Reviewed by Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 10, 2004
Lenny BruceLet the Buyer Beware (Shout! Factory)
It's fitting that this 6-CD, 71/2-hour, 80-page bop apocalypse should arrive when it does. Ten years have passed since the death of Bill Hicks, the only comic who managed to come within striking distance of Lenny Bruce's confrontational comedic intellect and rabble-rousing firepower. Moreover, even a cursory glance around us reveals a cultural atmosphere increasingly poisonous. Bruce's heyday in the early-to-mid-Sixties coincided with the most tumultuous and divisive time in American society since the Civil War, and his comedy grew increasingly reflective of the gradual rifting between hep cat and square, East Village boho and Southern bigot, black, white, and dead all over. Delivering gags in a nicotine-shrouded voice both as Hebrew as your Uncle Morrie schlepping through another long-winded seder and as genially blunt as a pair of rusty brass knuckles inscribed, "To Sir, With Love." To the last he was the hipster voice of reason, the beast shouting love at the heart of the world, but only at the very end did he stumble into cliché, dying from a morphine overdose on Aug. 3, 1966. Shout! Factory's box set necessitates zero hyperbole, compiling recordings from Bruce's earliest performances in the late-Fifties including a surreal appearance on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts in which Bruce offers an impersonation of a Bavarian impersonator's impersonation of Edward G. Robinson and Peter Lorre, while his mother stands, presumably beaming, beside him to his final, posthumously released work, recorded privately and for himself. Many of the later gags included here came in the wake of multiple arrests for drug possession (heroin, pot) and on obscenity charges (one example: using the word "cocksucker" at San Francisco's legendary Jazz Workshop), and by the time of his death, the recordings show an increasingly weathered icon. To the end, however, Bruce railed against injustice from behind his Sony microphone (which he literally devours during the inspired, throwaway "Testing the Sony Microphone"), and it's all here, every dirty bit. There's the good ("Religions, Inc.," "Thank You, Masked Man," "How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties") and the ugly (a clandestine recording, made by Bruce, of a preshow warning from the Long Island cops, his "performance" of his heroin bust, and his reading of the court transcript, verbatim, from that bust). There is no bad. Bookended here with fine writings by Paul Krassner, Marvin Worth, and Bob Dylan, Bruce continues to get the laughs he needed as much as the dope. He slays 'em now from 6 feet and 40 years deep, rousing the rabble and inciting the soul. Essential, baby.