Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, and Country Music

By Gene Santoro | Go to book overview

13
Lenny Bruce

THE SCENE: MIAMI IN 1951. A 25-year-old strip show emcee initiates his first public demonstration of what would, decades later, be called performance art. It is built around a scam: the Brother Matthias Foundation for Lepers. Just out of the merchant marine, recently married to a stripper, nearly broke, and meditating on contemporary defrauding evangelists, Lenny Bruce decides he'll raise money for lepers. And he'll only keep 50 percent. That, he argues forcefully, is far less than other charities, even respectable ones like Community Chest, keep. So he lifts a priest's garb from a local rectory and starts soliciting on the street. Almost immediately, he's invited into people's homes, thanks to his Roman collar. He's making a good haul. His second day out, he gets busted.

Welcome to the world of Lenny Bruce, where “accepted” and “normal” values are regularly, ritualistically turned inside-out. A twisted yet compelling figure, part brilliantly flawed pharmakos and part implacable junkie, part perpetual adolescent and part First Amendment crusader, he was reborn as a hero to the 1960s youth rebellions, and with the rock revival of the 1980s again became an icon; he joins rock critic Lester Bangs, Leonid Brezhnev, and Leonard Bernstein for a stream-of-consciousness catalog of alternative-culture luminaries in REM's machine-gunned “It's the End of the World as We Know It.” This is typical of the way Bruce's name tends to pop up in pop culture, a mismatched juxtaposition that unwittingly says as much about punkerslacker attitude as it does about Lenny Bruce, who, as the old bumper sticker goes, died for our sins of a morphine overdose in 1966 at age 40.

Bruce pioneered an outsider form of in-your-face standup comedy, a kind of jazzy verbal performance art (think of George Carlin and Richard Pryor, Bruce's self-professed and best disciples, or Firesign Theatre, who made Joycean improvisation into high-level pop art) that is now widely accepted and widely practiced. Or is it? Certainly the perpetual-teen side of Lenny Bruce is on display all over the media, on Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central, in the late Andrew Dice

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Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, and Country Music
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Highway 61 Revisited - The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, Rock, & Country Music iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I: Avatars 5
  • 1: Louis Armstrong 7
  • 2: Woody Guthrie 17
  • Part II: The Postwar Jazz Era 31
  • 3: Mary Lou Williams 33
  • 4: Max Roach 37
  • 5: Sonny Rollins 49
  • 6: Chet Baker 64
  • 7: Miles Davis 68
  • 8: Herbie Hancock 80
  • Part III: Rebirth of the Blues 91
  • 9: The Gospel Highway 93
  • 10: Chess Records 99
  • 11: The Folk Revival 104
  • 12: Willie Nelson 119
  • 13: Lenny Bruce 124
  • 14: Sweet Soul Music 135
  • Part IV: In the Garage 151
  • 15: Bob Dylan 153
  • 16: Electric Blues Revival 171
  • 17: Buffalo Springfield 179
  • 18: Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris 185
  • 19: The Grateful Dead 193
  • 20: The Band 204
  • 21: The Firesign Theatre 216
  • 22: Bruce Springsteen 223
  • 23: Tom Waits 235
  • Part V: Possible Futures 241
  • 24: Ken Burns, the Academy, and Jazz 243
  • 25: The Politics of Music Don Byron and Dave Douglas 257
  • 26: Cassandra Wilson 265
  • 27: Marty Ehrlich 278
  • 28: New Jazz Fusions 283
  • 29: Ani Difranco 297
  • Index 302
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