A Longing Look
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A Longing Look

He wore rat-drawn shoes and an old stetson hat

A love letter to the lyrics of Stagger Lee by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

Stagger Lee is a blues, but a blues that’s drenched in red. A lurid, gleeful red.

The red of hellfire. Of hearts and diamonds, or a whore’s lipstick. The red of “a place called The Bucket Of Blood,” where that “bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee” does and talks of unspeakable things.

This is the Stagger Lee myth, shorn of its romance, or any moral lesson. There are many versions of the song, many styles and subplots to the story. This one sets out to shock. You’d expect nothing less from Nick Cave, and the song fits him like a menacing, unhinged glove. But this isn’t actually written by him. At least not totally. Many words, if not all, are lifted from a “toast”, a style of gangster poetry that black American prisoners invented to tell their version of the real-life events that inspired the early Stagger Lee songs. Inmates performed these toasts as a show of charisma and power to their guards and fellow inmates. They were rhythmic chants of rhyming couplets, performed with force, sexually explicit and full of swearing — a shock-and-awe thug slam designed to intimidate, as well as entertain.

[For a full breakdown of the Stagger Lee tradition this article is brilliant.]

In the 60s, one such performance by a New York inmate called Big Stick was recorded in a book called A copy of that book found its way into Cave’s hands as the Bad Seeds were recording and the band built this visceral, prowling beast of a record around it.

The world inhabited by this Stagger Lee is violent to the core. Brutal, venal, empty — straight out of Peckinpah or McCarthy. Revisionist, but also a reclamation, an attempt on behalf of Stag’s spiritual descendants to tell his story their way, since the recorded versions had diluted the story, sanitised it for public consumption. And so, like a musical Deadwood, the retelling revels in what is ugly and depraved. It repels and delights in doing so. Yet it manages a detached view of events too. And all the while it lets the scene unfold in what Steinbeck, in The Grapes Of Wrath, calls “the smart listless language of the roadsides.”

Check the way Stag’s backstory is told:

He is destitute, in debt and no doubt desperate. Certainly unreliable, as his wife and ‘rat-drawn shoes’ would each attest.

Left to wander, he arrives at The Bucket Of Blood, looking for trouble. His opening exchange with the barkeeper doesn’t bode well.

That ‘Stagger Lee’ occurs at the end of each couplet, pretty much. It underlines the story as an ode to self-aggrandisement. But it also stakes out the toast’s rhythm. As the song goes on, the couplets get wilder, longer, crammed with yet more syllables, but we always return, after a few beats, to that name. You can imagine it holding the speaker’s flow in place, a full stop to the lurid tableau just described.

To see how the rhythm accommodates ever more deranged lines, compare the relative calm of the opening couplet (at the top of this post) with this one, when the prostitute Nellie Brown sees that Stag has shot the barkeeper.

And then, when Nellie has offered herself to Stag on the proviso that he clears off before her boyfriend comes back:

The syllable count is well up. So too the lurid language. And the bravado is off the chart. You can see why these prison toasts, with their intense bursts of power and violent acts of self-determination, are seen as proto-raps. And the way Cave recites it, you can feel the meter and flow as it might have sounded inside the prison walls.

At the end of the song, there’s one more show of power. Stagger Lee shoots Billy — the main event of any retelling of this story. In this case, though, Billy is humiliated, forced to be sexually subservient as Stag “filled him full of lead.” It’s a truly horrible double entendre.

We’ve been doing A Longing Look for about a year now, and I thought I’d write about Nick Cave far earlier than this. Odd, too, that when I did, I chose a song he didn’t actually write. Still, the choice seems fitting. Stagger Lee is everything Cave excels at – narrative, performance, myth making. His live shows are their own intense bursts of power. On stage he seems diabolical, a bogey man, a hellfire preacher. A scarecrow Elvis who’ll have you speaking in tongues.

And he still does Stagger Lee, too, twenty years on. The Bad Seeds make it feel as dangerous and awe-inspiring and electrifying as I bet Big Stick’s toasts were. A man seemingly deranged but in total control of his power and what to do with it. And with a bonus verse at the end, when Stagger Lee kills the devil himself.

There was one performance, at Glastonbury a few years ago, that still gives me goosebumps. It’s a performance to match the intensity of the lyrics — and you can watch it below. With perfect timing, in time for the bonus verse, a woman in the audience, dressed all in white, rises up from the crowd that Cave has been balancing on throughout the song. It’s like the singer has found what he spent the last nine minutes looking for. A willing victim, happy to fall prey to his power and charisma. He sings to her directly, they touch, then hold hands.

It’s a tense, loaded moment. You fear what might happen next. Perhaps in future retellings the story of Cave and the girl in the willing white dress will grow and distort, finding their own truth in the process, like myths do. Perhaps they marry. Perhaps they don’t. Very likely is that the willing white dress, its wearer drawn in by Stagger Lee’s intoxicating blues, will at any moment become drenched in red.

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James Caig

One half of A Longing Look, a music publication on Medium. Writer, consultant, strategist, facilitator.