Today is the birthday of Lenny Bruce (1925-1966). When I was 19 and 20 years old I was DEEP under the Brucean spell, enthralled by way of a handful of existing records borrowed from a friend’s dad. For awhile I was even talking like Bruce, in that distinct mix of Yiddishe and hophead bebop slang, and on some days you can still catch me doing it, especially when I play my character Nihils, which I first devised while still under Bruce’s spell.
There are levels to Bruce…his unique verbal cadences being the outer shell, the one that initially hooked me. But as you listen to him, he becomes a sort of Hipster Holy Man, a guy who’s honest to a fault, somebody who’ll blow the whistle on anything that’s wrong, and this is why I truly treasured him, even though he’d already been planted in the ground for two decades. These days, I’m thinking a lot about the burlesque connection. He and his wife Honey, a stripper, met and performed together in what might be called the post-burlesque scene of the early 50s….nightclubs where jazz, stand-up comics and strippers were presented on bills together, a far cry from the halcyon days of Minsky. It was in these “toilets” as Bruce called them, that he learned to improvise fearlessly in front of an audience.
Because of his untimely death in 1966 of a heroine overdose, he is forever frozen in the noir era, the time of black and white. It’s hard to imagine what he might have evolved into if he’d kept going into the late 60s and 70s and beyond, when the likes of George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks took up his mantle. Would he have kept growing? Or would he have become a throwback? It’s academic, baby.
Here’s a routine of his, chosen quite at random. People are always quoting and sampling his political stuff, his First Amendment screeds, and his material about racial relations and so forth. Here’s one that’s a bit more social, but no less significant…freezing a moment of sexual history in time. We’ve grown accustomed to much that he is talking about here, but I assure you that back when he did this bit, it had to sound like a thunderbolt: