JFK Assassination Song: “Sympathy for the Devil”

November 22, 2013 will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This is the sixth post in a series that will run throughout this year focusing on songs that address the JFK assassination.

In the summer of 1968 the Rolling Stones returned to Olympic Studios to record the album Beggars Banquet. After the previous year’s Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Rolling Stones had had enough of psychedelia. They set out to move in a different direction and found their footing in “jaded, blues-soaked hard rock“. Beggars Banquet would be the first of a string of great classic Stones albums, and the song that leads off the album is “Sympathy For The Devil.” Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics and had the basic melody when the Rolling Stones went into the studio in early June, 1968. The development of “Sympathy for the Devil” is captured in the movie Sympathy for the Devil (1968), directed by John-Luc Godard.

Godard had set out to make a movie about a woman involved with both a neo-fascist and a black militant. For whatever reason he not only scrapped this story but abandoned conventional storytelling altogether. Instead this film jumps randomly from one abstract statement to another. Scenes of the Rolling Stones in the studio experimenting with different approaches to “Sympathy for the Devil” anchor the film, and it serves as a fascinating document of the Stones’ creative process. While the initial composition was Mick Jagger’s, the film shows clearly how Keith Richards was the driving creative force in the band, first playing the bass (with Bill Wyman relegated to playing the maracas), then guitar, then leading the “whoo whoo” chorus; and it was Keith who suggested using a samba-like rhythm for the track. In According to the Rolling Stones, Charlie Watts is quoted as saying “‘Sympathy is one of those sort of songs where we tried everything…. We had a go at loads of different ways of playing it; in the end I just played a jazz Latin feel in the style of Kenny Clarke would have played on ‘A Night in Tunisia’–not the actual rhythm he played, but the same styling.” The film also shows the marginalization of Brian Jones. He might just as well not even be there, as his acoustic guitar is not even audible at any point in the film, or in the resulting final track, for that matter. Godard’s version of the film was called One Plus One, but the title was changed because the producer, Iain Quarrier, saw fit to include the Rolling Stones’ final version of “Sympathy for the Devil” in the soundtrack, an edit that so enraged Godard that he assaulted Quarrier.

“Sympathy for the Devil” contains just one reference to the JFK assassination. After describing events ranging from the trial of Jesus Christ to the 100 Years War (1337-1453) to the Russian Revolution to World War II, the lyrics turn to recent political assassinations, “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys’/When after all it was you and me”. Interesting to note that Jagger originally wrote “I shouted out, ‘Who killed Kennedy?'” referring only to John F. Kennedy, assassinated in 1963, but the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy occurred during the time the Stones were developing this track. The “Sympathy” sessions took place from June 4 to June 10, 1968, and Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated on June 6, 1968. The change in the lyric indicates that at least Mick Jagger was aware of the event, but it passes without a mention in the film. The rehearsal where Jagger changes the lyric is the same one where the “whoo whoo” chorus is introduced, which is a much more noticeable change for viewers.

Godard’s film has one other reference to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Godard’s wife, Anne Wiazemsky, plays the role of Eve Democracy. Wearing what looks to be a peasant dress, she wanders through a forest answering only “yes” and “no” to a series of non sequitur questions about politics, art, drugs, sex, religion and culture. Along the way the interviewer asks, “Do you have a theory about who killed Kennedy?” to which Eve Democracy answers, “No.” demonstrating clearly that in Sympathy for the Devil Godard was not interested in current events, but rather in making more abstract ideological statements. Some of the scenes in this film are of revolutionaries just reading radical texts–just… reading… and reading.

Keith Richards appreciated the film because it captured the transformation of the song “from a turkey into a hit” but otherwise he thought Godard’s movie was “a total load of crap.” Martin Scorsese, by contrast, called Sympathy for the Devil “quintessential.” In an interview in The Guardian shortly before the release of his own Rolling Stones documentary, Shine a Light, Scorsese went on to say,

That movie still, with the vignettes that [director Jean-Luc] Godard intercuts, the rehearsal sessions with this still powerful and disturbing movie. It makes you rethink; it redefines your way of looking at life and reality, and politics.

