CHARLES BUKOWSKI: The Poet as Entertainer; An Excerpt From Joan Jobe Smith’s New Book,“Charles Bukowski: Epic GLOTTIS: His Art & His Women (& me)”

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February 1, 2013 · Posted in Commentary 

By Joan Jobe Smith  

 

 

Unbelievable to think that here I am, in 2012, half of my lifetime

plus two years later, rewriting this piece I first drafted in August 1975,

when I was a law student. Seventeen long years later, after I dropped

out of law school, received a Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing

from the University of California Irvine and married the poet Fred

Voss, a portion appeared in Sure—The Charles Bukowski Newsletter #4,

1992. In the spring 1994 issue of Chiron Review, “The Poet As Entertainer”

was published in toto as a column I wrote called “Swimming in

the Word Stew.”

 

In autumn 1974, when a near-graduate of California State University

Long Beach, I proposed the idea of “The Poet As Entertainer” as

a thesis subject for a master’s degree—with Charles Bukowski’s

hearty approval and his magnanimous offer of collaborative cooperation.

But the powers in charge at CSULB rejected my idea as not only

lacking sufficient literary merit to justify a thesis about such a controversial

writer of undocumented academic value but also derided the

concept of The Poet As Entertainer as inconsequential. Now here’s this

ancient piece I wrote long ago—my mere rosebud notion that never

bloomed, that a poet could be entertaining, precluding the 1990s

emergence of the performance poets and slam poets—originally inspired

by Charles Bukowski, one of the first entertainer poets, along

with Dylan Thomas. This might’ve evolved into a landmark and possibly

remarkable thesis, and exists now as merely a small piece of Bukowski

historical data for his many fans who never had the good

fortune to see and hear in person the amazing man read some of the

most extraordinary and entertaining poetry ever written or performed.

WOMEN WERE ESPECIALLY UNKIND TO CHARLES BUKOWSKI

that bright, blue, beautiful afternoon of August 15, 1975, the day

before Bukowski’s fifty-fifth birthday. Sunshine-made diamonds

danced at four o’clock p.m. on the aquamarine Pacific Ocean down

the road from the Moulton Theatre in Laguna Beach, California,

while Bukowski sat frowning in the far-corner seats of the dark last

row, watching the audience meander into the small theater.

 

“Feminists! Look at them—” Bukowski whispered to his girlfriend

Linda King and me as he sat between us. “Women’s libbers.

They’re gonna kill me, I know it.”

 

Already inebriated, drinking beer since breakfast, Bukowski

grabbed another pop-top can of his favorite red-and-white-labeled

cheap beer from his six-pack and flagrantly snapped it open—pop!

spit! spat the beer almost loud as gunfire as it echoed off the walls of

the Moulton Theatre and stunk up a wide circle with its skunkreeking

stench.

 

Some of the spew splattered nastily onto the pricy pale blue

denim pseudo-hippie-chick tatterdemalion jacket and bellbottom

jeans of one woman, the one with permed frizzy hair—a Billie Jean

King lookalike. She jerked her neck and gave Bukowski a dirty look

as he chugged a long drink of beer; quickly, Billie Jean King stepped

away to catch up with her female companions, many intellectuallooking

types wearing granny glasses, long skirts with beach-set,

mode-o-day, Birkinstock sandals.

 

A nattily dressed man who walked behind them—wearing an

ascot and a white tennis sweater shawl over the shoulders of his

pink Brooks Brothers shirt that was tucked neatly into white linen

trousers—stopped, eyed-up Bukowski’s casual apparel of navy blue

plaid shirt and dark tan corduroy pants, then glared at the noisy red

and white beer can that seemed to glow in the dark. The carefully

clad middle-aged gentleman shook his balding head as if he couldn’t

believe his eyes.

