Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lord Buckley at Theatre 80 St. Marks

I met Toby when we worked together at a publishing company in midtown. He was tall, thin and intense-looking, and often wore a black beret and, in cold weather, a black trench coat or a leather jacket. I would run into him sometimes on my way in or out of the building. He would be standing beside the doorway or leaning against the scaffolding poles near the curb, smoking a cigarette, and motion with his head for me to come over. We talked about various things--movies, books, politics, the way the city had changed since he grew up here in the 1960s. He mentioned that he had spent time living in a commune. "After a while it got to be like anything else. The women did all the work while the men stood around smoking and bullshitting."

Toby worked out of an office near the elevators where jazz was usually playing and the walls were covered in posters for rock and jazz shows. He always had one project or another in the works. He had published books on Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead and was working on various screenplays. One of the books he wrote was a biography of Lord Buckley. It was the first I had heard of Buckley, a hard-to-define mid-20th Century entertainer who worked in a vague area between vaudeville, jazz, stand-up comedy and the kind of performance art that would today be considered spoken-word poetry.

Lord Buckley is best known for nightclub routines, some recorded on albums, in which he reinterpreted classic subject matter--Bible stories, the Gettysburg Address, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven--in "hipsemantic," the dialect of 1950s jazz musicians and beat hipsters. Here is a sample of The Nazz, Buckley's version of the Gospels:
Well I'm gonna put a cat on you, was the sweetest, gonnest, wailingest cat that ever stomped on this sweet, swinging sphere. And they called this here cat The Nazz. That was the cat's name. He was a carpenter kitty. Now The Nazz was the kind of a cat that come on so wild, and so sweet, and so strong, and so with it, that when he laid it, wham!, it stayed there. Naturally, all the rest of the cats look to see what he puttin' down, they said, Hey, look at that cat blow! Let the cat go there, look at it! Get out the way! He said, Man, don't bug me, get off my back, I'm trying to dig what the cat's saying, jack! They're pushing The Nazz, cause they want to dig his lick, you see, dig his miracle lick.
Here is the opening of Marc Antony's Funeral Oration:
Hipsters, flipsters and finger poppin' daddies,/ Knock me your lobes/ I came to lay Caesar out/ Not to hip you to him./ The bad jazz that a cat blows,/ Wails long after he cuts out./ The groovy is often stashed with their frames,/ So don't put Caesar down.
The words alone don't convey the sound of the recordings, because Buckley had a distinctive, arresting way of talking. He spoke in regal tones, called people Lord and Lady, and referred to his friends and family as his Royal Court. His hep slang had an imperious, booming quality at times and a raspy slyness at others. He had also spent years in various areas of show business and was a master of grabbing and holding audiences' attention.

Richard Buckley was born in the Northern Californian logging town of Toulumne in 1906. He spent his early career in dance marathons and vaudeville shows, eventually drifting into the world of jazz clubs and developing the trademark style he used in his monologues. He created a physical style to accompany it, sporting a tuxedo, a waxed moustache, slicked-back hair and sometimes a pith helmet. During the 1950s, Buckley appeared on television programs such as The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and the Groucho Marx-hosted game show You Bet Your Life.

Although major fame eluded him in show business, Buckley became a well-known figure in underground culture. He was a larger than life character in every way, bestowing royal titles, throwing epic parties with circus people, becoming an early user of LSD. In one story that Toby admits is possibly apocryphal, Buckley was performing in a Chicago nightclub bankrolled by Al Capone. Taking the fur coats of the wives and girlfriends of the gangsters in the audience, Buckley threw them into a pile, doused them with lighter fluid and burned them. In another story from Toby's biography, Buckley very warmly and sincerely told a group of nuns seated in a diner that he loved them, eliciting giggles.

Buckley's recordings and television appearances and the stories surrounding him have earned him a devoted following. In the introduction to his biography, Toby describes someone playing one of Buckley's albums for him when he was a college student. Another Buckley enthusiast, the performance artist Steven Ben Israel, recalls driving through the streets of Brooklyn one night in 1959 when he was 21 and hearing a Buckley recording on the radio. He pulled his car over and called the DJ from a payphone, demanding to know who it was and where he could buy the record. "It was like going to another planet and meeting someone from my home town," he says. Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and other performers cite Buckley as an influence.

