By Ben Pleasants
I am a Los Angeles resident who has spent most of my life on the west side of the city. After leaving Long Island, New York in 1963 and moving to San Diego for a year, I've lived in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades and Westwood with six months off for good behavior in Kona in 2009 and a total of two years in France during the 1970's. Those were the best ! My life has been mostly about writers, theatre and books. From 1967 on, I covered small theatre, poetry and literary profiles for the LA Times. At my best I reviewed and rediscovered John Fante in 1978 and introduced him to Charles Bukowski that same year . The John Fante tapes from five different meetings are available online in text and audio from 3 Am Magazine thanks to Susan Tomaselli, editor. That's something books can't do unless they contain CD's. In the sixties, I wrote a piece on Bukowski for the Free Press when we were both employed there. It was a Symposium on LA writers taped live at the newspaper. Steve Richmond, Ron Koertge and Gerald Locklin chimed in. It was fun. Bukowski did drawings to match.
Each time I worked on a piece for the Times or the Free Press or Reader, I was in and out of bookstores. It was a place to check up on facts, from the owners like Ken Hyre and Phil Mason, to the readers and writers who congregated there. "Do you have a copy of The Green Hat?" Phil Mason had several. Later, when I did pieces for Los Angeles Magazine on Bukowski the week he died and on Fante long after he was dead, I went to Larry Edwards on Hollywood Blvd. and Williams in San Pedro. The owners had the books I needed and they had met either Fante or Bukowski. And then there was always Vromans in Pasadena, the town where Bukowski's father was born. They've been there for more than a hundred years!
Every time I took on a controversial subject, I checked in at bookstores. If Phil Mason didn't have the info I needed at Yesterday's books, say on Mencken and Fante, he knew someone who did. Like Ken Hyre or Jake Zeitlin.
When I upended the Bukowski fans who deny Buk's involvement in Nazi organizations before World War II and followed it up with a novel Bukowski suggested I write titled "The Victory of Defeat," I called one my friends, Ira, who owned a bookstore off Vermont . Ira knew all about the Nazi archives in California. And their first amendment rights for members of the Bund, at least before Pearl Harbor. Again and again I went to bookstores first, libraries second. At LACC I found Bukowski's pro-Nazi letters to the editor in the LACC school newspaper, in the library. With Bukowski's help. That was not in a bookstore. Some things you can find only in libraries. Buk Made so much noise, talking about his college days, the librarian who pushed a cart full of old newspapers almost threw us out. "They let me take the Nazi side. My teachers at LACC. First amendment rights," said Bukowski. I have it on tape. It's all in my book, Visceral Bukowski! But there's not a lot about bookstores.
Bukowski said he was proud he'd spoken out at LACC and defended Hitler's Germany. He spoke of Celine. Shocking, but that is the test of true freedom of expression. Later, Bukowski proved his Nazi leanings by avoiding the draft from 1941 until 1943, when he was finally arrested for draft dodging. Try that in Berlin in 1940, defending FDR. Celine and Bukowski survived and continued to write. Their books can be found in bookstores and libraries. They were never burned. So what is the difference between bookstores and libraries? Bookstores are places where fights break out over politics, sex and religion. In libraries, you are shhhuuushed.
When we worked together at the Free Press in the 1970's and I asked if I could be his biographer, Bukowski said yes, but he told me to tell it all. Leave nothing out. Especially his Nazi past.
He said that John Martin had tried to change lots of things because he thought them bad for business. I told him I'd keep it all in and it's there in my book, Visceral Bukowski, published in 2005 by Sun Dog Press. The book was attacked relentlessly by Bukowski incorporated. Linda Bukowski and John Martin. But it's out there in bookstores and libraries all over LA.
Free expression leads to many odd discoveries. The fact that I'm a quarter Jewish, with relatives killed by Nazi's, some Jewish, some Christian, never gave Bukowski pause. "Just tell it all," he said. "Being a quarter Jewish is like being a quarter crazy. It only matters if you take it seriously." He never told me his mother's mother was named Nanette Israel. His mother's mother was Jewish.
Bukowski loved literary squabbles. How Truman Capote called Kerouac's On The Road, "" just typing." How the New Critics attacked the old critics too much biography and not enough explication of text. He said some poets were safe, like Creeley, and others would be arrested, like Baudelaire. Or shot, like Rimbaud. Or had green teeth, like Gregory Corso. Or were drunks, like Bukowski.
Bukowski didn't go to bookstores much, unless they had money for him. He liked the LA Public Library, one of Bertrum Goodhue's masterpieces. He liked literary warfare . He took sides: Love and hate. He loved Robinson Jeffers more than any other poet and he hated Kenneth Rexroth--mostly for his politics.
By chance, after three interviews, I grew close to Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Owner of City Light Book Store in San Francisco, and publisher of a huge collection of Bukowski Stories called Erections. Ferlinghetti was always a big help. He loved Bukowski's work. He published Celine, one of Bukowski's favorite writers. He invited me up to his bookstore for a weekend and let me sit at the cash register with Gregory Corse. Corso did have green teeth and he stole from the till.
Ferlinghetti said "It's OK. I let him." That was the kind of place he ran. Sanctuary. He championed writers most publishers were afraid to touch, like Ginsberg and Corso and Kerouac. He gave them a place to stay in when they were in SF with food to eat and a place to greet their fans and readers. Wow. He made sure that had warm clothes and pocket change. The writers he published and promoted, he honored and respected and loved. They were mostly Beats. The LA Times wondered aloud how I had access to Ferlinghetti. I told my editor it was simply a matter of publishing what he said. When I was in his home in North Beach or in his bookstore on Columbus, he was the same guy. He was helpful.
When Ferlinghetti gave me a letter to take to George Whitman at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, that led to a reading at the famous bookstore and a one-week stay upstairs in the library where Whitman brought me coffee and gave me Sunday lunch. That was March, 1977. I was nothing then. Same today. Whitman was hopeful.
Like Bukowski, Ferlinghetti loved struggle. He thought writers should push the limits. He loved how poets would crowd into City Lights for readings and memorials and then push on over to the Cafe' Trieste to finish off an evening. Bookstores and cafes and music and coffee and poetry and life. They all go together. That was true from the time of Socrates on, when poets hung around the Agora in Athens. And there were book stalls there. Or scroll stalls. See Bettany Hughes' The Hemlock Cup. Also freedom of speech !
When I interviewed Corso, he asked me , "What the hell are you doing at the LA Times?" I didn't have an answer.
Many years later, when Beat Scene published my essay "Rexroth, Bukowski and the Politics of Literature " in 2009 to almost total silence in the US, I thought of the song "The Tango Maureen" from RENT. What the hell does it all mean? La vie Boheime.