After Dark: A songwriter's life can be murder
05:00 AM, Dec 12, 2012
Richard Buckner seems like the kind of guy who really doesn’t fit in anywhere. Except maybe the old grange hall outside of the Hudson River, near Kingston. A studio space uncovered by his girlfriend, a place where he could write and record.
“There was a cobweb in the window, looking out in a brook,” he says. “And I remember looking out of it and thinking this is, in my mind as a kid, what I imagined being a writer was like.”
Admittedly the area is, in Buckner’s words, “Crackerville.” Nearby, he says, “was a back quarry road that people take a lot when they’re drunk and driving a Honda with hamster mufflers.” Buckner’s conversation is laced with the imagery of a writer’s brain. As best I can figure out, when he’s talking about hamsters, he’s describing custom-built mufflers that don’t muffle well. “It was a perfect road for dumping bodies,” he adds.
Which someone did. The classic burnt-out car with the headless body inside, hands cut off to stymie identification. “My neighbors were freaks, living down by the river in unfinished houses, burning trash, street fights, domestic disputes,” Buckner says. Plenty of suspects there. The cops showed up at Buckner’s house anyway. “Someone saw someone who looked like me, and a car that looked like mine,” he says. “They took pictures of me and my car, photocopied my driving log. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, but you can feel the weight of the law on you.
“A least I had an alibi. I had a job at the time driving a forklift. A few years before that, or now, I would have been working inside, doing something that nobody can see.”
So Buckner has been cleared to play Thursday at Abilene Bar & Lounge. No surprise, Buckner says, because a headless body “isn’t my style.” His style is the self-flailing inward gaze. Something that he works on deep inside, where no one can see.
Why the melancholy mood? It is partly philosophical. Buckner relates to Native Son, the 1940 novel by African-American writer Richard Wright. “He said that most people feel a deep sense of exclusion from the world,” Buckner says. “People are always fractionalizing each other. They have their own thing, they stay in their own camps and decide, ‘This is how it is, dammit.’ So people watch sports or join churches to alleviate those feelings. I don’t do those things, and I feel it, too. “
But the melancholy also seems to be a life choice. “I live with three cats, who I feel closer to than any human, except for a few humans,” Buckner says. Those few humans would, one hopes, include his girlfriend Jill Draper, who markets her own line of boutique yarns. “She’s my ace in the hole,” Buckner says. “I’m not going to get rich doing this. I figure I have two more comebacks in me, then I retire and be a sheep boy. Raise sheep. That would be beautiful.”
Although he has experienced the downside of being a sheep boy. “I was driving a mini van, making a delivery for Jill, packed to the roof with raw wool that smells like livestock,” Buckner says. “And I’m thinking: Here I am. I’m 48 years old. This is it?”
Maybe. Buckner grew up in California, although not the fun surfing end, but the “Donner Party” northern end, as he calls it. He lived in Texas too, which seems more relevant. While his audience is kind of alt-rock, Buckner’s music brings to mind Townes Van Zandt, minus the self-destructive tendencies. “I’m really glad that in my early 40s I finally grew up,” he says. “I didn’t totally blow it. But close calls happened. I just got bored with myself. I’d find myself in an odd situation and say, ‘Whoa, really? AGAIN?’
“I don’t go out and cause trouble anymore. I drink in my kitchen.”
Bucker’s latest album, Our Blood, is his ninth. It’s a superb musing on loneliness and betrayal, one that has brought respect among his peers, but not the trash burners of Kingston. “I’m 6-feet, 4-inches, part Native-American, I wear overalls and long hair in braids,” Buckner says. “And when people see me walking down the street they don’t know what I am. So one day this truck kind of pulls up by me and a guy leans out and says, ‘Why don’t you walk a little slower, old man?’ “
Slapdowns force a man inward, Buckner concedes. Before Kingston, he lived in Brooklyn, a land where “$50 evaporates out of your pocket before you can spend it.” Living in the midst of millions of people, his reclusive habits were exacerbated. “I stopped talking between songs, started playing a lot of instrumentals,” he says. “There was a five-, six-year period when the shows were getting weird. A part of that was I wasn’t going out in public and dealing with day-to-day things. You’re shutting down, not talking to people. I should have gone onstage with walls around me and a periscope.
“And when you’re on tour, you only see the night part of the day. When you get to the gig, there’s nothing except this vampire-bat lifestyle around you. So even when you’re out, it doesn’t re-integrate you into society.
“I’m trying to snap out of that. I had to start re-learning my own songs.”
The re-entry into civilization is not easy for such an artist. “The problem with taking a walk and leaving the house,” Buckner says, “is I get myself prepped for the walk, I go two blocks and get an idea, and I usually end up coming back to the house and going to work.”
Grilling works better. Buckner has a double-barreled smoker out back of the house. “It’s like having a speedboat to some people,” he says. “You spend five hours a day prepping and grilling, and it’s like entering a completely meditative state.”
There’s a fire and a headless corpse and smoldering flesh, but Buckner’s in control at the grill. Slow is good for his songwriting. “I need that fermentation time, like burying the kimchi in the ground,” he says. Leaving the house has proved too dangerous, anyway. “I somehow have been sucked into a lot of strangeness. Not that I am the best in social situations. But strange things are attracted to me.”