Charles Bukowski: the ultimate outsider? Maybe not. THIS IS NOT A TEST #55 (transcript)

Published January 30, 2016

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What ho, children? I mean, seriously, what ho? How do, howdy, hidee, and a heartfelt hodee. It’s Michael Phillips once again, down hard at the controls for your biweekly water slide into the reservoir, your ear vacation and substantiation of the earth’s rotation. Our time together that you don’t tell your wife or husband about. Out secret handshake society and benevolent Elk’s Lodge of the Internets. Yep. THIS IS NOT A TEST, and it never was a test, you know it, I know it, let’s get to it.

We’ve talked about Charles Bukowski a couple of times here, once about the way his work has been altered since his death, and another time to dispel some widely-believed myths. Well now we’re going to talk about him again, but this time I wanted to talk about what may one of the greatest Bukowski myths: that he was the epitome of an outsider. It’s understandable that a lot of people look at him that way, it’s a myth he built and perpetuated after all. Well, maybe he didn’t come up with the idea or term, or whatever you’d like to call it. In 1963 Jon and Louise Webb bestowed the title of “Outsider of the Year” on Bukowski, and gave him a special issue of The Outsider magazine and even a plaque to hang on his wall so everyone who came around his place would know exactly what kind of celebrated man they were dealing with. The Outsider magazine was pretty cool for its time. Jon and Louise Webb also published the two most important books that Bukowski wrote in his early career, “It Catches my Heart in its Hands” in late 1963 and “Crucifix in a Deathhand” in 1965. It would be three years after Crucifix before Bukowski next major book was published, “At Terror Street and Agony Way,” and six years until the novel “Post Office,” which could be seen as the dividing line between the relatively unknown Bukowski and the soon to be famous Bukowski.

So maybe the Webbs started the whole thing. But in 1963 when Bukowski was coronated and bestowed with the Outsider of the Year title, he had been a mail clerk at the Los Angeles post office for six years, and he would work at the same job for six more years. Which begs the question of whether a mail clerk can be an outsider, and the answer to that question is no, a mail clerk can’t be an outsider. So I suppose I should define “outsider,” since I’m the one doing the generalizing and characterizing here. To me, an outsider is someone who lives outside of society, outside of the system, and often outside of the law. By definition a civil servant is inside the system. About as inside as you can be. Can you be a civil servant and still be a weirdo? A civil servant with iconoclastic ides? Sure. But that’s what you are, a civil servant weirdo or a civil servant iconoclast. You’re not an outsider. Again, all my definition, your mileage may vary. But stay with me here for a minute. Let me dig myself into a deeper hole.

It seems that when most people think of “Bukowski the outsider” they think of someone like the character from the movie Barfly. An unwashed guy who just sort of lives in bars and barely works enough odd jobs to survive. That’s definitely some people’s image of Bukowski, and I suppose they believe he lived that way until he finally became a famous writer and took a bath. He certainly lived that way for a while, though maybe not the no bath part. For a five year period, from 1942 to 1947, he roamed around looking for something that he never quite found. I don’t think he found it anyway, because during that time he came home at least twice, staying with his parents when he was in town. Wouldn’t you like to have been sitting at the breakfast table for some of those conversations? In 1947 he came back to Los Angeles for good, and stayed here for the rest of his life. While he was on the road he worked in a lot of different cities: Miami, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia and maybe San Francisco.

And while he worked at a lot of different jobs in those cities, he held on to most of them longer than the legend might have you believe. Some for almost a year. But then that makes sense, unless you want to sleep in the street, you have to get your hands on some money. And yes, he did write about sleeping on a park bench, but that story was recycled quite a few times, and when it happened, it may not have been for more than a night or two. But you know, like any good writer he milked every story for all he could. No harm there. But if you think about it, rather than working at a job, your garden variety outsider might rob liquor stores or banks, because you know, those are the kinds of things that outsiders do. But Bukowski never talked or wrote about being involved in any crime. Not in anything semi-autobiographical anyway. He just worked. He bounced around a lot for a while there, yes, but he almost always found some kind of manual labor job to do in almost every city he wound up in.

