“Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones became a rock band in 1962. While a member has joined and a couple have departed it has been the same group, basically, for five decades now. U2 came together in 1976 and it would be no surprise to see the same band celebrating four decades of music in a few years. I enjoy both groups, though U2’s status as my favorite band should tell you who I prefer. Oddly, though both bands have produced dozens of hit tracks two of the songs I enjoy most have Satan as a main character. Don’t worry, it has to do with my interest in how biblical literature and Christian theology are presented in art, especially music.

In “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968) the Rolling Stones do a first person impersonation of Satan. Likewise, U2 does this in “Until the End of the World” (1991). While Satan is in the forefront of both songs, the depictions are different.

In “Sympathy for the Devil” a catchy beat accompanies Satan’s monologue, but his identity is not presented until near the end of the song. Satan presents himself as being “a man of wealth and taste” who has been around for a long time stealing “a man’s soul and faith.” Satan enters the scene at Jesus’ trial: “I was around when Jesus Christ/Had his moment of doubt and pain/I made damn sure that Pilate/Washed his hands and sealed his fate”. Satan is presented as empowering this Roman Prefect. Satan is behind the “October Revolution” at the beginning of the twentieth century (“I stuck around St. Petersburg/when I saw it was a time for a change/Killed the Tsar and his ministers/Anastasia screamed in vain”), WWII (“I rode a tank/Held a general’s rank/When the blitzkrieg raged/And the bodies stank”), religious wars (“I watched with glee/While your kings and queens/Fought for decades/For the gods they made”), and even the the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy (“I shouted out/’Who killed the Kennedys?’/When after all/It was you and me”).

Finally, Satan begins to excuse himself, saying it is “the nature of my game,” then observing that humans are as evil: “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 restraint”. Then Satan request sympathy, tastefulness, and respect from his audience, lest he lays their souls to waste. The song ends with Satan dancing around in jubilee, almost taunting, asking for the listener to tell him his name, as if he enjoys the mere mention of it.

Bono and The Edge play the parts of Satan and Jesus clashing.

Satan’s interaction with Jesus is one of many deeds he does. Juxtapose this with U2’s “Until the End of the World” where the entire monologue is Satan talking to Jesus. Jesus is the second central figure, not merely one of Satan’s many exploits. Similarly, whereas “Sympathy for the Devil” moves quickly past Christ as if he had no ability to content with personified Evil—Evil who has acted through human agents and who Mick Jagger and Co. may have sought to present as merely our name for our own actions–“Until the End of the World” seems to leave Satan perplexed by his encounter with Jesus.

The song begins with Satan addressing Jesus (“Haven’t seen you in quite a while/I was down the hole just passing time”). What is the setting for this? The song doesn’t say, but it does depict their “last meeting” where Satan says that it was “in a low-lit room.” Jesus and Satan were “as close together as a bride and groom”. When he says, “We ate the food, we drank the wine, everybody having a good time” it is apparent that this is the Last Supper. One person is not having a good time: “Except for you/you were talking about the end of the world”.

Jesus is focused on the end of the cosmic narrative as Satan attempts to blind Jesus’ followers by means of their festivities. Suddenly, Satan merges identities with Judas: “I took the money/I spiked your drink/You miss too much these days if you stop to think/You led me with those innocent eyes/You know I love the element of surprise/In the garden I was playing the tart/I kissed your lips and broke your heart/ were acting like it was/The end of the world”.

One figure is antagonistic, Satan. One figure is caught betwixt, Judas. Judas sees Jesus’ “innocent eyes” and kisses Jesus. Satan is the one trying to get Jesus’ mind off of what matters and who leads Judas to break Jesus’ heart. It is impossible to tell who is speaking at the end: Judas or Satan or both. This figure has sorrowful dreams that consume him like man caught in the waves of stormy sea. He can’t escape. Final words: “I reached out for the one I tried to destroy/You said you wait/Until the end of the world”. Someone feels guilty and reaches for Jesus, but Jesus postpones his verdict until the end of days.

The Satanology is intriguing in these songs. Both present Satan is working through human agents, primarily. In “Sympathy for the Devil” he shows no remorse, but reminds humans that we are like him. In “Until the End of the World” one can’t tell Satan’s mindset since he is merged closely with Judas, Judas being the embodiment of humans possessed by evil. Judas isn’t pure evil himself, but an agent, and even a victim if the final words are his plea to Jesus for a second chance. (Or does Satan ask for a second chance?)