All Hail Lord Buckley!
by Douglas Cruickshank
Copyright 1992 Douglas Cruickshank. Used by Permission.
HE WAS THE WORDMAN FROM
WORDLAND, THE HIPPEST
MAN WHO EVER LIVED. AND
THE KINGDOM OF COMEDY STILL
KNEELS BEFORE HIM.
Now lookit here all you cats and kitties out there whippin' and wailin' and jumpin' up and down and suckin' up all that juice and pattin' each other on the back and hippin' each other who the greatest cat in the world is. Mr. Malenkoff, Mr. Dalenkoff, Mr. Eisenhower, Mr. Woozinweezin, Mr. Wyzinwoozin. Mr. Woodhill, Mr. Beechhill and Mr. Churchill and all them hills gonna get you straight! And if they can't get you straight, they know a cat that knows a cat that'll straighten you. But I'm gonna put a cat on you was the coolest, grooviest, sweetest, wailingest, strongest, swinginest cat that ever stomped on this jumpin' green sphere. And they call this hyar cat...the Nazz.
In the beginning was Lord Buckley. And he was good. In fact he was a gas.
Lord who? Why His Lordship, of course - His Hipness, His Flipness, His Strictly Trippiness, His Most Incredible Crypticness, the Reverend of Irreverence, the Paul Bunyan of Bravado, His Double-Hip Ebullientness, His Intractable Impracticalness, His Undoubtedly Way Outedliness, the Charlie Parker of Talk, the Fred Astaire of the Tongue Dance, the Guru of the Gone World, the Paganini of Prose, the Man with the Multiple Minds and the Magical Mouth, the Voice of the Viper from the Vortex, the Cardinal of Cool, the Vicar of Visionaries, the Bishop of Bebop, Beatness and Boo, the Loose-Lipped Lingo Lover, the Purple Pope of the Poetical Patois - Lord Buckley!
In the 1950s, at the Music Box in L.A., the Gate of Horn in Chicago, Jazz City in Hollywood, Bimbo's and the Coffee Gallery in San Francisco, the Monterey Jazz Festival and dozens of other similar venues, one was likely to come across Lord Buckley, a tall, broad-shouldered, mustachioed man of regal bearing, wearing a tuxedo and perhaps a pith helmet, chanting something like the quotation that appears at the top of this article - the introduction to one of his most famous pieces, "The Nazz," His Lordship's take on the story of Jesus of Nazareth.
"Yeah," Lord Buckley would continue after the applause subsided, "he was a carpenter kitty. Now the Nazz was the kind of a cat that come on so cool and so groovy and so with it that when he laid it down-WALAM!-it stayed there!" And Buckley would go on for 10 minutes or more, unraveling his story. When he finished, he'd step back from the mike, take a long drag on his ever-present cigarette, look out across the audience, then walk forward and say, "What a great thing it is to be alive. My Lords, my Ladies, Beloveds, would it embarrass you very much if I were to tell you that I love you?" Clinking glasses, murmurs and nervous laughter would be heard as Buckley paused, then whispered, "It embarrasses you, doesn't it?"
Lord Buckley couldn't rightly be called a comedian. He wasn't a teller of jokes; he didn't pick you up, floor the accelerator and drop you off at the punch line. He wasn't into arriving, he was into driving. He wasn't even a satirist, a humorist or a monologist - though he has been called all those things. He was some kind of a way-out dramatic storyteller, a word musician, who used his magnificent theatrical voice and jazz phrasing to compose language symphonies and create a unique attention-grabbing, soul-tickling story fabric by reweaving ancient tales with the vital fiber of beat lingo - "hipsemantic," he called it - so that the listener was able to hear the old and tired as fresh and vigorous.
