“When you’re younger you have more energy to fight things. But you get older and it gets dark.”
Richard Buckner — At a Fork in the Road and Taking It (Phoning It In, a Play in Six Acts)
by Rob O’Connor
Please note I first attempted to write this piece in a rather orthodox style but it felt alien to what Richard Buckner is about, so I scrapped it and began again. Dear readers, you’ll likely find this piece disjointed, non-linear and, at times, confusing, though I did try to make it an enjoyable travel. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say I’m burned out on pieces that begin with a bogus scenario, tamp down into basic bio, and turn into a conversation over lunch. There was no lunch here. Just two guys talking on the phone one afternoon while one guy—me—taped it.
It’s also important to note that I don’t think Richard wanted to discuss the mechanics of writing or to name-drop his interests and influences. The few names he did give were over the course of a very long conversation and often to illustrate a greater point. I think he rightfully fears being lumped in with other writers or seeing these names forever linked to him in every article going forward. Richard’s been around the block and I’m fairly certain he’ll feel differently about a few of the things he said here as soon as he reads them. Such is the curse of the self-conscious mind.
Now to begin…
I fell in love with Richard Buckner’s music upon my first listen to his debut album, 1994’s Bloomed. The way he sang floored me. He sounded laid-back but never knocked out. He’d rush words for emphasis and toy with the melody as if it was there waiting to be pushed and pulled like a rubber band. He did so much with so little. “This is where things start goin’ bad” was an opening line where you could feel the shift from melancholia to despair that haunts a young outsider’s soul.
Richard Buckner no longer likes that album. In fact, he doesn’t like the two that followed, Devotion + Doubt (1997) and Since (1998). Pressed why, he’s adamant. “I think they’re too sentimental with a shallow word palette and bad musical choices.” He blames himself. Other musicians may have made choices that weren’t what he wanted, but it’s his fault for not better conveying what he heard in his head. He blames a lack of confidence. Telling him that you like those records doesn’t help.
“I was doing the best I could at the time, thought I could do,” he says. “I wish I hadn’t done them or I wish I’d had a different way of doing things.”
Throughout our conversation, neither of us is rarely this succinct. In fact, listening back to the tape, it sounds like two guys fumbling in the dark for the light switch. Ambivalence, futility, frustration, good humor and dissatisfaction come across in doses. Our conversation looped back upon itself, knowing every statement we made had an inverse that could be equally valid, that so much of our perception was based upon where our heads were at, during that particular time and not necessarily true to the moment, when things were created or heard for the first time.
This is not all on Richard. My questions, if you could call them that, were confusing, filled with hedges and conditionals. Though we have careers very different from one another, we are very much in the same proverbial boat and sinking. As Richard put it: “I feel so scattered in the way I feel about things, not my thoughts, but the way that I feel.”
To which I’ll add, yes, exactly, or something like that.
At this moment in the winter of 2016 (days before Bowie’s death), we live within miles of each other, though I asked for a phone conversation for better fidelity. The upstate NY town we share is one littered with eccentrics, artists, psychos, low-income blue collar workers and the general sense that 2016, as a year, is debatable.
“There are three stores that sell only hats,” Richard observes. “How the fuck does a small, depressed town like this one have three hat stores? You can only imagine that it’s family owned buildings or some kind of support system that’s not available to most people. Meanwhile, Woody Herman dies penniless in New York, many years ago. I’m always surprised and not surprised when I find out people have support systems not available to most people.”
For people like Richard and myself, 2016 is a big deal. It means that the streams of revenue available to a musician and a writer are no longer what they once were. The word ‘free’ is all too common. This insight has physical proof. Richard has been collecting his belongings from the various storage facilities across the country and brought them home where he’s looked over his tax returns from the past twenty years and it’s all there in black and white.
“It’s astounding. It’s 75% less. I had thought things were down. But it’s like a swindle happened. It’s like art comes from somewhere and we don’t have to pay for it.”
