Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil (1968)

 HCH 7 / November 2015

Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil (1968), by David Cerdá

Presumptuous dudes and dames use to think about rock stars as simple souls, whose artistic intentions did not exceed getting the fun, the fame, the transgression, the money, the sex, the shit, the whole success pack. But even though some of them may in fact conform themselves to the cliché fairly well, there are a bunch of others who really write their lyrics in a way that makes us try to think, which also happens to be the purpose of philosophy. I would like to pay tribute to these artists, shredding those lyrics in order to find their philosophical core, the tasty sirloin hiding within.

What about Sympathy for the Devil? Well, all of you solemn and contemptuous-with-their-satanic-majesties people may be happy to know that the song was written and composed by Jagger and Keith Richards inspired by no less than Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and Baudelaire. So the piece may not be as simplistic and just-to-entertain as you probably thought.

The Stones introduce to us Satan, the quintessential evil. They describe his (its?) fingerprints along human history: he was present at Jesus’s trial, whispering to Pilates what to do (Quid est veritas?), he was also there when religion wars took place in the xvi century, he attended revolutions, the Russian one too, in which he could relish himself seeing how Anastasia was murdered. And of course he was riding the blitzkrieg wave when it started to crush Europe. Full of irony, with the impertinence of first-league criminals, Satan exclaims: «yes, it was me, I was there».

But the song has much more; mainly, a consideration of evil. Who’s to blame for it? Is the red guy with the tail the sole being we have to point at? Is God the one to be searched by us, the moral cops? These are the kind of questions we like to pose, aren’t they? W.H. Auden once remarked that there’s a game called «cops and robbers», but none called «saints and sinners».

«Hope you know my name», the lyrics repeat time and again; that may be seen as an ironic twist, a way of saying «naturally, you’ve already been indoctrinated so as to think I’m the bad guy which explains the very existence of all the bad stuff». Or maybe things are not that easy. After all,

“[…] every cop is a criminal

And all the sinners saints”

And as the song is fading, we get a wink, a declaration concerning our inescapable moral responsibility:

“Tell me baby, what’s my name

I tell you one time, you’re to blame”

Maybe guessing that Jagger and Richards were to deploy some theory on Theodicy is too much guessing. In any case, some of the main points concerning this controversy are present.

What about this «sympathy» we’re asked to show in front of the devil? How should we understand this? There are several options here. First, there’s an undercover menace. The devil talks to us in the mob-way:

“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, mmm yeah”

Second, we should treat him well because he’s « a man of wealth and taste». Just ask any actor: the funny guys are the bad guys. Take Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate: one has the impression he would have paid to do it, he seems to like the role so much (as for the money, for granted, it went just in the opposite way; but that’s Hollywood, man). Evil has its allure, and happy people, as Tolstoy said, have no story to tell. So be gentle with Satan, guy, dame, because he’s the pleasure dealer, the nice face, the man everybody in town wants to be with (admit it or not).

And yes: Satan has been used by humans as the mother of all scapegoats. We love the tune: it wasn’t me, but Him. This childish alibi we’ve used for justifying all our vices: our incontinence, our lack-of-control episodes, our plain malice, the beast within us (another scapegoat). Hannah Arendt (Eichmann in Jerusalem) showed us that the really scary point about our evilness is that it is commonplace. Further experiments in psychology (just ask Stanley Milgram or Philip Zimbardo) have demonstrated how little we need to go so far.

Thus, our moral task is so heavy, which is why we need the alibi. First it was Satan; now we have genes and the imperfect setting of the psyche. It’s more comfortable to think that someone or something stole our soul than to lay — «alone and nude and without a script», Sartre would say— the whole ethical responsibility in our hands and nerves. Jagger and Richard recognize it, and thus suggest that it was you and me who really «killed the Kennedys».

Of course, the provocative game of the Stones is also there. They were not just philosophers in disguise. The obscene tongue: once the Beatles were in place, once even the mothers loved the Beatles, The Stones wanted to be the rogue version, the unauthorised, the scandal-kings. And if they could shock religious people, well, even better. Being satanic —without playing the LP backwards—, moreover, being devil worshippers, was cool, and it paid off.

Anyway, the satanic world still excites us. We dramatize it every Halloween, especially now that it turned into a globalized celebration. We just love to dress up as devils. Why? Well, maybe the Rolling Stones have an idea about that too:

“But what’s puzzling you (what’s confusing you)

Is the nature of my game”.

david-cerda-y-daniel David Cerdá, October the 28th, 2015