Rapper and Mystic: Two Sides of Charles Bukowski

As a young aspiring writer Charles Bukowski was the first author I became obsessed with. It was the combination of simplicity and readability, that rare thing in a writer’s trick bag where truths and feelings are stated in such a way that you feel as if you’ve found a friend, someone else who experiences the world the same way you do, humour and the fact that his books were fantastically entertaining. Also, I think, the pseudo-autobiographical aspect is very enticing for a young man. The same way that Hemingway’s tales of war or Conrad’s adventures on the high seas would have gripped the imagination of young men in generations past.

I devoured all Bukowski’s work and when there was none left, I read his influences. Bukowski is a notorious name dropper. As fiercely as he denounces some writers, he lauds others. Robinson Jeffers and Li Po, Carson McCullers, Sherwood Anderson, John Fante, Celine and Knut Hamsun plus a couple of one off’s he praises; Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground and Huxley’s Point Counter Point. I read them all and loved what I found.

My tastes and scope broadened and I became dimly aware that, to like Bukowski was considered, by some, a little juvenile. I bought a few more books of his poetry and Jesus could he be repetitive! I got into Carver, Cheever, Moravia; read a lot of philosophy and non-fiction. But my affection for Bukowski wouldn’t die. His voice appeared on a couple of hip-hop records, readings of his poems laid over beats. I’d flick through a book of his poems in the bookstore and come across a gem like Ice For The Eagles or The Laughing Heart.

I don’t read Bukowski anymore but I’m still fond of him. He probably doesn’t deserve the enormous amount of attention he gets, but then I think him a better writer than someone like Phillip Roth who has half a dozen books in Bloom’s canon, (the apparent, definitive guide to great writers and works of literature). So with that said, let’s take a look at Bukowski from a fresh perspective.

Bukowski as rapper: Kool Herc and Africa Bambaata or Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues where did rap originate? With Bukowski of course. The first thing a rapper does is create a pseudonym for themselves. Gary Grice becomes Gza, Troy Donald Jamerson becomes Pharoahe Monch or Christopher George Latore Wallace become Biggie Smalls. Sometimes rappers even borrow from whomever there favourite comic book character was as kids, ie. Ghostface Killah aka Tony Starks or MF Doom. How else can you go from being a poor, oppressed kid from the ghetto to an international superstar unless you change your identity?

Bukowski did the same with his alter-ego and hero character Henry Chinaski. Chinaski has none of the traditional qualities of a hero; he is lazy and without ambition, he serves no higher purpose except to his unquenchable thirst for drink and women, he has no loyalty to country or kin, he is fat and ugly and yet he is the hero in every scene. Bukowski’s books are written in such a way that you always like, empathize with and root for Henry Chinaski.

The genesis of this character can be found about halfway through Ham On Rye. Growing up in Depression-era America with a sadistically abusive father and a disfiguring form of acne, Bukowski felt like a freak and an outcast.

“Then I began writing. It was about a German aviator in World War I. Baron Von Himmlen. He flew a red Fokker. And he was not popular with his fellow fliers. He didn’t talk to them,” Bukowski wrote. “He drank alone and he flew alone. He didn’t bother with women, although they all loved him. He was above all that… He was an ugly man with scars on his face, but he was beautiful if you looked long enough -it was in his eyes, his style, his courage, his fierce aloneness.”

If you’re familiar with Bukowski’s work then the blueprint is laid out in this chapter. A toughness, solitude and individuality that puts him above or apart from other people. In his childhood fantasy he is the greatest fighter pilot and drinker around, in his books he is the greatest writer and drinker there is. And just as he is on the German side fighting the allies in the fantasy he is on the side of the bums, the whores, the outcasts and alcoholics, fighting bosses and cops and fathers and all would-be-alpha-males and authority figures. An alter-ego from his fantasy world provided him a way out of a hopeless situation and propelled him into fame and fortune, decades before any rapper thought to do it.

There’s more.

What do rappers say with their rhymes? What is hip-hop about? It’s about being the best and it’s about keeping it real. If you listen to hip-hop for any amount of time you’ll notice that all rappers claim to be the best and that they back that claim up by explaining it’s because of where they’ve come from and what they’ve been through. It’s called paying dues. What it comes down to is that experience = authenticity or realness. Almost every rap album has a track or number of tracks bragging about that rappers ability on the mic, street credentials and success with women, while trashing other rappers ability to do the same. Usually the other rappers name is not even mentioned and the song is addressed to an abstract you. Jay-Z, who has a song entitled Best Rapper Alive has based a whole career around this kind of track.

But Bukowski was doing this sort of thing while Jay-Z was being potty-trained. On being asked who his three favourite writers were he replied “Charles Bukowski, Charles Bukowski and Charles Bukowski.” He got his publicist to circulate a rumour that Sartre had named him as the greatest American poet. He confronted Allen Ginsberg at a party, screaming at him that everyone knows he hasn’t written anything worth a damn since Howl. On Shakespeare: “Unreadable and overrated.” On poetry. “It’s been fake and snobbish and inbred for centuries. It’s over delicate. It’s over precious. It’s a bunch of trash.” On Robert Lowell “Interesting enough not to put you to sleep but diffuse enough not to be dangerous. The first thing you think after reading his work is, this baby has never missed a meal or even had a flat tire or a toothache.”