When I was working with Toby, he hosted an annual celebration on or around Buckley's birthday in April at the Bowery Poetry Club. A decent-sized, boisterous crowd would pack into the performance area and narrow bar section in the back of the venue. Wearing a sports jacket and a wide-brimmed black hat covered in flowers, Toby would MC the event, and he and other enthusiasts would perform Buckley's monologues. There were improvisational jazz sessions, appearances by Buckley's friends and relatives, screenings of Buckley's television spots and usually one or two Buckley impersonators dressed in tuxedos.

In early 2009, I was laid off by the publishing company Toby and I worked for. At the Buckley birthday celebration that April, having a cigarette outside during the intermission, Toby inquired about how my job search was going. In April 2010, things fell through and there was no Buckley birthday celebration. However, Theatre 80 St. Marks offered to host an October event commemorating his death. Theatre 80 had been the site of Buckley's final public performance, when the venue was called the Jazz Gallery.

Taking the stage a few nights before Halloween, Toby recited one of Buckley's bits, Subconscious Mind, which describes driving down a country road while being distracted by memories of a woman. A small band accompanied him. At various times throughout the evening, the music included a guitar, a bass, conga drums, a flute and a mandolin. Steven Ben Israel showed up a few minutes late for his performance. Wandering in sporting a shirt and tie, a jacket he casually tossed onto a front-row seat and a mad scientist shock of frizzy gray hair, Ben Israel took the microphone and explained his lateness: "I was smoking a joint around the corner." He then recited a rhythmic poem whose refrain--"the spinning wheel, baby"--seemed inspired by a line from The Hip Ghan, Buckley's riff on Mahatma Ghandi. He also described reciting Buckley's material over the years, to gypsies in France, to North Africans. Even audiences who couldn't understand the words seemed to absorb the meaning.

Also on hand was the classical and jazz composer David Amram, who had known Buckley in New York. A spry 80-year-old with a good-natured voice, Amram sat in with the band, improvising jazz vocals and alternating between a keyboard, a French horn and a penny whistle. At one point, in between singing and playing, he spoke about the last time he saw Buckley.

In 1960, Buckley moved to New York to collaborate with writer and Parisian Review editor Harold "Doc" Humes on a film called Don Peyote, a beat retelling of Don Quixote. He ran into trouble attempting to perform in New York jazz clubs, however. Due to a past arrest for marijuana possession, the city revoked his cabaret card, a document needed to play small venues that was widely seen as a means for the police to shake down entertainers for bribes. With the help of Humes and various show business figures, Buckley attempted to regain the card.

One night in November 1960, Buckley was performing at a high-tone cocktail party at the apartment of writer George Plimpton. David Amram, then a young jazz performer he used to jam with, accompanied him on piano. Buckley did a few of his bits, then fell victim to what Amram describes as the short attention span of the party guests. They got impatient with the length of the performance. Some heckled him. Buckley bid goodnight to the guests and he and Amram left. A few hours later, Amram heard that Buckley had died of a stroke, possibly brought on by the stress of his cabaret card battle. Weeks later, the cabaret card law was overturned.

During the intermission, I joined Toby as he smoked a cigarette outside. He mentioned that he had seen the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown when it showed at Theatre 80, back in the 1960s when he was a kid. Steven Ben Israel was recounting a conversation he had with a Dutch fan of Buckley's. Some other employees of the publishing company Toby and I had worked at had showed up, a guy I remembered named Ron and another guy who had worked with Toby and left before I was ever hired. Ron mentioned that New York was full of places like this theater, places with histories that most people were completely unaware of. We stayed outside in the cold night air for a while, then headed back in for the second half.


  1. Hey Peter. Good stuff if you're reading this I'm looking to talk to you. I left my cell phone at the wedding. What's your number?

  2. Hiya Peter,
    Love it all! Keep up the great work!

  3. Thanks, I'm glad you liked it. Hope my capsule version of Buckley's bio wasn't too off.