All Hail Lord Buckley!
by Douglas Cruickshank
Copyright 1992 Douglas Cruickshank. Used by Permission.
"He played this bravado character," Lady Buckley said, "but inside was a sweet, very sensitive person who really didn't know how great an artist he was. I'll never forget when he invited Greer Garson to the Crackerbox Palace. It was a ramshackle place; she walked up all those rickety stairs-and I mean they were rickety-and she sat with us and had coffee and doughnuts, and she cried when Lord Buckley did 'The Nazz' for her."
Before moving to Los Angeles, the Buckleys lived on West 71st Street in New York City. George Greif, who managed Buckley for a while, recalled the scene there: "You'd go in and Lenny Bruce would be sitting at Buckley's feet with Charlie Parker and his wife, Chan. Bird was in a cast, and Lady Buckley was giving him ballet lessons. It was so bizarre." In 1975, Greif was in France at a dinner party for former Beatle George Harrison. "Somebody mentioned to George that I was Buckley's manager. We went up to my room and stayed up and talked about Buckley all night. Harrison even did some Buckley routines for me, and I told him about the Crackerbox Palace. It was a little house that looked like a crackerbox. Something about the story must have struck George."
"I wrote down ('Crackerbox Palace') on my cigarette packet," Harrison told Musician magazine in 1987. "It was a good phrase for a song. Near the end of the single there's a line in direct relation to Lord Buckley: 'I met a Mr. Greif/ and he said/ I welcome you to Crackerbox Palace/ was not expecting you/ let's rap and tap at Crackerbox Palace/ know that the Lord is well and inside of you'... everybody thought I was talking about the other Lord." The song was a hit for Harrison in 1977.
Actor Larry Storch, familiar to many for his role in the 1960s sitcom F Troop, knew Lord Buckley when he lived in Manhattan in the late '40s and early '50s. "One night in the middle of winter I was at a party at his house," Storch remembers. "He had everybody from the circus there - the Fat Lady, the Bearded Lady, the Strong Man, the Tall Man - and a three-piece outfit, some musicians that we knew. His Lordship was dressed in Bermuda shorts, captain's hat and an ascot. At 11 o'clock voices started yelling, 'Quiet down or we'll call the cops! We're working people!' Buckley went out in the backyard, and with his huge lungs like an animal yelled: 'I'll never be quiet! Not while there's breath in my body! We're celebrating something here you should all appreciate: the hard-working people from the circus. Have you no feelings? No compassion? That's how we judge Man, by his compassion, by his pity, up the spiritual ladder. Don't you know that?'
"Sure enough, 12 o'clock: a knock on the door and two of New York's finest came in huffing and puffing. Buckley, behind the door, slammed it shut as they entered. Heavy smoke filled the room and everybody had a glass of whiskey or wine or champagne. Buckley welcomed the two police officers: 'We of New York City, we welcome you, the finest in New York. You're not leaving here on a night like this without some sustenance.'
" 'What do you mean by that?' they asked. He gave a tumbler of whiskey to each officer-I saw it with my own eyes. And His Lordship said, 'You can't go back on duty without it in you to fortify yourself against Old Man Winter. Drink it down! Come on, boys, cough it up!' Well, they looked at each other. There was nothing they could do. They knew they weren't going to talk their way out of this one. They knocked off the whiskey and left, thanking Lord Buckley and glad to get out of there. That was the madness of Lord Buckley."
On a rainy Saturday morning I'm talking on the telephone with Dr. Oscar Janiger. Janiger, a Los Angeles psychiatrist, performed some of the earliest clinical research (from 1955 to 1962) on the therapeutic use of LSD. "I met Lord Buckley at a place called the Renaissance Room," he tells me, "a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard here in L.A. It was run by Benny Shapiro, a wonderful guy, a big-hearted fellow who would hire people who had, let's just say, some previous difficulties with the law."
"Sort of a home for wayward performers?" I ask.
"You got it," Janiger laughs. "Most of those guys were busted on marijuana charges, and in those days it carried a very stiff penalty: They'd lose their cabaret license. Lenny Bruce - who was one of the group - would bitterly complain, 'It's cruel and unusual punishment to take a guy's livelihood away from him' Lenny had a tremendous regard for Buckley, by the way. I was the resident psychiatrist, I suppose."