 

For sure, none of these fine, conservative, well-to-do folks of

Laguna Beach and surrounding Orange County areas who’d voted

for Richard Nixon in the last presidential election had ever seen the

likes of Charles Bukowski. I was surprised when I heard that the

Laguna Beach Arts Council had invited him to appear at their 3rd

Annual Poetry Week that coincided with the popular, crowdpleasing,

and jam-packed Laguna Beach Festival of Arts. Last year,

a dignified famous poet-&-Ph.D.-professor from a prestigious university

back East had appeared. If that sartorial man had known

that this drunken man chug-a-lugging a can of beer, this disheveled

factotum who looked like an off-duty janitor or postal clerk, was

the star of the show, he might’ve asked for a refund. Or possibly

called a policeman.

 

At that moment, this was as good as it was going to get; that is,

as good as Bukowski was going to be—etiquette-wise. For the past

five years that he’d been doing poetry readings in bars, little theatres,

colleges, and universities, he’d been accruing quite a poetry

résumé, thanks to his notorious reputation for unpredictable, if not

unsuitable behavior. Irrepressible, usually drunk at his readings, he

had more surprises inside him than a psychotic Pandora’s box.

Sometimes, during a standing ovation of lit majors and profs, he’d

inexplicably left the stage and didn’t come back. Once, he vomited

into a baby grand piano valued at ten thousand dollars.

In spite of such maniacal mythology, here he was in the mainstream.

Undoubtedly, the 1972 Taylor Hackford documentary

shown frequently on PBS and the fact that Bukowski’s books of

poetry and fiction starring superego-id Hank Chinaski were becoming

well-read among the literati as well as readers-at-large were the

main fascinating facts that prompted the genteel intelligentsia

Laguna Beach art connoisseurs to stick their necks out and invite

the most controversial American poet of 1975—or any year then or

since—to read his poetry on their small, intimate, nearly parlorsized

stage, where a red-velvet-covered Baroque throne chair

awaited the arrival of featured poet Charles Bukowski.

The women in the bright front row, the feminists, the women’s

libbers, buzzed competently, loudly, like a busy swarm of queen

bees. Together, a rehearsed chorus, the ten or so of them pointed

accusingly at us sitting in the dark back row.

 

“See? What’d I tell ya?” Bukowski groaned. “They wanna tear me

a apart. That one with the frizzy hair. She’s the ringleader. She’s

gonna give me shit. I‘m sure of it.”

 

They looked remarkably like the feminists I’d seen, autumn

1973, at Bukowski’s CSULB reading—an entire front row that

walked out in the middle of him reading a lascivious segment from

his novel-in-progress, Factotum.

 

Almost his birthday, nervous and drunk to boot, he hadn’t

wanted to accept this gig in Laguna Beach.

“Goddamned red-necked country. They voted for Barry Goldwater

and then that son of a bitch Richard Nixon, who lives just

down the road in San Clemente,“ he grumbled to Linda King and

me. “They’re not gonna dig me. And it’s a helluva long way from

L.A. You’re gonna have to drive me home, Linda. Maybe right now,

baby. I’m drunk. I’ve had too many goddamn beers. I’m out of it.

Look at those libbers. They keep looking at me. I feel like I‘m

gonna puke.”

 

Instead, he snapped open another pop-top, the noise making

others turn around to look at the dark last row. Bukowski toasted

them with his foaming beer can. One of the front row women’s libbers

turned all the way around and shook her head at him, disgusted

by the sight of him. “That one—” Bukowski spearheaded his beer

can at her; she wore a Jane Fonda Hanoi Jane shag hairdo. “She

wants to cut my balls off. She‘s probably got a switchblade in her

purse. These women‘s libbers are mean babes, tough cookies.”

Usually the middle-class suburban males gave Bukowski the

most rowdy feedback. Backlash. Heckling, actually. Or the inebriated,

young university frat boys. Most of his readings back then

took place in bars. Bukowski’s favorite habitat—next to his typewriter

or bedroom. In May 1975, I’d seen him torn into, verbally

abused by a pack of drunken Marines in Huntington Beach, at a

nightclub across the Pacific Coast Highway from the Pier, the famous

Golden Bear where ten years before, in May 1966, Lenny

Bruce had given one of his last performances, busted for obscenity

right on the stage, dragged off to jail in handcuffs. The next night, I

went to see Lenny Bruce only to find him replaced by the sweet,

sedate—and blind—Jose Feliciano with his gentle guide dog resting

at his feet. Bukowski’s style and content back then was sometimes

likened to Lenny Bruce’s high-strung, strung-out prodigal son,

world-weary, raunchy wit and grit.

