The beginning of Chapter 8 "Power Corrupts"

As I sit writing these pages decades later, I am obliged to consider that many readers did not experience the sixties and may find it difficult to understand how the satirical comedy of Lenny Bruce could have such social impact or, for that matter, why a reasonably intelligent soul such as myself would persevere in the face of Lenny's obvious failings in personal and professional relations.

Many would consider Lenny's material tame compared to a Richard Pryor or a George Carlin of today, taking for granted the freedom of expression that comedians and most performers in all media enjoy today. Many of today's readers were children or infants or not even born, and therefore could not be aware of, much less run afoul of, the repression and conformity of that time.

Just as our bodies carry forth the evolutionary remnants of a vestigial tail at the base of the spine and a reptilian brain beneath our larger brain, so America dragged forth into the beginning of the sixties unconstitutional laws discriminating against twenty million black Americans, unconstitutional laws repressing one hundred million female Americans, and the tendency of political, social, and religious leaders to invoke these laws to maintain the general and their particular status quo, for better or for worse.

This was a time when laws prohibited a black child from drinking at a white drinking fountain in Georgia and prohibited a black man from walking the streets of Pasadena, California, after ten in the evening. This was a time when a woman was guilty of provoking rape if her breasts and buttocks were allowed to jiggle free of a super- structured bra and girdle. This was a time when one of the largest television viewing audiences watched a Catholic priest who espoused conservative policies, endorsed right-wing politicians, and turned a blind eye to the growing indignation of the public who resented the excesses of its leaders.

It was a time of two-valued thinking: black or white, good or evil, for or against. If you were not for God (preferably the Christian God), then you must be an ally of Satan, if you opposed your political leaders then you must be a proponent of Communism and therefore a traitor; if you practiced miscegenation (the legal term then used in some states for interracial sex) then you went against the founding fathers who obviously did not intend for their democratic experiment to extend to their black slaves and neighboring American Indians.

These inequities were not unique to the fifties or sixties. Presidents, potentates, and popes had invoked such controls upon society for millennia in the misguided and selfish belief that civilization should evolve in their own national, racial, or religious image. What was astounding was that these contradictions of the great American experiment in democracy had prevailed through a half-century of growing mass media.

For it is timing that is the distinction of a prophet, not piety or perfection. It takes but a seed of honesty planted in the spring of awareness to grow into a tree of knowledge. A single pearl of wisdom might jostle amidst millions to find the perfect niche for its perfect symmetry. The smallest spark of genius may illuminate the world only if it chances to ignite a powerful source of energy. Those particles of honesty, wisdom, and genius in Lenny have been possessed in larger or smaller degrees by countless people, but Lenny happened to possess them in the late spring of his life, in the niche of show business's mass media, and in the ignitable atmosphere of social revolution which was the sixties.

The cry for freedom that ultimately issued from Lenny had long bubbled within the breasts of Bohemians and Beatniks, me and my peers, and millions who did not want to give up their lives or the quality of their lives to ensure their leaders' names in history books for wars won or deities appeased. While others voiced that cry in loftier impassioned speeches on the steps of churches and capitals, Lenny voiced that same cry through the entertainment media concerning real issues and real people. But Lenny was not running for office. He was just an innocent who saw reality in a very talented way, and found it funny that the "emperor wore no clothes."

That was Lenny's most unique talent, the courage and/or naivet to joust with the dragons plaguing society. Whether he was St. George or Don Quixote is debatable, but he fought the good fight all of us wanted to, but few dared. That is why the likes of Frankie and I stood by him despite his obvious faults. His injustices against us were insignificant compared to the social injustices he attacked early in his career and the personal injustices ultimately heaped upon him.

I do not claim to have been fully conscious of such insight when I was twenty-three and first met Lenny. Frankie regarded him primarily as an exceptional performing talent, one that he could appreciate and aid with his own perception, experience, and talents far better than his show business peers who simply regarded Lenny as a dirty joke. I didn't even have Frankie's perception of Lenny's talent. I only knew that, while I enjoyed storytelling with Frankie, writing with Lenny was "meaningful" storytelling. At twenty-three I was consciously searching for answers as to why society was a spider web of hypocrisies. Writing with Lenny, I found I could take a stick to the spider web and taunt the spider.

Neither Frankie nor Lenny nor I realized how dangerous it was to play with spider webs.

Excerpted from Chapter 10 "Words and Numbers"

Sally's description was not the least exaggerated when I stepped into Lenny's downstairs bedroom. He was on his hands and knees searching through a sea of photocopied court transcripts that literally covered the entire carpeting up to his terrycloth-robed tush. Replaying the tape in my brain of that moment he saw me does not distort or diminish the expression on his face which, if it did not contain some element of love, was at the very least happy relief. The beatific expression broadened to a wide-eyed grin as he stumbled through the sea of paper to hug me, saying, "William, William, where have you been? You're just the man I need. Now we can get something done."

I returned the hug and relished the moment briefly for whatever warmth or sincerity it might hold. Then, more to establish a working discipline than to milk one of the rare moments where I had the upper hand with Lenny, I held him slightly apart from me and asked, "Did you ask Sally to call me?"

He turned into the room and started picking up papers. "Yeah, yeah, didn't she tell you I'm writing my book?"

I continued in a monotone, "Did you talk to her since she phoned me?"

Lenny brusquely focused his attention on the three other people in the room, his houseman, John Judnich, and two scantily clad girls. "You guys go fix something to eat, go do something in the other room, just go, okay, you guys." When they had left, he began snuffling as he looked down at the papers he shuffled in his hands, then looked up unsmiling at me and said, "I need you, Bill. I don't have much money, but I need you." He let the papers trail to the floor as his arms hung limply at his sides. "You can see that, can't you? I need you."

