Lenny Bruce

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Gene Marine

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1466

[Why do] they love him, this over-40 veteran of the strip circuit and the sleazy clubs, who had become more or less famous without ever making it big?

What, in short, had—has—Lenny Bruce to do with [the] counter culture?… Lenny never, rigorously never, said "look away" or "look higher" or "deeper." Lenny always said "look squarely at." [J.R.R.] Tolkien, sure. [Hermann] Hesse, sure. [Robert] Heinlein, fascist implications and all, sure; you remember about that, too. But Lenny.

Was it because Lenny had had a drug bust? Identification? Hell, Robert Mitchum had a drug bust. Why not Bill Graham Presents In Concert GENE KRUPA? And anyway Lenny never talked about "the psychedelic experience," or any of the rest of that mid-'60s Learyesque Huxterism that made such good songs for Hair.

Was it some prophetic quality? Ralph J. Gleason has suggested that. But he is even older than Lenny Bruce, and for all his fame as a writer about the rock culture he was never as good (forgive me, Ralph) as when he was writing about jazz and its culture. Because that was Ralph's culture, too; he didn't report it, he lived in it. And so did Lenny, that was his culture (yes, and mine too). "I don't understand Chubby Checker," Lenny says in the 1961 performance on this record; but he tells a joke about Gene Ammons.

No, not a prophet, I think….

[Lenny Bruce Live at the Curran Theater] is the absolute, complete, quintessential Lenny Bruce. It's all here and it's all you need…. If he is a legend for any reason beyond the kind of historical quirk that makes us remember, say, Will Kempe, then that reason is on this record.

Yes, but still, why now? Or why in that flower-entwined microworld of 1966, two months before Lenny died? Not for being "one of us," certainly. I am 45 and if Lenny were alive he would be two years older, which can be called damned near 50…. He was my brother; but how was he theirs?

There is politics. We have said "counter culture" and mentioned flowers and love, but we have not mentioned politics.

Well: Lenny was against The Establishment, I suppose. And he was a forerunner, a pioneer. I cannot imagine there having been a Dick Gregory ("having been" because he is not a comic any more) had Lenny Bruce not gone before. But there are a lot of pioneers. Finley Peter Dunne was a pioneer, and so—oh, yes!—was Bob Hope, once….

No, you see (or, rather, you hear), Lenny Bruce was, in counter culture terms, politically naive. He was at best an outraged civil libertarian. He was to political humor what Aileen Hernandez is to radical feminism, what George McGovern is to the anti-war movement. Good, sometimes; sometimes very good; but not where it is.

Let us, then, in search, range backward. Possibly we can find a prophecy after all. For despite all these reservations, all these yes-buts, we feel somehow that Lenny is not, really, miscast in this hero's role, the armor fits, the incongruous lance manages to look right a-couch and ready.

1961, this recording is—after (right after) a phony drug bust in Philly and a ludicrous, though legally important, obscenity bust in San Francisco. Two acquittals, by the way. After the busts, it is, but before most of the harassment and general shit that turned his later performances into something more like secular sermons than comedy: fascinating or dull, important or inconsequential, but rarely, idolaters to the contrary, funny. This recording is funny.

So: 1961. Freedom riders,...

(This entire section contains 1466 words.)

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sit-ins—but no whites yet pouring into the South, not yet that part of the movement. No hippies. No hair. No Beatles. A brand new shining John F. Kennedy (no murders, no, not for a long generation, not at all in anyone's mind), and something strange in a weird place called Laos, but who knew about it? What was there, what that would later touch a flower child, a radical, a leftist European visitor, a disillusioned intellectual? (p. 58)

But, you see, it had begun; and when it began was just when … it became Lenny Bruce's world. Or, rather: The world that a startled and mid-thirtyish Lenny Bruce, stock Jewish comic coming up the dingy strip-joint ladder, had suddenly seen, had begun in excited outrage to talk about, became just suddenly, and independently, visible to a whole segment of society.

