Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Intersections: Dylan, Lenny Bruce and a Quiet Funeral for the Beats

"Lenny Bruce is dead but his ghost lives on and on." ~Bob Dylan

It's sometimes stated that Bob Dylan's "calling" began at the Duluth Armory where he'd gone as a seventeen-year-old to see Buddy Holly. Legend has it that Buddy Holly looked at the young Robert Zimmerman and something passed between them. It was a fortuitous moment, for less than two days later Buddy Holly was dead. Whatever else happened, the event made an impression on him.

They say timing is everything and often the moments that orchestrate or mark our lives are utterly outside our control. They happen for reasons we know not. And sometimes -- I'm speaking as a short story writer here -- these moments get re-configured  in ways that are unrecognizable to others. For example, think of the lines, "She looked at him and he felt a spark tingle to his bones..."  from Simple Twist of Fate. "The look" set in motion a train events, which a lifetime later must seem like a never ending series of dreams.

I mention all this because of a passage I stumbled across recently in Sean Wilentz's Bob Dylan in America. Wilentz begins his book with two chapters of background featuring Aaron Copland, communism and then the Beats. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and their ilk struck a chord with the disenfranchised and the left-leaning intellectuals attuned to those things contrary to the exuberance of pop culture.

Things shift in ways both predictable and unexpected. When prime-time television incorporated "beatnik" Maynard G. Krebs into "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" it became apparent that the Beat poets and writers were now characterized by a caricature. "You rang?" This caricature was now a national joke.

Wilentz writes that in 1961 the beat movement was running out of steam while the folk scene was picking up. In response, on January 26, 1961 "a group of writers gathered at the apartment of Belgian theater director Robert Cordier, on Christopher Street, to discuss (and, for some, to celebrate) the death of the Beat generation.

“James Baldwin… was there. So were Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, William Styron and the Beats Ted Joans, Tuli Kupferberg, and the Village Voice journalist Seymour Krim.” According to Wilentz they had “gathered to bury what was left of a movement that they believed had been thoroughly co-opted by the commercial mainstream. What had begun as an iconoclastic literary style… had become… just another fad, a subject fit for television comedies.”

How interesting it is that on the very day of this "funeral" Bob Dylan arrived in New York City, and managed to get onto the stage at the Cafe Wha? The Beats may have been beaten by pop culture but, as Wilentz notes, Kerouac and Ginsberg were alive and well in Dylan's brain.

Later, Allen Ginsberg would recognize that this flame of the now deceased Beat movement was still vibrant in this young singer/songwriter who in 1964-65 represented the epitome of hipness and rebellion, a James Dean of the music scene who likewise maintained the flame from that earlier encounter at the Armory, the day before the music died.

* * * * *
According to Doug Lindner, in the late 1950's and early Sixties Lenny Bruce "was the spirit of hipness and rebellion." To say that Bruce was edgy is simply too polite. His work, which would be labelled in bad taste by some today, was being declared obscene at a time when free speech had much tighter restrictions. Because he challenged the status quo, it ultimately put him in the gunsights of the powers that be.

"The arrest of Bruce in New York sparked a firestorm of protest from the city's intellectual community. Poet Allen Ginsberg announced formation of an 'Emergency Committee against the Harassment of Lenny Bruce.'Over eighty prominent people, mostly entertainers and authors, signed a petition protesting the prosecution of Bruce: 'Whether we regard Bruce as a moral spokesman or simply as an entertainer, we believe he should be allowed to perform free from censorship or harassment.' Signers of the petition included Paul Newman, Bob Dylan, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, John Updike, James Baldwin, George Plimpton, Henry Miller, Joseph Heller, Gore Vidal, and Woody Allen." *

The Beats were declared "dead" in 1961. Lenny Bruce was dead at age 40 in 1966.

Fifteen years later Bob Dylan included a tribute song to Lenny Bruce in the third of his Gospel trilogy of albums, Shot of Love. I find it interesting that Dylan has thus far performed this song 103 times in concert, the most recent being September 2008. Is it a lament for a friend, or something more?

Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce is dead but his ghost lives on and on
Never did get any Golden Globe award, never made it to Synanon
He was an outlaw, that’s for sure
More of an outlaw than you ever were
Lenny Bruce is gone but his spirit’s livin’ on and on

Maybe he had some problems, maybe some things that he couldn’t work out
But he sure was funny and he sure told the truth and he knew what he was talkin’ about
Never robbed any churches nor cut off any babies’ heads
He just took the folks in high places and he shined a light in their beds
He’s on some other shore, he didn’t wanna live anymore

Lenny Bruce is dead but he didn’t commit any crime
He just had the insight to rip off the lid before its time
I rode with him in a taxi once
Only for a mile and a half, seemed like it took a couple of months
Lenny Bruce moved on and like the ones that killed him, gone

They said that he was sick ’cause he didn’t play by the rules
He just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools
They stamped him and they labeled him like they do with pants and shirts
He fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurts
Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had

Copyright © 1981 by Special Rider Music

* The Trial of Lenny Bruce

Dylan portrait by Ed Newman (top right) will be on display in May at The Red Mug in Superior, Wisc. as part of a show featuring art based on or inspired by Bob Dylan.

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