Huntington Exhibits Honors A Madman

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December 1, 2010 · Posted in Commentary 


For me, one of the great unanswered puzzles about Charles Bukowski, the bard of San Pedro, was his love of classical music. I assumed it was because he was born in Europe. And after a visit to the “Poet on the Edge” exhibit at the Huntington Library in San Marino, I can say most probably that was the case.

This was one of many riddles about the great poet and novelist the exhibit answered.

My mother was a concert pianist and I grew up hearing some of the world’s greatest musicians playing classical music in my front room.  In one of his letters, Bukowski talked about the days when he had little money yet would spend all of it on wine and classical music.

Bukowski hadn’t grown up in a “cultured” family. One day he just walked into a record store and heard symphonic music, which somehow struck him as strange and odd but also tremendously tantalizing.

He went up to the clerk and asked what kind of music that was. When the clerk explained, he said something to the effect–but that’s symphony music. True enough, the clerk said.

In his letter, “Classical Music & Me,” he explained that he ended up loving Beethoven, but even more Tchaikovsky and Chopin. He found Smetna “obvious” but worshipped Sibelius. He liked Mozart only when he was feeling good, and since he didn’t feel good that often, he rarely listened to Mozart.

Bukowski had lived in Los Angeles since 1923. His parent brought him to L.A. from his native Andernach, Germany, when he was two. Does a love of music come from the genes or one’s upbringing?

Another letter explained Bukowski’s love of writing. Asked by an editor for a response to a description of him in “Literary Biography,” he said there was nothing he could add for those seeking an academic explanation of his prodigiousness.

“It just came out” of me, he said, like they way a bird flies, or, he added, perhaps more appropriately, the way a snake naturally slithers. He was, of course, making fun of his reputation as a master of sleaze.

His conclusion about writing—he said no drink, no woman, not even wealth, could match what he got from writing.

Bukowski’s writerly education included being a day laborer, a postman, and, for more than a decade, an out-and-out Skid Row bum. He ended up with his stomach hemorrhaging at Los Angeles County’s General Hospital where the doctors warned him that unless he stopped drinking he would die. Characteristically, the minute Bukowski was discharged, he found a bar. He never apologized for his drinking; he reveled in it. “Two things kept me from suicide – writing and the bottle,” he said.

The exhibit, which runs until Feb. 14, is contained in just two rooms. Still, it was exciting to see a Bukowski display in the same place which boasts a Gutenberg bible and many of William Blake’s original illuminated manuscripts—works that are among the world’s greatest and most incredible treasures.

The exhibit’s curator, Sue Hudson, said that Bukowski’s widow, Linda, selected the Huntington as the place she wanted his papers to go.

“We view Bukowski as being one of the most important and original voices of 20th century literature,” Hudson said.

“He was a phenomenal cult with a huge international following. From my perspective, he reaches out to his readers in a very direct and personal way,” she said.

“It’s a better fit than a lot of people would think,” she said. Hudson said that some of the most important English and American writers historically were those who wrote about ”the lives of men and women on the edge,” Walt Whitman was an example, she said.

“He lived among the people just on the edge of society, the prostitutes, the pimps, the layabouts and also common people just trying to get by every day,” she said. He wrote about them not through another person’s eyes but his own experience.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by people who will share what Bukowski did for them, how he helped them get through difficult periods. Anyone who can do that has accomplished something pretty amazing,” she said.

It wasn’t until 1972, when I saw fellow Los Angeles Free Press writer Charles Bukowski’s book in the window of a bookstore in West Hampstead in London, that I began to really contemplate the writer seriously.

The book was called Notes of a Dirty Old Man, the same title as his column in the paper. It was a City Lights book, with Bukowski’s amazing pocked alcoholic face adorning its cover. Until then I had viewed Bukowski as a colleague columnist on an underground paper–the Los Angeles Free Press–who did only a limited shtick. Years later, I came to realize that this guy had paid far more dues in his life than I had.

Notes of a Dirty Old Man was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights in 1969. But most of Bukowski’s later books were published from the West Los Angeles garage of publisher John Martin, who issued Bukowski’s first novel, Post Office, in 1971.

I spent a night drinking with Bukowski at four different bars in the Hollywood area after a premier of one of several movies made from his stories.

It was raining like the end of the world when we left the theater. Our entourage headed toward a bar several blocks away. As we walked past the old Monogram Studios on Melrose Avenue just west of Van Ness, my friend Gene Vier, a copy editor at the Los Angeles Times at the time, was leading the way.

Bukowski caught up with him and put his arm around him. We couldn’t hear what Bukowski was saying, but he was obviously on his way to a state of total inebriation.

We finally reached the bar but it was on the other side of Melrose. As we were lining up, waiting for a break in the rain and traffic to cross the street, Bukowski suddenly made a dash for the middle of the street. He was choo-chooing drunkenly, going in circles like a locomotive on a fast track to nowhere, looking back at us yelling, “Hey, I thought you guys would follow me wherever I go.” A car was bearing down on him through the darkened, rain-slicked street, and drinking buddy Frank Cavestani and Linda  ran out and dragged Bukowski back.

Inside the rather typical blue-collar bar with a loud jukebox, torn red vinyl booths and a pool table in the back, Bukowski sat down again across from Nigey and me and said, “I hate intellectuals.” Thus we had our first encounter.

“I’m the toughest guy in town,” he said, looking right at me—the first time he would utter the phrase that would become his refrain in each of the three bars around Hollywood that we journeyed to that night. I made some sort of barroom reply, and Bukowski quickly backed down. We talked a bit, and Bukowski seemed to warm up. “You have an honest face, a good face, but behind it is a lot of bullshit, in the way you have dealt with people,” he said to me.

This undoubtedly was true of most of us in this life, I replied. “See what I mean,” Bukowski rejoined, triumphantly.

“All of mankind means nothing. Mankind is all cowardice. Has no courage. So let’s drink.”

And that’s just what we did the rest of the night.


Lionel Rolfe has written about Bukowski in “Literary L.A.,” available on Amazon’s Kindlestore, and a documentary featuring the book is being made with a strong focus on Bukowski.


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