This betrayal has hit both of us hard. I once squeezed by on a freelancer’s salary, too, writing for weeklies and then websites that no longer exist. Editors I’ve known have left the business, leaving younger people who care little for experience and who’d rather employ their friends while they also cut wages to the bone. There is nothing left to do but remember.
Richard speaks of his youth, “I would order a record and wait for it and buy an entire catalog and try to buy it chronologically. Now they (millennials) live so fast that they have no patience. There’s no investigation. It’s evaporated because that world around it has evaporated. These subscription services are like a cheap All-American Buffett of All-You-Want.”
“Art is expected like a free meal and the true cost of that isn’t considered by people who expect that art will come.”
Of course, I agree with him. Anyone born during the vinyl—or even the CD—age spent money on music. His valid complaints are voiced throughout our community. The effect it has had on Richard is disturbing. It’s made him less inclined to release anything.
“I’ve had songs for about three years but I can’t afford to make the record I want to make and I don’t want to make it the way I’ve done the past few records, which were out of desperate situations. I have a bunch of material that, up to a few months ago, I thought was going to be a record next year but it’s not going to happen.”
Asked why, he explains, “I could’ve made this record and put it out this year but the deadline was so close that if I’d failed I would’ve gone into debt and had a record I didn’t like. I’ve decided not to advance until I have a reassurance somewhere in myself to complete the project. I can’t financially or mentally take that chance without a safety net.”
The definition of the safety net? “The safety net was putting out records when there were actual royalties and not gestures of royalties paid—when there was enough touring and between record sales, songwriting royalties and touring income you could survive.”
Of course, it doesn’t help that Richard’s an intense critic of his own work, that he sticks to his unpredictable guns and that he can always envision another way of doing things.
“Working on a film score (Dreamboy in 2007) changed the way I make music. The pattern seems to be to rush through a record and regret it as soon as it comes out.”
“I think time alone has made me more obsessive about ideas and I can record the same song four or five different ways and have things I like and dislike about something. The last record (Surrounded) went faster for me. I gave myself handicaps and removed certain instruments physically from the room and put them in the attic.” (Richard recorded the soundtrack, 2011’s Our Blood and 2013’s Surrounded at home on a Roland 2480 digital 24-track that he bought in 1998 and to which he only used one mic pre-amp and the erase and record buttons.)
This reminds me of a time around 2002 or so when I spoke with Richard for Harp magazine (now Blurt) and he was raving about some new pedal he’d been playing with and how he joked about this being a bad thing because he’d likely overdose on the frickin’ thing. It reminded me of happier times.
I don’t remember specifically how many times we’ve spoken. I know we spoke for Devotion + Doubt for the now-defunct California paper BAM (Bay Area Music) back in the ‘90s and several times since then. I remember racing from a wedding in New Jersey with my girlfriend, Lora, to get to the Mercury Lounge just in time to be seduced by the calming buzz of Richard’s music sometime between 1996 and 1998. I know I saw him, within the past two years, play a local show. I remember always enjoying our talks, sharing enthusiasms for writers like Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and others who battled against refinement in order to break from fiction and into a stream-of-consciousness that better reflected the internal workings of a person’s mind and the world around them. This time out, Richard mentions Charles Bukowski, Hubert Selby, Jr. and Raymond Carver, but it could easily be a different dirty few.
He singles out Selby for figuring out “how to live with the rage you have with the world” and for his hatred for the rules of grammar that Richard shares. Asked what inspires him to write, Richard says, “The word puzzles excite me, to see where a phrase lands. I’m very protective. It has to be meaningful to me.”
Anyone hoping to read Richard’s memoirs would likely be disappointed if they were looking for the usual auto-biographical approach. Anyone who’s followed his website knows that his occasional postings create more questions than answers. To quote Tom Waits, “What’s he building in there?”
He recounts parts of his biography to me—growing up in Central Valley in Northern California, listening to pop stations in the mid-‘70s and college radio later on—but the single most impactful thing he says in our discussion is this: “When you’re younger you have more energy to fight things. But you get older and it gets dark.”
