Published October 17, 2020
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Greetings and everlasting gobstopper salutations from the high desert of southern California. It’s me, your best pal Hannah Phillips, and THIS IS NOT A TEST. It’s still not a test, after all these years. Years? Yes, years. Five years and nine months, to be exact. Which my Texas Instruments pocket calculator tells me is 2,107 long days. Fifty thousand hours, three million minutes, and all that. It doesn’t seem like three million minutes have passed, does it. Well, as it turns out, I’ve been alive, somehow, for almost 32 million minutes, so THIS IS NOT A TEST is just a drop in the time/space bucket.
To begin today’s homespun discourse, I’m going to talk about Bukowski, or more accurately, about a little online enclave or alcove known as the Bukowski forum. I’m going to talk about that, but what I should be doing is listening to this new Prince “Sign “O” The Times” box set. Forty-five unreleased tracks from Prince’s fabled “vault,” a live show from the time that spans a couple of discs, the “remastered” version of the album itself, and even a DVD of the show that he toured for the album. I should be on the couch listening to all of that at an annoyingly high volume, but I’m here instead. Not that I don’t want to be here. I want to be in both places at the same time, which is the root of many of my problems.
I don’t really look forward to hearing the “remastered” version of the album because those rejiggerings are usually disappointing. “Remastered” usually just means made louder, and the way they make records louder is by squeezing the dynamic range. Making the soft parts louder and the loud parts softer until it’s one giant chainsaw of sound that I guess the earbud generation has come to expect. It destroys any subtlety in the music, but there’s not much room for subtlety in the world anymore, so I guess it’s to be expected.
And I’ve probably heard most of the “vault” songs already because I have a lot of that stuff on bootlegs. People have made off with copies of a lot of things from Paisley Park, and other studios Prince has worked in over the years, and it’s leaked out into the dark underbelly of the bootleg world. But those things are usually made from cassette copies of the master tapes, and the quality is not usually very good. I like quality, so I’ll always pay for things like this box set so I can hear the songs the way they were meant to be heard. And blah, blah, blah, he, he, hee, right?
So yeah, Bukowski. Have you ever been to the Bukowski forum? I know, forums are ancient technology, right? They’re not Instagram or Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t own the Bukowski forum. Yet. Well, it’s at bukowskiforum.com, and you should go check it out. While it’s there. Because it probably won’t be for long. Running it isn’t tremendously difficult, but it’s time-consuming and money-consuming, and I’ve been doing it for 15 years, and I’m burnt out. So sayonara, adios, au revoir, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, adieu, Bukowski forum.
I’ll say here and now before god and man and without reservation or doubt that it’s the richest vein of information about Charles Bukowski and his work that’s ever existed anywhere. Almost a thousand unpublished or uncollected poems, first appearances, information on top of information about Bukowski’s life and times. You can imagine that a lot of stuff has piled up there over the course of 15 years. The forum, along with the main Bukowski site, bukowski.net, are the only places like them, and they’ll never be duplicated, replicated, bested, topped, or bettered. Never. You’ll never have that many people in one place seriously considering Bukowski or his work again.
So why would anyone close the door on something like that? Well, I told you, aren’t you listening? I’m burned out. A couple of Sundays ago, I was testing a new version of the forum software, and it broke the live forum, so I stood there like an idiot at my desk for hours fixing it. My Sunday was shot, I didn’t get anything else done, and at that moment, I just thought, “What am I doing with my life?” Because it wasn’t the first day I spent fixing some website or updating some website or database or making some new website.
It wasn’t the first day, or the 50th day or the 100th day I’ve spent like that over the past 25 years. Or wasted like that. And in the end, all that technical jackassery is really for nothing. Days and weeks and months spent staring at a screen and typing and clicking, and none of it, my friends, means shit. It all breaks, it all becomes stale and outmoded, and you’re always a step behind whatever’s in front. This technical shit, it’s meaningless. The site for this podcast — I’m telling you, I’m not kidding, that as I was thinking about what to say here and how to blame the closing of the Bukowski forum on technology, at the very moment, I was doing that, the site for this podcast went down. It crashed hard.
So, where did I wind up? Standing there like an idiot at my desk for hours fixing it. And during that time, I’m not going to lie, I thought, good. Maybe it will never come back, and I can forget it ever happened. I can forget the 2,107 days, the 50,000 hours, the three million minutes. I can forget it all and try to rekindle whatever life I’ve got left. But no, here I am, and here you are, and the machines will rise, brothers and sisters. The machines will rise. The machines will rise, and we’ll be in a vacuum, and we won’t notice them until they’re watering our roses and fucking our wives.
