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Paperwork for the Devil

Faust making a pact with the devil, lithograph, 1885
William Gladstone as Faust making a pact with the devil, lithograph, 1885

From Faust to Robert Johnson, fictional and historical figures alike have been mythologized for making pacts with the devil. Beelzebub. Lucifer. Old Scratch. Satan. The Devil is a decidedly Christian being that, while having demonic precursors outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is pretty much a product of the Old and New Testaments. Sure, the Babylonians had many malevolent demons. The Egyptians had their dark gods. Zoroastrianism even had a nasty spirit named Angra Mainyu. But it’s in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, that Satan really takes shape — first as heaven’s prosecutor of sorts. Later, in the Synoptic Gospels,  Satan comes into his own as both the great red dragon of Revelation, and the evil being that tempts Christ in the desert. And it’s his role as tempter of Christ that leads to a depiction of the Devil as one who can fulfill desires — for a price. Much like a genie (or djinn), the Devil can deliver on all things worldly.

Even make contractual agreements.

Theophilus of Adana, a 6th century cleric, may be the first documented story of a someone who makes a pact of this type. The archdeacon of Adana, part of modern day Turkey, Theophilus is said to have, out of humility, turned down a promotion to bishop. But when the bishop elected in his stead deprives Theophilus of his position as archdeacon, the poor priest comes to regret his decision, and seeks out a magician to help him contact Satan. In exchange for his help, Satan demands that Theophilus renounce Christ and the Virgin Mary in a contract sealed with the cleric’s own blood. Theophilus agrees, and is made bishop.

Fearing, however, that he has put his immortal soul in jeopardy, Theophilus repents, fasts, and implores the Virgin Mary to intercede on his behalf with God. Satan eventually relents, and Theophilus wakes to find the contract on his chest. He shows the contract to the legitimate bishop, who then forgives poor bastard and burns the document. Out of sheer relief, Theophilus dies and, presumably, goes to heaven. Oh, and he’s made a saint — which gives hope to everyone who’s considering selling their soul.

The tale is attributed to an eighth century scribe, Paulus Diaconus of Naples. From a modern Latin translation comes the details of the pact itself: “Let him deny the son of Mary and those things which are offensive to me,” says the Devil, “and let him set down in writing that he denieth absolutely, and whatsoever he may desire he shall obtain from me, so long as he denieth.” And so it would seem that we have the first instance of such a pact, and the importance of the written contract.

That element of such a pact — as a written contract — is repeated again and again in the centuries to come. It would eventually finds its way into literature — most notably, first in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (https://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/files/779/779-h/779-h NULL.htm) (1592). And from the 16th to the 18th century, countless witches would be tried and executed over the accusation of such agreements.

Urbain Grandier's Pact with the Devil
Urbain Grandier’s Pact with the Devil from Dictionnaire infernal ou bibliothèque universelle, 1826

The case of the 17th century French Catholic priest Urbain Grandier is perhaps the most infamous of these trials (and the inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s Devils of Loudun); what unique about Granier, however, is that an actual printed document was presented at his trial in 1634. Said to be penned by all manner of demons and the Devil himself, it is a mishmash of reversed Latin and many occult symbols. In it, Grandier is promised “the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of monarchs, honors, lusts and powers.” He’s only given 20 years before his soul is forfeit, but it would seem the Devil got his due much earlier as Grandier was tortured and subsequently burned at the stake. With phrases like “He will go whoring three days long; the carousal will be dear to him,” the contract is quite detailed in its promises.

But a simpler tale of a deal with the Devil may be actually be found in a fairy tale commonly referred to as “The Smith and the Devil.” In it, a blacksmith trades his soul for supernatural powers, and then uses this power to trap the demon with whom he made the deal. So straightforward a story, it was collected by the Brothers Grimm in their two volume (1812 and 1815) Children’s and Household Tales (though it was removed from most later editions).

Like most folktales, the origins of the story are murky. It was readily believed to be European in origin or possibly Russian. That is, until very recently when folklorist Sara Graça da Silva and anthropologist Jamie Tehrani argued that “The Smith and the Devil” may in fact be one of the oldest known folk tales on the planet, and was told from India to Scandanavia. In their 2016 study “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales (http://rsos NULL.royalsocietypublishing NULL.org/content/3/1/150645#F4),” the authors present evidence that the basic plot of the tale is found across the Indo-European speaking world dating back over 6,000 years, to the Bronze Age.

But a signed contract? With the story of Theophilus not being readily told until the 11th to 13th centuries, it seems that the Devil requiring a physical contract is a relatively recent development, historically speaking.

All in all, I suppose it’s better to get it in writing.

