Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Rolling Stones -- "Sympathy for the Devil" (1968)

Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I'll lay your soul to waste

When we were in junior-high school (7th-8th-9th grades), I and many of my friends devoted a lot of our attention to top-40 music. The Beatles were universally recognized as the best band on the radio, but we disagreed over who was the best of all the rest. My pick -- the Rolling Stones -- turned out to be a pretty good one, although Mick Jagger turned out to be something of a phony, and I think they should have stopped touring decades ago. (My best friend wasn't so lucky. He hitched his wagon to Herman's Hermits -- later he quietly switched his allegiance to Simon and Garfunkel, which was a little better, I guess.)

By the time we were in high school, we focused less on singles and more on albums. Rubber Soul and Revolver produced some hit singles, but were viewed more as a whole than a collection of individual parts -- as was the first Led Zeppelin album and many others. The Rolling Stones had some good albums prior to Beggars Banquet, but that was their first great LP.

Track one, side one of that album -- issued in a rather plain white jacket with a simple cursive-script title after the original filthy-toilet cover (here's a link) was deemed unsuitable for the American market -- was the immortal "Sympathy for the Devil," a song whose lyrics outdid almost anything else that had come along before it in terms of intellectual sophistication. It was an apologia pro vita sua of sorts sung by the devil himself ("Just call me Lucifer"), with references to Pontius Pilate's decision, the Russian Revolution, the Nazi blitzkreig, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and various other bits of nasty business for which the Prince of Darkness is often given the credit. The song was over six minutes long, and doesn't sound a bit dated 40-plus years after it's original release.

Here's a link to the song on

Here's a link to the song on iTunes: The Rolling Stones - Beggars Banquet - Sympathy for the Devil

I remember reading a review of the album in Newsweek, which mentioned the song's use of "politesse," a French word that can be translated simply as "politeness," but is better understood as meaning formal or genteel politeness. (Remembering to say "please" and "thank you" when you ask someone to pass the mashed potatoes doesn't mean you have politesse. We're talking the kind of politeness this is practiced by guys who wear morning coats and striped trousers when they drop by the ambassador's digs for tea or a spot of sherry.) The point of the article was that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were much more than shaggy-haired teen idols cranking out boy-loves-girl lyrics employing a 6th-grade vocabulary. In fact, they were sophisticated and intellectual -- current-day Cole Porters or Ira Gershwins, if you will.

We were all terribly concerned in those days with proving to our elders that the bands we listened to (the Doors, the Kinks, the Who, et al.) deserved to be taken seriously. I remember how one friend of mine insisted that parents listen to a song on his brand-new Steppenwolf album that he hadn't listened to yet but understood made a strong anti-drug statement. Imagine his surprise (and that of his parents) when John Kay got to the chorus of that song:

God damn the pusher
God damn, I say, the pusher
I said God damn, God damn the pusher man.

After I bought Beggar's Banquet and listened to it a few thousand times, I found the sheet music for the album at the local music store. I didn't play the guitar, but I was a very good student pianist back then, so I attempted to play "Sympathy for the Devil," and "Parachute Woman," and "Stray Cat Blues," and all the rest on the piano, reading the sheet music more or less literally. That didn't work out quite as well as I hoped.

A few years later, when I was in college, I was hanging around with a pretty bad crowd -- a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals and poseurs. One of my friends was a foreign-film aficionado (is my overuse of foreign words starting to get annoying, or is it more my affectation of italicizing them that is getting on your nerves?), and he announced to us one day that there was going to be a midnight showing of the 1968 Jean-Luc Godard film titled Sympathy for the Devil at a local theater. Godard, one of the founding members of the French New Wave filmmaking movement, was also a Marxist -- which gave him beaucoup street cred to early-1970's vintage American college students. Our friend was absolutely breathless with excitement (that's a little joke for you Godard fans out there) when he shared these glad tidings, and we all started counting the days until the big night.

Godard's Sympathy for the Devil combines footage of the Rolling Stones' recording various takes of that song -- which started as something quite different than the song that ended up on their album -- with shots of members of the Black Panthers reading from various half-baked revolutionary texts and a lot of other tedious and obscure political dreck. For a Rolling Stones fan like myself, the documentary footage of Mick, Keith and the boys in the recording studio was somewhat interesting, at least through the first few takes of the song -- eventually even the charm of that began to wear a little thin. The rest of the movie was appallingly boring.

