Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lord Buckley & Beyond: An Interview with Writer-Director-Performer-Scholar Oliver Trager

Oliver Trager    photo credit: Kevin Ryan

KIRPAL GORDON: I was totally knocked out by your performance of Lord Buckley earlier this month at the Gene Frankel Theater, but before we go there, for GSP readers uninitiated in the Hip Messiah’s ways, locate him on the map of the American underground.


OLIVER TRAGER:  Lord Buckley (1906-1960) was a white jazz comedian, visionary storyteller/philosopher, hipster saint, and premier beatnik rapper. Best remembered for his dynamic verbal representations of Shakespeare, Bible stories, history, classic literature, and mythology delivered in a self-styled, one-of-a-kind “hipsemantic” slang, Buckley's career in mid-20th century show business passed through many of the most significant phases of the American experience (minstrelsy, the dance marathons, burlesque, vaudeville, Swing Era jazz, bebop, Las Vegas, and the Beat Generation) and included encounters and collaborations with the era’s iconographic luminaries: Al Capone, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, James Dean, and, most notably, Ed Sullivan.

    The classic Lord Buckley raps recast incidents from history and mythology into a patois cross-pollinating scat singing, black jive talk and the King’s English. This odd alchemy often yielded spectacular results such as “The Nazz,” a hip retelling of three miracles in the life of Jesus Christ.

    In addition to Christ in “The Nazz,” Buckley employed his distinctive and compelling brogue to celebrate William Shakespeare (“Hipsters, Flipsters & Finger-Poppin’ Daddies”), Gandhi (“The Hip Gahn”), The Old Testament (“Jonah and the Whale”) ancient Rome (“Nero”), Edgar Allen Poe (“The Raven”), Albert Einstein (“The Hip Einie”), Charles Dickens (“Scrooge”) Abraham Lincoln (“Gettysburg Address”), and the Marquis de Sade (“The Bad Rapping of the Marquis de Sade”).

    Alternately, Lord Buckley developed other forms of presentation that drew on elements of Americana (“The Train”), racism (“Black Cross”), pathology (“Murder”), psychology (“Subconscious Mind”), politics (“Governor Slugwell” and “H-Bomb”), sexuality (“Chastity Belt”), and transcendence (“God's Own Drunk”).

    Buckley’s choice to translate the classics was no mere gimmick. By taking tales with which his audience was already familiar, he revealed how the spirit of the old heroes and heels contained contemporary meaning and importance. He infused his stories with visionary qualities and definite, if sometimes subtle, points of view. As he said in his hip version of the “Gettysburg Address”: “all Cats and Kitties, red, white or blue, are created level in front”—in essence, equal.

    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 the hippies’ notion of love and planetary unification by two. The essence of Buckley’s best both satirically condemns social ills and identifies enlightening solutions. Even today, if given the chance, Buckley could raise the hackles of both the Religious Right and the Politically Correct for all the wrong reasons.

    Onstage, 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 Lucky Strike—his massive frame cloaked in a tuxedo, a fresh carnation attached smartly to the lapel.

    The real-life Forrest Gump or Zelig of the American underground, Lord Buckley has remained a talismanic cipher since his mysterious death. The torch he lit was effectively grabbed by Lenny Bruce and the folk protest movement of the late 1950s and early ’60s. Other icons of the following decades who revere Lord Buckley include Bob Dylan, Robin Williams, the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Ken Kesey, Studs Terkel, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, Johnny Depp, Tom Waits, George Carlin, Roseanne, Jonathan Winters, and Whoopi Goldberg to name just a very few.

    Lord Buckley was that rare breed of artist who lived his art. He married six times, became an early member of Alcoholics Anonymous, started a jazz parish (The Church of the Living Swing), engendered his “Royal Court” (a mini-kingdom replete with Buckley’s peculiar sense of protocol and a lifestyle that might conservatively be described as libertine), and, most saliently, developed an earthy spiritual philosophy that captured all the joy and melancholy of the hipsters and beats of the 1940s and ’50s.

 Lord Buckley


KIRPAL GORDON: That earthy spiritual philosophy to which you allude was certainly captured by your script and your performance. Tell us something about your background.


