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Why did the Stones leave out the line “Kennedy’s” in “Sympathy for the Devil”?

Why did the Stones leave out the line “Kennedy’s” in “Sympathy for the Devil”?

We sat in our seats high above the stage as the giant video screens turned hellish red and the noise of piano and drums merged with the familiar hypnotic chant: “Woo-woo! Woo-woo!”

Everyone in the stadium knew that Satan was about to introduce himself, for what felt like the hundredth time, by 80-year-old Mick Jagger, still twirling in his sparkling three-quarter coat, more than five decades after the Rolling Stones recorded their classic “Sympathy for the Devil.”

“Allow me to introduce myself. I am a rich man of taste,” Jagger began, before listing the great moments of evil contained in the song, including the assassination of Jesus Christ and the murder of the “Tsar and his ministers” in St. Petersburg, when “Anastasia screamed in vain.”

Anyone who loves “Sympathy for the Devil” knows what’s coming in the third verse, just as fans of “The Godfather” know what awaits Sonny when he gets to the toll booth. Except that night in Philadelphia last month, Jagger surpassed the lines that had first astonished me as a teenager years ago, the cheeky question, “I shouted, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?'” (I thought we knew) and the sneering reply, “Although it was eventually you and me.”

“Did I miss the Kennedy sentence?” I asked my wife, who and wondered why the eighty-year-old frontman was now skipping the entire stage. When Jagger sang Kennedy’s line, she missed it too.

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

Jagger wrote the song in 1968, a year when America was in total collapse as the Vietnam War sparked massive anti-war demonstrations and assassins murdered Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Jagger, inspired by the writings of Charles Baudelaire, said he intended “Sympathy” to be “a Bob Dylan song.” Keith Richards suggested a samba beat, giving the tune a feverish mood that captured the mood of the day.

When the Stones entered the recording studio in early June 1968, Jean-Luc Godard documented this moment in his film “Sympathy for the Devil”,“Jagger’s lyrics were, ‘I shouted, ‘Who killed Kennedy?'” referring only to President John F. Kennedy. The band was still working on the song on June 6, when RFK died. Jagger updated the lyrics to the plural: “I shouted, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?'”

“Those were the lines that really hit home,” said respected music critic Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who taught a course called “Let It Rock: The Rolling Stones, Writing and Creativity” at the University of Pennsylvania in the spring. “For me, that was an indication of how the zeitgeist was flowing through the Stones and how they were connected to what was happening in that moment.”

DeCurtis attended the Stones’ concert at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey in May and wasn’t sure what to make of it when he noticed Jagger’s omission. “That’s my favorite verse. I just thought, ‘What the hell happened to the Kennedy verse?'”

The mystery grew even greater for me when videos on social media showed that Jagger had failed to mention Kennedy at other performances on the 2024 tour, including in Seattle, Houston, Chicago and New Orleans. I texted my old friend Serge Kovaleski, who is not only a top New York Times reporter but also the most devoted Stones fan I know. By his own account, Serge has attended some 80 shows in 13 countries since 1975, including half a dozen this year.

Serge hadn’t noticed the missing Kennedy lyrics and suspected that the Stones’ sensitivity to contemporary political mores might have prompted an adjustment. After all, the band had stopped playing “Brown Sugar,” with its imagery of slave trading and sex, in recent years, and omitted a line from “Some Girls” about the sexual appetites of black women that had angered the Reverend Jesse Jackson upon release. (However, Richards still sings “Little T & A,” suggesting that the Stones don’t exactly spend much time studying contemporary etiquette guides.)

Further investigation has shown that none of this is new. In fact, the Stones managed to play an edited version of “Sympathy” for years without attracting any significant comment. One place where the editing caught attention was the website It’s Only Rock’n Roll, a gathering place for Stones fans, where commentators were already sharing theories about the missing lyrics in 2015.

“It’s pretty much universally accepted that Jagger ‘changed his art’ at the request of the Kennedys (John Jr.). I applaud his decision to comply,” wrote someone who identified himself as MisterDDDD. But that explanation seems unlikely considering that author C. David Heymann, in his late 2000s biography of John Jr. and Caroline, quoted a friend who said the president’s son loved to shock his friends by belting out the Kennedys’ lyrics during his own impromptu performances of “Sympathy.”

Robert Christgau, a former music editor of the Village Voice known among critics as the “dean of American rock critics,” has been writing about pop 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 lyrics, he said, mean that “this is a world where people are being killed and we’re all complicit to some extent in this being that world.”

“That was the moment when people were trying to decide whether the Beatles or the Stones were more relevant,” Christgau said. “The late ’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 encouraged it, but that they had this dark side to their worldview.”

When asked if it would still matter in 2024 if Jagger sang the lines, Christgau laughed and said, “It was almost 60 years ago. Who cares? ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ no longer matters to younger audiences and even to the Stones’ contemporaries because we’ve lived with it for more than 50 years. It’s their song and they can do whatever they want with it.”

Christgau said the best way to solve the mystery of the missing lyrics was to ask the Stones themselves.

An email to the Stones’ PR department led to a phone call with a spokeswoman who introduced herself with the words: “I work with Mick.” She then ordered that everything she said from that moment on was confidential, which made any statement she might have made useless. She stated that she would submit something printable later.

While I was waiting, I dug deeper into the archives and discovered that the Stones had already cut the verse from “Kennedy’s” at a benefit concert for Bill Clinton’s 60th birthday in New York in 2006. Martin Scorsese filmed the show for his documentary “Shine A Light.”

The New York Daily News speculated at the time that Jagger had left out the line because Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was in the audience. When a reporter asked at the film’s premiere if he had left out the line out of respect for Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Jagger’s answer was as deft as his stage maneuvers.

“Did I leave that out?” he asked. “The song is so long that I always cut a verse. I guess that must have been it.”

His explanation may seem plausible, unless you consider that the entire verse takes up about 30 seconds in a song that lasts more than six minutes in total. Not exactly an eternity during a two-hour show.

For those who prefer complete interpretations of “Sympathy for the Devil,” there are fortunately more than a few live performances in the Stones’ catalog. Of course, the collection also includes many outstanding (and unedited) versions of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.