Sunday, December 28, 2008

Literary Lions & Pups: Burroughs and Bukowski

When I was younger and the transition from beat to hip in full flower, many of us stood in awe of, and wished to meet (1) William S. Burroughs, (2) Charles Bukowski, and (3) Allan Ginsberg, and as I have spent evenings with two and learned a few things second-hand of the third, I tend to call them my Literary Lions, and to think of myself as a Pup. I met and spent time with so many celebrities and avant-gardistes I cannot possibly recall them all. But other than, perhaps, John Cage and Rudolf Nureyev, I don't think anyone amazed and impressed me as much as Burroughs and Bukowski.

Remembering Burroughs

Vince Aletti, the photo editor of the Village Voice, invited me to a dinner party at the townhouse of a dowager who collected and sold Brion Gysin paintings and who knew everybody who was anybody in the downtown Manhattan arts and letters scene. It seems she had come upon a novel idea for a guest list: bringing together an elderly lesbian author of considerable fame and notoriety and an elderly homosexual author of considerable succes de scandale. The latter was the author of Naked Lunch; the former, Ms. Janet Flanner, a contributor to a widely read New Yorker column, "Letter from Paris" (under the pen name, "Genet" -- a dead giveaway). The dowager thought young people should be present at such a happening to keep her honored guests company, but I think we ended up the less the entertainment than the audience. Seldom have I been in the company of such brilliant minds.

I think I was all over Wild Bill, having worshiped his writings since The Wild Boys if not quite earlier. That is, I had copies of such things as Nova Express long before reading them, and when I reviewed The Wild Boys for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, then under the wise lead of Digby Deal, I all but said I'd read the most important work of fiction of our times. I became an ardent, outspoken, and dedicated fan. (Only later, long after meeting him did I come into possession of such Burroughs "underground" DVD'S as The Commissioner of the Sewers as well as cassettes of his live readings, convincing me we probably had in Burroughs the wittiest American author since Clemons.)

The other guests included Fran Lebowitz and John Waters -- you can imagine the conversation. (A bit tipsy, I spoke negatively of someone and, by Freudian slip or simple drunk-tongued, inartfully substituted Ms. Lebowitz's name, but she didn't make anything of it until I did. Waters quite frankly shocked me. His whole, well, package: a film noire undertaker's outfit, slicked back 30's hairdo; pencil thin, Dick Tracy-style moustache, and tres gay mannerisms: I was shocked, I tell you, shocked.

As the evening wore on and those of us so inclined finished our flirtations with greatness, the room fell quieter and an exchange began between Ms. Flanner and Mr. Burroughs. They discussed matters as if dancing about in a fencing match, a parry here, a jab there. It was clear that they were sizing each other up. Burroughs had had a lot of wine and was holding court, not particularly eager to give someone else the stage, but he obviouly had respect for Flanner as a fellow author. The conversation, with all its delightful subtexual inferences, amused and even thrilled us all. And, finally, it was time for Ms. Flanner to go home.

Burroughs followed the hostess to the door as Ms. Flanner was let out. Flanner suggested they do something together sometime soon. Burroughs agreed, saying Yes, Yes in a distinctly W. C. Fieldsian tone of voice, and as soon as the door was closed, utter a sotto voce, "The old bitch!"

Remembering Bukowski

I met "Buk" in a roundabout and amusing way, whilst pursuing one of the most important people in my entire life, D.L., who was then a boy-friday at a scandalous "underground" newspaper published by the scion of a publishing family named John Bryan. The paper, Open City, which competed weekly with the more widely read L. A. Free Press, published by Bryan's erstwhile colleague, Art Kunkin. The two publications had a friendly rivalry, but because Bryan always felt he had to play catch-up, he pushed the envelope and almost got himself tossed in the hoozegow by the L.A.P.D. upon publication of a promotional photo of famed sideman and producer, song-writer and pianist Leon Russell who, with Marc Benno with a nude groupie straddling their knees. While the photo seemed innocruous enough, it did reveal the groupie's snatch (as Buk would put it) and was therefore a big no-no.

Had I not met Derek -- and lived with him for about ten months -- I might not have met Bukowski. Derek once told me that when Buk was visiting the Open City offices on the business of selling his column to the paper, a column called "Confessions of a Dirty Old Man." (This eventually became a book and is still in print -- and how!) A San Francisco Chronicle obit of Bryan properly acknowledges he was the first person to publish Bukowski (sort of). (Actually, Buk had been self-published in little chapbooks, e.g. one delightfully entitled All the Assholes in the World and Mine, an account of his hemorrhoid operation from that unique point of view. And I think Steve Richmond and a few other poets had published him as part of the Venice Beach Renaissance scene.

One night -- Derek says it was in science fiction writer Chris Bunch's kitchen -- I wound up matching Buk beer for beer in the company of an academic who fawned and gushed so much it made the poet and novelist (Post Office is my personal favorite) testy. For one thing, you never called Bukowski "Charles." He didn't even like "Charlie." Or maybe he hated the diminutive more than his full given name. He traded barbs with the academic and occasionally glanced over at me with a sly wink, wondering if I caught the game. (Burroughs did the same thing with Flanner.) I laughed a lot and got fairly smashed on beer, then went home.

Years later, when a famous TV commercial featured a comic whose spiel went, "Now, some call me _____, and some call me _____, &c." I thought back to that night, mainly of Bukowski coming unglued when the academic called him "Charles." He wasn't Charles, he was Buk. My friend Derek's recollection of this period can be found at: