Bob Dylan Countdown #189: “Lenny Bruce”

“I rode with him in a taxi once/Only for a mile and a half, seemed like it took a couple of months.” That might be the most telling line in the entirety of this off-kilter tribute to the iconoclastic comedian, because Bob Dylan writes it as Bob Dylan. He actually did share a cab with Bruce once. For a guy who masks exact autobiographical details in all but a couple of his hundreds of songs, what it does mean that Dylan lets down the curtain and reveals something in a song that he might otherwise save for an interview?

My guess is that he identified with Bruce a lot. Note the way that he phrases these lines:  “He was an outlaw, that’s for sure/More of an outlaw than you ever were.” He could have said “we” instead of “you”. Instead, he keeps himself outside of the group of people he’s putting opposite Bruce, as the gaping cultural divide stretches between them. Maybe Dylan even realizes that Bruce’s fate could have befallen him as well. The comedian died in 1966, the same year as Dylan’s motorcycle accident. There but for the grace of your deity of choice goes Bob.

“Lenny Bruce” the song probably isn’t a perfect match to Lenny Bruce the man, at least not in the eyes of those who witnessed him perform or were around when he carried on his battles with the lawover the alleged obscenity in his routines. It’s even awkward at times in its attempts at praise. Still, Dylan makes telling points in the way he points out what Bruce was not. He never won a Golden Globe, which means he wasn’t what anyone would consider “safe” entertainment. He wasn’t out murdering babies, and yet he was hounded by the law like the most heinous fugitive.

The issue of factual truth in Dylan’s songwriting about real people (Hurricane Carter, William Zantzinger, Joey Gallo) often comes into play with critics, but I find the issue to be a non-starter. He’s not a biographer, nor is he narrating a documentary. I don’t think he needs to be beholden to any standard of historical accuracy. That there are people who may take his words for fact without checking up on them isn’t really his burden.

Ultimately, Dylan has the right to write a story for Bruce that offers the comic some semblance of grace in death. That he chooses that to grant such a benevolent tribute may say as much about the writer as it does about the subject.


2 Comments on “Bob Dylan Countdown #189: “Lenny Bruce””

  1. I first heard this at Earls Court London on 26th June 1981. Dylan sang it in his high nasal whine which always appealed to me. The arrangement was more intense than the one which emerged on Shot of Love a couple of months later. I remember thinking how strange that he should write about Lenny Bruce 15 years after his death. Reflecting though I could see the parallels between Dylan & Bruce. Bruce got a pasting from conservatives and Dylan got a pasting for his Christian beliefs, not only from secularists but from Jewish commentators too… Perhaps in allying himself with Bruce Dylan was trying to give us a message about his waning enthusiasm for born-again Christianity or pehaps to say something to those conservatives who thought they’d got him on their side now? Beautiful melody too.

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