OLIVER TRAGER: Coming of age in 1960s/1970s Manhattan, I am a multi-generational New Yorker, the product of assimilated Jewish parents wrapped up in the Mad Men era ad game, private school and a wide-ranging milieu connected with politics, business & the arts.

     My great aunt Mabel was a wanna-be Commie who enjoyed a close friendship with George Gershwin from childhood through his death in the 1930s and later actors Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford and others and other relatives were involved in the arts -- mostly theater -- so there was much creativity around and encouraged. But, other than pencil drawings of my sports idols, I didn’t really pursue any creative outlet until high school when I began taking stabs at sports writing, short stories and delving into the arts in a more earnest if still rather casual and haphazard way. My big dream then was to be the New York Rangers beat writer for the NY Times.

     I should emphasize that I went to a really progressive, do-your-own-thing high school (the no longer extant Elizabeth Seeger School) in the Village that nurtured my nascent creativity and expanding political conscience. Certainly by junior and senior year I had begun drinking from the artistic chalice and began experiencing a series of mini gestalts that all seemed to connect in some way or another and buoy my soul. Dylan & the Grateful Dead led me to jazz (Bird, Trane, Mingus), blues (Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, B.B. King), folk (Woody Guthrie), traditional American music, a little classical (Bartok being my fave then and now), Hank Williams & country music, and all the overlapping mystique and folklore associated with these artists and idioms.

     Jazz became the major thing for me in these years spanning late high school to college and beyond. Let’s not forget that this was a time when the genre was at a popular nadir which -- at least for me and my running buddies many of whom I still run around with -- was a good thing. This meant we could go to the Village Vanguard, lay down $3.50 and nurse a beer through at least a couple of sets from the likes of Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Bill Evans, Rahsaan Roland Kirk not to mention all the city’s other venues be it Carnegie Hall, the Bottom Line or fly-by-night holes in the wall (anybody remember the Ladies Fort on Bond St. or the Squat Theater on West 23rd?!?!) where we caught the likes of Dizzy, Miles, Buddy Guy, Gary Bartz and many, many more.

     Music was a prime obsession to be sure but New York was pretty edgy place back then -- not the prohibitively expensive and rather banal boutique it has since become -- and there were opportunities to experience Allen Ginsberg, the Living Theater, weird films at the old Thalia. Hey, even Moondog still prowled upper 6th Ave. and was an accessible and enlightening soul sharing his poetry and music to whomever passed by or took the plunge.

     My on-and-off matriculation at and eventual graduation from Bennington College was another major turning point. It was an amazing place at the time -- a nexus of vibrant creativity, it was a great, near perfect mix of stodgy tradition and jaw-dropping avant-garde. Camille Paglia was there then and novelists Bernard Malamud and John Gardner were a couple of the high-profile all-stars the school loved to boast of.

     But, along with a couple of lit professors (most memorably the incredible, recently deceased Claude Fredericks), it was two professors from the so-called “Black Music Department” who had a major impact on me: percussionist, martial artist and healer Milford Graves and trumpeter/composer Bill Dixon. Though not much of a musician then or now, I did take a percussion class with Professor Graves but both fellows (very different in temperament and approach to knowledge/experience sharing) offered very different lecture and writing classes that helped set me on a course rather different from my fellow lit majors.

     So, yeah, I’m soaking it all up now: Coltrane, Bird, Sun Ra, Mingus, Ellington, Eliot, Joyce, Yeats, the Beats, Pynchon, Shakespeare, Blake, Kurosawa, Dickens, Dante, Rilke. And, yeah, I admit it... sowing a few wild oats under the shadows of Olympus to boot.

