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The Songs, the Singers, and the Sung-To

By (September 1, 2007) No Comment

Stagger Lee

By Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix
Image Comics, 2006

Phonogram: Rue Britannia

By Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
Image Comics, 2007

Most good legends—the kind worth retelling again and again—can be whittled down to one essential conflict, a one-on-one struggle for supremacy. Hector vs. Achilles. Robin vs. the Sheriff. John Henry vs. the steam hammer. Rocky vs. Apollo. Harry vs. Voldemort. Stag vs. Billy. Damon vs. Noel.

But a fist-to-fist slugfest means nothing without context: the other characters who fill out the story, the conditions of time and place that give rise to the battle, and, most importantly, the people who tell and hear and tell the story again. A legend’s real worth is not in the particulars of plot, but how the legend affects those who shape and reshape it.

Two recent graphic novels explore this idea in very different ways, though both take as their subject the myth-making powers of pop music. Stagger Lee, written by Derek McCulloch and illustrated by Shepherd Hendrix, examines the facts and embellishments behind the enduring titular folk ballad. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram: Rue Britannia (like Stagger Lee, published by Image Comics) tells a story of the far-reaching effects of the mid-nineties Britpop movement.

Both celebrate the mythology surrounding their subjects while demythologizing the facts that spawned the legends; both are fascinating, if flawed, storytelling experiments. But while Stagger Lee turns the jumbled, larger-than-life story of Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons into something historically illuminating but rather prosaic, Phonogram turns the mundane experiences of going to clubs and listening to records into something approaching magic.

Anyone with more than a cursory interest in blues and folk music is probably familiar with the story of Stagger Lee (aka Stagolee, Stackalee, Stackolee, Stack O’ Lee, etc.): on Christmas Eve, Stag and Billy Lyons got into an argument at a saloon, and Stag shot Billy dead. The tale has been told hundreds of times over the past century, by an ever-expanding group of artists that range from Ma Rainey to The Clash, from an obscure Missouri Pen prisoner known only as Bama to the MTV-era superstar known as Beck. In some versions Billy pleads for his life; in others, Stag does. Sometimes Stag is hanged; sometimes he gets away. In some versions he even takes over Hell itself. But by the end of each version, there’s one thing that everybody knows: Stag is a bad, bad man.

What most people don’t know is that Stagger Lee was also a real man. On Christmas Eve, 1895, in Bill Curtis’ saloon in St. Louis, Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons, and was subsequently tried for the murder. Stagger Lee, the graphic novel, tells the story of that trial and of the various characters, both real and fictional, whom it impacted.


That story occupies the largest slice of Stagger Lee’s tripartite structure. The other two parts are brief visual essaylets about various elements of the song, and vignettes from Lee Shelton’s life prior to 1895 which offer glimpses into his possible motives for shooting Lyons. Of these three parts, the essays on the song are the most interesting, but the story of the trial occupies the bulk of the book.

In a blurb on the back cover, music writer Greil Marcus (author of Mystery Train, from which much of the facts behind the story are taken) calls Stagger Lee “part thrilling Law & Order episode,” and indeed, much of the book does feel like a staid 19th-century version of a modern procedural. It turns out that Stag and Billy were connected to the local political machines—Stag to the Democrats, Billy to the Republicans—and both sides want a favorable outcome in the trial. So local white Democratic boss “Colonel” Ed Butler (a real historic figure) hires the black, morphine-addicted attorney Nathan Dryden (a fictionalization of the real Dryden, who was white) and his clerk Justin Troup (fictional) to represent Shelton. Meanwhile, ragtime pianist Hercules Moffatt (fictional), who plays at a brothel owned by Babe Connors (real) begins to write a song about Lyons’s murder while starting a relationship with the mysterious Evelyn Prescott (fictional). With this mixture of real people and invented characters, McCulloch creates a vivid portrait of turn-of-the-century black St. Louis, and illustrates how an act as simple as a fatal bar fight can reverberate through all strata of society. With its expansive cast of characters and focus on the interplay between white and black political powers and the black underclass, Stagger Lee is almost like a gaslit version of the HBO series The Wire, though it lacks that show’s verisimilitude, the crackle of its dialogue, and the unrelenting pessimism of its worldview.

Though there is much skill on display in Stagger Lee (it’s the first graphic novel by McCulloch and Hendrix, but both have been involved in the comics industry for nearly twenty years), there is also an uneasy balance between the real and fictional aspects of the story. The ill-fated affair between Hercules and Evelyn, though a compelling enough story in its own right, feels like a distraction from the main thrust of the book. It ends up connecting to the trial late in the book, but in a way that doesn’t add much to the story of Lee Shelton. It’s the kind of subplot that you’d see on something like The Wire, where the writers have a larger canvas to fill, but here it feels like a victim of ambition. By attempting to weave such a large tapestry from the meager threads available about the Lyons murder, McCulloch and Hendrix occasionally stray into the realm of pat melodrama.

