Sunday, October 31, 2010


Halloween Parade, 6th Avenue
Lowrider, Laguardia Place
Downtown F Train

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.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Gas Station, Hamilton Avenue, Brooklyn

34th Street Accident

I didn't see where the cab came from, whether it turned off of 6th Avenue or came straight through the intersection from the direction of 5th. I heard a thud and people yelling, and saw the cab stopped short on 34th Street in front of Macy's, with people lying on the ground next to it. Two police officers who happened to be nearby rushed over. Crowds of passersby formed on the sidewalks. A man in a brown leather coat started yelling at the cab driver from across the street. Everybody was a witness to what happened, he said, and the driver had better just stay in the cab or he was gonna get his ass kicked. The driver yelled something back in a heavy accent, pleading his case while his passenger looked on.

Three people were sitting in the street, two women and a man. A police car was parked in the intersection with lights flashing, blocking the west-bound lane from the 6th Avenue side. One of the women had on a grey jacket and skirt. She was shaking and crying slightly. The other woman was dressed in black. She was trying to calm her down. The man had glasses and looked Hispanic. The woman in black was telling people he had stepped in front of her and the other woman, trying to protect them from being hit.

People kept asking them how they were doing. The woman in black was holding her leg. She said it didn't feel like she broke anything. A tall black man in a sweatshirt offered to be a witness if they needed one. He said he would give them his contact information. He gave the woman in the grey jacket a piece of paper and asked me if I had a pen. I had one in my pocket and I handed it to her. A woman in a denim jacket and jeans brought over a metal chair from the pedestrian walkway around the corner at Herald Square. A short Indian man said the injured people shouldn't sit in chairs. People seemed to agree they should stay where they were.

Emergency vehicles converged from different directions, a firetruck, two ambulances, a large police van. Firefighters in long black-and-yellow coats, FDNY paramedics in dark t-shirts, uniformed and plainclothes officers crowded around. Police leaned into the cab window, talking to the driver. Stretchers were brought off the ambulances. At some point, I looked back and the people sitting in the street had been taken away. Within several minutes more, the emergency vehicles had left, traffic was flowing through the intersection, the crowds had dispersed and people were walking down the sidewalks along 34th Street again.