Lucifer Rising and Falling

by Dan Dinello


Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m a man of wealth and taste. Just call me Lucifer, cause I’m in need of some restraint.
            Mick Jagger - “Sympathy for the Devil”


“Before, when we were just innocent kids out for a good time, they’re saying, ‘They’re evil, they’re evil,’ said Keith Richards in 1969. “Oh, I’m evil, really? What is evil?  I don’t know how much people think of Mick as the devil or as just a good rock performer or what? There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer and others who think we are Lucifer.  Everyone’s Lucifer.” Not known as a philosopher, Richards raises philosophical questions about the nature of evil and the meaning of the devil.

Satan as the personification of evil emerged out of the Old Testament and became enshrined, by theologian St. Augustine (354-430), as the traditional Christian worldview.  His philosophy of evil begins with Lucifer’s expulsion from heaven.  Committing the sin of disobedience, Lucifer challenged the Almighty’s power and this opposition made him the literal embodiment of all imaginable evils.  Amid the eternal flames of hell, he conspires with his sinister band of fallen angels to wreak vengeance on God by luring humans into their foul embrace. According to Augustine, Satan’s goal is to seduce God’s children into evil actions that disobeyed the laws of God, the Church, and the State - the Moral Authorities.

Casting the Rolling Stones as “Satan’s Jesters,” the moral authorities of the 1960s – the press, the police, and the clergy – accused them of leading innocent youth astray, exhorting them to protest, riot, blaspheme, do drugs and fornicate.  At the same time, the Stones embraced a contrary view of Satan, embracing a nineteenth century Romantic vision of Lucifer as a rebellious angel fighting the forces of moral repression while promulgating a new interpretation of the evil that blamed the mundane mob of hypocritical authorities for the world’s horrors. 

Diabolical Beginnings

“I hope we’re not too messianic or a trifle too satanic,” sang Mick Jagger in ‘Monkey Man,’ “We love to play the blues.”  From its origins, blues was denounced by the Christian community as disreputable -- an angry music that opposed traditional values. It was sinful to play the blues, whose name derives from the term “blue devils,” meaning depression or sadness. Accused of being the “devil’s music,” the blues was feared as a social force that encouraged disruption, irresponsibility, violence, or sexual freedom (The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues, Giles Oakley).

Taking their name from a song by Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones immersed themselves in the devil’s blues of Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon among others.  Satan also infiltrated the Stones’ musical subconscious when they first heard Robert Johnson’s 1930s recordings of  “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Hell Hound on My Trail.”  These songs fostered the legend that Robert Johnson met the devil at a lonely Mississippi Delta crossroads and sold his soul to become a great guitarist, writing songs that overflow with references to Satan. The Stones played these artists’ songs, feeling part of a religious crusade to preach and live the blues.  They had the disadvantage of being white, but Mick Jagger sounded black.  Leering maniacally and dancing provocatively with arms over his head and hips thrust out, Jagger became a young charismatic sex-charged anti-Moses leading the rhythm and blues horde into the promised land.  The Stones evoked the blues’ anger and aggressiveness expressed in sexual terms -- grind, shake, rock, ride all night long! 

They grew their hair longer than the Beatles, cultivated a funky grubbiness, swore, and behaved like monkey men.  With the encouragement of their anti-conformist manager Andrew Loog Oldham, they flaunted their contempt, their anger, and their passionate commitment to sex and lavish autonomy. They were fined for pissing against the wall of a garage, thrown out of hotels, busted for drugs, and accused of orgies. The press indicted them as filthy thugs.  “These performers are a menace to law and order and a result of their formula of vocal laryngitis, cranial fur and sex is the police are diverted from other forms of mayhem to quell the violence that they generate,” said London’s Daily Mirror in 1964.  Assaulting Christian values, the Stones made outrageousness their trademark. Yet, the more adults despised them, the more resentful teenagers loved them.  Commenting on the adoration of their audience and their evil intent, the Daily Mail said in 1964, “I have seen nothing like this since the old days of a Nazi rally.”