 

 

 

Gonna Die Young: Stiv Bators & the Dead Boys

Among the many American bands that played CBGB in the late seventies and have gone on to take their place in history as pioneers of punk rock, the Dead Boys are often overlooked. With only two albums to their name (one of which the band themselves disliked because of its producer), they were eclipsed not only by CBGB regulars like the Ramones and Television, but by punks across the pond: the Sex Pistols and the Damned, especially, with whom the Dead Boys shared a sound that was more angry and arrogant than most of their contemporaries.

When and where the punk movement began is a matter of great debate among music historians. Critics have applied the term “protopunk” to everything from sixties garage bands and seventies Glam to Detroit’s MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges. But most cite the formation of the Ramones in January 1974 — with their first gig, at Performance Studios, on March 30 — as a good a place to start as any. Television took to the stage at CBGB the very next day. And Blondie (billed as Angel and the Snake) would do the same in August — quickly followed by the Ramones themselves. All would become CBGB regulars. But CBGB in the mid 70s was not packed with fans, clamoring for these bands. Most artists were paid in beer, and crowds often numbered little more than the members of the bands themselves, their friends, and roadies. Punk had started, but very few outside of New York and London knew.

Except in Cleveland. Rocket From the Tombs (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Rocket_from_the_Tombs) — formed in 1974  — shared the same DIY ethic with bands from the east, and would oddly enough put Cleveland on the map of punk hotspots. Despite never going into the studio and leaving behind only a handful of poorly recorded live songs, RFTT had talent. And out of their ashes came Pere Ubu (in 1975) — and the Dead Boys (in 1976).

The original Dead Boys line-up included two RFTT alums —  Cheetah Chrome on guitar, and Johnny Blitz, on drums. They would even play a few RFTT songs, including Dead Boys‘ classics “Sonic Reducer” and “Ain’t It Fun.” But finding gigs few and far between in Cleveland, they picked up and moved to New York in July 1976 (with the encouragement of Joey Ramone, coincidentally, who got them their first CBGB gig).

It was at a CBGB gig that the the Dead Boys opened for the Damned — three nights a week. By the time 1977 rolled around, the band had a record deal with Sire.

Dead Boys' Young, Loud and Snotty
Dead Boys’ Young, Loud and Snotty

Released in October 1977 (the same month as the Pistols’ seminal Never Mind the Bollocks), Young Loud and Snotty — arguably a better album — was met with minimal commercial success. That same Fall came support of the Damned on a UK tour, and though “Sonic Reducer” would get crowds cheering (and, in true punk fashion, jeering), few if any Dead Boys‘ work made it to the radio, or the newspapers, for that matter. They always seemed to be in the shadow of The Damned and The Sex Pistols overseas, or the Ramones at home. Despite Cheetah’s Chrome’s blistering guitar work and Bators’ anarchic, nihilistic, almost punchdrunk energy, it would take years before the Dead Boys began to get the credit they deserved. Pearl Jam and Guns and Roses would cover their work in the decades that followed (“Sonic Reducer” and “Ain’t it Fun” respectively). Fans like Henry Rollins would keep their memory alive in interviews and cover versions, too (in an age before YouTube where everyone can live on and on). But there wasn’t enough of a following to keep the band afloat. A breakup was inevitable. Disappointment with the mix of their second album, We Have Come for Your Children, and a grueling U.S. tour that left them, for the most, broke, spelled the end for the band in 1978. A contractually-obligated live album was released, and there were a couple of attempts at reunion. But by 1979, the Dead Boys were essentially, um, dead.

Stiv Bators
Stiv Bators

Stiv Bators would go on to record some solo work and play with other bands. He eventually found some critical and commercial success with ex Damned guitarist Brian James in the punk / new wave / hard rock hybrid that was Lords of the New Church (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/The_Lords_of_the_New_Church).

It was with LOTNC that Bators would continue his on-stage antics, including hanging himself by a microphone cord, tied to a lighting rig. In 1983, the trick went bad and Bators turned blue. He was taken to the hospital and told he had been clinically dead for a few minutes. But Bators shrugged it off and joked: “Once you’ve actually died on stage…, I mean, how do you top that?”

Stiv lived his last years in France. In June 1990, just standing on a sidewalk in Paris, Stiv was hit by a car. He walked away from the accident — checking into, and then later released from a hospital —but he died later in his sleep at home. He was 40 years old.

Brought together by guitarist Cheetah Chrome, the Dead Boys would reunite in 2017 with a guy from a Dead Boys‘ tribute band on vocals. But like the man says, you can’t go home again. CBGB is gone. Punk rock has been absorbed into the mainstream, and John Lydon makes butter commercials (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=7mSE-Iy_tFY).