This isn’t melodramatic bullshit. It’s the truth of what artists not named Bruce Springsteen or Philip Roth can relate. The graveyard is filled with people never revered in their own time, with some becoming highly celebrated later on. Richard isn’t thinking about that kind of posterity as much as he is curious to see what people make of his 2002 album Impasse. Merge Records has agreed to reissue it this year and, according to Richard, it’s his favorite album of his entire catalog. Well, he put it this way:
“It’s the one I feel least embarrassed about writing-wise. I feel most happy. It’s the one I did completely alone in a house I was living in in Canada at the time. It’s the one record I don’t mind. I also know it’s the one that all the critics hated. The label didn’t like it at the time. The art director didn’t like the artwork.”
He hopes for a fair reappraisal. “Over time, dissonant becomes not dissonant,” he says and brings up Scott Walker’s unusual career as proof that people can learn to adapt to far-out ideas over time. Personally, I don’t recall disliking this record or any of his albums upon first listen, though I admit, I sometimes wish Richard would write a chorus or a hook for fun and for pop’s sake (I’m still a ‘pop’ guy to some degree and would love to hum a reoccurring phrase, but that’s me. And you know what we say around these parts: fuck me).
Listening to Impasse today, I don’t hear a difficult album. Anyone who’d heard The Hill (2000), his rather unconventional take on the characters in Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, should have been somewhat prepared for a shift in approach. The Hill didn’t even allow for track separations. But Impasse has songs as easy on the ears as “Count Me In On this One!” and “Were You Tried and Not as Tough” for those confused by the consistently-shifting center of gravity in the other songs. How could one seriously dislike this and call themselves a Richard Buckner fan?
Obviously, Richard cannot answer that question. He can only do or not do what he does. He can only reflect. Talking again about writing, he offers, “There are so many half-finished notes where I was writing too fast. I gave myself exercises to try and describe things around me. I wasn’t doing that enough. It would’ve taken a lot of energy out of my constructive life. I was moving too fast to know what I was doing. I was doing it because it’s all I could do. But it wasn’t enough.”
In these moments, the conversation is casual, easy for him to recall, but there is also a sense of describing a scene from so long ago that it’s virtually dreamlike and impossible to return. “I always painted and wrote as a child, but I remember within a year of the first 4-track recorders I was turned on to the idea of making noise that did something. Before I even played an instrument, I borrowed one. In college, I was able to find musicians and form bands or half-bands and discover what kind of writing to do. I’m glad none of my early stuff has ever been released. I was discovering old stuff — classic country to modern composers, whatever you could find. There’s some basic stuff that I didn’t get to until later. It was new to me. I’m not quick on my feet. I’m a slow learner. All these years I spent on that? What was I thinking?”
Richard Buckner holds a day job that keeps him in fighting shape while it saps his soul in very real ways. The love and hate might as well be tattooed onto the knuckles of his hands. A person who always felt like a stranger in this world (myself, I can remember too clearly listening to Astral Weeks my senior year of high school, holding on to every lyric for dear life), Richard holds out little hope for the human race, eventually summing up history: “It’s the same scams. It doesn’t change. An ant is more trustworthy because they’re more democratic.” And with a shared chuckle, we moved on to another cheery subject. For now, I declare the defense rests.
Rob O’Connor first began writing about music in 1989 for the big bucks and to avoid paying for records. He published the fanzine Throat Culture, which featured interviews with music-oriented writers. Its second issue focused on the now legendary Lester Bangs. Rob has written for Rolling Stone (where he served as a ‘Senior Critic’ in 1996), SPIN, Musician, BAM, beer.com, and many publications that no longer exist. He served as the ‘Reviews Editor’ for HARP magazine in the ‘00s and composed the ‘List of the Day’ column for Yahoo! Music until he ran out of lists.
Categories: First Issue