It starts with a shuffling Latin beat, growing in animation and swelling as the percussion kicks in. It becomes punctuated by barking yelps – then some muttering and grumbling noises, until eventually Jagger’s vocals kick in properly, and the Samba groove builds.
It’s deliberately exotic – deliberately ‘other’. Somehow sophisticated yet primitive, intended to conjure up images. Images of arcane rituals and ‘dark’ deeds done in ‘dark’ places. Images of voodoo dolls and witchdoctors, images of firelight and dancing feet. And perhaps partly because of this rich imagery, the song gained a notoriety, a mythology all of it’s own.
Today the opening bars of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” remain some of the most famous in rock: a counter culture riff straight outta the late sixties. Released in December 1968, a few short months after the summer of love, it was a zeitgeist song: boundary pushing and dangerous, courting controversy and provoking claims of blasphemy and black magic.
One way of looking at it is that Jagger was suggesting that Satan is to be found among and within us – in the lyrics he takes the blame/credit for the Nazi blitzkrieg, the Russian revolution, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the killing of both John and Bobby Kennedy, as well as other diabolical crimes. But the subtext is clear: these are not crimes of an external supernatural agent, but crimes of people. People like us.
So what should we make of the figure of Satan? At best a confused character in the Judeo Christian scriptures, he appears there in a number of roles, from which a composite seems to have emerged in to popular culture: a set of horns and a trident, a subtle tempter, a tormenting jailer…
Lent is a reminder of the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, when the Bible says he was tempted by Satan. So it seems like a good time to have a good look at this devil of a character, and think about what there is to learn from the various stories that have been told. Can we, ultimately, hope to have sympathy for the Devil? As usual my approach is provocative and comes with a certain slant, intended to unsettle and inspire at the same time.
Sign up for free to get my weekday meditations whenever you want, the ‘Sympathy for the Devil?’ series starts on March 6th 2019.