Tom Waits Reads Two Charles Bukowski Poems, “The Laughing Heart” and “Nirvana”

Oppor­tu­ni­ties to meet one’s heroes can go any num­ber of ways. They can be under­whelm­ing and dis­ap­point­ing, embar­rass­ing and awk­ward, or—as Tom Waits found out in meet­ing Kei­th Richards and Charles Bukows­ki—com­plete­ly over­whelm­ing. Both encoun­ters became too much for Waits for the same rea­son: when you “try to match them drink for drink,” he says in an inter­view, “you’re a novice, you’re a child. You’re drink­ing with a roar­ing pirate.” Waits “wasn’t able to hang in there” with these vet­er­an imbibers—“They’re made out of dif­fer­ent stock. They’re like dock­work­ers.” But of course it was­n’t just their leg­endary drink­ing that impressed the sand­pa­per-voiced L.A. trou­ba­dour.

Waits calls both Richards and Bukows­ki artis­tic “father figures”—two of many stand-ins for his own absent father—but it’s Bukows­ki who had the most pro­found effect on the singer and song­writer. Both South­ern Cal­i­for­nia natives, both keen observers of America’s seed­i­er side, as writ­ers they share a num­ber of com­mon themes and obses­sions.

When he dis­cov­ered Bukows­ki through the poet’s “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” col­umn in the LA Free Press, Waits observed that he “seemed to be a writer of the com­mon peo­ple and street peo­ple, look­ing in the dark cor­ners where no one seems to want to go.” Waits has gone there, and always—like his lit­er­ary hero—returned with a hell of a sto­ry. His song­writ­ing voice can chan­nel “Hank,” as Bukowski’s friends knew him, and his speak­ing voice can too—with sharp glints of dry, sar­don­ic humor and sur­pris­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, though much more ragged and pitched sev­er­al octaves low­er.

Waits’ artis­tic kin­ship with Bukows­ki makes him bet­ter-suit­ed than per­haps any­one else to read the down-and-out, Dos­to­evsky-lov­ing, alcoholic’s work. At the top of the post, hear him read Bukowski’s “The Laugh­ing Heart,” a poem of weary, almost resigned exhor­ta­tion to “be on the watch / There are ways out / There is light some­where,” in the midst of life’s dark­ness. Below it, Waits reads “Nir­vana,” a poem we’ve fea­tured before in sev­er­al ren­di­tions. Here, the poet tells a story—of lone­li­ness, imper­ma­nence, and a brief moment of solace. For com­par­i­son, hear Bukows­ki him­self, in his high, nasal­ly voice, read “The Secret of My Endurance” above. Waits almost became more than just a Bukows­ki lover and read­er; he was once up for the role of Bukowski’s alter-ego Hen­ry Chi­nas­ki in Bar­bet Schroed­er’s 1987 Bukows­ki adap­ta­tion, Barfly. “I was offered a lot of mon­ey,” says Waits, “but I just couldn’t do it.” Mick­ey Rourke could, and did, but as I hear Waits read these poems, I like to imag­ine the film that would have been had he tak­en that part.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Four Charles Bukows­ki Poems Ani­mat­ed

Hear 130 Min­utes of Charles Bukowski’s First-Ever Record­ed Read­ings (1968)

Charles Bukows­ki Rails Against 9‑to‑5 Jobs in a Bru­tal­ly Hon­est Let­ter (1986)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Klaus Hartmann-Van Gogh says:

    Ein Mann der wenig­stens
    Oder bess­er gesagt über­haupt
    Oder ehrlich
    Ein Mann an den ich immer noch glaube
    Gott will Göt­ter
    Er wußte
    Er trank und lebte
    Seinen Traum.
    Ein toller Typ
    Wenig­stens mal ein Typ
    Von dem es wenig Abziehbilder gibt
    Ein Typ
    Bukows­ki was echt
    Und er liebte die Frauen.

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