Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday Sacrilege or That Jesus Through Hep Cat Eyes

Lord Buckley and his inspiration for The Nazz.

For traditional Christians today, Good Friday, is the most solemn day of Holy Week—the commemoration of Christ’s corporal sacrifice and suffering on the Cross.  In the spirit of medieval passion plays or more recently in Mel Gibson’s blood drenched The Passion of the Christ we are supposed to viscerally feel each sting of the lash, the bite of the Crown of Thorns, the nails driven into flesh, the spear thrust in the side, and the agony of slow suffocation.  All the better to appreciate the sacrifice of the Son of God to save our miserable and undeserving souls.  Rough stuff but in many eyes mystical and holy.
So Good Friday is an opportunity to contemplate the guy Carl Sandburg called “That Jesus.” And through the ages art, music, and poetry has done just that.  Poetry, in particular, has recast the man and the story repeatedly in ways that a changing world or different cultures could understand and relate to.  This is one of those re-tellings.
Who and what was Lord Buckley?  A man with an obscure past—he was once a West Coast lumber jack who may have carried an IWW Red Card—who had assumed the persona of a British nobleman who was also the most hep cat who could be found in any smoke filled jazz dive.  What he did was more difficult to categorize—a comedian, story teller, poet, performance artist long before there was such a thing, fabulist, or fraud.
The pieces he came to perform in night clubs, on infant television, and on recordings were utterly unlike anything anyone ever heard before.  In the immediate post-World War II years he was not just incorporating jazz riffs in his performance he was Cab Calloway channeling T.S. Eliot.  He was Beat before beatniks.  And his work, whatever the hell it was inspired generations of poets and artists from Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti to Lenny Bruce, Kurt Vonnegut, Ken Kesey, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Tom Watts and even hip-hop artists—some of his routines were even called raps.
And it was all in the oral tradition.  Most of it was never published in his life time and exists only in those recordings that captured single performances of what were often as improvised as a Dizzy Gillespie take on an American standard.  Some of these have also been preserved by transcription, including the featured piece today.  Other friends and writers including Joseph S. Newman and later Mel Welles wrote or contributed to some pieces, Lord Buckley himself is considered the primary creator. 
So was what he did poetry?  It sure as hell sounds like it to my ears close enough for one of those transcriptions to make it to this post.
A snap shot of part of down town Tuolnumne, California during the future Lord Buckley's childhood.  Perhaps he and his sister sang for pennies in front of these very stores....

He was born Richard Myrle Buckley on April 5, 1906 in Tuolumne, California a remote former gold rush camp and lumbering community north of Yosemite National Park.  His father, William Buckley was from Manchester England and had arrived in San Francisco a few years later as a stowaway.  He got a rough sort of education in local schools but evidently was well steeped in Shakespeare, British poetry, and other classic literature under his father’s influence.  At an early age he showed a flair for performing when he and a sister sang and recited in the rough lumbermen’s saloons for pocket change and illicit sips of beer.  Later as a young man he went to work in the woods himself in the skilled and highly dangerous job of tree toper.
Somehow he drifted into performing and by the Depression years was in Chicago where among other gigs he emceed dance marathons at the old Chicago Coliseum.  He also worked as a burlesque comic.  By the time of the Century of Progress he was operating his own nightclub said to be a Mob front, Chez Buckley on Western Avenue.  He was hanging out with jazz musicians, strippers, sporting men, and vipers.  He sopped up their language, swagger, and marijuana and was working it into his act.  By the time World War II broke out he was the heppest cat north of Bronzeville.
Buckley in the 1940's--his stage persona not yet fully realized--evoked just the kind of film noir character you might expect from a former burlesque emcee and front man for a Chicago Mob night club.
After the U.S. entered the war Buckley closed his Chicago club and spent much of his time touring state-side Amy posts, Navy bases, and hospitals with USO troupes.  He became close friends with New York sports reporter and gossip columnist Ed Sullivan who emceed many of the shows.  He also began making guest appearances on radio shows.
After the war Buckley shifted his base from Chicago to the Big Apple where Sullivan and musician pals like Cab Calloway and Bebop musicians like Dizzy Gillespie helped him get bookings in both Greenwich Village hipster hangouts and uptown white tie night clubs.  He was putting the final touches on the fully realized character of Lord Buckley—by all appearances a proper British nobleman straight from the House of Lords, tall, erect, and proper with a waxed moustache and silver grey hair.  He was togged in heavy tweeds or evening wear as the occasion demanded.  He often topped either outfit off with a pith helmet suggesting a Col. Blimp in some colonial outpost.  When he opened his mouth the accent and precise enunciation was Hyde Park and Mayfair.  But the words were Harlem jive, so hep that he sounded like he spoke a foreign language to folks from the hinterlands.
When Sullivan got his Toast of the Town on the new CBS Television Network in 1948, he introduced those folks from Peoria to Lord Buckley who would often do a jive take on some classic piece famously including the Gettysburg Address, Marc Antony’s funeral soliloquy from Julius Cesare, or Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven.  Sullivan continued to regularly feature Buckley on his shows right up the end of the monologist’s life.
Lord Buckley's first record album--a 10 inch LP on RCA Victor.

