There were two magazines that were supremely important to adolescent boys in the early to late '60s. One was Mad. This satirical, often sophomoric monthly undermined the mainstream society's serious and popular cultural efforts, their pretension being shattered in the pages of the magazine incurring a teenage boy's illusions about how the world worked. From the late '50s through roughly about 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. You could say that Playboy at its best has appeal only to adolescents. 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 to him: this is an adolescent fantasy (and obviously not confined to males aged from 10- to 19-years-old). 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 person 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 were not encouraged to read Playboy. That's where Bruce appeared almost exclusively in print. Having devoured and laughed at the chapter excerpt (it included his episode as a fake priest bilking Floridians of 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, in a climate in which Bruce is a common knowledge noun thanks to numerous documentaries and biographies, to 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 was at the time. 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, both about 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. He continues to be testimony to the fact that however hard the media tries to suppress unauthorized voices they still manage to get out.
Facing facts was the whole point of many of his routines, the underlying theme of his oeuvre. Take 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. Kenney, 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."
Soon I was a Bruce fanatic. I hunted down his Verve records, and as his popularity grew and more albums came out from prestigious label, I picked up those too, listening to them late in the night in the sanctuary of my bedroom the other teenage girls probably 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, the girly houses, strip joints, and jazz clubs where Bruce got his start. Also the world of drugs, the way people often deal with their sad lives, 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 some four years before I had 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 his journal (my esteemed colleague, Mr. Ed Goldberg). In this limited trek of faux scholarly adventuring, I actually met a guy who knew Honey Bruce, the comic's wife. He who 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 today by the knowledge that it was ghost written by The Realist editor Paul Krassner, of like-minded sensibility, but still the book didn't 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 important, like the judicial opinion always appended to Ulysses and other controversial books. There is the intro by Kenneth Tynan, and the afterward 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, almost a mournful and angry haiku:
"One last for letter word for Lenny.
This essay originally appeared in Black Lamb in 2003.