The creators, however, don’t stumble when it comes to their depiction of Lee Shelton. There are many different versions of Stagger Lee in the book; the one in the main story, the “real” Lee, is smart and tough and wiry, far from the hulking brute he is in song. He’s a shit-starter and a shit-talker, but he also displays compassion and a mature sense of his own mortality. Hendrix draws Lee as cross-eyed, which makes him an oddly endearing presence on the page. In three invented vignettes spread throughout the book, McCulloch and Hendrix attempt to explain factors that may have led to Lee’s act of murder, and though the idea of finding out why Lee is so attached to his Stetson sounds kind of eye-rollingly cute, like finding out why James Bond likes his martinis shaken, the skill of the writer and artist again carry us through. Though the book opens with Lee shooting Billy Lyons over the theft of his Stetson hat, by the end we feel sympathy for him, as he is constantly tormented by the songs that bear his name.

The other main element of Stagger Lee is a series of interludes that explore the history of the songs about the murder. In these illustrated essays, McCulloch and Hendrix contrast versions of the song by white and black artists, show the different depictions of Stag and Billy, and illustrate some classic versions of the song. These interludes are where Hendrix gets to cut loose. In the body of the book he employs a serviceable but stiff chiaroscuro style that at its best (particularly in long shots) recalls the great Argentine artist Eduardo Risso of 100 Bullets. At times, though, it can be hard to tell his characters apart, and Evelyn Prescott, described as “a vision of loveliness,” frequently looks like a man. But in the interludes, Hendrix gets to be a cartoonist, drawing monstrous Stags and Billys and Satan, and it’s a treat after the dour visuals of the main story, even if Hendrix isn’t quite on the same level as Kyle Baker.

One wishes that the energy and wit on display in the interludes carried over into the main story. It’s hard to fault a book, particularly a debut, for telling a complex story so well, and for accomplishing its goal of shedding light on the history behind a famous folk song. But it’s those songs—violent, profane, funny and tragic–that have made Stagger Lee into a legend, and the book just can’t compete. As a dramatization of the real story (however fictional) and a look into the culture that produced the legend, it’s a valuable work, but it could use more of what the songs are bursting with: the lonesome melancholy of Bama’s version, or the searing intensity of Nick Cave’s. Or even the tossed-off goofiness of Elvis Presley’s, in which Billy’s “three little children and a very sickly wife” become “three hundred little children and a very horny wife.” One of Stagger Lee’s epigraphs is “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The book isn’t quite fact, nor is it quite legend; it’s a noble attempt to synthesize the two, but in the end the reader is still hungry for both.

    Though Phonogram is ostensibly more fictional than Stagger Lee, in many ways it feels more real. Not in its plot, of course, which concerns one David Kohl, a “phonomancer” in his early 30s living in the southwest England city of Bath. Kohl is one of a coven of such phonomancers—music magicians—who perform unspecified rituals to vague ends using pop music. Though, to be fair, Kohl’s ends aren’t so vague: he’s been using his phonomantic powers for no greater purpose than to get laid, which has angered The Goddess. As punishment, she gives Kohl PMS and orders him to find out what has happened to Britannia, the aspect of her godhood that represents Britpop, and who is also the root of Kohl’s phonomantic personality (“She made me,” he says).

So in synopsis that sounds like a terrible synthesis of sub-Sandman urban fantasy wankery and rock-crit snobbism. And it kind of is, except that it’s not terrible. Phonogram is really an essay—about pop music, about nostalgia, about becoming an adult in the age of extended adolescence—that just happens to include drawings of cute indie girls. The magic is, as magic usually is, a metaphor.

Writer Kieron Gillen’s day job is a videogame and music journalist, and he’s said in interviews that David Kohl is his journalistic persona given pen-and-ink life. A phonomancer, then, is essentially a critic. It’s noteworthy that in the world of Phonogram, phonomancers are not musicians—they are listeners. And the magical elements are downplayed to the point of almost being nonexistent. There are no Harry Potter-esque wizard’s duels, no concussive skills flying from wands, no elves or fairies. There are a few runes and rituals and a pentagram scratched into an LP, but the magic as presented is low-key and recognizable, shifts in emotion or consciousness caused by a particular chord change or lyric.

Midway through the book, Kohl undergoes a ritual to enter the “memory kingdom” of Britpop, but that ritual involves dressing like it’s 1995 and dancing to Pulp’s “Common People.” Though this ritual takes Kohl into a literal memory kingdom, everyone reading this has probably experienced a similar effect, when listening to an especially powerful song brings back a flood of sense memories. (For instance, the memory kingdom I enter when listening to Pulp’s “Disco 2000” smells like fermented dough and burned grease and feels like loneliness mixed with finally-life-is-just-beginning optimism; I listened to it a lot while working at the Wal-Mart bakery after graduating from high school).

