A Tribute to Lenny Bruce

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THE COMEBACK KID

"He used to say that he was being crucified," comedian Mort Sahl recalled, "and... I'd say, ‘Hey, man, but don't forget the resurrection.'" Lenny's trials spanned the last six years of his life; his resurrection took much less time. In the spring of 1967 the movie Lenny Bruce, a filmed record of a 1965 Basin Street West gig, showed those who had never seen him "live" the highs and the lows, the electricity and the longueurs, of a Bruce performance. That summer, Lenny's face was on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. His autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, published in 1963, found a new audience, and The Essential Lenny Bruce, transcriptions of his routines edited by John Cohen, sold 250,000 copies in two years. His old albums were reissued, and at least three of his major concerts were put on vinyl. From the sonic archives came more basement tapes than a Dylanologist ever found.

Around 1971 two movies appeared (including the Fred Baker documentary Lenny Bruce Without Tears) and two New York plays (including Julian Barry'sLenny). In 1974 Bob Fosse's highly praised movie version of Lenny, with Dustin Hoffman in the title role, came out, as did a fat, contentious biography by Albert Goldman and Lawrence Schiller, Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce! My friend Gary Carey wrote an excellent book, the 1975 Lenny, Janis & Jimi, about three charismatic performers who died of drug overdoses. (Even in that sad showbiz trend, Lenny was first.) A few years later, Bob Dylan released the ballad Lenny Bruce: "He was an outlaw, that's for sure / More of an outlaw than you ever were / Lenny Bruce is gone but his spirit's livin' on and on."

A new millennium dawned, and his spirit was still not stilled. Foremost among the artifacts was The Trials of Lenny Bruce (Sourcebooks, 2002) by Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover, a comprehensive, smartly written overview of Lenny's mixture of "black music, white powder and blue comedy" legal troubles; the book comes with a 74min. CD, narrated by Nat Hentoff and featuring many of Lenny's most notorious bits. In fiction, Jonathan Goldstein's Lenny Bruce is Dead is mum about its putative subject, but as a free-form monologue it's firmly in the Bruce tradition.

There's a six-disc CD set Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware (Shout! Factory, 2005), edited by Hal Willner and Marvin Worth, that wraps all the familiar bits and much previously unheard material in a handsome 80-page book. It's a must for any advanced Bruceophile. And two years ago, Comedy Central chose the 100 all-time greatest stand-up comedians. Lenny was #3, trailing only Richard Pryor and George Carlin, two social critics who (as Carlin notes) wouldn't have had the careers they did if Lenny hadn't made unfettered comedy possible.

It's a shame he couldn't have survived his own death. Resurrection would have been a great career move for Lenny. He'd have been booked solid for decades.

WHAT DID HE DO?

Some performers are criticized as being "too hip for the room" or "playing to the band." Lenny was plenty hip, maybe excessively so; his performances were crash courses in bop argot and Yiddish. And he did love cracking up the musicians, since he thought of himself as their kinsman: an improv artist with words. But he gained a large following, even though his material, even in his early prime, was deemed too controversial for TV. (Remember, there were only three networks and some independent stations. And this was the 50s. Only Steve Allen, an early and loyal fan, booked Lenny on his shows as early as 1959 and as late as 1964.) But as a nightclub and concert performer, he was king, earning more than $100,000 a year, and attracting a sizable clique who came to hear Lenny talk about ... anything.

Other performers must have dreamed of talking onstage they way they did in their dressing rooms, living rooms, bar rooms, bedrooms. But for whatever reason — because they didn't trust their ad-libability, or because they thought they'd alienate, shock or bore their audience, or because they feared police hassles — they didn't. Lenny knew, from the inside, the rough language people talked. Raised by a mother, Sally Marr, who inhabited the dingier fringes of show business, Lenny had joined the wartime Navy at 17, did a hitch on a merchant freighter, played burlesque houses for four years (often with his then-wife, stripper-singer Honey Harlowe), worked in the lowest reaches of exploitation films (his producer also financed Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda). And when he graduated to classier venues, that salty vocabulary echoed in his head.

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