Nick Cave fans will find this extract from Big Stick's story very familiar. When Cave and his band, The Bad Seeds, were recording their 1996 Murder Ballads album, Bad Seeds percussionist Jim Sclavunos brought a copy of Wepman's book into the studio. Cave discovered Big Stick's toast there, and had the band improvise a backing on the spot. Their brooding bassline, scratchy guitar and sudden, stabbling piano chords provide a perfect backdrop for Cave's supremely menacing vocals. He relishes every drop of cruelty the song provides, growling Big Stick's brutal words almost verbatim and drawing every ounce of value from their rhythmic punch. For the 5 mins 15 secs the song lasts, Cave seems both omnipotent and possessed. “I'M Stagger Lee!” he roars at one point. Who could doubt it?
“Stagger Lee appeals to me simply because so many people have recorded it,” Cave told Mojo magazine in 1996. “The reason we did it, apart from finding a pretty good version in this book, was that there is already a tradition. We're kind of adding to that” (24).
The song's since become a highlight of the Bad Seeds' live set. Often, it's used to close the show, as seen in the DVD of the band's November 11, 2004, gig at London's Brixton Academy. As the song begins, violinist Warren Ellis is crouched at the back of the stage, facing away from the audience, his head bowed and his hands clasped round the instrument's neck. The music begins to build, and Ellis starts rocking back and forth in time with its slow burn. Head bowed, fists clenched, eyes tightly shut, he looks like a man praying to appease a dark and angry god - praying, perhaps, to Stagger Lee himself to forgive the band's temerity in daring to invoke his name.
From Little Harvey Hull through Lloyd Price to The Clash and Nick Cave, every serious incarnation of Stagger Lee can be seen as a strong black man doing whatever it takes to make his way in an unjust white man's world. Rich or poor, aggressor or otherwise, he's always Fiore's “alpha dog” and always ready to extract a terrible revenge on anyone who fails to treat him that way. Itís no co-incidence that James Brown released his own version of Stagger Lee within a year of his anthemic Say It Loud: Iím Black And Iím Proud. Stag may not be the healthiest of role models, but he's always been a potent symbol of black pride.
He's also the grandfather of every drug dealer and pimp populating today's gangsta rap tunes. Eithne Quinn makes this point in her 2004 book Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang, where she calls Stag “(one of) the most influential badman forebears of gangsta rap”. She goes on to draw a direct comparison between his ballad's story and NWA's notorious 1988 track Fuck tha Police, which closes with a scene putting the white police themselves on trial for brutality. “The rebellious intent - pushing at the boundaries of what was permissable in its historical moment - matches that of 'Stackolee',” Quinn says. “Considerable pleasures were afforded by this Day-Glo repetition of the traditional tale: Stackolee meets the LAPD, as it were” (25).
Thousands of young people in poor black neighbourhoods all over America are still trapped in Stagger Lee's violent world. Maybe that's why Bobby Seale, the Black Panther leader, decided to name his son after Stag.
Speaking in a 1970 jailhouse interview, Seale said: “I named my son Malik Nkrumah Staggerlee Seale. Beautiful name, right? He's named after his brother on the block, like all his brothers and sisters off the block: Staggerlee. Staggerlee is Malcolm X before he became politically conscious. Livin' in the hoodlum world. You'll find out. Huey (Newton) had a lot of Staggerlee qualities. I guess I lived a little bit of Staggerlee's life too, here and there. [...] And at one time, brother Eldridge (Cleaver) was on the block. He was Staggerlee. And so I named that brother, my little boy, Staggerlee, because - that's what his name is” (26).
Draw a line from Stagger Lee through Seale's Panther buddies, and you come to gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur. The NME made this connection explicit when it reported on Shakur's latest problems in December 1994. In October 1993, Shakur had come across two off-duty Georgia cops who he believed were harassing a black man by the side of the road. He got into a fight with them and ended up shooting them both, one in the leg, the other in the buttocks. Charges against him were dropped when it emerged that the cops had been drunk at the time, and using weapons stolen from an evidence locker.
Two months later, Shakur was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in his hotel room and put on trial. In November the following year, while he was still waiting for a verdict, someone shot him five times outside a New York recording studio and stole the $40,000 worth of jewellery he was wearing.
That's where the NME picked up the story. “Why should Shakur sabotage his lucrative career for, as he calls it, a thug life?” the paper asked. “Fans of Tupac accuse the white community of missing the point. They say Shakur is a black hero in the tradition of blues archetype Stagger Lee, who created a system for himself based on his own perceptions. Writer Dream Hampton described Tupac's shooting of the two policemen as having 'mythic potential [...] black knight slays cracker dragons who emerge in the night, fangs bared. [...] It's the kind of community work we all dream of doing'.” (27)