Dissipated Artists Week


I thought I’d try to get some kind of return on my Netflix membership last week. By Wednesday, I recognized a rather obvious thread connecting the movies I’d rented: Modligliani; Bukowski: Born into This; If I should Fall from Grace: The Shane McGowan Story; and Factotum, a film based on Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical novel. Running through all of them, like a river of whiskey, is a river of whiskey, lots of wine and beer, and art from the fringe that showed-up the mainstream art world.

Watching these movies raised that old chestnut—do alcohol and drugs enhance the creative process? For Modigliani, Bukowski, and McGowan, alcohol consumption is/was an inextricable part of painting, writing, and performing, because alcoholism is/was essential to their existence. It is unlikely that Shane McGowan could ever clean-up. If he does, he’ll have suffered irreparable damage. The other men died addicts who never stopped drinking.

It’s all very romantic, the stuff of really bad movies. And Modigliani is both. It focuses on the love affair between Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian Jew among the great starving painters in Paris at around the time of World War One, and Jeanne Heburtene, a French woman from a fairly well-to-do Catholic family. They had one child, whom Jeanne’s father would not recognize because of Modi’s being Jewish, and another on the way when the two heroes died—Modi of drink and tuberculosis, Jeanne of throwing herself out a window. The portrayal of Modigliani as an artist (not to mention the treatment of Picasso, Soutine, Utrillo, Rivera, and other painters in town at the time) goes beyond what might be a tolerable level of historical inaccuracy to serve narrative. There is nothing on painting worth watching, and a lot that I’d hope newcomers to this world would not take away as true to what went on or what these people created. There is a lot on the trap of alcohol, however, and the tendency of particularly brilliant people to shine through behavior that would put most people’s lights out.

The Bukowski documentary and Factotum are much better movies. Bukowski, who worked as a mailman after a storied life on the bum as a teen during the depression, wrote constantly. He wrote stories utterly lacking in sentimentality. He wrote poetry void of all the formal elements of poetry. It was a raw kind of writing that at times could be brilliant, though most of it was level spew about a life of drink, fornication, and gambling. It was published in various non-paying and paying formats in reams. It lacked the consistency and sublimity of Modigliani’s art, but that might be because Modigliani’s every scribble was not published in broadsides. The French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet considered Bukowski the most important writer in America. So did Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (though Bukowski was as anti-Beat as he was anti-Disney), rock star Bono, and singer/songwriter Tom Waits. The latter three tell you all about it in the documentary.

I started reading Bukowski after college, during my short residence in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. It was the perfect setting and time in my life for an introduction to Bukowski. I wanted to like him a lot more than I did. Part of the problem was my discovery that there were only so many hours in the day and that there were American writers who do stark, real, and dark much better. I discovered Cormac McCarthy at the Chlesea. I dropped Bukowski and never picked him up again with any serious intent (I still have yet to read enough Faulkner, for one, and the day has far fewer hours now). I get my Bukowski at the movies, I’m afraid (see Factotum–Matt Dillon at his absolute best).

The first argument I every had with my English friend Andrew Wood was over Shane McGowan. Wood said McGowan was faking it. I said McGowan was really drunk. It was the only argument with Andrew that I ever won.

I have to say that Bukowski carried his alcoholism better than McGowan—unless, of course, Bukowski was faking it, which I’m pretty sure he wasn’t. Still, McGowan achieved something phenomenal. He brought traditional Irish music and balladry not only into the rock idiom, but into the Johnny Rotten punk rock idiom. And he did so with striking legitimacy. He wrote with phenomenal ease and heart—an Irish trait, I must say—and sold it on stage to the point of self-sacrifice. Ditto.

Like the rest of the Pogues, McGowan was an Irishman living in London, though he spent much of his time with family in Tipperary. I’ve read that he had an aunt who introduced him at the age of five to alcohol as a means of keeping away the devil, or some such blarney. He wasn’t a pretty boy, like Modigliani. He was more like the acne vulgaris-stricken Bukowski in the looks department. His teeth, many of which are now gone, whacked out in strange trajectories and his ears made his head look like milk truck with both doors open. McGowan is a classic case of someone being so ugly, by conventional standards, that he ends up cute. This could have contributed to his alcoholism.

The hard life of the drunk certainly contributes to his writing. He wrote, what I think, is one of the best Christmas songs of all times—Fairy Tale of New York, which opens with these beautiful lines:

“It was Christmas Eve, babe—in the drunk tank”

And there’s the opener of Dirty Old Town:

“I met my love by the gasworks wall”

McGowan wasn’t the only drunk in the Pogues or on the punk rock scene. But he’s one of very few—right now I can’t think of any—who made it without coming to terms with addiction. His friend, the songwriter Nick Cave, comments in the documentary that there came a time in his, Cave’s, life when he faced a choice between being a singer and songwriter or being a junkie. This came after a year, says Cave, of the piano in his apartment taunting him, untouched, from across the room. McGowan never faced that choice. He did everything perfectly drunk. I read an interview in which McGowan advises that very few people are able to do this and that nobody should try it at home. Leave it to the chosen.

