BIRTHDAY BLUES: Lenny Bruce Died For Your Sins


[Illustration by NEWTASTY]

WIKIPEDIA: Lenny Bruce (October 13, 1925 – August 3, 1966), born Leonard Alfred Schneider, was an American stand-up comedian, writer, social critic and satirist of the 1950s and 1960s. His 1964 conviction in an obscenity trial led to the first posthumous pardon in New York history.On October 4, 1961 Bruce was arrested for obscenity[9] at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco; he had used the word cocksucker and riffed that “‘to’ is a preposition, ‘come’ is a verb” and that the sexual context of “come” is so common that it bears no weight, and that if someone hearing it becomes upset, they “probably can’t come.” Although the jury acquitted him, other law enforcement agencies began monitoring his appearances, resulting in frequent arrests under charges of obscenity. The increased scrutiny also led to an arrest in Philadelphia for drug possession the same year, and again in Los Angeles, California, two years later.

By the end of 1963, he had become a target of the Manhattan district attorney, Frank Hogan, who was working closely lennybruce_1.jpgwith Francis Cardinal Spellman, the Archbishop of New York. The association of Hogan and Spellman led to the often repeated speculation that Bruce’s persecution was actually fueled by his status as the original comedic Catholic Church-basher. In April 1964, he appeared twice at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, with undercover police detectives in the audience. On both occasions, he was arrested after leaving the stage, the complaints again resting on his use of various obscenities.

A three-judge panel presided over his widely-publicized six-month trial, with Bruce and club owner Howard Solomon being found guilty of obscenity on November 4, 1964. The conviction was announced despite positive testimony and petitions of support from Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Jules Feiffer, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and James Baldwin, among other artists, writers and educators, as well as Manhattan journalist and television personality Dorothy Kilgallen and sociologist Herbert Gans. Bruce was sentenced on December 21, 1964, to four months in the workhouse; he was set free on bail during the appeals process and died before the appeal was decided. Solomon’s conviction was eventually overturned by New York’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals, in 1970 (People v. Solomon, 26 N.Y.2d. 621).

On August 3, 1966, Bruce was found dead in the bathroom of his Hollywood Hills home at 8825 Kings Road. The “official” photo, taken at the scene, showed Bruce lying naked on the floor, a syringe and burned bottle cap nearby, along with various other narcotics paraphernalia. His official cause of death was acute morphine poisoning caused by an accidental overdose.[10] He was interred in Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, California, but an unconventional memorial on August 21 was controversial enough to keep his name in the spotlight. The service saw over 500 people pay their respects, led by legendary record producer Phil Spector. Cemetery officials had tried to block the ceremony after advertisements for the event encouraged attendees to bring box lunches and noisemakers. Dick Schaap famously eulogized Bruce in Playboy, with the memorable last line: “One last four-letter word for Lenny: Dead. At forty. That’s obscene.”

On December 23, 2003,[11] 37 years after his death, Bruce was granted a posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction by New York Governor George Pataki,[12] following a petition filed by Ronald Collins and David Skover with Robert Corn-Revere as counsel, the petition having been signed by several stars such as Robin Williams. It was the first posthumous pardon in the state’s history. Pataki claimed his act was “a declaration of New York’s commitment to upholding the First Amendment.” MORE


SALON: In other words, pornography under America’s current vague obscenity law is clearly obscene — indeed, the point is virtually tautological — and thus has no First Amendment protection. But it doesn’t matter. The law will follow reality — which is why it’s time to get rid of our outdated obscenity laws altogether. (Laws protecting minors from viewing or being depicted in obscenity, of course, should remain on the books.) When laws become embarrassments, mere empty gestures pointing at a moral code more honored in the breach than in the observance, they should be whacked. Porn isn’t going anywhere, any more than all the other mixed-up, loud, brilliant, obnoxious, seductive, vulgar, stimulating, offensive, wild, blandly corporate, deeply personal messages that blare from every nook and cranny of this juiced-up lowrider of a society.

And in some small, indirect but important way, we have Lenny Bruce to thank for that. Lenny Bruce, who refused to lennybrucepromoposter_1.jpgshut up. Lenny Bruce, who shoved “nigger” and “kike” and “cunt” and “cocksucker” in our faces, sometimes to enlighten, sometimes to amuse, sometimes just to shock. Lenny Bruce, who stood everything on its head, a whirring mixmaster of rage and compassion and ugliness. Lenny the dizzying master dramatist, shtickmeister of the Yiddish id-ish. Lenny marrying the stripper, screwing everything, and boasting about it all so exquisitely loud that our hypocrisy and envy would flare up high and show us a way out of the dark. Lenny for the Jews, Lenny for the blacks, Lenny for justice, Lenny for nothing and no one, Lenny whose only real subject was the void at his own center he endlessly pursued through great tales and dark cities, Lenny dying again and again and dying really finally for our sins, and his own.[…]

“Let me tell you the truth,” Bruce once said. “The truth is what is. And what should be is a fantasy, a terrible, terrible lie somebody gave the people long ago.” Stripping off all illusions can be a noble task, and an incredibly funny one if handled by a comic master like Bruce. But when the laughter dies, what is stripped away may look less like illusion than human skin. Bruce lived by that knife edge, and died by it. But it feels right to freeze him forever in one moment, not the bloated, confused, bitter junkie he became but the sharp young hipster, the cat who cracked up Miles, who could keep all the balls in the air at the same time and who, one San Francisco night in 1961, before they broke his spirit, when a bust was just a fly on his ass, threw it back in their face, running it all down, free. MORE

Lenny Bruce, Let the Buyer Beware (Shout! Factory)
If you’re in the same boat as the young lady who asked me recently if Lenny Bruce is a new band–oy gevalt!–start with Bob Fosse’s excellent early-’70s biopic Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman as the hipster funnyman turned free-speech martyr. Then proceed directly to this riotous near-exhaustive six-disc career overview. Bruce fought for so much more than the basic right to stand up and shout “fuck” in the crowded porno theater of pop culture. Red state puritans may not want to hear it, but children need to know about him–when they turn 18, of course. Because we should never forget that men have been crucified on the cross of the First Amendment. And Lenny died for our sins.  — Jonathan Valania

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