A biography of Lord Buckley, overdue and worth the wait

On Books

April 28, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

Today, few people outside the impassioned cult that keeps him alive in their minds know who Lord Buckley was. He was a magnificent stand-up comedian who died 42 years ago. I remember vividly a couple of performances in some Greenwich Village venue in the late 1950s, when I was in college. The audiences were almost adulatory. Buckley's work, his very presence, projected the sense that life's most immortal truths lie in the inextricable weaving together of love and irony -- affection for all humanity married to laughter.

Robin Williams was a huge fan of Buckley's. So was Ed Sullivan -- and Ken Kesey, who said he knew every one of Buckley's records by heart. Others were Jerry Garcia, James Coburn, Henry Miller, Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez. Buckley significantly influenced Bob Dylan's early work. David Amram, the composer and conductor, said of Buckley "for many of us, he was a combination of Walt Whitman, Charlie Parker, Baudelaire, and Laurence Olivier."

The sole, dauntless source of Buckley's heraldic title was Buckley himself. But he was generous and openhearted -- he conferred titles on everybody in his presence. He was an evangelist of the nobility of all people.

Richard Myrle Buckley was born April 5, 1906. His mother was a third-generation California boomer, fiercely independent, and his father was an English adventurer. Buckley started out as a lumberjack. In the mid 1930s, he made it to Chicago, where he became a relatively successful -- anyway, regularly employed -- cafe comic.

It was there, in the nightclubs of Chicago, that he gradually was exposed to what then was called "Negro culture"-- through entertainment.

In the 1930s and 1940s, he bounced around the country, sometimes prosperous, sometimes broke. He was enchanted by jazz and the argot of musical African-Americans (a term that was not in the vocabulary in Buckley's lifetime). Buckley's frequent use of their dialect offended some blacks - but his respect and affection for what he called "the magical beauty of the American Negro" was indisputably genuine. A voracious reader, a natural genius of storytelling and an indefatigable entertainer, he gradually evolved a trademark style of monologues.

Now comes Oliver Trager, a music journalist, with a biography that is a splendid tribute to both Buckley's greatness and his lifelong, woeful travails. If you know of Lord Buckley and believe he was one of the truly magic hearts, minds and voices of the middle of the 20th century -- and I can't imagine any alternative-- you must have this book. Or get three, to pass on to the deprived and ignorant. It is Dig Infinity! The Life and Art of Lord Buckley (Welcome Rain, 405 pages, $30). Along with it comes a CD, which interweaves tapes of interviews with recordings of some of Buckley's performance pieces. Other CDs are on the market or available through specialty shops or on the Internet.

At the core of what was both extraordinary and magnificent about Buckley was perceptive, imaginative creative genius. This was enriched by elegant personal culture. He drew with convincing sophistication on Shakespeare, the Bible, Poe, James Joyce, Einstein ("the Hip Eine"), the life of Mohandas Gandhi and endless others.

He was a deep precursor of hippieness -- but contrasted to him the stultifyingly earnest flower children seemed like morticians' assistants. Buckley was full of irony, rich in humor in his celebration of joy and of the indomitable virtue of unconditional love. As Trager perceptively writes, "Capturing the post-World War II exuberance of bebop and the Beats, Buckley anticipated civil-rights struggles by a decade and the hippies by two."

He was not a churchgoer, but he profoundly believed and espoused the humanitarian values that lie at the heart of every true religion. One of his most celebrated gigs was a 10-minute monologue that was -- is -- a declaration of Christianity. "The Nazz" is a blissfully respectful celebration of Jesus, the Nazarene, whom Buckley presented as a hipster. It might offend the religious hard right or their spiritual siblings, the politically correct left -- but no one with any serious capacity for sensitivity could fail to see it as an act of sublime reverence. It began this way:

"I'm gonna put on you a cat who was the coolest, grooviest, sweetest, wailin'est, strongest, swayin'est cat that ever stomped on this jumpin' green sphere. And they called this here cat 'The Nazz.' He was a carpenter kitty."

Buckley's devotion to Bible stories was matched by fondness for Shakespeare. His reiteration of Marc Antony's tribute to Caesar began: "Hipsters, flipsters and finger-popping daddies, knock me your lobes. I came here to lay Caesar out, not to hip you to him. The bad jazz that a cat blows wails long after he's cut out. The groovy is often stashed with their flames, so don't put Caesar down."

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