His Lordship loved language and he knew how to shake, rattle and roll it in a way that renewed its impact. He took Marc Antony's funeral oration from William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (which, in the original, begins):
"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil
that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred
with their bones; so let it be with Caesar. The noble
Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious: If it were
so it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar
Then he whirled it around his wig and out came this:
"Hipster, flipsters and finger poppin' daddies: Knock me your
lobes; I came here to lay Caesar out, not to hip you to him. The
bad jazz that a cat blows wails long after he's cut out, the groovy
are often stashed with their frames; so don't put Caesar down. The
swingin' Brutus hath laid a story on you that Caesar was hooked for
power: If it was so it was a sad drag, and sadly hath the Caesar cat
Buckley was the Wordman from Wordland. But, though his storytelling drew on an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and current events - he read as many as six newspapers a day and inhaled books - hearing Lord Buckley is crucial to appreciating what he was all about. His use of sounds (and silences), his intonations and masterful timing, his roiling, boiling waterfalls of word interspersed with clairvoyant laughter and oblique asides to members of the audience resulted in a jazzlanguagemusic that, over three decades after his last performance, is still thrilling to listen to for anyone who believes in the spoken word as living culture. Because to hear Lord Buckley holding forth is to experience the incandescence of outrageous invention as it is occurring. One gets the distinct impression that in performance, Buckley, perhaps to his own surprise, often found himself astride a mustang mind, raging across the frontier of his own intellect - splashing through linguistically rococo rivers, careering down cosmic canyons, galloping into new and unexplored territory, uncertain where he was going but compelled by some force of nature to go there nonetheless. And his intoxicating good humor and confidence makes one want to throw off the shackles of linearity and timid convention and gallop alongside - right off the butte, if necessary. In the live recordings (while hard to find, several are currently available), one hears the hum of recognition in the audience's reaction. Some are perplexed, others enchanted, but all seem to recognize that something is happening, even if, over there in the corner, Mr. and Mrs. Jones don't know what it is.
And it was not merely the performances that kept friends and followers enchanted: It was The Compleat Buckley. Though he died in 1960 at the age of 54, his offstage high-octane declaiming and the theatricality of his life left an indelible imprint on the minds and hearts of all who moved through his realm, whether they were granted an audience at the Crackerbox Palace, his pleasure-bent hillside home in Los Angeles (memorialized in a song by George Harrison), attended the "salons" held at The Castle, another L.A. home, congregated at his Church of the Living Swing in a Topanga Canyon art gallery, partied at the "mattress farm" outside Las Vegas, or simply bumped into His Hipness in the nighttime jazz alleys and disheveled back rooms of coffee houses and cabarets that were the extended living room in which he played out his lushly worded life.
Like other catalytic figures in art, music and literature, Buckley's projection of his unusual personality was as significant as the art form he invented. Like Wilde, like Dylan, like Presley and Warhol, Lord Buckley came bearing messages, and one of them was himself. Over half a century earlier Oscar Wilde declared, "I have put my genius into my life; all I've put into my works is my talent." One could debate into which sphere Lord Buckley injected his genius, but most would agree that both his art and his life were singular creations.
Last spring, in a telephone conversation, Jonathan Winters recalled meeting Buckley backstage in Las Vegas in the 1950s. "We went out in the country where he had a mattress farm, " Winters told me, "and everybody sat on those things, and he kind of held court, you know. And started doing numbers and bits." According to Richard Buckley, Jr., His Lordship's 41-year-old son, the Army had dumped a hundred or more surplus mattresses in a pile by the roadside across from the Buckley's property. Lord Buckley saw this not as a defilement of nature but as a unique landscaping opportunity. He dragged all the mattresses across the highway to his desert manor and carefully arranged them around the house, creating an environment that combined the best aspects of a padded cell and the wide open spaces.
"I loved his stuff," Winters said. "I thought he was one of the most gifted and one of the funniest guys I'd ever met, and I still do. Me, Lenny Bruce, the others - we were all out of the same magical pot, as it were. I think he rubbed off on all of us. He painted such a great verbal portraits. I've had people here and I've said: 'If you haven't heard this dude, please, listen to him now.' I've never been able to single out many people who really put me on the floor. Buckley was one of them. I think he is going to last forever. I've got everything he ever did. On rainy days and chilly nights, summertime or whenever, I pull it out and listen to it. People are going to rediscover Lord Buckley. He was a far-out dude. If you're a fan of his," Winters said, "you're a fan for life."
Nowadays, with male investment bankers walking around in ponytails and earrings, with a bona fide jazz musician leading the Tonight Show band, with kings of cool like Lou Reed and Gus Van Sant Jr. appearing in ads, it's difficult to convey just how square the square world was in the 1950s and how far outside of it (and out ahead of it) Lord Buckley was. So ahead, in fact, that it took years for the rest of us to catch on.
