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Richard BucknerNext time you're in your best bib-and-tucker, working up a ringside sweat at a Vegas boxing match, don't rule out the possibility that the big bloke in the tracksuit behind you, caught somewhere between adrenaline-fuelled fascination and disgust, is your favourite introspective American songwriter.
by Martin Williams / pictures by Maike Zimmermann
"I'm not an athlete at all," Richard Buckner says, as if it needed stating, his pleasure at the arrival of a couple of pints of Guinness apparently backing up his words.
"I don't like sports, but I was in Vegas and I wanted to see a boxing match and it was a hoot. I went to a mall and got a Fila terrycloth jogging suit, me and this guy we got special Vegas suits for the boxing match. I'd never seen a guy get dropped, I saw a couple of knockouts, and it was amazing. I was watching it going like, "Oh fuck, he got knocked out!" And these guys behind me were going, "Yeah, alriiiight man!" like really enjoying themselves. And I'm not saying I wasn't enjoying myself, but it was a completely different experience from the freak behind me who was laughing the whole time. I wasn't laughing at all. You look at these guys when they're boxing and they're not having a good fucking time, they're scared, those guys were scared, they looked like they were going to cry half the time. A boxing match is a really wild thing to see, and I'm not really sure if I'd ever go to another one. I might, because it was just too interesting. In Vegas too, it's a whole different thing. All these 80-year-old Mafia guys in the back row, and the people placing bets and running around, it was quite a scene. God, they had a signed Mohammed Ali boxing glove there for, like, three hundred bucks. I wanted it so bad, but three hundred bucks, y'know? And I could see myself getting ripped off too, I could see myself buying this stuff and it wasn't Ali's signature and I'd find out thirty years from now."Which is about how long it seems since Richard Buckner last hauled his brooding back-catalogue onto a UK stage. Previously sneaking over in 1995 for a blink-and-you'll-miss-him tour with Butch Hancock on the back of his mostly-missed debut album 'Bloomed', this time around he's been to Dublin and Brighton, and will be off to Manchester and Paris by the end of the week. He's got a couple of free days in London though, and between late-night Paddington pints and a visit to the "beautiful" Body Worlds exhibition we've hooked up for a couple of hours in a Bayswater pub.
"I met the promoter for the Brighton show at this bar," he says, apropos of something or other.
"I sat down and of course things started happening right away. This guy starts talking to me and he's like, 'You know what my name is? Peter Frampton.' He showed me his driver's license and his name was Peter Frampton. He's like 58 years old, a really freaky homeless-looking guy, but he told me all these stories, he used to travel all over the world, and he mentioned Morocco. Then the bartender goes, 'Morocco?' And she pulled out these photographs that some tourist had left a couple of days ago." He narrows his gaze at me.
"Have you ever heard of tree goats? There were photographs of these two women, I guess somewhere in Morocco, standing there smiling and in back of them is this tree, a skinny little shrubby tree with no leaves, and there's goats in the tree, there's like ten goats standing looking off in different directions and the women were just cracking up in front of this tree full of goats. It was the funniest thing I'd ever seen in my life. Every customer that came in she was like, 'Check out the tree goats!' So when Peter Frampton took off I was like, 'Hey Peter, look out for the tree goats!'"Regrettable it might be, but there's really not much mystery behind Buckner's British no-show all these years, since relatively few of his records have made it to Limey shores either. It's a distribution blindspot that's also kept him from the pages of those market-driven monthly magazines who by rights should be all over him like a rash.
"That was from my new record," he deadpanned after the opening song at his Borderline show a couple of days after this interview.
"And I'm hoping to release it outside the United States some day." With four albums to his name, it's only the Ryko reissue of 'Bloomed' that has so far received anything like a proper UK release. Admittedly, 'Bloomed' and 'The Hill' (his 2000 album that put music to the poetic portraits of Edgar Lee Masters's 'Spoon River Anthology') came out on relatively small indies
("Oh, I got fucked," Buckner says when I mention the German label that originally released 'Bloomed'.
"I mean, they somehow sold out of the records but didn't recoup. I don't know how you do that unless you're a complete fucking thief.") But it's the measly treatment given to the two records he made for MCA-albums of uncommon ambition and accomplishment-that really rankles.