So I guess that means I’m getting rid of all of my websites then, yeah? No. No, I don’t suppose I will. But I don’t spend the money on those that I spend on the Bukowski forum. The bukowski.net site, that’s not going anywhere. That’s where all the manuscript images live and the database of Bukowski’s work. It’s set, and it runs itself, more or less. But even that – I’ve got hundreds of manuscripts here to add to it, and the database is always being updated. What do I do this stuff for? People go to both of those sites, lots of people, so I know there’s interest. But why am I using my life and my time to make it available? Why me?
Well, as I’ve probably mentioned many times before, I do it all for myself. The fact that you can use it too is just a side effect. But if someone steps up to take over the forum, I’ll gladly give it to them. The thousands of dollars and thousands of hours I’ve given to it, I don’t care about them anymore. It’s not like we can get back time anyway. All we can do is guard and protect our future time. And future money. Of which, I have very little, so not spending any of it on the forum will be a good thing for me and my creditors.
And I hear you out there. I know what you’re thinking. “Why didn’t you try to make some money off the thing if money is one of the issues?” Why didn’t I, indeed. There was a brief period where the forum had paid membership. “Supporting members,” as they were called. But I never wanted to take their money. It didn’t make me feel good, so I stopped doing it. I turned down companies that wanted to advertise on the forum. There weren’t hundreds of them beating a path to my virtual door or anything, but there were a few. But I don’t think everything should be about money or commerce or adverting or any of the other internet penny catching that goes on all day every day.
Of course, having said that, I will admit that for about a minute, I thought that if I could get 100 people to pay a $100 a year membership to the forum, I could keep it going. I could keep it going because then it would be more like a part-time job. Those long days spent fixing it and maintaining it wouldn’t be so irritating because it wouldn’t be stealing my free time. I’d be getting paid for my time. But the truth of the thing, the crux of the biscuit, is I could never get 100 people to pay $100 a year to use or support the forum.
There are 6,600 members over there, but like every forum in the world, one percent of the members make 99% of the posts. So it’s always been a small group, and it’s not the kind of thing a lot of people would throw a hundred dollars at every year. And really, I didn’t try getting those paying members or even bring it up as an option because if it actually did happen, and the hundred people ponied up a hundred bucks, I’d feel trapped by that. Because really it’s not about money, it’s about time. And I don’t want to feel beholden to 100 people. I don’t want to be obligated to 100 people. I don’t want to answer to 100 people. And the alternative, getting, let’s say $10 from a thousand people, would be even more impossible.
And money aside, I never really got to enjoy that forum. I said over there that it was like being in a great band. It’s cool, but you never get to see the band play. And that’s how I feel about it. I never got to be a visitor at the forum. I could never walk away for a month or a year and come back. I could never walk away for a week, even. There were some great moderators there, hoochmonkey, who is actually named Stephen Hines, author of a genius short story collection that I talked about here a while back, there’s him and a lad called Zobraks right now. I won’t say his actual name because I don’t know if he’d want me to. Same with Hank Solo, who was one of the moderators early on, and Father Luke, who last time I looked, was actually named Father Luke, and who now apparently lives in an old school bus in Alaska.
I don’t want to live in an old school bus in Alaska, I grew up in Minnesota, which is more or less the same thing, and this desert is far enough away from the rest of the world for me. But that’s always rattling around in the back of my mind. Not the school bus, but cutting all, or most, of these electronic ties and looking at the sky for a few years. But I’m realistic enough and know myself enough to know I probably won’t do that. Not to mention that the job that I do get paid to do is online, so I couldn’t divorce the internet completely even if I wanted to. Few of us could. But many of us know we should. Or, if not file for a divorce, at least a separation.
As far as the Bukowski stuff goes, I have to ask myself what it’s all for. I like connecting all the dots in his work and life. I like making those connections and helping to paint the picture of a great writer’s life. I could do that stuff all day. And I have, on many days. But it’s kind of a weird task, and most of the time, it’s what the kids call “a fool’s errand,” because you can spend months demonstrating or proving a point, and it doesn’t matter. Some people will always look sideways at the results of your work and say, “I don’t know. I think you’re wrong.” Yes, okay, maybe I am wrong. I never rule out that possibility because I’m wrong as often as anyone. Or more often. But then again, there are things that I know I’m not wrong about.
But the world doesn’t revolve around me, sadly, or around truth and facts anymore. There doesn’t seem to be any such thing as truth anymore. And it’s exhausting to spend your time proving things only to have people say they don’t believe the truth you lay down in front of them. I’m talking about details and minutiae about Bukowski’s life and work, but you know that applies to everything. When half the people in the country, or in the world, say they disagree with infectious disease professionals, people who’ve studied these things for all of their adult lives, well, what can you do in a world like that? In a world where someone who can’t spell the word “scientist” thinks they know more than a scientist – what can you do with that? Or the better question is, how can we survive that? As a species. And the answer is, I don’t think we can.
And to do all of that research for nothing – nothing in terms of compensation or even the satisfaction of proving something, of clearing the murkiness, well, it wears a person down. I was talking to Linda Bukowski, and she said something about me making a living from the Bukowski website and forum. She had somehow got the idea or impression that it was my job. That those websites paid my rent and put oatmeal on the table. I had to laugh. I told her I hadn’t made a penny from any of it. That I’d spent my own money building and sustaining it, and she seemed dumbfounded. I don’t know if she was dumbfounded that there was no money in it or that I was just dumb enough to do it for nothing. Or both.
It’s probably both. But most people don’t understand doing something for love anymore. Doing something without the expectation of getting paid or without monetizing what you’re doing. There’s little room for that anymore. You’re seen as an idiot, or a hopelessly old fashioned kind of weirdo, doing something just because you enjoy doing it. You can’t even eat a hamburger anymore without telling the internet that you’re eating a hamburger. And then trying to get paid for telling the world you’re eating a hamburger. It’s fucking insane, but much of life these days is fucking insane, so what can you do?
You can step away, so that’s what I’m doing. Stepping away from that part of it anyway, the forum part. And I’ll tell you, the demise of the forum doesn’t make the regular visitors and members happy. I didn’t think it would. I knew that closing it would disappoint a lot of people. But if I can’t even please myself doing it anymore, I can’t be expected to please other people by continuing to do it. I can’t keep doing it out of a misplaced sense of obligation. I can’t keep doing it in other people’s interests when it’s not in my interest anymore. That’s what jobs are for, and that’s why people get paid to do them. Because the job isn’t usually in their interest, so they have to be paid in exchange for their time and skill or labor. So that’s my story. And that’s the story of the Bukowski forum. May she rest in peace.
In totally unrelated news, you know that Prince “Sign “O” The Times” box set I talked about before? I was thinking about how much that cost, which was a lot, and it made me remember what my relationship to records used to be. When I was young and had no money of my own. Just after my 10th birthday, I was standing in a department store looking at singles. 45s. That’s how we used to buy songs. It seems absurd, I know, but we thought it was space-age. Anyway, I had some birthday money in my clammy little hands, and as usual, I’d end up leaving it all at the record counter. It was just a counter because I didn’t have access to an actual record store, so I was probably at a suburban Sears store.
Anyway, it was February of 1970, just after my birthday, when I pulled the “Instant Karma!” single off of the rack to buy it. Because it was John Lennon, and John Lennon was in The Beatles. I wasn’t quite sure why it said John Lennon on the sleeve and not The Beatles, but I didn’t concern myself with details like that very much, being ten years old and all. The album “Abbey Road” had been out for a few months, so The Beatles were still The Beatles, obviously. I didn’t have “Abbey Road,” albums were a luxury that I could only get my hands on now and then, so I had to be selective. But not long before that I’d bought “The Ballad of John and Yoko” single, which had a picture of the long-haired, bearded Beatles on the sleeve, so I wasn’t ready for the virtual buzz cut on Lennon’s noggin that was there on the “Instant Karma!” single sleeve.
It took me by surprise, that picture. Like by chopping off his hair, Lennon had betrayed me, or my generation of aspiring hippies. I couldn’t be a hippie in Minnesota in 1970. That took a lot of courage that I didn’t have, and not to belabor the point, but again, I was only 10, so I wasn’t allowed to be a hippie. So I depended on musicians to be freaks and hippies for me. I say “freaks,” and you probably know what I mean, but it’s hard to describe or convey how “freak” really meant FREAK in those days. When I got old enough to say ‘no’ to the weekly barbershop trips, or when my parents couldn’t be bothered to care anymore, I let my hair grow, and people started calling me “freak.” Like, as a nickname. It’s hard to imagine now because you have to go to much greater lengths to be called a freak or to be seen as a freak. Though I think I’ve figured out a way, as you may know, if you’ve listened to the last couple episodes of this podcast.
