Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger Poppin’ Daddies!

Dig And Thou Shalt Be Dug!

by C. P. Lee

Lord Buckley

To the people who don’t know, to be cool means to believe. To stay cool is to have the sweet fragments of serenity rock your wig away.
Lord Buckley

The title I use for this column is taken from a routine by a guy called Lord Buckley. It’s from a series of raps that he did entitled ‘The Hiparama of the Classics’ where he took a series of themes and stories and reworked them into ‘hip’ jive talk. ‘Hipsters, Flipsters’ is the opening line of Mark Anthony’s funeral oration from Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘Friends, Romans and countrymen’.

Now you see, in Hip Talk, they call William Shakespeare, ‘Willie the Shake!’ You know why they call him Willie the Shake? Because HE SHOOK EVERYBODY! They gave this cat five cents worth of ink and a nickel’s worth of paper and he sat down and wrote up such a storm that WHAM! – He shook everybody. Pen in hand he was a mother superior!
Lord Buckley

And its pertinence to Bob Dylan? In Dylan’s early days in New York he used to perform one of Buckley’s routines, ‘The Black Cross’ – Honourable mentions of the Lord also appear in a Dylan poem dating from 1963 – ‘an Moondog’s beatin his drum an sayin his lines / an Lord Buckley’s memory still movin/ an Doc Watson’s still walkin…. ‘ (From ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ (sic), published in Hootenanny) Buckley also crops up again in Tarantula, and, most significantly, on the mantelpiece on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home, is a copy of ‘The Best of Lord Buckley’ LP on prominent display. Clearly, Dylan was a fan of the eccentric jazz comic’s work.

I first heard recordings of Buckley (who died in 1960) in 1966, just shortly after the Free Trade Hall concert. It was part of my education back then to be subjected to a wide variety of ‘alternative’ influences, music, books, films, etc, by an older group of musicians, mainly jazz players who hung around on the fringes of the rock scene in Manchester. I wasn’t aware of the Dylan connection at that point, but somehow the two together always made a kind of sense because both were using language in a revolutionary way. In 1980 I was approached to write and perform a one-man show based on Lord Buckley’s life and that’s when I realised that I might have bitten off more than I could chew.

Let me hip you to a little something brothers and sisters – When you make love – MAKE IT!
 Lord Buckley

There simply wasn’t very much information around about the man himself. There were bits and pieces, but it was mainly anecdotal and fragmentary. Often it was contradictory as well. It wasn’t until 1983 that I discovered the Lord’s wife, Lady Buckley was alive and kicking in New York, as was his son. By then I’d gathered enough bits and pieces to put together a show, but the full story was elusive.

Over the next ten/fifteen years a small but dedicated band of ‘cats and kitties’ began to discover one another as interest in the ‘Hip Messiah’ began to grow. Dylan fans were partly behind this resurgence in the search for information about this unique character. Their relentless tracking down of anything even remotely of a peripheral influence on Dylan brought more stories and legends out of the archives of oblivion.

For instance – In 1960 the BBC broadcast a TV documentary, directed by Dennis Mitchell, entitled ‘Chicago: 1st Impression Of A Great American City’ – Quite what British TV viewers of that time made of the appearance of a manic eyed, six foot four American retelling the story of Christ in a fake English aristocratic accent, we’ll never know, but the significance for Dylan fans is that it was recorded at the Gate of Horn Club in Chicago. A venue that was originally owned by Albert Grossman and was being managed at the time by Howard Alk. The Christ story, by the way, was called – ‘The Nazz’

You all remember the story of the Nazz? The little carpenter who was so solid when he laid it down – it STAYED there!’
  Lord Buckley

The whole point of this preamble is to shout loud from the rooftops that finally, at last, after an enormously long wait, a biography of Lord Buckley has just been published. People have tried to get it together before, Albert Goldman to name but one, but all attempts seem to have failed because publishers have been wary of supporting a project examining the life and high times of an obscure hipster comic who died over forty years ago.