I looked out the picture window at the predawn gray of the Los Angeles skyline and said, "Before I leave today, I expect you to talk in realistic terms about paying me. Before I start, I want to be reassured I have complete authority which shall be superseded by you only when I say your head is straight. Otherwise I don't see . . ."

The ecstatic smile returned to his face and he grabbed both my hands, interrupting me with, "You got it, you got it!" Then he did a line from Lord Buckley's "The Naz" routine, "You lay it down, sweet double-hipness, whomp, and we'll pick it up."

And, as Lord Buckley would say, I llllllaid it.

For starters, I asked everyone who was not salaried to leave, which caused the redhead to disappear. The brunette wasn't salaried, but she was a good soldier and stayed, even after I asked her to change out of her babydoll nightie into some slacks and a shirt. I busied everyone stacking the paperwork in neat piles against one wall, then transferring it to stacks against the opposite wall separated by case file numbers which I started to list numerically on the wall with labels that could be removed later. Lenny, in his eager haste, started scribbling the numbers on the wall with a marker, but mostly out of sequence. Once that was in progress, I took Lenny in the other room and asked him about the manuscript.

"Well, I had this girl typing the manuscript, see, but a week or so ago I got horny and I jumped her. Now she thinks she's in love with me. She says she's coming over to work, but all she does when she gets here is cry because the other broads are here and all. I dunno, I always manage to screw things up somehow."

There was no manuscript. Bits of it were being held for ransom by unpaid secretaries and at least one lovesick one who only showed up to do melodramatic suicide routines. I finally had to get file copies back from Playboy of the few completed installments they had as a basis to get a handle on the book.

When I left Lenny two years before, I had sent him every photograph, every negative, every page of everything I had ever done for him, all beautifully organized and filed in books, binders, and boxes. At the beginning of our separation, I saw those materials used in publicity, in records, and in the later routines where only a seed of my contribution remained recognizable.

When I returned to Lenny, not one scrap of those materials or organization remained to be seen. The files, the audio control room, and the house were in a shambles. Lenny himself did not look as sleek or as healthy as he did two years before.

I took a bread-and-butter job in cinema equipment sales with Bob Gamble's Photo Supply because, not only did my work with Lenny not begin to provide a living, I also needed to replenish my cinema and audio equipment and it didn't hurt to be next to the wholesale sources. It also didn't hurt my efforts to re-establish the audio room in Lenny's house where my original installation of racked tape decks, custom-built mini-console, and laboriously wired patch bay that fed from all parts of the house was now just so many pounds of badly damaged spare parts.

In bits and spurts, whenever money could be spared from Lenny's legal fees and other needs, I tediously rebuilt the audio room which was to become the heart of Lenny's subsequent creative works. Lenny had been introduced to drugs long before I met him, but from our earliest association, I was responsible for making him, as one reporter put it, a "tape recorder junkie."

I tried to use recorders in writing with Frankie and originally with Lenny, particularly since neither of them typed or were particularly good grammarians, but it proved pointless because the principal reason they collaborated with me was so I could ride herd over their wandering imaginations and discipline the material into some semblance of the intended plot. Giving them a recorder to work with when I wasn't around largely inhibited them and, at the most, produced a lot of unrelated ramblings that offered little more than working from a dictionary or a telephone book. They both needed the interaction of bouncing ideas off someone, and I was, at the very least, a someone capable of evaluating and developing those ideas, and sometimes more.

After the first album had to be recorded live in the nightclub before an audience because Lenny couldn't perform in a cold impersonal sound studio, he got used to recording most of his performances for the creative advantages of reviewing his stage presence and ad-lib material for further development. But this was all still dependent upon a live audience to get anything out of Lenny and onto tape.

Lenny began to really take an interest in tape recorders when I was working as an investigator and his latent voyeurism was titillated by the "eavesdropping" element in my work. He had been around jazz musicians who were audiophiles and, while he never really understood the technology of audio electronics, he was enamored of sophisticated audio equipment because of this association. But when it came to the tape recorder as a "bugging" device, he suddenly developed a passion to understand, equip himself, and employ recorders offstage for the first time as a "technology of titillation."

When I began working on the autobiography with him, the unstable money and environmental situation precluded hiring a typist, so conditioning Lenny to use tape recorders for dictation was the only way to go. I established a system of taking the reels of dictation myself, when there was money, to a typist and providing one typed copy for Lenny, one for Playboy, and one for me, because Lenny's copy would invariably be lost within a day or two and he'd need xeroxes of mine.

Some people will find it curious that a performer who stood with a microphone before huge audiences most of his life could get "mike fright" when placed alone in a room with the same mike, but Lenny, not unlike others I've known in similar situations, did just that. It's rather like going to a shrink for the first time. It's one thing to talk about your intimate life to either a friend, or an audience of a thousand if you have a performer's talent and temperament, but it's an entirely different thing to tell your life story to a cold, impersonal machine.

I can see his nervous face before me as I listen to that first tape I made him make in the newly reconstructed audio room back in 1961. With my voice in the background explaining the layout of the new console, he starts in a subdued voice, "Hello, one, one, one, one, one. Dear Mr. Thomas, I'm a comedian that . . . . works on the principle of reporting. I report, er, about everything I see during the day, my own personal life . . . . in a way that, eh . . . . It's very strange, I find myself inhibited by the microphone."


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