Beat chronicler & the dirty old man

Posted on July 6, 2005

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By Susan Tomaselli

“In Los Angeles there is no sense of place, the street landscape is so similar from one block to the next that the residents have to devise recognition tricks in order to cope with the long commutes, and an unfamiliar destination can often resuilt in getting lost in the seemingly endless sprawl.”

Welcome to L.A., without a map, with flaneur Charles Bukowski as your guide.

Charles Bukowski, misogynist, womaniser and barfly brawler, famous for writing about whores, drinking and the race-track, is a proto-Beat, the voice of the low-life and the photographer of L.A.’s underbelly. The ultimate outsider, refusing to become part of any movement, the 60s counterculture almost passed him by: “I went on the road not like Kerouac, as a fulfilling [experience]. I went on the road because there was no place to go. I just moved on because everything was ugly. All I wanted to do was find a small room somewhere, find a bottle of wine, and start drinking.”

His path with the Beats crossed on numerous ocassions however, between the covers of the same magazines to becoming a “literary hustler” and sharing the stage at public readings, a task Bukoswki despised. What sets Buk apart from the Beats, with the exception of William Burroughs, is the wry, self-depricating humour. Never a reviser, at least not until 1974, Hank sat pounding out the work on his “typer”, keeping the work confined, precise, honest and above-all funny.

Bukowski wore his influences proudly on his crumpled sleeve – John Fante, Celine, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway – but for all his similarites – the spare writing style, the romanticisation of the drinking – there were distinct differences: Buk wrote thinly veiled autobiographies, using everything from his own life and his friends’ lives to flesh out Factotum, Post Office, Notes of a Dirty Old Man and the voluminous poetry collections.

Miles, who as Zapple employee was commissioned by McCartney and Lennon to record poets for the label, met Bukowski in the late 60s. Most of the early information about Bukowski comes from the bildensroman Ham on Rye, with the later novels and the poems filling out the gaps. What Miles does bring to the mix is a genuine appreciation of the humanity under the tough guy persona, and hopefully a renaisance of the great man’s work, who is currently out of vogue.

Between the encounters with the women, who wanted a piece of him even in his later years, there some pure Bukowski altercations with celebrities, including Schwarzenegger (“You little piece of shit! You and your big shitty cigar, who do you think you are? Just because you make these shiity little movies, you’re nothing special, you megalomaniac piece of shit…”) and friend Sean Penn (“I got to like Sean, especially when he came over with Madonna. She’s talking about Swinburne! I’m making my usual cracks about Madonna trying to be hip. Sean gets angry. He stands up, but I say quietley, ‘Sit down Sean, you know I can take you baby.'”) And despite his reputation as a horny old toad, a purveyor of bad taste, he declined Madonna’s kind offer of an appearance in her Sex book.

Not a great deal different from Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life, the superior biography by Howard Sounes, but a good introduction to the Bukowski myth.

Charles Bukowski by Barry Miles
Virgin Books
324 Pages

Posted in: Reading