 

On that May 1975, night, the young Marines hadn’t liked Bukowski’s

serious, philosophical poetry, the Celine-ironic, surreal existentialism

he felt like reading—in a depressed mood because his

girlfriend Linda King had just left him again. “Read your good shit!”

the biggest, mouthiest of the Marines yelled.

But Bukowski held his own, was having a good timed drinking

because the management had humorously, generously placed on the

stage an old Frigidaire packed full of Bukowski’s favorite German

beer. A laugh-making prop, the fridge arm’s distance close so Bukowski

could reach for a beer whenever the one he was chugging

was empty. When he did, the standing-room only crowd roared

with delight. Bukowski’s pilsner runneth over while he joked amicably,

paternally with the young jar-headed Marines, told them how

good they had it now that Vietnam was over. Told them they’d

helped win the war over there. They cheered at that schmoozy hyperbole.

“Semper fi!” Bukowski shouted the abbreviation of the Marine

Corps motto Semper Fidelis, making the microphone rattle and

roar. The Marines roared back.

 

“Hey, bartender—” Bukowski yelled. “—bring these Marines

more drinks, on—” Bukowski did not offer to pay for the drinks;

instead he pointed at one of the Marines, the biggest one, the

mouthiest of the hecklers who’d heckled him and said: “—on him!

Harharharrrr!” The Marines roared some more, semper fine and

mellowed, won over in the Heckle War. Booed, no more. Shut up

and let Bukowski read on. Bukowski knew how to keep control and

had the genius knack to make his audience happy—he let them be

co-stars of his show. Plus he had his new love poems, one titled

“Kiss Me” he’d written about him and Linda King published in

Wormwood Review:60 that would appear in his 1977 Black Sparrow

edition Love Is A Dog From Hell.

“…kiss me like you’ve kissed all the guys I haven’t heard about

lately—guys under piers, at dances, on horseback, in pool halls and

bowling alleys, in Mercedes-Benzes, in closets, waiting rooms, madhouses

and gas stations…”

 

(In the spring of 1975, Bukowski had recommended I send

some of my poetry to Wormwood Review editor Marvin Malone, who

had just accepted three of my poems, which would appear in

Wormwood Review:68; Billy Collins, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate

from 2001-2003, appeared in the same publication. The issue also

featured my benefactor Leo Mailman, editor of Maelstrom Review and

Nausea, who in 1973 had obtained funding at CSULB for the first

two issues my small press magazine Pearl.)

Then Bukowski read what was always a crowd-pleaser, his hilarious

“The Closing of the Topless and Bottomless Bars,” with

the surefire laugh-getting punch-lines: “…just got to believe those

Supreme boys…just can’t get it up anymore.” (Bukowski wrote

that poem after reading my 1974 poem “Vice,” from the first draft

of my go-go girl memoir, then titled, The Crotchwatchers.) The Marines

roared, stood up tall and strong, and gave him a standing

ovation. It was one of Bukowski’s best readings I’d ever seen—or

would ever see.

Finally, August 15, 1975, when Bukowski decided the Moulton

Theatre full enough and the management would let the late-comers

in for free, he walked—staggered—down the aisle, yanking on the

saggy butt of his drooping corduroy pants, without waiting to be

introduced by the confused mistress of ceremonies who’d looked

around and asked, not meaning it for the microphone, “Where is

he? Where‘s Charles Bukowski?”

 

When Charles Bukowski stepped up onto the stage carrying the

remainder of his six-pack, the mistress of ceremonies looked more

confused. After all, he looked like a Factotum, possibly the janitor

come to mop up after a leaky faucet, someone you might need to

call for a policeman to eject. When Bukowski sat his droopy-clad

tush down, not an officious working-class intermeddler after all, in

the red velvet Baroque throne chair, he sat tall, regal, entitled, like a

king might who owned the place, shuffling a pack of typewritten

papers, as the M.C. quietly, obsequiously stepped off the stage. The

audience, the ones who recognized this alleged hired help, presumed

reprobate as the featured—and famous—poet Charles Bukowski,

clapped politely, apprehensively.

