By Ace Backwords
It’s interesting to compare Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson. They have a lot of similarities as well as differences.
Both came into prominence through the ’60s counterculture press. Bukowski writing a column for the Los Angeles underground newspaper Open City in the late ’60s. And Thompson writing for Rolling Stone magazine in San Francisco a couple years later.
Both would become just as famous (and notorious) for their larger-than-life personas, as they would for their writing. Both were kind of self-styled “outlaws.” Both were famous for their chemically-altered states: Bukowski, mostly on booze; Thompson on booze and a wide variety of drugs. Both were macho kind of “man’s man” writers, reveling in booze, broads and barroom brawls. Both had an affinity for violent sports: Bukowski as a boxing aficionado, and Thompson with his love of football.
Both were wildly admired by Hollywood actors. Johnny Depp became close friends with Thompson, while Sean Penn was close to Bukowski for awhile. In part because the two writers embodied the two traits most revered by actors: They were both outrageously original characters. And they could both write the kind of words that made actors look good when they performed those words.
Both Thompson and Bukowski saw themselves as “outsiders.” Thompson had a life-long chip on his shoulder from growing up as a poor Kentucky hick from the wrong side of the tracks, who viewed the Louisville high society with both envy and contempt. Bukowski was raised in a grim and loveless household, his alienation from mainstream society further heightened by a terrible case of adolescent acne that left him permanently disfigured and turned him into, in his words, “the ugliest man in Los Angeles.”
One key difference: Hunter S. Thompson was almost an instant success. His first two books — Hells Angels and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas — were not only smash hits, they were cultural sensations that rocketed Thompson to super-stardom. Whereas Bukowski’s road to success was a smoother, more gradual ride. He didn’t begin to gain real prominence and fame until he was in his 50s. And his career — and his output — would continue to grow right up until his death at age 73.
Thompson, on the other hand would spend most of his life striving (and failing) to come up with a second act after his initial success. His third book, Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail,’72, showed promise that Thompson could develop beyond merely writing about America’s subterranean underbelly (biker gangs and drug subcultures) to that of a keen observer of mainstream America. But it would be pretty much downhill from here on in for Thompson as a writer. His subsequent books would mostly be slapped-together attempts at rehashing his former glory.
Rolling Stone writer, David Felton, probably pin-pointed the reason for Thompson’s lackluster second act when he pointed out: “Being a celebrity is easier than being a writer. One thing Hunter does not enjoy is writing. He hates it and he fears it. He would rather do anything than write, even be a celebrity.”
Unlike most writers — who tend towards being introspective and solitary, and have the kind of personality that lends itself to sitting alone in a little room with just a typewriter for long stretches of times — Thompson was an extremely outgoing and sociable person who liked to constantly be surrounded by people. He liked to have a court of people around him at his Colorado home, with him as the center of attention, performing for an audience. To get him to sit alone at a typewriter was like pulling teeth. Editors and publishers soon realized that in order to get anything out of Thompson they had to ply him with a full-time assistant who would badger him and bribe him, 24 hours a day, in the hopes of pulling some words out of him.
Bukowski, on the other hand, loved nothing more than to be “sitting alone at the typer, with a bottle of good red and classical music on the box. It’s the best party in town.”
Another difference between the two men: In my opinion, Thompson’s basic personality had a deep streak of infantilism to it. He was like a super-brat that needed to be constantly indulged and pampered. One friend maintained that Thompson’s love of drugs was primarily an offshoot of his deep fear, and low threshold, of pain. The smallest injury — a stubbed finger, anything — would send Thompson running for his medicine cabinet. And the slightest discomfort would inspire the most violent outburst of childish temper tantrums.
Whereas Bukowski always struck me as more of a fully developed adult. Bukowski largely saw human life as a grim and painful affair. But fancied himself as the great battler. No matter how tough life was, Bukowski would always be tougher. Fighting to his very last breath. “I judge a man by how he walks through the fire.” And on his tombstone, Bukowski would have a silhouette drawing of a boxer.
Thompson, on the other hand, would commit suicide at age 67, for the reason that life was “no longer fun” — words that one could easily imagine a child uttering.###
By Ace Backwords
Whenever I go by the Oakland Tribune building I get an acid flashback to 1980. At the time I had spent the previous couple of years homeless and living on the streets of San Francisco, or working as a bike messenger and renting out flophouse hotel rooms in the Tenderloin. But, after getting one too many knives pressed up against my neck, I decide to see if I could clean up my act and see if I could make a life for myself. Seemed worth a try.
