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How Charles Bukowski inspired Tom Waits to write a classic

Charles Bukowski is one writer who has a habit of dividing opinion. His visceral and uncompromising view of the world both enthralled and enraged audiences in equal measure before his death. Even now, as new generations find the poems and literature accredited to Buk, the audience is split. There’s no doubt that Bukowski is a difficult character to align with in 2021 but there’s equally no doubt that he influenced a myriad of singers, songwriters and musicians in their own pursuit of artistic gravity. None more so, perhaps, than Tom Waits.

Waits and Bukowski seem as though they’re a match made in heaven. The two artists are cut from the same cloth. The Californian creatives are keen on a few home truths, authenticity, artistry and enjoying themselves. The pair is a perfect fit; it is why listening to Waits read the work of his idol feels entirely natural, and so, when the singer picked up the reading of two poems, it landed with aplomb. Perhaps, the best vision of Waits’ love of Bukowski and how the poet informed the musician’s work is the song ‘Frank’s Wild Years’.

A song delivered with a gravelled-vocal spoken-word performance is a great place to start when tracking Charles Bukowski’s influence on the pop world. Waits’ song ‘Frank’s Wild Years’ does exactly that as Waits’ spoken-word lyrics land heavily amid a musical backdrop of serene and sensational sounds. It is, undoubtedly, one of Waits’ most beloved songs.

Like much of Waits’ best work, ‘Frank’s Wild Years’ follows a rigorous narrative. There’s a storyline that cannot be disassembled from the song, no matter how unconventional it is. Telling the tale of a guy named Frank living in California’s San Fernando Valley as he snaps and realises the normal life, hateful wife, and her disease-ridden dog isn’t what he wants anymore. Featuring on Waits’ landmark record Swordfishtrombones, the song was directly inspired by Charles Bukowski’s work.

“Charles Bukowski had a story that essentially was saying that it’s the little things that drive men mad,” revealed Waits. “It’s not the big things. It’s not World War II. It’s the broken shoelace when there is no time left that sends men completely out of their minds. So this is kind of that in spirit. A little of a [word jazz artist] Ken Nordine flavour.”

Over the course of two minutes, the song details how Frank snaps and becomes a danger to those around him. After drinking a few beers, he drives to pick up a can of petrol, with which he premeditatedly burns down his house. Luckily, in the song’s video, the sick dog makes it out alive while Waits notes that Frank put his wildest years on a nail that he drove through his spouse’s head. It’s the kind of visceral imagery that Waits relished and was, undoubtedly, inspired by Bukowski’s own viciousness.

Frank’s story stretches all the way to Waits’ tenth studio album Franks Wild Years and the play that the LP accompanied. Waits wrote the play alongside his wife Kathleen Brennan, and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre performed it. When Waits later mentioned the play, he confirmed that Frank was the same from his earlier work. “Yeah, that’s the same, Frank,” he confirmed. “Basically, it’s about an accordion player from a small town who goes out into the world to make his mark and ends up destitute and penniless … He goes to Vegas, ends up dreaming his way back home … The dog has disappeared.”

It’s easy to draw comparisons between Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski, but there’s no clearer indication of the poet’s inspiration than ‘Frank’s Wild Years’.