While I have a great deal of respect for Martin Scorsese, I think Keith Richards is closer to the mark here. It’s hard to imagine a film like One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil being made today. Revolution was in the air in 1968 and this film gave expression to some of the intellectual currents of the time, but the pacing of this film is laboriously slow and the ideological statements go on way too long. I watched Sympathy for the Devil again recently and was struck by how awful the acting in this movie is. In one scene, black revolutionaries toss guns to one another like some kind of bucket brigade. I gather that this is supposed to strike fear into the hearts of white viewers particularly when they lay the guns across white women who have been executed. Not only do the murdered women’s white gowns have what look like ketchup stains, but the men tossing the guns look so awkward in this scene that they look like “they couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag,” to quote one of my father’s favorite sayings. Also, the graffiti scenes look more like snotty punks out for kicks rather than revolutionaries. My main criticism of this movie, however, is that the Stones track really doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the film. Unlike “Street Fighting Man” recorded only weeks earlier, “Sympathy for the Devil” is not about upsetting the existing order. The song recounts historical tragedies not as prelude to revolution, but as senseless acts. And in the case of the Russian revolution, “Sympathy for the Devil” sympathizes with the monarchs (“Killed the czar and his ministers/Anastasia screamed in vain”). The message of the song appears to be that evil exists in the world and that we all share in the blame for tragic events (“Tell me baby, what’s my name?/I tell you one time, you’re to blame”). Jann Wenner, in a 1995 interview in Rolling Stone, asked Mick Jagger about the message of the song:

WENNER: Were you trying to put out a specific philosophical message here? You know, you’re singing, “Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints”.
JAGGER: Yeah, there’s all these attractions of opposites and turning things upside down.

In the end, then, we all have the potential for committing (or allowing) evil acts.That we all share in the blame for tragic events is stated explicitly in the lyrics in the case of the Kennedy assassinations (“I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys’/When after all it was you and me”). The Rolling Stones Wiki suggests that the verse about the assassination of the Kennedys was a reference to The Gay Science by Friedrich Nietzsche.

The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. “Where is God gone?” he called out. “I mean to tell you! We have killed him,—you and I! We are all his murderers!

Perhaps this is what Jagger had in mind, but this seems like a stretch to me. This passage discusses the abandonment of religious faith, while the assassinations of JFK and RFK were real-world events. Then again, perhaps my resistance to this idea stems from my experience of being assigned to read Nietzsche for a class in college and hating every minute of having to read that turgid, turgid writing. Hard to believe that reading Nietzsche could inspire anything other than the desire to doze off. In any case it’s clear that neither Mick Jagger nor Jean Luc Godard thought it worthwhile to go beyond broad philosophical statements in regard to the assassination of JFK.

“Sympathy for the Devil” has been covered a number of times. The most interesting cover version is by the Slovenian (then Yugoslavian) band Laibach, who released an EP with seven different versions of the track in 1988. One version, “Sympathy for the Devil (Who Killed the Kennedys)” starts out with a sample from Godard’s film, the moment when the interviewer asks Eve Democracy “Do you have a theory about who killed Kennedy?” and she answers, “No.” Despite the title, that’s really the only thing in the track about the Kennedy assassinations. From there Laibach include recordings related to the Rolling Stones performance at Altamont, as well as drug references sampled from Godard’s film.

Sympathy for the Devil
by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

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

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

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

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

I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank


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

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


Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
Cause I’m 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


Tell me baby, what’s my name
Tell me honey, can you guess my name
I tell you one time, you’re to blame

Cocksucker Blues

The 2010 reissue of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album Exile on Main Street came in a variety of packages. I bought the Deluxe Edition with the disc full of bonus tracks, as that struck me as much less of a gouge than the ridiculously expensive “Super Deluxe Edition that also included LPs and a DVD.  I almost went for the Super Deluxe Edition because I saw “Cocksucker Blues” among the titles on that release. I thought at first that the Rolling Stones were finally going to release the track the Rolling Stones recorded in 1970 to one-up Decca Records.  The Rolling Stones were obligated to provide one last single to Decca, so they recorded a deliberately obscene track [LYRICS] for this purpose. Predictably, Decca passed on it. Looking closer, I noticed that “Cocksucker Blues” was on the DVD, so I thought that it contained Robert Frank’s documentary film of the Stones’ 1972 tour entitled Cocksucker Blues. Unfortunately, the DVD included in the Super Deluxe Edition of Exile on Main Street contains only clips from that film. So “Cocksucker Blues,” the song and the film, have yet to have a genuine release. Of course, the internet being what it is, it only takes a little searching to find the song and the movie is on The Pirate Bay, if you’re so inclined.

