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Topic: a nice reading about sftd Return to archive
01-14-02 11:57 AM
moy "Sympathy for the Devil"

Mick Jagger's mad, erudite incantation

strutted '60s rock toward the dark side of

- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Douglas Cruickshank

Jan. 14, 2002 | While the Beatles
dominated pop in the 1960s, their music was
nearly devoid of one vital element: darkness.
At a time when authentic blues was still
relatively unknown (and also not widely
available) to most white kids, those who
craved the seductive complexities of the dark
side turned to the Rolling Stones. And nothing
more vividly illuminated the group's supposed affinity for Lucifer than "Sympathy for the
Devil," their anthem-cum-incantation in the form of a taunting cultural fable. It was the first
cut on the A side of "Beggar's Banquet" -- which now, 33 years later, still stands as not only
one of the Stones' finest albums, but one of the best rock records ever made.

Released on Dec. 5, 1968, "Beggar's Banquet" came out just 10 days after the Beatles' White
Album, and a year and a day before the Stones' notorious free concert at Altamont Speedway
in Livermore, Calif. (Contrary to popular legend, "Sympathy for the Devil" was not the song
being played when a young man was killed at the free concert. The band was knocking out
"Under My Thumb" when 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by a member of
the Hell's Angels motorcycle club. Several Web sites reference Don McLean's allusion to this
incident in deconstructions of his song "American Pie": "Oh, and as I watched him on the
stage/My hands were clenched in fists of rage/No angel born in Hell/Could break that Satan's

The Stones have made plenty of
mistakes over the years ("Their
Satanic Majesties Request"), but
producing a rock opera wasn't one
of them. Though "Sympathy for the
Devil" is embedded with enough
historical and philosophical scope to
seem like the opening act to a
drama of operatic dimensions, they
wisely kept it to a concise six
minutes and 22 seconds. In
interviews, Mick Jagger -- who
wrote "Sympathy" ("I wrote it as
sort of like a Bob Dylan song")
without his usual writing partner,
Keith Richards -- has said he was
concerned at the time about the
potential for the lyrics to come off as pretentious and the band to be "skewered on the altar of
pop culture." So when Richards suggested changing the rhythm, Jagger agreed and as the
band worked (and worked and worked) on the piece, it ended up as a samba, which Jagger
has called "hypnotic" and Richards referred to as "mad."

Jagger, a voracious reader and history buff, claimed he was influenced in writing "Sympathy"
by Baudelaire. But he was also, as others have pointed out, clearly under the spell of Mikhail
Bulgakov's classic allegorical novel of good and evil, "The Master and Margarita." Of course
Jagger was even more clearly under the spell of the 1960s, a time when -- for many -- heaven
and hell seemed to have come to earth in the most lucid terms.

The song's opening -- "Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm
a man of wealth and taste" -- parallels the beginning of
Bulgakov's novel, in which a sophisticated stranger, who turns
out to be Satan, introduces himself to two gentlemen sitting in a
Moscow park as they're discussing whether Jesus existed or
not. ("'Please excuse me,' he said, speaking correctly, but with a
foreign accent, 'for presuming to speak to you without an
introduction.'") The song then references Christ and the story of
Pontius Pilate, which the novel takes up in its second chapter. Before moving on to the
Russian Revolution, the song's narrator, Lucifer, acknowledges that his listeners are mystified
-- "But what's puzzling you is the nature of my game" -- just as, in "The Master and
Margarita," one of the men approached by Satan in the park thinks to himself, "What the devil
is he after?"

In the lyrics for "Sympathy," Jagger's narrator jumps from making "damn sure that Pilate
washed his hands and sealed [Jesus'] fate" to St. Petersburg, "When I saw it was time for a
change," and kills "the Czar and his ministers." Curiously (or not so curiously, given Jagger's
penchant for reading history), the only other allusion in the song to Russia's dark past is an odd
one: "Anastasia screamed in vain" -- a reference to the youngest daughter of the czar who
was murdered with the rest of the Romanov royal family. For most of the 20th century
Anastasia was an almost mythological figure, thanks to the specious claims that she alone had
survived the murders.

