Connect with us
July 2024
Vol. 23, No. 10

Other Expressions

LENNY BRUCE: Word Blower Supremo (and the brother that you never had)

by Jon KanisDecember 2017

Lenny Bruce, circa 1960.

Bruce in performance.

Lenny and Kitty.

Cover art for The Berkeley Concert.

Greetings, my fellow Americans. ‘Tis the season to practice gratitude and to remember that every age is the same; only love makes any of them bearable.

I am grateful for so many things in this life–choosing to meditate and focus upon that which is truly important, cognizant of the fact that consciousness is the author of material reality. With that in mind, most people understand that knowledge is power. But you can’t explain stupid to a double-digit IQ, now can you?

Everyone on this planet, regardless of their station, needs a mentor (or mentors) to shepherd him or her through the pitfalls and mazes of life’s funhouse hall of mirrors. A mentor is someone who expands your perceptual parameters and teaches by example. They are certainly not in the business of reinforcing your existing prejudices. And it’s preferable if your mentors happen to be living in the same slice of space and time in order to facilitate a direct dialog. However, there are other ways of transmitting information that doesn’t necessarily make that a prerequisite. Books, films, fine art, audio recordings–the information within these media transcend the epoch in which they are created and can, oftentimes, border on the mystical. We are still exploring and dissecting the genius understanding of human psychology that William Shakespeare laid down over four hundred years ago. And yet we don’t have to live in the 17th century to appreciate the archetypal value of what Shakespeare’s finest work represents–it’s timeless. To understand the vernacular and historical context of Shakespeare’s culture imparts a greater understanding of what is being said. Profundity abounds in the world, but without the proper context, it often falls on deaf ears. Or, to put it another way: great artists are directly proportionate to great audiences. The caustic wit of Mark Twain does not mean one whit if there isn’t someone in the audience capable of appreciating his genius. And to really appreciate a genius one must fully grok where the other person is coming from.

For those of you who are fans of jazz and its distinctive argot, you sincerely owe it to yourself to study its immense and diverse history as one of the few true American art forms (along with comic books and rock ‘n’ roll), beyond the whitewashed telescope of a Ken Burns-style documentary. With the overall dumbing down and social engineering of the general population, it is most important–right now more than ever–to educate yourself and to explore the work, ideas, and psyche of Leonard Alfred Schneider, aka Lenny Bruce. I see Lenny Bruce as a mentor, and much like the finest jazz musicians of the post-World War II bebop era (namely Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk), Bruce used words and his voice in a manner similar to how Parker used the saxophone: to spray the audience with a torrent of spiritual insight into the human condition that runs so deep that it could take a lifetime of exploration to understand and assimilate everything that the cat was putting down for the rest of humanity to pick up on. It fills my soul with gratitude to live in a world where Parker and Bruce are mirrors/mentors. And much like Shakespeare, they both defy comprehension if you merely possess a superficial understanding of who they are and what they represent.

Lenny Bruce is the ultimate in pure-hearted subversiveness, a beat generation agent provocateur–which is a beautiful thing to behold when conventional thought remains so repressed, constricted, and inane. Half a century after his death his ideas remain dangerous to the status quo, because if you allow Lenny Bruce to affect your thinking he will get you to contemplate the fabric of your own existence and the insane contradictions that lie within our absurd social collective. All the so-called “hipsters” who frequent the bars of 30th Street here in San Diego should study Lenny Bruce on principle, because then they would really know what it is to be hip, rather than adopting the role of a poseur. Growing a beard, shaving your head, piercing your extremities, and getting a tattoo may be a stylistic millennial rite of passage, but it certainly doesn’t make you “cool” or add up to anything remotely substantive. What is “cool” is the ability to see through the game. And the game of life is all about achieving a quality of consciousness that allows for a transcendent level of perception, which Lenny Bruce had in spades.

In 1973, Tower of Power asked the musical question: “What is Hip?” To be hip, of course, is to be “in the know”–where truth can be understandably relative and universal, and knowing how to act and be in the world comes from a set of timeless principles, not some fashionable pose. There is a pervasive confusion between style and content in our culture. Being hip is the antithesis of being prudish or “square” (you know, L7).

