Here’s one of my big personal issues. Somewhere along the way, maybe when I was a kid reading about how history was a function of great men, I bought into the chic of martyrdom. I’d rather be John Lennon, dead and gone, than Paul McCartney, happy and thriving. The notion that being remembered when you’ve been consigned to the rotting dust of the after life is somehow more important to me than enjoying my brief time on the planet. It’s kind of sick in a way. Shouldn’t I want to be Jerry Seinfeld, universally loved, polishing my 400 Porsches and prattling on and on about breakfast cereal, than a tormented, heroin addicted, ghost persecuted by mankind? People will tell you that the men in charge didn’t understand Lenny Bruce, but in truth, the real problem was that they tore him down, because they understood exactly what he was saying. It was much more about business as usual than how upset they were that people could hear a man say the word cocksucker in public.
It’s pretty universally acknowledged that Bruce isn’t well represented by his existing recordings, but his autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People is brilliant. Its only flaw is that given Bruce’s love and constant demand for the truth, the dictates of those who wanted to see him rot in a cell forced him to lie about his drug use.
First of all reading the book should end all debates about whether politics aside the guy was funny or not. Anyone warped enough to stake out a rectory in order to steal priest garments so he could solicit money and sex from bored housewives as a compassionate man of the cloth is in my mind one hilarious motherfucker.
Politically, he was just absolutely correct about how the rich used race and religion to keep the unwashed in line. Most of all though, he understood the power of words and not just the ones that were supposedly profane. Words are perhaps man’s greatest invention, but Bruce understood that words could be perverted. It’s what’s in a man’s heart that matters and words are just our best available option when we try to convey to others who we are and what we’re about.
The saddest thing about Bruce to me isn’t the loss of his lifestyle and career or even his cold naked dead body on the bathroom floor, but the sense of pain he felt in court having to listen to humorless drones recite his precious words to a jury of his supposed peers. Time and again he begged that if they were going to judge him for his ideas that at least he be allowed to present them just as he had before policeman after policeman hauled him away in cuffs. Personally, I can’t blame the system for refusing to allow his simple sane request. When you are out to railroad someone for telling the hard truth the last thing you want to do is risk letting people understand his message.