Monday, April 28, 2014

Sympathy for the Old Devil

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

“Please excuse me,' he said, speaking correctly, but with a foreign accent, 'for presuming to speak to you without an introduction.” In 1968 the Rolling Stones entered the Olympic Sound Studios in London to record a song written by Mick Jagger a song called “Sympathy for the Devil.” You will know him by his works the saying goes. So to know Mr Jagger first we have to get to know the devil.

The highway baptists will tell us that Rock n’ Roll sings with a forked tongue. It stalks a fiery stage with cloven heels while the stench of the sulfurous pit hangs heavy in the air. Rock bands with their reverse messages and pentagrams are, without doubt, in league with the devil. 

Rock n’ Roll is by it’s nature demonic. From the moment Elvis gyrated his hips and Chuck Berry duck-walked across the stage the christian right have looked at R&R with a troubled expression. There’s something wrong about that there music. It’s the devil’s music I tell you! 

Various upstarts in rock’s fraternity haven’t honestly done much to improve this image. In fact they’ve positively embraced the dark lord. They are Knights in Satan’s Service who worship on the Black Sabbath. But let’s face the Devil is above all else a showman. That’s what R&R and Old Scratch share in common it’s all about getting your soul. 

Sir Mick has a lot to answer for in this relationship. After all he was the first to bring the devil to the party and respectfully request that we show the man some sympathy.  Jagger sums it up like this "'s a very long historical figure -- the figures of evil and figures of good -- so it is a tremendously long trail he's made as personified in this piece." 

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

Jagger is quoted on the subject, “[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.”

Even he is forced to admit that him and his crew started the stone rolling with their album “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” But it was the “Beggar’s Banquet” that introduced us to the man himself. Sympathy for the Devil was a song that Jagger largely composed himself with a little help from his partner in crime Keith Richards. They cleared a seat at the banquet and the devil happily joined the party. 

The effect of the song sent out ripples that we are still feeling today. Richards himself said it best, "Before, we were just innocent kids out for a good time, they're saying, 'They're evil, they're evil.' Oh, I'm evil, really? So that makes you start thinking about evil... What is evil? Half of it, I don't know how much people think of Mick as the devil or as just a good rock performer or what? There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer and others who think we are Lucifer. Everybody's Lucifer."

These days Mick Jagger is a bit of an old devil himself. He represents the past guard of R&R, a journeyman from a time when excess really was excessive. Our current crop of pop stars are either squeaky clean or just plain tragic. It will come as no great surprise that Mick drank deeply from the well of sex, drugs and rock and roll. But he did it with such a sense of style that not only did he remerge with his life and career intact he managed to score himself a knighthood while he was at it. Not bad for a man who used dress up as the devil onstage. 

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Jagger had this to say about Sympathy for the Devil, "I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s, I think, but I could be wrong. Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can't see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song." Alright so we’ve all heard of Bob Dylan but who the heck is this Baudelaire character? Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821- 1867) was an influential nineteenth century French poet. This quote sums the man "Personally, I think that the unique and supreme delight lies in the certainty of doing 'evil' -- and men and women know from birth that all pleasure lies in evil."  His most famous collection of poems “The Flowers of Evil”. This book created quiet a stir at the time of it’s release mainly because of it’s principle themes of sex and death. It was the rock and roll of it’s time so no wonder Baudelaire’s work appealed to Jagger.

But the songs roots are more firmly entrenched in the work of another writer. “The Master and Margarita” is a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. It tells the story of the Devil visiting the fervently atheistic Soviet Union. It a strange satire filled with a cast of increasingly strange characters.  
Marianne Faithfull - the original motorcycle girl was Mick Jagger's girlfriend at the time and she turned him onto the book. Faithfull came from an upper-class background - a woman of wealth and taste - and exposed Jagger to a lot of new ideas. In fact Faithfull's maternal great-great-uncle was Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the infamous 19th century Austrian  nobleman whose erotic novel, “Venus in Furs” added a new word to our lexicon - “masochism”. 

“The new fashion”, says Jagger, “Is to talk about the most private parts of your life; other fashion is to repent of your excesses and to criticize the drugs that made you happy in the other times.” 

Needless to say Jagger’s relationship with Faithfull was a rocky one but she still had a great deal of influence on Jagger in these early days - for good and bad. Two songs on Sticky Fingers were also influenced by Faithfull: the chorus of “Wild Horses” ("wild horses couldn't drag me away") is said to be based on a phrase Faithfull uttered after coming out of a coma after an overdoes.