With its chill-inducing indelible riff, the Stones’ break-through global hit “[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction” caught the tenor of the times - an immediate anthem of rejection to the authoritarian teachers, priests, politicians, bosses, and parents that wanted to traps kids in a society that denies sexuality and freedom.  They criticized corporate propaganda in the follow up “Get Off My Cloud,” mocked anti-drug hypocrisy in “Mother’s Little Helper,” and delivered a punch to the face of the old values with a flagrantly provocative “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”  Despite the uproar caused by the song’s immorality, they were invited to perform it before nine million viewers on Britain’s most popular variety show, Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Seeing this notorious group singing that sinful song on television right after dinner caused mass indigestion and indignation (Up and Down with the Rolling Stones, Tony Sanchez).

Yes, other bands – such as the Animals and the Yardbirds – were steeped in the blues; and, yes, the Beatles were busted for drugs and provoked hysteria at their shows.  But it was the Stones’ unique blend devil’s music, social criticism, public vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, lewd charisma, and overt mockery of authority that generated rabid hatred and their characterization as a menace to society.

Branding Jagger a nihilist provocateur, a “demon” and “satyr,” intellectual Allan Bloom, in his critically acclaimed and best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind, said that he stimulated mobs of children into a sensual frenzy with an act that “was male and female, heterosexual and homosexual; unencumbered by modesty, he could enter everyone’s dreams, promising to do everything with everyone; and, above all, he legitimated drugs, which were the real thrill that parents and policemen conspired to deny his youthful audience. He was beyond the law, moral and political, and thumbed his nose at it.”

Satanic Panic

Bloom’s morally offended viewpoint – enclosed in a larger critique of how the University fails its students -- encapsulates the reasons why many adults thought the Rolling Stones were in league with the devil.  Antagonism to Christian values, self-indulgence, sexuality, seduction, mind possession, and the provoking of chaos were intimately linked with the rise of Satan and the vision of evil in early Christian mythology.  In the Old Testament, the devil as phallic snake tempts Eve into sin. 

St. Augustine elaborated the idea of sex as sin in his Christian philosophy whose monumental influence was characterized by one historian this way: “Augustine was the dark genius of imperial Christianity, the ideologue of the Church-State alliance, and the fabricator of the medieval mentality. Next to Paul, he did more to shape Christianity than any other human being” (History of Christianity, Paul Johnson). Writing in the middle of the first century, Augustine worked to make Christianity coextensive with society: to permeate, regulate, and perfect all human activities and institutions.  The idea of a total Christian society included the persecution of those that refused to conform. 

“But the devil has moved the heretics to resist the Christian doctrine,” he wrote in City of God, “as if they could be kept in the city of God indifferently without correction. Those in the Church of Christ who savour anything morbid and depraved and will not amend their pestiferous and deadly dogmas are to be reckoned enemies who serve for her discipline.” He insisted that the use of force in pursuit of total Christian conformity was necessary and justified. More than an intellectual, Augustine was a leading bishop who worked actively with the State to compel obedience. Evil consists of an act of free will -- giving in to self-indulgence, something that humans cannot resist. Without the discipline enforced by the State, sinful chaos would result.

The worst aspect of that chaos is unbridled lust.  To Augustine, sex is evil -- an irrational, animalistic outburst that must be restrained. Preying upon the weakness of the flesh, Satan uses sex as a weapon to grip the soul.  Like Satan, Adam and Eve disobeyed God.  They then became Satan’s tools, bringing evil into the world through Original Sin, a concept Augustine invented.  The genitals serve as the instruments for the transmission of original sin, weakening human nature and making us more susceptible to the devil. The flesh should be subjugated.  Augustine hated the body and its biological needs.

Even infants sin through bodily urges.  “Who is there to remind me of the sin of my infancy (for sin there was: no one is free from sin in your sight, not even an infant whose span of earthly life is one day); What then was my sin at that age?  Was it perhaps that I cried so greedily for those breasts? My behavior was deserving of rebuke” (The Confessions, Saint Augustine). To put it bluntly, Augustine comes off as a neurotic hypocritical prude who hates life, sexuality, other people, and even himself – pretty much everything except God. Humanity must defeat the corrupt physical world and embrace the light spiritual world by obeying God and His Earthly representatives -- the Church, its priests, and the State. Only then can we save ourselves from the serpent’s curse.