There, I think, is the answer to whether substance abuse enhances creativity to the point of it being a prerequisite. The answer is no, unless you happen to be addicted. In which case, you had better have a very supportive life partner. In the case of these three artists, those partners were women, a topic about which Bukowski and Modigliani, especially, had a lot to say. Bukowski, who could be pretty brutal in his treatment and description of women, makes a very good point in the documentary—one of his brilliant moments. He says that a woman’s love is a beautiful thing. It asks very little compared to what it bestows. A man blessed with a woman’s love has to pretty much work at f***ing things up for himself, Bukowski notes.

Jeanne Heburtene going through a window, Linda Lee Bukowski’s adding ten years to the life of a frequetnly abusive man by getting him off of skid row and making a home for him, and the recent split between McGowan and his long-time partner, Victoria Clarke, all attest to the truth in what Bukowski says.

Painting: Jeanne Heburtene in a Black Hat by Amedeo Modigliani

9 Responses to “Dissipated Artists Week”

  1. kenju Says:

    I feel dumb reading this because the only one I have ever heard of is Modigliani. Now I have to read about the others so I will know whereof you speak!

  2. Kizz Says:

    I watched a doc about tap dance when I was living in London. Didn’t see enough of it to ever identify it again which is a shame. A portion of it has Gregory Hines (RIP) talking about Savion Glover and how when he worked with Savion they would tape the boy during rehearsals and play the tape back at half speed in order to “steal” the steps from him since he taps so fast (and so accurately and so beautifully) that no normal human could watch him and figure out what he’s doing. I have met/worked with/wrangled Mr. Glover on a couple of occasions and he has always been drinking and or smoking up. I picked him up from a hotel room one night that, in the mere hour he and his folk had been there, was a full on wall of smoke. This all started me wondering if some who are blessed with genius have to find some way of slowing down or calming or even holding at bay the divine voices in their heads so they can interpret all the information that’s coming to them. I wonder if Aaron Sorkin’s cleanliness and sobriety make it harder for him to craft things in the way he used to. I wonder if any of these artists (Pollack?) would be able to create the masterpieces that they do without the dulling mechanism of the drink or the drugs. I guess, as you say, it’s all pretty well individual. Maybe Joan of Arc just needed a stiff drink and a maybe a slug of Peyote.

  3. colleen Says:

    I wonder what the Pouges did for their second number. Did you catch what the painting on the wall was of? At first I thought it was the pope! Back in the 70s a poet friend was trying to turn me on to lots of poets, Bukowski, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, etc. None of them did turn me on, but I liked to see how and what they wrote. Sometimes I like reading the bio notes more than the poetry and learning about the lives writers lead more than reading their novels. The first poet I discovered who I did like was Richard Brautigan, although I do like the non-academic style of those other guys mentioned above.

  4. Todd Says:

    Alcohol and drugs kill creativity.

  5. Rick Says:

    Colleen: I went back and checked. The painting is of St. Patrick! I think if you look closely, you can see some snakes getting stomped. I remember they performed on St. Patrick’s day in the mid 1990s. Dennis Miller made an ass of himself by implying that they sucked during his fake news bit.

    Kizz–I’m reminded of the famous Savion Glover interview with Grover on Sesame Street in 1990! ~,:^)

    Todd–In the final analysis, I think Nick Cave’s experience is typical. It comes down to a choice between one or the other.

    Kenju: Click the links for the lowdown skinny! The Bukowski interview, featuring the kind of uptight interviewer that makes me feel so much better about myself, really gives you the whole picture (“Is there anything else, Fred?”). The Pogues pretty much speak for themselves.

  6. Birdie Says:

    Ok, I have read this three times, and each time wrote a long comment, then deleted before posting it. Different sorts of comments each time. And then it spurred me to write a long story this morning at, oh, 3 a.m. because I woke up thinking about it again and what I should say. I don’t know if I’m going to post that story, but I suspect I will as I tend to post the most inelegant raw things if I feel I arrived at a tiny piece of the truth in the writing, which I felt.

    Anyway, the question at hand. Drugs. Alcohol. I haven’t had any grand creative moments drinkin’ (then again, I maybe have three drinks a month), and I haven’t imbibed in the “normal” sorts of drug stuff other than smoking pot with a dying friend. So hell if I know.

    But I have undergone deliberate shamanistic experience, on occasion induced by various plantlife that I have been taught to honor. (Salvia divinorum, ayuhuasca, etc) And in those experiences I have lived many lifetimes, have learned to relay my experience. I wouldn’t be a writer at all without those experiences, I think. And I find that when I write and I am lost in it, I can recreate a small portion of it.

    Sorry, this is long and a bit crazy, and this time I will hit submit.

  7. Rick Says:

    Rather more interesting than crazy, Birdie. The spirituality angle. I hope you post what you wrote.

  8. keda Says:

    sigh… i’ve had 2 glasses of wine and so can’t write or type for toast.

    but listening to some of my beloved shane now. still one of the men who’ve made me cry throughout my life more than anything else since the mid eighties, and kitty and a pair of brown eyes stabbed me first.

    hmmm sob. he’s an ugly wee darling. who’ll a’ways break my heart.

    it’s good to be back 🙂

  9. hpeflilpev Says:

    Im thinking ball torture stories aboutgetting a temptation to the fuck can you bet, he.

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