by Tom Hallett
When we left off last week, we were fixin’ to dive into the steadily growing stack of DVD’s piling up on my desk. This time out, we’ll kick off the proceedings by taking a gander at a rare early live poetry reading by the inimitable Charles Bukowski.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Who does like people? You show me him, and I’ll show you why I don’t like people. Period. Meanwhile, I have got to have another beer." —Charles Bukowski
SONG OF THE WEEK: “I Am The Insurrection”
According to the liner notes accompanying this package, “Buk” fled the heat and stench of his low-rent East Hollywood apartment in the Spring of 1970 and took his very first airplane ride to the state of Washington, where he read at Bellevue Community College.
But before we go off all willy-nilly into Buk-land, let’s take a moment
and talk about the actual experience of watching a DVD, and why one might choose
to entertain oneself in such a fashion. There’s the obvious, of course—viewing
film of your favorite artists as they perform in other cities or countries, enjoying
a live show in the comfort of your own home, and collecting rare and never-before-seen
footage, for the die-hard pack-rats. There’s also the advantage of re-watching,
re-winding, and re-living your favorite musical or artistic moments at your leisure.
And yes, the picture really is clearer, the sound really is better, and the experience
really is an improvement over videotape.
Nowadays, most discerning electronics consumers have either replaced or augmented
their standard VCR with the more accessible, technologically superior DVD player.
I said most discerning electronics consumers. Me, I’m watchin’ these
things on a borrowed computer screen and wondering which crappy, ’80s-era
videocassettes I’m going to borrow from the public library to watch in my
tiny walk-up flat later tonight. But for now, I’m all set up.
Luckily, that borrowed computer I’m viewing my new-found schwag/treasures on is one
kick-ass unit, with a huge screen and a set of bad-ass speakers. Add the comfy,
wheeled office chair I’m reclining in (OK, OK, and a couple glasses of cold,
clear gin ...), and you’re just as, if not more, comfortable than you’d
be sitting in a movie theater or even a friend’s living room. Well, if you
have the kind of friends I do, anyway. But I digress. Once you’re situated
and you’ve got your favorite snacks and beverages all squirreled away, the
DVD viewing experience is pretty sweet.
Unlike most traditional VCR tapes, the DVD (digital video disc) can offer loads
of extras and interactive goodies. Interviews, outtakes, video extras, and the
ability to skip to any point in the footage one chooses makes the DVD viewer more
of a part of the action and less a helpless onlooker to the action/music/show.
In the case of the DVD we’ll be checking out this week, that advanced technology
helps to make a shaky old one-hour film look more like a chestnut from the vaults
than a crappy, student-shot memento of an historical moment. So, without further
ado, let’s catch up with the late, legendary poet/drinker/writer/rebel Charles
Bukowski as he runs through some of his earlier work in what was only his fourth
public reading ever ...
Bukowski At Bellevue
1970, 60 Minutes, English, Black & White
(Screen Edge, 2004)
I guess the first logical thing to do when reviewing any recorded work of Mr.
Bukowski is to lay out the raw, dirty details of his style, his work, and his
attitude. “Buk” was a champion, or at least a chronicler, of the
gritty side of life; his inspirations came from run-down inner-city missions,
winos, whores, junkies, dirty cops, and otherwise unlamented, unlovable losers
from the wrong side of the tracks. As early as 1962, he’d gone on record
as saying that he thought the best poets were a thing of the past, even as he
struggled to make a name for himself with that very muse. He wasn’t shy
about taking on society, squares, or “The Man.” He knew that “...
Mickey Mouse had a greater influence on the American public than Shakespeare,
Milton, Dante, Rabelais, Shostakovich, Lenin, and/or Van Gogh ...”
He was an admitted con man, a drunk, a roustabout, a layabout, a larger than
life, true-blue American character who worked every angle to keep a few bucks
coming in (in one interview, he asked the reporter, “Do you think I could
get 20 poets to chip in a buck a week to keep me out of jail?”) and wasn’t
at all shy about laying down his experiences, thoughts, and bibulous verbal
bombshells on the printed page. He wrote incessantly, whether it was his free-form
poetry, weekly columns for underground newspapers (One of which, “Notes
Of A Dirty Old Man,” earned him a nice thick FBI file), novels, and rants.
