Sunday, October 30, 2016

LENNY BRUCE AT BRANDEIS!

Me 'n' Kitty Bruce
`
Lenny and Kitty, 1966
Something extraordinarily beautiful occurred at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts on October 27 and 28 that I was fortunate enough to have participated in. We all came together to honor Lenny! Lucky me. I am having a very interesting life - I really am.
 
When Lenny Bruce died of a drug overdose on August 3, 1966, his career as a working entertainer had come to a bleak end. He could still work a rare concert venue (as he did at the Fillmore auditorium nine days before his death, with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention opening for him) but performing in nightclubs was out of the question. No club owner in the country was willing to risk the near-certainty of losing their license to serve liquor that an obscenity bust would entail. With the exception of San Francisco (where his only legal triumph in 1961 left him immune from persecution) he had been effectively banned from every major city in America - New York included. On the day of his death he received in the mail a foreclosure notice from the Bank of America on his house in the Hollywood Hills. The greatest American humorist of the twentieth century was within days of becoming homeless.
 
One can only imagine the despair that must have overwhelmed him on that last day. That's why what occurred at Brandeis this week was such a sweet thing to bear witness to. If only he could have somehow known that, fifty years later, at a north eastern ivy league college - about as far away from Lenny Bruce's Los Angeles as is possible to get in the continental United States - a group of his friends and admirers would come together for a scholarly discussion of his art, and a celebration of his unacceptably short life.
 
There had never been a comedian like him before: He was handsome, smart and as hip as they come; A real finger-snapping, urban bon vivant; A combination sage rabbi and verbal kamikaze, Lenny Bruce was the real thing. The facets of his psychological make up, including his all-too-obvious personal vulnerabilities, were there for all the world to behold, bravely exhibited on the nightclub stage. That he was a troubled, tormented soul, there can be no doubt. Unhappiness and insecurity would dog him all his life. Close friends would remember him as a basically sad and lonely man. But, damn! When he walked on stage he was funny, Jim. Screamingly funny!

In the placid 1950s era of Eisenhower, "I Love Lucy" and hoola-hoops, the American establishment wasn't ready for the kind of honesty that Lenny was presenting to the public. The mainstream press was mostly aghast: Walter Winchell branded him, "America's Number One Vomic"; In late 1958, Time Magazine would crown him "the sickest of the sick comedians". Rather than dismiss these affronts outright, Lenny (in typical Lenny fashion) embraced them. The cover photo for his second album, "The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce", portrayed him having a picnic in a cemetery! How's that for moxie? That same LP included a classic bit called, "Religions Incorporated" which depicted a fast talking, Hollywood booking agent talking on the telephone with his "client", the newly ordained, Pope John XXIII:

"HELLO, JOHNNY! WHAT'S SHAKIN', BABY!!! Yeah the puff of white smoke knocked me out! I got'cha booked for the Sullivan Show on the nineteenth... Oh, did ya dig Spellman on 'Stars Of Jazz'??? OK, sweetie! Yeah, right... You cool it, too! Nah, nobody knows you're Jewish"!

While that type of humor might be considered tame by the "anything goes" standards of today, in 1958 it was positively revolutionary.

For three golden years he was cooking, appearing as a headliner in the top clubs across the nation. When he opened at Mister Kelly's in Chicago, crowds were lining up around the block to see him. According to his biographer, Albert Goldman, word had reached the windy city that, "this new young comic was sensational".

On February 4, 1961, he actually did a gig at Carnegie Hall! Carnegie Hall?? Even he couldn't believe it: "Maybe the people who own this place don't even know we're here"! He speculated that the entire audience had been admitted into the hall by "a corrupt janitor: 'Alright, just don't make no noise and clean up after you're finished, alright'? Alright".

That night, the Island of Manhattan was blanketed by one of the worst blizzards in its history. All bridges and tunnels leading into and out of the city were shut down; Every street in town was closed to traffic - and yet, somehow, Lenny was able to pack his people into a concert that didn't begin until after midnight! It was a Standing Room Only performance that the old gang at Lindy's still talk about! Fortunately the entire evening was preserved on tape and is available today on CD. "Lenny Bruce At Carnegie Hall" is the greatest performance of his all-too-brief career.

Seven months after Carnegie Hall, in the autumn of 1961, the arrests started. On September 29th Lenny was arrested in his Philadelphia hotel room for possession of drugs for which he had a prescription. Five days later, on October 4th, he was busted at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco for obscenity. Although he was eventually acquitted on both counts, the pattern had begun. The persecution would continue for the rest of his life.

Between 1961 and 1964, he was arrested nineteen times across the country on various narcotics and obscenity charges. His legal problems would bankrupt him, forcing him to spend too much time in too many courtrooms defending his art. His income plummeted from roughly $350,000 in 1960 to about $7,000 in 1965. On his fortieth birthday, he was forced to legally declare himself a pauper - so consumed in debt was he.  In the end, his persecutors would render him broken and defeated. In March of 1965, under the influence of hallucinogens, he fell out of the second floor of a hotel in San Francisco, permanently damaging his left leg. Although never a "sick comedian", in his final days Lenny Bruce was a very sick man. During that last, desperate summer of 1966, he told more than one person that he would not live to see 1967.

Most of his obituaries would contemptuously dismiss him as a "dirty comedian", a label that profoundly hurt and humiliated him while he was alive.

When the Los Angeles police arrived at the death scene, they allowed photographers and newsreel cameramen to walk into his home to take their gruesome photographs of his unclothed body lying on the floor of an upstairs bathroom. His good friend, Jack Roy,  had a catch phrase: "I don't get no respect". Talk about irony. Roy, who would later change his name to "Rodney Dangerfield", was one of the most respected comics in the business when he passed away in 2004. Lenny Bruce would be forced to linger a long time in the dark night of obscurity before he received his due. When I first discovered him at the tender age of fourteen, I knew that he was a genius. I'm grateful that academia has finally caught up with us.

