By juxtaposing philosophy and philandering, the sublime with the obscene, and the profound with the profane, authors like Henry Miller and Louis-Ferdinand Céline created some of the most poetic, erotic and existential works of fiction ever written. But perhaps the grittiest and most misanthropic of this degenerate elite was Charles Bukowski.
The son of German immigrants raised in Los Angeles, Bukowski was the ultimate slacker anti-hero. He had no goals or ambitions, no money, worked shitty blue-collar jobs and screwed sleazy women. He didn’t care about politics, or wealth, or fame, or even art—all he cared about was horse racing, whores, whiskey and fistfights. Unlike the idealistic hippies who spent the ’60s engaging in social protests and free love, Bukowski spent them punching a clock at the post office and getting shitfaced in dive bars.
Through the eyes of his barely fictional protagonist Hank Chinaski, Buke explored and even celebrated the basest aspects of human existence in all their vile glory. Puking, pissing, fucking and fighting—these were the themes on which this bawdy bard based his craft. And though he didn’t truly begin his professional writing career until around the age of 40, he managed to crank out more than 45 books, including seven novels, hundreds of poems and numerous short-story collections.
My introduction to Bukowski came in 1995, when on my buddy Kenny’s recommendation I set out to pick up a copy of his Tales of Ordinary Madness. But no matter what bookstore I went to, no matter how many sections I pored through, I could never find any of his books. After several frustrated attempts, one of the clerks finally explained why.
“We don’t keep those on the racks anymore—we keep them up here,” he said as he scaled a ladder and pulled down a copy from the storage bin near the ceiling. “If we keep them on the shelves, bums keep coming in and stealing them.”
By the time I finished devouring Tales, Bukowski had become one of my favorite authors. So you can imagine how excited I was when I was browsing through our archives a few months later and discovered that he once wrote a column for High Times.
Named after his infamous 1969 book, Bukowski’s “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” column was a monthly fiction feature that ran for two years (from January 1983 until December 1984). Like his books, his columns were fraught with gambling and violence, and never once spoke about weed or any other drug (besides alcohol). One month, his column consisted of a two-page explanation of why he’d missed his deadline; it began with him going to renew his driver’s license and, a few beers and a hooker later, ended with him taking a dump in a gas-station bathroom. In the next issue, instead of turning in a column, he sent a letter explaining why he wasn’t submitting a column that month. Obviously, not all of the stories were masterpieces—as Bukowski himself so characteristically put it in his 1982 interview with HT: “I’d say that seventy-five percent of what I write is good; forty, forty-five percent is excellent; ten percent is immortal; and twenty-five percent is shit.”
Reading Bukowski taught me many things. It taught me that vulgarity was as valid a source and method of artistic expression as any other; that those most easily offended are usually those most deserving of offense; and that an artist should never be ashamed to lift up those rocks of pretense and propriety in the gardens of our souls and play with the slimy, slithery things that dwell beneath.
Bukowski died in 1994 at the age of 73, but his impact and influence live on: not only in his vast catalog of books and the many movies made about him (Barfly, Factotum, Bukowski: Born Into This), but in the hearts and minds of his admirers, and here in the pages of High Times. He once wrote: “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”
If that’s the case, Death must’ve shit himself when he came for you, Buke.