I once saw musician and producer Joe Henry tell a story about the first time he met Bob Dylan, and in that story he wondered what it must be like for Dylan knowing that every time someone met him, it would be a story they’d tell people for the rest of their lives. Henry thought that must be one hell of a burden…carrying around the responsibility of giving everyone their “Bob Dylan Story.” I imagine Anthony Bourdain must have felt something similar. If there’s a parallel to Dylan in the world of food and travel (much the way Hunter S. Thompson–another brilliant raconteur who left us too soon–was with his gonzo journalism) it is Bourdain. His life was the tale of a tattoo’d bon vivant with a soundtrack by the Ramones, an unflinching personality that you just wanted to be near. Years ago, I wrote occasionally for Gotham magazine, and was fortunate to have had a phone conversation with Anthony Bourdain about his then-forthcoming series, The Layover. And that’s when he gave me my Anthony Bourdain story.
I was not a friend of Bourdain’s, but you’d never know that from the warm, funny, and wonderfully direct way he spoke to me. In re-listening to our taped conversation (hard after yesterday’s news of his apparent suicide), I was struck by just how natural and charming he was (owing to Bourdain’s gift as an interviewee and in spite of my clumsiness as an interviewer). Our conversation was less than 14 minutes-long, but in it we covered a surprising amount of ground (far be it from me to let an assignment prevent me from wasting the time of a personal hero). Even given his universal accolades as a writer and “talent,” he confessed that he still considered himself, “a cook who writes,” and how being on the line is like riding a bicycle, “you can always do it, the question is how fast and how long, and for me the answer is not that fast and not that long.” That’s OK, Bourdain had proven himself in possession of a rare staying power of another sort, eating and drinking to wonderful excess all over the world, sharing the best bits on camera.
While the subject never came up, I doubt Bourdain ever spent too much time talking about selvedge denim. In an interview, he once said of coffee, “It’s a beverage; it’s not a lifestyle,” and I think we can safely say he’d likely have had similar thoughts about matters of warp and weft. But we do know that Bourdain championed quality in all things. His Raw Craft series for Balvenie showed Bourdain spending time with Makers and reveling in their process of creating handmade wares like Chelsea boots, a bespoke suit, a hand-forged chef’s knife, and a one-off motorcycle.
On camera Bourdain seemed to favor no-nonsense slim-fit jeans and well-washed tees. Earlier this year, he told Men’s Journal of his love for Clarks Desert Boots:
These are the most comfortable shoes on Earth. And they’re dirt cheap if you buy them at the right place. You can kick them off in a second when you’re going through airport security, which is a big benefit in my line of work. But they’re great for anything. I buy about three or four pairs at a time. When one pair dies, I just rotate it out.
Though really, it couldn’t matter less what Bourdain thought about heritage brands, because he was one, not in the crass way “brand” is used today, but in that his body of work will stand the test of time. Anthony Bourdain’s legacy is undeniably a celebration of that which is substantial and eternal. He clearly knew that shared experiences were the best ones, and yesterday morning President Obama offered this Tweet about Bourdain:
“Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.” This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.
My conversation with Bourdain also included thoughts that today give me pause. He emphatically shared:
If I’m not having fun…if I’m not interested and I’m not working with people who are pushing themselves and interested in having fun and trying to think of cool new things to do, there’s just no point. There are totally more dignified ways to make a living than talking to a camera on television. If it’s not fun, there’s no point.
And when I asked about his writing…peppering his non-fiction output with works of fiction, he said this:
I do fiction every now and again as a sort of relief from writing about myself. Television is all me, me, me, so to escape into a world of fiction and fantasy is sort of therapeutic for me. I get to work through issues in fiction in ways that I can’t in non-fiction. So it’s a lot freer. You know, people can kill each other in fiction whereas in my life, for better or worse, I can’t solve my problems that way.
Do a few off-handed remarks to a magazine hack back in 2011 provide any insight into the tragic news of Anthony Bourdain’s passing? To quote Ricky Roma from Glengarry Glenn Ross (a play I can’t imagine Bourdain not loving as does every writer), “It may mean something to you, it may not. I don’t know. I don’t know anymore.”
I do know that I’m tired of people dying, in schools and on street corners…in New York apartments (the loss this week of designer Kate Spade) and even fancy French hotels like my friend of thirteen minutes and forty-seven seconds, Anthony Bourdain. I do know tired of the subject of “mental health” being fodder for America’s cable news industry instead of being treated as America’s fastest-growing epidemic. I do know that I will miss Anthony Bourdain because he greatly enhanced my experience of being alive. To write balls-out and give equal weight to the horrors of heroin addition and working the brunch shift, Anthony Bourdain’s work will always make me smile, even at a time when I’m feeling, as my friend Lee aptly put it, “gutted.” There’ll never be another one like him, and to me that’s about the best thing you can say about someone after they’re gone. Thankfully, a canon like Bourdain’s ensures a kind of immortality…yes, at least there’s that. I’ll let one of Bourdain’s favorite’s writer’s have the last, best word.
“There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available to talk 24 hours a day via their website and at 1-800-273-8255.