Barfly in Paradise
What would Charles Bukowski have made of Las Vegas? An old friend speculates
By Lee Mallory
One windy night a guy in polyester stumbles into P Moss’ Double Down Saloon, near Paradise. Slurping his soupy Ass Juice, the bar’s signature drink, he whispers — á la Brando — “I coulda been somebody.” Even famous. Though he already was.
I met Buk, poet Charles “Hank” Bukowski, in the ’70s. Time called him the “laureate of American lowlife.” Jean-Paul Sartre dubbed him “America’s greatest living poet.” Buk wrote 50 poetry books, novels, and screenplays, saying, “The first goal of writing is to save your own ass.”
Though world-wise, he overlooked Vegas. Surprisingly, with the women, writing, betting, and booze, I find only one Bukowski poem about this place ...
There was a frozen tree that I wanted to paint
but the shells came down
and in Vegas looking across at a green sunshade
at 3:30 in the morning,
I died without nails, without a copy of the Atlantic Monthly
... and without more Vegas poems, it’s hard to know how he felt. Fighting or drunk, he claimed to not like people. So what might he have liked (or hated) about Vegas?
Channel the hard-mouthed poet over to Champagne’s on Maryland Parkway, former nest of the Rat Pack. Absorb the ’60s ambience without the gloss. (Hank hated gloss, seeking the gritty underbelly of the streets.) He moves in on a lanky blonde in a short skirt — imagine his movie Barfly, starring Mickey Rourke. Buk buys her lots of drinks, then leans in, but she rejects him. Angered, he pulls back: “Okay, hon, you still look like an angel … takin’ a crap.”
Head north now. From Janco Books on Charleston to the Writer’s Block and slam-poetry hangout PublicUs on Fremont, there’s this Lit zone, where poetry, books, good writers, wannabe writers, and “pretenders to poesy” hang. Talent and imagination abound. Enthusiasm. Hope. Though Buk, the skeptic, stormily warns in an unpublished letter to me:
“(What works) against almost all poets is sitting down thinking, I am going to write a poem. The (young) become romanticized by it. (But) it’s a suck. I get many literary mags and poetry books. It’s almost all waste. One thinks it would be easier to create than not create. The idea is simply to put words down and do it simply. We’re tired of profundities and brisk riddles.” For Buk, who never retreats, there goes the neighborhood!
And the rest of Vegas? He’d likely have hated the Strip for its money-grubbing glam. But given his love for Jeffers’ nature poetry, he’d probably cherish Red Rock. Near my place, Buk would smile at the Stratosphere rising like a giant phallus. (Though he might’ve jumped.) Then, for his love of the track, he’d move back up Paradise to the off-Strip Silver Sevens casino for the sportsbook. Maybe swing by Luxor long enough for him to jot a wry poem about our garish city hosting a symbol of a refined ancient civilization.
Though conjecture, the thoughts above are an estimable bet. Whereas the Ass Juice never lies. Back at the Double Down, Buk leans back and lights up, smoke curling towards the ceiling festooned with $1 bills. He’s back here in Paradise — lost and found. The sign reads “Hangover insurance,” though for him with a high deductible. Then, pondering women and words, he orders two beers. Bukowski leans into Cactus, the bouncer and house poet, saying, “Keep the keys clean, and on mornings of doom have a drink or two and wait. Wait. Wait on the word. She’s more faithful than any woman. It’s our final love.”
“A Poem on the Underground Wall” by Simon & Garfunkel, from Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (1966): They may take liberties in saying a word can be a poem, but hey — one man’s art is another man’s Damien Hurst.
“Sun in My Mouth” by Björk, from Vespertine (2001): The Icelandic chanteuse adapts e.e. cummings’ “I will wade out/Till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers” into a haunting, stirring orchestral track that makes you reconsider just what cummings was writing about.
“Cemetry Gates” (title sic) by The Smiths, from The Queen is Dead (1986): If anyone accuses you — as they did Morrissey — of writing derivative drivel, just remember this: His “weird lover Wilde” always said, “talent borrows; genius steals.”
“Your Cover’s Blown” by Belle & Sebastian, from the EP Books (2004): This song, in quasi-haiku:
Ought I write a poem to / get the girl? Ehhhhhhh, nope.
“Under Your Spell” by Desire, from Desire (2009): “What’s the difference between obsession and desire,” our nameless narrator asks behind a slinky synthesizer riff, wondering where the red line is in pining for her muse.