April is going, going . . . . We’ve had a dose of JC, so now time for the other guy. It’s Walpurgisnacht, a concept I first made acquaintance with in Goethe’s Faust, lo these many years ago, to find it sustained as well in Mann and Joyce, mutatis mutandis, and in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Teutonic, I am, in part, as well as Scandinavian, so I’ll lay some genetic claim to the German celebration of the end of winter, that comes with a big witches’ bonfire and celebration in the Brocken or Harz mountains. No, I’ve never been. Maybe someday.
And a rainy miserable end of April it is too. Perfect for the Father of Lies. And what song better to celebrate that “other guy,” than Mick and Keith’s paean to Lucifer, “Sympathy for the Devil.” The song dates from that cursed year 1968, when, as I like to say, “all hell broke loose.” The song is current enough in its sense of atrocity to include in “who killed the Kennedys” the recent death of Robert Kennedy (6/6/68)… and yes there are three 6s in a row there.
Mick, of course, has the temerity to sing as if he is in fact the Devil. When, in the film Gimme Shelter, violence breaks out during the song, Jagger says something about there always being problems when they play it, suggesting the song is jinxed. Maybe yes, maybe no, but it certainly has long stood, to me, as a chief song in The Rolling Stones catalog. I first heard it on 1972’s collection Hot Rocks—a very good collection by the way—and it was instrumental in making me take the Stones more seriously than I had before. Its film-like montage of great moments of twentieth-century carnage is surprising.
We get the February Revolution that killed the Czar and his ministers in the WWI era; we get a tank commander during the Blitzkrieg, for the WWII era; and we get the killing of the Kennedys in the post-war era, so, Russia, Germany, and the U.S., while “your kings and queens fought for ten decades” could reference a century of British rule, though it’s hard to say. In any case, the “troubadours who get killed before they reach Bombay” brings in the British Raj. The point being that Lucifer, as Jagger conceives him, is just a global mischief maker. On that same landmark album, Beggars Banquet, “Street Fighting Man” (opener of Side 2 as “Sympathy” opens the album) points to the current period where perhaps a different kind of mischief is taking place in the streets.
For it’s safe to say that the Devil is not a street fighting man. He’s a “man of wealth and taste” and he’s here to make sure that as many people as possible suffer, meanwhile spreading the blame as widely as possible. The song interleaves Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil), a rambling discourse on the possibilities for Marxist revolution after the breakdown of May 1968. The use of “Sympathy for the Devil,” with its conception of the prelude to the Soviet revolution as basically evil, might suggest that Godard views the notion of rock as revolutionary quite ironically.
In any case, the part of the song that I take to heart, making it more or less my current motto is: “So if you meet me have some courtesy / Have some sympathy and some taste.” Is that too much to ask? The notion that the 20th century is hell-bent is clear enough but at least one can maintain a sense of dignity. The song suggests that Satan, whatever else he may be, is a gentleman.
“Courtesy” is a well-chosen word as it suggests the old world of amour courtois, the tradition of the troubadours of medieval times, where it denotes the willingness to undergo “ordeals” for love. From that time of the chivalric dedication of a knight to his lady comes the notion of courtly behavior as a kind of discretion and valor and virtue. “Sympathy”—or “fellow feeling”—might be said to have Christian overtones in the sense that Christ’s pity or sympathy for humanity leads to his sacrifice. The idea of taking an attitude of sympathy toward Satan's suffering is certainly novel, but not unheard of, for Milton’s Satan, at least, is at times rather sympathetic. “Taste,” of course, leads us to both libertinism as well as aestheticism, and to the notion that a life in which one “tastes” pleasures and enjoys the fruits of the world—including art and fine human products (and fine human beings)—expresses a high desiderata. Such a man does become—think only of someone like James Bond—the hero of the era this song hails from, a man of action able to be discreet, cordial, and discerning.
Pleased to meet you / Hope you guessed my name / Just what’s puzzling you / Is the nature of my game
A great chorus, with the doo-doos high-pitched and insistent, the congas bouncing, as though a kind of tribal Walpurgisnacht were being celebrated for our ears. What is the nature of the Devil’s game, anyway? To carry away our souls? To conquer the world or to lay waste the world, simply spreading as much ruin, even “creative destruction,” as possible?