Lord Buckley is long gone from what he called "this sweet swingin' sphere," but his resurrection is well under way. Performers from Bob Dylan to Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams have expressed their admiration for Buckley. An annual memorial festival has been in existence for several years now. An exhaustive oral biography is in the works. Newspaper and magazine articles appear with greater frequency, one new collection of his recordings has recently been released, and another is coming this fall. There may be a movie in the future - maybe this, maybe that.
The road through his mythology leads across an exotic landscape and past a zoofull of quirky personalities, each with a story, if not dozens of them. The stories go on forever - some apocryphal, some not. (Who knows which is which? Who cares?) There was the time he marched 12 buck-naked people through the lobby of the Waikiki Sheraton (or was it the Royal Hawaiian?) when Frank Sinatra was appearing at the hotel, which reportledly ended his friendship with Sinatra; the time, in 1949, after a poorly received performance at Grossinger's in the Catskills, when he stopped on the way home at a small bar ("Stop here, I want to see what a man looks like who'd name a bar The Never Sink Inn":) to lecture the blue-collar clientele on the activities of Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai; the one about him riding through Chicago in a hearse-sitting in a coffin-to advertise his appearance at the Suzy Q (now and then the Buckley corpse would sit up to display a sign reading, "The body comes alive at the Suzy Q"); the time he got a cop to light his reefer outside of Birdland, then walked in smoking it and caused the jail-phobic crowd of hipsters to clear the place, and so on and so on and so on.
The thousand-fathom voice of Lord Buckley bounced off of the ionosphere and touched down in my suburban teen-age bedroom sometime in the mid-1960s, courtesy of KMPX radio. It was his retelling of "Jonah and the Whale," Buckley's baritone giving the whale a deep, echoing voice. Jonah, it seems, was smoking wacky tabacky far inside the leviathan, and the creature was feeling the effect. "Jonah!" the whale intoned, "Jonah, what are smokin' down there?" It was a different time, of course, and such a monologue seemed impossibly daring to an East Bay adolescent (I had no idea that it had been recorded years earlier). Thereafter I'd knock his Lordship my lobes whenever I found him sermonizing over the airwaves with his pithy word portraits of Christ ("The Nazz"), Mahatma Gandhi ("The Hip Gan"), William Shakespeare ("Willie the Shake"), the Marquis de Sade ("The King of Bad Cats") and others. Years later, when I happened upon him once again, I found Lord Buckley just as appealing, just as irresistibly alive and profoundly funny as I had so many years before. So recently, with the intent of figuring out who Buckley was, where he came from, and why he seems to be coming back more than 30 years after his death, I set off on a search that took me back and forth across the country and got me involved in a rather peculiar late-night telephone expedition.
Richard Myrle Buckley was born in 1906 in the small Mother Lode town of Tuolumne. He was the youngest of 10 children. As a young man, he worked as a lumberjack, later setting off to meet his brother in Mexico, where he planned to become an oil roughneck. "I got as far as Galveston and met with a long, angular Texan in a boarding house who was playing guitar. The first date I ever played in my life was at the Million Dollar Aztec Theater in San Antonio," where the manager of the theater told Buckley, "You are the lousiest act I ever played in my life!"
"And he was right," Buckley said.
He kept at it, however, later making a reputation for himself as a comic and master of ceremonies in the Depression-era dance marathons. He toured widely in vaudeville and also did a turn as a disc jockey, in the early days of radio in Portland, Ore. During World War II, he performed for the troops, touring with Ed Sullivan and establishing an enduring (if unlikely) friendship with the conservative impresario (Buckley appeared on Sullivan's TV show 11 times). Earlier Buckley had turned up in Chicago, where he played speakeasies and became a favorite of Al Capone. For a time he ran a club of his own, said to have been financed by Capone. "He was the only man who could make me laugh," the gangster once commented. During those early years in Chicago, Buckley immersed himself in the jazz life, hiring some of the finest practitioners of the music to play at his club and developing a deep affection for their lyrical dialect. In the '40s and into the '50s he played the showrooms in Las Vegas and Reno (where he was busted, though not convicted, for possession of marijuana, a misstep that would later contribute to his fall). And in Hollywood, he had a role in a Fred Allen-Ginger Rogers movie, We're Not Married - "A real stinkeroo," Buckley called it.