Where 'Bloomed' drove to an expressive three-chord pick'n'strum, his follow up, 'Devotion + Doubt', loosened control over arrangements and structure. With the help of Giant Sand, Buckner dismantled the songs and patched them back together as something more compelling and intense, along the way cementing his reputation as something other than just another dumped strummer. A year later this musical "deconstruction" progressed, and 'Since' wriggled even further free of the mandolin-fringed C&W traditionalism. Enough of Eric Heywood's lyrical pedal steel remained to never completely shroud where the album was coming from, but the added avant stylings of John McEntire and David Grubbs, among a handful of others, ensured that 'Since' was an album with its eyes fixed on the horizon.
"I made 'Bloomed' in four days," he says.
"That wasn't me getting involved too much in the recording, that was me going down, having [producer] Lloyd Maines organise it and do all the work."Does the stylistic transformation from 'Bloomed' to 'Devotion + Doubt' therefore suggest that he retained some frustration at the way his debut album turned out?
"Not frustration, I just wanted to work with Giant Sand for a reason. I wanted a really organic rhythm section and I knew Joey [Burns] and Johnny [Convertino] would be that way. Howe [Gelb] only ended up on one song just because I was working with Joey and Johnny most of the time, we weren't in Tucson very long. But I love Giant Sand records, I love how deconstructive they are, and I had that in my head when I went in the studio to make 'Devotion + Doubt'. I really wanted the songs taken apart and I wanted a bunch of different sounds. I'd done a lot of home recording, but I really wanted to put it in other people's hands for a while and see what they could do with it. The deconstruction started about there, and each album's got a little more in that direction. It needs to happen more, I hate hearing records that are so tight and polished. I'm really not very patient with music. There's a lot of records that I respect, and friends of mine respect, that I can't really listen to because they don't hold my interest. I never really like that much music."While tales of minor-league musicians licking their wounds over major-label maulings are becoming tired, Buckner lacks the conceit to paint himself as some kind of corporate victim; but he certainly isn't alone in having had an unsatisfactory stopover at MCA.
"The only label that wanted me was the only label I didn't want," he says. "I was like, 'Well, let's give it a try.' I was very honest with the label, when I met them I said, 'Look I don't know why you guys want me, I'm not a radio-hit guy, I don't know why you're even talking to me.' And they're like, 'We think something might happen and we want to be part of it.'" There's an apocryphal tale of Steve Earle attempting to mow the company president down in his car that just about says it all.
"And Kelly Willis," Buckner adds
, "who I know, had a horrible MCA experience. And the usual thing happened, they promised me world distribution, that way we can do Europe right, which was important to me, I really wanted to get outside of the United States. And they just didn't release it over here. They said they did but they really didn't. They barely released it in the United States. Basically what happened was my A&R person quit before I even started recording the record, my manager quit before the record was finished, so I was stuck with this New York guy, this fucker at MCA who didn't like me at all, we didn't like each other. And he's the guy I have to depend on for advice and support from the label. I just got cut off from the rest of the world."To which the more mercenary punters among us might respond that at least this troubled time spawned two stellar records. Does he not think he salvaged anything from his spell with MCA, a temporary degree of financial security at least?
"Well I had a good tour support scam. I drove around alone in my pick-up truck, but I had this person who got paid every month who was my 'tour manager'. And I got to pay people what they were really worth to record the record. I got to hire John McEntire for 'Since'. It was a treat to have someone like that play on my record."It was Buckner's step up to a major label-and the bigger budget this afforded-that instigated his deconstructive approach to recording. Does he think the records would have been similarly realised if he hadn't had major label paymasters?
"It would've been more difficult," he admits. "I definitely wouldn't have been able to make them in one sitting. They would've been done much differently; maybe better, maybe not. Definitely cheaper though. When you're on a major label everybody ups the price. 'Devotion + Doubt' came in for about ninety thousand, and I could've made it for ten thousand. It was all the costs added on after the fact. They really wanted one song, and the version I had didn't turn out right. All these problems were based on this one song, Jewelbomb, they wanted on 'Devotion + Doubt'. The version that we came up with I didn't like and I didn't want it on there. There was a big argument between me and MCA about this one song, it seemed to change their whole opinion of me. They wanted this one song, they thought they could really do something with it. Whatever. They didn't get it."
With his distrust of the label apparent from the get-go, could this not have been a stubborn desire on his part to withhold "the hit"?