     Certainly, Buckley was factoring in the mix by then. I know the first time I remember hearing him was when a family friend -- the architect and immensely tuned-in guy James Stewart Polshek (Clinton Library, the redesigned Carnegie Hall & Brooklyn Museum, Newseum in D.C.) -- sensing my love of literature, lyric and various flavors of bohemia played Buckley’s “The Nazz” for me at his family’s sleekly appointed Greenwich Village apartment in late 1974. Nearly simultaneous with that was hearing Buckley on Bob Fass’  “Radio Unnameable” program that can still be heard then as now on the NYC airwaves of WBAI wonderfully celebrated in Paul Lovelace’s recently released titular documentary. I had already gotten into Lenny Bruce by then but while I recognized that what Buckley was doing as special, the material was at first for me somewhat impenetrable -- so thick was the old skool hipster brogue and so deeply coded and arcane the slang.

photo credit: Kevin Ryan

KIRPAL GORDON: But you took the plunge into The Loka of Lord Buckley, yes? Was he, like Dylan, a doorway to other altie versions of the American Way, eg, Doc Humes?


OLIVER TRAGER: Though, as I mentioned, I first heard Buckley in late 1974, I first got bit by the Lord Buckley bug in the Fall of 1976—fresh from a cross-country hitchhiking and freight-train hopping adventure, chasing the ghosts of Kerouac and Cassady to Alaska and back. I was open for any- and everything.

     Returning as a sophomore to Bennington College in Vermont, I fell in with a severely funky, non-matriculating crowd centered around a mercurial, middle-aged gadfly by the name of Harold L. “Doc” Humes. You can discover much about Doc by scouring the www but the spell he cast on an upper middle-class, uptown nineteen-year-old trying-to-be-hippie kid was enormous. With his long silver mane and nonstop rap flowing, he resembled some pixie-dusted incarnation of Ernest Hemingway on acid.

     While most of his persona was often, in retrospect, an ecstatic, hyperbolic verbal plume of wildly entertaining (if sometimes a little scary) self-aggrandizement, his credentials were anything but. Novelist, inventor, Marshall Planner, Paris Review co-founder, cosmologist, conspiracy theorist—he certainly came on as someone who had been there, done that, flapped it, dapped it, and bapped it in spades. Naturally, he was way more interesting than anything my college professors at the time were offering at premium tuition prices... and those profs were, as I suggested, pretty interesting. For more on Doc Humes, check out Doc, the fine documentary made by his daughter Immy a few years back:

Doc Humes

     Not only had Doc known Lord Buckley back in the day, but he was on the scene when Buckley ran into trouble involving his cabaret card in NYC in the autumn of 1960s brought an end first to His Lordship’s last gig...and then his life.

     One of Doc’s acolytes was a fellow by the name of Mark Miller who kind of ran point for the old guy. One afternoon Mark brought an LP over to my dorm room. He was pretty mysterious about it as I recall—wouldn’t even if drop it on the turntable until we were psychically lubricated with nature’s combustible best.

     The album was The Best Of Lord Buckley and, as I studied the psychedelic cover and read the liner notes, I had no idea what to expect when the needle finally touched down on vinyl...or suspect that I was about to begin bushwhacking an underground byway of the mind in search of the seven-ply source of the sound I was about to hear.

     In deference to our state of mind, I think the first piece he played me was “Jonah and the Whale” which, because it treated ganja with sympathy and humor, immediately won me over—even if I wasn’t quite sure what it was I was hearing. So rhythmically encoded was the slang, so rapid-fire was the delivery, so steeped in lush, cartoonish imagery that Buckley’s word pictures seemed to float across the inner screen of my skull. Even as hip as I thought I was, the language was a foreign one to my ears. Yet I found myself belly-laughing at the pure joy of the storyteller’s art and craft.

     Next up was “The Nazz,” Lord Buckley’s hepster retelling of three miracles in the life of Jesus Christ. And like all true believers, I felt as if I had just stumbled on the Dead Sea Scrolls of the New Apocalypse.

     No, I didn’t then and there forsake my sanity and all my worldly goods to follow the Buckley muse to each corner of the lower 48, points upward and beyond—that wouldn’t come till much later. Rather, he became another piece of my incubating perception of the great weird world underground railroad—an irregular line that includes stops at each subterranean station of that ever-lovin’ cross and pickin’ up various and sundry passengers on its horizon to horizon trek: Bird & Diz, Sun Ra & Moondog, Partch & Pynchon, Coltrane & Soul Train, Dylan & The Dead, Smiths Patti & Harry, Kurosawa & Keaton, Stengel & Berra.


