The Persecution of Lenny Bruce

Aquarian Weekly 12/11/02 REALITY CHECK

ECHOES OF A PRECARIOUS FREEDOM The Legal Persecution of Lenny Bruce Dissected – Part Two

Lenny BruceAll law is interpretation. A lawyer uses words, which are inherently imprecise, and when a law is applied to the fact of a new situation what lawyers do is interpret the code words to deem them appropriately or inappropriately applied to the case at hand. To view the law means to understand interpretation. Law has more to do with critical literacy studies than it probably has to do with anything else. – David Skover, Professor of Law at Seattle University

From April 10, 1961 until his death at age, 41 in 1966, comedian, Lenny Bruce was arrested time and again on the charge of obscenity for routines performed in adult nightclubs in four of America’s most cosmopolitan and “enlightened” cities, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. Under the guise of vulgar language and lewd behavior, local officials, clumsily utilizing bully tactics and ambiguously interpreted public decency laws, preceded to railroad a valid political and social dissenter. Preceded by their fears and ignorance, they unleashed their handmaidens in the law to make a mockery of the U.S. Constitution and destroy the livelihood of a courageous artist while sounding a reverberating siren for generations to come.

The first of these busts occurred at Frisco’s progressive hot spot, the Jazz Workshop, where eventually Bruce was exonerated after sixteen months of expensive legal wrangling, travel expenses, blacklisting and jail time for the crime of uttering the word, “cocksucker” in mixed company. The second bust was a three-pronged attack wherein Bruce was ostensibly hauled off the stage for the same act on consecutive nights at the famed hipster haven, Troubadour club in L.A. While standing trial for these offenses in late ’62 and early ’63, Bruce was arrested at the Gate of Horn club in Chicago and the Unicorn back in San Francisco, where police repeatedly attended his performances in full view of the audience taking notes and staring down their prey.

While one of the L.A busts were thrown out of court, several raged on through much of the next three years, exhausting Bruce of his finances which he failed to recoup because of municipal pressure on clubs not to hire him. “It’s becoming chic to arrest me,” Bruce intoned during this absurd witch-hunt which culminated in his late 1965 New York City arrests at the Greenwich Village ultra-liberal art nook, Café Au Go Go, where the owners of the establishment were jailed and put on trial alongside him.

The details of this theater of abuse and oppression is well-documented in Ronald Collins and David Skover’s new book, “The Trials of Lenny Bruce”, which brilliantly uses history to paint a parallel view of a country hell-bent on defending its image against the more painfully unfurled truth. Complete with an accompanying compact disc of Bruce’s “criminal” behavior and desperate defenses with and without his oft-confused and overworked attorneys, the book exhaustively uncovers the all-too frighteningly real reasons for this high-powered harassment.

“Lenny’s four, eight, ten letter words today would not be the weapons of his destruction, “Skover warns. “But would his ideology be shocking today…you bet.”

“We must remember the context of Lenny’s comedy landscape,” Skover told me in a recent phone interview. “America had just come out of the Eisenhower era, an era of incredibly repressed sexuality, political patriotism and social conservatism. Lenny was at the forefront with the Beatniks long before the free love hippy movement.”

Outside the lines of accepted modes of media such as television, radio, recordings or the published word, Lenny Bruce used the subterranean culture of the nightclub to pound away at what he perceived was the enemy of justice, hidden truths. Beginning his act as a series of comedy routines and ending in a bombastic free-association, stream-of-consciousness bulldozer of powerful messages, Lenny skillfully stripped away preconceptions and began to adjust the mirror of visibility on a society hiding from its wounds. “I’m not a comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce,” the artist announced before several historic performances which chimed a bell for change and released a backlash of epic consequence.

Sex with chickens, transvestite Nazis, pissing in sinks, a gay Lone Ranger, the gender duality of the cocksucker, the hammer effects of social hate-speak like nigger-boogie-kike-wop, the conjugative discussion of “To is a preposition, cum is a verb”, Eleanor Roosevelt’s tits, the phony imagery of a Jackie Kennedy, the laughable oppression of the Catholic church are just some of the “bits” used to convict Bruce of obscenity. Armed with cryptically worded legal precedence the prosecutors acted as a kind of vengeance squad for the angered American façade.

Causing sexual enticement or turning red the face of a female audience member led to the charge of obscenity in law-speak, but something more sinister was at play. “No one could be convicted for blasphemy in any court,” Skover cites. “But in a very real sense Lenny was tried for it anyway.”

Blurting “fuck” or “cock” or “tit” may have been the smoking gun, but what Bruce was actually incarcerated for was his irreverent attack on taboo subjects like sexual mores, strained race relations, religious and social persecution, political deceitfulness and asinine celebrity worship. Lenny Bruce voiced too loudly what no one at the time was brave enough to admit in a public forum; things weren’t as rosy and wonderful in the good ole USA as previously, and falsely, advertised. And when he refused to bend to threats, those in charge of protecting its image, the government, the church, and the remaining power-based status quo endeavored to bring him down.

In the end, Lenny Bruce was not a foul-mouthed smut-lord, but a dangerous voice crying out from the wilderness. And the echo of such sentiments would be just as harmful in these more accepting times.

“Lenny’s four, eight, ten letter words today would not be the weapons of his destruction, “Skover warns. “But would his ideology be shocking today…you bet.

Look at Bill Mahr’s public persecution following his criticism of president Bush’s war on the Taliban on ‘Politically Incorrect’ last year. What Mahr was nearly fired for by ABC was what Lenny had been busted for thirty years ago, the poetic theme from Thomas Merton’s idea that war’s winners are no better than war’s losers.”

Skover reminds us that the difference between the Mahr backlash and the ridiculously overblown Sinead O’Connor harangue against her Saturday Night Live protest of child molestation by the hands of the Catholic church in Ireland or even the outlandish censoring of the Dave Anderson column by the NY Times last week is that these people, among so many others, have not and will never be handcuffed like common criminals and thrown into jail for uttering controversial and unpopular opinions.

Today Lenny Bruce is still a convicted felon in the state of New York, his case never reaching the Supreme Court, while his comedic descendents make millions on HBO. But the lesson of Bruce’s considerable legal legacy; his battles to express not just the most precious forms of free speech, but the incontrovertible idea that every American has a mind and spirit of his/her own that does not walk to the beat of the collective drummer is enduring. To suppress such a notion is un-American in every sense. The legal and social persecution of Lenny Bruce speaks loudly to those ideals.

“Lenny never got the right to say what he wanted how he wanted to say it,” Skover concludes. “But thanks to his vehement defense of his voice, others do. That is what we owe to the trials of Lenny Bruce.”

Read Part I

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