Bukowski always trashed his contemporaries; Lowell, Ginsberg, Creely, Miller, Kerouac, Mailer, and Capote. It was only the dead ones of which he could speak highly. And so it is with hip-hop. Rappers routinely rip each other to shreds, yet always have a good word to say about Biggie and Tupac.

Having said all that Bukowski often (especially in his poetry) possesses a humility which hip-hop lacks except in very special cases. He lets us in, behind the persona. He’ll laugh at himself, often the hardest, something I wish more rappers would do.

Bukowski As Guru: Now,this may be hard to swallow as I’ve just set Bukowski up as a narcissist and a braggart, but all interesting people are choc full of contradictions. It’s easy with Bukowski to get caught up in the booze and the crazy stories but something I’ve always liked about him is that he’s very concerned with how to live life and how to do it well in an urban environment.

There is increasing evidence that city life is bad for you. There is too much information for the brain to process which leads to a dulling of the mental faculties and increase in stress and disorders such as schizophrenia. Plants, trees, animals; the basic staples and totems that have nurtured us through our evolution are absent. Friends and family live in their own isolated apartments and schedules. There is very little to keep us grounded amid all the chaos. From Factotum.

“It was true that I didn’t have much ambition, but there ought to be a place for people without ambition, I mean a better place than the one usually reserved. How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”

Like all mystics, Bukowski felt strongly that man’s way of living was insane, that we are asleep if we accept, blindly, the pointless, soul-destroying, undignified, unmanly nature of the nine-to-five. Bukowski’s first and foremost answer to this problem was alcohol. We all know he liked a drink, but listen to the way he describes it, more like a religious sacrament than an aid to relaxation. “One of the greatest things to arrive upon this earth…being a shy withdrawn person it allowed me to be this hero, striding through space and time doing all these things.”

The crux of Bukowski’s philosophy, like every mystic is simplification. It makes him come across like a judgmental prick, because he denounces or dismisses everything. T.V., cinema, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, LSD, the Beat Generation, spirituality, other people, patriotism, jobs, France, travel etc. He lived in the same city, Los Angeles for pretty much his entire life, his work is full of repetition both in theme and subject matter. He has found the few things that work for him, cultivated and made an art out of them. Inventor and fellow mystic Buckminster Fuller put it another way. After a year of self-imposed silence he decided to unlearn everything other people had taught him and to live a life based only on what he could validate through his own personal experience.

Bucky Fuller was also quoted as saying, “We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living.”

Bukowski (through his alter-ego Henry Chinaski) plays the part of the lazy, nihilistic, indifferent, bum. But if you look carefully you will see a finely orchestrated and disciplined life. The same few things reappear over and over again in his poetry and stories.

Cats: “Having a bunch of cats around is good. If you’re feeling bad you just look at the cats, you’ll feel better, because they know everything is, just as it is. There’s nothing to get excited about. They just know. They’re saviours. The more cats you have, the longer you’ll live.”

Classical Music: “I have found a part of the world like no other part of the world. It gave heart to my life, helped me get to here.”

The Track: “A man who can beat the horse can do almost anything he makes up his mind to do… Going to the racetrack helps you realize yourself and the mob too… With me, the racetrack tells me quickly where I am weak and where I am strong and it tells me how I feel that day and how we keep changing, changing ALL the time and how little we know of this.”

This reminds me of a quote by Gurdjieff. “Man… cannot have a permanent and single I. His I changes as quickly as his thoughts, feelings and moods, and he makes a profound mistake in considering himself always one and the same person; in reality he is always a different person, not the one he was a moment ago.”

Solitude: This is very important to take leisure time. Pace is the essence. Without stopping entirely and doing nothing at all for great periods, you’re gonna lose everything… And how many people do this in modern society? Very few. That’s why they’re all totally mad, frustrated, angry, and hateful.

In the old days before I was married, or knew a lot of women, I would just pull down all the shades and go to bed for three or four days. I’d get up to shit, eat a can of beans, go back to bed, just stay there for three or four days. Then I’d put on my clothes and walk outside, and the sunlight was brilliant and the sounds were great. I felt powerful, like a recharged battery…”

Now we are in the region of the shaman. Vision Quest, Walkabout, or whatever you want to call it. Isolation from society has been used by mystics throughout the ages. I doubt Bukowski thought of it this way but the end result is the same.

With all the clutter and confusion a modern life entails Bukowski had life whittled down to these few things, (plus booze and women). He wasn’t perfect. In fact he’s not even a particularly good role model. His alcoholism often turned him into a violent, obnoxious bore and nearly cost him his life prematurely. There are many reports of him betraying peoples trust in order to flesh out a story, or twist the truth to make himself look good. But, hell even Krishnamurti had a comb-over and maybe Bukowski’s as a guru is more palatable, his words of wisdom easier to accept for the simple fact he could be such a sack of shit, just like the rest of us.