Now, resisting the draft was certainly an outsider-y thing to do in the 1940s, so Bukowski certainly meets the criteria there. When world war II was going on you didn’t see a lot of people publicly saying that they didn’t want to go, or they had some personal beliefs that prevented them from going overseas to die on a beach or in a trench somewhere. Being anti-war, or anti-dying in that way, wasn’t a popular sentiment. Most Americans were behind the war, at least after Pearl Harbor. But Bukowski sent letters to the draft board saying he didn’t intend to go because of his “personal philosophy.” The government and the military doesn’t really give a shit about your personal philosophy though, as it turns out, and as Bukowski learned when he spent a couple of weeks in a Philadelphia prison after they finally caught up with him. But before that he was corresponding back and forth with the draft board in New Orleans, and he went in to see them whenever they requested the pleasure of his presence. So the well worn picture of Bukowski as a drunk spending all day in a bar and sleeping on a park bench is, let’s just say, slightly exaggerated. So if he was usually working, and only really on the road for four or five years, how much of an outsider could he have been? Well, that’s an interesting question, because I believe that Bukowski really was an outsider. Just not when he was young.

When Bukowski quit the post office at the end of 1969, he was 49 years old and he had a considerable amount of money in the bank. He’d made a good living as a postal clerk for over a decade, and he was notorious for being pretty tight with his money. He also inherited his father’s house when he died in 1958, and wound up with what amounts to about $60,000 in today’s dollars after he sold the place and paid off the mortgage. And about a year after he quit he sold his “papers” to a museum in Santa Barbara for what would be about 30 grand today. And hopefully we’ve previously dispelled the myth that it was John Martin’s paltry $100 a month offer that “allowed” Bukowski to quit the post office. He was paying $45 a month in child support at the time, so while I’m sure he didn’t turn down any money from Martin, if he would have been living on that, all he would have had left out of the hundred would have been $55 a month. Which would be like trying to live in Los Angeles on $350 a month today. If you’re unfamiliar with the city, I can tell you that isn’t possible. Not in the creepiest pay-by-the-day fleabag shithole it isn’t possible. Not if you also want to eat. Not to mention drink, or put gas in a car. Or buy typewriter ribbons, paper, envelopes, stamps. Come on, man. So if that had been his only source of money, as legend and myth would have you believe, then he would have been living on that park bench he wrote about.

And about quitting his job – the fact is the post office was about to fire him anyway, for absenteeism. But where he became an outsider, to me anyway, is when he left the post office, whatever the reason was, and decided not to work another job again. Even if you have a little money in the bank, or even a lot of money in the bank, that’s an outsider move. That’s betting everything on yourself and saying, “Fuck it, I’m either going to do this thing I want to do or I’ll die trying.” Outsider. Especially when the thing you want to do is write fiction and poetry for a living. You may as well quit your job and say you’re going to become the ruler of New Guinea, or a mermaid. If I gave you $50,000 right now – or let’s make it more interesting, and I’ll give you $250,000 right now, and I said, “Now quit your job.” You’d probably say, “Yay!” But then if I said, “…and never get another job again,” you probably say, “Whoa – what? Wait a minute…uh, what happens when that money runs out?” And rightfully so. Because you’re not an outsider. I know you aren’t because outsiders don’t listen to podcasts. Anyway, it takes a different kind of mentality to believe in yourself like that. It’s a different kind of brain.

And he admitted in letters that quitting the job terrified him. He cites that fear as one of the motivating factors for writing Post Office so quickly. But the reality is a little different in that story of writing Post Office too. The story says that he wrote it in 21 straight days of alcohol-fueled desperation, but actually he worked on Post Office for some time, even sending out chapters to little magazines for publication before handing over the completed manuscript to Martin at Black Sparrow. But whatever the timeline is there, he finished Post Office in February of 1970, and actually started work on another novel, called The Horseplayer, that he never finished. Another thing he did in 1970 was start ten years of public readings, something he absolutely hated doing, with his first out of town readings up in Washington state. He’d only done a few readings in Los Angeles before that, and if you’ve ever seen the video of one of the Washington readings, you can see that he wasn’t exactly into doing it. He looks like he’s waiting to see the dentist or the undertaker as he sits there reading. He said quite often that he did those readings strictly for the money, and that seems to be true, since as soon as he had enough income, or felt safe enough, he turned them all down.