At the same time Dr. Janiger was spending his evenings at the Renaissance Room, he was spending his days administering the yet-to-become-controversial lysergic acid diethylamide to the likes of Anais Nin, Andre Previn, Car Grant and more than a thousand other souls from all walks of life. ("I have been born again," Grant told reporters interviewing him on the set of Operation Petticoat. "There came a day when I saw the light.") Janiger's research was aimed at studying the effects of the psychoactive drug on a "demographically random" cross-section of the population. And there was certainly no member of the population more demographically random than Lord Buckley. The arrangement Dr. Janiger had with the participants required that all of them write down their impressions of the experience shortly after having it. Lord Buckley's lengthy report of his soul excursion rhapsodizes in the inimitably jubilant Buckleyseque fashion at too great a length to reproduce here, though this short excerpt reveals the account's flavor:
"LSD, first, trip. By Richard Lord Buckley, ordinary seaman, on the good ship lovely soul detonator under the command of Fleet Admiral Oscar Janiger, head detonator and head head....My whole body was jingling with alert signals. This is gonna be one mother of a takeoff, hang on! It felt like a soul pressure. I felt strong. I felt words shooting out of me like projectiles, acres of untapped sound were waiting to be put in the gun of expression!"
The last sentence described Buckley's state during much of his life. He was compelled to talk, and because of his inclinations and sensibility, turned his talk into an art form.
But what was it he was trying to say? Underneath the flamboyant performances and eccentric personality, did the holy hipster have some kind of a message? Many Buckley aficionados claim that he did; that woven throughout his florid evangelizing was a plea for tolerance, equality and the power of love that foreshadowed the more sensible tenets of the social revolution of the 1960s. One of his most frequently quoted remarks are the few lines with which he often closed his performances: "Before I leave you," he would whisper, "I'd like to say to you, people are what it is all about... they are Mother Nature's brightest flower, her sweetest, purest, most elevating thing that ever was. You are groovy flowers in a garden where I am privileged to stand and share a few moments with you." Those words have been unimaginatively reformed into so many dull New Age bromides over the years that it's almost impossible to consider what a genuinely fresh and startling experience it must have been to hear them voiced by a 50-year-old, tuxedo-clad nightclub performer from the stage of a dimly lit, smoke-filled cabaret during the glum, gray years of the Eisenhower administration. Yet in the last decade of his life, Lord Buckley often spoke in a fashion that can only be described as religious. In a 1959 KPFA radio interview, he said, "All over this world, in the alleys, in the valleys, on the plains, on the mesas, on the mountain tops, on the plateaus, through the sand, to the gulf, through the whole scene of this world - black, blue, green, yellow and pink - it's loaded with beautiful people who we never hear a thing about...But they are there. And those people are the protectors and possessors of the vault of love which is known as God."
According to some old friends of his, Lord Buckley's most extraordinary performance may have occurred during a Thanksgiving weekend retreat in the late 1950s at Dr. Janiger's Lake Arrowhead vacation cabin. The result of that performance - Buckley is said to have delivered a non-stop monologue that lasted more than 18 hours - is one of this storys more mysterious elements. "I have never seen a creative process as remarkable as that thing that happened," Janiger said of Buckley's soliloquy. 'I've never seen a human being continuously expound on a variety of subjects in such a refreshing, interesting way over such a long period of time without ever repeating himself. It was a virtuoso performance."
As described by His Lordship's friend Jim Macy, the weekend was a normal one by the standards of the Royal Court. Buckley was on his way home from a gig in Las Vegas and stopped in to see his friends. "What happened," Macy recalled, "was that, believe it or not, we didn't have a tape recorder. So I called up a friend of mine and said, 'Youve got to get a tape recorder to me. We've got Buckley up here and he's going 90 miles an hour. It's too good- - we've got to record it." The friend borrowed a tape recorder and delivered it. "So we got a couple of days of that," Macy said.
Not long after, according to Macy, Prince Louis, Lord Buckley's aide-de-camp, asked if he might borrow the recorded treasure and make a copy for Buckley to use in developing new performance material. Macy handed over the Lake Arrowhead tapes to Prince Louis and they have been neither seen, nor heard, since. That is not to say that Prince Louis made off with the tapes - they may have been promptly delivered to Buckley who misplaced them, or they may have been turned over to a third party for duplicating and forgotten or lost. In any case, the record of what may be Lord Buckley's masterwork is nowhere to be found.
Late one night, the idea of the lost tapes echoing through my brain, I launched an interstate telephone search for Prince Louis. I had a far-away phone number for him that turned out to be no longer in service. Finally, after several circular conversations with some surly telephone operators, I asked one of them to give me the number of another individual in the same town with the same surname as Prince Louis. If that number belonged to one of his relatives, I reasoned, maybe they could lead me to Prince Louis. If not, I'd try another name, repeating the process until I either got a lead or ran out of candidates. Bingo! My first choice was an 85-year-old relative who was in the mood to chat. He knew nothing of Buckley, but told me that "Lou" had become something of a recluse and was living in a trailer in the desert with a coal oil lamp for company. "Sometimes he rides a bike around," I was told. "He don't have a telephone. I'm not even so sure I could direct ya there if ya come out." Having run through my travel budget and then some, that's where I left it. Like the secret of the Lost Dutchman mine, the solution to the mystery of the Lost Tapes of Lord Buckley may be holed up in the dusty solitude of a desert hideaway. Or it may not.
