Lord Buckley Arising
"His Majesty the Policeman"
Three things I won't do here: lapse into Lord
Buckley's cadence, describe his act, or sell him. You're already
here, you already get it. Let's move on.
Sadly there's not much remaining of him to be
got. Towards the end of an apparently long career he left us
with -- what? Maybe 12 total hours of audio recordings, a handful
of filmed appearances, and so few published photographs that you see
the same tired images recycled, colorized, re-manipulated too often.
It's a reminder of how scant the evidence is. The great
thing is that the mysterious joke gets better. Buckley's previous
life broadens, deepens, veers crazily into Greil Marcus territory,
the totally unlikely strange underbelly of American show business
before the glut of recording devices.
Somewhere in the Continental U.S.
The Lord was born on an Indian reservation near Tuolome California in 1906, the eighth of eight children, of two English immigrants. Not Brighton. Not Toronto. As a teen he set riggers for loggers, the source of the "ex-lumberjack" part of his theatrical biography. Some time in the 1920s he'd escaped California into show business and formed a partnership with a guitar player from Galveston. He may have worked vaudeville, or medicine shows and tent shows where attracting a crowd was part of the pre-show and leaving town quickly was the finale. We have to leave young Dick Buckley in this shadowy pre-mass-media nationwide wilderness of tent shows and midnight roadhouses and motor hotel parking lots until the early 1930s.
At this point Dick Buckley pops up in verifiable history:
in Chicago, working for "Colonel" Leo Seltzer as an emcee
at dance marathons sometimes called in a rare moment of showbiz honesty
a walkathon. (Seltzer is a spur story worth looking into some
time -- he was from Portland and owned movie theaters here, later
invented Roller Derby.) The gig, which Buckley may have landed
through answering a newspaper ad, called for a young comic with muscle
and stamina and the production of madcap mayhem in counterpoint to
the half-dead couples shuffling around the dance floor until they
dropped from exhaustion. Sort of evil, sort of dull. Buckley
swung from a rope, slung raw eggs at the contestants, climbed in under
the Chicago Coliseum grandstands for pranks, and he worked with --
of all people -- Red Skelton.
Both Buckley and Skelton were young, hungry, and raw.
Skelton was disciplined. Buckley the eighth of eight burned
for attention, spectacle, excitement. They didn't get along.
Skelton and Buckley worked the Walkathon circuit: Atlantic
City, St. Louis, Columbus, Minneapolis, Kansas City. He worked
for Seltzer until 1937, although probably not exclusively.
Later in the 1930s Dick Buckley worked himself through various clubs, the Ball of Fire, the Planet Mars, rafting on waves of mob liquor, up into running a mob-funded club called Chez Buckley, on Western Avenue. Supposedly he made Al Capone laugh with his human-ventriloquist act. Among Dick Buckley's many other jazz friends and allies he gave the first hand up to young singer Anita O'Day. She chose her name, I just found out, because it's pig-Latin for "dough". Nelson Algren remembers him there at least through the early 1940s. Buckley's son notes somewhere that he was a deejay in Kansas City in the late 1930s and it was he who bestowed the title of Count on Count Basie.
San Francisco Bay
It seems that Buckley toured hospitals extensively
during on the war on USO tours, with, or for, Ed Sullivan, with whom
he made a lasting friendship. Buckley would appear later on
Sullivan's t.v. program in the 1950s but never with the hip stuff,
always the old safer vaudeville bits. As to his whereabouts
and whatabouts in the rest of the 40s, there's this teasing footnote
in Martin A. Lee's Acid Dreams: "In the mid-1940s Lord
Buckley founded a mescaline club called The Church of the Living Swing.
A practitioner of yoga who often appeared in public wearing
a tuxedo with tennis sneakers (Martin, we know, we know), a long white
moustache, and a safari hat, Buckley rented a yacht and threw mescaline
parties in the San Francisco Bay with live jazz by Ben Webster and
Johnny Puleo and the Harmonicats." A little early to be
conscious of mescaline. Anybody conducting mescaline parties
in the mid-1940s had wig bubbles plenty.
Into the 50s, his peak decade. All the familiar recordings are from no earlier than 1951, so all the Lordly characteristics are in place. The self-assuredness, the command of the audience, the musical pacing and the Shakespearean stagecraft of keeping our emotional attention even if we can't quite rationally track the content, the equivalence to jazz performance, that's all there, and that quality of one chanting voice somehow consuming your entire bandwidth, throwing five things out at once, complicated and simple.
The good Lord finally comes into better focus when
he worked his way... well, laterally, actually, to Los Angeles in
1950. As Lord Buckley comes into full focus he's struggling.
There's a single movie credit, "We're Not Married,"
1952. He's on wife number six, Elizabeth, with kids, and evidently
at some point in the 1950s, into his 40s, he started wearing his stage
persona around the clock. That's not ordinarily an auspicious
sign. He must have found it comfortable.
Come 1954 he was invited by the owner of a health
food store, Bob DeWitt, to live in a small cabin on his property.