"What it was more of was here's this arrogant company saying, 'If you do this, we'll do this.' I hate arrogant people, and if anybody I think is like that says anything, my first reaction is 'Shut the fuck up!' No matter what they promise you, usually you're not going to get anything because they're arrogant, and there's all these things that trail off behind that. They're completely untrustable. I didn't not give them what they wanted because I had it and didn't want to give it to them. I didn't give it to them because what I had I didn't like. But I didn't try any harder also, because of the kind of people they were. It was a really pushy situation. Like, I actually spent another fifteen thousand dollars for a weekend in an expensive New York studio, we really worked hard on that one song. I did try to give them the song, but it ended up I didn't like the version of it and there was nothing I could do about it. So I think I did my part, I really tried hard, but I wasn't going to bend over backwards for some fucking asshole either. But there were some good things that came out of it. I had the tour support scam, I got to hire these people, and also right before they dropped me they bought me the equipment I recorded 'The Hill' on, because they wanted me to do some demos. I never did send the demos, and I kept the equipment and made 'The Hill' on it. 'The Hill' cost, like, eighteen hundred dollars to make instead of ninety thousand. Better profit margin on that one."
"Looking back now," Richard Buckner wrote in the press release that accompanied 'Devotion + Doubt', seemingly sketching the rough draft of a Raymond Carver story. "It appears that while growing up in Northern California, my family would get on Highway 99, pull off at an appropriate exit that had to do with all sorts of break-ups, transfers or reunions, then get back on, just to find another exit somewhere along."
"My dad was a big sports guy, a jock," he says when I ask him about his background. "And I just never got it. So what else is there, you know? We grew up in really small towns, there's nothing really to do. And I've always been kind of a... I don't know, I don't hang out with a lot of people, I've never been a real external kind of person, or I've tried and it hasn't worked out. I've always been a private person, when I came home from school I'd just go to my room, listen to a lot of music. I'd stay up all night sometimes with headphones on listening to music, the radio usually. And I had an acoustic guitar around when I was a kid but I never really played it that much, I took lessons a few times but never really got interested in it. I actually didn't even get really interested in music until I was a sophomore in college. I just put a band together with this guy from English class. He played guitar too and I had a little four-track, and we had a different drummer every time, played like English Club parties or weird basement parties when we were going to college. It started from there, it was kind of a punk band, we did covers and shit, made up our own songs. We'd write a bunch of songs in one day, just about our girlfriends or our car problems or whatever, nothing too serious. Then when I got out of college I moved to San Francisco and played on the streets for years, sometimes with a drummer, just acoustic guitar and a drum kit. And then this friend of mine said she could get me to play indoors if I wanted, and I was like, 'Yeah!' Because when you play on the street it's cold, you have cops kicking you out, we had knives pulled on us, there's all this weird street musician politics in San Francisco that you have to deal with. It got to be a pain in the ass after a while, the charm wore off."
Currently making his home in Edmonton, Canada, you're just as likely to find Buckner out on tour. Presumably this is out of financial necessity?
"It's a rent-paying thing, yeah. There were about three or four years when I was touring year-round, but that's because I wasn't living anywhere at the time. I was recently divorced, I put my stuff in storage and just toured because I couldn't afford to pay rent anyway, so I stayed on the road the whole time, house-sat once in a while when I wasn't touring. For a while there it was pretty much nine months a year. But I'm trying to tour less now, because I'm renting a real house and trying to do things like finish the record and hopefully there's more recording work that's going to come up. I'm just trying to be at home, be a father to my cat."
With a history of label tribulations and the need to be so frequently on the road, does he never have qualms about continuing with music as a career, for want of a better word?
"I think about it all the time. I've thought about it a lot the last couple of months. The first part of the year's really hard because you can't tour a lot in the winter and you come out and it's tax time, car registration time, and there's no money. I do think a lot that I should quit and get a day job."
There's a brooding quality to Buckner's music that's present in person, and even though his conversation and good humour almost convince you of an affable disposition, beneath it are glimpses of something more pensive and irascible. At the Borderline he's in good spirits, appreciative of the audience, joking with them and calling for whiskey refills. Contrastingly, the few times I saw him at New York's Mercury Lounge during 2001 were not so genial, his stage presence seeming gruff and less communicative. On one occasion, during a hushed rendition of Song of 27, a mobile phone went off a few feet from the stage. "Answer your fucking phone, man," Buckner yelled, walking to the edge of the stage and demanding that the person hand over the offending item. "Get that thing out of here," he hissed, every bit as comic as he was intimidating.
