“Hipsters, flipsters, and finger-poppin’ daddies! Knock me your lobes!”
So sayeth the Reverend of Irreverence, His Hipness, His Double-Hip Ebullientness- Lord Buckley, (who also described himself as the Man with the Multiple Minds and the Magical Mouth) in his version of Marc Antony’s funeral oration from “Julius Caesar”, which he attributed to the legendary playwright Willie the Shakes. Buckley was one of the wildest, most eccentric figures of the fifties, an obscure legend but a legend nonetheless as evidenced by the healthy turn-out last Tuesday for Frank Speiser’s affectionate recreation of his act in “Are You There? -a Hip History Lesson” currently being presented in association with the Wellfleet Harbor Actor’s Theater every Monday and Tuesday in August at the Duck Creek Tavern in Wellfleet.
Buckley was fascinating for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being that he was almost completely impossible to categorize. Half hip comic, half maniacal history teacher/revisionist, Lord Buckley sang his routines as much as spoke them, always with a spirit and energy that was overpowering. Ahead of his time as always, he was trying to tell the beat generation about flower power (among other things), which really wasn’t all that fashionable during the Eisenhower years.
Here’s a Buckley anecdote: Apparently, he was a great favorite of gangster Al Capone, whom you may remember Robert Stack being particularly obnoxious to in the sixties. On several occasions, Capone booked the entertainer to perform for him at private functions, and at one point, Buckley felt the need to cook up something special for his admiring employer. As the guests filed in, the comic relieved the ladies of their expensive fur coats, put them all in a big pile, and set them on fire. Now, that’s entertainment! Legend has it that Capone loved it.
For the most part, the touch in “Are You There?” is just right. The evening starts with Mr. Speiser, the tuxedoed star (not to mention writer and perpetrator) of this evening’s divertissement, graciously welcoming us and showing us to our seats, altogether appropriate in light of our subjects glittering and far-flung reputation as a wonderful host (sometimes in the nude -I applaud Mr. Speiser’s restraint in this regard) of wild parties at his “mattress farm” in Las Vegas and at his tiny Crackerbox Palace (later memorializedin a George Harrison song) apartment in L.A., where he was once visited by Greer Garson. (He was also involved in the same early LSD experiments as -get this- Cary Grant! What a world!)
At the beginning of the night (and interspersed throughout) we are treated to some absolutely wonderful bebop jazz singing in the Eddie Jefferson/Lambert, Hendricks and Ross style by one Giacomo Gates and his trio. Mr. Gates sang warmly and inventively in a remarkably rich tone; his performance alone would be well worth the price of a ticket, though I must add (or ,in this case, subtract) that I would’ve much preferred a stand-up bass to the electric model, especially the Steinberger, which really shouldn’t be used by anyone who’s not on “The Jetsons” (-you’d have to be a magician to swing on one of those babies). Still, they picked great tunes, and Giacomo sang my wife, the usually quite respectable Mrs. Kelp, into an all-out tizzy.
Then Mr. Speiser comes out and sets the scene, which turns out to be a Lincoln’s Birthday celebration at Henry Miller’s house in the late fifties (a setting that turns out to be more colorful than consequential); he then assumes the persona of His Royal Hipness Himself explaining that the theater is the same as the church and that his church is the Church of the Living Swing. Then we’re off and running with the bebop version of the Gettysburg Address, then into a short digression about his great indebtedness to Black culture:
“I came by the language in association with the beauty of the American Beauty Negro…It has a fantastic sense of renewal that will take any old and revered movement and swing it right up to the pounce of the now…In growing up against the granite walls of stupidity they have dug out their well of humor to such a point that it has turned into a spring. Many, many times they had to laugh at things that weren’t funny, and as a consequence they wound up with very, very deep, sparkling, humorous wells of beauty…”
And then into a story about a party thrown for Mahatma Gandhi where everyone flipped their wigs to such an extent “they had to get some wigtappers to come out and tap everybody’s wigs back on”. This is wild, jubilant stuff, and it can’t be easy to come on cold and replicate the crazed stream of consciousness of the original performances. Mr. Speiser ascended to the desired energy level somewhat gradually, but by the second half he was Fully There (or at least we were -you know how we get when we’re drinking and bebopping- ) for wonderful routines on “the Sub-conscious Mind and the Car”, the afore-mentioned Willie the Shake, and (the highlight) Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (“the Gasser”!), capped with an ending sweet as honey.