MORE

“Schmuck,” “Fuck” and “Nigger”

Some fights never seem to get settled once and for all, and the battle pitting freedom of speech against censorship is one of them; there’s always some new disgruntled faction working for the clampdown, and there always will be. That’s one reason crusaders like Lenny Bruce should be protected when they’re with us and remembered after they’re gone. It’s too late for the first part of that equation with Bruce — he died of a drug overdose 38 years ago, after five years of relentless hounding by the law — but a new six-CD set, Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware, should go a long way toward making sure he’s remembered.

Produced by gifted jack-of-all-trades Hal Willner, Let the Buyer Beware takes us from Bruce’s first public performance in 1948 to the recording he made the night before he died in his house on Hollywood Boulevard. Thirteen years in the making and including classic bits, rarities and previously unreleased material, the seven-hour set was culled from 200 hours of tapes from Bruce’s personal collection, now under the stewardship of his daughter, Kitty Bruce, and the late Marvin Worth, who worked with Lenny early in his career.

Let the Buyer Beware will come as a revelation to anyone who knows Bruce primarily through Bob Fosse’s 1975 film, Lenny. Although Dustin Hoffman made a valiant attempt to capture Bruce, he failed to express his astringent charisma — but then, who could? Bruce hummed with an intensely complex rhythm all his own, and nobody else could sing his tune.

In the ’40s, Bruce began as a fairly routine and well-mannered comic doing voices and impressions. It wasn’t until he began working seedy strip clubs, where the stakes were so low he had nothing to lose, that he began to find his voice. As his style came into focus, his roots in the jazz world became increasingly apparent; Bruce was the ultimate hipster, and he punctuated his monologues with jazz slang — dig, nutty, solid, bugged — and snapped his fingers to underscore a point. As can be seen in any of the surviving performance footage, his body language was beautifully musical too, and that was central to what set him apart from other comics.

The thing that really put Bruce head and shoulders above his peers, however, didn’t emerge until he wandered away from set comedy routines and began thinking on his feet. Then it became clear that he was more than a comic — he was a philosopher and a prophet with an infallible bullshit detector. Fascinated with religion and acutely aware of his own Jewish identity, Bruce revealed the full measure of his genius when he came up against the hypocritical limits of what he was allowed to say onstage. He simply couldn’t accept them, and that’s when his trouble started. Bruce’s fatal mistake was in placing his faith in America’s judicial system; in the years prior to his death, he became an authority on the law, but discovered too late that the law would fail him. He never served time or paid a fine for that mistake; he paid with his life.

“Lenny was constantly being busted on grounds of obscenity, but it was actually the religious stuff that got him,” Willner points out. “Why wasn’t Redd Foxx busted? Lenny wasn’t the only one saying motherfucker, but he was certainly the only one doing things like ‘Religions Incorporated.’ Religion was, and is, big business, and he offended people who were connected to people who had the power to take him down. And they did.”

 

Let the Buyer Beware is loosely structured to chronicle Bruce’s rise and fall, and begins on a high note. “Lenny’s peak was his middle period in the early ’60s, and CD 1 is built around a 1960 appearance at the Den in New York,” says Willner. “CD 1 is basically the hits, but it’s versions you’ve never heard. We left off a few classic bits, and I’ll probably take some shit from people for that, but some of the classic bits haven’t aged well. ‘Genie in the Bottle’ and ‘White Collar Drunks’ are greatly loved bits, but in my opinion they don’t hold, so they’re not on there.”

Willner travels back to Bruce’s beginning on Disc 2, which includes routines recorded shortly after he left the Navy and began working as an impressionist. Included here is “Monster Routine With Hecklers,” a recording made in the mid-’50s at a San Francisco club that will make anyone who’s never heard Bruce before fall in love with him. There was a table of drunks in the audience at that show who refused to shut up, and the way Bruce handles them is so smart and so funny and so gentle that it makes him completely irresistible.

Disc 3 focuses on 1961, the year Lenny began getting arrested and was at his peak in terms of popularity. At that point he’d struck the perfect balance between set comic bits and freeform improvisation, and he was dazzling. “One of my favorite bits is a thing called ‘Spanish Harlem’ — it’s so real, and it’s something you never hear from comics,” says Willner of Bruce’s reflections on Puerto Rican culture as depicted in the Leiber & Stoller song. Also on Disc 3 is “Hubert’s Museum,” Bruce’s tribute to the Times Square museum he visited as a child, which was a favorite haunt for Diane Arbus.

With the material on Disc 4, Bruce is beginning to unravel a bit. His legal troubles are becoming a recurring theme for him onstage, and he’s occasionally a bit manic and paranoid, but still capable of remarkable things. The disc includes a fascinating monologue recorded for a San Francisco radio show that finds him critiquing his fellow comedians, and explaining why one person (W.C. Fields, for instance) is funny and another (Jerry Lewis) is not. Also here is a bit about Pearl Bailey that Willner cites as “my favorite thing on the set, without a doubt — it’s just so funny.” This is Bruce’s recounting a run-in he had with Bailey when she dragged him onstage during one of her performances in Las Vegas. He turned a fire extinguisher on her and everyone else in the vicinity. Bailey didn’t take it well, then Bruce wrote her a letter calling her a “kiss-ass Uncle Tom” (she was making jokes about blacks he found offensive). Bailey retaliated by allegedly telling the owner of the club she was working, “I want him beat up on the lawn, or I’m not going on.” And so he was.

 

For obvious reasons, Let the Buyer Beware grows increasingly bleak, and with Disc 5 we reach the period when Bruce began reading excerpts from his trial transcripts onstage. Included here is a routine about getting arrested in Los Angeles for saying the word schmuck onstage, and the disc ends with a 1962 recording of Bruce getting busted midway through a show in Chicago. Also featured is a previously unreleased bootleg owned by Ed Sanders with a bit about Jackie Kennedy’s behavior the day JFK was assassinated, and an excerpt from an out-of-print Bruce record edited by Frank Zappa.

The final disc in the set is drawn from all periods of Bruce’s life, and some of the passages are heartbreaking. In several recordings of phone conversations with lawyers, you can hear that Bruce is completely worn out, but he’s still struggling to grasp the finer points of the law, oblivious to the fact that the law would be broken as needed in the campaign to destroy him. At one point he reads an excerpt from a letter to one of Bruce’s lawyers from a judge, who says that in their quest to nip the obscenity issue in the bud, “We aimed for Bruce. We picked him out of all the performers — I admit it.”

Also on the disc is a previously unreleased excerpt from Bruce’s last performance recorded at the Fillmore West nine days before he died.

On the eve of an election that finds fundamental freedoms hanging in the balance, Bruce is more pertinent than ever.

“Most young people today don’t know a thing about Lenny Bruce or why he’s important,” says Willner. “The thing that’s not widely understood about Lenny is how much he influenced mainstream comedy. Lenny was the first to do 25-minute routines using five different characters — something that was later picked up by Bill Cosby and many other comedians — and that’s where his genius was. Forget all the controversy. He had the ability to completely transport you as a monologist. You just want to listen to him talk.”