Through the ‘50’s Buckley slowly became a cult cultural icon.  His record albums like Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger Poppin’ Daddies Knock Me Your Lobes (RCA, 1955),  Euphoria, and Euphoria Vol.2 (Vaya Records 1955 and ’56) did not sell millions but were on the turntable at every hip party coast to coast and repeated late night listening for the stoned. His outrageous humor, surrealism, and jazz riffs influenced other cultural icons like Tom Lehrer, Ken Nordine and his Word Jazz, and later the Firesign Theater. 
In addition to his turns on the Ed Sullivan Show, Buckley showed up elsewhere on the tube, most famously with Groucho Marx on a You Bet Your Life episode in 1956.  The appearance has become a YouTube classic and can be viewed here.  In 1959 he created the character Go Man Van Gogh for Bob Clampett’s animated series Beany and Cecil.  After his death the character was portrayed by Scatman Cruthers.

In addition to his turns on the Ed Sullivan Show, Buckley showed up elsewhere on the tube, most famously with Groucho Marx on a You Bet Your Life episode in 1956.  The appearance has become a YouTube classic and can be viewed here.  In 1959 he created the character Go Man Van Gogh for Bob Clampett’s animated series Beany and Cecil.  After his death the character was portrayed by Scatman Cruthers.
To no one’s surprise Buckley became an early experimenter with then legal clinical LSD which he took under the supervision of psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Oscar Janiger.
It was inevitable that such an outrageous avant-garde figure would sooner or later run afoul of authorities.  His Biblical raps offended the powerful Catholic Legion of Decency.  Although not overtly political his routines smacked of anti-authoritarianism and aroused suspicions of Communist sympathies.  Worst of all, was his cultural race-mixing, corrupting White literary canon with Negro argot as well as playing before integrated crowds and cavorting with ghetto low lifes.
In the last year of his life during a booking a the Gate of Horn, Lord Buckly was interviewed by Studs Terkel and shared memories of old times in Chicago.

New York Police Commissioner Stephen Kennedy, who knew just how to get favorable mention in a Walter Winchell column, put Buckley in his crosshairs.  On October 19, 1960 Buckley was pulled mid-performance from the stage of the Jazz Gallery in St. Mark’s Place.  He was charged with falsifying the information on his Cabaret Card—a license required to work in New York—for neglecting to list a 1941 marijuana arrest.  Cabaret Cards were frequently used as a bludgeon against “socially deviant performers and political dissidents.  Threatened revocation was also often a blatant shake down for a bribe to corrupt authorities.   .
Buckley’s case became an immediate cause celeb.  At a card revocation hearing three days later Commissioner Kennedy, who appeared in person, got into a shouting confrontation with a crowd of his supporters who included Quincy Jones, George Plimpton, and Norman Mailercounter cultural heavy hitters all.  It did not good.  Buckley’s card was revoked.  All of his desperate attempts to get it back failed.  He never worked again.
On November 12, 1960, less than a month after the ordeal began, the stress contributed to a stroke.  Buckley died in Columbus Hospital at the age of only 54.  Like another later victim of police harassment, Lenny Bruce, his death made him a martyr to free expression. 
Public outrage led to the ouster of Commissioner Kennedy in 1961 and his persecution was cited when the Cabaret Card was finally abolished in 1967.
After Buckley’s death unreleased studio recordings, live sessions, and compilations continued to be pressed.  Then radio’s Dr. Demento introduced him to new generations of teenage nerds in their parents’ basements and dorm rooms. 
Recently his work has received new attention.  Hip hop artists like Jaylib and Madvillain have sampled his riffs.  In 2015 Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books released a new edition of Hiparama of the Classics, first published in 1960 making Buckley’s work easily available in print for the first time in decades.  Later this year a feature-length documentary, Too Hip for the Room: The Righteous Reign of Lord Buckley is scheduled for release.
The Nazz was transcribed from the recording made for this L.P.

