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.