It is a bit awkward to write about a song that is about the pain of separation - in this case, separation not from a person (though this is how the song is understood) but from a drug. Keith Richards wrote this while in a brutal cold turkey treatment from his heroin addiction, the kind of experience that most people, thankfully, will never have to endure - "The whole body just sort of turns itself inside out and rejects itself for three days" as Richards says. I have to say it's awkward as I am not an addictive personality by nature* and am quite sensitive to "morphine and his brothers" as an anesthesiologist once told me. That it has to become a break-up song that seems to be saying goodbye to a lot more than one person is a last defence; a way to keep the weakened, sober and rather abject ex-junkie protected in a way, to keep that final awful pain private**. (Contrast this with Jagger's rather unsympathetic view of addiction in "Mother's Little Helper" wherein the woman seems to be - or so he thinks - vainly trying to keep herself young.) In this song all seems to be exhausted, over. It is beautiful and sad and full of longing, and Jagger sings it as if he (how can he not?) knows what it's really about, and in some way I think that is audible. I have never felt that this was as solid and believable a song as it wants to be, and that is because of the very necessary evasion of what it's actually about. When the rather irritating line about "no money in our coats" (i.e. how sorry can people be for a rich rock star?) comes up I have to remind myself that this is a song about a dead end, a terminus, a loss.
"No loving in our souls" just about describes it; this is a break-up with a drug personified, a woman who is incomparable, and who is weeping, crying over the loss just as the narrator keeps insisting that it's over, they have suffered too much together. That a song about a woman/drug could be such a big hit (#1 in the US, an NME #2 in the UK) maybe shows that the long comedown from the 60s was now at its bottom; the strings and piano and beauty in this song giving that raw pain something to hang on to, the "ain't it good to be alive" line sung pathetically, as if both know this to be true and yet unbearable at the same time. They tried; they tried and it just couldn't work, despite the sweetness. That the narrator has no idea where to go, what to do, when the clouds will disappear, is uncannily like "Rock On" - where do we go from here? Here at the bottom, where you-know-what is moving in on its little cat feet, making it very hard indeed to know what, if anything, to do. Confusion abounds; what was once a routine is gone, a habit is gone, and as we know this song did not mark the end of Richards and heroin (he himself still doesn't know why he started it again). The gorgeous slow country song meanders and stops to ponder itself, only to give up in the end, unable to answer its own questions. At least with David Essex there was the conviction that the music itself would somehow help, but here there's only a desperate sadness, a goodbye that sounds very reluctant, a song written just as Richards' fingers were able to play the guitar again, just able to make his calm exhaustion into music. And so an era passes; a generation hooked on a time and place and feeling, an oh incomparable feeling, have their own sad song to remember this by. It portends a time that is uneasy, where the hidden prevails, and the glamour of evasiveness is hard to catch, but there.
Next up: Well, are you ready?
*Which isn't to say I don't understand how it can be fun to be enthralled to a person/thing and have the whole cycle of euphoria, joy, and then the inevitable comedown as you realize the reality of the situation and indeed have that reality seem at first merely irritating and then ever-present, until the enthrallment is over and it's like the passing of a fever.
**It is not just the best things that are hard to talk about, but the worst as well. That heroin can be both to someone is obvious, and indeed it can be both at the same time, an experience that would mess anyone up.