Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 10 Jul 02 23:12
Our next guest is Oliver Trager, writer and editor, who describes himself as follows: "In utero when Don Larsen pitched his perfect World Series game in 1956, I have been following the muse of the American underground ever since. Both my parents write (my dad, James G. Trager, is a respected if medium-known and published historian). After graduating from Bennington College, I have worked in publishing--mostly for Facts On File News Services as the Managing Editor of Editorials On File, a twice-monthly published journal reprinting editorials from the major daily newspapers covering all matters apocalyptic and mundane. On the side I have pursued freelance projects of various shapes and sizes. The American Book of the Dead: The Definitive Grateful Dead Encyclopedia (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1997) was my first book, Dig Infinity! The Life & Art of Lord Buckley (welcome Rain Publishers, 2002) my second, am putting the finishing touches on a third (Keys To The Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia), and am working on a few screenplays, one (not so surprisingly) about Lord Buckley. I am a native New Yorker, Zen Jewdist, baseball mystic, live in Brooklyn with my wife interior decorator wife Elaine, and scholar/athlete son Cole, age 9." About Dig Infinity! The Life & Art of Lord Buckley: "I first got hip to Lord Buckley nearly thirty years ago when, as a teenager and college student, various cool mentors spun some of his magic wax for me. Though I was not immediately bitten by the Buckley bug, the power of his material and intangible, cipherish life story and legacy slowly began to draw me into his vortex. In 1985, some ten years later, I received what you might call a vision in the main reading room of the New York Public Library to pursue this project. Lord Buckley seemed to me to be the Robert Johnson of American performance art: an influential but criminally neglected visionary genius whose contribution to our culture had to be documented before it was too late. For the past seventeen years I have collected ephemera, conducted interviews, researched his legacy and connected the dots of his Zelig-like passage through mid-20th century entertainment. My book is the culmination of those many years of work and I believe it shows. Mixing my own biographical voice with an oral historical melange, a varied portrait of Buckley's scenic ride emerges: from his humble beginnings as a coal-miner's son in California's Sierra Nevada, his teeth-cutting excursions as an emcee in the dance marathons and in Al Capone's nefarious Prohibition speakeasies to his rise as a performer in demand during the vaudeville/swing era, through his embrace of bebop and the beats to his still-mysterious and untimely martyr's death in 1960, Dig Infinity! not only carries the reader into the exotic cradle of American bohemianism and back, it stands as an epitaph to a (sha)man whose exalted vision will always find a new audience." Leading the discussion is Michael Simmons. I wish I had enough space to include all of the music, books, movies, magazines, journals, documentaries, and other projects that he's been involved with in one form or another; becauseI don't, here's just a taste: He's been a contributing writer to the LA Weekly for a decade and has also scribed for Rolling Stone, Penthouse, High Times, Crawdaddy and other publications both above and underground. In 1996, Simmons wonthe Los Angeles Press Club Award for his expose of the Hollywood ViceSquad. He's covered everything from psychedelics to the Zapatistas,from guerilla photographer Spencer Tunick to contemporary anarchism. He's written over one hundred articles on marijuana -- primarily its medical uses and the political fight surrounding that issue. Simmons penned the infamous "Fucking Shit Up" column for Los Angeles outsider literary rag SIC and co-edited quality lit annual Saturday Afternoon Journal. He was an editor of National Lampoon from 1984-9 during which time he wrote another controversial column "Drinking Tips And Other War Stories", which advocated Just Say More during a time hostile to such sentiments. He also produced theatrical, recording and radio projects for the Lampoon including the Off-Broadway hit "National Lampoon's Class Of '86". Simmons is currently authoring "Yippie! And The Politics Of Hip" (University of New Mexico Press) and "The Future Is Now!: The MC 5 And White Panthers" (Creation Books) and editing "Headnecks" (also U of NM Press), an anthology by/about Southern fried hippie freaks. He's optioned his life rights and cannabis journalism to Goldie Hawn's production company and HBO who are making a docudrama about the battle over medical marijuana called "The Cannabis Club". The film is based on Simmons' verbiage and will utilize a journalist character named "Michael Simmons" to tell the story. There's a lot more, but maybe we can get him to tell us some of it as the discussion with Oliver Trager unfolds. Please join me in welcoming Oliver and Michael to inkwell.vue!
