Sympathy For The Devil

Sympathy For The Devil was the song that changed most people’s opinions about the Rolling Stones an English rock band, as now they were bad boys, as opposed to being clean-cut like the Beatles.  The lyrics were inspired by The Master and Margarita, a twentieth-century Russian fiction classic novel that was written during Stalin’s regime by Mikhail Bulgakov that tells about Beelzebub visiting 1930’s Moscow, fresh from Christ’s crucifixion.  British singer Marianne Faithfull was Mick Jagger’s girlfriend at the time and she gave him a copy of the book.  Faithfull came from an upper-class background and exposed Jagger to a lot of new ideas.  In the book, the devil is a sophisticated socialite, a ‘man of wealth and taste’.  In 1964, Marianne Faithfull released a hit single ‘As Tears Go By’ at the age of 16, which was one of the first songs written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Jagger claims this is about the dark side of man, not a celebration of Satanism.  In 2002, Keith Richards said, “Sympathy is quite an uplifting song.  It’s just a matter of looking the Devil in the face.  He’s there all the time.  I’ve had very close contact with Lucifer, having met him several times.  Evil people tend to bury it and hope it sorts itself out and doesn’t rear its ugly head.  Sympathy for the Devil is just as appropriate now, with 9/11.  There it is again, big time.  When that song was written, it was a time of turmoil.  It was the first sort of international chaos since World War II.  And confusion is not the ally of peace and love. You want to think the world is perfect.  Everybody gets sucked into that.  And as America has found out to its dismay, you can’t hide.  You might as well accept the fact that evil is there and deal with it any way you can.  Sympathy for the Devil is a song that says, ‘Don’t forget him.’  If you confront him, then he’s out of a job.”

A counterculture-era rock concert was held on Saturday, December 6, 1969, at the Altamont Speedway in northern California which was called the Altamont Speedway Free Festival and this brought the 1960s to a violent end.  No trouble was expected as in August 1969, the massive, three-day Woodstock Music & Art Fair had proved that hundreds of thousands of young people could gather peacefully even in a seemingly chaotic environment rich with sex, drugs and rock and roll.  Several dozen members the Hells Angels motorcycle gang acted as informal security staff for this event in exchange for $500 worth of beer as a gratuity.

The Stones headlined this Altamont concert event which also featured Santana, the Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Grateful Dead.  It was dark by the time the concert’s next-to-last act, the Grateful Dead, was scheduled to appear, but the Dead had left the venue entirely out of concern for their safety when they learned that Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin had been knocked unconscious by one of the Hells Angels in a melee during his band’s performance.  The crowd got more unruly as the event went on and after a day of general chaos at the free festival, things turned deadly during the Stones’ nighttime set as the Hells Angels clashed violently with unruly fans, resulting in four deaths and many more injuries.

While the Stones were playing ‘Under My Thumb’, a 21-year-old Hells Angel named Alan Passaro stabbed a gun-wielding 18-year-old named Meredith Hunter to death just 20 feet in front of the stage.  A documentary of this event titled Gimme Shelter captured plenty of striking visuals.  As the festival brought 1969 to an end, it also killed much of the peaceful, free-spirited vibe that had rippled through music and popular culture for much of the latter part of the decade.  After the stabbing occurred, the Stones did not perform ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ for 7 years after the incident due to the public outcry.

Some of the historical events mentioned in this song are the crucifixion of Christ, the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Kennedy Assassinations.  Robert Kennedy was killed after this was written, but they changed the lyrics to get in the timely reference.  Other historical events alluded to in the song include the 100 years war (‘fought for ten decades’) and the Holocaust (‘and the furnace stank’).  The “troubadours who got killed before they reach Bombay” line caused much debate amongst fans trying to work out who it could refer to, the best conclusion being hippies travelling the ‘Hippy Trail’ to India by road, many of whom would be killed or robbed by drug smugglers in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

At face value, this song seems like a confusion of good and evil, but it is really just a ploy of the evil one. The devil may appear to be a gentleman, “a man of wealth and taste.”  He may appear to be polite and a member of good society, approaching you with the words, “Let me please introduce myself,” and “pleased to meet you.”  But alongside of this we have a long catalog of some of the worst atrocities of human history, starting with the torture of Christ on the cross, and ending with the modern assassination of the Kennedy’s.  The Stones are telling us that the world is full of evil.

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul and faith
And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game
I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the Tsar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain
I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name, oh yeah
Ah, what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah
I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made
I shouted out,
“Who killed the Kennedys?”
When after all It was you and me
Let me please introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
And I laid traps for troubadours
Who get killed before they reached Bombay
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah, get down, baby
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
But what’s confusing you
Is just the nature of my game
Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
Cause I’m in need of some restraint
So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, um yeah
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, um yeah
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, um mean it, get down
Woo, who
Oh yeah, get on down
Oh yeah
Oh yeah!
Tell me baby, what’s my name
Tell me honey, can ya guess my name
Tell me baby, what’s my name
I tell you one time, you’re to blame
Ooo, who
Ooo, who
Ooo, who
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who
Oh, yeah What’s my name
Tell me, baby, what’s my name
Tell me, sweetie, what’s my name
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who
Ooo, who, who
Oh, yeah

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