As Jagger himself has said, “A lot of times songs are very much of a moment, that you just encapsulate. They come to you, you write them, you feel good that day, or bad that day.” Jagger is renowned for his high-profile, multiple relationships like the very public and tumultuous one with Faithfull.

It’s ironic then that “The Master and Margarita” itself is ultimately about but the emptiness of sensual gratification without love is emphatically illustrated in the satirical passages. The story opens with the Devil introducing himself - ‘Please excuse me,' he said, speaking correctly, but with a foreign accent, 'for presuming to speak to you without an introduction.’  This echoes the opening of the Jaggers song, what’s more forth verse even takes us to Russia. 

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

In an age when popular songs seem to be all about popping a cap in some bitches ass or some teenage wabblings about love it’s hard to imagine a popular musician writing a song inspired by both a french poet and one of the greatest Russian novels of the 20th century. Hardly the stuff of Fiddy’s next hit.   
What’s more the The lyrics' focus on atrocities in the history of mankind, including the pervious verse which covers the Russian Revolution of 1917. Satan’s journey through times of violence and cruelty. Maybe as a passenger witnessing God’s cruel hand or maybe as the orchestrator of those events? The song is unclear - puzzling in fact - with Lucifer asking us rather boldly that he hopes we guess his game. 
The history lesson continues with Satan holding a General’s rank. Although he doesn’t tell us exactly which side he was on. Which is telling. While Jagger has never been overtly anti-war the lyrics to “Sweet Neo Con” on “Bigger Bang.” “You call yourself a Christian, I think that you're a hypocrite, You say you are a patriot, I think that you're a crock of shit.” When it comes to war the devil never takes sides he’s just happy that there’s a war on it seems.

I rode a tank
Held a generals rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

So literature and a history lesson. Jagger, like Baudelaire and Bulgakov, found himself drawn to the darker side. Drawn to Old Nick. Drawn to Diablo himself. Known by a variety of names—Satan, Lucifer, Mephistopheles—the Devil remains one of the most intriguing and ubiquitous figures in western literature, with such literary luminaries as Dante, Milton, and Goethe finding in him the perfect personification of the human impulse toward evil. Since the advent of the Bible, the Devil has existed as the quintessential adversary, and the ultimate antithesis to goodness and morality. The source of all evil. But in spite of all this bad press there’s something undeniably attractive about the devil. So much more fun than the other guy in the white robes am I right? 
In the movie excellent movie Bedazzled (the original 1967 version) Peter Cook plays the devil as chap called George Spiggott. Spiggott sums up the devil’s relationship with God in the final speech of the film. 
“All right, you great git, you've asked for it. I'll cover the world in Tastee-Freez and Wimpy Burgers. I'll fill it with concrete runways, motorways, aircraft, television, automobiles, advertising, plastic flowers, frozen food and supersonic bangs. I'll make it so noisy and disgusting that even you'll be ashamed of yourself! No wonder you've so few friends; you're unbelievable!” 

Yeah the Devil runs the show cause he’s cooler. Jagger knows this too - you get a lot more attention with brimstone than you do with holy water. 

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

He’s not telling us anything we don’t already know is he? More people have been killed in the name of god than the name of the devil. It's rather ironic that a religion which so publicly proclaims Absolute Love as its basis should, over the course of history, spawn so much unmitigated hatred and violence. Innocent people die. Good men die. The recording sessions for the track were in progress when the Robert Kennedy was killed, and the words were changed from "Who killed John Kennedy?" to "who killed the Kennedys?" Jagger’s song itself was almost left behind by the events it was documenting. The songs goes on and reaches it’s ultimate conclusion.
Jagger has said “The past is a great place and I don't want to erase it or to regret it, but I don't want to be its prisoner either.” He’ll have to go a long distance before he ever escapes this song. When you dance with the devil he leads not you.  

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 Im 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...

Mick Jagger was a much younger man when he penned this song. A song that helped define the Rolling Stones as the bad boys. A song that defined Rock and Roll. A song that defined Mick Jagger himself A song that put the devil in the music. Music we would gladly sell our soul for. Not just Sympathy for the Devil but some well-earned respect. So let’s give the Devil the last line shall we? In the form of George Spiggott again. 
“There was a time when I used to get lots of ideas... I thought up the Seven Deadly Sins in one afternoon. The only thing I've come up with recently is advertising.” 

Take a bow you old devil you.