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Black Lamb

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That’s obscene

June 1st, 2003

BY D.K. HOLM

Two magazines were supremely important to adolescent boys in the early to late Sixties. One was Mad. This satirical, often sophomoric monthly undermined the mainstream society’s serious and popular cultural efforts. From the late Fifties through roughly 1962, Mad contributed impetus to the underground comix industry, to the anti-war and civil rights protests, and to the free speech movement.

The other magazine was Playboy. In fact Playboy at its best appeals only to adolescent boys. The world of easy sex and sophisticated men with astute knowledge of cigars, wine, whiskey, jazz groups, and obscure Asian sexual tricks, men who appeal effortlessly to robust woman who have no inhibitions about providing sex: this is an adolescent fantasy (and obviously not confined to males aged ten to nineteen). Playboy embodies the James Bond ethos; never were a cultural icon and a publicity organ better matched. James Bond was one of two figures of enormous importance to Playboy magazine’s sense of itself.

The other was Lenny Bruce.

I first heard of Lenny Bruce while flipping through a back issue of Playboy and finding a chapter from his serialized autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. I thought I was a student of stand-up comics, but it was clear that my knowledge did not extend beyond the obvious figures of Shelly Berman and Bill Cosby. The reason was clear. Bruce did not appear on TV. The others did.

Kids like me were not encouraged to read Playboy. That’s where Bruce appeared, almost exclusively, in print. Having read and laughed at the chapter excerpt (it included his episode as a fake priest bilking Floridians of their money), I discovered that the book was already out in mass market paperback. I bought it. Thirty-five years later, I still have that same copy.

Nowadays, Bruce is common cultural property thanks to documentaries, biographies, a stage play and a Bob Fosse movie of it, and at a time in which his outlandish verbal antics are mimicked casually by so many comedians on HBO concert specials, it’s difficult to remember how outrageous he once was. The premier “sick comedian” of his day (in the same league with Jules Feiffer, Sick magazine, Tom Lehrer, and Ed Gein/dead baby jokes), Bruce said things that you couldn’t hear anywhere else, about both the human body and politics. He was like the older guy in the playground who told you the facts about how to get girls, scam cigarettes, jerk off, and deal with relationships. Today he is a “free speech” symbol, but at the time he was a guy who told it straight. His continued influence is testimony to the fact that however hard the media try to suppress unauthorized voices, they still manage to get out.

Facing facts was the whole point of many of his routines and the underlying theme of his oeuvre. An example is his famously controversial “Jackie Kennedy hauling ass to save her ass,” his interpretation of some photos of Jackie Kennedy in Dealey Plaza on the trunk of the death limo, either picking up some brain bits or helping Secret Service agent Clint Hill onto the car. “Why this is a dirty picture to me,” he said, “and offensive, is because it sets up a lie, that she was going to get help, and that she was helping him aboard. Because when your daughter, if their husbands get shot, and they haul ass to save their asses, they’ll feel shitty, and low, because they are not like that good Mrs. Kennedy, who stayed there. And fuck it, she didn’t stay there! That’s a lie they keep telling people, to keep living up to the bullshit that never did exist.”

I was a Bruce fanatic. I hunted down his Verve records, and as his popularity grew and more albums came out from prestigious labels, I picked those up, too, listening to them late in the night in the sanctuary of my bedroom, the way teenaged girls listened to Laura Nyro. I devoured Albert Goldman’s long awaited Bruce biography (still have that same copy, too, and all the records, even though I don’t even have a record player).

Bruce provided an entry into multiple worlds, such as show biz, especially in its lowest manifestations, girly houses, strip joints, and jazz clubs, where he got his start. Also the world of drugs, with images of a moist- and droopy-eyed Bruce making him the template for jazz, the epitome of the performer who wears sunglasses indoors and pitches his insider material to the hipper band members. Though he had died four years before I ever heard of him, I sought out people who might have seen him perform. I still do. One of them is a fellow contributor to this journal, my esteemed colleague, Mr. Ed Goldberg. On my limited trek of faux-scholarly adventuring, I actually met a guy who knew Honey Bruce, the comic’s wife. He showed me scores of snapshots that for some reason he had in his possession, images never published. He reminisced about Bruce and Honey, obviously not telling me everything. To my knowledge he was not a source for Goldman’s book, and he has some great stories to tell (he’s the father of Michelle Blakely, if anyone wants to go looking for him).

Dipping into How to Talk Dirty and Influence People today leads to a mix of disappointment and nostalgia. One’s pleasure in the book is mitigated by the knowledge that it was ghost written by The Realist editor Paul Krassner, and did not emanate directly from Bruce’s head. Also, as a compendium of his stand-up bits woven into a courtroom narrative, it’s unduly uneven. It’s not badly written; it merely sounds dictated. In any case, looking at the paperback again I am pleasantly reminded of the book’s two supportive apparati, meant to elevate the book to civil importance, like the judicial opinion always appended to Ulysses and other controversial books. These are an intro by Kenneth Tynan and an afterword by Dick Schaap, written after Bruce’s death.

Schaap wrote, “He was funny, frightening funny, with the kind of humor that could create instant laughter and instant thought, that could cut to the core of every hypocrisy.” As a piece of powerful, moving polemical journalism, I almost like Schaap’s obit for Bruce better than the book itself, especially its conclusion, a mournful and angry near-haiku:

One last four-letter word for Lenny.
Dead
At forty
That’s obscene. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Book Issue, Books and Authors, Holm | Link to this Entry

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