Anyway, the picture of John shocked me, but it didn’t stop me from buying the single. I didn’t know what to make of it at first because it wasn’t a typical Beatles song. Not that there was such a thing as a typical Beatles song at the time, but as I learned later, it didn’t sound like a Beatles song because it wasn’t a Beatles song. It was a John Lennon solo record. Or a John and Yoko record, as the B side was a Yoko song. An actual song, as I recall, not the wailing and shrieking she became known for. That B side was kind of like a children’s song or a lullaby, very understated with a simple melody. But it was also not a Beatles song. There wasn’t any doubt about that.
I also learned later that “The Ballad of John and Yoko” wasn’t really a Beatles record either, since it’s only John and Paul. They went into the studio together and knocked it out one night at a time when they were barely speaking to each other because of business disagreements. The fact that they could still do that just kind of demonstrates how great they were. But I guess the point is they were already doing things on their own, but they hadn’t really told us yet that the Beatles were breaking up. They knew it, but we didn’t. That wouldn’t become known until McCartney’s solo album came out. But the “Let It Be” and “McCartney” albums were still a few months away. So as far as most of us knew, The Beatles were still part of the world.
Time makes everything weird, and a group like The Beatles – or Bob Marley and The Wailers – performers that have become iconic and legendary, it’s strange to think back to the times when you just picked up their latest records in the store, and it was a normal thing, not a legendary thing. Or Prince. When we bought “Sign “O” The Times” in 1987, it was just the latest Prince record. Now 33 years later, it’s a 92 track $150 event. Or a $300 event if you want it on vinyl. Which isn’t to say the records weren’t events when they were new. They were. We looked forward to a new Prince record because we knew it would be great and weird and funny and completely different from the last one. And obviously, buying Beatles records was an event, since I still remember almost every purchase.
I don’t know if that’s just a side effect of youth or because buying records was a different experience before the internet. Probably a little of both. But if you’re more than 40 years old, you probably have fond memories of a particular record store. Your record store. A place you went to often, where you spent a lot of your time and all of your money. I have three of them, Three Acre Wood and Northern Lights in St. Paul and Oarfolkjokeopus in Minneapolis. Oarfolkjokeopus, yes, that was the name someone gave their business in the 70s. Isn’t it groovy? It’s four words smashed together: oar, like the thing that paddles a boat, folk, like the music, joke, and opus. What the fuck, right? We called it Oarfolk, and everyone familiar with the Minneapolis music scene of the 70s and 80s knows or has heard of Oarfolk.
As influential and awesome as Oarfolk and Northern Lights were – Northern Lights was like the St. Paul version of Oarfolk, and they stocked more reggae, so that’s where I spent most of my money – but as big and important as they were, the store I remember most and the one that was most influential for me was Three Acre Wood. It was a little dump in downtown St. Paul, shoehorned between a closed movie theater and a drugstore. It couldn’t have been more than 300 or 400 square feet if that. But I was 15 when I started going there, and it was my first proper record store, so it looms large in my memory. It’s the first place I heard the New York Dolls and the Stooges. And reggae too, though that went right over my head at the time.
When I started to see full-page ads in Creem and Circus magazines for “KISS Alive,” I called Three Acre Wood every day to ask them if they had it yet. I know, KISS, but I was 14 when I bought “Hotter Than Hell” and “Dressed To Kill,” and I loved them with the deep, passionate love that only a 14-year-old can have for a hard rock band. So I was excited and impatient to hear “KISS Alive,” but I didn’t realize at the time that record companies sometimes ran ads for albums months before they were released. So every day, the first thing I did when I got home from school was call Three Acre Wood and ask if they had “KISS Alive.”
Can you imagine? I’m sure there was only one guy who worked there, and every day at the same time, some kid would call and ask about a record. After a few weeks, he must have looked at the clock and thought, “Hmm, it’s 3:15. I guess that kid is going to call and ask for “KISS Alive” any minute now,” and then the phone would ring. But the reason I mention this is because that poor guy, as many times as I called, he was never mean to me. He never said, “Stop calling here every day asking for that record!” He’d just say, “Nope, not yet.” and that was our conversation. That was our relationship.