The Lie. That's what he calls it on the record: the whole thing, the whole plasticized formalized routinized megillah from the judge's robes to your mother's saying "ca-ca" when she means "shit"….

He says on the recording: "What I want to tell you is: The Lie." And he tells it, in hilarious detail. More than that. He says, suppose into this Lie, this massive institutional agreed-upon Lie, you insert your own private absurd lie for The Lie to deal with—what would happen? And he makes up, the private absurd lies (there is an almost unlistenably funny section in which he inserts into his own trial a pair of imaginary defense attorneys), and sometimes describes the ensuing chaos and sometimes, because at what he does he is an artist, by dictionary and not show-biz definition, he simply leaves you to imagine your own result until you can't visualize any more for your own laughter.

But like all comedians he is serious….

And so, perhaps, it is the simplest form of unity of all, this obvious unity of Lenny Bruce and whatever you want to call this "counter culture": the beloved mechanism of the socially conscious science fiction writers of Lenny's 1950s, the unity of the common enemy. In this case: hypocrisy. The Lie.

Surely the common focal point for The Movement at its beginning, despite a thousand differences to be hammered out and a hundred yet unresolved…. Surely the thing we all sense that somehow links the dropout apolitical do-your-thing hippie freak with the dedicated and communal revolutionary. Not pot. Not rock. Not a congruent mystic communion with Volkswagen buses. Recognition of, opposition to, hatred for, refusal to participate in The Lie.

And if that is a common altar, then it is also one at which some older folks, some of the Depression and World War II and pre-Bomb people, can worship, which explains some otherwise difficult Ginsbergs and Vonneguts and Pynchons and (yes) Woodrow Wilson Hermans.

Which is a good place to stop, except for one thing. Except that there is, I'm sorry, one sly, sneaky difference.

It is one thing to see hypocrisy, to perceive The Lie, and to point it out—or, if you are a comic artist, to point it out hilariously. But there is a touch more to the late Lenny than that. It's right on Side One of this set.

They used to give him a bad time for talking about his own experiences (his detractors called it "whining"), but he said, no, wait. It is only, he said, that I can't help it, I see all these things with an eye for the ludicrous, and I want to share that with you.

Ludicrous. The philosophical term, Albert, Jean-Paul, Henri, Simone, is "absurd." Yes.

It is important, it is in a whole generation an enormous breakthrough, to see angrily or wearily the hypocrisy of a cigarette-smoking, Scotch-drinking authority figure talking about marijuana, of a locker-room male world prosecuting dirty movies. It is another thing entirely, another step and one taken by very few, to perceive absurd-surdity. Because absurdity—ludicrousness, if you want, in exactly Lenny's sense—is no respecter of cultures.

It lurks, grinning and waiting, in the stack of rock records, in the open and honest collective confrontation, in the intensity of the revolutionary commune. The Lie is the culture in which we live; that fact makes Lenny Bruce a culture hero. There is no counter culture Lie, no single web of institutional hypocrisy simultaneously to anger and to tickle a 1972 Lenny Bruce….

But there is enough absurdity to notice—oh, far more than enough. And Lenny looked always at—never at abstract meanings or at higher goals, but at what is. If you believe that you can tell a dirty toilet joke, then you must have a dirty toilet.

If Lenny Bruce had lived to see the culture, he would not be—could not have become—its hero. He could be the hero of no culture in which he lived. Posthumous sainthood, as [George Bernard] Shaw among others saw, comes only to those whom the living could not face; Lenny was, in fact, one of those rare humans too sane to be allowed freedom. (p. 60)

Gene Marine, "Lenny, You 'Meshugginah' You Can't Play the Hero!" in Ramparts (copyright, 1972, by Noah's Ark, Inc. (for Ramparts Magazine); reprinted by permission), Vol. 10, No. 12, June, 1972, pp. 58-60.




Nat Hentoff