And now Lord Buckley’s greatest masterpiece as recorded in 1954.  I have abridged and introductory party passage.
The Nazz
Well I’m gonna put a cat on you was the sweetest, gonest, wailingest cat that ever stomped on this sweet swingin’ sphere.
And they called this here cat...The Nazz. That was the cats name. He was a carpenter-kitty.
Now The Nazz was the kind of a cat that come on so wild and so sweet and so strong and so with it that, when he laid it—wham!—it  stayed the re. Naturally all the rest of the cats looked to see what he puttin’ down. They said “Man, look at the cat blow...let the cat go...the man lookit...get out the way...let the...” He said “Man, don’tt bug me. Get off my back—I’m tryin’ to dig what the cat’s saying’, Jack ...” He say, “cool.” They pushin’ The Nazz, because they want to dig his lick, you see—dig his miracle lick.
So The Nazz say “Wait a minute, babies. Tell you what I’m a-goin’ to do. I ain’t goin’ to take two, four, six, eight of you cats—But, I’m goin’ to take twelve of you studs and stra”ighten you all at the same time. You cats look like you pretty hip boys. You buddy wit’ me.
So The Nazz and his buddies was goofin’ off down the boulevard one day and they run into a little cat wit’ a bent frame. So The Nazz look at this little cat with the bent frame and he say “What's the matter wit’ you, baby?” And the little cat with the bent frame, he say “Well, my frame is bent, Nazz—it’s been bent from in front.”
So The Nazz look at the little cat with the bent frame and he put the golden eyes of love on this here little kiddie and he looked right down into the windows of his soul and he say to the little cat, he say “Straighten!” The cat went up straighter’n an arrow and everyone jumpin’ up and down and sayin’  “Look what The Nazz put on that boy! You dug him before—dig him now!”
When the Saints go marching in
When the Saint go marching in
I wants to be in that number
When the Saints go marching in.
Say when the Saints go marching in
When the Saint go marching in
I wants to be in that number
When the Saints go marching in.
Yes! I can feel it! Now you see The Nazz a-comin’ on so strong and so fine and so great, talkin’ about when's he gonna appear next, what did he do there, he put it down once for the cat, the cat dug it, didn’t dig it. Put it down twice, dug it, didn’t dig it. Put it down the third time, the cat dug it—wham!—walked away with his eyes buggin’ out here ‘n’ there bumpin’ into ever’body.
The Nazz comin’ on so fine and so strong, they pullin’ on his coat-tail, they wantin’ him to sign the autograph, they want him to do this gig here, they want him to do that gig there, they want him to make the radio and the video and all that jazz—he can’t make all that jazz! Like I explained to you, the cat’s a carpenter kiddie, he’s got his own lick. But when he know he should show to blow and can not go, ‘cause he got some strain on him, he sends a couple of these cats that he’s straightenin’.
So came a little old 50-cent gig one day, and The Nazz couldn’t make it so he put it on two of these  cats, he says “Boys, go straighten that...that little riff over there.” Boys said “Take it off your mind, Nazz—we got it covered.” So on the way over the boys run into a little old 20-cent pool of water, and they gets right in the middle of it in the boat and all of a sudden—blam!—a thunderstorm...the lightnin’ flashin’ and the thunder roarin’ and the boat goin’ up and down and these poor cats thinkin’ ev'ry minute gonna be their last and one cat look up and...
Here come The Nazz, cool as anyone you ever see, right across the water...walkin’! And The Nazz... there;s a little boy on board—I think his name was Jude on board the boat—he say: “Hey, Nazz! Can I make it out there with you?”
Nazz say “Make it, Jude!” And old Jude went stompin’ off that boat, took about four steps, dropped his hold card—The Nazz had to stash him back on board again.
So The Nazz look at these kiddies and he say “What’s the matter wit’ you babies now?” Says “What’s goin’ on here, boys?” He say “What’s takin’ place?" Say “What’s all this fuss about here? What’s goin’ on?”
