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Introduction to the Hearing of LORD BUCKLEY
by
Joseph Jablonsky

 

On the way to Eldorado you will meet, if you travel far enough, the wandering shade described in Edgar Allen Poe's haunting poem of that name; then you may even chance to meet the utopian legions of American Fourierism, lost but still searching; and then, farther along than these or any other aspirants of the impossible, you will certainly espy the frontier's hip Paracelsus himself-none other than Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (The Gasser), who once upon a time was reincarnated as Lord Buckley.

No doubt can exist about this: if the spirit of the '60s was in vibrant life anywhere prior to December 31, 1959, all of it (if not more) was concentrated in Lord Buckley's aggressive, optimistic humor. And optimism is a colorless word indeed with which to describe the brilliant dialectical gold whose rays the one and only Lord of Swing could direct to blind the apostles of 1950s-style miserabilism. No American entertainer or humorist had ever done what Buckley did in the sense of bringing a great reality and immediacy to the notions of genius and inspiration (freedom, really), and at the same time demystifying the "greats" themselves. Lenny Bruce, who is said to have been influenced by Buckley, could hit very hard; but he lacked Buckley's extravagant generosity and his instinct to transcend malice with moral miracles.

Richard Buckley, who later became Lord Buckley by own decree, was born in California around the turn of the century to a part Indian family. His career as a stand-up comedian and humorist began in the 1920s in the speakeasies of Chicago, where for a period of time he enjoyed the direct protection of the Capone gang. At the time of his death, in the early sixties, he was the most noted of the "hip" or "bop" comedians who performed their routines in jive slang. At one juncture or another he had been obscure, ignored, imitated, and applauded.

If Buckley's fame has slipped a little during the "slipped-disc '70s," that of his imitators has vanished. They were the drunken pallbearers who quickly fell on their faces in the mud, while the royal coffin floated away to the strains of the Hallelujah Chorus. But apart from the imitators, the image of "pallbearers" seems to arise here specifically to remind us of Ismael Reed, who has captured some of the spirit of Lord Buckleyism in his books, such as The Freelance Pallbearers.

I any case, Buckley's legend has a built-in resistance to facile adulation. The moment anyone begins to reverse or eulogize him, one hears in response the creaking of an insidious laughter. It appears to emanate from the pores of a creature half sphinx and half pomegranate. Suddenly, in a flash, Sun Ra approaches in a chariot from the direction of his ancestral star, and Apache warriors in terrible garb line the horizon. Inflammatory spectacles of Umor attend the thought or mention of Lord Buckley. Posthumous fame of the conventional order is completely irrelevant.

Fourier, because of his extravagant good will wreaked havoc on the acknowledged principles of rationality, has a special place in Andre Breton's Anthology of Black Humor alongside Lautreamont, Peret, Roussel and the other exemplars of mad laughter. Perhaps there is no fitter comparison by which to gauge the extremes of Lord Buckleyism than Fourier himself. An appalling and ruinous generosity pervades both men, begetting a kid of white humor serving the same subversive function as the black. The key to Lord Buckley's alchemy was undoubtedly his umorous technique of inflation that allowed him to both valorize and satirize Great Men Like Gandhi (The Hip Gan), Jesus (The Nazz) and Cabeza de Vaca (The Gasser), while contriving somehow to diffuse their mythical, miraculous gifts within a spirit of bop egalitarianism and universal aristocracy of the free.

Like many of his routines, Lord Buckley's own life was a hectic and chaotic parody f grandiosity. He held court constantly and had willing courtiers because he was, for many admirers, the Living Presence of Swing. According to Charles Tacot's liner notes to the album The Best of Lord Buckley, he once marched a troupe of sixteen nude people through the lobby of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. He inaugurated his own "religion"-the Church of the Living Swing-which featured, besides his uproarious monologues, two belly dancers. The "church" was raided by the vice squad. Ironic as it may seem to some, Lord Buckley in his humor took up the sword of the many lay prophets throughout history who fought to free man's inner gifts from the repressive and authoritarian deformation of them contained in religious ideology. His boisterous hedonism, challenging bourgeois morality at every turn, fits the same context. It is the pleasure principle allied to poetry, which fights against the reality principle, allied to the religious "truth": "There's someone bigger than you on the block, boy, so kneel." Lord Buckley gave proof of an immense awareness of the grandeur that existed outside of him, but he did not think it would represent any tribute to that grandeur if he groveled in front of an altar. "People should worship people," was his reply.

Lord Buckley was capable of doing many things to get an audience to listen, to dig. The most astounding thing of all was what he said when he got their attention. An example is the "Gasser" routine. At the conclusion, Cabeza de Vaca, the lost explorer-soldier who became a famous healer among the native Americans, writes a letter to the king of Spain to explain his unaccounted years in the New World. Buckley addresses the words of this letter to his audience, and the way he pronounces them evokes a most eloquent affirmation: "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."

Lord Buckley's entire career was a continuing tribute to an exalted gift which, if it is not the same thing as the poetic marvelous sought by surrealism, is certainly a close cousin to it.

A final point about Lord Buckley concerns the question of sources. The humorist's affinity with Afro-America (which he himself acknowledged) is enormous. It is one that he developed on the entertainment and jazz circuits, as well as in his private experiences through association with blacks and exposure to their influence. It is palpable not only in his rhythmic-oral style and street lingo; it is deeper than that, in the spirit of his work which shares the enthusiasm and aggressively impossibilist orientation of Afro-American art, culture and mythology.

It was this most ebullient vein of black existence that Lord Buckley mined for moral gold, so that his magic was directly inspired by the poetic values of that tradition. On this plane the question of a rip-off does not arise; for Buckley himself not only would acknowledge his debt but would actually proclaim it. To see his work side by side with its primary sources is to enjoy signal illumination produced by the symbiosis.

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