With a slit-eyed stare, his brows hanging low, like a snowdrift slumped over a gutter, he took in the crowd. Richard Buckner looked mean. A barking, dirty, don't-cross-the-road-or-you'll-regret-it mean. But for a show in a noisy bar down in the Flats, everyone was too preoccupied or drunk to care. The laughing, the shouting, and the percussive sounds of violence done to innocent bottles drowned out the set. He couldn't even hear his guitar. Couldn't tell if he was singing in tune. No nuance, not even a minor chord cut through the din. Five, maybe six songs attempted. All aborted. Then, too, the set.
"I gave up," he said. "I put my guitar in my case, walked out, and drove out of the state. I haven't played in that town since."
This week, the singer/songwriter wearily returns to Cleveland, touring alongside Those Bastard Souls. He's still a testy scrapper, peppering the conversation with more than a few fucks, but much has changed with him since his last visit. He cut his hair and grew a beard. His first solo recording, Bloomed, is about to be released. He and his record label, MCA, parted ways, but not before following-up the introspective Devotion and Doubt with Since. It's an album still dense with Buckner's moody, view-through-smeared-glass lyrics, but this time more compact--each song a quick burst of energy from a crackling, bright band. Right now, however, Buckner wants to talk about short-story-writer Raymond Carver.
Buckner grew up in Carver's California. Not the California of sunglasses, celluloid, and palm-tree-lined, bottlenecked highways, but the slower, earthier, other California. Like Carver, Buckner graduated a modest student from a modest California state school and fell in love with the possibilities in language and writing. Buckner drifted around the country for a while, but when he finally settled into writing music, he took a similar source and subject matter as Carver: the often overwhelming emotional inner life of normal people. Buckner doesn't consider himself a storyteller, and his lyrics may not immediately recall a Carver short, but as he goes on to discuss the writer, the shared aesthetic becomes clear.
"One of the things I love about Raymond Carver is that he'll write a story, and after you've read the story, you come away with this feeling and mood," Buckner says. "It had almost as much to do with how people in the story moved their arms on the table or got up and walked around [as] it [had] to do with the actual words. You don't want to lay down all the specifics, because it's fucking boring, TV-sitcom kinda stuff."
Like Carver, Buckner doesn't want to fabricate a complete picture, a total person, a whole story. That would be far too easy, if not a bit dishonest. When, after all, does anyone ever get the whole story on anyone?
In the first line of the first song on Since, "Believer," Buckner sings, "I wrote it out in stones." Though enigmatic, the line almost makes Buckner's vision come clear. He builds his lyrics around figurative stones--the often impenetrable though basic concepts and images that describe a life. He packs his lyrics with them (spark, spirit, faith). His metaphors pile up in aggregate layers so thick, the bottom few threaten to petrify. But unmistakably, his words form the same fleet, graceful surfaces of a Carver passage. His lyrics are like little snapshots, with details carefully chosen--suggestive though seldom reductive.
"Who wants all the loose ends tied up in a story?" Buckner asks. "If it's open-ended, then that leaves it easier for you to insert your own experience into it. And the point of writing these songs is not to say, 'Man, here's what happened to me, and this is fucked,' but more about the outlines of things."
In his quivering, slightly drawled singing voice, Buckner shares Carver's skill for setting a mood, in imbuing a situation with emotional weight, which is all he really intends with his songs anyway.
"I was always interested in English and writing all through school, but I thought that it was screwy that these rules were set in stone, which is totally wrong," Buckner says. "It doesn't follow the way people naturally talk or express themselves every time. And on top of that, if you're trying to make some kind of art out of it, you have to portray something other than what's going down. You want there to be something that's not completely understood. That's important, because what's the point if it's completely understood?"
Buckner keeps a notebook in the truck he still drives from show to show, sometimes pulling off into the grass and jotting a few ideas down. Lately, he's added an eight-track recorder to his road travels. Most nights he's holed up in his hotel room, ignoring the free HBO, bringing his guitar to bed, and recording his half-thought-out songs and other scraps of ideas.
It's only the first step in a long line of steps. Buckner's music comes together at the last minute, only after the disparate musicians (rockers, country twangers, experimental musicians, folkies) he has assembled finally work out their parts. Buckner chooses a final incarnation of his lyrics, and the tracks they've been carving out for weeks coalesce. It's a method so slipshod, it's surprising that it turns up anything. But for an intuitive artist like Buckner, it probably couldn't go any other way.
"A lot of the stuff that happens in the studio is really nothing you could really think of," he says. "And that's the good thing about working with a group of musicians who are working in very different areas in music. If they're all talented--and I've loved everybody that I've worked with--then the least that's going to happen is that it's going to be different and cool. The best that's going to happen is, it's going to work and it's going to suit the songs well and the mood of the whole record.
"When you use people from different areas, who haven't worked together before, what you're doing is creating an environment where a lot more dangerous or good accidents can happen. And you hope for as many accidents as possible, because that's where the surprise, cool things come from."
The method gives his music a sound true to itself: It borrows freely from folk, rock, and country, but isn't weighted down by any of them. A few tunes on Since are bright country rock and folk, albeit set apart by Buckner's idiosyncratic lyrics. But in some of his most inventive songs, he doesn't think in styles or genres, but rather in sounds--bent to the twisted contours of his lyrics. Listen, then, to the opening of "Coursed," a cello drone that roves between the speakers, or the single-note piano pattern that acts as an unexpected salve to the fiery "Brief & Boundless." The music ranges in perfect tandem with his words.
Buckner closes the interview with a blunt statement. "Fuck The Man," he yells, after I ask him if he has anything to add. It's a little jarring, coming from the same man who sings, "Would you take another trip with a candle like her? Strike another promise and watch it burn." But then again, in this raw aggression is the kernel of his appeal. His world is a jagged, harsh one, like broken glass on the highway. People spark and people burn out. Nobody's ever as in control as they seem.
"How many things ever end up the way that you thought they would?" Buckner asks. "People will do things one minute and something different the next, and you'd be like, 'How could that person do that? I thought they were about this.' Life will take a strange turn on you. Things are going good, then all of a sudden, things turn around, and you're going in the opposite direction that you were going before, and that's just the way everything is."
The hellfire vision through Richard Buckner's slitted eyes can be tempered into beauty. Just spare him a few necessary things: his truck, his notebook, his eight-track, and a little time.
Richard Buckner, with Those Bastard Souls. 10 p.m., Sunday, June 6, Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights, $7, 216-321-5588.