He also ramped up his writing and submissions after quitting the post office, but maybe not as much as you might expect. And I don’t know if that was as much desperation as it was just having more time to write. How he managed to write anything during his years at the post office is kind of a miracle to me, but he wrote all the time, maybe as many letters as poetry or short stories. He was who he was, regardless of what he had to do to pay the rent. It was his personality, he was driven to publish. A point Abel Debritto proves in his book, “Charles Bukowski, King of the Underground.” If you want to read about Bukowski’s work habits before he became well known, that’s a good book for you. He didn’t care what the magazine was about or what other kinds of writers they published, he submitted to just about every literary magazine that popped up. We have 832 separate magazine appearances listed in the Bukowski database, and there are probably another hundred that we don’t know about yet. Al Fogel once told me there were “more than 2000” magazine appearances, but that’s wildly exaggerated, and I think he just pulled that number out of his ass. Pardon the mental image. “New” titles still turn up 10 or 12 times a year, but the new discoveries are coming less frequently as time goes on. Still, taking into account that we don’t know about absolutely every publication, and maybe never will, it’s probably safe to say that Bukowski published 1000 pieces in about 400 different magazines. And that’s all you really need to know about his desire to get his work out there.

Maybe all of that makes the case for Bukowski as outsider better than any theory I might have, or that anyone might have. Maybe being that dedicated, that obsessive and consumed qualifies you as an outsider whether you’re working at Goldman Sachs or living in a box on San Pedro street in downtown Los Angeles. Maybe all of this doesn’t matter and labels don’t matter and it’s all about the work, what someone does. Of course that’s true, but I still need something to talk about here, so this is what you get. Regardless of whether he was working a job or making a living doing readings and adapting his short stories for the skin magazines, Bukowski did what he did in a world that barely respects what he did. In a world where you can be a famous poet and walk down the street unrecognized, unhampered by what we consider to be the TMZ type of fame. In that way he was as outside as anyone can get. Someone who just keeps going, just keeps creating whether anyone gives a shit or not, that’s pretty outside.

Maybe it’s also a good indicator when the world catches up to you after you drop dead. That’s usually when the masses come out of the works. It takes most people a long time to pick up on creative things: art, music, writing, and often by the time most of us find something, it’s been around for a while, or it’s already passed, whatever the thing is, whatever spark created the thing in the first place. And that’s not the world’s fault. The world is busy consuming the things that companies generate. There’s so much writing out there. So many books. Even if you love books there are going to be a thousand writers out there that you never read. Maybe some of them are doing interesting things, but it’s just so hard for them to poke their heads out above the tidal wave of new books. Yeah, there is a tidal wave of new books, it never ends. Don’t let them tell you books are dead. That’s not true. Look around. Every day I see the name of some writer I’ve never heard of, and every time that happens, whenever a typical book kind of book is published, it makes it that much harder for the average person to find something weird or different. But really, most people aren’t looking for that.

They aren’t looking for it until it reaches the kind of critical mass, for one reason or another, that raises something up to a place where they can see it and be aware of it. So yeah, that’s not the fault of readers, it’s just the way of the world. Maybe we’ll talk about that one of these days, about how corporate “product” numbs people to the new or the fringe things that may be out there. I read a pretty good article talking about that as far as music is concerned, about how the “product” that gets unleashed onto the masses is nothing but the most widely-palatable and safe music that’s made, which we already knew, but when that’s all you know, that bland product, you start thinking some of it is good, because you don’t have anything really good to measure it against. In music it’s certainly true and maybe even more so where books are concerned. Think about it, if someone says, “Listen to this band,” you can take 30 seconds to sample it and decide whether it shakes your bush. With a book, it’s more of a commitment. Getting the thing or getting a sample, finding time to read it. It’s amazing that any new non-mainstream kind of writers ever get over. It’s all a miracle of chance, and that’s a tough thing to try to build a career on.

So when someone like Bukowski comes along who creates a lot of work and spreads it out as far and wide as he can, he makes it more difficult to ignore him. Or maybe makes it easier for people to find him and his work. But that’s a monumental task, maybe one that only an outsider can take on. And speaking of Bukowski the outsider, it’s interesting to look at how his work and his image is being whitewashed since his death. Not the least of which by the ridiculous and senseless changes made to his work by John Martin after Bukowski died – the removal of any talk about drinking or taking drugs or madness or anything that might upset the kids. That’s a crime in itself, and like I mentioned, one we’ve talked about before. Reading those posthumous poetry collections is like watching Goodfellas on TV after they’ve cut out everything that could offend anyone, after they’ve cut out all the things that makes the movie worth watching, and dubbed in the voices of sitcom actors.

