Charles Bukowski? Kinky Friedman? Van Dyke Parks? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following grimly comical paean to romanticized self-destruction is often attributed to the poet, novelist, and imbiber Charles Bukowski:
Find what you love and let it kill you.
I have been unable to locate a poem or story written by Bukowski containing this line. Another candidate for authorship is the musician and mystery writer Kinky Friedman. Who do you think crafted this eccentric advice?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the “Houston Chronicle” newspaper of Houston, Texas in 1986. The humorist, singer, and songwriter Kinky Friedman was profiled by the paper because he had branched out into a new field. Friedman had recently authored his first mystery novel, and while discussing his colorful career he employed the adage. Interestingly, the expression contained the word “like” instead of “love”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Friedman is a little proud of himself that he got past the self-destruct phase of booze and drugs without going any of the usual mystical routes.
“I did it on my own, without AA or Jesus; but, then, I think we all have to find the Jesus of our choosing. I’ve always said: Find what you like, and let it kill you.”
The saying with the word “love” has been credited to Charles Bukowski in recent years, but QI has located no substantive evidence to support this ascription.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1991 a collection of interviews titled “Songwriters On Songwriting” was published, and one of the interviewees was the composer Van Dyke Parks who was a friend of Kinky Friedman. Parks reported that Friedman used a version of the jocular injunction with the word “like”: 2
Interviewer: So songwriting for you is a daily activity?
Van Dyke Parks: There are months that go by that I don’t write songs. I go out and take care of the garden; I take care of the realities. I get the house reroofed and painted and stuff. Pick the kid up from school—both kids, if I’m lucky. And in the meantime I stay plastered to the news.
Interviewer: So to connect with those realities beyond everyday life you stay aware of this reality.
Van Dyke Parks: Yes. I find something that moves me. Kinky Friedman said, “Find what you like and let it kill you.” [Laughs]
In 1993 “The Fine Art of Murder: The Mystery Reader’s Indispensable Companion” was published, and the book included a section titled “Humorous Crime or, Dead Funny”. The section compared and contrasted a variety of different authors. When Friedman was mentioned the saying was credited to him: 3
But it is probably America that takes the comedy honors at the moment, if only for the outrageous torturing of the funny bone perpetrated by Kinky (“Find something you like and let it kill you”) Friedman and the gloriously over-the-top Carl Hiaasen.
In April 1998 Van Dyke Parks discussed songwriting with another musician in the pages of “CMJ New Music Monthly”. Parks presented the maxim ascribed to Friedman again, but this time he made a significant modification by using the word “love” instead of “like”. The ellipsis in this excerpt appeared in the original text: 4
I don’t think anybody really knows what they’re doing… You know, it’s like Kinky Freidman once told me: You’ve got to find what you love and let it kill you. And I don’t think any of us should ever forget that. I think you always have to be true to your school.
In 1998 Kinky Friedman released “Blast from the Past” which was part of his long-running series of detective novels. Within the book the adage was credited to a fictional character constructed by Friedman named “Slim”. This instance used the word “like”: 5
It is a fact of life, and sometimes death, that heroin and cocaine send people to different planets, neither of which, of course, ever happens to be earth. That’s the point of it all, I guess. Like Slim, my old friend back in Texas, always says: “You gotta find what you like and let it kill you.”
In 2008 a collection titled “What Would Kinky Do?: How to Unscrew a Screwed-Up World” by Kinky Friedman was published with a chapter praising the gratification obtained from smoking cigars. A variant of the maxim was presented: 6
Now I’m sure there are those who will be casting asparagus upon the Kinkster, but I promise you my words are not hazardous to anybody’s health. I’m just saying that God’s not going to honk your horn until He’s good and ready. So you might as well find what you like and let it kill you.
In 2008 the rock band “Johnny Berlin” from Belgium released an album titled “Find What You Love And Let It Kill You” on the record label Kinky Star according to the Netherlands Wikipedia. 7
By April 2012 the saying was being credited to Charles Bukowski. For example, the expression was included in a tweet dated April 21, 2012: 8
“Find what you love and let it kill you.” – Charles Bukowski (via runningmermaids) http://tmblr.co/ZtfK4yK14MN1
9:51 AM – 21 Apr 2012
The chain of pointers led from the tumblr of huntersviolet to the tumblr of en—fleurs to the tumblr of runningmermaids; however the statement was no longer visible on the runningmermaids tumblr.