While a snake evoked sex as bestial and disgusting, it failed to encompass evil’s full dimensions as Augustine envisioned it. The pagan male deity Pan -- the so-called goat-god -- provided the physical and symbolic model for Satan: cloven hooves, beasts’ ears, glowering face, lascivious eyes, enlarged penis, and phallic horns.  The satyr of Dionysiac revels, Pan played hypnotic music and symbolized anarchic freedom, animalistic impulses, unrestrained lust, emotional seduction, and irrational chaos. These characteristics of Augustinian evil were transferred to the new devil of Christianity.

Obviously, this Augustinian notion of evil connects to the establishment’s moral judgment of the Stones.  The State through the police tried to enforce society’s morality through drugs busts and other harassment, even hauling almost invisible Rolling Stone Bill Wyman into court for profanity and insulting behavior, into court and calling him a “shaggy monster” (Rolling with the Stones, Bill Wyman). From the viewpoint of their youthful audience, this amounted to persecution.  Possibly reacting to such denigrating attacks, Jagger and the Stones in 1966 started to consciously re-make themselves into the “Lucifers of Rock,” as Newsweek labeled them.

Their single “Paint It, Black” signaled this shift and suggested an embrace of the dark side. A throbbing hypnotic song with an Arabic melody played by Brian Jones on sitar, Jagger sings, “I look inside myself and see my heart is black, it’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black.”  Fueling black magic rumors, Jagger appeared on the cover of a magazine published by a so-called satanic cult known as The Process Church of the Final Judgment, while his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull articulated her occult perspective in an issue dedicated to “Death.”  Flirting with this darker image, the Stones pictured themselves as wizards in the elaborate 3-D cover photo of their weak psychedelic 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request.  Calling the album a “first-rate oddity,” critic Jim Miller said in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, “The title alone was the single greatest image manipulation in the Stones’ whole history.”

Invocation of My Demon Brother

The Stones’ occult dabbling converged with the counter-culture’s fascination with Satanism, witchcraft and the occult, reflecting a rejection of mainstream religion and a turning towards forces opposed to the establishment.  In a dramatic demonstration of this interest, a 1967 Peace Rally drew almost 100,000 to Washington D.C. to “Levitate the Pentagon” (Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer).

Popular horror films, such as Italy’s Mask of Satan, America’s Masque of the Red Death andBritain’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness, centered on the devil or satanic practices.  The most famous of these was Rosemary's Baby (1967), filmed at the Dakota Apartments where John Lennon was later assassinated and directed by Roman Polanski whose pregnant wife would be killed several years later by the Manson Family.  In the film, Rosemary -- a lapsed Catholic  -- is raped by Satan and conceives the devil’s spawn.

Shaking off their psychedelic pandering, the Stones released, in 1968, a powerful new single “Jumping Jack Flash” with vicious lyrics that created a new mythology, reinventing Jagger as a monstrous abused mutant ripped out of a witch’s womb:  “I was born in a cross-fire hurricane, I was raised by a toothless bearded hag, I was drowned, I was washed up and left for dead.” Though Keith Richards said, in his memoir Life, his gardener Jack inspired the name, there’s little doubt that the title references Spring Heeled Jack a famous English folklore character who could jump across buildings and breath fire who sported diabolical traits like claw hands, bat wings, and flaming eyes.

Even before Jack Flash, the Stones had acquired a fervent fan and unsettling friend in occult filmmaker Kenneth Anger.  Best known for his apocalyptic biker movie Scorpio Rising, he gained notoriety when California police banned it for obscenity though it eventually got cleared in a court case.  An inspiration for Easy Rider, Scorpio Rising depicted the last gasp of the dying Age of Christianity -- a church is desecrated when gang leader Scorpio pisses on its altar and Christ is compared to Hitler as the leader of a mindless, death-wish mob. 

