(Swans - September 24, 2012) On October 13, 2012, Lenny Bruce, had he not accidentally overdosed on narcotics (or committed suicide -- the jury is still out on that one), would be 87 years old. It is, of course, a thoroughly incredible notion -- like an octogenarian Mozart, a superannuated Janis Joplin, or James Dean signing up for a senior citizen pension. Poètes maudits, doomed rock stars, and self-destructive superstars are supposed to die young. Their myth demands it, and we wouldn't have it any other way.
Bruce, at 41, perched on a toilet bowl with a spike in his right arm and his last typed words "conspiracy to interfere with the 4th amendment const..." in the barrel of his still humming electric typewriter, died characteristically. He was always associated with toilet humor and throughout the last decade of his life exhausted himself trying to demonstrate that the United States Constitution protected the free speech for which one court after another mercilessly prosecuted him. (The Fourth Amendment, incidentally, protects citizens from "unreasonable searches and seizures" and, along with the state's First Amendment violations, was as much responsible for his downfall as the cocaine and morphine.)
I met him in 1962 when he came to England for the first time to play at Peter Cook's Soho club, The Establishment. At the press conference, he spotted me among a cluster of journalists and insisted he knew me from somewhere or other -- although I insisted I'd never seen him before and, in fact, had been resident in England for the same eight years during which he had come to prominence in clubs in New York and San Francisco. Nevertheless, I certainly knew him by reputation and was flattered to be adopted as a crony.
The opening-night performance was for me cathartic. Lenny was serving up sly, coruscating insights on subjects of which I had been only half conscious growing up on the Lower East Side of New York. He plunged me back to my adolescence -- what my adolescence would have been if it had been articulate, probing, unsuppressed, and revelatory.
The following day The People's headline read: "He makes us sick," and the Daily Sketch wrote "It stinks!" Bruce always seemed to inspire short, nauseous epithets -- and, of course, if one is billed as a "sick comic," it goes without saying that the "healthy reaction" is to express disgust at his performance. Although these kinds of reactions were predictable, neither he nor anyone else was prepared for the tenor of the upbeat reviews. George Melly in the New Statesman hailed him as "the evangelist of the new morality" and compared him to Jonathan Swift. Ken Tynan, referring to the recent success of Beyond the Fringe, said "if Fringe was a pin prick, Mr. Bruce was a blood bath!" Others followed suit and, in most quarters, the foul-mouthed, dirty-minded Lenny Bruce was vaunted as a moral crusader and front-runner of the new consciousness.
Lenny's opening was a walloping great success, playing as it did to a hand-picked, largely show-biz crowd. After that the "real people" came to the club and were, on the whole, bored or outraged; occasionally both. There were constant walk-outs -- which cut Lenny to the quick, as he couldn't bear flagrant shows of rejections. As the run progressed, reactions became more vituperative. The Establishment was an intimate club and its close confines tended to encourage audience participation. Lots of people got into Lenny's act -- hurling first insults, then pennies, glasses, and eventually bottles. This was no longer the idealized British public that Lenny had romanticized when he first stepped off the plane, nor was it the carefully selected cognoscenti that Peter Cook and Nicholas Luard, the club's owners, had gathered for its premier. This was the stiff-backed, toffee-nosed British public, drawn from the city and the suburbs -- the posh Anglicized version of American rednecks -- and they found Lenny the personification of that same free-ranging 1960s spirit that they had come to fear and loathe. Fistfights were not uncommon. Before leaving the theater in a huff that would eventually make headlines, actress Siobhan McKenna's escort, resenting slurs on the Irish, bopped Peter Cook on the nose. "These are Irish hands," wailed Ms. Mckenna, "and they are clean." "This is a British face," retorted Cook, "and it's bleeding."
Since everything was grist for Lenny's mill, he took to recording the reactions of the hostile houses and playing them back to subsequent audiences. Expecting "live entertainment" they often grew hostile at being exposed to endless reels of tape. Lenny (like Krapp, whom he came to resemble in the final days) was an obsessive recordist. On one occasion, "a nice Jewish couple" from the suburbs came backstage to compliment him on his act. Though they themselves were sympathetic, they had to point out "with all due respect" that Lenny was giving offence to certain Jewish members of the audience. Lenny was so regaled by the couple's hypocrisy that he cruelly played the conversation back to the next house, which he naïvely assumed would be as liberated as he himself -- which of course, they were not.
Lenny was fascinated by the British legalization of narcotics and the fact that addicts could simply "sign on" and receive prescribed doses. He once fantasized for me a British GPs typical prescription: "Take two aspirins, a half glass of Epson salts, fifty grams of coke, and an acid suppository." He was forcibly ejected from two London hotels; once for stopping up the toilet with used spikes and another time for conducting a nocturnal trio of blondes in an original composition, the chorus of which ran "Please fuck me Lenny" -- in three-part harmony. In one of his temporary abodes, he threatened the chambermaids that if they reported the presence of his elaborate pharmaceutical stash, he'd get them fired and genuinely seemed to believe that this threat would safeguard him and his larder. Often, in his private life, Lenny was not only naïve and simplistic but downright imbecilic. I was always amazed at the transformation that took place when he stepped on stage. Those petty, small-scale life aggravations that seemed to occupy all his energy suddenly gave way to a soaring imagination -- as if the "real world" were only a pathetic suburban airport from which Lenny's shambly little monoplane, once airborne, turned into the Concorde.