Phonogram is suffused with the songs, history and trivia of Britpop, which is part of its strength—it is clearly a work of passion for Gillen and McKelvie, and the rigorous attention to detail grounds what could otherwise be unbearably pretentious. (McKelvie is responsible for a lot of that detail; his eye for design and for the important signifiers of clothing and makeup help even minor characters make strong impressions, and his clean-lined, deceptively simple style renders the magic plausible without descending into dreary realism). But for those of us who weren’t 16-25 in England in 1995, parts of Phonogram are nigh impenetrable. Kohl’s guide in the memory kingdom is Luke Haines, of proto-Britpop band The Auteurs and, more recently, Black Box Recorder (he also provides the book’s introduction). I consider myself pretty well-informed when it comes to pop music, but I had never heard of Haines before picking up the book—which means that a lot of readers probably haven’t either. So when the grinning imp in sunglasses and an ascot shows up to guide Kohl through the memory kingdom and refuses to reveal his name, I was left scratching my head. A bit of dialogue makes explicit the Dante/Virgil analogy, but readers of The Divine Comedy are almost guaranteed to know who Virgil is, and why he’s significant. Perhaps Phonogram’s ideal audience (real-life David Kohls) will immediately recognize Haines, but the rest of us are just a bit lost.

It’s clear, however, that Phonogram was written for the David Kohls of the world, and the rest of us will have to keep up. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Phonogram is, more than anything, a work of criticism, and one of the roles of the critic is to tell us about things we don’t already know. Kenickie, one of the many Britpop bands who failed to break America, plays an important role in Phonogram and gets an enthusiastic recommendation from Kohl/Gillen (even though, as usual, Kohl just uses his phonomantic/critical faculties to pull a bird, as they say). A quick trip to iTunes reveals that Kenickie’s “Nightlife” and “Come Out 2Nite” are both perfect blasts of guitar pop, sneering cynical girls shouting debauched lyrics in the face of the neon apocalypse. Listening to these songs on the ride home from work on the choked streets of Los Angeles, I enter a memory kingdom that is mine and yet isn’t. Kenickie now makes me nostalgic for a time and place I’ve never been. At its best, Phonogram creates a context in which these songs make perfect sense. To put it cheaply, and to say that it does exactly what David Kohl is trying to prevent, it brings Britpop back to life. I’ve loved Pulp’s Different Class for ten years, but I never really understood it until I read Phonogram, the way I never really understood Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual De Lo Habitual or The Big Lebowski until I moved to Los Angeles.

Britpop, as even David Kohl admits, was pretty ridiculous. As with any pop movement, there were two or three great bands, a double handful of great songs, and a shedload of forgettable crap, only this time it was all wrapped up in the Union Jack. And reading Phonogram, which takes such matters as the shittiness of Kula Shaker very seriously, a legitimate first impression is to say “So what?” None of it matters. Even “Come Out 2Nite” is just a song. Two minutes, three chords. In the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing.

The thing is, there is no grand scheme of things. What matters to you = what matters. What Kohl finds in the memory kingdom is that everyone’s memory of Britpop is being warped. It’s been reduced to Blur vs. Oasis and faceless crowds at festivals—as Jarvis Cocker puts it in “Sorted for E’s & Wizz,” “just 20,000 people dancing in a field.” The other members of Kohl’s coven tell him not to worry about it, to just let Britannia and Britpop go as they have. “Oh, David,” says fellow phonomancer Emily Aster. “Everyone knows you’re stupid.”

And stupid or not—he’s not, by the way, but he is a self-centered prick—Kohl can’t let go of Britpop. “She made me,” he says, and if magic is just a metaphor, then that means that Britpop is the music that made Kohl a listener, a lover, a critic. Even though Kohl realizes how ridiculous Britpop was, it was also the music that shaped his tastes, the music that made him who he is. He can’t let go of that, like Emily Aster has, flitting from one trend to the next, reshaping her personality on the fly. He can’t “holiday in somebody else’s misery” like the ghoulish Indie Dave, who spends his time in memory kingdoms that don’t belong to him. Britannia was his goddess, the way grunge was mine. I may not worship at the feet of Pearl Jam anymore, but I’ll buy their albums until the day I or Eddie Vedder die. We all have to come from somewhere.

In the end Kohl sets things right not by punching out the bad guy or unleashing a shower of special effects, but by making a well-reasoned argument, like any good critic would do. He finds the balance that anyone who once loved something all-consumingly must find: the ability to enjoy nostalgia without wallowing in it, to move on without letting go. He grows up, just a little.

Gardner Linn is a freelance writer in Los Angeles whose music reviews appear regularly in Flagpole, Athens, Georgia’s alternative weekly newspaper. His website is http://gardnerlinn.com