Bringing the dark arts directly into the lives of the Stones, Anger was a disciple of Britain’s most notorious black magician Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), the so-called “Great Beast 666.” For some reason Crowley fascinated British rock stars like David Bowie, Ozzie Osbourne, Iron Maiden and Jimmy Page, who even bought Crowley’s house. He was pictured on the cover of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album and his novel Moonchild inspired the song “Child of the Moon” on the flip side of “Jumping Jack Flash.”

More than a black magician, Aleister Crowley was a free love advocate, drug addict, and social critic.  He revolted against the moral and religious values of his time, espousing a form of anarchism based upon his law "Do What Thou Wilt.”  The popular press of the day vilified him as "the wickedest man in the world."  Inspired by the Romantic poets, he believed that Lucifer was the light-bearing god, not the dark devil of conventional Christianity. Anger incorporated this vision of Lucifer into his movies and promoted this idea to the Stones.

Anger viewed making a movie as casting a spell.  He claimed “Magick” -- using Crowley’s spelling -- as his lifework and the cinema as his magick weapon. To Anger, the Stones demonstrated supernatural power to invoke diabolical forces.  He saw Jagger as a latter-day Lucifer, who played devil’s advocate for the disenfranchised young, with Keith Richards as his attendant demon Beelzebub. Anger wanted to cast Jagger in his intended masterpiece Lucifer Rising.  Jagger, who had seriously branched into movies with Performance and Ned Kelly on the horizon, was impressed with Anger’s reputation as a sorcerer and an avant-garde master of film.


The role of Lucifer apparently captivated rock idol Jagger, not the least for its intriguing sense of purpose.  Maybe he started seeing himself as the incarnation of a metaphysical force that could destroy Christian repression with liberating abandon.  He agreed to help Anger execute Lucifer Rising, composing the film’s score -- an eleven-minute improvisation on his newly acquired Moog synthesizer.

Flowers of Evil

The Rolling Stones embraced their diabolic power to conjure primal forces of rebellion, pandemonium, and orgiastic anarchy. In a 1967 interview with The Daily Mail, Jagger said:

“When I’m on that stage I sense that teenagers are trying to communicate with me, like by telepathy. Not about me or our music, but about the world and the way they live. I interpret it as a demonstration against society and its sick attitudes. Teenagers are weary             of being pushed around by half-witted politicians who attempt to dominate their way of thinking and set a code for their living. This is a protest against the system.” (Sanchez, 62)

At almost every date on a European tour, savage violent clashes between audiences and authorities exploded, turning shows into a military exercise: attack dogs, tear gas, batons and blood. Everywhere they played, the Stones were searched, raided and intimidated. Their anti-establishment stance made them the focal point of revolutionary fervor. The Stones projected a nineteenth century Romantic vision of Lucifer as the rebellious angel, the sexual provocateur, the pagan satyr of Dionysiac celebrations. 

The story of the devil and the meaning of evil in the Romantic Era developed in literature more than in theology or philosophy. Artistic revolutionaries -- responding to the massive social and political upheavals caused by the French, American and Industrial revolutions -- attacked Christianity as part of the authoritarian order. Rejecting 1800 years of Western Christian tradition, Augustinian philosophy, and its absolutist vision of evil, the Romantic Poets the counter culture rock stars of their era -- saw Satan as symbolizing resistance to the tyranny of the Old Regime: if the greatest enemy of traditional Christianity was Satan, then Satan must be a heroic rebel against unjust authority.  Emulating Lucifer, the Romantic Artist stands alone against the world and strives to liberate humanity from a society that blocks progress toward freedom, passion, and creativity. 

The most original artist of the period, visionary British poet and painter William Blake  (1757-1827) was fascinated by the idea that the Devil was a positive force. In his richly illustrated poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), Satan symbolized creativity, emotion and energy -- liberation from reason and orthodoxy, the twin engines of oppression. Rebelling against God’s repressive authority, Satan acted on impulse and represented the human desire for freedom.  Provocatively, Blake wrote, “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires,” an even more outrageous sentiment than the Stones dark vision of lust and murder in “Midnight Rambler.”

