The Huntington Library is world-renowned for it’s collection of rare books and manuscripts, which include a Gutenberg Bible and a first folio edition of William Shakespeare’s collected plays. Eyes were therefore raised four years ago when the institution acquired something a little racier – a collection of artifacts relating to Henry Charles Bukowski (1920-1994), donated by his widow Linda Lee Bukowski.
Known for his hard-drinking and hell-raising ways, Bukowski gained notoriety and fame chronicling society’s underbelly in his hyper-real, gritty and pithy poems and prose. (The screenplay for the 1987 film Barfly, which starred Mickey Rourke, was written by Bukowski and is semi-autobiographical.) However to see his work though the bottom of a glass is to see it only in one dimension as poems like “Bluebird” and “Laughing Heart” attest.
Hoping to offer a more well rounded view of the author, The Huntington in association with Linda Lee is debuting a small sampling of its collection of over 2,700 Bukowski items in a new exhibition, “Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge,” which runs until February 14, 2011. Alongside first editions of novels such as Factotum (1975) and Ham on Rye (1982), the display features magazine articles, hand corrected typescripts of poems, drawings, letters, and the iconic manual typewriter Bukowski used to pound out his work.
To mark the exhibition’s opening, The Huntington hosted a spoken word evening on Oct 27. Speakers included three generations of the Bukowski family – Linda, his daughter Marina Zavala (by Frances Dean Smith) and his grandson, Nikhil Sahoo – alongside friends and associates of the beloved author, who knew him simply as Hank.
Below is an essay SG columnist, and longtime friend of the Bukowski family, Michael D. Meloan (a.k.a. TheMountebank) read on the night.
A BUK REMEMBRANCE
When I was sixteen, my friends and I cruised Sunset Strip and brought back the LA Free Press, which ran Bukowski’s column “Notes of a Dirty Old Man.” We sat inside a backyard plywood shed that one of the neighborhood fathers had built to keep us out of trouble. As we smoked Tareytons and drank Colt 45, we read the column out loud. It was an explosion of hookers, philosophers, madmen and racetrack junkies. My early education.
Fifteen years later, my girlfriend Jan was working at the Dew Drop Inn, a health food restaurant in South Redondo. One day she mentioned that the owner, Linda Lee Beighle, was dating a poet named Charles Bukowski. There he was again.
A few months later, I visited the Dew Drop for lunch. Bukowski unexpectedly walked in, spitting venom because his Mac had somehow deleted a couple of new poems. Linda mentioned that I was a software guy.
“Are you any good?” he asked.
My father taught me always to say yes. A few hours later, the poems were back, and we sat drinking red wine while he asked me questions about how computers might be used to predict winners at the racetrack.
In the fall of that year, Bukowski invited me over for the evening. Just the two of us and his beloved plastic goose with a light bulb inside. He uncorked the first bottle of red.
“You seem a little nervous, kid,” he said, pouring.
I took a big drink. I was nervous. But after a few glasses, the night took off. We were laughing and drinking until 3 a.m. With a stubby Indian Beedi dangling from his lips, he flicked his butane lighter a few times. A flame suddenly shot up like a hissing blowtorch.
His left eyebrow sizzled and crackled as he jerked his head back and went, “Arrrrgh!”
Later, he told me that I danced with the goose on my head and recited a long raving monologue about sex and death and science. I don’t remember any of it, but he always did.
Hank’s reputation for wildness was the real thing. At one of his Fourth of July bashes, he got an early start drinking, and decided the party was a bore.
He stormed around the living room demanding, “Where’s your drink?!”
My brother Steve raised his glass and said, “This is my drink- Calistoga water!” A woman talking with him was sipping lemonade.
Clenching a Beedi, Bukowski sneered, “Get out! I want everybody out!”
At first we thought he was kidding, then he roamed the rooms screaming, “Get out! Get out! I might die tomorrow, and I don’t want to spend my last night on earth with this bunch. Get the fuck out of my house! I want everybody OUT!”
As people wandered down the long driveway toward the street, two tall blond guys were hovering near the mailbox at the curb.
In heavy German accents, they asked, “This is the home of Bukowski, yes?”
“Yes,” I said.
“What is going on?”
“He’s on a rampage because we weren’t drinking enough,” I replied.
“This is very cool,” the guy said grinning. “Very Bukowski.”
But nights like that were rare. On any random evening, Hank was hard at work. One of his most important attributes was his discipline. He wrote every day – sick, exhausted, hung over – it didn’t matter. He told me that he was like a spider building a web, it was in his DNA to pound the typer.
In a one-on-one encounter, Hank demanded your complete attention, even when he was drunk. Sitting on the couch in the living room, he would take a drink, then a drag, and his eye would cut over at you. Scrutinize you. There was no place to hide.
He was complex. Outrageous and sensitive. Loyal to his friends. When I was breaking up with Jan, he called to see how I was doing. He knew I was depressed and suggested that I come over for a drink. When I got there, Linda poured three glasses of good Cabernet. We talked for a while, and I told Hank that a literary agent had contacted me after I had some fiction published in WIRED magazine. I asked him what he thought about agents.
He paused, took a long drag, and said: “Listen kid…the whole thing comes down to this: If you want to write, you’re going to write, and you’d better write it your way. If you’re after money or fame or groupies, that’s something else. Then you’ll do it their way…and they will smash you down into a flattened turd.” He took a big drink, then cut his eye over at me smiling and said, “Ring the bells of the city…the old man has spoken.”
(c) Michael D. Meloan (a.k.a. TheMountebank) 2010. Michael D. Meloan’s fiction has appeared in WIRED, Buzz, Larry Flynt’s Chic, LA Weekly, on Joe Frank’s National Public Radio program, and in a number of anthologies (including Scream When You Burn). He is an interview subject in the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This.
Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge runs through February 14, 2011 at The Huntington Library in San Marino, CA. For more information visit Huntington.org/.