He reckoned he’d never written a single line while sober, and figured
his sudden “stardom” in the ’60s and ’70s was a total
fluke. “I used to lay drunk in alleys,” he said, “and I probably
All of which is either very intriguing or very silly, depending on what interests
you in life. If you’d rather stick your nose up in the air and pretend
that the level of society Bukowski (and the very existence of chroniclers such
as himself) wrote about doesn’t—and never did or will—exist,
then you probably won’t understand or give a rat’s ass about this
DVD. The fact that this particular beast could be waiting in some form or another
outside your (or someone you love’s) door right this fucking minute won’t
go away just because you refuse to believe it exists. If, on the other hand,
you know all about the big bad wolf that is addiction/homelessness/mental illness/poverty,
or you at least can admit it exists, you’ll find loads of wisdom-filled
nuggets in this one-hour reading.
Born in 1920 (he passed away in 1994) in Andernach, Germany, “Buk”
or “Hank” was brought to L.A. by his folks when he was three years
old, and lived there for most of his life. He published more than 45 books of
poetry and prose during his career, many of which are still available through
Black Sparrow Press. At the time of this film, he was 50 years old. His hairline
was receding, the alcohol had taken a toll on his craggy features, and his demeanor
was that of a life-long heavy drinker. Yet he retained an almost animal attraction
about his person, a wild-eyed, smirking, anti-Clark Gable who took a fiendish
delight in lavishing his full attention upon every temptation he ever came across.
That, ladies and gentlemen, was the Charles Bukowski who blew away a room full
of wet behind the ears college kids back in 1970.
The film opens with no fanfare, no hoorahs, no phony bullshit. Bukowski is seated,
with his notebooks and a thermos full of some refreshing beverage, in front
of a cluttered classroom. The footage is shaky, grainy, and completely unprofessional.
Exactly the kind of gritty visual/aural record “Buk” would probably
have appreciated. As it was, this film would lay unnoticed for 18 years before
someone dug it out and worked towards releasing it to the public. At any rate,
the advantage of seeing, rather than just hearing, a genius wordsmith like Bukowski
deliver some of his toughest lines, is unbeatable. From the dipping, doesy-doeing
emotional expressions running hell-bent for leather across his face to the shy,
almost clumsy way he searches his notes and pours his beverages, this footage
brings out the humanity in this most human of writers in a way printed articles
As he reads, he repeatedly apologizes for small verbal gaffes and minor reading
errors, speaks in a calm, almost flat tone that belies the powerful, colorful
verbiage he’s spewing, and visibly basks in the glow of impact when his
words make a particular point to his young audience. Said audience probably
wasn’t used to much of Bukowski’s subject matter, at least not delivered
in such an intimate, live setting, either: featured poems at this reading include
Soup, Cosmos And Tears, The Lesbian (about which he says in a quick aside, “I
know that some of you have issues about this, but let me assure you that I’m
no more prejudiced against lesbians than I am, say, homosexuals or...whiskey!”
All to those reserved chuckles so inherent to the collegiate, but quite powerful,
nonetheless), The Night I Killed Tommy (about a cheap lay in a dirty hotel room
that ended with “Buk” smashing one of a thousand cockroaches on
the wall who were observing his dirty deed—the ten dollar hooker hollers
at him, “Hey! You killed Tommy!”), and the FBI-baiting I Wanted
To Overthrow The Government.
For Bukowski fans, this collection is a true treasure, and one they’ll
want to own and play for others repeatedly over the years to come. For the novice
or the curious, this is essential viewing/listening for any healthy, knowledge-thirsty
mind, just as the man’s books, stories, and columns are. Seriously, if
you have even one moment’s hesitation about delving into the subject matter
Mr. B. covers, YOU ARE THE PERSON IT WAS MEANT FOR!! Do yourselves a big fat
favor—pick up this DVD, a bottle of cheap wine, and maybe a stick of muggles,
and sit down for some serious schoolin’. This DVD is just as an important
piece of American history as anything you’ll read about in any institutional
textbook, anywhere, anytime.
Charles Bukowski not only covered the sleazy underbelly of America with honesty,
realism, and grace, not only called out on the carpet the pious and preening
members of a plastic society, but deep inside, genuinely believed that there’s
still a chance for the human race to redeem itself: “Why these cliches,
platitudes?” he once snapped at a naive reporter who’d dared to
ask him if he thought the human race should just throw in the towel. “OK,
well, I would say no—we do not abandon ship. I say, as corny as it may
sound, through the strength and spirit and fire and dare and gamble of a few
men in a few ways we can save the carcass of humanity from drowning. No light
goes out until it goes out. Let’s fight as men, not rats. Period. No further
addition.” Stick that in yer fusebox, eh? ‘Nuff said.
That’s it for me this time out, ladeez and gentz. Tune in next time for
more reviews, rants, n’ raves, and until we meet again—make yer
own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/CDs
you’d like to see mentioned in this column, or you’d just like to
complain that you’re in the Bukowski video as well, but that I neglected
to mention you, send replies to: (temporary e-mail) firstname.lastname@example.org.