     Over the next few years I slowly began collecting vintage Buckley LPs in used record stores, plumbing the album sleeves for any clues—more missing pieces of a puzzle wrapped within a mystery coiling inside a conspiracy and sandwiched between an enigma and a myth. The deeper I dug, the more awestruck I became by their exotic melange and cavalcade of influences and meaning -- not just the jazz spoken word but gospel, vaudeville, noir, corn pone, carney talk, Brooklynese, Runyonesque inside dope, and much more -- all infused with a super positive worldview and singular brand of bohemian humanism.

     Those liner notes (generally scant as they were) hinted at a charismatic if slippery personality that seemed more legend/myth than anything that could possibly be true but more or less was. Tales of his association with gangsters, dance marathons, vaudeville, swing jazz, bebop, the Beats, reefer, LSD and beyond only begged more questions all ominously clouded by allusions to Buckley’s death -- somewhat mysterious then and now.

     I should back up a bit and tell you that while I have more than a few pretty far out passions and pursuits, I am pretty grounded in my day-to-day existence, possessing a solid work ethic and had, by the mid-1980s embarked on twenty-five-plus-year career in publishing primarily as managing editor at Facts On File, a venerable concern serving the library reference market. Also my dad James G. Trager Jr. had carved out a reputation as a reference author of note (The People’s Chronology: A Year-by-Year Account of Human History from Prehistory to the Present Day being his highly regarded magnum opus among a dozen or so books) and had occasionally had me do some research for him.

     In the summer of 1985, while pretending to do some research for my dad in the reading room of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library, I hit the microfilm machines during some down time hoping to come across the few scraps of Buckley ephemera I knew must be there waiting for me. These turned out to be his New York Times obit, Albert Grossman’s 1969 Life magazine article and little bits o’ this ‘n’ that.

     Devouring these morsels of information like they were long lost parts of an ancient map to El Dorado, I sat at my table in some kind of warm, ecstatic glow. The late afternoon light was pouring through those famous library windows and bathed me with a vision I have yet to shake. I saw my life’s work unfolding before me—a golden road of unlimited devotion. I knew then and there which book I was put on this here Earth to write. Definitely one of those moments when the angels blew God’s trombones like the Basie Band and beckoned with perfumed whispers: “Furthur!”

     I went home that night and filled my journal page with names—names of anybody and everybody who might have anything to do with telling Lord Buckley’s story. Yes! It was going to be an oral history, at least partially. After all, since Buckley was one of those characters people tell such great stories about, why not find these people, record their tales and share them with whomever might listen. I figured there must be somebody out there who dug Lord B. as much as me. Maybe even a couple of somebodies.

     But, like the hard working slacker that I was, I promptly dropped the list and my little stash from the library into a folder, which I stuck in my file cabinet and proceeded to forget.

     When I got together with my wife, Elaine, about five years later, I played her some Buckley, capping off the little wax-spinning session with his “Bad-Rapping of the Marquis de Sade.” I told her a bit about Buckley, showed her the library clips and must have seemed pretty enthusiastic because (against what now I know is her better judgment) she encouraged me to pursue my idea.

     It was then that I began making my first few, fitful stabs at contacting Lord Buckley’s friends and associates, most of whom seemed touched and happy that a younger person still cared. I got busy. One contact led to another and then another and then another. My trips to library became more frequent and fruitful.

     At some point, I’m not sure when or where or how, I sensed that I had embarked on what Native Americans might call a “vision quest.” Like a Jew wandering in the desert of the obtuse monocultural homogeny that seems to engulf our sweet jumpin’ little green sphere as somebody’s idea of the millennium turned a page, I felt as if I was spreading Lord Buckley’s gospel, Johnny Appleseed–style, for one reason and one reason only: to help people laugh before they get killed.