In 1945, after several failed marriages, Lord Buckley met a blond chorus girl named Elizabeth Hanson. They married, had two children (Laurie and Richard Jr.; Buckley also had an older son, Fred) and spent the next 15 years together. Now in her early 60s, Lady Buckley is a gracious, vibrant woman who still refers to her late husband as "His Lordship." (In the 1950s, their circle of friends became known as The Royal Court, with Lord Buckley doling out names like Prince Owl Head, Prince Hair Head, Prince Cougar Head, Princess Water Lily, Lady Renaissance and Count Jocko, Crown Prince of Morocco.) "We had a very healthy relationship; we vied with one another in a wonderful manner," Lady Buckley told me. "He was inspiring to be with. His Lordship spoke to everybody. They would wait for him and his invisible dog. There was a restaurant where His Lordship would dine when he played New York. He'd bark like he had a dog under the table, and all the waiters would smile and the people would wonder where the dog was. He made things fun in that way."
But Lord Buckley could also be blunt, and some found his irreverence offensive. "The worst thing he did was tell people the truth," Lady Buckley told me. "Lots of times people don't like that. We had a man jump on stage in Florida with a knife who was going to kill him for some remark he made.
"Another night," she continued, "I was sitting right in the middle of this club and he said to the audience, 'You all have too much money and you don't know what to do with it.' We left by the back door that night. One of the musicians said, 'Now! Run and get in the car.' I felt like I was living in a Humphrey Bogart movie."
Not timid about dishing out his own brand of hellfire and damnation, Lord Buckley often referred to the theater as a church and seemed to see his calling as an evangelical one. So it surprised few of his circle when he dubbed their weekly get-together at Bob DeWitt's Topanga Canyon art gallery "The Church of the Living Swing." "All the people sat on railroad ties," Lady Buckley remembered, "and it was the first time they had a light show. His Lordship would perform, and there would be music. It only lasted four weeks, but it was wonderful."
I asked her if she was bitter or disappointed that Lord Buckley is not better known today. "I loved the man and I loved the artist, too. I was just happy the he passed my way, because he looked at life differently than anyone else. We always ate well and we always were warm and had shelter. We lived in palaces and we lived in tiny places like the Crackerbox Palace. It never seemed to make any difference - we were happy together. But yes, I would have loved to have seen him come up one more time and be honored for his efforts."
Lord Buckley began performing his hip storytelling onstage at the urging of his wife. "I suggested he tell some of the stories he told backstage when he was in front of the audience," Lady Buckley said. When telling the stories, he usually employed a black dialect. The use of the black idiom - he was also known to use a British accent - and his appropriation of a title gave rise to the two most commonly held misconceptions about Buckley: that he was English or that he was African American (as recently as 1980, Michael Ullman, in his book Jazz Lives, mistakenly referred to Lord Buckley as "the black comedian and social commentator"). He was neither, but what little controversy exists around Buckley comes from the mis-aimed criticism he attracted due to his use of African-American lingo.
Decades before the academics informed us that the African-American patois was a legitimate, even artful, form of the language, Lord Buckley had embraced it. He celebrated the dialect as the most lively variation of English ever devised and paid homage in his own rambling, self-assured fashion. "I came by the language," he said in 1959, "in association with the beauty of the American Beauty Negro. They got themselves a zig-zag way of talking that eventually became their intimate social language. It has a fantastic sense of renewal that will take any old and revered movement and swing it right up to the pounce of the now. It is sparked with the magical beauty of the American Negro for which the United States should be tremendously grateful...Because in growing up against the granite walls of stupidity...they have dug out their well of humor to such a point that it turned into a spring. Many, many times they had to laugh at a number of things that weren't funny, and as a consequence they wound up with very, very deep sparkling humorous wells of beauty." Elsewhere he was quoted as saying, "I could not resist this magical way of speaking, nor the great power it had for good in its purity and sweetness. A power that said ... everything is understandable...This black riff voice swung, grooved and gassed me - triple-hipped my soul - launching the fabric of my being into the outer realms of the Fargonasphere!"