Michael Simmons (michaelsimmons) Thu 11 Jul 02 02:04
Hi Oliver. Let me begin by telling you that, firstly and foremostly, "Dig Infinity!" is a hell of a fun read. It's a rare book these days that causes me to laugh out loud. It's also impressively thorough. The majority of what I read are either biographies of the hip and dysfunctional or hip histories. A lot are cut-and-paste jobs done by some hack with access to the Internet. Few are able to recreate the subject's life seemingly moment to moment the way yours does. Especially given that Lord Buckley spun his last riff in 1960, forty-two years ago. Can you talk a little about your motivation for writing Lord Buckley's biography? What was the process? Did your wife become jealous of Buckley, vying with him for your attention? Did you dream of Buckley? If so, can you recount a dream or two? When you finished the book, were you hoping never to hear The Good Lord Buckley's name again or did you suffer post-partum depression?
Michael Simmons (michaelsimmons) Thu 11 Jul 02 02:12
<scribbled by castle Thu 11 Jul 02 12:45>
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Thu 11 Jul 02 08:49
Hey now! Let's roll up the sleeves and plunge in... I first heard Lord Buckley recordings back in the mid-1970s while in high school through both Bob Fass's all night every night WBAI "Radio Unnameable" show and noted architect James Stewart Polshek, a family friend. Didn't really get Buckley's spiel then but a couple of years later, while attending Bennington College I began hanging out with a unmatriculating tribe of lovable weirdos centered around a fellow by the name of Harold L. "Doc" Humes. Doc (a former novelist, Marshall Planner, inventor, conspiracy theorist, medical cannabis advocate, gadfly, and all-around whacko visionary) had known Lord B just before Buckley's death. With his long silver mane and ecstatically flowing rap, Doc resembled some pixied Hemingway on shrooms. One of his acolytes, a fellow named Mark Miller, showed up in my dorm room one day with a Buckley album ("The Best of Lord Buckley" on Elektra). Wouldn't even put the wax on the turntable until we were psycically lubricated with some of mother nature's finest and, I suppose in deference to our day-glo states of mind out of time, put the needle on the Lord's "Jonah and the Whale" which treats ganja with celebration and bravery. Next up was "The Nazz," His Lordship's most famous bit retelling three miracles in the life of Jesus Christo in hip talk. Even though I didn't fully comprehend all that was flowing from the speakers, I was immediately won over. So rhythmiclly encoded was the slang, so rapid-fire was the delivery, so steeped in lush, cartoonish imagery and nuanced linguistic presentation, Buckley's word paintings seemed to float across my skull's inner screen. If I thought I was hip before, all this avalanche of language and meaning showed me I still had a looonnngg way to go. Yet I still found myself belly laughing at the volcanic joy of the storyteller's art and craft. As a budding jazz freak, Deadhead, Kerouac admirer and all things strange (my dad was friends with and introduced me to poet/musician Moondog who used to roam 6th Ave./52nd street back when I was 10 so I I guess I always had a soft place in my heart for off-the-grid genius types), Buckley seemed to be the perfect marraige of these sensibilities and aesthetics. Didn't sell all my goods chattles then and there to pursue the Buckley muse then there (that came later), he became part of my incubating sense of all things cool (Pynchon, Kurosawa, Dylan, Sun Ra, Bird, Bill Lee etc.) Kept my eye out for his hard-to-come by recordings over the next few years and slowly added to my collection. In 1985, a couple of his World Pacific recordings ("Lord Buckley in Concert" and "Blowing His Mind") were rereleased on a British import. Along with some of his classic-style renderings (a new version of "The Nazz," "The Gasser," "Scrooge), these recordings (made in 1959) included all kinds of other, non-"hip" bits like "Murder," "Black Cross," "Horse's Mouth" that revealed a wider breadth of presentation and vision that both surprised and intrigued me. Also the photographs of this maginificent character with the Dali-esque moustache, the lobster eyes, and tuxedo along with sometimes biographically contradictory liner notes all drew me further into the royal vortex. Just around that same time, I was doing some research for my father (a writer of histories and social/architectual histories: "The "People's Chronology," "The Food Book," "Street of Dreams" to name a few) in the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library on Fifth Ave. & 40th Street (yes, the one with the lions out front). While diverting myself from his prime directives, I decided to poke around the microfilm dept. to see what Buckley ephemera I could find. There were some obits, a "Life" magazine article penned by Albert Goldman (neo-jounralism author of "Lenny" et. al.) Sitting in the grand reading room, with the later afternoon sunlight spilling in over me, I received what I can only describe as a vision to write this book. Buckley's art and legacy just seemed way too compelling to leave ignored any longer...except I did. It wasn't until a few years later when I was first getting together with the woman who would later be my wife, and turned her on the Buckley magic, that I got busy. After listening to his Marquis de Sade routine (my personal favorite) and showing her my stash of ephemeral goodies, she encouraged me (against what I now know to be her better judgement) to pursue this