Wednesday, August 03, 2005

39 Years Ago Today: Anniversary of the Death of Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce once heard about a man who was addicted to morphine suppositories. The next time he took to a nightclub stage, Lenny asked his audience, "If heroin is a monkey on your back, what's a morphine suppository?"

If you don't know much about Lenny Bruce, you should. The last time someone like him walked the earth it was in the form of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Before Clemens, he took the form of Voltaire, Swift, and Rabelais.

When Lenny was writing his autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People he finished the manuscript while on the road. Not only that, he completed his writing at some dead hour in the morning. Desperate for some instant feedback on what he had written, Lenny left his hotel room and went out to hire a hooker. He brought the girl back to his room, sat her down and handed her his sheaf of typeswritten pages, explaining that he wanted her to read what he'd written and tell him what she thought. The hooker read for about forty-five seconds before looking up and saying, "You know, I'd rather fuck."

Lenny once went onstage and held up a newspaper he'd had specially printed for that performance. The headline read: "SIX MILLION JEWS FOUND HIDING IN ARGENTINA".

It was no bullshit when Michael Stipe sang in R.E.M.'s song "It's The End of the World As We Know It" that: "Lenny Bruce is not afraid". Lenny was harassed and abused by the police and courts across the United States. At one point in the early 1960s, he had court dates pending in California, Chicago and New York; the conditions of his bail in each case stipulated he could not to leave the city. Such were the Catch-22s and Gordian-knot-stranglehold the legal system placed on him. Lenny would be the first to admit to his quirks, problems, hypocrisies, and destructive tendencies -- in fact, that's exactly what his nightclub act consisted of: confessing his sins. Because his sins were everyone's sins. Wanting a wife who was a cross between a Sunday school teacher and a $500/night hooker. For earning as a nightclub comedian ten- and twenty-fold what school teachers earned. He had one routine called "The Tribunal" in which a tribunal would one day be formed that would call entertainers to account for their earnings. Lenny said he was saving money to give back.

It's cliche and melodramatic to say Lenny was about debunking myths, but it's also true to say this. On his Live at the Curran Theatre album, he explains that most of his legal problems -- arrested numerous times on obscenity charges -- stemmed from the fact that he pulled the covers off of society's myths and had nothing with which to replace them. One myth that particularly intrigued him had to do with anonymous givers. In Lenny's mind, the anonymous giver was the greatest ego maniac of all, making silent charitable contributions to charities, only to steal back to their mansions, thinking, "I'm so good! I'm not going to tell anybody!" To which Lenny added, "The only anonymous giver you have to worry about is the guy who knocks up your daughter."

Lenny was arrested for saying the word "cocksucker" on stage, one night. Most of Lenny's arrests were for things he said. There were also drug possession charges, but it's important to note that the drug charges against him were all dropped -- posthumously -- when the arresting officers, themselves, were arrested for drug trafficking. We're talking about the LAPD in some cases, whose corruption can never be underestimated.

On an arrest report in Chicago, it was listed that Lenny was arrested there for "blasphemy." No shit, that's what it said. He was doing a routine called "Christ and Moses" in which Jesus Christ and Moses return to earth and visit a west coast synagogue -- where the reformed Jews are so reformed they're ashamed they're Jewish -- and St. Patrick's Cathedral on the east coast. The routine explores what they would find and how they might react to what they see and hear. On the altar are Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Sheen, two high profile clergy in the '50's and early '60's. It's an insanely funny, inventive, and insightful routine -- "bit", actually; Lenny always referred to his routines as "bits" -- that is worth tracking down. The best rendition of this bit can be found on the Live at Carnegie Hall CD. If you don't have any Lenny Bruce albums, get one. Buy them all. Your soul will thank you.

