Being an introspective, intellectual child can make you a misfit, and the life if a misfit can be a lonely journey. Being a young boy with an insatiable curiosity and natural skepticism can land you in a heap of trouble with assorted authority figures. And, especially 40 years ago, a studious kid who’d rather read a book than play stickball with the other neighborhood boys quickly earned the title of ‘faggot’.
Yes, the type of personality that, especially at a young age, starts noticing that things just don’t seem to add up are often punished for their inquisitiveness, only to become the black sheep, a pariah in the conformist human flock.
Ah, but being the misfit can also be advantageous, for the Truth is, when you live inside that dirty fishbowl called Society, you cannot see how filthy the water truly is! No, the outcast has the distinct advantage of a unique perspective, a vista which can only be observed by one exiled to the outside, looking in.
I didn’t discover Lenny Bruce until my mid-teens, circa the spring of 1985 or so, but the seeds that would be so crucial to making that important intellectual and spiritual connection to this groundbreaking gadfly were sown in me over a decade earlier. As some people in my broken, dysfunctional family discovered my apparent passion for reading (even as a pre-schooler), it was only natural that I would be given many, many books, passed on down to me from various aunts, uncles, and older cousins.
These books spanned several decades. One of the earliest collections was a 31 volume set of the Encyclopedia Americana, a handsome set of books bound in dark brown fake leather with shiny gilded lettering. The 1948 edition, it was already out of date by 25 years, with such factoids as “Texas is the largest of our 48 states”.
There were old back issues of yellowed, nicotine-tainted magazines like Time, Life, and Look, each containing a rich, detailed account of the events of the McCarthy era through Watergate. These old periodicals, with their interesting pictures and strangely anachronistic advertisements, would be instrumental in providing me with many of the important reference points necessary for my understanding of Lenny’s comedic observations, all of which happened many years before I was even born.
But perhaps the most vital seeds planted within me were the old issues of Mad magazine, and the associated abridged paperback editions. These were my Sacred Scriptures, truly. Not only did they make me laugh, but when I read Bill Gaines’ publications, I instantly understood them; more importantly, I finally discovered someone else out there who obviously understood the Reality hidden beside the so-called “Necessary Illusions”!
Of course, mom and grandpa hated Mad, just like they hated everything else that questioned authority. I think George Carlin put it best when he observed that parents never teach their kids to question authority, because it would undermine their own bullshit authority in the home! But since I was an unhappy child, they tended let me keep reading Mad, since these ridiculous Truths made me laugh. And as long as I was laughing, the Outside World would believe I was happy, and therefore, had a great family as well (another “Necessary Illusion”)!
So it was around that time I discovered the stand-up comic. I had seen several on some of the cheesy eight-o’clock weekday variety shows of my youth, but many of them either went over my head, or were unfunny and quite forgettable. But mom had at least six Bill Cosby records that I remember well. One Saturday morning, she noticed how much my sister and I loved to watch Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids on CBS. She played “To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With”; to this day, one of the funniest routines I have ever heard. I was hooked on stand-up since!
Soon after, I discovered Steve Martin, David Brenner, and Robin Williams, although I was ‘too young’ for that kind of humor. Also, they said the kind of words all the grown-ups said, but I was not allowed to say. Eventually, I discovered Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Eddie Murphy, followed by Rodney Dangerfield and Sam Kinison, thanks to the early ’80’s infancy of HBO. And it was through this newly-formed medium known as Cable TV that I saw the movie that introduced me to the legend himself!
I was just 17 when I saw Dustin Hoffman in “Lenny”, the 1974 Bob Fosse biographical film. The movie was just starting as I walked into the apartment, my mom on the couch settling in for the night. I had no idea who he was; nobody in my household had even mentioned him, as far as I could remember.
As we watched the movie, mom explained to me that she had seen him once in Atlantic City back in 1962. She had just graduated from Pennsauken High School, and it was indeed a big deal back then. She talked about how he’d ask the audience if there were any “niggers” out there or “how many kikes we got tonight?”. Suspended between her recounting of attending his live performance and listening to Hoffman’s impeccable impressions, I started to see where the modern stand-ups got their schtick!
To this day, I am still haunted by the final image of that film; the grainy black-and-white photo of Lenny’s naked corpse laid out on his bathroom floor. I knew I needed to find out more about this crazy Jewish comic, but in 1985 Knoxville, there weren’t many people among the older Hee-Haw crowd who had even heard of him, and none that had who really cared for his brand of ‘dope-head’ humor.
Several months later, I had made a new connection through a good friend of mine who could score us ‘cid and ‘shrooms. He was intimate with a couple of older folks who hung out around the University of Tennessee that were known as the Hipsters. As a long-haired metal-head looking dude, I felt kind of funny around these quite anachronistic types which reminded me of Barry McGuire and Ray Manzarek. But they were actually pretty cool; in their late-twenties, but looking like they just arrived from the early fifties.
That summer, we hung out at my boy’s house for a little electric kool-aid party. As usual, they put me in charge of the tunes, which were, of course, either vinyl LP’s or cassette tapes. Well, imagine my surprise as, while flipping through the milk crate of albums, I find a copy of “The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce”!
“Holy shit!”, I asked my pal. “Where’d ya score this?”
He replied “The Hipsters laid it on me”. It figured!
