It seemed like an absurd idea. After 7 days without power either at my house or the evacuation station where I was hanging out 90 miles inland from my New Jersey coastal town, how on earth would it improve my life to go into Manhattan, itself hard-hit by hurricane Sandy for the day? But I checked the trains and subway anyway, and they were running on a fairly reliable schedule. I was desperate enough to get out of my confined situation that I took my chances. I heard about a dramatic reading of a new play to be held in northern Manhattan and unbeknownst to me at the time, the subject matter would turn out to be appropriate: it was about a soul stuck in Limbo….
On Sunday the 4th of November, The Red Harlem Readers got together at their home base for performance, the Indian Café on Broadway between 107th and 108th, to bring to life the unusual career and personality of one Lord Richard Buckley (self-declared). I knew very little of Buckley, except that his influence and underground popularity has persisted since his death in 1960 to the present day. He invented what he called “hipsemantics”, a radical reconfiguring of language that bridged the gap between spoken and musical performance. Lord Buckley used his “hipsemantics” to transform some iconic works of literature into jangly, electrified spoken word that challenged the boundaries between high culture and popular speech. The Red Harlem Readers who presented the play are a phenomenon all their own, bringing free performance that nourishes the mind and soul to the Indian Café on Sunday afternoons, and promoting the arts and the artists who perform there alike.
The play, Dig Infinity!, is the work of pop culture biographer Oliver Trager, whose book, Dig Infinity: the Life and Art of Lord Buckley inspired him to dig deeper and present Buckley’s life in spoken word and song. The play took the form of an orphic myth, an exploration of the relationship between the living and the dead as Lord Buckley faces his advocate and psychopomp Orpheus on the Day of the Dead, poised before election day on November 2nd in 1960. The drama was arranged, as Trager explained beforehand, in three alternating parts: a real-time jazz performance in an after-hours club with Buckley in attendance, a radio interview with Orpheus broadcasting to the realms spiritual, and historical incidents from Buckley’s life that helped establish the rise and fall of his career as well as his revelations in developing a personal art form. This “long night’s journey into day”, as Orpheus called it, really consisted of the weighing of Buckley’s soul. Was he really full of “big high concepts” that could change the world, or just a hack “clown” singing for his supper? Author Trager himself played the role of Buckley with great virtuosity for a self-proclaimed amateur actor, delivering the non-stop linguistic somersaults necessary, as well as singing parts, with unrelenting energy and pathos. Russell Jordan, reading for the part of Orpheus threatened to steal the show with his carefully measured and subtly timed dialogue, bringing a weighty substance to the role of Orpheus that captured the feel of Hadean realms and a cosmic perspective on human frailties. Trager and Jordan were joined by Katie Baker, David Lamberton, Ian Finkel, Ridley Parson, and Michael Fiorillo, who all contributed multiple voices and personalities to the wide-ranging narrative with remarkable skill, and I would add, a sense of fun and enthusiasm that kept the audience amused and engaged.
Buckley’s life, hobnobbing with many of the influential artistic and pop-culture personalities of the twentieth century, as well as stumbling in the gutters of his own highs and lows, made for excellent dramatic material. It is to Trager’s credit that he delivered the darker aspects of Buckley’s life with great honesty and sympathy rather than simply presenting the brighter side of Buckley’s naturally ebullient personality. The play’s narrative was interspersed with passages from Buckley’s own notable performance routines, such as “The Nazz”, bringing the Nazarene Jesus Christ’s miracles to life (joined by a crowd of cool cat disciples who questioned their charismatic leader), the saga of Jonah and the Whale from the old testament (wherein the whale had plenty to say on the matter), and Willy “the Shake’s”(William Shakespeare) Julius Caesar (who was surrounded by a gang of “worthy studs”). The historical portions of the play were interlaced with significant themes such as the long road to racial equality. Buckley’s own adaptation of African-American slang into his speech performances, drawn from his time as an on-the-road performer, and later with many of the Jazz greats, often got him into hot water in rural America.
The more literary aspects of the play also called on the high themes that Buckley discussed autobiographically, such as a love-based conception of the universe in which we ought to “worship people” as little parts of God’s nature, his questioning of religious concepts that could easily be interpreted as heretical by orthodox establishments, and overall, whether an imperfect life can nevertheless make an impact on the world. Buckley’s argument with Orpheus was really, in many ways, an argument with himself, challenging his idealism in the face of achievable goals. Buckley’s alcoholism, his inveterate use of marijuana, and the seemingly more positive impact of LSD on his life, all took their toll on Buckley’s self-defense in the play.
With Orpheus as guide, Buckley witnesses both the full tragedy of violence and hatred in human history, but also the “other side” of the world with transformational storytelling, and the creation of beauty through art in a “twin bill”. Orpheus, and Buckley, in turn, make their case to a rather unsympathetic and harried God, and their ending is as ambivalent as Buckley’s own sudden death in 1960, having been barred from a stage performance comeback (possibly due to marijuana charges). But Trager’s orphic myth presented an orphic solution of sorts: like Orpheus and Eurydice, united after a sojourn in Hades, Lord Buckley is reunited with his inspiration: Lady Buckley. Maybe, for Buckley, that would have been reward enough for his labors on behalf of culture and society.
Trager commented, following the reading, that Buckley’s work has become a “secret talismanic thing for hipsters” and that he “doesn’t see the bad side of that”. While Buckley has accomplished plenty in the underground of artistic tradition, it’s also time, as Trager said, for a “reclamation and preservation of his work”. The impact of that work may be seen more and more clear as time passes and scholars and fans untangle the webs of influence in twentieth century popular culture. Trager goes a long way toward reminding us of Buckley’s legacy by following Buckley’s passion for “retelling myths” in an enduring way.
As you can see, this exceeded my expectations of heading into the city for a break from enforced exile, but it also had an impact on my thinking when I returned to a life of flashlights and reading up on the North-East’s recovery from the harrowing effects of Hurricane Sandy. Looking at images on the internet, and contemplating millions still without power days later, it seemed like I could see the first part of Orpheus’s “twin bill”, the more tragic side of human life. Dig Infinity! made me wonder how the artists and the thinkers of our generation are going to interpret, transform, and inspire humanity based upon these very same events. What kind of myths might they eventually tell?