Implicitly criticizing St. Augustine’s notion of Original Sin as a kind of physical infection, Blake believed that religion devalues the body, distorting our view of human nature.  He further believed that organized religion snuffs out emotional life by promoting the primacy of reason. To Blake, these repressive chains can only be broken by frenzied energy: Evil is a progressive force, the energy needed to break boundaries, unify ourselves, and truly transcend evil. In his “Proverbs of Hell” Blake said in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

In France, Charles Baudelaire  (1821-1867) -- the Mick Jagger of Romantic Poets -- combined a strident anti-clericism with an emerging gothic sensibility, finding in Satan a symbol of everything from human freedom to a representative of a dark, frightening, and seductive beauty.  He portrays the Devil as a subversive spirit who embodies political revolution and opposes passive support of fear-mongering systems of power and oppression.  Like Blake, he points out the debilitating influences of dogmatic Christianity and Augustinian thinking linking them to tyrannical political systems, analytical philosophy, and empirical science -- all of which sever the body from soul, sex from love, desire from reason and prevent us from transcendently merging divergent aspects of our nature. For Baudelaire, the true god is authenticity.

In a quest for spontaneity and immediacy, Baudelaire wanted to discover his authentic self though an expression of unmediated urges and passions, free of religious repression and social conformity.  This straining for the authentic led to an obsession with dreams, drugs, and hallucinations that brought Baudelaire to the apotheosis of the strange and bizarre, the brutal and grotesque, the demented and the demonic.  Baudelaire used Satanism for aesthetic effect and shock value, seen most clearly in his “Litanies to Satan,” part of his 1856 work Flowers of Evil:  “Prince of Exiles, to whom God has done wrong; Healer of evils, that leave God in wonder; Glory and Praise to Thee, Satan.”

Like Jagger, Baudelaire was a controversial figure in his time, suspected of being a devil worshipper and a drug addict, only the latter of which was true.  Like the Stones, Baudelaire's name became synonymous with decadence. His work’s suffusion of sex, death, and depression was considered scandalous. A French court condemned Flowers of Evil and banned several individual poems, one of which “Damned Women” evoked lesbian love.  In response, he mocked the court and expressed his pride in creating a book that inspired fear.

Humans are devils, according to Baudelaire; Satan serves as an imaginary scapegoat.  Like Blake, he believed that passivity, boredom, and malaise easily infected us and compelled our complicity in the horrors of the world: “In our miserable brains, swirl the Demons of the Deep; He is Ennui! -- more malevolent than his Mother, You know him this delicate monster, Hypocritical Reader - my Brother!” (Baudelaire, 3).

Self-critical to a fault, Baudelaire ferociously determined to strip himself of phony pretensions and encourage others to face the real evil.  Like the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil,” Flowers of Evil was mistaken as satanic, but Baudelaire’s true purpose was challenging people to recognize that we, not Satan, have created hell on earth.  By externalizing evil to a mythological creature, we fail to confront and defeat it within ourselves.

The Devil is My Name

Referring to the origins of “Sympathy for the Devil,” Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995, "I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire's, I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it.”  The lyrics, spoken in the voice of the devil, also correspond to parts of Mikhail Bulgakov's 1966 satirical surrealist novel The Master and Margarita given to Jagger by Marianne Faithfull. Kenneth Anger said the song arose from conversations he had with Jagger about Lucifer Rising.  Influences aside, “Sympathy for the Devil” -- whose working title was “The Devil is My Name” -- cast Jagger as the Prince of Darkness. Channeling “Hell Hound on My Trail” through Blake and Baudelaire, Jagger recounts the evils wrought by humanity under the influence of a satanic trickster who in the end is just a reflection of ourselves.

