By Dr M van Zyl
“Paint It Black” is a song by the Rolling Stones, released in 1966 on their album “Aftermath.”It was also the theme song from “Sending Vietnam” or the original “Tour of Duty” TV series that ran in the late 1980’s. Although I did not watch the TV series, I remember the song and the sense of unease it created.
I want to explore the song- the lyrics and the music from a Jungian Psychoanalytic viewpoint.
1. Firstly, let us look at the colour black.
The singer wants everything to be painted black. He cannot tolerate any colours. He connects his desire to change everything to black with his inner experience of grief, depression and emotional turmoil.
Here are some lines from the song:
1. Verse 1: “I see a red door and I want it painted black” The red door symbolizes life, vibrancy, and happiness. The desire to “paint it black” indicates a feeling of wanting to cover or hide those positive emotions, possibly due to experiencing deep sadness or depression.
“No colors anymore, I want them to turn black” This line further emphasizes the desire to remove all colors and brightness, symbolizing a state of despair or hopelessness.
2. Verse 2: “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes” The sight of people, particularly girls wearing summer clothes, represents life, joy, and warmth.
“I have to turn my head until my darkness goes” The narrator turns away from the happiness of others, as it contrasts with his own emotional state, hoping that his “darkness” will eventually fade.
3. Verse 3: “I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black” Cars can symbolize progress, movement, or change. In this case, the line of black cars may represent the feeling of being stuck in a state of sadness or mourning.
“With flowers and my love both never to come back” The flowers can be associated with funerals and loss, while “my love” refers to a loved one who has been lost. This line suggests that both the flowers and the loved one are gone, reinforcing the theme of loss and grief.
“Outro: “I wanna see it painted, painted black” The repetition of the desire to see everything painted black reinforces the pervasiveness of the narrator’s dark emotions and grief”
Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, was deeply interested in alchemy as a rich source of symbolism that paralleled the process of psychological transformation and individuation. Jung saw alchemy as an expression of the unconscious mind, revealing universal themes and archetypal patterns shared across human experience.
In Jung’s view, alchemists pursued the transformation of base metals into gold as a physical process and a metaphor for spiritual and psychological development. According to Jung, the ultimate goal of alchemy was the creation of the “Philosopher’s Stone” or “Lapis Philosophorum,” which symbolized the attainment of self-realization, wholeness, and psychological integration.
Jung interpreted the various stages and symbols of the alchemical process as corresponding to stages in the individuation process, the journey towards becoming a whole, integrated, and authentic individual. Some of the key alchemical stages and their psychological parallels, as described by Jung, include:
1. Nigredo (Blackness): The initial stage of alchemy, Nigredo, represents the decomposition and purification of the raw material or “prima materia.” In psychological terms, Nigredo corresponds to the process of confronting one’s shadow, the darker and unconscious aspects of the self that have been repressed or ignored. This confrontation may lead to a period of self-examination, inner turmoil, and suffering as an individual confronts their limitations, fears, and destructive patterns.
2. Albedo (Whiteness): The Albedo stage in alchemy follows the Nigredo phase and involves the purification and washing of the substance, resulting in a state of purification and the emergence of a new, pure form. Psychologically, Albedo represents a time of self-discovery, enlightenment, and the integration of the conscious and unconscious aspects of the self. This stage can bring about a renewed sense of wholeness and inner balance, as the individual begins to integrate their shadow aspects with their conscious self.
3. Rubedo (Redness): The Rubedo stage is the final and most important phase of the alchemical process, signifying the successful completion of the work and the creation of the “Philosopher’s Stone.” In psychological terms, the Rubedo phase symbolizes the achievement of self-realization, wholeness, and the full integration of one’s personality. This stage represents the union of opposites, the culmination of personal growth and transformation, and the embodiment of one’s true, authentic self.
In summary, Jung saw alchemy as a symbolic representation of psychological transformation and individuation. The various stages of alchemy, such as Nigredo, Albedo, and Rubedo, parallel stages in the journey towards self-realization, wholeness, and psychological integration. Alchemy, in Jung’s perspective, is both a historical and symbolic framework that reveals deep insights into the human psyche and the process of personal growth.
In the song, there is not a direct reference to white, the second stage of alchemy, but the following verse has some reference to light:
“If I look hard enough into the setting sun, my love will laugh with me before the morning comes” This line conveys a longing for solace and hope as the narrator seeks a moment of connection with their lost love. The setting sun may symbolize the end of an era or the approach of darkness, while the morning represents a new beginning or the return of light.
Mick Jagger could not give any explanation to the lyrics of the song. I think this means that the word came from his unconsciousness.
2. The rhythm
If we now focus on the song’s musical structure, we notice the fast and relentless rhythm. There is no release. The fast rhythm is feverish and connects with the humid weather of Vietnam.
It also reminds me of the fast drumming used in Shamanism, when the Shaman guides the client to the Upper or Lower Worlds. The fast drumming (about 180 beats a minute) “dissolves the ego” and makes accessing our unconsciousness easier. The same effect is achieved by meditating whilst listening to a gong. The sound waves “disintegrate” the ego (awareness) and enables us to access the unconscious mind.
3. East meets West
Wholeness implicates bringing opposites together. In this song, East and West are meeting in various ways.
The sitar, an Indian instrument, is used. This is a very unusual choice of instrument for a rock band, although the Beatles also incorporated Eastern influences in their music after their trip to India.
The song is built on chord progressions, which gives it its Eastern sound (or so says Google- my music theory is very rusty).
In summary, I propose this song describes the despair and depression when we encounter our irrational mind, the unconsciousness. The fast rhythm of the music disrupts our rational minds and gives us a glimpse into the singer’s descent into darkness. The colour black symbolizes this depression and the beginning of the alchemical process that will (hopefully) lead to integration (East meets West) and individuation.