In 1960, Lord Buckley set out with future desert dweller Prince Louis on a cross-country trip that Buckley portentously christened "The Cosmic Tour." They headed their VW microbus to New York City, where His Lordship had an October engagement at the Jazz Gallery. On the way they stopped for a month or so in Chicago, where Buckley was interviewed on Studs Terkel's Wax Museum show on WFMT radio, and where he appeared at the Gate of Horn from late August through mid-September. One evening of the Gate of Horn gig was given over to a three-man show called "The Seacoast of Bohemia," consisting of Lord Buckley, Severn Darden and Del Close. In a 1981 interview, Darden mentioned that he believed Buckley was failing physically when he visited Chicago: "I think he'd suffered a mild stroke... sometimes he completely lost control of what he was doing and became violent." (Like any complex, volatile figure, Buckley undoubtedly had a dark side, though few seem to have seen it. However, his former manager, George Grief, commented to Oliver Trager that "To do a piece like 'The Bad-Rapping of the Marquis de Sade' you had to be able to relate to that character, and [when he was performing the bit] he was it.") Lady Buckley also referred to Lord Buckley having health problems in Chicago, although she wasn't alerted at the times. "I had no idea that he'd been ill in Chicago. I wasn't called. People used to wear him out, and he didn't realize that time had passed - he'd gotten older - it was too much for him."
His Lordship had sufficiently recovered from whatever befell him in Chicago by the time he reached New York to proceed with his $450-per-week engagement at the Jazz Gallery on St. Mark's Place. But then things turned ugly. "Buckley was about to go on stage at the Jazz Gallery on Oct. 20," the New York Post reported, "when a policeman took his cabaret card from him without any explanation. At a hearing before Deputy Chief Inspector Lent, he was accused of having falsely stated in his application that he had never been arrested." The action made it impossible for Buckley to continue performing and ignited a controversy over police-issued cabaret licenses that continued for years afterwards. The police licensing of entertainers had often come under criticism for alleged corruption, and was used by the authorities to hound Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, Billie Holiday and others. Buckley contended - and his family still does - that his failure to mention the arrests was a simple oversight.
During their last telephone conversation His Lordship asked Lady Buckley, "What do you want me to do, stay here and fight this thing or come home?"
"Come home," she replied.
But the Hip Messiah, as he was then being called, never made it. On the morning of Saturday, Nov. 12, he told Prince Louis that he didn't feel well, that he was under siege from the "bugbird," his word for his affliction and a term he'd used in his hipsemantic rendering of Poe's "The Raven." Prince Louis called Ed Sullivan and Sullivan called an ambulance. Lord Buckley died that night at Columbus Hospital.
I suppose a case could be made for the martyrdom of Lord Buckley, much like one was made for Lenny Bruce. But His Lordship would consider that a disservice and a tedious bore, as I'm sure Mr. Bruce did as he observed his deification unfold while seated in the loges of Satire Heaven. Buckley didn't take himself seriously, and he didn't expect anyone else to. He was just a four-star general in the war for whimsy who considered the humorless his rightful prey. Neither angel nor devil, he was a funny, complicated, triple-hip dude who happened to be the coolest, grooviest, sweetest, wailingest, strongest, swinginest cat that ever stomped on this jumpin' green sphere.
But to honor His Lordship, one final story. I think he might have liked the one Jonathan Winters told me about the two of them meeting for the first time in Las Vegas in the 1950s.
"He started calling me Prince Jon," Winters said, "and I asked him, 'Why can't it be Lord Jon?"
"Because, my dear man," His Hipness replied, "I am Lord...I am Lord Buckley."
And Winters said, "Yeah, I remember you in the forest. You were against the Black Knight and he all but dismembered you with some kind of medieval hand ax."
"Ahh, yes," Buckley said, smiling and taking a drag on his cigarette. "Yes, my friend, thank you for remembering."
The author is grateful to Roger Steffans, whose excellent radio documentary on Lord Buckley was an invaluable resource during the preparation of this article, and also to Oliver Trager for generously allowing the use of excerpts from his interviews with Ken Kesey, Larry Storch and George Grief. Those interviews appear in their entirety in Tragers forthcoming oral biography of Lord Buckley, "Stompin' the Sweet Swingin' Sphere."
The charming Prince Doug can be reached at his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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