By December 2012 the saying had been embedded in a letter that provided a more elaborate context together with a revealing self-negating signoff in the name of Charles Bukowski. The letter text appeared on the GoodReads website: 9
Find what you love and let it kill you.
Let it drain you of your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness.
Let it kill you and let it devour your remains.
For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.
~ Falsely yours
― Charles Bukowski
In July 2013 a journalist at the “Houston Press” investigated the quotation in an article titled: ‘Did Charles Bukowski Really Say, “Find What You Love and Let it Kill You?”‘. The article had been motivated by an inquiry from the singer Ramon Medina of the “Linus Pauling Quartet” who had used an instance of the saying as the title of a musical recording with the permission of Kinky Friedman. The “Houston Press” reprinted the extended letter version of the saying, and the journalist concluded that the connection to Bukowski was probably spurious: 10 11
… we’re going to have to conclude that the misattributed quote actually belongs to our own Kinky Friedman, and not poet Charles Bukowski.
In conclusion, QI also believes that Kinky Friedman should be credited with the adage using the word “like” which was in circulation by 1986. The version with the word “love” may have been constructed inadvertently by Van Dyke Parks in 1998 based on his faulty recollection of the phrase used by Kinky. Alternatively, it is possible Kinky used both versions.
A variety of groups and individuals have used the maxim in later years. Charles Bukowski died in 1994, and based on current evidence the linkage of the phrase to him occurred many years after his death. Currently, the linkage has no substantive support.
Image Notes: Kinky Friedman at the 2013 Texas Book Festival in Austin via Wikimedia Commons. File is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license with attribution: Larry D. Moore. Image has been cropped. Leap photographed by H. H. Bennett. Public domain photograph taken and published in 1886. Image obtained from Wikimedia Commons which acknowledged the Wisconsin Historical Society. Image has been cropped.
(Great thanks to Callie Craighead and Ramon Medina whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
Update History: On June 2, 2014 the December 2012 GoodReads citation was added and the 2013 citation for the blog of “The Linus Pauling Quartet” was added.
- 1986 September 18, Houston Chronicle, Section: Houston, “‘Just another side of me’ – Friedman swaps music for mystery” by Michael Spies (Houston Chronicle Staff), Quote Page 1, Houston, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1991 copyright, Songwriters On Songwriting, by Paul Zollo, The Revelations of a Rebel: Van Dyke Parks, (Interview with song writer Van Dyke Parks), Start Page 92, Quote Page 94, Column 2, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1993, The Fine Art of Murder: The Mystery Reader’s Indispensable Companion, Edited by Edward Gorman et al, “Humorous Crime or, Dead Funny” by Mike Ripley, Start Page 188, Quote Page 190, Column 1, Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1998 April, CMJ New Music Monthly, Number 56, Wag the Dog: Gastr Del Sol’s David Grubbs Discusses the Art of Making Music with Pop Savant Van Dyke Parks, Start Page 22, Quote Page 23, Column 1, Published by CMJ Network, Inc. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1998, Blast from the Past by Kinky Friedman, Series: Kinky Friedman Detective Novels, Chapter 24, Quote Page 136 Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2008, What Would Kinky Do?: How to Unscrew a Screwed-Up World by Kinky Friedman, Section: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Quote Page Unnumbered, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- Website: Wikipedia (Netherlands), Article title: Johnny Berlin, Article title: Find What You Love and Let It Kill You, Website description: Encyclopedia constructed and edited by volunteers, (Accessed nl.wikipedia.org on May 29, 2014) link link ↩
- Tweet, From: huntersviolet @JordanneRebekah, Time: 9:51 AM, Date: April 21, 2012, Text: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” – Charles Bukowski (via runningmermaids). (Accessed on twitter.com on May 29, 2014) ↩
- Website: GoodReads, Article title: Charles Bukowski: Quotable Quote, Date of first comment on quotation: December 6, 2012, Website description: GoodReads is a large community site owned by Amazon for readers and book recommendations. (Accessed goodreads.com on June 2, 2014) link ↩
- 2013 July 16, Houston Press Blogs, “Did Charles Bukowski Really Say, ‘Find What You Love and Let it Kill You?’”, Author: “Jef With One F”, Houston, Texas. (Accessed May 29, 2014) link ↩
- Website: The Linus Pauling Quartet, Article title: We break out the BME red phone to get to the bottom of the Bukowski meme, Date of post on website: July 16, 2013, Handle of author/poster on website: LP4, Website description: Information about the musical group The Linus Pauling Quartet. (Accessed worshipguitars.org on June 2, 2014) link ↩