Here's what Lenny said one night about obscenity:
Oh, I like you, and if sometimes I take poetic license with you and you are offended... now this is just with semantics, dirty words. Believe me, I’m not profound, this is something that I assume someone must have laid on me, because I do not have an original thought. I am screwed. I speak English. That’s it. I was not born in a vacuum. Every thought I have belongs to somebody else. Then I must just take, ding ding ding, somewhere. So I am not placating you by making the following statement. I want to help you if you have a dirty word problem. There are none, and I’ll spell it out logically to you.

Here is a toilet. Specifically -- that’s all we’re concerned with, specifics -- if I can tell you a dirty toilet joke, we must have a dirty toilet. That’s what we’re talking about, a toilet. If we take this toilet and boil it, and it is clean clean, I can never tell you specifically a dirty toilet joke about this toilet. I can tell you a dirty toilet joke in the Milner Hotel, or something like that, but this toilet is a clean toilet now.

Obscenity is a human manifestation. This toilet has no central nervous system, no level of consciousness. It is not aware -- it is a dumb toilet -- it cannot be obscene -- it’s impossible. If it could be obscene, it could be cranky, it could be a Communist toilet, a traitorous toilet. It can do none of these things. This is a dopey toilet, Jim.

So nobody can ever offend you by telling you a dirty toilet story. They can offend you from the area that it’s trite -- you have heard it many, many times. Now all of us have had a bad early toilet training -- that’s why we are hung up with it. All of us at the same time got two zingers -- one for the police department and one for the toilet. “All right he made a kahkah, call a policeman. All right, OK. Are you going to do that anymore? OK, tell the policeman he doesn’t have to come up now.”

All right, now we all got the “Policeman, policeman, policeman,” and we had a few psychotic parents who took it and rubbed it in our face, and those people for the most, if you search it out, are censors. Oh, true, they hate toilets with a passion, man. Do you realize if you got that ranked around with a toilet, you’ll hate it, and anyone who refers to it? It is dirty and uncomfortable to you.

Now if the bedroom is dirty to you, then you are a true atheist, because if you have any of the mores, the superstitions, if anyone in this audience believes that God made his body, and your body is dirty, the fault lies with the manufacturer. It’s that cold, Jim, yeah.

You can do anything with the body that God made, and then you want to get definitive and tell me of the parts He made, I don’t see that anywhere in any reference to any Bible. Yeah, He made it all. It’s all clean, or all dirty.

But the ambivalence comes from the religious leaders, who are celibates. The religious leaders are “what should be.” They say they do not involve themselves with the physical. If we are good, we will be like our rabbi, our nun, our priests, and absolve, and finally put down the carnal and stop the race.

Now, dig, this is strange here. Everybody today in the hotel was bugged with Knight and Nixon. Let me tell you the truth. The truth is “what is.” If “what is” -- you have to sleep eight, ten hours a day, that is the truth. A lie will be: People need no sleep at all. Truth is “what is.” If every politician from the beginning is crooked, there is no crooked. But if you are concerned with a lie, “what should be” -- and “what should be” is a fantasy, a terrible, terrible lie that someone gave the people long ago: This is what should be -- and no one ever saw what should be, that you don’t need any sleep and you can go seven years without sleep, so all the people were made to measure up to that dirty lie. No, there’s no crooked politicians. There is never a lie because there is never a truth.
Thirty-nine years ago today Lenny Bruce died of a morphine overdose. Lenny's opiate of choice was heroin. It's been surmised that the police -- vengeful, and looking for a way to "get" Lenny -- provided Lenny's usual dealer with potent morphine, so that when Lenny bought his usual amount of dope, it would be more than his system could handle. Remember Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction snorting John Travolta's herion, thinking it was cocaine. When you get the unexpected in the drug world, the consequences can be lethal.

Notable Quotations

"I've been accused of bad taste, and I'll go down to my grave accused of it and always by the same people, the ones who eat in restaurants that reserve the right to refuse service to anyone."

"I'm sorry I haven't been funny. I am not a comedian. I am Lenny Bruce."

"The kind of sickness I wish Time had written about, is that school teachers in Oklahoma get a top annual salary of $4000, while Sammy David, Jr. gets $10,000 a week in Vegas."