It’s to the credit then of biographer Oliver Trager, that he managed to enthuse Welcome Rain Publishers of New York to produce a sumptuous hard-backed tome, entitled Dig Infinity! – The Life And Art of Lord Buckley – and the wait has been worth it.

Oliver, who has also published ‘The American Book of The Dead: The Definitive Grateful Dead Encyclopedia’, spent a good few years researching this volume, gathering interviews from a whole range of sources. A cursory examination of a sample few goes to show just how far-reaching Buckley’s influence has been – Robin Williams, George Harrison, Gerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, Bonnie Beecher, Wavy Gravy, Dick Gregory, Red Rodney and Milt Holland, amongst many, many others.

Throughout the pages of this book we hear how Lord Buckley learned on the road as a comedy MC in Walkathons (endurance spectacles as seen in the movie ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’), that –

The Negroes spoke a language of such power, purity and immaculate beauty that it said – BY HIP, ZIG ZING! – EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE!
   Lord Buckley

Influenced by the newly emerging Be-Bop jazz movement, he began to free-form language, adopting the vocal mannerisms of jazz soloists to spray his audiences with a scatter gun of words, sounds, moods and improvisations:

Buckley and Lenny (Bruce) were both jazz. People used to say that Lenny Briuce was very musical, not just the routine, “Did ya come? Did ya come? Did ya come good?” But there are other ones that are very musical too. Besides, performing in those places, their work was jazz – verbal jazz.

Buckley, you might even say, was more lyrical or poetic. Something like ‘The Hip Ghan’ or ‘The Nazz’, he took in terms of the jazz world. It’s almost like explaining it to white people in code.

Robin Williams Dig Infinity! Follows Buckley’s bizarre life and adventures in a chronological, but highly readable manner. There are times when you wonder how members of the Royal Court could put up with his outrageous behaviour, then Buckley’s own voice bursts through and you understand completely:

I’d like to lay a freaky little wig bubble on you my noble lords and ladies – It’s from a book and the book is called ‘The Horses Mouth’ – The hero of the book is a cat called Gully Jimson, and there’s a very beautiful line at the end of the book – Gully Jimson lays the line and it’s the last line in the book – They’re carrying him into a hospital, an he’s dying – but he’s swinging – He’s leaping and a jumping – He’s laying it down you know?

He’s carrying it and he’s carrying on – and it’s a Catholic hospital, and they have all these nuns in there, dig? And he’s still swinging man – He’s going out, but he’s going out crazy, dig? – So the nurses are a little shook up – One nun she leans on over to him and she says – ‘Mister Jimson… At a time like this, don’t you think you should laugh a little less and pray a little more?’

And he looked on up at her and said – ‘They’re both the same thing, madam’ and cut out! Because, when you stop to think about it, love and laughter are both the same thing – Love and laughter are truly religious – Laughter, it swings its sweet song from the subconscious – When a person’s laughing they’re illuminated – Illuminated! – Full of the joy and the power and beauty of being a human being – And when a woman laughs – Phew! Wowee! Vibrations, mother magnet!

I mean, when you’re laughing at something, don’t you find yourself thinking – ‘Oh, I wish John or Mary were here – They’d love this!’ Because you’re thinking love, you’re vibrating love – Laughter is a prayer. I can’t dig this Jeehova cat – I’m a people worshipper – I think people should worship people, I really do. I want to worship something I can get my hands on, something I can feel – Because, when you stop to think about it – there’s an awful lot of good ways for a person to be wicked!

That was the kind of rap that the Lord was laying down all his wonderful, crazy, deliciously mad life, and this is the essence that Oliver Trager has captured in his book. For anyone interested in American culture, Bob Dylan (there’s a whole section devoted to Dylan’s involvement with Buckley in the book), jazz, language, vaudeville, comedy, or simply a darn good read, this is the book for you. It even comes with a free CD of Buckley delights to give you an audio insight into the man’s art.

Dig Infinity! The Life & Art of Lord Buckley Published by Welcome Rain Publishers Available (at the moment) through Soon to be stocked by Helter Skelter, London.