"Well, I'm glad it was comic," he says when I remind him of this.
"Sometimes it doesn't come off like that. I've had a few shit fits about it. Fuck, man, I have a cell phone, but it's mostly an expensive alarm clock. Why would I walk into a known acoustic show, or any kind of show, with my cell phone on? I have these dickhead Alpha-dog boys making phone calls, like, 'Dude, listen to this show...' Come on man, just listen to the show, have a beer. I don't know, when I go to shows I go to see the show and I don't want to be bothered by a phone call." What are his preferences where venues and audiences are concerned?
"I'm really weird with clubs, I only play specific places in the States. It has a lot to do with the sound on stage, that I can hear myself, if the club is honest and pays me at the end of the night, and if the audience isn't having cell phones going off or there's some gaggle of fucking sorority girls talking in some corner. That bugs me more than anything else. It's not as much about noise as about the club itself. Sometimes the audience is into the music even though it's a loud place, and that's fine. I get creeped out by super-quiet folk-Nazi audiences, people who are such purists about it, that creeps me out as much as some frat crowd. I prefer to play a rock bar because I'm almost more removed from it and I can get into it more, turn up the monitors and I don't care what's going on in the audience, I can have my own little good time on stage and make a better show of it." By his own admittance his writing can be sporadic. What kickstarts him into picking up a pen or reaching for his guitar?
"Well, I don't have any hobbies besides music. That's kind of how 'The Hill' happened, I was filling my time with work. That's really all I can do and it's all that interests me. So when I'm not touring or in the studio I'm at home in my own little studio working on some weird thing."It was at his home studio that the forthcoming album, 'Impasse', was recorded, following an abortive session in Portland with Sebadoh's Jason Lowenstein, Eric Heywood and long-time producer JD Foster.
"I was like, 'Is it the studio? Is it because I hate Portland, Oregon so much? Is it me and JD, have we taken the relationship as far as we can?' I wasn't sure what had happened. I loved the musicians, the songs were written, but it just wasn't satisfying, and when I heard it back it wasn't keeping my interest, which is a bad sign. So I just scrapped the whole fucking thing."The home-recorded version features just Richard and his wife Penny-Jo, and if reports from their recent US tour are anything to go by it's a rough-edged progression. He reportedly described it as his "punk/new wave record".
"Did I say punk? It's more new wave, more I Melt With You [Modern English] than anything else. I found this Roland Strings keyboard a couple of months ago and I totally over-used it on the new record. It's a really fucked-up keyboard sound that I love." It must have been a difficult decision to abandon the original version of the album?
"It wasn't a difficult decision to make, because I knew it, I knew I wasn't happy with it. It was difficult to swallow that I spent my money on a session that I didn't want to use and that I knew I wasn't going to put out. I just had to bite the bullet and upgrade some of the equipment I had already and do it again. And I'm not an engineer, I was totally guessing on all this stuff, so I'm having a buddy of mine in New York work on some remixes. But I told them, the drums are mic'ed really strangely, there're some microphone issues, I don't really know what's going on with pre-amps, how to set them right. And his first comment was, 'Yeah, it's very interesting.' It's definitely a different-sounding record from the others, which is really what I wanted and I think it's interesting, more interesting than the first attempt, and it definitely has more of a sound than the other version."There aren't too many grand statements in Buckner's canon, the overt meanings too often curtained by his cryptic poeticism. But, in performance, with eyes half-closed-in resolve more than rapture-and the words seemingly spilling from his soul, via a voice that moves from compelling half-sigh to growling tenor to plaintive melodious croon, his performances articulate a level of commitment that goes beyond that of most performers. It's an intensity that would be hard to fake and, despite his best efforts at obfuscation, the songs still seem to offer a semblance of autobiography.
"It's just fiction," he counters in a tone that suggests it's something he's addressed once or twice before.
"With little points of personal experience in there. I don't think I let that much of my personal life out really."Some time ago his wedding photos were posted to the Internet, which suggests an intrusive interest that goes beyond the songs themselves. Is he aware of interest in him personally, removed from the music?
