Original Gangsta

Legendary badass Stagger Lee, hailed in song by musicians everywhere, came to fame right here in St. Louis

It could be that the time was simply ripe for such a character to arrive in song, that the reason Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons achieved immortality had nothing to do with the incident itself but, rather, with the reality of the moment, a single-bullet zeitgeist that scattered like a dandelion launching its seeds, each sprouting a unique version of the tale. A new freedom was spreading among blacks at the turn of the century, a tiny peephole drilled through the wall of inequality. It manifested itself in many ways, one of which was mentioned along with the reports of the murder: A black men's society called the Colored 400, modeled after a similar society in New York, had formed in St. Louis just three weeks before the shooting, framed for the "moral and physical culture of young colored men." Stagger Lee was a prominent member of the organization, and perhaps he slithered through that peephole only to unleash his furious freedom.

From there the story evolved into a complicated one, one that in its countless variations -- Stagger Lee traveling down to hell and being turned away, Stagger Lee hopping a 40-foot wall to escape, Stagger Lee being captured by 100,000 cops "loaded down with rifles and a great big Gatling gun" -- didn't simply condemn a demonic protagonist as in a morality play but peppered its examination with hints of respect and admiration for his no-holds-barred liberty.

Stagger Lee is the original renegade who doesn't take shit from anybody and will blow away those who dare cross him, even over something as petty as a hat. This persona is strong and ubiquitous in our musical culture a century later, screaming louder now than it did at the time of its rise. Stagger Lee has transformed himself from a third-person subject to a first-person narrator; he's possessing the bodies of men, and his anger is raging: Echoes of Stagger and Billy resonate in KRS-One's rapping: "He reached for his pistol but it was just a waste/'Cos my 9 mm was up against his face." He's Ice Cube: "I got a shotgun, and here's the plot/Takin' niggas out with a flurry of buckshot." He's Tupac: "Fuck with me and get crossed later/The future's in my eyez."

According to Marcus, who visited the site for the first time last year during a stop in St. Louis, how the archetype of Stagger Lee arrived is veiled in mystery: "History is made up of grand forces," he says, "individual will, and chance -- and what it is that makes an incident like the Stagger Lee incident, which in gross terms -- a bar fight -- occurred countless times before and after, stand out, organize all the other incidents around itself -- in other words, what it is that makes an archetype emerge from the stream of ordinary life -- is completely mysterious. Here -- is it the hat, is it the name, and the already pop-culture-mythologized connection to the white Samuel "Stacker" Lee, is it some detail that was present in the story right at the beginning but which is missing now, such as the political context of the event? In other words, since the event happened before but didn't enter history, let alone become a history-making force, which the Stagger Lee legend has, you can fairly say that without this event there would be no comparable archetype in the culture."

The Clash's version of the story is the first account I heard, even though I grew up just 25 minutes from the scene of the crime. The story had to travel a quarter of the way around the world and into the mouths of a bunch of punk-rockers before it made its way back across the Atlantic and into my ears. In 1999, Stagger Lee is for sale as a Grateful Dead Beanie Bear. You can buy one at any Deadhead shop for $10. This Stagger Lee is cute and cuddly, smiles at you; it's named after the Dead song of the same name. The bear doesn't pack a gun, hold a pair of dice or wear a $100 suit. It just lies there, an inanimate object, smiling at you. But the path that leads from the corner of 11th and Delmar and into the eyes of a teddy bear is a direct one, telling the story of an entire musical and historical century -- reverse, o hands of time, reverse! -- back from gangsta renegades to punks, from hippies back to R&B balladeers, back from Mississippi John Hurt's gentle, menacing voice to the frustrations of a culture and, ultimately, back through Billy Lyons' abdomen and into the gun held by "Stack" Lee Sheldon inside Bill Curtis' saloon at the corner of 11th and Morgan ... Delmar ... Convention Plaza.

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