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