They say MMan!” Say “What’s goin’ on?” Say “Can’t you see the storm stormin’ and the lightnin’ flashin’ and the thunder roarin’  ...?”
And The Nazz say “I told you stay cool, didn’t I, babies?”
When the Saints go marching in
When the Saint go marching in
I wants to be in that number
When the Saints go marching in.
Say when the Saints go marching in
When the Saint go marching in
I wants to be in that number
When the Saints go marching in.
Now the fame of The Nazz is jumpin’! The grapevine is shootin’ off sparks forty feet long and they talkin’ about what he said and how he stood up to all these big bad cats and dug all that bad jazz and put ‘em all down, and what he said he gonna do and where he’s gonna be and how he’s gonna be until the grapevine is jumpin’ so bad there is now sixteen thousand of these studs and kitties in the Nazz’s little home town where the cat live, lookin’ to get straight. Well...the Nazz know he can’t straighten them all there—it’s too small a place, don’t want to hang everybody up, nobody can make it. So The Nazz look out at these sixteen thousand studs and kiddies and he say to them :Come on, babies. Let’s cut on out down the road.
There went The Nazz, swingin’ away ahead of all these studs and kiddies, and sixteen thousand stompin’ up a big—oh!—big swingin’ beat behind him. And a great necklace of love is superchargin’ and chargin’ to ‘em and—oh!—it’s brother to brother and sister to sister and The Nazz is stompin’ on a sweet swingin’ beat goin’ down the road, Nazz talkin’ about how pretty the flowers, how pretty the hours, how pretty me, how pretty you, how pretty he, how pretty she...
Nazz had them pretty eyes—he wanted ever’body to see through his eyes so they could see how pretty it was.
And they havin’ such a wailin’, gorgeous, Mardi-Gras time that—before you know it—it was scarfin’ time and these poor cats is forty-two miles out of town—ain’t nobody got the first biscuit! Well The Nazz look at these cats and he say—they kickin’ the sand out there—The Nazz say “You hungry, ain’t you babies?”
They say “Yeah, Nazz! We diggin’ you so hard—what you puttin’ down—that we didn’t prepare, Nazz. We goofed—guess that’s what you’d call it.”
So The Nazz say “Well—we gots to take it easy here. We wouldn’t want to go ahead and order up somethin’ you might not like, would we?”
And they say “No, Nazz. You put it down—and we'll pick it up!”
So The Nazz step back a few paces and he say “Oh great swingin’ flowers of the fields!” And they said “Oh great nonstop singular sound of beauty!”. And The Nazz say “Stamp upon the terra!” And they hit it. And The Nazz say “Straighten your miracle the body!” The body went up. And he says “Straighten your arms!” The arms went up. And he said “Higher!” And the arms went higher.
And the Nazz say “Dig Infinity!”
And they dug it!
And when they did—wha ! The thunder went too, and they look in the left hand, there’s a great big sweet, stuffed, smoked fish. And in the other a big, thick loaf of that gone, crazy, honey-tastin’, nonstop, sweet, swingin’ Southern bread.
Why, these poor cats flipped!
Nazz never did nothin’ simple...
When he laid it, he laid it.
Say when the Saints go marching in
When the Saint go marching in
I wants to be in that number
When the Saints go marching in.
Say when the Saints go marching in
When the Saint go marching in
I wants to be in that number
When the Saints go marching in.
—Lord Buckley
from Euphoria Volume 1
transcribed by Michael Monteleone


1 comment:

  1. Wow! You just taught me all about a guy I've wondered about for years,ever since I heard Jimmy Buffett do a (credited) piece on his live album. I don't remember the name of it, but it was about a guy who gets "knee walkin, commode-huggin'drunk" while watching his brother's still so his brother could go vote. That bit caught my eye with the mention of voting. Or I guess it caught my 1obes.) I loved it and looked for more info on him, but it was 1979. No Internet. (And look how quickly we've come to take this for granted.) Thanks a lot for this post, and I loved "The Nazz." bty, my id refers to my blog, Fat Wanda's Dance Party, which I created but haven't used. Yet.