"If you're from New York and you're Catholic, you're still Jewish. If you're from Butte Montana and you're Jewish, you're still goyisch. The Air Force is Jewish, the Marine Corps dangerous goyisch. Rye Bread is Jewish, instant potatoes, scary goyisch. Eddie Cantor is goyisch, George Jessel is goyisch-Coleman Hawkins is Jewish."

"If something about the human body disgusts you complain to the manufacturer."

"If a titty is pretty, its dirty but not if its bloody and maimed."

A lot of people say to me, "Why did you kill Christ?" "I dunno... it was one of those parties, got out of hand, you know." "We killed him because he didn't want to become a doctor, that's why we killed him."

All my humor is based upon destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I'd be standing on the breadline right in back of J. Edgar Hoover.

Communism is like one big phone company.

Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.

I hate small towns because once you've seen the cannon in the park there's nothing else to do.

I won't say ours was a tough school, but we had our own coroner. We used to write essays like: What I'm going to be if I grow up.

If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.

In the Halls of Justice the only justice is in the halls.

Miami Beach is where neon goes to die.

Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.

The "what should be" never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is no "what should be," there is only what is.

The liberals can understand everything but people who don't understand them.

The only honest art form is laughter, comedy. You can't fake it... try to fake three laughs in an hour - ha ha ha ha ha - they'll take you away, man. You can't.

The reason I'm in this business, I assume all performers are - it's "Look at me, Ma!" It's acceptance, you know - "Look at me, Ma, look at me, Ma, look at me, Ma." And if your mother watches, you'll show off till you're exhausted; but if your mother goes, Ptshew!

The role of a comedian is to make the audience laugh, at a minimum of once every fifteen seconds.

Today's comedian has a cross to bear that he built himself. A comedian of the older generation did an "act" and he told the audience, "This is my act." Today's comic is not doing an act. The audience assumes he's telling the truth. What is truth today may be a damn lie next week.

When you're eight years old nothing is your business.
To the end, Lenny remained an optimist, fantasizing during his final shows about one day walking into court to find it filled with balloons and streamers and a big party cake. Every cop who ever arrested him and every judge who ever sentenced him would be in attendance. He imagined them saying, "Ah, Lenny, we almost had you! But you believed, you knew you could trust the system," thus bringing to a close the charade of his legal battles.

No such party was ever thrown.

Lenny died, and meaningful support for him and his cause came too late. Even in death the police couldn't stop fucking with him. They allowed Lenny's naked body, as he lay on the bathroom floor, to be photographed and published. One cop draped a bathrobe belt over one of Lenny's arms to make it seem as though Lenny had used it to "tie off" while shooting up. Another cop placed a box of syringes near Lenny's body so that it was sure to be in the photograph. It was Phil Spector, then America's youngest millionaire record producer, who paid for Lenny's funeral, though he never wanted that fact made public. Was he trying to be an anonymous giver?

Lenny Bruce was born Leoanrd Alfred Schneider. Once, while being booked at a police station following one of his arrests, a cop said to him, "If Schneider's your name, why do you go by 'Bruce'?" To which Lenny said, "Leonard Alfred Schneider was too Hollywood."

Further reading:

Comprehensive fan Web site

Web page purporting to be "The Complete Lenny Bruce"

Lenny Bruce on Trial

Pot Culture article on Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce FBI File


Bev Jackson said...

Oh, thanks for this, Matt. Is it really 39 years? I saw him at the Village Vanguard, sat under his mike and he smoked my cigarettes all thru the show. He was dressed like a priest and going thru the famous profanity trials at the time. He was bitter and angry (justifiably so) but wonderful and hilarious. Oh, I loved him so. It is a lovely tribute ; I shall have to put up something on my blog.


Katie said...

Great piece, Matt and thanks Bev, for directing me to it!

Robert F. Walsh said...

I recall you having contact with Lenny's widow a while back; I hope you let her know of this excellent tribute!

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