This has long been one of my favorite songs; it has such an elemental rhythm that you can feel the song. There has been a lot of speculation over the years about "what does it mean?" but little agreement. This story is what I feel as I listen to the song.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote "Paint It Black" with the assistance of other members of the band, especially Bill Wyman and Brian Jones.
I see a red door and I want it painted black
Because of some quirk in human nature we always seem to remember what we were doing when some life-altering event happens.
For me, well, it turned out I was doing something stupid and trite. We had just finished a major project at work and everyone on the team was given a week off. Half were to go one week and the other half the next.
I remembered my boss, Wayne, pleading with me, "Damn, Jim. I know you have worked even more hours than I have on getting the new disk array out the door. But, Jim, I'm having problems with Judy. I swear if I don't take her to Maui ASAP she'll either leave me or kill me!"
I laughed at him, making him sweat a little. Jen and I had been living together for two years and we were close to making a decision to make things permanent. I'd already talked to her and we just wanted to spend a lot of time together and make some plans. She didn't care which week I had off.
"Jeez, Wayne, I don't know. Jen might have already made plans. Let me think ... aw, shucks, Wayne, you've been such a good boss I'll let you take the first week."
Wayne was so happy he didn't even call me an ass for jerking his chain.
So when I got the call from my neighbor, Ben, I was diligently working on a problem of strategic importance to the company ... well, I was playing solitaire. I was trying for a personal record of winning three games in a row when the phone rang. I almost didn't answer it since I told everyone that was working that day to take a long lunch and I would stay and cover in case some honcho called – I figured it was better to say I was in a meeting than to explain why I was the only one in the office. With some degree of annoyance I took the call.
For years afterward, when I would think about that fateful day, the thing that would stick in my mind would be that stupid solitaire game.
"Jim, this is Ben. You'd better get home right away. I heard a noise about fifteen minutes ago. I thought it was just a car backfiring but now there are two police cars in your driveway."
I drove home as fast as I could – the hell with the company; some things are just more important. When I got to the house we were renting, there were now three police cars, two ambulances and a news van from Channel 5.
The next several hours were a blur; I couldn't begin to recreate exactly all that had happened. The gist of it was that a burglar had broken into the house - not knowing Jen was there. He'd surprised her coming out of the bedroom door and shot her once without thinking. The detective I talked to speculated that the burglar was as startled as she had been and he just panicked. He was running out the front door as the first police car arrived and was killed in the ensuing shootout.
I had to leave while the investigation was still going on. One of the detectives took me down to the station and went over the details about the house being a crime scene. It was late before a rookie in a patrol car escorted me home to pick up some clothes and my shaving kit. The house was taped with that yellow tape they use to keep people out.
I was doing okay until I saw the door to our bedroom. The once glossy black door was splattered too generously with what had to be Jen's blood. Without realizing what I was doing, I fell to my knees and put my hands on the still tacky red hell that was all that was left of my love.
I gasped in a weak voice, "Paint it black! Oh, god, paint it black."
This clearly scared the hell out of the rookie cop and bought me back from my daze. As I gathered my stuff under the eyes of the now more diligent cop, I remembered the argument.
When we had rented the house it really was quite a dump. The guy that owned it said he would give us a break on the rent if we did some of the work ourselves. That seemed okay with us since we both liked to do that sort of thing.
We had painted everything and had only the door to our bedroom left. Funny, we had readily agreed on all the other colors we had chosen but for some reason we just couldn't agree on the door. She wanted something I couldn't even pronounce – did you ever fight with someone and you couldn't even pronounce what you were fighting about? – this color called Peau De Soie. It didn't really look all that bad, kind of a chalky white, but I couldn't get past the stupid name. I wanted a tint called Harmony. It was really a kind of pukey white but I loved the name.
Of course the argument turned out much worse than it should have. I guess there were some things that had built up and needed to be "discussed." She had to go over to her sister's house, and had the last word, "Just paint it whatever damn color you want!"