The song’s recording, documented by radical French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, took several nights of fumbling and grasping, turning from a country dirge to become a voodoo samba.  Over percussive bongos, conga drums, and death-rattle maracas, Jagger yelps, screeches, grunts, and moans as if he’s emerging from hell.  The song builds into a wild celebration of humanity’s hatred, hypocrisy, and violence -- Christ’s crucifixion, European religious wars, the Russian Revolution, the Blitzkrieg, the Holocaust and the Kennedy assassinations.  Robert Kennedy was killed on June 5, 1968, while Stones were recording, compelling Jagger to pluralize the lyric to “Who Killed the Kennedys?” to account for the latest excruciating horror.  

Like the poetry of Blake and Baudelaire, the song paints a picture of a world gone mad: Cops are criminals; saints are sinners; God is the devil.  Among the Stones most brilliant songs, “Sympathy for the Devil” mocks the human race for its destructive wars and violence, putting humanity on trial by the devil rather than the other way around. Satan ridicules human beings for their intense hypocrisy, their willingness to cloak their warlike and greedy nature under the veneer of religion. As in Baudelaire, human beings are the true devils.

Demonic Deities

By the end of 1968, the nightmares of Lucifer flourished throughout a year of catastrophes including the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, riots that set city blocks ablaze, and the Soviet invasion of Prague.  With half a million troops in Vietnam, the war penetrated and infected everything.  Europe was in turmoil. The young took to the barricades in Paris and around the world from Warsaw to Washington and confronted repressive, reactionary governments.

The Rolling Stones attracted further controversy when the first single from Beggar’s Banquet was “Street Fighting Man.”  Released just days after Mayor Daley’s Chicago police had attacked and beaten war protestors at the Democratic convention, the song was denounced as an incitement to violence and banned by many radio stations. 

The Stones reveled in the “sound of marching, charging feet” and the images of “fighting in the street.”  Despite showing ambivalence when he sang about “compromise solution,” Jagger aligned himself with the forces of revolt: “Said my name is called disturbance. I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants.”  The band seemed reflective of the desire for militancy, rage and chaos.

After the death of founding member Brian Jones, the Stones performed at Hyde Park in the center of London.  Five hundred thousand people showed up -- a gigantic death fest that Kenneth Anger filmed for inclusion in his Lucifer movie.   Jagger came on stage alone, looking like a nineteenth century poet with his long hair and billowing white frock. He also wore a confusing gold studded leather collar and black lipstick. From a large, Bible-like book, he read the elegy Adonis from the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Peace, peace! He is not dead, he doth not sleep -- He hath awakened from the dream of life.” The stage crew released several hundred little white butterflies that flew off a few feet, then promptly dropped to earth, dead.   

Anger’s Lucifer film bogged down.  His vision required shooting in front of Egyptian pyramids, but Jagger’s touring and recording schedule interfered.  So, Anger used footage already collected and Jagger’s whining electronic soundtrack to finish a short film Invocation of My Demon Brother.  With flashing superimposed images including Jagger in performance in Hyde Park, soldiers in Vietnam, Anger as Magus performing an occult ritual, the Devil, flowing lava, fire, alchemical symbols, it all blurs together in a menacing ominous portent shadowing forth the resurrection of Lucifer. As the movie played the underground film circuit, news emerged of the American massacre of women and children at My Lai Vietnam, and the Rolling Stones tore through America as the decade rushed to a horrible conclusion.  With the Beatles about to break up and Bob Dylan hiding out after his motorcycle accident, the Rolling Stones stood alone atop the Holy Trinity of Rock -- the Demonic Deities of Woodstock Nation.

Lucifer’s Dream Ends

During the week that Charles Manson was arrested for a series of brutal murders, the Stones announced a free concert near San Francisco that was forced to keep shifting locations, ending up at the Altamont Speedway at the last minute.   As documented in the Maysles brothers’ film Gimme Shelter, Jagger expected the event to top Woodstock. He confidently asserted, It’s creating a microcosm of society which is meant to set an example for the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings.”