"First of all it's flattering that anybody even gives a fuck about me, that's very flattering. But that was a surprise to see wedding photos on the Internet, kind of weird. There's this bar I go to in Edmonton and they had a web site, and they gave us a bunch of beer and liquor for our wedding, it was all friends just bringing stuff to our backyard. And we played at the bar before and I guess they put all the photos up, a bunch of stuff. That's a little weird. Someone gave me a bootleg last year of one of my shows and it had a picture of my garage on the cover, which did freak me out for a little while. I was married in front of this garage and it's kind of collapsing. So there's a picture of my old garage on the cover of this bootleg. This is a little bit over the line. But, whatever, they're friends of mine, I think it got out to more people than they thought it would, it was more like just for the bar, but it got a little bit over done I think." Assumptions of authenticity are built deep into the meaning that music has for people, and the relationship that the listener forms with Buckner's heartfelt songs is different to that which they might have with something more bombastic, like latter-day Elton John, say. Does he think that his audience see the artifice in his songs?
"Everything's fiction. I mean who isn't fiction...? Maybe I describe situations in a way that's different than someone like Elton John, maybe I just talk about things in different terms. I don't really understand what people see in my music. I've had a couple of opportunities to hear other people do my songs, friends of mine did a show and played one of my songs and after I heard it I was like, 'Oh my God, that's a real song'. But to me I just can't hear it that way so I don't know what the real interest could be, it's hard to hear it from inside. To me it's a struggling, rambling on of melody and words. The process of writing is like a puzzle, it's a big relief to get a bunch of words down that I can work with and reorganise and over-edit. Taking things apart and putting them together, it's a fun little project for me. And, yeah, maybe some of my personal life is involved in it because I'm thinking about things putting it together."
"I don't really listen to my records, but once every couple of years I'll put one on, like, 'I want to hear what that sounds like again.' And I'll listen to the songs and think, 'Wow some of this stuff kind of happened later on, it's prophetic in a weird kind of way'. Which to me is a good sign that I'm tapping maybe into my subconscious."When the original version of 'Bloomed' came out it had a picture of Buckner and his first wife on the back cover dressed up in matching outfits-a detail that was neatly cropped from the reissue. He laughs when I bring this up.
"Yeah, why would I try to protect my personal life if I put my first wife on the cover? To us that was a joke. I didn't want to have any pictures of me on the record, I thought that was kind of stupid. I think it's kind of weird to put your face on the cover of a record. 'Oh that's what the record's about, your face? You fuck! You selfish fuck!' I think it's stupid. I wasn't going to put it on there, but when I got married the first time this guy came to our wedding and had this giant camera and a month later sent us these great, huge photographs he'd taken. And the photo of my wife and I, we just thought was so funny we'd put it on the back, we thought it was very funny. We'd gone to a thrift store that morning and found these matching pants and green plaid shirts that we wore for the wedding, we thought it was very funny, very clowny. We just eloped and had a barbecue kegger for our wedding party, we were just having a good time. I didn't think of it being a personal thing, I just thought it was funny. And I didn't think anybody would buy the fucking record anyway." "I hate tricks," Raymond Carver wrote in his essay 'On Writing'. "At the first sign of a trick or gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover." With similarities going further than shared geography or overlapping subject matter, and with his own affinity for Carver well documented, it's an aphorism that speaks volumes for Buckner's approach to songwriting. The "over-editing" he spoke of reached its apex with 'Since', which at times seems like it'll petulantly allow only a taster of each song, whipping them out of reach before your teeth can really be sunk in. Nothing is overplayed or underlined, and the episodic songs only occasionally settle on a resolved ending. Did this brevity come out of a distrust of songwriterly manipulations?
"Exactly. I hate when a song is way too long, you know what's going on in a song very quickly. Get in and get out, you've made your point, melody-wise, word-wise, whatever. A couple of times I've repeated phrases or words in songs, but I don't do it too often. When I write, I write a certain way, I don't repeat things too often unless that's the method I'm shooting for in the song. But at the same time I do think about pop music and I think about verse-chorus-verse-chorus, same chorus every time. And I guess that does work and it's a good way of making pop records and stuff like that, it's very enjoyable, but it's not the way I write. And ['Since'] was when I was in the most extreme over-editing phase of my life. Actually, I don't know, the new record is kind of the same way, the songs are all very short."With shorthand grammar and distinctive phrasing, Buckner has perfected a terse and recognisable writing style. The same edition of Issue magazine that came with a cover-mount CD of his songs also carried a short prose piece by him. Does he ordinarily write things other than lyrics?