But more interesting than what appear to be direct correlations between the book and the song
is how Jagger and the Stones, drawing on numerous influences, Bulgakov's novel apparently
among them, managed -- in a rock song -- to address serious, even profound, ideas to a samba
beat without turning the whole affair into an exercise in dull earnestness. On the contrary,
"Sympathy" sounds like a party and works so well, on multiple levels, because its lyrics evoke
more than they spell out, while the music not only has an infectious rhythm, it features
ingenious layering of sound and background vocals that build to an irresistible, kick-ass tribal
hootenanny. Those "woo woos," by the way, which provide a self-deprecating, cartoonish
poke at the song's spookiness, while adding to the chanting-around-the-bonfire nature of the
music, were provided by the four demons themselves, along with two members of the Stones'
1968 coven -- Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull -- and the album's producer, Jimmy

In writing the song, Jagger used words with impressive economy. He cites Jesus Christ,
Pontius Pilate, the czar, Anastasia, the blitzkrieg (World War II), the Kennedys and the city of
Bombay and mentions Lucifer by name (just once) and in so doing creates a deep, amplified
portrait of a world torn by religion, war, assassination and confusion where "Every cop is a
criminal/And all the sinners saints." Threaded throughout are taunts from the teasing narrator
-- the traditional demon trickster -- trying to get the listener to speak his name: "Hope you
guess my name," "Tell me, baby, what's my name?" "Tell me, sweetie, what's my name?" And
-- at the very pinnacle of the Flower Power era, remember -- he then turns on his starry-eyed
audience and tells them that they, in league with him, are to blame for the deaths of the '60s
most promising political leaders.

But lest you think Jagger simply
mixed up some brainy lyrics and
threw them into a recording studio
with his talented, stoned friends,
take a look sometime at the strange
little cinematic time capsule "One
Plus One," a documentary on the
recording of "Sympathy for the
Devil" (among many other things).
The film, which has been
distributed in two versions, was
directed by Jean-Luc Godard, and
it's had a tempestuous history,
which I won't go into here except
to say that one version, known by
the same title as the song, is not
Godard's cut. That's the version
generally available in the U.S. Anyway, whichever version you view, you'll see the Stones as
they work with meticulous attention to detail to record the tracks and build the elaborate song.

Not surprisingly, given its distinctive sound and eternal-hot-button subject matter, "Sympathy"
has taken on a life of its own (and isn't that just what that doggone devil would want?). It's
been recorded by Bryan Ferry, Guns 'n' Roses, Natalie Merchant, the Hampton String Quartet
and, believe it or don't, the London Symphony Orchestra. It's worth pointing out that Rolling
Stone magazine's take, in its review of Ferry's cover of the song ("'Sympathy' has always
been recorded with, if not seriousness, at least earnestness"), is dismissive of both the Stones'
version and Jagger's lyrics, which Rolling Stone called "slightly corny, vaguely ridiculous."

On the other hand, just last month Ron Rosenbaum wrote an
article in the New York Observer in which he extols Jagger's
abilities as a lyricist and specifically mentions "Sympathy for the
Devil": "And let's not forget," Rosenbaum writes, "at this
particular moment, that he's one of the rare rock songwriters
who has addressed the question of evil and apocalypse in a
sophisticated way." Rosenbaum goes on at some length to praise
the singer's "beautiful use of incantation ... a lovely word for a
special kind of vocal recurrence, one that combines overtones of prayer, magic, spell casting
... a kind of vocal voodoo."

The song's title continues to have almost iconic status and gets all manner of uses. It has been
appropriated for a computer game ("Sympathy for the Devil: The War in Russia, 1942-43")
and is tiresomely used whenever possible to headline stories about Jagger's marital woes and
paternity suits or anytime bad behavior is the subject. For example, these, all of which
appeared in the New York Post: "Jagger's Ex Has Sympathy for the Devil," "No Sympathy for
Devils" and "Sympathy for the Devil: Why Bill Is No Hypocrite" (an article by P.J O'Rourke).
To this day, "Sympathy" is widely discussed online on sites like the Christian Music Forum and
referenced in treatises on the devil, such as John P. Sisk's paper, "The Necessary Devil" in
First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life.

Jagger concedes that the song may have been something of an inspiration for all the '70s and
'80s heavy metal bands that flirted with Satanism, but in interviews he's repeatedly distanced
the Stones from any of it. In an exchange with Creem magazine, he said, "[When people
started taking us as devil worshippers], I thought it was a really odd thing, because it was only
one song, after all. It wasn’t like it was a whole album, with lots of occult signs on the back.
People seemed to embrace the image so readily, [and] it has carried all the way over into
heavy metal bands today."

Regardless of, or maybe because of, the swath it has cut, "Sympathy for the Devil," as good
art often does, continues to resonate at least as strongly today as it did when it was first
created. Woo woo.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

About the writer
Douglas Cruickshank is the editor of Salon
01-14-02 02:13 PM
sandrew Great article, thanks for posting. Also, that's a great picture of Mick - the insolent campy period. Those sure were genius lyrics.
01-14-02 10:03 PM
Happy Motherfucker Mighty fine article I must say! Right on!

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