Again, it all boils down to what you value in this world. In a bit from 1959 titled “The Tribunal,” Bruce is emphatic on this point: “Education is the answer to everything; world leadership hinges on education. Zsa Zsa Gabor will get $50,000 a week in Las Vegas and a schoolteacher’s top salary will be $6,000 a year. This is really sick to me. That’s the kind of sick material that I wish Time would have written about. I am not that much of a moralist; if I were then I would be donating my salary to schoolteachers, I admit that. If a man came to me and said we’re going to levy a tax and raise schoolteacher’s salaries to $750 a week, I would approve of it and pay the tax like that. [snaps fingers] Because I realize it’s an insurance factor if schoolteachers get that kind of money, then the school system will change immediately.” This is a theme that Bruce explores throughout his short and explosive career as a social analyst and satirist–that society is neurotic and we perpetuate perverted values as a collective, primarily due to ignorance. It’s a demonstrative understanding that if propaganda is confused for education, we end up with a world of perplexed sleepwalkers–a literal manifestation of a Zombie apocalypse. And it’s symptomatic of what we witness every holiday season by consumers on Black Friday.
Lenny Bruce was born October 13, 1925, in Mineola, New York. His parents divorced when he was five years old, and he saw his father, Mickey Schneider, infrequently as a child. His mother, Sally Marr, was a semi-professional stage performer and a huge influence throughout her son’s life, including his decision to enter show business. At the age of 16, Bruce joined the U.S. Navy and fought in the European theatre of Palermo and Anzio, Italy, and Northern Africa during World War II. After a short stint of living post-war with his father in California, Bruce settled in New York City with the aspiration of becoming a professional comedian. It took him over a decade of woodshedding, and paying professional dues as a burlesque club MC and comedy writer before he managed to distinguish himself from the scores of other Borscht Belt comics that flooded the entertainment biz. In 1951, Bruce met his future wife Honey Harlow, a striptease artist from Baltimore, Maryland. Together, they produced a daughter, Kitty, in 1955. Bruce was also involved with jazz singer Annie Ross of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. It is also well-documented that he had a long history of illicit and prescribed drug use.

A key aspect to Bruce’s evolution as a performance artist came through comedian and mentor Joe Ancis, whose stream-of-consciousness fantasies and jazz hipster style of spritzing provided the missing ingredients to Bruce’s craft. By the end of the 1950s, Bruce was renowned for his freewheeling, improvisational form of comedy, integrating satire, politics, religion, sex, and vulgarity into an intoxicating and potent brew. But for those who held the institutions of the Catholic Church and the military-industrial complex high upon a pedestal, Bruce’s systematic slaughter of those sacred cows (and many others) resulted in a degree of reactionary persecution from the powers that were–resulting in being arrested over a dozen times for “obscenity,” i.e., using “dirty words” on a public stage. The legalistic push-back against Bruce from the establishment arguably hastened his departure from the planet at the age of 40, when he died in Los Angeles, California, somewhere on the “cusp of accident and suicide” from acute morphine poisoning on August 3, 1966. In the aftermath of his death, many writers and filmmakers have tried their utmost to turn Bruce into a martyr. But that’s missing the point of what he stood for, which was honesty, integrity, and justice. He was a revolutionary in smashing society’s puritanical taboos, and it is certainly true that he paved the way for future counterculture-era comedians to speak their minds without political interference. His various trials regarding “obscenity” are rightfully seen as a landmark for freedom of speech in the United States.

But that’s just a thumbnail of a biography, and Bruce’s life and times were far more complex, colorful, tragic, and hysterical than any synopsis can offer. If you really care to know who Lenny Bruce is, check out the full archive of his recordings and hear it directly from the artist’s mouth: notably, Let the Buyer Beware, a six-CD box set of documentation that lays out the full arc of Bruce’s genius as a social critic par excellence. No one, without perhaps the exception of the late, great Bill Hicks, can come remotely close to his level of insight into the contradictions of human existence and express it in such a way as to have you laughing, crying, and shaking your head in wonder simultaneously. Produced by the incisive Hal Willner in 2004, Let the Buyer Beware remains the last word on Bruce’s career, providing a superb synthesis of released and previously unreleased material. In his Producer’s Note, Wilner reflects on how “it’s kind of scary to think that he died [51] years ago. If one believes, as Lenny did, that his trouble was based on ‘picking the wrong god,’ I wondered how someone who grew up watching South Park, where Jesus sings and dances with Saddam Hussein, would possibly relate to Lenny’s classic ‘Christ and Moses’ bit–would they have any feeling for the material or be able to comprehend how outrageous and controversial it once was? In addition, I was worried that Lenny’s conversational style, sophistication, and use of obscure reference points would be totally irrelevant to anyone who was not already a fan.” To help alleviate some of these concerns, Willner provides a glossary of Yiddish words and expressions, and a list of cultural figures that may prove unfamiliar to anyone born after 1966. And whether you have any Lenny Bruce records in your household, you most probably have his likeness somewhere in your collection, via the cover art of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: you can see him in the top row just to the right of Mae West, Aleister Crowley, and Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri. That’s one form of endorsement from the Fab Four, you might say.

