25 Apr 2017

His Royal Hipness

“Hipsters, flipsters and finger-poppin’ daddies, knock me your lobes!” I’ve got a story to tell you about “the sweetest, gonest, wailingest cat that ever stomped on this sweet swingin’ sphere.”

Lord Buckley, His Royal Hipness, AKA the Charlie Parker of Talk, was an American performer, recording artist, and hip poet/comic who, in the 1940s and 50s, created a character that was, according to the New York Times, "An unlikely persona . . . part English royalty, part Dizzy Gillespie." Buckley's unique stage persona anticipated aspects of the Beat Generation's sensibility, and influenced figures as various as Ken Kesey, George Harrison, Tom Waits, Dizzy Gillespie, Lenny Bruce, and Robin Williams. Bob Dylan, in his book Chronicles, wrote, "Buckley was the hipster bebop preacher who defied all labels." However, his legacy is too often overlooked…

Lord Buckley, The Demon Verbals LP's

Some men are born to their titles. Others win theirs. But Richard Buckley came into his title because a friend, with the unlikely name of Midas, went to a bankrupt circus to buy his kids a pony. With a fine nose for bargains, Midas bought the circus. And phoned Buckley for help. (What do I do now, daddy?)... The watchman led them through the warehouse, marched them past the line of mighty elephant rumps, past the dark roaring cages with thick aromatic clouds hanging overhead. They halted before the wardrobe trunks. From the first trunk Buckley pulls out a vast purple robe studded with emeralds, rubies, sapphires, all of fine solid glass. The robe is strangely shaped but he wraps it carefully around him, head to ankles. It leaves a broad trail in the dust as he steps over to the mirror. "Is he crazy?," the watchman asks. "That there's an elephant hanging. Belongs to the elephant!" But Buckley stares at his reflection. He bows. "Your excellency," he whispers. Richard, now Lord Buckley, swept berobed from the warehouse and on through the streets of Chicago with people pretending not to stare, with the wind off the lake whipping his train sky-high, making a great clatter with the glass jewels. Arrived at his apartment, he set about celebrating his title, as nobility obliges. They came from everywhere, politicians, pimps and bankers, Negro musicians and Italian gangsters, chorus girls, policemen, pitchmen and hookers. And together they worked out the etiquette of the royal court. For Lord Buckley was not the man to keep all that nobility to himself. He knew that Lord-ship is no good unshared. So it was "Your Ladyship, this...Your Grace that...Will your highness please let go of my goddam leg?..." They papered the kitchen with eviction notices. Everybody had a fine time...and the party lasted three years.

– excerpted from Dan James' liner notes, Way Out Humor (World Pacific, 1959)

Today's post was inspired in part by a recent radio special that, to the credit of those who assembled it, managed to cram many salient points as regards the fluid talents and deeply, albeit cheerfully messy life of Lord Buckley into a half-hour of audio.

Of course, this sent me back to the shelves, pulling out old lp's and Oliver Trager's indispensable biography, Dig Infinity! The Life and Art of Lord Buckley. I listened to many of His Lordship's routines and read anecdote after anecdote culled from his pell-mell transit though this veil of tears.

Lord Buckley was 'the hipster's hipster,' a comedian who often neglected punch lines, so enthralled was he with the nuances of speech and the capacity of his own storytelling to cast spells upon nightclub audiences. His delivery was based in a sincere appreciation of the patois of the black jazz musicians with whom he consorted in 1930's Chicago. He loved the rhythm and the inventiveness of their argot, and from this Buckley formulated his cabaret persona, one charged with street energy and wholly in love with what he termed 'this sweet swingin' sphere' and all those who rode upon it.

I first visited San Francisco in the early '80s. My trip was well timed: City Lights Books had just issued a slim volume entitled Hiparama of the Classics, wherein several of Buckley's best routines were transcribed. It was, and remains a worthy addition to the shelf of little books that should change the world (The Elements Of Style by Strunk & White; Chairman Mao's little red book; Tanizaki's In Praise Of Shadows). Hiparama... collects seven transcriptions of Buckley's best-loved monologues, these prefaced by Joseph Jablonsky's encomium which goes some ways toward establishing Buckley's rightful place in the pantheon of 20th Century comedians, orators and overall singular characters.

Having said this, I found the book frustrating, as might anyone who derived pleasure from the sound of Lord Buckley's untrammeled musings. It was an incomplete experience, ultimately doomed to disappoint for the same reasons as do the various attempts to create films (or even reasonably spiffy radio plays) from P.G. Wodehouse's evergreen Bertie & Jeeves books. The authors, in each case, have been placed at a remove from the words that they imbued with verve and incandescence.

