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James Campion
The Legal Persecution of Lenny Bruce Dissected

Thirty-seven years ago, Lenny Bruce, comedic talent, potty mouth, satirist, contrarian, blasphemer and grandstand martyr for the first amendment died in relative poverty, a broken and hounded victim of free expression. The evidence of his destruction at the hands of a frightened culture is compiled and preserved as never before in a new book entitled "The Trials of Lenny Bruce".
For my money, this is one of the most important books you will read this, or any year, whether you care a lick about Lenny Bruce as a person, an artist or an icon. It is important because it is the most detailed account of what fear and a bruised American psyche can do to the ambiguously delicate concept of freedom.

But, really, why should we care about some hipster junky whose nightclub act spiraled him into ignominious demise almost half a century ago?
This is a question best answered by law professor, David Skover, who along with co-author, Ronald Collins has created the definitive study of one of the most curious and pertinent battles for the constitutional right of political and social dissent in American history.
"Lenny Bruce sacrificed his career, his fortune, his very life for the American principle of freedom of speech," Skover, a law professor at Seattle University, told me on a recent visit to New York. "In many ways Lenny embodies the first amendment, and whatever his failings as a human being, and there were many, he possessed the courage to speak his mind by the light of his own truth and with the force of his own voice.

And however much that personal truth offended those who endeavored to silence him, Lenny's battles, both legal and cultural, made it possible for others to be like him without having to end up like him." Ironically, we are on the precipice of an era not unlike the late 50s', early 60s', when Lenny Bruce burst on the cultural scene. For the first time since the ultra-conservative Eisenhower administration our government is under a Republican majority. And not unlike the burgeoning Cold War of yesteryear there is once again an atmosphere of national lock-down with enemies laying in wait to erase our way of life. The effect is a renewed sense of innocence, a desire to hide from the harsh realities of war and hate and greed that batter our sensibilities daily. We long to be insulated, blanketed in sweet dreams of red, white and blue comfort.

Yet in the bizarre odyssey that is human nature, this craving for innocence can likely degenerate into ignorance. "The fact that we are in a potentially more repressive speech environment than we've been in for many years is certainly disconcerting," Skover remarks when asked about the similarities of his subject's trials and today's air of political correctness. "It's important to remember that Lenny Bruce paid our dues to understand that the first amendment exists to protect political dissent in times when it is not a popular stance." Fear.

Since the tragedy that was 9/11, the American psyche has been damaged. You can feel it in the air, see it on the news, hear it in our politicians, listen to it in our music, discuss it with our neighbors; this rush to suppress anything that might not ring of solidarity to nation and God and apple pie. Protect ourselves, our children, our heritage, our freedom by not uttering truths better kept hidden. At first it is an expected backlash from a national tragedy, an exercise in healing, but history teaches it's natural for the body politic to become comfortable with such reactionary tactics at the price of individual freedom.

Now there's an interesting term. Lately, we like to toss it around as an excuse for self-righteous patriotism, racial profiling, waging war or trading in our civil rights to avoid leaving ourselves vulnerable again.
No artist or commentator in the history of this nation broached the core of those two subjects better than Lenny Bruce. Certainly many carried the torch in bygone centuries, the 18th century political cartoonist or the 19h century satirist like Mark Twain to name two, but in the modern light of a media-crazed latter 20th century, no one bore the brunt of our personal freedoms than a painfully flawed, but brilliantly courageous Jewish kid from Long Island.

By declaring his mission to expose the guise of phony respectability through a series of comedic routines liberally laced with rousing vulgarities and penetratingly brutal language, Bruce created a dangerous persona poised to skewer such taboo subjects as race relations, political vagaries and the sanctimony of organized religion. "Dig the lie", Lenny defiantly blurts out on the book's accompanying cd; a well-stocked collection of interviews, clips from Bruce's most notorious bits, commentary from his contemporaries and recollections from the litany of attorneys who aided in his defense against social persecution. Of course, the "lie" being anything that emerged from Lenny's fast-paced rhetoric as finely crafted hypocrisy.

When asked of Bruce's cultural and legal legacy, Skover is adamant; "The very point of our work on this book is that although Lenny Bruce is a little known name in free speech law because none of his cases ever made it to the Supreme Court, his social relevance and courtroom dramas changed the first amendment environment in a very practical way."

Unlike most historical records aimed at a particular audience, "The Trials of Lenny Bruce" is a living, breathing testament to our times, the American times, no matter what generation. It's concentration on how the law may be manipulated to silence significant social commentary with neatly wrapped accusatory terms such as obscenity, blasphemy and national security, is paramount to preserving our own rights of free expression.

Skover cites that the obscenity standards, under which Bruce was arrested in four U.S. cities, including New York, are virtually identical today. "We have come a long way culturally from Lenny's time, but even though it is inconceivable today that someone could be busted in a nightclub for uttering offensive ideologies the letter of the law has not budged."

The Legal Persecution of Lenny Bruce Dissected - Part Two

'All 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, Cafe 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.
'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 obscenity. Armed with cryptically worded legal precedence the prosecutors acted as a kind of vengeance squad for the angered American facade.

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.'
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 bet.
Look at Bill Maher's public persecution following his criticism of president Bush's war on the Taliban 'Politically Incorrect' last year. What Maher 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 Maher 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.'

© James Campion - January 2003

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