    My Buckley biography Dig Infinity! The Life & Art of Lord Buckley (Welcome Rain Publishers 2002) is presented as a collage of oral history gathered from the scores of interviews conducted by myself and from a few others and interspersed with my own biographical overview and critique. Because Buckley and his monologues are the stuff of subterranean legend whose impact is still felt so profoundly by so many -- numerous doors opened and I was able fortunate enough to speak with or include a wide range of  seemingly incongruous artists and personalities -- Robin Williams, Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez, Grampa Al Lewis, Dr. Oscar Janiger, Eric Bogosian, James Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie, David Amram, Ken Kesey, Huntz Hall, Judy Collins, Judith Malina, and Steven Ben Israel to name but a very few and goodly number of Buckley’s close friends and associates to boot.

     One person who I would have loved to interview for the book is Bob Dylan. Who wouldn’t? Buckley had at least a small impact on Dylan who performed a piece called “Black Cross” (an anti-racist invective performed but not written by Buckley in the late 1950s) in at least a couple of his early circa ’61-’62 performances. And, in addition to a Lord Buckley LP being among the cultural detritus included on the cover of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home album cover, one could make a case that the opening lines of “Highway 61 Revisited” (“God said to Abraham ‘kill me a son,’” etc.) owe at least a small debt to Buckley’s methodology of reinvigorating a biblical tale with the infusion of contemporary language and outlook.

     Tracking down, interviewing and transcribing the tapes of these folks was no small feat not to mention the gathering of previously printed matter and, most gloriously, the unearthing of a number of very significant, mostly still never released Buckley recordings. In all cases I was able to connect with others who were happy to share. Also the discovery of the scant extant moving image Buckley ranging from his appearances on the “Ed Sullivan Show” to a slice of him performing the peak moment of “The Nazz” from an obscure BBC documentary titled Chicago: A Day in the Life of a Great American City were invaluable in gleaning a dim idea of his stage presence and presentation style.

     So, yeah, one mega scavenger hunt that eventually resulted in the publication of my book. I’ll spare us the details involving finding a publisher so let’s just leave it at none of it was particularly smooth. A hard sell to say the very least.

     You know, the Grateful Dead took their name from a cycle of folktales that essentially recast the venerable story of the Good Samaritan: a lone traveler encounters a group of people arguing over a corpse. Apparently, the deceased left a heap of debt and none of the townsfolk is flush enough to spring for even the most modest burial. After the traveler pays for the proper internment, he encounters a dangerous crisis and is saved at the last moment by someone who later reveals himself to be the spirit of the person he had buried.

     In so many ways, those of us in the Buckley omniverse who have been keeping his legacy alive are participants in a living myth, giving the man a proper burial before sending his ever-lovin’ spirit into the folds of the living sky. Lord Buckley died a martyr’s death precisely at the point in mid-20th-century social, cultural and political history when his gifts and vision would have not only gained him the type of recognition he so richly deserved, but consequently impacted the national zeitgeist. Yet his artistic contribution and uniquely American life remain criminally neglected, relegated to something far less than footnote to a footnote to a footnote status.


KIRPAL GORDON: Like the Dead, Lord Buckley lives on in the friendly circles he continues to inspire, circles you have enriched and been enriched by over a decade of research, at least, yes? Did you publish anything else during this period?

OLIVER TRAGER: Concurrent with all this was the writing of two other books (The American Book of the Dead: The Definitive Grateful Dead Encyclopedia and Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia), holding down the fort on the day job and starting a family. These encyclopedias were products of my dad’s influence and my own chosen profession combined, naturally, with a knowledge and passion for the titular subjects.

KIRPAL GORDON: When did you produce your first Lord Buckley event?


OLIVER TRAGER: In the mid-1990s I began staging annual Lord Buckley birthday celebrations in which I gathered a rum krewe of the finest Buckley interpreter/channelers /impersonators (Tom Calagna, Rod Harrison, Jason Eisenberg, Richard Corey etc.), related spoken word artist/poets (Steve Ben Israel, Baba Israel, Wavy Gravy, Prof. Irwin Corey, Mikhail Horowitz, Martha Cinader) and musicians (David Amram, John Kruth, Robert Dick, Hayes Greenfield, Paul Austerlitz, Giacomo Gates), to invoke a Buckley seance for the living. Most of these were held at the Bowery Poetry Club but we did a couple at the old Westbeth Theater, another at Theatre 80 on St. Marks Place (which, when it was the Jazz Gallery way back when, was the site of Buckley’s last gig in 1960) and another in Portland, Oregon, organized by a KBOO-FM stalwart Daniel Flesses. Much of this was inspired by Mark Schecter and Abe Perlstein who staged similar multi-day California Buckley events in the early 1990s.
 Rod Harrison as Lord Buckley, BPC, '09

