Why did the Stones drop the Kennedys line in ‘Sympathy for the Devil’?


We were in our seats high above the stage when the huge video screens turned a hellscape red and the clamor of piano and percussion merged with that familiar hypnotic chant: “Woo-woo! Woo-woo!”

Everyone in the stadium knew Satan was about to introduce himself, as rendered for the umpteenth time by 80-year-old Mick Jagger, somehow still twirling away in a twinkling three-quarter coat, more than five decades after the Rolling Stones cut their classic “Sympathy for the Devil.”

“Please allow me to introduce myself/ I’m a man of wealth and taste,” Jagger began before reciting the song’s catalogue of Great Moments in Evil, including the slaying of Jesus Christ and the assassination of the “Czar and his ministers” in St. Petersburg, when “Anastasia screamed in vain.”

Anyone who loves “Sympathy for the Devil” knows what comes in the third verse, just as fans of “The Godfather” know what awaits Sonny when he rolls up to the tollbooth. Except, in Philadelphia on that night last month, Jagger blew past the lines that first astonished me years ago as a teenager, the audacious question, “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’” (I thought we knew), and the sneering answer: “When after all, it was you and me.”

“Did I miss the Kennedy line?” I asked my wife, who was marveling that the octogenarian frontman was now skipping the length of the sprawling stage. If Jagger sang the Kennedy line, she also missed it.

Had the Stones sanitized their ode to madness? Had “Sympathy for the Devil” become “Sympathy”-lite?

Jagger wrote the song in 1968, a year when America was engulfed in a full-on meltdown as the Vietnam War triggered massive antiwar demonstrations and assassins cut down Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Jagger, inspired by the writings of Charles Baudelaire, has said that he intended “Sympathy” as “a Bob Dylan song.” Keith Richards suggested a samba beat, giving the tune a fevered vibe that captured the mood du jour.

When the Stones went into the recording studio in early June of ’68, a moment documented by Jean-Luc Godard in his film “Sympathy for the Devil,” Jagger’s lyric read, “I shouted out, ‘Who killed Kennedy?,’” referring to only President John F. Kennedy. The band was still working on the song on June 6, when RFK died. Jagger updated the lyric to the plural: “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’”

“Those were the lines that hit with genuine force,” said the esteemed music critic Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who taught a University of Pennsylvania class this spring titled “Let It Rock: The Rolling Stones, Writing and Creativity.” “To me, it was an indication of how the zeitgeist was flowing right through the Stones and how they were connected to what was happening at that moment.”

DeCurtis attended the Stones shows at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey in May and wasn’t sure what to make of it when he noticed Jagger’s omission. “It’s my favorite verse. I was thinking, ‘What the f— happened to the Kennedy verse?’”

The mystery deepened for me when videos on social media showed that Jagger hadn’t mentioned Kennedy during other performances on the 2024 tour, including in Seattle, Houston, Chicago and New Orleans. I texted my old friend Serge Kovaleski, who, in addition to being an ace New York Times reporter, is the most devoted Stones fan I know. By his own count, Serge has attended some 80 shows in 13 countries since 1975, including a half-dozen this year.

Serge hadn’t noticed the missing Kennedy lyric and guessed that a sensitivity to contemporary political mores may have pushed the Stones to make an adjustment. After all, the band had stopped playing “Brown Sugar” in recent years, with its images of the slave trade and sex, and dropped a line from “Some Girls,” about the sexual appetites of Black women, that had angered the Rev. Jesse Jackson when it was released. (That said, Richards is still singing “Little T & A,” suggesting that the Stones are not exactly spending a lot of time studying contemporary etiquette guides.)

Further study proved that none of this is new. In fact, the Stones have managed to perform an edited version of “Sympathy” for years without provoking any significant commentary. One place where the revision was noticed was on the website It’s Only Rock’n Roll, a gathering spot for the Stones-obsessed, where commenters as far back as 2015 traded theories about the missing lyric.

“Pretty well accepted as truth that Jagger ‘changed his art’ at a request of … The Kennedy’s(John Jr.) I applaud his decision to honor the request,” wrote someone identifying themselves as MisterDDDD. But that explanation seems unlikely, given that author C. David Heymann, in his late-2000s biography of John Jr. and Caroline, quoted a buddy saying the president’s son “loved to shock” his friends by belting out the “Kennedys” lyric during his own impromptu renditions of “Sympathy.”

Robert Christgau, the former Village Voice music editor known among scribes as the “dean of American rock critics,” has been writing about popular music since the 1960s. Christgau said he hasn’t seen the Stones perform since the early 2000s and was unaware that Jagger no longer sings the Kennedy verse live. The lyric, he said, signified that “this is a world where people get killed and all of us, to one extent or another, are implicated in the fact that this is that world.”

“That was the moment when people were trying to decide whether the Beatles or the Stones were more relevant,” Christgau said. “The high ’60s were over, and it was a time when the Stones had more political respect, because they wrote more about evil, which is not to say they were encouraging it as much as they had this dark side to their version of the world.”

As for whether it matters in 2024 whether Jagger sings the lines, Christgau laughed and said: “It’s nearly 60 years later. Who gives a s—? ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ is no longer meaningful to the younger audience, and even the Stones’ contemporaries, because we have lived with this for more than 50 years. It’s their song, and they can do what they want with it.”

Christgau suggested the best way to solve the mystery of the missing lyric was to ask the Stones themselves.

An email to the Stones’ public relations operation led to a phone call with a spokeswoman who introduced herself by saying, “I work with Mick.” She then decreed that anything she said from that moment on was off the record, rendering the explanation she may or may not have provided as unusable. She indicated that she would follow up with something printable.

While I waited, I burrowed deeper into the archives and discovered that the Stones, as far back as 2006, excised the “Kennedys” verse at a benefit concert for Bill Clinton’s 60th birthday in New York. Martin Scorsese filmed the show for his documentary “Shine A Light.”

The New York Daily News speculated at the time that Jagger had skipped the verse because Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was in the audience. When a reporter at the film’s premiere asked whether he had dropped the line out of deference to RFK Jr., Jagger offered an answer as deft as his stage moves.

“Did I leave that out?” he asked. “That song is so long, I always cut a verse. I guess it must’ve been that one.”

His explanation may seem plausible, except that the entire verse accounts for about 30 seconds in a song that clocks in at more than six minutes. Not exactly an eternity during a two-hour show.

Fortunately, for those who prefer complete renditions of “Sympathy for the Devil,” there are more than a few live performances in the Stones’ catalogue. Naturally, the trove also includes many stellar (and unedited) versions of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”



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