 

Bukowski waved for them to stop. Then, also apprehensive, he

began to read his “subtle stuff”—as he called it—the stuff that

sounded “more poetic.” Poems with a romantic flourish similar to

the work of Robinson Jeffers, with an Ernest Hemingway narrative

reality—two writers whom Bukowski read and greatly admired and

emulated in his early days.

“Read ‘The Closing of the Topless and Bottomless Bars,’” I’d

requested of Bukowski before he went onto the stage.

“No, no, kid. This crowd wouldn’t get that poem. There aren’t

any topless or bottomless bars in Laguna Beach. Like I told you,

Richard Nixon lives around here. Besides, I didn’t bring it with me.“

“But you know it by heart,” I reminded him. “I saw you read it

at the Golden Bear last May.”

“No, kid, I won’t be reading any of my Real Stuff.”

 

He meant his vignette, Runyonesque poems about the crazy

men and women he’d known on Skid Row, met at the racetracks

and scruffy bars. Nor would he read his screams-from-thebalcony

poems about his women—making love, lust, and war

with them. Nor would he read poems with four-letter words;

Lenny Bruce got thrown in jail for his blue material—and an arrest

might happen here, too, in conservative Laguna Beach. He

had a handful of new poems, most of which would soon be published

in Wormwood. He was so prolific; he seldom read the same

poem twice at any of his readings.

 

So, Bukowski was Being Good, reading philosophical poems—

and the audience responded mildly, if at all. Soon Bukowski began

to feel the tension in the theatre and he got tense, too. His recitation

lacked flamboyance—and fun. His usual nasal, playful sotto

voce and falsettos sounded contrived, uninspired, mundane,

monotonal—and worse…

 

“Uh oh. Bukowki‘s bored,” Linda King said to me. “Bukowski’s

dangerous when he’s bored.”

 

Often, for comic relief and to give himself a break from the

pressure of a difficult audience, Bukowski’d pause, take an on-stage

intermission, chat with the audience, break the ice, which would unleash

a flood of questions—and often praise. “We love you!“ a

group might shout out, starting a barrage of accolades and requests

for favorite poems. That night, I’d asked Bukowski to read one of

my favorites, “Law,” which he’d read in the 1972 Taylor Hackford

documentary, a poem that ends: “…well, all right, then, let’s get on

with it.” Another favorite that I’d asked for at that 1975 reading was

his “True Story” from Steve Richmond’s infamous 1965-printed

Earth Rose tabloid Fuck Hate about a self-mutilating lover cutting

off his own genitalia to please his harridan woman. Richmond was

arrested for obscenity, but later exonerated in a famous court trial.

 

In that small Moulton Theatre arena, however, filled with the

well-bred, well-fed, and obviously uptight suburbanites emitting

conspicuous smatterings of coughs, uptight throats being cleared,

amidst the static emptiness of No Good Vibes, as if caught

amongst the ellipses of a bad review, Bukowski frowned, clicked

open another beer and chugged the entire contents gone. Finally the

Hanoi Jane Fonda-shag-hairdo’d woman sitting in the front row,

arm’s length from Bukowski’s shoe, aborted the proverbial Pregnant

Pause when she shouted out:

“Why are all your poems about yourself?”

“What do you write about?” Bukowski fired back, sly to answer

a question with a question.

“I don’t write,” she sneered.

Silence. Bukowski shrugged. He had not smiled once during

the reading. Bukowski without a smile on his face was like a dark

day with a tornado on the way. He lit a cigarette. “Any more questions?”

he asked and puffed hard to catch the flame on the match.

”I’m ready for you tonight,” he said, a good-natured warning, then

finally, he half-smiled, finally drunk enough to see the angst of it

all, get jolly over the absurdity of these readings. He was beginning

to hate readings and vowed each time this reading would be his

last. His finale came in 1980, at the Sweetwater Club in Redondo

Beach, California, where he’d read poetry in public for the last

time, though he‘d keep writing for fourteen more years until his

death, March 9, 1994.