Here's the trailer -- it makes the movie seem like it might be almost interesting. But don't be fooled.

I saw my friend a few days later and asked him what he thought of the movie. He said that it was perhaps the greatest film he had ever seen. I instantly realized that he and I saw the world very differently indeed.

That midnight showing was the end of my life as a pseudo-intellectual and the beginning of my life as an anti-intellectual. The culmination of my anti-intellectual phase came a year or two later, in a college class of mine titled "Contemporary Culture."

There were no lectures in that class. Instead, we attended various cultural events, and wrote papers on our experiences. We went to a Van Cliburn concert, saw Truffaut's The 400 Blows, visited the home of art patrons John and Dominique de Menil (which was since converted to an art museum), and spent an evening in the Rothko Chapel, which featured 14 large and essentially identical and very dark monochromatic paintings. (Anyone who has seen these paintings won't be surprised to learn that the artist who created them, Mark Rothko had a long struggle with from depression. He committed suicide in 1970.) I thought I was going to lose my mind that night. Having to sit and stare at these almost-black canvases for three hours was the worst kind of sensory deprivation. (You can get an idea of what the paintings look like by clicking on this link. Once you do that, imagine what it would be like to sit and stare at them for three hours.)

For our final project in this class, a friend of mine and I told the story of a made-up modern composer, complete with brief excerpts from his nonexistent compositions performed by me on a piano -- those excerpts consisting of totally random banging on the keys. Our creation's biography started out in a reasonably plausible fashion but got more and more absurd as it went along. We had him die by falling out of a malfunctioning Ferris wheel at an amusement park in Transylvania. (I was a great fan of Bela Bartok, a very real modern composer who was a native of Romania.) Naturally, the class swallowed our ridiculous story hook, line, and sinker -- even the professor (who later claimed to have been suspicious that we had made the whole thing up, but didn't say anything because he was afraid of offending us -- by which he meant he was as clueless as the other students, or didn't have the confidence in his critical abilities to call us out as phonies).

Our point -- that (like the Emperor in the Hans Christian Andersen story) contemporary art, music, writing, etc., had no clothes, and the artists and critics and academics who tried to persuade us otherwise were just as naked -- was far from original, and I doubt that our presentation was especially clever or creative. We were shooting fish in a barrel -- our target (pseudo-intellectualism among college students in the early 1970's) was so fat and slow-moving that we really couldn't have missed.

To be honest, I'm not totally cured of my pseudo-intellectualism. I still occasionally pick up a modern novel that the New Yorker say is to die for, or watch an avant garde film that the avant garde critics all love. But most of the time I manage to resist wasting my time on such nonsense. Before my road-to-Damascus experience at that midnight showing of Godard's film, I thought that I was going to have to read Finnegan's Wake someday if I wanted to think of myself as an educated man. Now I've know that life is too short to waste time trying to decipher Joyce. (I feel the same way about Virginia Woolf, but a friend of mine whose opinions I have the utmost respect for has told me otherwise, so I may have to give her another chance. But only one.)

Of course, being an anti-intellectual is just as much a pose as being a pseudo-intellectual. I'm a very smart guy, and I'm highly educated (albeit with a number of large gaps in my education) and a voracious reader. But I'm also a small-town kid who didn't go to Europe until I was 50, doesn't speak a foreign language, and is afraid to attempt to pronounce a large number of the proper nouns I've seen in all the books I've read because I've never heard those names pronounced and am afraid of sounding foolish in front of the more sophisticated types who know exactly how to say them correctly.

So it's hard for me to know which way to go. I can be the sophisticated Ivy Leaguer who remembers his humble roots, or I can be the unapologetic redneck who knows good writing and good art when he sees it -- and good music when he hears it. (As this blog proves.) Or I can alternate between the two depending on the environment -- always in doubt as to which is the real me.

Here's the infamous performance of the song at Altamont in 1969. (I have no idea why there is a brief excerpt from "Mad Max" at the beginning of this.)

One final note. I know that I said that I was going to be talking about songs that were relatively obscure and unknown, and "Sympathy for the Devil" is hardly that -- every classic rock station in the country has it on its regular playlist. But I create the rules and I can break them. It's my prerogative. Anyone who feels as if he or she has been misled is welcome to a full refund.


  1. The term I use in place of pseudo- intellectual is much harsher. BTW I don’t actually say it out loud nor will I write it in a blog.

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