Do you have to be Jewish, or from the East Coast, or be a product of the ’50s and ’60s to appreciate Lenny Bruce’s point of view? I don’t believe you do. But anyone who is overly hooked into the cultural oppression of being “politically correct” is most likely to find Bruce an affront to their sensibilities, which is truly absurd in 2017. Is the family of Man a members-only country club or is it all-inclusive? Like many other subsets of humanity, Jews throughout the ages have frequently thought of themselves as being God’s “chosen people.” But Lenny Bruce was having none of that, and he found numerous ways to deflate the arrogant pomp of that stance by pointing out our universal similarities, without emphasizing the need to be different–even as he expressed himself through Yiddish and hipster parlance. But that’s Bruce’s style, and every Jew and Gentile alike would benefit from reading Leo Rosten’s classic The Joys of Yiddish. Yiddish is a colorful form of expression that transcends religious categorization, just like Bruce’s bit on his perception of what constitutes “Jewish and Goyish.”

Bruce: “Let me explain Jewish and goyish to you. Goy: one who is not of the Jewish faith. Second accepted definition: uncivilized. But I have a different goyish–let me show you how it works: Eddie Cantor is goyish. Gene Ammonds is Jewish. Ray Charles is very Jewish. Al Jolson is goyish. The army is goyish, the navy is goyish, the marine corps is goyish, the air force is Jewish. Camel cigarettes: very goyish. Salem is Jewish, Kent is goyish, Viceroys and Marlboros are Jewish. Kool-Aid: goyish. Instant potatoes: scary goyish.

“There was a thing in Life magazine, a picture of a guy in the mountains with a rope around him, in an ad for Camel cigarettes. His name is Bob Byhre–his name is so goyish you can’t even say it! ‘Bob Byhre goes up to the Alpines to save people.’ For nothing! He risks his life to save people for nothing! What Jew would do that? Bob Byhre does it. Now that is pure selflessness: he’s better than the Lone Ranger.”
I can’t get worked up about politics. I grew up in New York, and I was hip as a kid that I was corrupt and that the mayor was corrupt. I have no illusions.

Let the Buyer Beware is a brilliant cross-section of Bruce’s work, including such seminal bits as “The Palladium” and “Religions, Inc.” In addition, two must-hear Bruce performances are Live at the Curran Theater and The Carnegie Hall Concert. Delivered at midnight on February 4, 1961, on the night of a fierce blizzard that brought New York City to its knees, The Carnegie Hall Concert is a supreme testimony to Bruce’s genius and mandatory listening for the uninitiated.

But my personal favorite Lenny Bruce recording remains The Berkeley Concert from December 12, 1965. As one of the few unedited documents from his career, it stands as a monument to his intellect and his unparalleled ability to ad lib, in a clear and lucid expression of his devotion to the tenets of free speech and the principles of the United States Constitution. Hearing Bruce explain how “Catholicism is like the Howard Johnson’s franchise,” and “How the Law Got Started (Eat, Sleep, and Crap)” are peerless observations about society and the psychological motivations of why we organize ourselves the way we do.
Bruce: “It’s very tough. It’s very tough to stop the information. That’s where it’s at. Because the word itself is of no consequence. What the constitution forbids is any bar to the communication system. It doesn’t want anybody to abridge the right to say it one time, and one time to hear it.

“Because the information makes the country strong. Dig: a knowledge of syphilis is not an instruction to get it. Because if you don’t have the knowledge of it, and you just know about the ‘good,’ and they just let the ‘good’ come seeping through, you wind up like Hitler. ‘Cause he really got screwed around like that. He kept saying: ‘Am I doing all right?’ [First Aide] ‘You’re doing great, they love you.’ ‘Don’t bullshit me, Marty. Some day they don’t like me.’ [First Aide] ‘They love you.’ [Second Aide] ‘Don’t listen to those liars.’ [Hitler] ‘Kill him! Who said that?’”
Exploring the right to speak freely is a heavy burden of dues to pay, especially if you rock society’s boat past the tipping point. But that is the beauty of Bruce’s POV: he wants to dialog with you and explore how we can evolve as a society and as a race. Which is certainly a much different stance from an (fictional) anarchist such as Putney Swope who states that “rocking the boat is a drag–I want to sink the goddamn boat!”

Regarding the First Amendment of the United States Constitution–those who would attempt to stifle dissent or free speech, or who would attempt to legislate the realm of thought are the worst kinds of oppressors, and the very definition of fascists. Who are the Brain Police, anyway? The uproar over James Joyce’s Ulysses, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and the obscenity circuses of the 20th century are transparently lame attempts to enforce a puritanical double standard upon the populace. An uneducated public results in our current oligarchy that has undermined the basic principles of a free and united republic. Who would wish to go to war except a psychopath? And who would want to kill another person in a foreign land that had done nothing to attack them personally?
For a more concise reading of Bruce’s ideas, you are referred to The Essential Lenny Bruce, an excellent compendium of transcripts edited by John Cohen and published in 1967. If you can locate a copy, it serves as an insightful primer. There is also, of course, Bruce’s autobiography that was first serialized in the pages of Playboy (1963—66) titled How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. It, too, is highly amusing and definitely recommended to anyone wanting to dig deeper.

