Lord Buckley Rules:
The Resurrection of the Exalted Wizard of Words

Douglas Cruickshank


This article first appeared at Salon.com. Used here by permission of the author.

NOTE: A section near the end is an excerpt from Oliver Trager's interview with Jerry Garcia, this was part of Doug Cruickshank's original article

It's here, it's for real, it's happening -- almost. And, baby, I can't wait to lock my claws on it. New York writer Oliver Trager has put together the definitive oral biography of the great and singular Lord Buckley, entitled "Stompin' the Sweet Swingin' Sphere." Now, if some publisher will kindly wake up and smell the decaffeinated double latte, maybe we'll get to read it one day soon.

Lord Buckley, who died in 1960, was a comedian who didn't tell jokes, a storyteller who treated words as music and ideas as Ping-Pong balls, a poet who worked nightclubs. He left lumberjacking and oil roughnecking for Vaudeville, where he appeared as Dick Buckley, doing a melange of shticks until, in the mid-1950's, he began to use in his performance the stories he'd been telling at parties and backstage. Then came an amazing transformation. Employing a volatile blend of words, flimflam, beaucoup charisma and utter madness, he reinvented himself as "Lord Buckley."

He adopted an accent that floated freely between the patois of "the American Beauty Negro" and a BBC announcer. He created a "Royal Court" peopled with the likes of Princess Water Lily, Lord Jocko Crown Prince of Morocco, Prince Hair Head and dozens of others with equally whimsical monikers. He chanted, he ranted, he raved, he founded "The First Church of the Living Swing" and generally indulged in behavior rivaled by few short of Salvador Dali (whom he vaguely resembled). There were nude marches through hotel lobbies, pith helmets and velvet capes. He once asked a cop outside Birdland to light his reefer. He took up residence in a ramshackle Hollywood pad known as the Crackerbox Palace, and later on a ranch near Las Vegas which he landscaped with mattresses. And not only was he the High Priest of Cool, he could cook!

When I first heard a recording of Buckley, on mid-1960s underground radio, I didn't even care what he was saying -- I couldn't understand much of it anyway -- it was how he was saying it that grabbed me. It was like rock 'n' roll or blues in that way; his mouth made movies out of words. I didn't know what he was all about, but I wanted to get on his wavelength.

Later, the words themselves enchanted me. Using what he termed "hipsemantic," the musical language of the jazz life, his Lordship held forth on subjects from Jesus of Nazareth ("The Nazz") and Mahatma Ghandi ("the Hip Ghan") to William Shakespeare ("Willie the Shake") and Julius Caesar, but in a fresh, vital style that vibrated with the "pounce of the now." Though he never quite broke through to the mainstream (and perhaps never would have), Lord Buckley continues to be revered by many. Novelist Ken Kesey once called Buckley "a secret thing that people pass under the table."

Over the last decade, Oliver Trager has collected Buckley-related recordings, clippings, playbills, photos and hundreds of amazing interviews with the many people who knew the Grand Wizard of Words (about 70 appear in the book). Even Trager, however, can't put his finger on him.

"Putting a tag on Lord Buckley," he said recently, "is impossible. Stand-up comic is the first place you go, but then people think 'punch line' and there really isn't a punch line in Buckley's work, unless you consider every syllable he uttered as a punch line.

"Lord Buckley was that rare breed of artist," Trager continued, "who got to live his art when the stage lights dimmed. He was his art and his art was him.

"Strangely, though Trager's aim is true, his book hasn't yet attracted a publisher. But then the arthritic gears of the book business can turn at a painfully slow pace. Still, with the renaissance in spoken word performance, and given Lord Buckley's not merely colorful but fluorescent life, why, I wonder, am I not reading the book now?

Legions of other Lord Buckley admirers are asking the same question. "I feel as though we are sitting on a cultural phenomenon," Trager said. "Lord Buckley was an immensely talented and interesting performer. Ultimately, his vision was about all of the supremely big questions that great artists throughout history have addressed. He belongs in the pantheon, next to Bird, next to Coltrane, next to Lenny and the other gods and goddesses.The man was also sort of a crossroads for everybody and everything. Who else knew James Dean and Al Capone?"

Trager needed no prompting, but I gave him a little anyway. "Tell me about Capone and Lord Buckley," I urged, and he laid down a tale too gone to be fiction. "Capone set Buckley up in his own club, Chez Buckley, in Chicago," Trager explained. "Buckley put everything together -- found the place, the furnishings, ordered the liquor. Problem was he got so involved in launching the club that he didn't really prepare his act for opening night. Everybody was there -- the gangsters, their molls, even the Boss showed up, a doll on each arm."