"Oh yeah. I try and keep my non-music stuff separate from the lyrics, but that doesn't always happen. I write everything the same, it's like a combination of prose and poetry. You see so much stuff out there that you don't like, there's so much bad music out there, so many bad lyrics. But I really love writing and I love fiction, and non-fiction. To me editing is the fun part of writing. When you first get it out, that's the hard part, just getting to a state when it can just come out and spill onto the paper. Then you just put it away for a while and don't look at it, and you come back to it later and screw with it. Things happen. Maybe make characters happen, or pull characters out of lines that weren't there before. To me that's the fun part, that's the puzzle part, and that's where I get all my enjoyment out of writing. Unless the song comes out right away and it's done, and then I'm really fucking happy, but that rarely happens. Editing, screwing with the words, making them mean different things, turning them around, changing the situation. That's like a video game to me, that's really fun. And then after the song happens I'm like, 'What? Is this a song? What am I talking about? What did I do?' Well, who cares? The meaning is there."Of the writing process, he says,
"It's really important for me to add as much chaos as possible, because then more surprises happen. And the more surprises that happen, the less control you have, and the less control there is the more genuine the thing, I think."Does he intend to do anything with these writings, to hop aboard the conveyor belt of musicians who have books to put out?
"I've said I've had ambitions before, but then I see people like Jewel putting out books and all these people writing poetry books..."Britney Spears has published a novel.
"Oh, I'm sure she has. And you hear of all these jokers writing screenplays and shit, and it's like, fuck it, I don't want to put out a book, anybody can do that. Anybody can do it. There is some good stuff, like that John Fahey book that came out before he died ['Bluegrass Ruined My Life'] is really great. I would only do it if I had a real plan how to put it out, I wouldn't just put out a book of my poems. I love the guy from Silver Jews, I love his book, but I think he's very scholarly about it, and I'm not. It would have to be some other form, and the problem is I haven't come up with a good idea how to present it. I mean, I have a lot of writing, but I don't want to just put out a book, that's too easy. I don't want to put out something that I'm not proud of, I want to do something that's different."Analogous to the DIY principle in music making, there seems something much more do-able about music. Writing, paradoxically, seems like a very removed, inaccessible thing.
"Exactly. And how can I put out a book after reading Raymond Carver? I feel like I have no right, he's the greatest. If I can't even get close to his style-and I can't-why would I want to put something out that didn't come close to what he did?"A follow-up phone call several weeks after this interview found Richard in California, preparing to head to Chicago to record an EP with Jon Langford. He had separated from his wife and was on the eve of another never-ending tour. At the time we met, however, he was concerned with getting a work permit for Canada, despite having been (at that point, at least) married to a Canadian citizen for a couple of years.
"I go up there on work permits for gigs and then I just stay up there after the gig's over. I can do that for three months at a time on a work permit. But I can't get a real job there, which is weird. It's set up for people who have money. You're not allowed to work there, but also you're supposed to stay there somehow, and then after you get there you can't come back to the States for like six months, for no real reason. It's not a thing you can do if you're living paycheque to paycheque, it's really difficult. I mean you can do it, but you can't be with the person you're supposed to be married to for like a year or something like that, which is ridiculous as well. It doesn't work out for normal people."Nevertheless, Buckner has put the paperwork in motion that'll make him a fully-fledged Canuck. The first time attempted this was over a decade ago. Fresh out of college and living in Atlanta, Ga., it seems that authorities didn't see the nascent songwriter as a particularly bankable proposition back then.
"I was a book-store clerk," he explains
, "and I don't think I had a lot of money-making promise in my application, so they turned me down, but I think it's going to happen this time. I could've been Canadian already, but I had to stick it out in the States all this time. Hopefully I'll get my Landed Immigrant status-kind of a Green Card-in the next couple of months and then it'll take me three more years to change my citizenship. I'm very disappointed in my country. If I wasn't I wouldn't be getting ready to change my citizenship."I'm sure that if the reactionary big mouths who recently pilloried the film director Robert Altman after his call for some kind of national self-examination had enough discernment for Buckner to have passed through their radar, then their outrage at the criticism implicit in him relinquishing his US citizenship would be studied and vindictive. It's easy to imagine some people being aghast at his decision.
