Everyone knows about the rock and roll lifestyles of people like Keith Richards, Keith Moon and Ozzy Osborne, but you don’t have to be in a band to live a wild life of debauchery, excess and craziness. Writers and poets were doing it long before musicians were, and to prove it we’ve compiled a list of 10 of our favourites.
“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”
Given the title of ‘poet laureate of skid row’, Bukowski was a warts-and-all, hard drinking, tough living writer. Much of his work was closely autobiographical – his alter ego Henry Chinaski the star of most of his novels. His world was one where bar fights, dead-end jobs and loose women were the norm. Born in Germany in 1920, he was still an infant when he moved to America. He didn’t publish his first novel, Post Office, until he was 49, but went on to write a total of six novels and countless poetry books. He died of leukaemia in 1994 aged 73.
“Junk is the ideal product... the ultimate merchandise. No sales talk necessary. The client will crawl through a sewer and beg to buy.”
One of the first writers to report candidly on his own homosexuality and heroin addiction, Burroughs was the grand-daddy of the beat generation of the 50s and 60s. Again, Burroughs used an autobiographical style, using the character Bill Lee in his books. He wrote Junky and Queer in the early 50s, although the latter was not published until 1985. He fled America for Mexico when faced with drug charges around this period, and went on to live in Tangier, Paris and London. He published his third novel Naked Lunch in 1959 which was to prove his masterpiece. Again, his addictions to a host of drugs inspired the book. Born in 1914 he lived to an impressive 83 before dying of a heart attack in 1997.
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“Man, being reasonable, must get drunk; the best of life is but intoxication.”
The original playboy poet, his name itself has become a byword for a romantic hero and history remembers him as being "mad, bad and dangerous to know". He travelled Europe and the Middle East, leaving a wake of scandal, debts, broken hearts and empty bottles. He also fought in the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. His most famous work is probably Don Juan – itself a reflection of its author’s life. He is considered one of the most important British poets of all time. He died just aged 36 in 1824 while suffering from a fever in Greece. The exact cause of death, however, remains a mystery.
Hunter S Thompson
“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
The gun-toting, drug-fuelled journalist treated writing no different from any other aspect of his life – he did what he wanted and what felt good. As a result, he invented a new ‘Gonzo’ style of ultra-subjective reporting that was based more on his experience of an event/person/place rather than their objective characteristics. His first book was on the Hell’s Angels and he then continued with more autobiographical books, many of them having been serialised for Rolling Stone magazine first. He wrote on everything from sports to politics for the magazine. His infamous Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas documented a journey to the Nevada city accompanied by his attorney and a suitcase brimming with drugs. He took his own life in 2005 aged 67 and his ashes were fired from a huge canon into the sky at his request.
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“I’m a drinker with a writing problem.”
In his relatively short life Brendan Behan was prolific at both drinking and writing. He was also a fierce Irish republican and was jailed in England in 1937 and again in Ireland in 1942. He documented both in his books Borstal Boy and Confessions of an Irish Rebel. He would often be seen in his native Dublin reeling from pub to pub, sometimes berating his literary counterpart and nemesis Patrick Cavanagh if he came across him. He died of diabetes, which was exasperated by his alcoholism, in 1964 aged 41.
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“The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
Before finding success as a writer, Jack London spent time as an oyster pirate, a seal trapper, a tramp and gold prospector. He developed a taste for alcohol too, and recalled much of his drinking career in his book John Barleycorn/Alcoholic Memoirs. His major success was with the novels White Fang and Call of the Wild – written about the Klondike gold rush – but also wrote autobiographically of his time as a tramp and of his time among the extreme poor in late 19th century London. He was married twice and it is generally accepted that when he died in 1916 aged 40 it was of uremia. However, people think this may have been complicated by a morphine overdose.
“People don’t want other people to get high, because if you get high you see the falsity of the fabric of the society we live in.”
A key member of the 1960s west coast counterculture in America, Ken Kesey found fame with the book One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, published in 1963. In the late 50s he had participated in CIA-run medicals tests with psychoactive drugs like LSD, DMT and psilocybin, and he developed a taste for such experimentation outside the lab. He formed the Merry Pranksters – a group of like-minded people who at one period travelled across the country in an old school bus, running ‘acid tests’ using LSD. Kesey was closely associated with The Grateful Dead and hosted huge parties at his home in California. He died in 2001 after complications arising from liver surgery. He was 66.
“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”
Free-wheeling Kerouac could be the beat generation writer who has best passed the test of time. His tales of travelling across America with just the shirt on his back have inspired countless individuals and future writers. From Benzedrine fuelled nights in dimly lit, smoky jazz bars in Chicago to the open desert, he crisscrossed the country numerous times – most popularly recounted in On the Road. He was good friends with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassidy and with them he lived a life of hard drinking and partying. He died from a haemorrhage as a result of cirrhosis in 1969 aged 47.
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“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
The hard-drinking man’s man, Hemingway’s life was like a boy’s comic. He travelled the world, getting in adventures like fighting in World War I, and reporting on the Spanish Civil War and World War II. His famously macho themes also covered bull fighting, deep sea fishing and other wilderness settings. He was warned to stop drinking towards the end of his life, but ignored the advice. However, it wasn’t the drink that got him. In fittingly gung-ho style, Hemingway committed suicide in 1961 by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. It is believed he had had a breakdown after being treated for deteriorating mental health with electroshock therapy.
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“Tough guys don’t dance. You had better believe it.”
The infamously egotistical and womanising Mailer may well have suffered from acute small man syndrome, but he also lived pretty hard during his 84 years on the planet. He was unpredictable and occasionally violent – stabbing his second wife with a penknife during a drunken argument. He also used drugs throughout his life and co-founded the Village Voice in New York in 1955. He ran for mayor in New York in 1969, polarising opinion in a way that characterised his appeal. It was not his lifetime of craziness and excess that got him, but acute renal failure in 2007.