No Sympathy for the Devil

[17 September 2009]

By Jeff Walzer

The song’s birth and metamorphosis are featured in a 1968 documentary by Jean-Luc Godard, which also happened to capture the rapid deterioration of Brian Jones. Hands down, it’s a crowd favorite—the lights go out, the conga drums start in (here’s betting a few bucks that your muscle memory kicks in and you start tapping out the opening of the song of any surface), then Mick Jagger unleashes primal screams, shimmying and shaking to the beat. On a majority of people’s lists of greatest Rolling Stones songs, it’s a solid, safe top ten pick, and I’d be willing to bet it lands in the top five a majority of the time. It has one of the most searing guitar solos by modern-day pirate Keith Richards. It drove right-wing Christians to protest and burn things (not so easy these days to burn digital copies of songs, but then again, in this vanity drenched culture there’s not much left to shock us). Of course I’m talking about “Sympathy for the Devil”.

With the song’s first person account coming from Satan himself, it’s easy for the average fan to consider “Sympathy” the nastiest song the Stones ever recorded, but if you go back and listen, there’s not much gravitas in the lyrics. Sure, the content is serious—the Blitzkrieg, the assassination of the Kennedys, etc.—but all the while the song comes at you with a wink and a smile: “Hey, I’m Satan, and I’m singing about some serious stuff here, but listen to that beat, and how about those “woo woos?” You remember the lyrics because of the cleverness of their historical referents.

The Stones were projecting a convincing persona they wanted the public to believe in, as evidenced when they released “Street Fighting Man” (like “Sympathy”, also from Beggars Banquet) in 1969. The lyrics alone led one to believe this was their contribution to the political anthems of the ‘60s, when in fact Keith Richards later commented in a 1971 Rolling Stone interview that the song doesn’t stand for anything. Rock critic Robert Christgau put it best when he wrote, “’What can a poor boy do / Except sing for a rock and roll band?’ was the way they opted out of the political involvement that most young rebels found unavoidable in the late ‘60s.”

To really hear the Stones at their most authentic selves (while at their worst both personally and financially), queue up “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” from their 1971’s Sticky Fingers. It’s menacing, and I mean in the sense that you stumbled unwanted into the den of Hell’s Angels partying—not menacing like your Uncle Chucky’s pseudo-midlife crisis with the starter kit tattoo of barbed wire around his beefy right arm, pristine Harley, and Fu Manchu (your Aunt Claire rules Uncle Chucky, and she’s allowed this delusion of grandeur). To borrow a line from “Midnight Rambler”: I’ll stick my knife right down your throat, baby, and it hurts. That’s what “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” would do to “Sympathy for the Devil” if they ever happened to cross paths in a dark alleyway, Satan or no Satan.

From the beginning, opening with another classic Keith riff, in open G, you can anticipate no good is going to come of whatever is about to go down. It’s musical foreshadowing: “Y’all got cocaine eyes / Yeah, you got speed-freak jive”. The big surprise comes at what you think is the end of the song, except Mick Taylor decided to keep playing and the others followed, leading into the jazz inspired free flowing jam. It’s as if the song is saying “Business has been taken care of, and now it’s time to enjoy the rest of the night—the company, the drinks, the women.” Think Sopranos, when the gang gets together to celebrate after business has been successfully concluded.

The only other Stones song with the same vibe, that nasty, menacing feel, is “Monkey Man”. The opening of the song, with the vibes, piano, and guitar rolled into one, yet each instrument sounding so distinctive. Mick Taylor’s slide guitar solo is what a drug high sounds like, and Mick screaming, “I’m a monkey”, over and over is being in the troughs of going cold turkey.

With both “Monkey Man” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, the Stones are frolicking in a cesspool and enjoying every minute of it, beckoning you to come on down and join in on the action. That’s where they live, that’s where they’re most comfortable. It’s their most authentic musical statement ever—a perfect combination of their carnal desires set to the trashy, antagonistic, fucked up mood of the music. You hear the addict’s itch kick up at the beginning of the song, the score and the scratching of the itch midway, and finally the high at the end. Then repeat, like a drug addict does.

Did the Stones ever stand for anything other than a good time? The old mantra of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” applies so perfectly to the Rolling Stones because they never aspired for anything more. The Beatles wanted peace, the Who had rock opera, Led Zeppelin provided the fantasy get away (if Zep was at the forefront today, they’d be so heavily into Harry Potter; think “Stairway to Hogwarts”)—but the Stones only cared about downing the booze, making the most coin, taking the drugs, and screwing the women. All bands had an angle to get what they wanted, and the Stones’ angle was the simplest: singing about what they wanted in the most unabashed of ways. There was never any depth, message, or light at the end of the tunnel in regards to the Stones’ music, and no one said there ever had to be. 

My only gripe with “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” is I don’t think the live performance of the song could ever capture the spirit of the album track. I think this song was captured in the studio at such a point in time that playing the song anytime after was like hearing a copy of a copy of a copy. The studio track was a perfect storm of time and place that became fossilized in amber the moment the recording ended. In the Martin Scorsese-directed Shine a Light, you can hear that the song is almost lifeless. It’s hollowed out, the spontaneity long gone, replaced by whatever the hell Mick calls what he’s doing these days on stage.

The fact remains: “Sympathy for the Devil” was child’s play, a first rough draft attempt at having the music reflect the decadent lifestyle—a lot of bands and musicians write about the rough times, but rarely do they play it. But with “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, the Rolling Stones were able to briefly match their old blues idols in this regard. Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, et al., all played what they lived, their blues weaved so tightly into the music that even if you stripped the lyrics from the songs, the music still told their stories.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/108091-no-sympathy-for-the-devil/