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The book that inspired The Rolling Stones song ‘Sympathy for The Devil’

There are thousands upon thousands of songs in existence that in some way are inspired by literature. Some of these in a very nebulous way, others in a much more direct sense. Music and the written word of fiction are, after all, both heavily entwined. 

As the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch once told MovieMaker Magazine: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul,” his famous quote continues, “If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it.”

It is a notion that French New Wave hero Jean-Luc Godard also celebrated when he said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” And Pablo Picasso joined the act when he once commented: “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” a line which was actually also, ironically, stolen from T.S. Eliot. In short, what we’re saying is that the below list is not a condemnation, but a celebration of how artists have taken something and made it their own (with one possible exception). 

The trick is to steal from the best places possible, which is what The Rolling Stones did for ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita is undoubtedly one of the greatest books ever written. On the sleeve notes of my 50th-anniversary edition is a very apt summation by Daniel Radcliffe: “It’s just the greatest explosion of imagination, craziness, satire, humour and heart.” 

Alongside that befitting appraisal is the following blurb: “Nothing in the whole of literature compares with The Master and Margarita. One spring afternoon, the Devil, trailing fire and chaos in his wake, weaves himself out of the shadows and into Moscow. Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantastical, funny, and devastating satire of Soviet life combines two distinct yet interwoven parts, one set in contemporary Moscow, the other in ancient Jerusalem, each brimming with historical, imaginary, frightful, and wonderful characters.” 

Adding: “Written during the darkest days of Stalin’s reign, and finally published in 1966 and 1967, The Master and Margarita became a literary phenomenon, signalling artistic and spiritual freedom for Russians everywhere.”

The plot was transposed into song by Jagger, who depicts various chapters of Satan’s visit to the Soviet Union in the lines: “I stuck around St. Petersburg/When I saw it was a time for a change/ Killed the czar and his ministers/Anastasia screamed in vain.”

However, Bulgakov, and his kaleidoscopic symbol of dissidence, wasn’t the only writer on Jagger’s mind at the time of writing. As he revealed in an interview, a certain French street poet championed by the likes of John Cooper Clarke and Patti Smith was also in the mix. “I think that was taken from an old idea of [Charles] Baudelaire’s, I think,” Jagger told Rolling Stone, “But I could be wrong.”

The singer later added, “Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can’t see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song.”

Ironically, it might be about a Faustian devil, but it’s the sort of vibrant and joyous song that prompted the humanist author Kurt Vonnegut to proclaim, “If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music’.”

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