cherry-red neon against a background of millions of young people who vented some frustration and blew some fuses, failing at the rock-star racket without cobbling together even one lasting song, perhaps mistaking style for substance, thinking unusual hair and irreverence could make them into artists.

Most people are not cut out to be artists or trail-blazers of any kind, despite mass societies’ hunger for originality, distinctiveness, and uniqueness. Not getting what they thought they wanted in terms of riches, fame and pleasure, lots of young folks at least find what they need by recognizing they are more suited to gathering moss than to rolling like a stone. It might seem strange that a renegade band should so instruct, but authenticity has always figured significantly in rock music, and a big part of the message here is that we must be who we are.

...David J. Cantor

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