     Not surprisingly a sizable and quite lively community of Buckleyheads emerged and coalesced. Deep friendships were forged and a long, still ongoing dialogue evolved as to the best ways to pass on the Buckley torch to those who might have ears and eyes for it. And that I have enjoyed a cool relationship with members of the Royal Family -- most especially His Lordship’s fabulous, talented and insightful daughter Laurie -- have made the experience all the richer.


KIRPAL GORDON: As a Dylan & Dead fan, you have a looser, more improvisational idea about performance, yes? Were you trying for that with your film script of Lord Buckley?

OLIVER TRAGER: A word or two about the Grateful Dead and perhaps my other favorite live band -- the Sun Ra Arkestra -- may be in order here. With the Dead (who I caught scores of times between ’76-’93) and Ra (who I experienced maybe 20 times between ’75-’91), I was more than a little taken with the seat-of-the-pants shamanism and ersatz ritualistic structures both outfits brought to the bandstand with Jerry Garcia and Sunny’s tenor man John Gilmore being the siren-like pied-pipers that opened a portal of transcendence allowing a glimpse of utopian vistas and possibilities of personal, local and global transformation. I felt I emerged from many of these shows a better person inspired to somehow make ritual disguised as performance art that might provide more of the same for some.


KIRPAL GORDON: So true of those bands and of that era! So how did the script come into being?


OLIVER TRAGER: Discussion of a screenplay of some sort came and went over the years but the essential problems remained the same: how to show/tell this man’s remarkable epic journey through the early and mid-20th American sub-terrain AND showcase the monologues in direct and compelling fashion and sing to a contemporary audience.

     Some early stabs were made with my buddy and colleague Michael Monteleone (curator or and whose efforts in producing a Lord Buckley documentary film may finally be seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. But I eventually outgrew our buddy-buddy road trip construct and abandoned it in favor of the screenplay I eventually completed and which I adapted into a play presented as a staged reading at a couple of recent outings: one as part of a series produced by Cordis Heard and the Red Harlem Readers just after Super Storm Sandy at the Indian Cafe on Upper Broadway and as part of the Planet Connections Theater Festivity this mid-June.

     At a certain point it occurred to me to approach a Lord Buckley script as he approached the classic material he twisted like an image on silly-putty: take his life and work, graft it onto a familiar and ancient tale while giving song to all of it. But this is a traditional approach that has served artists from Homer and Virgil to Joyce and Pynchon and, despite the relative exotic nature of my subject matter and aesthetic sensibilities, I consider my work very much part of a tradition reaching back to the ancients.

    The play/screenplay (also titled Dig Infinity!) unfolds on four separate but interdependent levels: a real-time Lord Buckley performance, an interview with Orpheus (the mythological Greek poet and musician), visual representations of Buckley’s more famous pieces, and flashbacks.

    Lord Buckley's jazz club performance (which turns out to be his last) introduces most of the major characters, creates a central locale to which the main story periodically returns and allows the audience a glimpse (and appreciation) of Buckley’s act up-close and personal.

    The midnight interview with Orpheus (here imagined as a modern African-American Hip-Hop DJ) transpires in a surreal radio station. As Buckley tells his life story via flashbacks and demonstrates his art via stylized visual representations of his material, he also engages in a My Dinner with Andre meets All That Jazz-style debate as the edgy elements of his life and art are bared. 

    The flashbacks visit each phase of Buckley’s career: minstrelsy, the dance marathons, Prohibition, the black church, the Swing band era, bebop, and the Beat Generation. Each flashback at once demonstrates the evolution of his art, reveal his self-destructive tendencies and establish the liaisons which inspire and destroy him.

    What makes Buckley’s life and art still so resonantly timely are the ways in which it confronts and comments on the most controversial components of contemporary American life: religion, language, art, sex, drugs and, most saliently, race.