So I took several showers, bought a set of clean clothes, and applied for a job a the Oakland Tribune. I had always been interested in a career in journalism. Mostly from reading “Jimmy Olsen – Cub Reporter” comic books as a kid. It seemed like an exciting field, chasing after crime scenes and making witty repartee with Lois Lane and Perry White, the editor (“Don’t call me Chief!”). Plus, Jimmy Olsen was “Superman’s best pal”. Which seemed like a great fringe benefit of the reporter’s life. (Like most of my life’s ambitions, they were directly culled from the comic books of my youth.)
My plan was to start at the bottom, like Jimmy Olsen, and work my way up to the top. My plan worked beautifully. Well, half of it. I got a minimum wage job in the phone sales department selling subscriptions. And I stayed there for 5 months until I finally quit in disgust.
They had one good sales pitch: “Buy one month and get the second month ABSOLUTELY free!” For some reason, it was the added “absolutely” that made the sales pitch work. But even then, you’d have to dial 200 numbers and get 200 rejections before you got even one nibble. In fact, the job was mind-numbingly boring.
My problem as a salesman was: The boss always stressed, “The first two ‘no’s' count as ‘maybes.'” But I always stupidly assumed that no meant no, and never pushed the issue. So I was a complete loser.
The whole set-up reminded me of high school. We all sat at these desks under fluorescent lights, writing down boring information on our note-pads, while the teacher/supervisor glared at us from the desk up front. I realized, This is what they had been preparing me for all those years in school.
The top phone sales person on our floor was this huge, middle-aged woman, about 6-foot-2 with a huge beehive hairdo that seemed to add another 6 inches, and glasses right out of the “Far Side”. But she had the cutest, sexiest, giggling, purring voice you ever heard. Guys would order 3 or 4 different subscriptions and try to ask her out on dates. She was smooth. She could make a phone sales pitch for a newspaper subscription sound better than phone sex.
The only real excitement was when an earthquake hit one day. The phone room was on the 9th floor of the Oakland Tribune building, and you could actually feel that old building swaying back and forth. Back and forth. A very queasy feeling. For a second I thought the building might actually snap in half and we’d all plummet to our deaths, and subscriptions to the Oakland Tribune would come to a grinding halt. But no such luck.
My only career “advancement” was when somebody saw some of the cartoons I used to feverishly doodle on my note-pad while I was making calls. I was hired to draw a caricature of Billy Martin, the baseball manager, for an in-house promotion about the Oakland A’s. But if that rag had had any balls they would have immediately hired me to write a 5-days-a-week column on any subject I desired. Within two weeks I guarantee you, they would have had a thousand outraged letters-to-the-editor demanding I be fired, as well as half of their advertisers dropping out of the paper in protest. (Them newspaper guys are always saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” But you’d be surprised how FEW of these gutless editors have the balls to actually test that premise!)
Anyways, after about 5 months I couldn’t stand that job anymore, and the idea of having knives pressed up against my neck really didn’t seem all that bad. So I quit my job and reverted back to my Skid Row lifestyle.###
By Ace Backwords
Whenever I think of Lake Merritt I think of this guy I used to know back in the ’90s who’s body was dredged up from the Lake.
They used to call him “the Ray Charles guy” because of his uncanny resemblance to Ray Charles, with his black shades and jutting jaw. Or “the Sorry guy” because of his endlessly-repeated catch-phrase, “Sorry, don’t forget, sorry” (which was his sardonic response to his panhandling experiences where people told him “Sorry” a 100 times a day).
The Sorry guy basically thought human life was shit. And that everybody who was in it, including him, was shit. He usually didn’t get angry or worked up about this. He thought life was such shit, it wasn’t even worth getting excited over. He mostly sat alone on a park bench all day, sort of silently smoldering with disgust. He was a total loner. I don’t think I ever saw him hanging out with another person. I suspect he found the whole concept of “friendship” to be absurd, if not repulsive.
I remember this typical Sorry scene. One afternoon this charity group was giving out free bag lunches to the homeless. Sorry expressed his contempt for their offering by making a big show of opening up his sandwich and tossing it on the ground. Then he dumped his bag of potato chips on the ground, took a bite out of his apple and tossed that on the ground, wadded up his paper bag and tossed that on the ground. Sat there on the bench, smirking, surrounded by garbage. Some people are beyond helping.
Sorry was one of those guys on the street scene who you actually see disintegrating right before your eyes. Sorry liked to smoke crack. And he’d regularly have these drug-induced strokes. You wouldn’t see Sorry for a couple of weeks. And then he’d show up and it would be like: “Well, it looks like Sorry got a couple of more limbs paralyzed.”
The word on the streets was that he had burned somebody on a drug deal, and that’s how he ended up in the drink. Which seemed plausible.
When I think of Sorry I’m struck by the wide range of human experiences. Everyone comes up with their own unique take on what this life is all about. Which is our right as human beings. Like so many street people, when he disappeared he was almost instantly forgotten. But for some weird reason I keep remembering them.###