project. I got a real bit in my teeth about it. If I felt that this guy should be spoken of in the same breath as Joyce, Coltrane, Garcia, Pollock, Pryor, Ginsberg, You Name Who, and others on the high pantheon of greatness, then how come he wasn't? I suppose I used Woodward/Bernstein as my investigative reporter models and, indeed, the more turns I stoned over the more I found. One lead would invariably to several others and those to several other. Slowly, as I built my now-substantial archive, a grand picture of Lord Buckley began to emerge: a kind of hip Zelig whose passage through the first half of the last century resembled a Joseph Cambellesque Hero's Journey. From the impoverished son of a coal-miner to the impoverished shaman seer who died a martyr's death and encountered and/or influenced the most unlikely cast of American charcters (Capone, Ed Sullivan, James Dean, Henry Miller, Yardbird Parker, the Beatles), this was a story of one magnificent man's travels in the American subterrain. So, to bring this first ramble to a close, my answers to your questions are as follows: 1. My motivation for writing "Dig Infinity" was to share Buckley's achievement with as wide an audience as possible. Briefly, the world is screwed up and the only positive answers I ever seem to get are from its artists. As a master, I felt his art and vision of planetary unity could help, if only in some small way, as being part of some kind of good-hearted solution. 2. The process involved much telephone interview/transcribing type work along with the usual needle in a haystack research quest in bookstores, friend's personal libraries, and (probably most fruitfully), the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center (recentely remodeled, ironically enough, by James Polshek. 3. My wife did get a little jealous. 4. Though I can't recall any dreams about Buckley (though I'm sure I had 'em) I can say that I felt his spirit visited me on one definite occassion and perhaps several others. Specifically, I felt a presence in my office in 1992 that whispered in my ear "Are you there?" I think it was him. 5. Sometimes I wish I had never undertook the project or ever wish to hear his name again. But mostly I feel really proud that I went where none had gone before and returned with my little slice of truth and beauty. I suspect I will continue shilling for his exquisite corpse until the day I die. 6. I have too many other buns in the oven to feel post-pertum. Let the games begin...
Michael Simmons (michaelsimmons) Thu 11 Jul 02 16:07
If Lord Buckley were to emerge today, what kind of reaction would he get? Towards the end of his life, the nascent black power movement called him on his appropriation of African-American patois. Would he be politically incorrect now? Also, much of his material was based on Melville, the Bible, Dickens, and other literary classics. Living as we do in an illiterate, dumbed down society, would the masses understand Buckley's references? Would it matter if they didn't?
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Thu 11 Jul 02 17:14
Naturally I like to believe Lord B would be embraced by many levels of the culture from the avant-garde to the hip-hoppers, from the punks to the Deadheads, from the academy to your local public school. I, myself, have recited some of his material to all of these demographics (and everyone in between) and have met with near unanimous approval and interest. It is, however, one of my secret wishes that he be condemned by both the religious right and the oh-so sanctimonious P.C. left. How close they sometimes seem to be, huh? My argument is, of course, that a white man has as much right to sing the blues as a black man does to play Beethoven. I don't see people having hissy fits over, say Bill Evans's contribution to jazz or Wynton M's excursions into the classical realm. And to bring the debate into a more mainstream, mass-culture realm, it seems to me that most of the negative reaction to Enimem (sp?) is due to the violence and misogeny in his act, not his skin color. Re: Buckley's drawing on classic lit, the Bible, myth, etc.: these stories have power in their own right and basically almost everyone has some grasp of some part of them. Who has never heard the stories of Jonah & the Whale, Scrooge, Jesus, or the Shakespeare monologues His Lordship chose to hippify? These are univeral, bedrock stories of the culture and are absorbed almost by osmosis the world over. Almost everyone has some familiarity with them and to those with more, the classic Buckley routines will come off as all the more richer. Heck, listen to AM radio and hear those Baptist preachers testify some Sunday morning. They aren't reading from the Bible, but retelling the stories in their own powerful vernacular. I'll grant you, Buckley can get pretty far out there (some of the references I'm still even trying to figure out). But, like Coltrane, the more you listen the more swinging and accesible it becomes. While I agree that society may have its illiterate, dumbed-down homogeneous swaths of banality and ignorance, I also think that the sophistication quotiant is still very high and has perhaps increased since B's 1960 death. Bottom line: if shared with the correct tone, I see no reason why his admirers couldn't one day potentially number in the millions. But don't forget with whom your typing.
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Thu 11 Jul 02 17:27
This also occurs to me: can any half-literate, semi-sensitive person listen to Bukley's raps and think that he was in any way mocking his subjects or sources?
