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A little Bukowski in the night: Beat poetry breaks out at Barney's Beanery

Sherry Barnett

A big, metallic CLANG. Then someone shouts, “Cockroach!!”

Exactly what you want to hear when you’re out at a restaurant, right? And then the guy shouting, who seemed to be a waiter or something, went on about spotting the little critter while he was relieving himself, though he used more graphic language. Lovely.

Well, it did get everyone’s attention a little after 9 p.m. at Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood.  Which was the intent.

This guy was no waiter, but rather an actor named David Reynolds. And he was reciting/performing “Cockroach” by the late L.A. grit ‘n’ grime writer Charles Bukowski. It was the opening gambit of a little pop-up performance of Bukowski's work at the venerable eatery, where he is counted among the many film, music and literary stars who were regular visitors. The presentation was perpetrated by the guerrilla theatre ensemble Unbound Productions as part of “It All Started Here -- West Hollywood Celebrates Pacific Standard Time,” the city’s series of events tied to the PST spotlights on L.A.’s art explosion in the decades following World War II.

Six actors and with four musicians covered six Bukowski poems, evoking the cool-jazz Beat (or beat-down, but battling) spirit of Bukowski, arguably the key chronicler of L.A.’s booze-soaked underbelly right up to his death from leukemia in 1994, age 73. Odds are that among the dozens of patrons enjoying burgers and chili Thursday you could have counted those familiar with Bukowski without taking off your shoes. But a good number of them locked into the proceedings, as the epic about the cockroach was followed by odes to anonymous flirtations and sex, beer and, in all these explicitly or otherwise, what it means to be a notoriously seedy, but driven writer. Warm applause mixed with benign neglect. But nothing was thrown.

A video put together by the performance group captures some highlights. (Caution: It’s probably NSFW. But it’s Bukowski, so what would you expect?)

One patron -- this writer, for that matter -- kept flashing back to another night, though. It was 1975 or ’76, when Bay Area Beat icon Lawrence Ferlinghetti gave a reading at Occidental College. It was in a medium-sized lab classroom, generally used for science and some film classes, with only a few dozen students turning out. A small, boisterous retinue of Ferlinghetti friends and acolytes took up the front row, we settling in right behind them. 

I found myself directly behind the ringleader, a particularly oafish man (they were all men), who heckled the evening’s star relentlessly, all the while belching, exhibiting uninhibited flatulence and working his way through a six-pack of beer he’d snuck in. Ferlinghetti was not only amused, but inspired, frequently addressing this fine specimen, at times even working his name into lines of his poems, including the sublime “Baseball Canto.”


Had no idea who (or what) a Bukowski was at the time. Only later did I learn that I was being gassed by a legend. What an honor.

Given that, have to figure that if Bukowski had been at Barney’s Beanery on Thursday, something would have been thrown.


Barney’s Beanery will host another PST “It All Started Here” event on April 10 at 7 p.m., this one part of Perpetual Conceptual: Echoes of Eugenia Butler, a series dedicated to groundbreaking ‘60s West Hollywood gallery owner Butler. This one, presented by Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND) and Butler’s granddaughter, Corazon Del Sol, with support of the City of West Hollywood, will reinterpret  Ed Klienholz’s Watercolors, a.k.a. The Barter Show, in which works by the artist were exchanged for goods or services rather than cash. This time a variety of contemporary artists will put their works up for barter.