 

August 15, 1975, Linda King sighed a sigh of relief. “Thank

God, he’s mellowing out.” When a hostile audience irritated Bukowski,

he would tell them to go get fucked and walk off the stage.

He sometimes spit on people in the audience. Once he urinated

into an empty wine bottle and pretended to pour it on someone

who’d heckled him.

 

Another question from the Angry Young Feminist: “Would you

come to hear Charles Bukowski read poems about himself?”

“I wouldn‘t waste my time,” Bukowski said, watching his cigarette

smoke snake dance, blowing around his face in the wind from

the overhead air conditioner. From the audience came some ironic

laughter, some deep-chested male guffaws.

“Why don’t you write poems about your mother?” another

feminist asked.

“My mother died of cancer when she was three.”

No laughter.

“Why do you always use dirty words?” asked the Billie Jean

King lookalike.

“Give me an example of a dirty word,” he said.

Silence. No laughter. Everyone was so soporifically serious that

afternoon. As if they had dozed off, Siesta Time. Bukowski opened

yet another beer, his penultimate can, and chugged it down, staring

at the ceiling, as if to say, “Fuck ’em.”

“Is there any word you find offensive?” the frizzy-haired

woman asked.

Love!” he bellowed, breathing it into the microphone, making

the word rattle Luuuuuuv—!”

Nervous laughter.

Then Linda King, the helpmate she often was at his readings

when they got dismal or down-and-dirty, hollered, in her lighthearted

Utah, down-home, home-girl drawl: “Then why are you always

tellin’ me you love me, Bukowski?”

Honest laughter—and loud. Finally. Some scatterings of applause.

They were warming up to him. When they turned to look at

Linda King in the dark back row, she waved at them and smiled big.

 

A cross between an Annie Oakley and Aphrodite, Linda King

that night wore a sexpot-teaser mini skirt that showed off her long,

athletic legs. Bukowski was a Leg Man. Linda King, in her early thirties

then, loved being part of the Bukowski Show. An able, giddy

sidekick in the call-and-response shtick they often performed when

reading together, the vivacious, voluptuous Linda King also shined

as a solo act, was as much an entertaining poet as Bukowski.

I’d just seen Linda read in July on the bill with Diane Wakowski,

who’d read from her fabulous-feminist book Dancing On The

Grave Of A Son Of A Bitch at the Laguna Beach Unitarian Church,

where Linda King, flinging her long, thick, curly hair around up on

the stage, a la groovy go-go girl—wiggled and giggled to her feisty,

feel-good poem recently in Wormwood Review:60: “I feel

good…oooooohhhh I just feel good all inside…like bees

buzzzzz… flapp’en my wings jump’en up and down…and you ain’t

even going to like this poem it’s just too good…” The previous January

(1974), Linda King had enacted on stage the female’s response

to Bukowski’s two-character poem “The Kiss,” when she and Bukowski

had read at California State University Long Beach: “…kiss

me, she said, like you’ve kissed all the whores in the world…mmm,

she said, that’s good…we’ve really been fucking around too much.”

At the Laguna reading, a young baritonal male heckler sounded

out: “Who’s your whore this week, Bukowski?”

Bukowski pretended to ponder, scrunched his pockmarked face

to look like a wad of newspaper. Then, like W.C. Fields outsmarting

another sucker, Bukowski replied—sounding like a cross between

the comedian and a parish priest: “Ahhhhmmm, I don’t know any

whores.” The Feminists, the Women’s Libbers in the front row

should’ve fallen in love with Bukowski for the genuine sweetness of

that revelation—Bukowski really loved Women; Women were always

his Main Muses, his loving leitmotifs—but those tough-cookie

feminists, unforgiving of dirty deeds perped by Other Male Chau50

vinist Pig Men, were indifferent to Charles Bukowski’s warm praise

of chaste womankind. Then he became indifferent to them. He

belched into the microphone, fed up once and for all at trying to be

nice. Abruptly, predictably unpredictable, Bukowski let it all hang

out with—

 

“Man, I gotta piss,” he said, seriously, then stood up and set his

beer can—like a cockroach in a king’s kitchen—onto the seat of the

red velvet Baroque throne chair and staggered off the stage down

the aisle and out to the men’s room in the lobby of the Moulton

Theatre—people grumbling, whispering or giggling at Bukowski’s

bad, super-bad manners. While he was gone, half the people in the

audience left—most of them white- or gray-haired—one, an art patron,

my former professor at CSULB; and, of course, leaving the

lascivious scene: the entire front row of the women‘s libbers, the

fractious, fed-up feminists.