It was an honor to take part - however peripherally - in the symposium this week in Massachusetts. A tip of the hat and a heartfelt bow to Christie Hefner and the Playboy corporation for making this event possible. When it seemed that the entire world had abandoned him, her father was always in Lenny's corner. One could not ask for a more loyal pal than Hugh Hefner. In an interview a number of years ago with NBC's Bob Costas, he said of Lenny Bruce, "I think he's a very important American". I'm hard-pressed to disagree. A raising of the glass to Hef as well!

Honey, Lenny and Kitty, 1960
`
Kitty Bruce, Lenny's only child, donated his massive archive of letters, photographs, films and tapes to the Brandeis vaults. In addition to meeting her, I got to spend time with so many people who were a part of Lenny's biography, and some who, like me, were profoundly influenced by him - including Lewis Black, a man who is one of the small handful of comedians not presently lying in cemeteries that is able to make me laugh out loud.   I plan on returning there sometime in the near future to spend a day or two researching this brilliant satirist's wild, funny and tragic life.

At Brandeis University I told the people gathered there that I've always been hesitant to refer to Lenny Bruce as a "comedian". My habit is to label him a "humorist"; one of the greatest of the troubled century he inhabited. Twain, Will Rogers, Robert Benchley, George S.  Kaufman, James Thurber - anyone you prefer to mention - Lenny belongs right up there on the mountaintop with the best of them.

Lenny at the end
I often wonder what Lenny Bruce might have thought about the America of 2016. No doubt he would have had a lot to say about the very sick society we all still inhabit a half century after his passing. Can you even imagine? It makes me giggle out loud contemplating what might have been.

"YADDA YADDA, DONALD!"

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY

AFTERTHOUGHT:

To Kitty Bruce: After a decade of correspondence, it was a joy to finally meet you. It was so cool the way you made everyone feel relaxed and right at home. I'm eternally grateful and honored to have been there.

SUGGESTED READING:

How to Talk Dirty and Influence People
by Lenny Bruce

A hitchhiker named Terry Malone left this book in my dad's station wagon in the summer of 1972. A couple of weeks ago I was visiting the cemetery where my parents are buried when I saw a marker bearing the same name: "Terry Malone". I walked up to it and said out loud, "If you're the same guy, THANK YOU." Finding that book was my introduction to Lenny Bruce, and it completely altered my life. It has been reissued in recognition of the 50th anniversary of his passing. In case it's not available from your friendly, local, independently-owned, neighborhood bookstore (Let's stop kidding ourselves - they no longer exist!) here is a link to order it off of Amazon.com:

https://www.amazon.com/Talk-Dirty-Influence-People-Autobiography/dp/0306825295/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1470142315&sr=1-2&keywords=how+to+talk+dirty+and+influence+people+by+lenny+bruce

Lenny Bruce In My Life
from The Rant, 8/2/16:

I wrote this one in August on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Lenny's passing:

http://tomdegan.blogspot.com/2016/08/lenny-bruce-in-my-life.html

SUGGESTED LISTENING:

Here is the first recorded bit by Lenny Bruce I ever heard. I was fourteen at the time and was sold from the get-go. This one is from the summer of 1958 - right around the time I was born:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDcHVXoa6RErecorded

And, finally, I took this photograph of Kitty Bruce cutting the cake at a posthumous, 91st birthday party we threw for her dad on Thursday night. We all even joined in to sing, "Happy birthday, dear Lenny"! Somewhere, I am sure, he is smiling.



Happy birthday, dear Lenny, happy birthday to you!
 

8 Comments:

At 11:08 AM, Blogger Michael Stivic said...

Tom,

I found Lenny very funny but I don't find the fact that Trump and Hillary tied in the polls very funny. I crapped my pants again when I read that they were tied.

Are you deflecting to Lenny this close to the election?

Can you believe that Andrew Weiner showing a 15 year old girl a photo of his private parts may have been the downfall of Hillary Rodham Clinton becoming President just like Ralph Nader was the downfall of Al Gore?

I can't believe that the Orange guy may become President.

 
At 12:07 PM, Blogger James Fecteau said...

👍

 
At 12:09 PM, Blogger James Fecteau said...

Great stuff
👍

 
At 12:39 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Great read...

 
At 1:53 PM, Blogger Majormajor said...

"The greatest American humorist of the twentieth century."

One man's opinion.

 
At 9:51 PM, Blogger Majormajor said...

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

Lenny Bruce

 
At 11:55 AM, Blogger Dave Dubya said...

Tom,
What a great experience to connect with those close to Lenny!

I recently heard Lewis Black live. You'd love that show. He derided Republicans and Democrats.

Hillary too. Then he joked, "As a friend, I must tell you, if you vote for Trump you will go to Hell."

That was more than some clueless audience members would tolerate. An uppity sour faced woman shouted, "You're a piece of shit" before she and her party walked out in a huff.

THAT was funny. Cons can dish it out but can't take it. Not even jokes.

What a humorless world they live in.

Michael Stivic,

I'm sorry you had the same incontinent reaction as chickenhawk coward Ted Nugent did at his draft board.

I know he's still a hero to the far Right. I guess that just "depends" on how you look at it, amirite? ;-)

 
At 3:00 PM, Blogger Lori Foster Kashefinejad said...

First thing I ever saw of Lenny's was Thank you Mask Man. I went on to buy as many recordings as I could find. That was in the 90's. Maybe it's time to hit Amazon again.

 

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