Episode 37. “Lenny Bruce.” Shot of Love. The Bootleg Series, Vol. 13: Trouble No More. Bunker. November 9, 2017.
The version from Shot of Love was recorded on May 14, 1981. Michael Gray, correctly, calls this an “endearingly bad song” while Clinton Heylin thinks “the sole purpose of the song seems to have been to demonstrate that Dylan could still write about something other than the End Times.” We can’t say he pulled that off…
So, what did Dylan think of Lenny Bruce? From 1981:
You know, I have no idea! I wrote that song in five minutes! I found it was a little strange after he died, that people made such a hero out of him. When he was alive he couldn’t even get a break. And certainly now, comedy is rank, dirty and vulgar and very unfunny and stupid, wishy-washy and the whole thing. … But he was doing this same sort of thing many years ago and maybe some people aren’t realizing that there was Lenny Bruce, who did this before and that is what happened to him. So these people can do what they’re doing now. I don’t know.
He’s believed to have caught a set of Bruce’s once. He signed a petition protesting Bruce’s arrest in 1964. In his poem “Blowin’ in the Wind” published in Hootenanny in December 1963, he wrote Junkies an flunkies line the wind along side ban-the-bomb demonstrators / Girls’re hustlin for dollars on one side a the street an / Girls’re sitting down for their rights on the other side a the street . . . / Lenny Bruce’s talkin / an LORD BUCKLEY’s memory still movin’. And because we can’t get away from Dylan’s “11 Outlined Epitaphs,” Bruce is mentioned there too: Lenny Bruce says there’re no dirty / words . . . just dirty minds an’ I say there’re no depressed words just depressed minds.
Lenny Bruce (11:00)
Kelly and Daniel go deep into just who Lenny Bruce was, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, his arrests and harassment and his impact on comedy at large. Michael Gray is quoted:
…the first really contemporary comedian, taking satire outside the bounds of light-entertainment rules and the gentle parodying of foibles to coruscate the unpleasant realities of American society and shocking the audiences— and more particularly the self-appointed moral guardians—of the day with long monologues of sometimes embarrassing autobiographical directness, ‘foul language’ and biting humor.
The song itself (18:40)
Daniel remembers always skipping over the song because it’s a jarring open declaring “Lenny Bruce is dead.” Tough hang. But if you stick with it, it’s actually a pretty decent song. The lyrics are haunting and sad and there are a few subtle cuts at imitators (He was an outlaw, that’s for sure/More of an outlaw than you ever were.) But, like “Hurricane” and “Joey,” the inaccuracies tend to drag it down. Bruce’s daughter, Kitty, said of the song and, in particular, “He’s on some other shore, he didn’t wanna live anymore:”
You are talking about a writer singing something that might rhyme. Bob Dylan has written wonderful songs but I sincerely don’t believe that my father didn’t want to live anymore.
Yikes! Just like Dylan’s hot take on comedy from the ’81 interview with Dave Herman:
It is true I rode with [Lenny Bruce] once in a taxi cab. I thought it was a little strange after he died that people made such a hero out of him, [but] when he was alive he couldn’t even get a break. Certainly now comedy is rank, dirty and vulgar and very unfunny and stupid.
Poor Allen Ginsberg got dragged into this mess when he felt the need to defend Dylan singing about Bruce. In 1986, Dylan needed his audience in Japan to understand:
Here’s a song about recognition, or lack of recognition. It was Tennessee Williams who said, ‘I don’t ask for your pity, just your understanding. Not even that, but just your recognition of me in you and Time, the enemy in us all.’ Anyway, Tennessee Williams led a pretty drastic life. He died all by himself in a New York hotel room without a friend in the world. Another man died like that.
The Berkley Concert (26:30)
Kelly and Daniel listened to Lenny Bruce live from Berkley from 1969 (executive produced by Frank Zappa!) to try to gain more perspective. It was very different, for sure, and neither realized how improvisational his style was (or how he went out of his way for it to sound like that), yet it’s easy to see how he’s a hero to that generation of stand-ups that came after.
Kelly played Turing Test and watched the last season of One Mississippi, it’s second.
Daniel listened to the latest from Converge (This Dusk Is Us) and Anti-Flag (American Fall). He’s also halfway through Ron Chernow’s Grant (an it’s going great!)