Charles Bukowski, Hostage, 1985
the bulls are grand as the side of the sun
and although they kill them for the stale crowds,
it is the bull that burns the fire,
and although there are cowardly bulls as
there are cowardly matadors and cowardly men,
generally the bull stands pure
and dies pure
untouched by symbols or cliques or false loves,
and when they drag him out
nothing has died
something has passed
and the eventual stench
is the world.
That was the first Charles Bukowski poem I read. It was there in a magazine with the cover image to this album, Hostage, and it was there as part of a eulogy. In 1994 Bukowski was dead. It was the first I knew of him – and he would become an important touchstone, a literary hero for a time. And I’ve fought against his influence since 1996.
I moved to Wellington in 1995 and its bookshops brimmed with Bukowski, helped no doubt by a new wave of interest as people learned about him or wanted to revisit his work, as happens after the death of a prolific and influential artist. He was both.
When I first saw that image of him walking along and drinking for all the life he had, as if the life was being given to him through that very bottle I had no idea it was an album cover, or that he had albums. Spoken word albums, recordings of live readings.
I’ve long been a sucker for spoken word albums – poetry, comedy, stories, combinations of all of the above…
And so I found Bukowski’s Hostage and probably decided to love it before I’d even heard it. (I had decided to love his work after reading that poem at the top after all).
It’s a frustrating listen. The way his readings always were – certainly the documentary footage and the bootleg video recordings I’ve collected show, for the most past, the ugly side of his public readings – audiences bored, poet drunk, belligerence on both sides.
There’s a tender heart somewhere in there with Bukowski. The best of his work shows the vulnerability that no suit of booze-soaked armour could ever protect against. But the way he was sold and the way he often worked was in the anger and frustration and revelry of being drunk. That was the image that worked.
Hostage is one half of an okay reading and he gets steadily more hammered and it’s both frustrating and disappointing – particularly as the CD version was just one 65-minute track. You couldn’t skip through it. You had to buckle up. You had to wade on through.
I did my time with this – and loved it as much as I thought I should – without ever really liking it at all.
Now it’s of little interest to me.
But that cover photo. Man. If I could find a vinyl copy of this in some impossible bargain (it lists for $80+) I’d own it for that image alone. That’s the coolness and the tragedy of the man right there. The stoicism and the sadness. The heart and the hiding. The poet and the fucking beast. And I was in awe of it all. Until one day I wasn’t.
Shit That’s Good! Crap Albums I Love is an occasional series here at Off The Tracks