Michael Simmons (michaelsimmons) Fri 12 Jul 02 02:10
In response to your last -- what I assume was rhetorical -- question, I don't know what to expect from half-literate, semi-sensitive people. Truth be told, I don't know what to expect from anyone these days, so I've stopped expecting very much. My lack of expectations concerning the human race makes me appreciate visionaries like His Lordship even more. He set a high watermark -- a stew 'n' brew of intelligence, literacy, street smarts, musical ear and rhythmic sense, and -- most importantly -- outrageous wit rarely if ever matched. Which brings me to my next question: what was it about Lord Buckley which made him popular -- and as you point out, remains appreciated -- amongst hipsters, quipsters and thoughtful beings of many generations? Buckley's material never seems dated and he's dug by Ed Sullivan, Jerry Garcia, Dizzy Gillespie, Robin Williams, Studs Terkel, Roseanne, and Kesey. This is a helluva diverse crowd. By the way, in an earlier off-WELL conversation I recounted to you the story of my late mother as a teenager in the late 1940s being pulled onstage from the audience by Buckley to be part of a skit. Even within my own family, we've got 2 generations of Buckley fans.
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Fri 12 Jul 02 03:29
I love that story about your mom. Where/when did it happen again? And solid...generalizing about the rest of the populance is always a dangerous game. Buckley's popularity among the hipnoscente (and, as you point out, a wide and always curiously unlikely variety of them) may have to with his very obscurity. People always like to be onto something below the radar. Like Kesey said, perhaps Lord Buckley is some secret thing meant to be passed under the table like some kaballistic sorcerer's talisman of cool. Also, those you mentioned and so many of the others both in the book and not are literate, sensitive, insightful, creative, vital souls. I think it's only natural that they would spot one of their own.
Berliner (captward) Fri 12 Jul 02 11:36
I just want you to know that the other day I woke up, got my e-mail, saw in the Salon headlines thing that there was a review of this book, went to Salon and read it and then went to amazon.co.uk and ordered one. In that order. One piece of paper I saved many years ago was an author's query from the NY Times Book Review in which Buckley's daughter, who had a Las Vegas address, was asking for material for a forthcoming biog which never forthcame. Did you meet her, deal with her, and did she offer you any of the stuff she'd accumulated -- assuming, of course, that she accumulated any?
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 12 Jul 02 12:30
(Off-WELL readers who would like to contribute a qestion or comment are invited to send email to email@example.com )
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Fri 12 Jul 02 12:46
First off, thanks for contributing to the tuition fund. Lord B. has a bit of a UK following. Re: Laurie and her syblings. Met 'em, realized we were never gonna get on the same page, shared stuff with 'em (never them with me), and proceeded to develop my archive and book without 'em.
RUSirius (rusirius) Fri 12 Jul 02 13:35
Pardon the interuption, but man... your bio... wow! please email me... firstname.lastname@example.org ok, carry on...
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 12 Jul 02 13:37
Who are yu talking to, RU? Oliver or Michael?
flying jenny (jenslobodin) Fri 12 Jul 02 14:35
ohboyohboy, this is gonna be so much fun!
Michael Simmons (michaelsimmons) Fri 12 Jul 02 15:22
All I know about my mother's interaction with Buckley was that it took place in NYC in the late 1940's. Beyond that, I know nothing and she's not around for me to ask. Is there anyone currently -- known or unknown -- in your opinion, who comes close to being on the same cosmically talented level as His Lordship?
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Fri 12 Jul 02 17:42
Steven Ben Israel is a New York City performance shaman whose all-too-infrequent performances of an evolving one-man presentation, "Non-Violent Executions," should be staged at least weekly. Cosmic poetic storytelling at its best. Steve came up through the Living Theater scene and is a monster presence, a one-of-a-kind unreconstructed hepster seer. Other than him, I'd take Wayne Newton.
Gerry Feeney (gerry) Fri 12 Jul 02 17:44
Fascinating! I first heard of Lord Buckley in the latter part of 1968. I was an avid listener of what was then a new and rather obscure LA radio station known as KMET-FM. Though it was a commercial station, it featured precious few commercials, and those were of local merchants - no agency ads at all. Ah, the salad days of progressive FM rock stations... Anyway, it was right after the Beatles' White album was released and "Hey Jude" was a big hit. KMET aired a long Lord Buckley piece - a hip account of Jesus and his 12 Apostles - to show the source of Paul's interjection of "Make it, Jude!" in the song. At the time, there was no doubt in my mind that Lord Buckley was black. And gifted. Well, I got one right, anyway.