      The piece also works as a kind of totem to my heroes and influences laced as it is with verbal and visual references not only to Buckley’s own canon but to the gamut of artists and traditions that inspired both myself and my subject: the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, Dickens, Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Sun Ra, the Rolling Stones, T.S. Eliot, Chaucer, Homer, 1001 Arabian Nights, The Saragossa Manuscript, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce, Dante, Rockwell Kent, Blake, the Blues, Paths of Glory, It’s A Wonderful Life, Apocalypse Now!

     So it has a collage aspect to it as well with elements drawn from stories in my book, interviews Buckley conducted with Studs Terkel and others, liner notes, much original material reflecting an interest, study and emulation in the works of people like Romare Beardon and my own fitful stabs at graphic arts.

photo credit: Elaine Beery

KIRPAL GORDON: When did you make it a theatrical presentation?


OLIVER TRAGER: One morning many years ago -- probably in the late 1990s -- I was riding the subway working on the script. The fellow sitting next to me started asking me about it and we fell into conversation, exchanged phone numbers and continued discussion. He was an actor named David Lamberton and, over the years, we would check in with one another. He slowly began to convince me that the script -- despite its surreal qualities and time/space logistical challenges -- could well translate into a theater  piece and has aided me in both developing and getting it out there.

     I’m not really what you would call a “theater person” despite a few forays into the field. In the early 1980s I was involved with Jack Schimmelman, a director who led his Sea of Life Theater company in the crafting of a couple of dreamy agit-prop performance pieces addressing nuclear weapons proliferation and conflict in Latin America. And, of course, I have been a casual theater-goer since childhood. But the medium never really grabbed me to same extent say film, literature or music has.

     But David kept working on me and I began to realize that the Buckley material really deserves a live audience. It is work that is meant to be performed perhaps not on Broadway but in a particular kind of venue in a particular kind of way. Like the production of Cabaret at the old Studio 54 some years back where the audience was seated at tables as if in an actual cabaret. So I looked tried to conjure ways I could re-jigger the whole thing for the stage. My son got on a big Andrew Jackson kick in 11th grade which coincided with the production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Public Theater. We went to see it and I was really struck how much they were able to do with pretty little. Between a flexible set, screen images, music and a crazy story about that pretty crazy U.S. CEO, the possibilities for doing some of the same with the Buckley script began to emerge. Though I have not seen it, perhaps “Dig Infinity!” could take the form of pieces like “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” which is part of a new crop of immersive theater experiences.

     David and I pulled together some friends a couple of years ago for a very informal read through of the script to see how it flowed and talk about it with those we assembled. The feedback was real positive and one of those actors David corralled into participating turned out to be a great actor named Russell Jordan who totally nailed the part of Orpheus. Russell has continued with every iteration of the project since and the play better off for it.
photo credit: Elaine Beery

     While the initial staged reading of Dig Infinity! at the Red Harlem Readers was pretty spare (there was barely enough room on the stage for the actors much less musicians or screen projections), I was determined to bring those elements to the production for the Planet Connections Festivity production. And I think they really worked!

     Again I was lucky to have friends as cool and talented as John Kruth to develop the music. Kruth and I have been hanging out for a good ten years now and are really on the same page about so much that figuring out what sounds worked for which pieces and other parts of the script, things flowed real easy. We really didn’t work on it that hard -- just enjoyed that nice intuitive flow when things come together as smoothly as they always should.

     And since I had a pretty good idea of the kind of images I wanted to use, it was mostly a matter of time sifting through Google Images, finding those that worked best and learning Keynote, the Apple software suited for slideshows etc.

KIRPAL GORDON: Do you have any footage of the show?

OLIVER TRAGER: Here are some links to a bit of video from the show, thanks to my good friend Dale Fuller:
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KIRPAL GORDON: In the best of all possible Hollyweird worlds, who would play Lord Buckley?