"I wonder," he tentatively responds, "I really wonder. I don't know why more people aren't doing it, I don't know why Canada isn't offering refugee status to Americans, living under that kind of situation. I know the view the rest of the world has about Americans is, like, we're aggressive, fixated on money and power, we're uncaring. And that's definitely the view the government gives off. But there's a lot of people who are suffering in the States and who can't make a living. I mean the government takes so much money, for a social security system that they're not going to be paid back for. I can't tell you how much it pained me to have to send a cheque in for my taxes before I left for this trip, because I knew exactly what it was going to. I've seen the fucking news, y'know. It's beyond embarrassing, it's horrible."I'm interested in what Buckner might think of his homeland from the vantagepoint of Canada. He avoids easy generalisations, but is quick to focus on the ever-apparent poverty trap.
"I grew up in Northern California," he says
, "which isn't the most expensive part, but it's still very expensive, and the whole state's out of control. I left San Francisco because I lost the place I was living at and I knew if I looked for another place it would cost me twice as much and there'd be 30 people there with first, last, deposit, and a little extra for the landlord if he'd give it to them."It's a picture of America that anyone who's read Barabara Ehrenreich's recent book 'Nickel and Dimed' would recognise. The "working poor", she says, "are the major philanthropists of our society." It's like a nation of Willy Lomans.
"Exactly! That's how all of America is, that's why [Death of a Salesman's] such a classic fucking play. It's so much of an archetype it's not even an archetype anymore, it's just the way it is. I can't wait to be completely separate from it. People are so marginalised that they can't get it together to get any kind of change made in the way things work, because so much is taken away from you. I'm talking from the point of view of an American, and I'm sure I would be considered wealthy to people from some other countries in different parts of the world. But if I was gay and I wanted to marry another gay man, I couldn't do it. That's not fucking freedom! If I don't want to do jury duty I can't tell the judge that I don't believe in the American justice system, I can be held in contempt of court, that's not freedom. We have no freedom. There's no freedom and there's no way to get out of your financial problems if you have to, because the government takes taxes from you whether you're making ten thousand or a hundred thousand a year. There's no way for people to change their lives because nobody's given a fucking break."
"My dad was born in Arkansas, and his family had to come out to California during the dustbowl. A bunch of Arkies and Okies moved out there to the Bakersfield area, a very similar landscape, and did farming or whatever they had to do. My mom's side of the family too came from Alabama and Texas out there to California. But California's not the same place anymore, and they're not getting enough money from their social security, if they want to retire it's not going to take care of their medication. So they moved to Idaho, where it's much cheaper to live, and they have to send away for their prescriptions to Canada because the Canadian drugs are so much cheaper than the American drugs. It's just a big fucking scam. My father was an accountant, a very straight-ahead man, like, paid his taxes, worked for the company, believed in it all and got fucked by everybody. It's just the way America is. It's like a bad business deal, like everybody talks the business-talk there, but when it comes down to taking care of people... It's like talking to somebody from a major label. They talk all this talk as a language unto themselves and it has nothing to do with the quality of life or anything like that and it has everything to do with investments and how you're going to do this and that."When I touch upon the current American national mood, Buckner articulates his condemnation of particular aspects of the US, offering praise for Noam Chomsky, and dismay at the closet conservatism that surfaced in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks.
"I mean what has the media told about anything the US has been doing in Central America? The real things they've been doing? What kind of news coverage do most Americans read about the G8? Or the control that the IMF has on the entire world and people's lives? They should show [Chomsky's] 'Manufacturing Consent' every month on TV so that people could see what was going on."His anger is apparent, but it'd be doing him a disservice to print much of what he goes on to say, giving gravitas to his words and turning a pub conversation into a manifesto, shoving him into a sphere that I'm sure he has no desire to dwell in.
With the interview wound up, we make our way to a Portobello record shop and he's careful to reiterate that he doesn't want to be misconstrued on the thin ice of politics.
"I'm just very disappointed and I don't know what to do about it," he says, repeating it again a little later as we wait for a Queensway bus.
"I just don't want to come across as pro-American." He's silent for a moment before adding
: "Or anti-American, or anything. I'm just me."
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002