That's how Buckley came to the legendary Topanga Canyon. Take
the Pacific Coast Highway along the coast above Santa Monica, take
a right after where the Getty Villa is now, you're in the mouth of
north-south canyon. It's suddenly remote. Topanga Canyon
has hosted at least three or four waves of intersecting countercultural
artist colonies and rustic bohemian enclaves.
The music scene here in the 1960s included Neil Young,
Steven Stills, Gram Parsons, Lowell George, and Van Morrison. It's
mentioned in association with Charles Manson, who parked his black
bus full of white girls here. That was 1967. Wind the
clock back to the 1950s and you get Canyon as the red-hot center of
L.A. Beat culture, "Semina Culture", centered around Wallace
Berman, a group of desperate avant-garde artists and (oddly) former
child stars blowing through their funds, the most familiar names of
which include Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, Bobby Driscoll, Toni Basil
(in her avant-garde phase), Diane DiPrima, and the photographer Edmund
Teske (who had been living on the Aline Barnsdall property, but that's
Also in another slightly-previous overlapping intersection
1950's wave you get Topanga Canyon populated with a group of leftists
and theatrical / film types. Buckley's health-food-store host
Bob DeWitt had also invited Woody Guthrie to stay in 1953, and sold
property to Will Geer. Another resident was David Marshall,
whose personal life was tangled in a sort of love quadrangle with
Guthrie's and Geer's. He allowed the blacklisted underground
pro-labor film "Salt of the Earth" to be edited in his house.
Somewhere in there you also have Nature Boy Eden Ahbez (as opposed
to Nature Boy Rick Flair) who would sleep in the rocks.
The Buckleys patched up a house here with red velvet
leftovers from the Knickerbocker Hotel covered every interior surface.
The Jewel Box, they called it. Buckley took part in the
ad hoc performances and light shows, and taking peyote with the actor
Mel Welles (the shop owner Mushnik from Corman's Little Shop of Horrors)
that they got mail-order from a cactus nursery in El Paso. They'd
ship the whole plant, so they'd just cut the buds off, boil them down,
blast off, and toss the rest of the cactus into the garbage.
After leaving the canyon, the Buckleys occupied -- because "rented" may be too strong a word -- a Spanish-style mansion in Whitley Heights that had once belonged to silent-movie-freak-actress Barbara La Marr. Dubbed the Castle, it was the scene of Buckley's most extreme parties.
Lost in Space
In 1959, in the Club Renaissance on the Sunset Strip where he was a regular, Lord Buckley slammed into Dr. Oscar Janiger, called Oz, a psychaitrist with access to this new thing called LSD. He was studying the effects of LSD on creatives. He needed volunteers.
He got them: Anais Nin, Andre Previn, James Coburn, Ivan Tors, Aldous Huxley (they both knew Dr. Humphrey Osmond; this predates Leary; this happens when LSD was unknown and legal), and Cary Grant. And Lord Buckley, who I'm thinking raised his hand quickly. It changed him, he said, for the better, and there are rumors of legendary tapes of him performing for an appreciative audience, which included James Coburn, for something like 16 hours in a row.
These days Buckley has been sort of welded on to the front of the Beat Generation train like a cowcatcher. There is no other easy category for him. There's nothing in common, actually. The beatniks' place in culture -- nowheresville, man -- comes with all those cartoony iconic significiers: bongos, black turtlenecks, thin beards, basement cafes, slender dense French paperbacks, nihilistic poetry readings, sick humor, espressos, marijuana smoke, gymnastic dancing, and berets. Lord Buckley didn't share any of that. He has nothing to do with that. He has nothing, also, to do with the Kerouac beat scene. His only solid contact points with the cartoon beatnik are the slang, which he amplified to 11 in density and evergreen hipness, his show-biz venues, the adoption of jazz rhythms, and his willingness to easily slip back and forth across the color line. The drug use is all offstage and implied, seeming to percolate involuntarily up through his rhythm and attitudes. Drugwise he could sound square, to a square. That seems the secret center of the whole affair.
Buckley had found a slightly-less-tenuous hold on show business, performing with Sinatra from time to time, finding sympathetic coffeehouses, and playing Vegas. He still got in his own way. Venturing out from L.A. on a final tour, billing himself as the Hip Messiah, he hit Chicago then New York, playing the short-lived Jazz Gallery in St. Mark's Place. In New York he was being managed by Harold L. Humes, Doc Humes, another semi-legendary semi-productive flipped-out hipster guy, once the founder of the Paris Review, sunk into being a classical victim of the Influencing Machine and mostly famous for handing money out on college campuses.
Buckley's death, sad to say, has become a matter of Rorschach conspiracy mystery, a gap into which people show all their own cards by inserting their own hangups and bringdowns. It seems to me he was much younger than his character -- 54. The New York Times said stroke; the coroner said natural causes; at least one internet paranoid claims he was poisoned by the CIA for "speaking the truth"; others say the effects of mescaline, vodka, and an underage mulatto girl, there's some cards right there; or died from the stress and injustice of being shaken down by the New York cops for a cabaret card; or, my favorite, somehow psychically assassinated by the Chicago blues singer Spo-Dee-O-Dee for appropriating black culture. Buckley had seen some kind of light, plainly, because he couldn't stop describing it.
Copyright 2012 Walt Lockley. All rights reserved.