Robert Frank provided the cover photo “Tattoo Parlor” for Exile on Main Street. He had gained some notoriety with his 1959 book of candid photographs of life in the United States entitled The Americans. The book was not well received at the time of its publication, but its reputation has grown immensely over the years. In his book 1959: The Year Everything Changed, Fred Kaplan points to the publication of The Americans as being a key event in a year when so many cultural conventions were being challenged. Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to The Americans, as the book shared a sensibility with the Beat generation, not to mention that Robert Frank had compiled his photographs through a long road trip across the United States. For the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Americans, the book was reprinted in a Deluxe Edition. An exhibit of Robert Frank’s photography called Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans was held at the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in honor of the 50th anniversary of the book.

After The Americans was published, Robert Frank focused primarily on filmmaking. He had made a number of films before turning his camera on the Rolling Stones in 1972. Robert Frank explained his relationship with the Rolling Stones in this way,

I made a record cover for them, and Mick Jagger sort of liked me. They called me up in Nova Scotia. I said to them, “That’s the camera I want.” They bought the camera, and they said, “You do the film. ” There was never any more talk about it. I just got paid, and they let me do whatever I wanted to, but it was the agreement that I would finish and give them the film. They have the say whether it’s going to come out or not.

Although Mick Jagger reportedly liked Cocksucker Blues, the Rolling Stones blocked the release of the film. Perhaps it was because the Rolling Stones were shown engaging in a range of illegal activity in the movie, or perhaps it was because the film captured the alienation and isolation of the band so effectively. Whatever the reason, the dispute between the Rolling Stones and Robert Frank was resolved with a rather odd court ruling: Cocksucker Blues can only be shown when the director is in attendance. Given practical considerations, this ruling served as an effective ban on the film.

The 1977 book Photography Within the Humanities contains an interview with Robert Frank, and he had some interesting things to say about the Rolling Stones.

We went on tour with them in 1972. It’s pretty interesting to get to know somebody as powerful as Jagger, or that group. So much money, so much power. It’s sort of frightening. It’s a frightening film in that way. And if I could have shown what really went on, it would have been horrendous — not to be believed. The film is a pretty down-trip film. They weren’t too happy about it, but Jagger is very straight. He said, “You did the film, that’s the way you see it; although that’s not the way I see it, that’s not the way it really is.” I like him personally, and he’s quite an amazing guy. He has a fantastic head, and he’s really in control. They’re rough people to be with. You’ve got to keep up. If you can’t keep up, it’s too bad.

When asked if he mistrusted Mick Jagger, Robert Frank answered,

There are two images in my mind. On the one hand, I admire him because of his ability as a performer, his capability as an administrator of such a powerful business venture. But then on the other hand, it would be the same for a politician whom I would mistrust. In the end it would turn me off completely. I would have nothing to do with it, because in the end he would destroy me. Because I don’t play his game; I’m not in his class. All the personalities in that group are especially rough. They are hard on each other, they are completely without feeling for anyone around them. Anything goes to get the work going and keep it moving. And that’s a strong experience to go through — to see that, and how it works.

One last note on the influence of Robert Frank and Exile on Main Street.  John Van Hamersveld designed the cover for Exile on Main Street. He used the motif of Robert Frank’s cover photo and laid out images of the Rolling Stones in a “tear and paste” manner that has had a lasting influence. Van Hamersveld quoted John Lydon as saying that the style of punk was strongly influenced by Exile on Main Street, “The Stones’ Exile package set the image of punk in 1975 – we used that graphic feel to communicate our message graphically.”  In its influence on the Sex Pistols and punk generally, then, Exile on Main Street was a key proto-punk album.