Michael Simmons (michaelsimmons) Sat 13 Jul 02 00:33
Ya know, Oliver, the late, great Terence McKenna used to say there was lots o'synchronicity between people who have, ahem, shared certain experiences of a plant or chemical based nature, if ya dig and I know you do. I've been meaning to tell you that the first time I heard Lord Buckley was also on Bob Fass' "Radio Unnameable" on WBAI, but my first exposure was late '60s. Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah. I got you beat by a few lunar twists, bro. I also knew Steve Ben Israel and was happy to read his words in "Dig Infinity: the Life and Art of Lord Buckley", your new book which we've been discussing on this here website for the last day and is, ahem again, available for purchase as we speak. Steve used to come up to the Lampoon when I was cashing a paycheck for being an editor and he'd put his feet up on our desks and have us roaring for hours, disabling us from getting any work done which was fine with me. We've touched on some of the twistos who were influenced by Lord Buckley, who influenced him? Also, it was interesting to learn in your book that Buckley made a huge impression on the young sponge-like brain of Bob Dylan.
Michael Simmons (michaelsimmons) Sat 13 Jul 02 00:37
By the by, speaking of synchronicity, I was listening to Wayne Newton's rendition of "Red Roses For A Blue Lady" just the other day and marvelling how much Lord Buckley had insinuated his jeu d'esprit in that sponge!
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Sat 13 Jul 02 03:49
Synchroncity is always spoken around me. My coincidences have coincidences so to hear of your connections with Fass/Steve Ben is not surprising. Who influenced Buckley? For his classic raps ("Nazz," "Jonah" etc.) Louis Armtsrong, definitely, the black church, and jazz. For pieces like "Murder," I gotta believe it was those B (and not so B) gangster films of the '40s. Life experience ("God's Own Drunk," "Subconcsious Mind," and "My Own Railroad".) One guy's name who I don't I mentioned in the book is Fats Waller. I've had a record of his on the turntable (it still works!) lately and it strikes me that Lord B MUST have been soaking him up. Of course there were other cats like Slim Gaillard and Babs Gonzales who also mined the 'umouros jazz scat expression. But none of them thought to apply them to the classics. That leap by Buckley seemed to open up a whole new strata of possibility... Buckley's influence on Dylan and the Beatles is probably Buckley's most profound. Really, Lord B seemed to impact folk and rock way more than he did spoken word or comedy. The "Hey Jude" connection that Gerry mentions is pretty obvious once you hear 'em side by side and I was happy to collect some comments by George Harrison re: "Crackerbox Palace" in Dig Infinity! Though I was able to get to Dylan's "people," he never seemed too interested in contributing to the book. That's just about the only major regret I have in terms of not including the words of someone ib "DI!" But the connection, as can be read in the "Straight to the Road of Love" chapter posted by the WELL is solid enough without his comments.
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Sat 13 Jul 02 05:11
My first exposure to Lord B. was through (get ready to laugh) Jimmy Buffett. "God's Own Drunk" I thought it was great. Is there a list anywhere of other performers who perform Lord Buckley monologues? (on record, I mean)
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Sat 13 Jul 02 08:45
I dig Jimmy B's GOD as well. He recorded a couple of versions. The better one, in my opinion, was on "Living & Dying in 3/4 Time." The other on the live "You Had to Be There" collection. The piece does fit in well with his whole Margaritaville thang. Dylan's "Black Cross" has never been officially released but available on bootleg with some searching and, no doubt, for a price. A rarity is Jon Sinclair's (not the MC5 guy) 45 rpm release of "The Nazz" complete with a gospel vocal backing on a Charisma Records disc. Could be some others I'm forgetting about off the top of my head. But, needless to say, the list is pretty skimpy. There are loads of very good Buckley performer/channelers out there (poke around lordbuckley.com--"long neo tube" I think to find out more. One of my little dreams is a Lord B. tribute album with well-known (and maybe not so well-known) performers doing his material. Imagine Whoopi Goldberg doing "Chastity Belt" or Sean Penn doing "Bad-Rapping of the Marquis De Sade," Kevin Kline doing hips Shakespeare, or Robin Williams doing just about anyone of 'em. The last chapter in "DI!" deals pretty heavily with how Lord B's legacy has found its way into various media over the decades (music, comix, films, lit, etc.).
Daniel (dfowlkes) Sat 13 Jul 02 09:52
<scribbled by dfowlkes Tue 3 Jul 12 10:14>
Oliver Trager (oliver-trager) Sat 13 Jul 02 10:13
Dan...had a chance to wrap your wig around its many leaves or listen to the CD yet? Would love your impressions.
Berliner (captward) Sat 13 Jul 02 10:14
Mine's been shipped! Awaiting breathlessly.
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