Bukowski was a contrary old bastard. He was openly disdainful about spoken word and poetry readings. One of his poems, conveniently entitled ‘The Poetry Reading’ bluntly spelled it out: ‘poetry readings have to be some of the saddest/damned things ever,/the gathering of the clansmen and clanladies,/week after week, month after month, year/after year,/getting old together,/reading on to tiny gatherings,/still hoping their genius will be/discovered,/making tapes together, discs together,/sweating for applause’.
But as is the case with a lot of Bukowski’s work and history, his attitude to spoken word was partly an exercise in self-mythology. The sheer amount of poetry he recorded and readings he gave are testament to the fact that he saw live poetry as something that was important to his both career and his reputation. And as this letter from 1971 demonstrates, he was more than willing to turn up and do his thing in front of a crowd providing the price was right.
So here’s a list of Bukowski’s top spoken word moments.
5. King of Poets
It may or may not be a little known fact, but just in case you didn’t know, in the late sixties Bukowski was almost signed to the Beatle’s record label. Zapple, an offshoot of Apple Records designed to showcase spoken word and other experimental recordings, was managed by Barry Miles (who later went on to write a biography of Bukowski). Other writers who were set to record albums for the label included Richard Brautigan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg.
Unfortunately, John Lennon decided to get his cock out and record an album of electronic noise accompanied by Yoko’s wailing, and the resultant album, ‘Two Virgins’, managed to sink the label before it really had the chance to take off.
‘King of Poets’, a collection of home recordings released in 1997, dates from this period. The story goes that Bukowski would get drunk and record his poems, then turn the tapes over and start recording again, thereby wiping out everything he did previously.
Although delivered in his trademark ‘I-can’t-be-arsed-with-this-shit’ drawl, it’s clear he’s having fun. Stand out tracks include ‘Need for Glue’, ‘Another Academy’ and ‘Soup, Cosmos and Tears’, a track which showcases Bukowski’s camp, yet strangely effective, impression of a women’s voice.
As a whole, it’s a bit of a hit and miss collection, but it’s nearest you’ll get to Hank sitting on your couch, smoking, drinking and shooting the shit – which is probably a good thing, because you’d just end up punching him after half an hour in his company.
4. Solid Citizen
When Bukowski came to Europe in the late seventies, he was greeted with a rock-star’s welcome. For a long time, Bukowski was more respected and successful in Germany and France than he was in America. His debut novel, ‘Post Office’, had sold huge amounts, and he was followed by the press everywhere he went. After a drunken appearance on a pompous French arts show called ‘Apostrophe’, he became a cult figure, and the day after appearing on the show all of his books sold out. This period also saw the mythologizing kick into high gear, as it was said that Jean Genet and Satre both gave their approval and described him as ‘America’s greatest living poet,’ although it’s more than likely that these statements were fabricated in order to provide those all-important quotes for the backs of his books.
Another possibly apocryphal tale from this period describes how upon approaching a café in Paris, a bunch of waiters lined up and bowed at Hank in order to show their approval.
In many ways, ‘Solid Citizen’ is Bukowski as prototype punk poet. Recorded in Hamburg in 1978, Bukowksi is heckled quite a bit through the reading, and you get the impression that he’s not entirely comfortable reading to non-English speaking crowd, but he manages to win them over in the end.
Stand out tracks include ‘Looking for a Job’, ‘One for the Shoeshine Man’, and ‘Some People’, a poem that features the famous and often quoted line: “some people never go crazy./what truly horrible lives/ they must lead.”
This footage from that trip has a German voice-over, but is good snapshot of the adulation Bukowski received when he visited the country of his birth
This 1980 album was recorded at a reading in Redondo Beach, and is significant as it was one of his last public readings, and certainly the last recorded one. It’s probably one the best recordings in terms of sound quality, and is one of the most widely available. More than any other example of his spoken word output, this really highlights the contradiction in Bukowski’s stance on poetry readings, as it’s clear that he’s enjoying himself and lapping up the attention, and the sense of warmth from both himself and the crowd is palpable. “Tonight is going to be a very dignified reading,’ he says at the beginning, taking the piss. “I will read dignified poetry in a dignified way.”
This recording showcases Bukowski’s great comic timing and banter. He actually comes across as being charming and quite reasonable, and the interactions with the audience are all done in jest, with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Stand-out tracks include ‘The Secret of My Endurance’, a poem about that reveals how a mellowing Hank uses a chained-up young boy in a cage fed on ‘whiskey and raw whores’ to write his stuff. ‘On the Hustle’ describes a doomed university visit after a drunken reading and party, and ‘The Nine Horse’ is a hilarious account of an incident when he accidentally dropped his wallet in the race-track crapper after taking a ‘hot, stinking and glorious’ dump.
Well worth a download.
2. Poems and Insults
Bukowski’s reading at the Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore in September 1973 marked one of the major turning points in his career, the point at which he emerged from America’s underground literary scene, drunk, grizzled and blinking, and into popular culture. A pleasingly lo-fi recording of Bukowski performing to a full capacity crowd, it’s Hank at his raw, rumbunctious best. It’s clear from the very beginning that he’s setting out to shock, and at some points the banter with the audience almost turns adversarial.
This landmark reading was also captured in Taylor Hackford’s black and white documentary. Backstage, a clearly nervous Bukowski berates his hosts: “Cheap Italian wine, man, you guys really fucked me up,” and he vomits as he makes his way to the stage, towards the baying crowd and a fridge stocked with beer.
Stand out tracks include ‘The Best Poem I Can Write at the Moment’, a smutty poem dedicated to the fine art oral sodomy (ask your parents), ‘The Last Days of the Suicide Kid’, and ‘The Shoelace’, a powerful piece about how the accumulation of everyday ordinary madness can drive a person over the edge.
1. Dinosauria, we
For my last pick, I’m going to go for a specific track. ‘Dinosauria, we’ is one of Bukowski’s most famous poems, and possibly one of his best. This particular recording is taken from ‘Uncensored’, a collection which is the result a recording session for ‘Run with the Hunted’ that took place late in 1993, the year before he died. It’s a bit of a messy collection, featuring multiple versions of certain poems as he struggled to get them right and he also gets sidetracked frequently, but this has the effect of turning the recording into part-memoir, as he reflects on various things in conversations with his wife and producer.
When he does nail it, it’s glorious. ‘The Genius of the Crowd’ and ‘The Mockinbird’ are both excellent, but the star of the show is a particularly powerful reading of ‘Dinosauria, we’, an apocalyptic indictment of modern existence that manages to be both bleak and uplifting at the same time.
This poem was also sampled in its entirety to great effect by self-styled hip-hop super-villain MF Doom on his track ‘Cellz’.