How Did Bulgakov inspire Rolling Stones?

How Did Bulgakov inspire Rolling Stones?
16 June 2015

Russia has always fascinated foreigners and they from their side turned towards Russia in many different ways, including Rolling Stones. Looking at songs could be an amusing and pleasant activity to understand how and in which ways Russia and Russian culture affected other countries and how foreigners perceived it. Some of them focus on Russian politics and history as “Russians” by Sting or “Road to Moscow” by Al Stewart. Others seem to have been affected by the charm of the outstanding Russian literature and exotic culture.

Inspired by the Devil

“Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste” Does this line sound familiar? Well, it’s the first line of the popular song “Sympathy for the Devil” by Rolling Stones. This is another case of Russian influence on western music, in particular of Russian literature. The devil in literature does not always reveal himself to be an evil character, actually sometimes he operates for the best. When this devil fights against the accepted system, that is clearly repressive and nonsense, he doesn’t really look that evil in the public’s eyes; he tears apart this system, unveiling the harsh reality in favor of all human beings. Of course he does it in his own way, by means that are not generally accepted. How can’t everybody sympathize with this “devil”? And what’s the most famous Russian novel in which nobody can help themselves from being fascinated and favoring the Devil if not Ма́стер и Маргари́та (Master i Margarita)?

Bulgakov inspired lyrics

Mick Jagger’s “Sympathy for the Devil” was clearly influenced by Bulgakov’s novel. Even if at first he claimed that the song was based on one of Baudelaire’s poems, he then admitted that he was inspired by The Master and Margarita which he received as a present. In addition to this The Rolling Stones released “ Sympathy for the Devil” a year after the English translation of the novel was published in 1967.
The first line of the song recalls Woland’s ,the Devil’s, first appearance in the novel when he addressed the two gentlemen sitting in the park: “Please excuse me,’ he said, speaking correctly, but with a foreign accent, ‘for presuming to speak to you without an introduction.’”.
In the novel the Devil claims to have met Pilate and witnessed Jesus’s crucifixion and so Jagger sings, “And I was around when Jesus Christ had His moment of doubt and pain, Made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands and sealed His fate.”
Then the song explicitly refers to Russian history in the sentence “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.”

Who is good and who’s bad?

In The Master and Margarita Woland asks about the nature of the devil “What the devil is he after?” and the song echoes “But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game”. “Sympathy for the Devil” suggests that the world is ruled by evil power and the mess that comes out of this situation is so bad that it’s not clear who is bad and who is good anymore,“Every cop is a criminal/And all the sinners saints.”; in The Master and Margarita traditional good and evil figures are inverted in an apocalyptic scenario.
Additionally the music and the structure of the song create a frizzy atmosphere of excitement. The rhythm puts the listener under its spell, while the background sounds and the “woo-woos” vocals suggests that it’s going on a kind of tribal ritual in which the devil dances cheerfully. Eventually the blues rhythm merges with a samba beat that seduces and hypnotizes the listener.

“Sympathy for the Devil” lyrics

This post was brought to you by Jessica, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

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