Then one day, I called and asked if he had “KISS Alive,” and he said, “No, but it should be here next week.” I may have fainted, I don’t remember, and “next week” was soon, but it felt like it was a year away. I probably said, “Oh, okay,” and hung up. But the next day, I called again and asked if he had “KISS Alive” yet. Because you know, maybe he really meant “tomorrow” when he said, “next week.” Anyway, a few days later, I made my customary call, and he told me that indeed, he did have “KISS Alive,” in fact, he was holding it in his hands as we spoke.
I told him I was on my way and said, “Hold it for me, will you? I’ll be right there,” which, I mean, I don’t think anyone was bursting through the door to buy it, so it probably wasn’t necessary to set a copy aside for me. That must have been very funny to him, but again, he didn’t laugh or mock me. He just said there would be a copy waiting for me when I got there. I got on the bus in Cottage Grove, where I lived, and waited out the long, 14 mile trip to downtown St. Paul. Every time the bus stopped, and busses traditionally stop quite a bit, I was annoyed. Everyone seemed to be taking their sweet time getting on and off. I felt like they were all purposely torturing me.
When the bus finally made it downtown, and I jumped off and legged it a couple of blocks to Three Acre Wood. I pushed open the door and walked in. The guy saw me, leaned over, picked up the record, and said, “You looking for this?” When I think about it now, I imagine it may have been kind of fun for that guy. To be dealing with a little goober who is unnaturally and unreasonably excited about a record. He was probably bored sitting there in that dark little shop all day, and I was free entertainment.
After that, every time I’d come in, he’d play me something he thought I’d like. Part of that may have been to make a sale, but he knew I didn’t have very much money, so I think he did it mostly because he loved music as much as I did, and he wanted to introduce me to music I might not have noticed. I mean, I noticed the first New York Dolls albums. You couldn’t not notice them. And based on the cover of the first one, I felt like the Dolls were my people. But I don’t know that I would have bought it if he hadn’t peeled a copy open and played it for me. If he hadn’t made it okay for me to buy it.
Did Three Acre Wood, or more accurately that guy at Three Acre Wood, change my life? I’d have to say yes. Two years later, I started working in the basement of the Hamm building, which was connected to the building where Three Acre Wood lived. Shortly after starting that job, I moved into an apartment across the street. I didn’t get a job there and move there to be near the record store. It was just accidental or coincidental fate, I guess. But sadly, Three Acre Wood closed in 1978, so I didn’t get to shop there much after I set up my milk crates and card table across the street. But there was a Musicland store on the ground floor of the building I lived in, so that was some consolation. I bought my first Prince record there, “Dirty Mind.” But Musicland was a chain store, and a chain store can never feel like an independent store.
As for Oarfolk, I bought all the Clash records there, again, as they were released, just another record in the bin, and I bought a lot of Wailers records there too. Oarfolk was an essential cog in my machine. I met Iggy there and the Ramones. At Northern Lights, I learned about dub and discovered Augustus Pablo and Burning Spear while Hüsker Dü rehearsed in the basement. Northern lights also carried the first record I played on, a Sonny Vincent and The Extreme Flexi disc. Those places were essential parts of my life, and I can’t imagine a store or any place like that as an essential part of my life now. I guess when you’re young, everything seems more important, or at least in hindsight and in your memory, they become more important.
When you’re young, you have time to be consumed with something, to live for it. You can sit in your bedroom and play the guitar for six hours every day, or paint or write or study mathematics, you know, do whatever turns your key. That’s why most musicians will tell you they started playing when they were young. Once your time starts to be taken up by other things, you can’t put in those hours, and learning anything new takes a lot longer. Then you wake up one day and find that you don’t have time to be consumed by anything or live for anything except living. Getting by. Survival. When I was young, I was living for music and consumed by it, that’s for sure.
The time I’ve spent researching and organizing and otherwise foisting Bukowski onto the world almost seems similar, but it’s not. I wasn’t ever consumed with Bukowski. I’d work in the minor obsession when I had time, then walk away. If I’d had to walk away from music as a kid, I might have just dried up and blown away in the first strong wind that passed through. So it wasn’t the same, and still isn’t the same. If I had to choose between giving up music or giving up Bukowski, I’m afraid Bukowski would lose. But choosing between music and reading, in general, would be more of a fair fight. Though reading might still lose in a close decision.
I guess shutting down the Bukowski forum is proof of all that. But I don’t know if it’s a fair comparison. Listening to music or playing music is its own reward. Organizing and cataloging what Bukowski did isn’t. It’s rewarding, sure, because I’m an organizer at heart, but it’s also work. Music is never work. Music is what we do instead of work. Which makes me want to wrap this up and go listen to some music. Let’s go listen together.