OLIVER TRAGER: As you might guess, this is a subject that has been long and much discussed among the Buckley faithful. Any one of a number of fine actors could or could have played Lord B on stage or screen but if I was playing producer, Nick Nolte would be my go-to Buckley. He vaguely looks like Buckley -- especially with all those miles on his puss -- and has the gravelly, world-weary yet buoyant and lyric voice that I think would be a real winning combo. And I understand he is a fan of Buckley’s as well. Robert Downey Jr. is another fine talent who do a great job with the material.

     And, to take it a step further, Julie Taymor (also a Buckley admirer) would be my choice to direct.


KIRPAL GORDON: Lord Buckley may be more relevant now than ever as young folks wear a hipster look which has been commodified to sell jeans. Stripped of his-her need to speak in code in connection to underground activities like hooking up with interracial or gay love, listening to jazz music, selling or scoring illegal sacraments, the speech of today’s hipsters seem disconnected to the black and altie side of her-his-story and the consequent social conscience that was all of a piece with Lord Buckley’s realm.


OLIVER TRAGER: I’m not sure what the words “hip” or “hipster” even mean anymore. And I’m not sure those that are labeled as hipsters today would even call themselves that.  I mean, if you don’t who Lester Young was or can’t hum me a few bars of “Take the A Train” then are you a hipster? Whatever, it does seem it has all devolved into a fashion statement as opposed to an insightful worldview, attitude and behavior that not merely runs counter to the mainstream but might engender a community or movement that could result in better, richer and more meaningful lives for all. That said, my 20-year-old-son and his friends embrace Hip-Hop but also love ‘60s music, appreciate jazz and blues, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie and are most open to the socio-cultural-political streams and impulses informing all of the above. And, when exposed to him, dig Lord Buckley too. And I think more young people see the challenges facing the planet but are not sure how to engage most effectively in making it as good as it can be. I’m not sure myself but if Buckley can be a part of it then that is where I would be most effective.
David Amram


    My friendship with David Amram and the late Steve Ben Israel imparted to me that it is us -- parents, educators, artists -- to act as protectors of the legacies we hold dear and ensure their passage onto future generations. “Keeping continuity,” as Steve Ben would say.
Steven Ben Israel
     But, ya know, I think Buckley has and will always be relevant.


KIRPAL GORDON: What else do you have in the wings project-wise?


OLIVER TRAGER: My main impetus right now is to get Buckley and some other completed scripts out there as much as possible. These scripts -- Dig Infinity! included -- are part of a story cycle of tales of 1950s New York and celebrate, like Dig Infinity!, aspects of our cultural history that are evaporating before our very eyes. These include Weird Fantasy #19 (a semi-surreal take on EC Comics and the controversies surrounding their edgy fare), Elysian Fields (my cinematic ode to baseball and Bobby Thomson’s 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”), and Minor Characters (an adaptation of Joyce Johnson’s coming-of-age memoirs recounting her relationship with Jack Kerouac and the Beats). A final script -- The Book of Mojo -- is my folk operatic adaptation of The Saragossa Manuscript, my favorite film and classic of mid-60s avant-garde Polish cinema with a plot too impossible to recount. Kruth and I are talking about ways to adapt it to stage as a kind of group storytelling/music melange.

     Another primary freelance gig over the past ten or fifteen years has been as a writer/researcher/consultant for Canadian documentary filmmaker Ron Mann whom I befriended at Bennington in 1976. Ron’s films include Imagine the Sound, Comic Book Confidential and Twist and he has included me in Grass (his collation of anti-marijuana propaganda films), Tales of the Rat Fink (his celebration of Kustom Kulture designer Ed “Big Daddy” Roth), Wake of the Flood (a mellow road film documenting a Margaret Atwood book tour) and am currently on board with Altman (Ron’s upcoming doc surveying the life and work of the American filmmaker).

     My love of baseball does express itself in “Painting the Word Picture,” a blog celebrating the art & craft of baseball on the radio with which I need to reengage:

     Finally, I have been developing an app for the iPad based on part of one of my dad’s unpublished manuscripts oriented around 1950s automobiles.

photo credit: Elaine Beery

KIRPAL GORDON: How can GSP readers stay in front of what you do?

OLIVER TRAGER: Gee, I don’t know. Friend me on Facebook I suppose.


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