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Vodka Swan Song: Slam Buckra Dies at 53

The north state has lost one of its most compelling artists. Musician and artist Slam Buckra died Friday at age 53. He had base of tongue cancer and had been sick for well over a year.

Slam came to Shasta County from San Diego and was a fixture in the area music scene for close to two decades.

To catch Slam Buckra and the Groove Palookas on a hot night was to catch a swirl of sweaty dancing, extemporaneously brilliant dialogue, rip roarin’ blues, vodka toasts, fondling of mannequins and other assorted tomfoolery. All of it was creative — much of it hilarious.

The word compelling keeps coming to mind. Every time I saw him perform he was compelling in some way.

Musically he was an original, but you could hear the threads into many of his favorite artists — Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), Frank Sinatra. I loved his version of Freddie King’s “Big Legged Woman.” He loved jazz greats who really pushed the boundaries of music like Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Sun Ra.

He loved Bob Dylan and would play unpredictable tunes by the master.

Slam was a fabulous blues and rock guitarist who always found rich tones and creative lines. He kept the party deep in the boogie zone and a lot of people left his shows tired and happy from dancing their buns off.

His band was always killer. My favorite Palooka combo was Patrick Wiseman (drums), Jason Fator (bass) and MacKenzie Hughes (horns), but the great Thom Berry (harmonica) often played with him, as did bassist Alan Phillips early on. There were some other fine players whom I’m not recalling names for – please feel free to list in the comments below.

His bio says he opened for the likes of Willie Nelson, R.E.M., Johnny Winter, Mose Allison and Eric Johnson. He played on stage with blues guitar legends Albert King and Albert Collins.

As a songwriter, Slam also left a lasting impression. His song “Frank,” about the iconic Redding bartender Frank Nazarirod, was well-known even by people who didn’t attend his shows – it was heavily played on the jukebox at the Squire Room.

He used crazy sexual imagery in many of his songs – almost bondage-type fantasies (lots of spankin’) that were, to me, more hilarious than gratuitous. From this series, “Spank Watusi” is a hard one to resist.

I like (and relate to) his tune “Life of a Millionare”:

Slam (center) with Groove Palookas Patrick Wiseman (left) and Jason Fator.

I’m searchin’ through my sofa for some nickels and some dimes but I’m havin’ a good time, havin’ a good time/

Having a good time on my hands, six bucks in my pocket, two kamikazes and some fuel for my rocket/

What cha do for a livin’ fella? I said, well buddy I got the life of a millionaire without the money

Two good examples of his music are contained in his albums available on CB Baby — “Vodka Swan” and “Lucky Scars.”

As bold and bizarre as his music was, his physical art was equally captivating. To me, his self-portraits were very honest and revealing. One self-portrait I lived with for a time revealed pain, fragility, humor, beauty and blur all in the same image.

Highly creative people are often haunted and Slam would fit into this category as well.

One night at a show at Vintage Wine Bar he told me that he was basically not playing with a full deck.

At the Post Office Saloon on another occasion, I once walked away from him screaming at my back that he was “gonna bury” me. He later explained it as tomcats bristling under a full moon or something like that.

The drink sometimes brought out demons and Slam had a big ego. He fired flaming arrows that struck through the shoulders and arms of several others around town.

However, when I talked to oodles of musicians about doing a benefit concert for him, every person I discussed it with said they would be happy to take part. It would have been a big gathering, but we got the word he didn’t want it, so it never materialized.

I think everyone respected his creativity, individuality and skill as a player. He had a lot to teach everyone about being a performer. He was a pure entertainer who relished the spotlight all the way.

I also have fond memories of drinking white Russians with him at the Squire and the Clover Club. Once, he came to see me play at an obscure hall on the outskirts of town and nicknamed me Dizzy Dee after hearing me stumble through Jimmy Reed’s “Dizzy.” I’m pretty sure everyone got a nickname.

Aside from being Slam Buckra or Vic Swankly (his Sinatra act), who was he really? His real name was Rick (or Richard) Gazlay and he was born April 18, 1957 and I’m not sure where. Almost no one knew that name.

Slam and the Palookas play the 2009 Taste of Redding.

Around here he was Slam Buckra. The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” was his favorite song. You can play anything by Frank Z or Frank S or Country Dick Montana and think about him.

He checked out just a short time after Captain Beefheart (last month). Maybe that wasn’t a coincidence.

Slam started shows at 7:38 p.m. At the end of e-mails he said he would “seize you later.”

He covered the north state in grooves and gave us all a mighty butt slap with his wit and swagger.

Slam Buckra challenged us to be more creative, and we really deeply desperately needed that.

More on Slam: Click here for a cartoon tribute by Phil Fountain. Click here for information about a celebration of Slam’s life, planned for Sunday, Feb. 13.

Jim Dyar is a news, arts and entertainment journalist for A News Cafe and the former arts and entertainment editor for the Record Searchlight’s D.A.T.E. section. Jim is also a songwriter and leader of the Jim Dyar Band. He lives in Redding. E-mail him at jimd.anewscafe@gmail.com.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.