Well, I felt bad and decided to paint it the color she wanted. I liked to play loud rock albums when I worked around the house; I had my favorite one on by the Rolling Stones. I was ready to start painting when "Paint It Black" came on. Unbidden, the idea came out of nowhere, and feeling nice and devilish, I scrounged around in the garage and found a can of glossy black. I knew I was just doing it to give her a hard time for not letting me win the argument.
I finished and ... it was ugly! I mean really butt ugly. I felt bad but I couldn't do anything until the black crap dried. Jen came home and gave me a big hug and apologized for the argument. Now I felt really bad. She started back to the bedroom and I tried to think how I could stop her. Too late. She was staring in awe at the door! Awe or shock, I wasn't sure.
I started stammering, "Jen, it was just a stupid joke, I... "when she started laughing, falling on her knees and pointing at the door. It didn't take long before we were both rolling around on the floor, laughing hysterically. That quickly led to our big brass bed and fireworks.
Later, lying there half asleep, I started telling her I'd fix the door the next morning.
Thoughtfully, she mused, "No, Jim, let's keep it this way. It is ugly but let's keep it! This can be a sign of our love. Every time we see the door we will be reminded of our first fight and of how we need to listen to each other and learn how to compromise."
"Are you sure, Honey?"
"Yes, I am! Let's leave it just as it is."
When people would come over and comment on the color of the door, we would just smile and say, "Oh, it was a compromise."
And now, I saw a red door and I wanted, no needed, to paint it black.
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes
Before I could possibly be ready, it was time for the funeral. Jen's sister, Angie picked me up from the hotel I was staying at. I just couldn't go back to the house. I kept thinking about that door, covered with the red of my love's heart. I see that red door and feel that I have to paint it black. If I couldn't see the red I could possibly escape facing the facts. It's not easy being honest with yourself when your whole world is black. I hadn't had time to think about anything. My heart, my soul ... everything seemed so gray – no, it was black.
As we drove through the park to the church that bright summer day I didn't see the green leaves and lawns that were so painstakingly taken care of. I saw a day the gray of pewter. I saw the girls in their colorful summer frocks, the bright colors, the girls that were so ... alive. As I watched one girl with a shining yellow sundress - her face glowing with a pretty flush from the sun - she started fading, the yellow to gray, and her face to black. I had to turn my head until my darkness went away – if it ever would.
Angie turned and looked at me, seeing the darkness on me, the color of my life fading. She squeezed my hand and I felt a sudden guilt at the dampness in her eyes. At the same time I felt a faint, disturbing jealousy: the pain was mine and I wasn't ready to share it.
The church was crowded; black seemed to be the appropriate, predominate color. The mood was subdued, quiet. It struck me suddenly that this was not what Jen would want. She was such a vivacious person, engaging others even if they were happy in their solitude. If she could look down – and I had to believe she was – I knew she would be mad at me for the blackness overwhelming me, emanating from me.
I see people turn their heads and quickly look away
Like a new born baby it just happens ev'ry day
As I walked to my place people would turn to me, prepared to offer condolences, a touch, a smile, a reassurance, some contact with me. But the blackness was upon me and people would turn their heads and quickly look away.
Most of it was a blur. People would move around, do things, say things, stand up, kneel – I just ... did whatever I did. I know not what.
Angie gave a talk that caught me for a moment.
"My big sister was so much in tune with others. She would volunteer at the orphanage; she served food at Christmas. Anyone that needed an ear, someone to listen to them, she was there.
"She comforted me when my first boyfriend dumped me. She told me I was a special person and one day I would find that one person that would love me truly. She did find that person for herself in Jim. She was so happy with him..."
She teared up and had to stop for a minute. She looked down and gave me a wan smile.
"I remember once a stray dog was hit by a car in front of our house. Jen took it to the vet then spent days trying to find the owner. When she finally found the young boy it belonged to, his smile made her the happiest person in the world."
Angie went on with the things Jen had done for others. Looking up at the rafters of the church, I mumbled to myself, "Jen, I hardly knew you. We needed time; we needed forever together."