Anyway, Bukowski’s current publisher HarperCollins/Ecco also doesn’t seem to know what to do with him, other than continue to publish the posthumous books that Martin edited, and the old Black Sparrow titles. Case in point are three new titles from Ecco, “On Writing,” “On Cats” and “On Love.” Get it? Bukowski on writing. Bukowski on cats. What does Bukowski have to say about cats? Get the book now to find out! There are, without exaggeration, at least 750 uncollected Bukowski poems, and probably as much as twice that many, along with an unknown number of short stories. That stuff could be made into ten new collections. Big books, like the old Black Sparrow collections. But let’s say some of it is not so good, and we want to cull out only the good stuff, fair enough. He typed a lot of poems, and said himself that some were not so good. So let’s take 20% of them out of the running. That still leaves 6 or 7 new collections.

But maybe it’s too much work to put those together. I know Ecco is a catalog imprint, meaning HarperCollins buys previously published books that they think will continue to sell over a long period of time, and Ecco keeps them in print. They aren’t in the business of creating a lot of new titles, so maybe we’re lucky they did these last three. The “on” books. I don’t know. I don’t work for Ecco, so I can’t say why they decided, in the face of all of that available uncollected work, to put out three slim, hundred page thematic books. I mentioned Abel Debritto before, and he edited the “on” books, so they’re full of new stuff and the poems remain faithful to what Bukowski wrote, and that’s certainly a good thing. These thematic collections weren’t his idea.

Are they good books? Well, yes and no. On writing is good, but again, slim, and reading page after page of Bukowski on the same subject – no matter how good the material is – well, it kind of bores me. Just speaking for myself here. And, call me crazy, but I don’t care about how he felt about cats. I’m allergic to the god damned things, so reading a hundred pages about cats just makes my eyes water and my nose run. It’s a good thing they didn’t put out “On Horses,” because I really don’t care for the poems where Bukowski goes on about figuring odds and the mechanics of a horse racing track. Ugh. Christ, help me. Those are awful. He has a lot of great racetrack poems, but they’re not really about the racetrack, they’re about people, or funny or weird or tragic things that happened at the track. But even 100 pages of those would get old real quick. One of the great things about the old Bukowski poetry collections is you never knew what was coming next. They’re all over the place, all over life. That’s why you can pick one up for what you think will be a few minutes, and find yourself still reading hours later.

But this breaking down of Bukowski into little boxes like cats or love is, I think, just an attempt to make him palatable to a wider audience. Just like Martin thought he was doing when he went to work systematically defiling Bukowski’s work. Well, okay, I can’t say for certain what went on in that pointy Christian Scientist head of his while he was doing that, but I can assume, and I think it’s a pretty safe assumption, that he thought he was making the poetry more suitable for a wider audience. An audience of children and dimwitted adults, apparently, one that doesn’t want to read about drinking or hangovers or sex or drugs or going crazy. You know, all those things so many people actually do read Bukowski for. I’m sure he thought by dumbing down the poetry it would appeal to more people, which is, if you think about it, extremely condescending. And in actual fact, it’s very funny, considering that Martin demonstrated on many occasions through his “editing” that he didn’t even understand what many of Bukowski’s poems were about.

But that seems to me to be what’s going on here. What better way to make Bukowski a more sellable name than to put out a thin book of writing about cats. Something that isn’t too taxing to read, that won’t take up more than an hour or two of your time. The perfect gift for every cat lover on your Christmas list! It came out just in time for Christmas giving, don’t you know. December first. And the next one, “On Love,” is being published a couple of weeks before Valentines day! Coincidence? No, marketing. Don’t doubt that, it’s no mistake. It’s no coincidence. So it would seem pretty clear what Ecco wants, and what they plan to do. The next “new” Bukowski title they have planned is yet another anthology, or “best of” kind of thing. We already have two of those, but never mind, the people love anthologies. And besides, the two that are out there now are just too thick! No one wants to read a thick book, who has time?

