BRATTLEBORO — Lord Richard Buckley was, as Bob Dylan wrote in his memoir, "a hipster bebop preacher who defied category."
Lord Buckley was a white American jazz comedian, visionary storyteller/philosopher and beatnik rapper best remembered for his self-styled classic and dynamic "hipsemantic" word jazz monologues.
I was first exposed to Lord Buckley's amazing monologues as a Lit major — and jazz freak — at Bennington College in the mid-1970s. His melange of oral and musical traditions combined with a buoyant worldview grabbed me like few things had before or have since. I listened and re-listened to this tongue-dancing shaman swinging who rapped in a syncopated hep cat patois a kaleidoscopic commentary on life, religion, philosophy and art.
Who was this six-and-a-half-foot-tall ex-Vaudevillian invoking both the language and manners of English aristocracy and the argot of Jazz Age urban black America? A stand-up comic championing the causes of Jesus Christ and the Marquis de Sade in the course of a single gig?
I came to view Buckley as a neglected genius whose work not only should be acknowledged at the highest levels and was far ahead of its time but contained messages and meanings that very much embraced the human condition in all its sublime and melancholy glory.
With the linguistic fluorescence of James Joyce and the fiery passion of a black stump preacher, Lord Buckley captured the post-World War II exuberance of Bebop and the Beat Generation while anticipating the civil rights struggles by a decade and psychedelia by two. The essence of Buckley's best, both satirically condemn social ills and identify enlightening solutions.
Onstage and off, Lord Buckley assumed the manner of an English nobleman, becoming a most immaculately hip aristocrat with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, twirling his Daliesque mustache and gracefully drawing on his omnipresent cig — his massive frame cloaked in a tuxedo, a fresh carnation attached smartly to the lapel.
After researching his life in depth, I wrote "Dig Infinity! The Life & Art of Lord Buckley," still the only biography of this most Quixotic creatures of the American cultural sub-terrain but this did not slake my thirst for all things Buckley. I wrote a screenplay based on my research — also titled "Dig Infinity!" — that I adapted into a stage-friendly presentation. Slowly honing my skills as a performer and learning the impossibly dense and nuanced Buckley riffs on myths, I immersed myself in his repertoire in the same spirit that any jazz combo or symphony orchestra worth their salt might present the works of Charlie Parker or Beethoven.
"Dig Infinity!" is not a period piece recreation of a forgotten performer's nightclub act. I very much aim at addressing the unsettling contemporary moment or, as Buckley would say, "the pounce of the now." Unlike nearly other Buckley performing interpreters (and there are many quite excellent ones and I've learned from all of them), I don't adopt the tux and tails look. Rather, I approach the whole presentation and catalogue with the spirit of a folkster — making it my own in both costume and dramatic framing as Dylan might approach a Lead Belly song while staying true to the cadence of delivery and core of the worldview. Members of my audiences have commented that I "channel" Buckley but, to me, it feels more like a form of possession.
I've come to regard Lord Buckley as a kind of modern day shaman and I try to bring that sensibility to my performance. Really, what I am going after is a kind of sacred ritual in shaping Buckley's life, art and ethos as a kind of portal of shamanic transcendence, a vision of a vision. Buckley, himself, described the bohemian nightclubs and bucket-of-blood strip joints at which he performed as "high atomic chapels." And he wasn't kidding. I want my audience to be transformed, enlightened, entranced, and buoyed, not "entertained" or merely entertained. And I want them to laugh for as Buckley said, "humor is the oil of the soul."
"Dig Infinity!" in all its manifestations is envisioned as both a preservation and reclamation project — one that passes on the repertoire and shares Lord Buckley's vision of a better world. For people, he said, "are the true flowers of life."
Trager will perform his multi-media, one-man show "Dig Infinity!" on Lord Buckley with Derrik Jordan accompaniment at 118 Elliot on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 8 p.m.