An Interview with Howard Sounes, author/biographer of Charles Bukowski, Paul McCartney & Bob Dylan

"Bukowski writes in a simple style, with sincerity and humour. It is a good combination."

Howard Sounes: The dirty oldman, uncle Bobby & the Sir

Howard Sounes is a British writer of bestselling biographies, histories and true crime books, published in the UK, USA and in translation in more than twenty languages. Before he became an author, he worked as a newspaper journalist.

In 1994, while working for the London Sunday Mirror, Sounes broke major stories in the case of Fred and Rosemary West. Having covered the West case extensively, Sounes wrote Fred & Rose, which was a bestseller in 1995, and has since become a true crime classic. His second book was a biography of the American writer Charles Bukowski.

Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life is considered the classic life of the writer. Sounes also edited an illustrated companion book, Bukowski in Pictures. Howard Sounes is a leading expert on the life and work of Charles Bukowski.

He is also an expert on Bob Dylan, the subject of his fourth book. When Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan was first published in 2001, it made international news partly because it contained the revelation of a secret Dylan marriage.

The biography was a UK bestseller, a finalist for the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award in the USA, and named Music Book of the Year by Uncut magazine. The author’s next book was an investigative history of professional golf. Following The Wicked Game, Sounes wrote a cultural history of the 1970s – a decade the author believed to have been undervalued. In Seventies: The Sights, Sounds and Ideas of a Brilliant Decade, Sounes told the story of the best art, film, music, literature and architecture of the 1970s and the creative people behind the work.

Ten years after writing Fred & Rose, Howard Sounes returned to true crime, writing a meticulously detailed account of a classic criminal caper. Heist: The True Story of the World’s Biggest Cash Robbery. Sounes next returned to popular music, writing Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney.


Interview by Michael Limnios


When was your first desire to become involved in Charles Bukowski literary?

After the publication of my first book, Fred & Rose, in 1995, I wanted to write another book. I had read and enjoyed Bukowksi’s work, and saw that he played with his own life story. I thought it would be interesting to investigate his real life, to see how it compared with the fictional life of Henry Chinaski. That is what I tried to do with my book, Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life.


Why did you think that Charles Bukowski continued to generate such a devoted following?

Bukowski writes in a simple style, with sincerity and humour. It is a good combination.


How do you describe Charles Bukowski’s philosophy of life?

He was a sensitive man, who was somewhat traumatized by his youth, and lived his life as a grouchy outsider, looking askance at mainstream society. He also kicked against the convention that you have to give up your time to a job in order to live. He resented the 9-5 working life.


Which is the most interesting period in Charles Bukowski’s life and why?

The period when he finally quits his post office job to become a full-time writer, in middle age, is interesting, because he was taking a risk at a time when most people don’t. He was scared, and yet the risk worked out.


Which memory from Charles Bukowskis boozes makes you smile?

The drinking is funny, but also sad.


If Bukowski were between us nowadays, what do you think he would tell us?

He would continue with the same themes. He was remarkably consistent. The books are in fact rather repetitive. But if you empathize with him, they are enjoyable.


What was Hank’s DREAM…and what was his nightmare?

I think he aspired to freedom from everyday work, which he achieved, and he was scared of poverty.


If Hank “was going” back to the past what things he would do better and what things would a void to do again?

He might have done without alcohol. He found at the end of his life that he could write without it.


How did the idea for the “Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan” come about? What does “Bob Dylan” mean to you?

I don’t like to call myself a fan, as Dylan reminds us fan is short for fanatic. But I admire Dylan. I like his work, his style, the whole man. I started listening when I was quite young, and the work made an indelible impression.


How important was the role of Bob Dylan played in the case of modern blues folk rock music and “music poetry”?

To me he is the greatest of the singing poets. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed are good. Amy Winehouse was good. But Dylan seems to be in another class.


What are some of the most memorable interviews (over 250 people who knew Bob Dylan) you've had?

There were many interesting characters, like the members of the Band. I spent time with Rick Danko shortly before he died. It was also interesting to meet Dylan’s children, who gave one a different perspective.


Some music styles can be fads but Bob Dylan’s music and songs is always with us.  Why do think that is?

The songs are strong, the words original and true.


What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from the 70s? What characterize 70s way of life and sound?

Like most people I have a sentimental attachment to the films, music, books and art I grew up with. There seemed to be an authenticity and a naiveté that is less common now.


What mistakes of the 70s would you want to correct? Did 70s culture played an important role to the youth today?

There is a lot of very bad 70s culture that I close my eyes to in my book, Seventies. I only think of the good stuff. There was plenty of bad 60s culture, too, of course.


What first attracted you to Beatles music & how has Beatles songs changed your life?

I liked the albums Abbey Road and the White Album from when I was a teenager. I am not a Beatles fanatic. I am less interested in the earlier albums. I liked the later, arty stuff. I can’t say any of it changed my life, though I did spend two years writing about Paul McCartney in my book, Fab.


Why did you think that the Beatles and Paul McCartney’s songs continues to generate such a devoted following?

They are good songs, good tunes, interesting words, and people have a nostalgic attachment to what they heard in their youth.


Are there any relation between Bukowski, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney?

Bukowski and Dylan are both bohemian poets, in a long tradition. McCartney is much more mainstream, more showbiz. But they are all interesting people.


Which of historical personalities would you like to meet?

Picasso, Churchill.


Howard Sounes - Official website


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