All for a brand-new Stetson hat
Amy has promised the fabulous from me, but I'm afraid all I can deliver in this case is an experiment.
Stagger Lee - Lloyd Price
Some songs you like, some songs must be respected whether they move you or not, and some actually conjure the old lit class saw, "all art is the product of its times, the artists that created it and its mode of production," out of thin air. It's an example of the latter I'd like to discuss and when I say discuss Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee," I mean it. I'm no expert on Price, the 50s, nor the rich history of the song's focal point, but I know enough to know that there's a multitude there that you all can contribute to.
There's plenty of context, that's for sure. In Mystery Train, Greil Marcus has an extensive footnote on Mr. Lee (what to call him?) and cites the Price version as excellent, especially the introduction, but doesn't elaborate (I should admit that I am running on memory rather than reference here; Mystery Train is one of those books you loan out and never get back). Down in the Flood's Jason Chervokas leads with Price in his John Henry/Stagger Lee podcast, but doesn't circle back and discuss it specifically. In fact, you can link endlessly on the broad subject, but, as a friend (and soon to be comment contributor I hope) said, there's an essay in this song itself.
Here's my initial observation: Dick Clark wouldn't take the song on American Bandstand because it wasn't appropriate (is there any documentation on what Dick actually said?) and got Price to change the lyrics. Certainly you don't get a whole lot more graphic than "the bullet went through Billy and broke the bartender's glass" but it's not just violent. Sure, a gun shattered mirror is a powerful closing image, but there's also the sense of the bartender, after hours, sweeping up the remnants and having to shell out for a replacement; it's his glass and, unlike in your standard myth, the actions of the heroes seem to have consequences. Usually I'd think I was pushing too hard to get here, but there's the way Price renders "bar-tender's" with a half-beat where I've inserted a dash. I don't think there's a rhythmic reason to do so (am I right?) and, in a song where every lyric is doing at least double work, the strange emphasis is worthy of interpretation.
Will the next interpreter please step forth? I'm interested in pretty much everything about this tune: how it fits in with Price's other work, the ways in which it was typical and atypical for '59, and for whether or not I'm crazy for thinking this is about the best you can get in 140 seconds of narrative songwriting.
By the way, Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee" is available in a number of places, but try the excellent Loud, Fast and Out of Control box.