But there’s nothing quite like taking a literary ride with Albert Goldman, biographer of the stars, who made a reputation during his lifetime as a sensationalist pot-stirrer, with his biographies Elvis and The Many Lives of John Lennon, which focused on the more unsavory aspects of both men’s careers. After several years as an essayist, appearing in the pages of the New York Times and serving as the pop music critic for Life magazine, Goldman’s career as a biographer began in 1974 with his unflinching tome Ladies and Gentlemen Lenny Bruce!! Bruce’s friend and editor Paul Krassner described it as “mean-spirited, but well researched.” Goldman’s version of the unvarnished truth is at times a bitter pill, but I would rather have the warts-and-all version of any story than a revisionist history that seeks to obliterate the rough spots.

However, as it is with any writer, there is no such thing as an objective viewpoint. Just the act of choosing your subject matter and deciding what to emphasize about it is a subjective exercise. For instance, take this observation from Goldman on page 89 of Ladies and Gentlemen Lenny Bruce!!: “Gentiles don’t understand about Jewish love. They can’t grasp a positive, affectionate emotion that is so crossed with negative impulses, so qualified with antagonistic feelings that it teeters at every second on a fulcrum of ambivalence. Jewish love is love, all right, but it’s love mingled with such a big slug of pity, cut with so much condescension, embittered with so much tacit disapproval, disapprobation, even disgust, that when you are the object of this love, you might as well be the object of hate. Jewish love made Kafka feel like a cockroach. What Jewish love really is, I suppose, is the final distillate of the twisted and contorted feelings of a people who have been the most hated race in history. A people who have lived so many hundreds and thousands of years amidst the hate of other peoples that they have absorbed much of that hate, assimilated it to the core of their being, where it exists wound around the powerful stem of pride, which has supported the Jews through all their misfortunes. Like a sign in the flesh, like a genetic code, this fusion of self-love and self-hate is transmitted from one generation to another. The mother gives it to the son and the son gives it back to the woman he marries and she gives it in turn to his son, or failing that, he plays mother and gives it to the son, so that eventually the whole genealogy of the family is patterned by this ambivalence, like iron particles in a magnetic field.”
Man, is that heavy or what? How do you objectively verify such a statement? You either relate to it as personal truth, or you don’t. Is it incredibly insightful into a specific culture? Does it have universal implications? Or is it just a misguided projection on behalf of its author? That’s a series of questions that should be asked every time a reader opens a book or accesses the Internet. Which is simply another way of echoing Lenny Bruce’s stance that you should always question authority. Including your own.
If you go looking for moving images of Lenny Bruce, be sure to steer clear of The Lenny Bruce Performance Film–it’s dreadful, and it’s a shame that the only full-length performance captured of Bruce on film is from the lowest ebb of his life and career, when he was taking his court transcriptions on stage and boring audiences with his legal woes. Instead, seek out the compendium Lenny Bruce Without Tears, to get a flavor of what Bruce was like visually.

Bruce’s spirit is reasonably captured in the 1974 biographical film Lenny, directed by Bob Fosse and starring Dustin Hoffman (in an Academy Award-nominated Best Actor role). Lenny is based on the Broadway stage play of the same name, written by Julian Barry, which starred the superb Cliff Gorman (who won a Tony for his portrayal). Gorman reprised the role in Fosse’s own biopic, the 1979 masterpiece All That Jazz.

In retrospect, it’s obvious how Lenny Bruce’s ideas are polarizing, because the guy refused to play the game of show business and politics by two of its unspoken tenets, which are: 1) you don’t bite the hand that feeds you; and 2) you damn sure better pay your fealty by kissing the ring of Caesar. Lenny Bruce pointed out time and again, in fact, every time he took the stage and dared to speak that not only is Caesar a schmuck, deserving of nothing but contempt, but that he is clearly wearing no clothes. As an artist, Bruce refused to cower in fear to the institutions of repression and enslavement, and insisted that you be your own man, be your own king, look at yourself as sovereign, and bow down to no one. Being hip comes with a price, though. It’s the cost of being truly re-sponse-able. To thine own Self be true. And that was Lenny Bruce’s only crime at the end of the day: daring to speak his mind from a compassionate heart, and to implore the punters in the audience not to kill the messenger–and he almost got away with it.

The most fitting epitaph of all comes from the Shot of Love LP from the Bard of Hibbing, Minnesota: Bob Dylan. “Lenny Bruce was bad. He was the brother that you never had.”

Thank you, Lenny. Much obliged.

Continue Reading