So things might be looking tough for our favorite outsider Bukowski. But it’s something that happens to other artists too. They’re doing the same thing to Bob Marley, another creative type who is much more famous now than he was when he was alive. Bob saw his music as revolutionary, and he sang about revolution and resisting the system, he sang about it all the time. But what do they promote now? His love songs. His happy songs about feeling good and how we’re all one and everything is groovy. Those songs were part of him, no doubt, I mean he wrote them and recorded them. And most of them are beautiful songs. But they were only one side of what he did. The thing is, you wouldn’t know that if you look around now. They’ve polished away all the dangerous parts of Bob and they focus now on what they think will sell. Revolution doesn’t sell. Singing that you feel like bombing a church – which Bob did sing – doesn’t sell. Singing about hungry people who aren’t getting a fair shake, that shit just doesn’t sell, so they concentrate on what does sell. The same kind of thing they are trying to do to Bukowski. To cook up some image of “Hank,” the kind old professor or something. You know, the one who will tell you a dirty joke once in a while, when mom’s not around. Something that he absolutely was not.

And speaking of Bob Marley, and someone he started out with, I just got word that there is going to be a Peter Tosh museum in Jamaica. Which on one hand you could say is an honor, and that finally someone in that murderous hellhole is showing the respect due to one of the islands most significant and influential artists. Then, on the other hand…the project is a collaboration between the Peter Tosh Estate and “Pulse Investments,” whatever that is, which, I suppose is fine. I mean, someone has to pay for the thing. But the idea of a museum in general, for a modern musician, it’s a little, I don’t know. It’s not weird for a visual artist. Something like the Frida Kahlo museum or the Van Gogh museum, those kinds of things are wonderful. I mean, museums are where most people see art. They don’t go to galleries. So a museum for a visual artist makes sense. But for a musician? It’s like that hall of fame up there in the Midwest, the rock and roll hall of fame. What is that? It’s music, and it’s rock and roll music, the last thing that belongs in a museum.

Look, there’s Prince’s purple jacket! Well Jesus Christ, that’s just amazing, never seen anything quite like it. Look at that. Jimi Hendrix’s shoes! Woo! The Kinks pillowcases, Led Zeppelin’s shark. Whatever. God, I can’t…okay, it’s just not my thing. I suppose people want to pay homage, or get a selfie with one of Kurt Cobain’s guitars that he never played. All of it safely behind bulletproof glass, with someone standing nearby, telling you not to touch anything and to keep moving. I don’t know. I suppose it’s something to do. There’s a Bob Marley museum in Jamaica, but it’s in the house where Bob lived near the end of his life, so maybe you can catch a vibe there, I don’t know. I doubt they let you wander around and sit under a tree in the yard, but maybe there’s something there. I wouldn’t go, but I might understand that one. I don’t know where Tosh’s museum is going to be, but I have a feeling that he wouldn’t like the idea. Make no mistake, Tosh was a guy who wanted to be recognized. He wanted to be known and he wanted the kind of success and recognition that always kind of eluded him. But I just think…I don’t know man, but I can hear him now, rhyming museum with mausoleum in some kind of characteristic Tosh verbal beat down. He would have had something to say about it.

And they did bury him in a mausoleum. And these things are mausoleums. These museums, these shrines to the dead. These tourist traps and gift shops and elbowy vacationer shorts and flip flops bullshit. They have nothing to do with the music. And nothing to do with the rebel spirit of rock and roll, its soul, and especially the spirit and soul of the Wailers brand of reggae. Nothing. Unless the proceeds of the museums are going to be used to feed people or build schools, they are not in keeping with what Marley or Tosh would have wanted. If I may be so bold as to speak for them. And I may be. I mean I am, so you’ll have to forgive me. I’m pretty sure that “Pulse Investments” wasn’t created to feed the hungry people of Jamaica. But maybe it was, I don’t know. You tell me what the odds are. Pull out one of those Bukowski poems about calculating horse racing odds and figure it out for me.

Oh dear, now look what we’ve done. We’ve strayed away from the topic and just thoroughly blown through another show. I’ve made mincemeat of your precious time once again. Well, life is short, but it’s wide, remember that next time. There’s always room for Jell-O, and rust never sleeps. Something like that. Right? Right. See you next time – same bat time, same bat channel.