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

We sat in our seats high above the stage as the huge video screens turned a hellish red and the din of piano and percussion merged with that familiar hypnotic cry: “Woo-woo! Woo-woo!”

Everyone in the stadium knew that Satan was about to introduce himself, as was done for the umpteenth time by an 80-year-old Mick Jagger, somehow still gyrating in a sparkly three-quarter length coat more than five decades after the Rolling Stones recorded their classic “Sympathy for the Devil.”

“Let me introduce myself/ I am a man of wealth and taste,” Jagger began before reciting the song’s catalogue of Great Moments in Evil, 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 comes in the third verse, just as fans of “The Godfather” know what Sonny is about to get when he drives up to the tollbooth. Except that Jagger that night last month in Philadelphia was flying off the lines that first astonished me as a teenager years ago, the daring question “I yelled, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’” (I thought we knew) and the mocking reply, “When it finally happened you and me.”

“Did I miss the Kennedy line?” I asked my wife, who surprised that the octogenarian frontman now skipped the length of the expansive stage. When Jagger sang the Kennedy line, she missed that one too.

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

Jagger wrote the song in 1968, a year in which America was in a complete meltdown as the Vietnam War sparked mass anti-war demonstrations and assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Jagger, inspired by the writings of Charles Baudelaire, has said that he intended “Sympathy” to be “a Bob Dylan song.” Keith Richards suggested a samba beat, which gave the melody a feverish vibe that captured the mood of the moment.

When the Stones entered the recording studio in early June 1968, a moment captured by Jean-Luc Godard in his film “Sympathy for the Devil,” Jagger’s lyric was, “I yelled, ‘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 revised the lyric to the plural: “I yelled, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’”

“Those were the lines that really struck home,” said esteemed music critic Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who taught a course this spring at the University of Pennsylvania called “Let It Rock: The Rolling Stones, Writing and Creativity.” “To me, it was an indication of how the spirit of the times was flowing through the Stones and how connected they were to what was happening at the time.”

DeCurtis attended the Stones’ shows at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey in May and didn’t know what to think when he noticed Jagger’s omission. “It’s my favorite verse. I thought, ‘What the hell happened to the Kennedy verse?'”

The mystery deepened for me when videos on social media showed that Jagger had failed to mention 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 a terrific New York Times reporter, is also the most dedicated Stones fan I know. By his own count, Serge has played some 80 shows in 13 countries since 1975, including a half-dozen this year.

Serge hadn’t noticed Kennedy’s missing lyrics and suspected that a sensitivity to contemporary political mores had prompted the Stones to make a change. After all, the band had stopped playing “Brown Sugar,” with its imagery of the slave trade and sex, in recent years and had dropped a line from “Some Girls,” about the sexual desires of black women, that had angered the Reverend Jesse Jackson when it came out. (That said, Richards still sings “Little T & A,” suggesting that the Stones don’t exactly spend much time studying contemporary etiquette guides.)

Upon closer inspection, it turns out that none of this is new. In fact, the Stones have managed to perform an edited version of “Sympathy” for years without any significant commentary. One place the revision was noticed was on the website It’s Only Rock’n Roll, a gathering place for Stones obsessives, where commentators were trading theories about the missing lyrics as early as 2015.

“It is fairly widely accepted as truth that Jagger ‘changed his art’ at the request of … the Kennedys (John Jr.). I applaud his decision to honor the request,” wrote someone identifying himself 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 friend as saying that the president’s son “loved to shock his friends” by belting out the lyrics to “The Kennedys” during his own impromptu renditions of “Sympathy.”

Robert Christgau, the former music editor of the Village Voice who is known among writers 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, implied that “this is a world where people get murdered and we’re all, to one degree or another, involved 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 ’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 that they encouraged it, but that 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 almost 60 years later. Who gives a s—? ‘Who Killed the Kennedys?’ no longer has meaning for the younger audience, or even for the Stones’ contemporaries, because we’ve been living with it for 50-plus years. It’s their song, and they can do whatever they want with it.”

Christgau suggested that the mystery surrounding the missing text be solved by asking the Stones themselves.

An email to the Stones’ public relations department led to a phone call with a spokeswoman who introduced herself by saying, “I work with Mick.” She then decided that everything she said from that point on was off the record, making any explanation she did or didn’t give useless. She indicated she would follow something that was printable.

While I waited, I dug deeper into the archives and discovered that the Stones had, as far back as 2006, omitted the verse of “Kennedys” during 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 if he had left out the line out of respect for RFK Jr., Jagger gave a response as deft as his stage moves.

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

His explanation might seem plausible, except that the entire verse lasts about 30 seconds in a song that’s over six minutes long. Not exactly an eternity during a two-hour show.

Fortunately, for those who prefer complete versions of “Sympathy for the Devil,” there are more than a few live performances in the Stones’ catalog. Of course, the treasure trove also includes plenty of great (and uncensored) versions of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

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