It was one of the weirdest comedy discs we’d ever heard, an esoteric mix of ’50’s avant garde jazz and comedy bits. As the party was peakin’, the small gathering was about 50% “That’s hilarious!” and 50% “Turn that shit off!”. So, in order to preserve the harmonious vibe, I removed the ambiguously-received vinyl and put on some Ummagumma; good ol’ trip-savin’ Floyd!
But I wanted more! And the pickin’s were mighty slim in my neck of the woods (and the Hipsters kinda just drifted away….away….). Not even the most esoteric of the hole-in-the-wall used record stores had any Lenny Bruce sides to speak of!
Several years later, I watched a movie called “Pump Up the Volume”, which would go on to become one of my all-time favorite films about a misfit high-schooler who, secretly ran a wildly popular pirate radio station from his bedroom every night. There’s one scene where he checks a book out of the library entitled “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People”, which I learned was the autobiography of Lenny Bruce.
Of course, I hit the library circuit the next morning, with no luck at all! I finally found a paperback copy in a second-hand book store in town. I read it in only two days, and marveled at his antics; many of which the movie never even mentioned (and imagine my surprise, almost two decades later, when I sadly discovered that Mr. Bruce, ever the showman, had filled his life story with copious amounts of fiction!).
As the years rolled on, I still got to enjoy the legacy of Mr. Bruce through all the relevant stand-up comics who brought so much Truth and laughter into my sometimes grim Reality. But it wasn’t until the Age of the Internet that I really got to experience Lenny as he performed, thanks to such websites as YouTube, DailyMotion, and assorted foreign video sites.
Wikipedia got the ball rolling for the commencement of my journey into the life and the mind of a comedic genius, introducing me to several good books about his life and career, until finding just last year what I consider the Holy Gospel of Lenny. “Ladies and Gentlemen…Lenny Bruce” by Albert Goldman, a thick paperback tome of over 800 pages, is easily the most exhaustive, thoroughly researched biography I have ever read on any person.
And believe me, it was no kissy-ass puff-piece written by a fawning sycophant fan. Goldman (and co-author Lawrence Schiller) totally went for the whole Truth about the man, and quite frankly, there were times that Lenny was a total fuckin’ bastard; wife-beating, lying, scamming old ladies, impersonating a priest, even the reprehensible act of turning snitch on his fellow dope feinds to save his own hide from a drug rap!
But I don’t hate him, though. Not one bit! No, I definitely don’t excuse his reprehensible behavior one bit, either. I knew Lenny was no saint, but I didn’t know he had that little honor. But, especially as a junkie, he was a desperate man with a lot to lose! Again, it doesn’t excuse him, but it did something to him, in my eyes, that made me love him more:
It made him human!
As an impressionable youth with no real father figure to guide me, I idolized Lenny to a degree which would have probably brought me nothing but disdain from him if he were alive and involved in my world! No, he never aspired to be a saint, nor much of a father for that matter. He reminded me of many of the rogues I ran with back in the day, guys I looked up to, guys who taught me street survival, but guys who, in the end, who had no time for a clingy little adolescent.
But what made him a hero to me (and what still makes him one today) was how he brought the seedy underbelly of the American Establishment out into the light, ripping away the phony veneer covering the hypocrisy of our culture. The Ruling Class, with their supposed disdain of profanity and prurience, was every bit as dirty, crooked, and vice-prone as any common street hood, the Church every bit as deviant as corrupt as any brothel, the governemnt every bit as on-the-take and shifty as the Mafia!
These institutions are simply dressed in the phony facade of respectability, and Lenny brought that facade crashing down around them!
And that is precisely why the Establishment did everything they could to destroy him, and eventually succeeded. As one emcee famously put it, they called him a “sick comic”, if only to scare Prude America away from his shows. When that didn’t work, they threatened to shut down and bankrupt any venue who would let him perform, again, under the hypocritical guise of “protecting the public decency”. They preyed upon his smack addiction, watching him like vultures circling a dying horse in the desert. Hounded incessantly as he was, no wonder he acted out in some of the ways he did!
Even abroad he wasn’t safe from the System, like when he and Honey were poisoned in Havana in the early ’60’s for the sin of imitating Castro from a hotel balcony. Add that to a seemingly endless string of obscenity trials that drained him financially and emotionally. But he never gave up. He fought them back right up until the very end. And we free-thinking Americans owe him a hell of a lot for that!
Yes, Lenny led the way for the fools of today which bring us the Naked Truth, those jesters whose timeless routines make us laugh and, just as importantly, makes us think! I’d say, before his passing, that it was quite fitting that Lenny passed the torch to heir apparent George Carlin (who, incidentally, was seated right next to Lenny in a paddy wagon for the heinous crime of attending one of Mr. Bruce’s ‘filthy’ shows).
Too many greats to name owe him everything for sacrificing what could have been a comfortable career basking in the successful mediocrity of ‘safe’ comedy, to lead the fight against the phony double-standards of “polite society”. He didn’t merely “open the door” for the up-and-coming social critics of comedy. He blew it off its rusting, creaky hinges with a vengeance!
Posthumously, Lenny became a cultural icon, even for musical legends like Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Frank Zappa, and REM. His influence on me as a writer, an artist, and a free-thinker is invaluable, and I dare say there’s a little Lenny in everything I create, even if I’m simply sculpting a hedgerow or stacking a pallet at the job. It seems so unfortunate, however, that his talent, intelligence, insight and, most of all, his chutzpah, was only given the widespread respect and appreciation due him after he cashed out.
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