Some horn player was on the stage wailing. Suddenly Buckley comes out, but he's unprepared, see, so he goes through this whole Svengali-like double-talk routine, 'When is a flame not a flame?’ and 'What you see is not what you really see.' He's vamping. Then he coaxes the gangsters' babes to pile their fur coats on the stage. He sprinkles lighter fluid on the coats and sets them on fire. At which point Buckley jumps onto the bar and does a tap-dance. And the bartender says to him, 'You know, when Capone stops laughing, I wouldn't want to be around here exactly.' Buckley says, 'You know, you're right.' So he dances to the end of the bar, jumps off, runs out the door and never returns."

They say Capone liked it so much he bought all the women new fur coats. The book is full of stories like that.

"Well for Lord's sake then let's get it published!

Excerpt of Oliver Trager's interview with Jerry Garcia

"I wish I could make music with Lord Buckley. Oh God, I'd leap at it. I can hear it in my mind's ear."

JERRY GARCIA: "Part of Lord Buckley's appeal is that basic humanness. With his bits there was always a little character who was like a verbal equivalent of Charlie Chaplin. There was some pathos in there. And you could sympathize with them. The characters always had their human side. I think that's something missing from Lenny Bruce who was happening on whole other levels, but not that particular level. The heart chakra, so to speak. Lord Buckley was the hipster of the heart.

Lord Buckley invented his own kind of style too. What was it, Gospel Comedy? It was something very special. There are antecedents, but there isn't anything exactly like it. So he's one of those guys who's an innovator, but nobody followed through. He didn't create a school of comedy, but he certainly influenced the shit out of a whole generation of comedians, a lot of them without even knowing it. I really feel that Lord Buckley is an almost lost resource. He was on the track.

Buckley's work was part of the whole bopster deal -- the whole beatnik thing. It was the other side of the Neal Cassady/Jack Kerouac reality. Actually it was the black side of it if you want to think about it that way. It had a little more of the black experience, which is an important part of the whole beatnik aesthetic. Lord Buckley was a more loving spirit. He would have fit in good with the hippies.

Lord Buckley and Grateful Dead philosophy merge in a certain irony of viewpoint. It's not literal, it's indirect. But it fits in there in the way we actually do business and the way we relate to each other. It's kind of a sideways influence, but it's definitely some part of it.

I saw him perform someplace in North Beach (in San Francisco) when I was about 16 or 17 at the Coffee Gallery or someplace like that. It was hilariously funny. That may have been the first time I even heard of him. I had no idea of who he was when I went to see him. And I loved him by the end of the show. You couldn't tell what race he was by looking at him. He could have been anybody. He looked like a generic Third Worlder. He could have been from any continent.

The way he did his show was very dramatic. It would start off like a regular stand-up routine, but he had lights and the whole deal ... It was like sitting around a campfire with a guy telling a story. It really turned into kind of a primal experience. A very powerful style with a lot of magic. You can't act it. You have to think of yourself as 'Lord Buckley.' That's one of the things that made him really special. This wasn't a guy just doing shtick.

But after that I immediately started making connections with others who were into him. It was one of those things like when you discover gold -- suddenly it's everywhere. After I'd seen him perform, more or less accidentally, all of a sudden everybody I ran into knew all this stuff about Lord Buckley and knew all his routines. It was everywhere maybe because the records were widely circulated at the time. My friends and the guys in the Grateful Dead knew about Lord Buckley. Pigpen (the late vocalist and organist Ron McKernan), one of our early guys, used to do Lord Buckley routines. Phil (Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh) was really into Lord Buckley as well.

(Buckley) used language like a musician uses notes -- that kind of riffing. Old hippie friends of mine used to call it riffing, really when you're talkin', you know, talkin' shit. It's something that's been around for a long time.

I see all this stuff in the folkloric vein 'cause that's one of my handles. Lord Buckley's routines had a little of that formalness you get in the rhyming recitations of prisoners, street rap stuff or playing the dozens. All of these things that are part of the black language experience. Like Joseph Campbell, the mytho-historian, Buckley was into putting new clothes on the old horse.

It's all part of the same thing. At that time, I was starting to discover the richness and whole total experience of American music: black music, white music, country music, city music. So, for me, seeing Lord Buckley was just throwing another set of doors open. That's what I was looking for and that's what I was finding. If you put yourself on a path like that eventually you're going to find out what you're looking for. And Lord Buckley was part of that process of discovery.

I wish I could make music with Lord Buckley. Oh God, I'd leap at it. I think it would be really, really sparse with just a little teeny bit of percussion. For me it sounds right to go back into that coffee house space. So I'd have some bongos and little wind chimes and things that make hollow, rattling sounds -- an ethereal glassy sound. Then maybe a flute -- very sparse -- and a little bit of something that sounds like something between a sarod and a banjo. Something that has that sensual Eastern quality, but has that happy thing of a banjo. I can hear it my mind's ear. If I had 20 minutes with Lord Buckley I could do it really nice."

Excerpted from "Stompin' the Sweet Swingin' Sphere" by Oliver Trager. Used by permission. Copyright ©1995 by Oliver Trager.