One evening during my Lord Buckley inquisition, I was at the Bay Area apartment of poet and novelist Al Young when the conversation turned to Buckley's use of language. "We talked like that when I was growing up in Detroit in the 1950s," Young told me. "We would study for a history test in those terms. We'd say, 'George Washington went in and kicked the British's ass.' It was a way of vividly reinterpreting the story so it seemed real. The old language just didn't say anything to us."
"Was Buckley's appropriation of the black idiom a rip-off?" I asked Young.
"No," he replied, sipping from a cup of tea as he handed me one. "Buckley didn't rip anybody off. I remember something I once heard the late blues singer Big Bill Broonzy tell Studs Terkel. Broonzy said, 'You can't steal something from anybody else. What you do is you take it and you do with it what you're going to do with it. But it's not the same.' I think that's the process of making art." Young continued: "I'm not saying that, in the marketplace, people don't maliciously exploit such cullings or borrowings. I'm just saying that the spirit of Lord Buckley was not malicious, hostile or in any way exploitive. That was the language that was around in the world that he inhabited: Everybody talked like that."
As the caffeine in the tea took its effect on us, we got into the nitty-gritty of what Lord Buckley had been up to way back in the Precambrian ear of stand-up, back when Eric Bogosian was still wearing rubber pants, when every word Robin Williams uttered sounded like "Mork," when Sandra Bernhard was performing from a highchair with Gerber's pureed liver on her bib, and long before Spalding Gray had ever heard of Cambodia. I put a tape of "The Gasser," Lord Buckley's hipsemantic rendering of the saga of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, a soldier of Ferdinand II of Spain who, in the year 1528 (though Buckley places the story in "fifteen hundred and leapin' ten"), was the first white man to cross North America from east to west. That doesn't even begin to tell what Cabeza de Vaca and his three comrades were put through during their eight-year expedition, but that's another article. Let's just say it was not a cakewalk. However, the four lived, prayed, and by doing so they were able to heal Indians with their touch, and the Indians declared them great medicine men. Buckley ends his telling of the story with the last paragraph of a letter Cabeza de Vaca wrote to Ferdinand II: "Yeah, he blew about 200 beautiful miracles right across the land," Buckley says in his whiskey warble to the cackling crowd. "This is history, dig this jazz-and it's beautiful jazz." Buckley's voice lowers to a soft suede growl. "And Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca said, at the end of the letter, 'Your Majesty, I'm hip that you are a great swingin' king with a fat book, but I wanta knock a page on it. I found out on this expedition that there is a great power within that when used in beauty and immaculate purity can cure and heal and cause miracles. And when you use it it spreads like a magic garden, and when you do not use it, it recedes from you!"
"Of course Buckley was a storyteller," Young said as the tape ended. "in that respect what he did was very close to black sermonizing-preaching-when you retell a chapter of the bible in vernacular. But he was also a poet. His language was poetic, and the effects he achieved were poetic effects. And he had a sense of rhythmic development that not all monologists have. He also had the ear of a musician. Buckley knew how to use repetition, he knew how to build to a crescendo, he had a musical sense of dynamics. He was in the tradition of the folk storyteller that has been a part of America since the early 19th century. He was not doing anything substantially different from what Mark Twain did. Lord Buckley was from that grass-roots, populist, anarchist American tradition that was a force for so long in this country. And, for a while there, made it great. Buckley reinforced my own inclinations as a writer. The vitality in the heart of storytelling and poetry resides in the spoken idiom, the vernacular. All the old guys knew that. Shakespeare knew that. You take the spoken word and you transform it."
"Lord Buckley is a secret thing that people pass under the table," Ken Kesey said in a conversation with New York writer Oliver Trager, who is working on an oral biography of Buckley. "You ask writers who they think is the best writer and they all mention someone above them. Gradually you get up at the top, and you get to Samuel Beckett and not many people have read him. But a lot of people have been influenced by Beckett. I think the same was true of Lord Buckley. There were a lot of people influenced by Lord Buckley who have never heard his material."
Continue on to Part II