By the time they came onstage, darkness had descended.  Their fans had been kept waiting for almost three hours since the previous band’s performance.  Armed with pool cues and beer, Hell’s Angels -- the biker security guards -- were everywhere. Jefferson Airplane’s guitarist had been punched earlier as trouble intermittently broke out.  People near the stage looked crazed.  Since their early days, the Stones played through threats of violence, verbal brawls, fights, and riots, but this was different. They started “Sympathy for the Devil,” then stopped as a skirmish became a small brawl. “Something funny always happens when we play that number,” said Jagger.

“Everybody just cool out,” he pleaded. “Just cool out.”   They started another song.  Bikers crowded the stage. Dogs crossed in front of the microphones.  A young black man, dressed in a bright green suit, flashed out of the crowd holding a gun. Hell’s Angels grabbed the green-suited man as an empty space suddenly opened up in front of the stage. Bewildered and alone, Jagger looked like a sad shivering skinny boy in a silly cape, helpless to control the frenzied, drunken, bloodlust of these biker Neanderthals.  The young black man, Meredith Hunter, had been stabbed in the neck and beaten to death with pool cues. The Stones finished the performance without knowing exactly what happened.

Their song “Gimme Shelter”-- released earlier in the year -- encapsulated the end of the decade: Hope crushed by depression, doom, and devastation. After an eerie opening, it builds into a cataclysm with apocalyptic images of war, flood, and fire.   Uplifting and powerful, but not confrontational, the song pleads for escape from the decade’s madness -- police riots, assassinations, and Nixon.  The counter-culture’s revolutionary dream was over as John Lennon sang a year later. Altamont came to symbolize all this. 

Afterwards, the satanic panic charges against the Stones resumed in the media: “Jagger sought to covet the Devil’s power and got used as a pawn to do His work” encapsulates a standard narrative.  Rock critic Lester Bangs, in Rolling Stone, blamed more down-to-earth sins: diabolic egotism, hype, ineptitude, greed, and a lack of concern for humanity.  “A man died before their eyes. Do they give a shit? Yes or No?” demanded Bangs. Responding in a radio interview with San Francisco’s KSAN, Jagger stressed his helplessness in the face of monumental forces that overwhelmed him and promised that future performances would be tightly controlled. “It taught me never to do anything I wasn’t on top of.” According to groupie girlfriend Pamela Des Barres, Jagger cried and talked of retirement the night after the debacle.

The Stones’ demonic mystique crashed in the murderous face of the truly demonic Angels from Hell.  Jagger backed out of any participation in Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer film and they stopped performing “Sympathy for the Devil” for several years.  Except for a startlingly unconvincing effort to reprise the devil in a song called “Dancing with Mr. D,” Jagger and the Stones ended their own public flirtation with diabolical forces. The counter-culture they symbolized aged and faded as an aggressive opposition force when the Vietnam War finally ended. A reactionary conservative backlash against the hippies, the protesters, and the counter culture soon swept Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan into power.  Their youthful audience aged and changed.  The Rolling Stones themselves changed becoming mainstream.  Aside from being upset and saddened, the impact of Altamont on that change remains unclear.

Calling it “Dante’s Hell” in his recent autobiography, Keith Richards blames Altamont on others: the “boneheaded San Francisco Council” for forcing the move to the Speedway, the “rampant anarchy” of the Hell’s Angels, and failures of the police (Richards, 279-282).  He takes no responsibility and reports no life-changing influence on himself or the band.  Surprisingly, he even ignores his and Stones dabbling in the demonic.

Whether the result of sheer survival reflex, crass commercial calculation, or their own aging or a combination, the Stones gradually moved away from drugs, demons, and decadence. Unlike Baudelaire who died of syphilis at 46, they survived and thrived. Turning from youthful Rock Satans to Elder Statesmen of Rock, they had a disco hit with “Miss You,” albeit one of the best disco songs ever.  Jagger got married and, in the 1980s, projected the image of a conventional pop star, doing hit duets with David Bowie and Michael Jackson and briefly pursuing an unsuccessful solo career.  The Stones even played the Super Bowl.  There’s no more Lucifer.  There’s no more Prince of Darkness.  In the ultimate irony, the Queen made Mick Jagger a Knight.






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