Reinterpreting literary classics and bible stories and historical accounts in the florid lingo he deemed 'the hip semantic' was the work of a man who thought as no other, but the lion's share of Lord Buckley's art was bound up in his performance. Unfortunately he died in 1960, when I was a mere sproglet, so my only experience of Lord Buckley in motion - perhaps the best way to phrase this - was viewing a surprise appearance he made as a contestant (!) on Groucho Marx's TV game show, You Bet Your Life. One suspects that Groucho knew full well to whom he was speaking; Buckley's notoriety had spread to both coasts, and this most righteously hip comedian numbered Frank Sinatra and the television variety impresario Ed Sullivan among his fans. (Buckley's alliance with the Chairman of the Board was somewhat strained when the former led a conga line of naked women to a ringside table during a Sinatra club engagement.) Still, if the verbal Marx brother was aware of His Lordship's reputation, he did a great job of playing the straight man to Buckley, the latter's speech taking flight merely upon being asked about his home town. Beyond that, I have only seen this frustratingly truncated film of Buckley in action on a nightclub stage.

All of which could prove, as Ian Frazier pointed out about the Sioux leader Crazy Horse, that Lord Buckley simply existed beyond the abilities of his day's technology to capture him. It is easy enough to conflate a Buckley performance in one's imagination, enabled by the scant evidence that exists: His regal posture that seemed to extend even the height of a man who stood six foot, six inches to begin with; the impeccable tailoring, tending toward formal wear; his signature mustache, its components springing from the lip like an especially vibrant pair of curb feelers; a wide-eyed countenance that suggested awe inspired either by the simple act of existence or a bottomless appetite for elixirs and chemicals (probably both, as Buckley was a standard-setting transcendental hedonist); and his ability to carry off an outsized boutonniere, a tuxedo and a pith helmet within the same ensemble. Add to that his voice, its hill-and-dale range belonging in the good company of Yma Sumac and Don Van Vliet, informed by an accent that suggested fox hunts and stockyards in the same phrase. From such a cornucopia of irradiated ingredients, each with a half-life Edward Teller might envy, one may summon this extraordinary figure just as surely as if you'd rubbed a lamp found on the set of a Maria Montez film – such was His Lordship's potency.

Still, though his art was very much about performing, there were key moments within each of his monologues that would not be denied, momentary insights into the character behind The Character that was His Lordship. Skidding into an aside, Buckley's voice would drop his stentorian affect, his mock English-ness would ebb briefly, and he would allow that he "was a people worshiper...that every man and every woman had within them a god and goddess." There was no doubting the sincerity of his words. Of course, in the next moment, his mind skyrocketing once more as he essayed the lives of those he admired and, to an extent, resembled: The Mighty Hip Eine (Albert Einstein), The Naz (Jesus of Nazareth), or The Gasser (Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish conquistador who explored the Americas).

Buckley sold many comedy records during his career peak in the 1950's, for labels such as Vaya and RCA. The live recordings preserved on three albums released initially by the World Pacific label were subsequently reissued in the early '80s on Demon Verbals, a spoken word imprint of the UK label group Edsel/Demon. Though I was introduced to today's subject via A Most Immaculately Hip Aristocrat, the studio recording (actually, a living room performance complete with peripheral noises from passing aircraft and the recordist's hectoring wife) released posthumously on Frank Zappa's Straight label, the full luminosity of Lord Buckley was revealed through these three lp's. Some were re-released briefly on CD, all are furiously rare and expensive in the present day.

Bad Rapping Of The Marquis De Sade:
1. Bad Rapping Of The Marquis De Sade 16:13
2. H Bomb 7:07
3. The Chastity Belt / The Ballad Of Dan McGroo / His Majesty The Policeman 20:50

Blowing His Mind (And Yours, Too):
1. Subconscious Mind / Fire Chief / Let It Down / Murder 11:08
2. The Gasser 8:42
3. Maharaja / Scrooge 18:51

Lord Buckley In Concert:
1. Supermarket / Horse's Mouth / Black Cross / The Naz 19.41
2. My Own Railroad / Willie The Shake / God's Own Drunk 16.20

Each of these recordings, it must be said, is essential to a complete education. For this reason, I'll dedicate today's post to Spaced Saviour, a fellow blogger with immaculately considered priorities, whose entries compile all that is lacking in contemporary culture. His is the work of a True Believer, one whose memory has not been voided by the Great Con of the past quarter century and more. Having just matriculated to the third iteration of his blog, I'll offer hope that his run extends well toward the next millennium.

Now, humbled by thoughts of a wordbender non pareil, I will quit forthwith and let one of Lord Buckley's numerous friends in high places – one Henry Miller, he of Nexus, Plexus and Sexus reknown – take us to the bridge:

"To Lord Buckley, his most euphoric Lordship, greetings! What a treat to hear your new shatterbusting recording delivered with variations à la Paganini, Gilles de Rais and the Marquis of Queensbury! It seems to me that your Lordship opened a new vein, leading from the medulla oblongata (hold on to this one!) and the Cloaca Maxima. It's all so very alive and jumpin' and in the pauses one can hear the atoms exploding out there in the Milky Way where the grass comes up every once in ten billion years and there are no moth balls or frigidaires, no box office receipts, no railroads, no crucifixions rosy or otherwise... It is very far out, your Lordship..." -Count Reeshard

Vinyl Rips by Count Reeshard