Although flattered by his more admiring critics, Lenny never allowed their eulogies to muddy the clear-cut perception he had of himself. He was a "pro" -- no more and no less. Someone who had zealously worked himself up from third-rate stand-up dates in the Catskills to the point where he could command large fees and the attention of sophisticated "rooms" in San Francisco, New York, or London. "I don't read enough books," he once told me, "so I guess I'm pretty shallow. I'm a lot into the physical. With me, first attraction is never intellectual," and he proceeded to give me chapter and verse on how, on the road, he would make a beeline for the biggest jugs and roundest bums in the chorus line and not relent until he'd "shtupped them." Even in the midst of a fatal car crash, he once quipped in one of his routines, with only one male and one female survivor, horniness still rears its ugly head. Like Boccaccio or Rabelais, Bruce was always reminding us of our animality and, like Sade, urging us to celebrate it. Even blue films, he often pointed out, were gloried in bible and gore. "Nobody ever dies in blue movies," he said -- although only a few years down the line, the snuff films would make us all question that one.
A few days before he left England (never to return in fact, because once his narcotic riots had become known, the Home Office barred his reentry), I asked him what lay ahead. "The same" he said, "ballbusting and brickbats." He didn't say it sadly but with a wily, almost eager smile on his face -- as if for him, battle was the quotidian and he could no sooner avoid it than expect to be awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Services to Family Values. In fact, he had been consulting regularly with Stanley Kubrick and was eager to write a film they had been discussing -- yet another ambition that was doomed to fizzle out in the endless array of drug busts and court cases that would torment him for the remaining four years of his life.
Lenny was the closest thing we had to a Zen comic in that era when Zen was being vigorously rediscovered and regularly proselytized -- a direct descendant of those mad monks whose lunacy is depicted in the early Zen drawings. Out of an astonishing relaxation such as we find only in the finest jazz musicians, Bruce pursued his riff to the furthest borders of rationalism and then winged across. Without warning, he could thrust us into a world no longer confined by logical positivism or dulled with conventional associations. True Zen country, where new frames were added to the mind and the Third Eye not only opened but popped, rolled, swiveled, and hung out on a stalk.
It is often said that it was Lenny who opened the gates for the contemporary crop of American comics. What a dubious distinction! To have paved the way for foul-mouthed buffoons like Shecky Green, Buddy Hackett, and Joan Rivers! No, the fact is that Lenny's tradition died with him. There were no descendants at all. What was bequeathed was only the license for which Lenny paid such heavy dues, a license that is not blithely exercised by no-holds-barred club comics and vulgar Las Vegas headliners.
Despite his own insistence that he was merely a child of show business, Lenny can only be appreciated when compared to the advances of literature in his time. He was the comedic counterpart of Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso, and Southern, and to fully appreciate both his style and his content, reference has to be made to the best that was being written and published in the 1950s and '60s.
In his amorality and civil disobedience he was something akin to Joe Orton; the moral and political repercussions were merely spin-offs from what both these artists took to be their professional vocation. In each case, as they were made conscious of larger social implications, they tried to arrogate them into their work and make them part of their personalities, but in both cases it was after the fact. The Lenny who said "I'm not a comedian. And I'm not sick. The world is sick and I'm the doctor. I'm a surgeon with a scalpel for false values. I don't have an act. I just talk. I'm just Lenny Bruce," had gradually absorbed the implications of his own press clippings. Toward the end, when his unbearable routines were filled with self-conscious poetry about Adolf Eichmann and the injustices of the American judicial system, the old Lenny had been almost totally erased both by his champions and his tormentors, and he was unrecognizable. Personal hardship hadn't sunk him irretrievably into heroin; there would have been a few more luminous years, although it is inconceivable that he would have found any real refuge in society. He was too hip to its deceptions ever to play the game for long and as his soberer critics always said: "No matter how much you like Lenny, if you listen to him long enough, there's come a time when he turned you off." The image of a smug, balding, buttoned-up, and respectable Lenny Bruce being given a Friars Club roast is simply unthinkable. Lenny was perhaps the first of the comic maudits -- John Belushi was in the same tradition; so were Andy Kaufman and Sam Kinison and, if we're very, very lucky, there will be others.
Lenny, the musical, was revived in London in the summer of 1999, and recreations of Bruce tended to pop up regularly on both sides of the Atlantic. Contemporary comics always seemed to use Lenny as a measuring rod, but after the death of Kinison, there weren't too many dangerous comics around. Mainstream comedy, despite it Bruce-brokered freedom to use obscenity and profanity, became curiously tame in its subject matter. The exceptions were the new black comics who, irreverently mixing race, sex, and politics seemed to continue where Lenny left off.
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