 

Back from the men’s room, his butt plopped back onto his redvelvet

throne, Bukowski sank deeply into it as if embracing an old

friend: “Man, that felt gooooood.” Then he laughed, sincerely

happy for the first time during this difficult reading that looked as if

it were getting better now that the offended women’s libbers were

gone and his fans, admirers, and avid readers had moved forward to

fill up the vacant front-row seats the feminists had left behind. Miscreants,

heretics, and naysayers begone from the king’s domain the

day before his fifty-fifth birthday, twelve years before he’d become

world famous for writing the movie Barfly and spend his sixtyseventh

birthday with celebs born on August 16, too—Madonna

and Sean Penn (well, August 17, but close enough)—Charles Bukowski

rattled like a golden scepter his handful of paper poems and

roared into the microphone, “All right! Let’s get on with it, then—

I’m out of beer!” Har-har-har, he laughed and the entire audience,

glad to be there, laughed with him.

 

“This next poem I’m gonna read, from memory, is for whatsername

out there who requested it: ‘The Closing of the Topless and

Bottomless Bars’—” And every one from the front row to the very

dark back corner of the Moulton Theatre applauded so loudly that

echoes bounced off the stucco walls, as thunderously as an impending

earthquake—all the Bukowski poetry lovers there that bright

blue afternoon obviously liking that poem as much as I did.

After the Moulton Theatre reading, Bukowski had been invited by a

group of broadminded, liberal ladies of a local Laguna Beach church to be

Guest of Honor at a 6:00 p.m. fundraiser tea—finger sandwiches, cookies,

no alcohol—a real tea. Any Bukowski fan with the least bit of imagination

can envision how he expressed his great and grave reluctance to attend this

teetotaling event. Which he didn’t. I drove him to the church on time in my

white VW Bug, with Linda King following in her yellow VW, his highness

in the front passenger seat, his head hanging out the window.

When he saw the nice, do-good church ladies and gentlemen dressed in

their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes squinting into the sun, standing on the

neat-green, newly mown church front lawn, awaiting the arrival of the famous

poet amongst the church gardens abloom with flaming bougainvillea,

bright blue and gold Bird of Paradise plants, pink geraniums and gardenias

and yellow daisies amongst the religious icons, none of them recognizing his

gargoyle face sticking out my VW Bug window, Bukowski yelled to me,

“Drive on! Quick! Get me the hell away from here!” “Are you sure?” I

asked. “Look at them waiting for you, Bukowski. They all want to meet

you. You’re a Famous Poet.” “No! No!“ So, not even his favorite flowers

(yellow ones) could entice him, mellow him out during this yellow-orange

sunsetting twilight time.

 

Bukowski’d had it, he’d o.d.’d on the loud—and laud—and he needed

an antidote that did not include tea and cookies. So, in spite of his swelling

guilt (they‘d prepaid him a hundred dollars—but he‘d give it back), he told

me to stop at the nearest liquor store, where he bought two six-packs of

cheap beer and I bought a gallon jug of cheap Chianti, and we all drove to

Santa Ana to my girlfriend Suzi Q’s house who fixed us all a big spaghetti

dinner and baked Bukowski a chocolate layer cake which cooled and was

frosted just a bit past midnight—Charles Bukowski’s fifty-fifty birthday—

and we all merrily sang Happy Birthday and drank cheap beer and wine

and talked and harharhar’d till the dawn’s early light of August 16, 1975.

The preceding italicized portion, as a poem titled “Beercan in

the Garden,” was published 2012 in the New York Quarterly and reprinted

on October 11, 2012 in the San Diego Reader.

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