The priest talked for his seemingly mandatory twenty minutes. Unlike Angie, he didn't seem to know Jen at all. Out of his meaningless platitudes, one thing did reach me.
"Life is a cycle. Death is part of life. Birth is part of life. As we remember this young lady today, somewhere else in this city a baby is being born. Death is like a new born baby, it happens every day."
I see a line of cars and they're all painted black
With flowers and my love both never to come back
Finally it was over. Everyone went outside and I stood there, feeling lost. I saw them putting Jen in a long black hearse. It seemed ... fitting. There was a long line of limos, all black. People were starting to filter into the open doors and I felt a tug on my arm.
Angie gently led me to our own black car. I looked over at the hearse and saw the bright array of flowers on the casket. I saw the door close and the hearse slowly pulling away and I knew at that moment that neither the flowers nor Jen were ever coming back to me. My love was gone ... gone forever. I collapsed into the limo and started crying – even my tears were black.
I drifted for the next month. I took a leave of absence from work – they gave my next project to someone else. I couldn't deal with the house. I found an agent and dumped the subleasing of the house on him. He found an apartment for me and took care of moving what I wanted to keep.
For the first week I sat around and looked at the walls in the small apartment. I kept thinking of the song by Jim Reeves,
"Four walls to hear me
Four walls to see
Four walls too near me
Closing in on me"
I finally had to get away. I drove to the coast and took long walks on the beach. I ate but the food was tasteless. It was all just so ... so sudden: from white to black in an instant. The sun shone brightly; my days were gray.
I started running on the beach instead of walking. After a week and eating little and running miles on miles I could feel my clothes becoming slack. I almost smiled to myself – I was becoming a slacker.
One morning as I ran I saw a tern walking on the beach. As I got closer I saw that its wing was broken. I took my shirt off and wrapped around the poor innocent creature. I took it into town to the vet. I could see Jen doing that and felt a small comfort.
No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue
I could not foresee this thing happening to you
There was this cove we would go to together. Through some trick of light and the depth of the water this cove would be a beautiful sea green – until the sun shone just right then it would turn a dark blue. It was a longish walk from where I was staying but I thought that seeing this favorite cove of ours would help. I got there early in the morning, carrying a sandwich for the expected wait for the sea change.
As expected, satisfying in that it was as I had remembered; the water at the cove was green. It was that special shade of green that a new copper roof looks before weathering sets in. Feeling better, I ate my sandwich and waited. And waited. The hunger pangs in my stomach made me realize that no more would this lovely green sea change to that dark blue anymore.
Oh, Jen. I couldn't have seen this happening to you. We were so happy. Our love was so deep. Now you are gone and I'm alive. It never even crossed my mind that something would take you away from me.
I knew it was time for me to go back and get on with my life.
I started back at work. There were always new projects to do. I caught an interesting one: we needed to come up with a better suite of tools to manage large disk arrays. I threw myself into the task, working late, coming in early. The challenge of getting it right occupied my mind as long as I was at work. The time away from work ... well, I tried to make that window as small as possible.
About three months after I started work, I was nursing my last beer when I heard a soft, tentative knocking at my door. I was startled; through the months that I had been in this apartment, not one person had visited me.
I cautiously opened the door to see Angie, Jen's little sister. She wasn't so little; she was twenty-two and had finished college last year. She taught third grade at the school she had attended as a kid. She looked at me with a sad face.
"Jim, you haven't visited us since ... well, no one has seen you. Mom and dad would like to have you come over for dinner Sunday. Can you make it, please?"
I really had no reason for not going. Angie stayed and we chatted for a while. Somehow I felt better for her having visited. She seemed like a songbird – flitting all over the place spreading joy.
When I got to Jen's parents' house right on time that Sunday, they made me feel bad that I'd neglected them. They were good people and had been very nice to me. I knew that it was just as hard on them and Angie as it was on me. I'd just been in such a black funk that I hadn't allowed myself to move on.