LENNY BRUCE

The Observer Magazine - - THIS WEEK'S ISSUE - LENNY BRUCE BY ROGER LAW Roger Law: from Satire to Ce­ram­ics is at the Sains­bury Cen­tre for Vis­ual Arts, UEA, un­til 3 April 2018 (scva.ac.uk)

In 1961, my friend Peter Cook opened the Estab­lish­ment night­club in Soho. It was a dark and labyrinthine place; full of stars and artists, gang­sters and ras­cals. There was com­edy on stage, jazz in the base­ment, and dream­ers and drunks ev­ery­where else. You’d get the odd MP in there, too.

I was a 20-year-old car­toon­ist new to Lon­don, di­vid­ing my time be­tween free­lanc­ing for var­i­ous news­pa­pers and the more im­por­tant busi­ness of af­ter­noon drink­ing. So, when Peter asked me to be the club’s artist-in­res­i­dence, it was a dream. There was a 14ft wall op­po­site the main bar and I filled it every week with top­i­cal car­toons: po­lit­i­cal rants, scan­dal, what­ever got a re­ac­tion.

Which is why, one af­ter­noon, I hap­pened to be back­stage – look­ing for the ac­coun­tant to get paid – when I walked into a room to find the leg­endary Amer­i­can co­me­dian Lenny Bruce. He was alone, kneel­ing on the floor, cut­ting out news­pa­per pic­tures and stick­ing them on a mir­ror. He looked like a de­gen­er­ate mat­inée idol. Which I sup­pose he was.

He was play­ing a se­ries of shows at the club that week. It was the hottest ticket in Lon­don and, when you saw him on stage, you knew why. He was a ge­nius. He stood spray­ing pro­fan­i­ties like con­fetti, riff­ing on what­ever was in his head. No sketches, no punch­lines, cer­tainly noth­ing ap­proach­ing a script – just bit­ing and ob­scene satire. It was com­edy as so­cial at­tack. I re­alised I wanted to do art like he did standup.

Even now, I’m still not sure why that af­ter­noon he was cre­at­ing a col­lage on that mir­ror. I didn’t in­quire. He was a drug ad­dict. He was prob­a­bly out of his mind on meds. I just asked if he wanted a hand. When he said sure, I kneeled down and got cut­ting.

Off­stage, he was dif­fer­ent – not an­gry or vul­gar, but soft-voiced. I don’t ex­actly re­call what we spoke about: his work, mine, Lon­don. I was in awe. He asked if I’d no­ticed how news­pa­per pin-ups al­ways wore white heels. He said they looked like Min­nie Mouse. I nod­ded along. I never did find the ac­coun­tant.

A cou­ple of nights later we met again. Peter and his wife Wendy threw a din­ner party and in­vited me. She’d cooked rab­bit stew, and Lenny put mar­malade in his, which seemed pretty ex­otic. All night, he kept dis­ap­pear­ing to the toi­let. Ap­par­ently, he’d raided the bath­room cabi­net and taken some lax­a­tives by ac­ci­dent. No one men­tioned it. We’re English. It didn’t seem po­lite.

I never saw him again after that, but those brief meet­ings had a pro­found im­pact on my think­ing: Lenny Bruce taught me there should be no taboos, that an artist should never self-cen­sor. I lived by that ever af­ter­wards. When Peter Fluck and I cre­ated Spit­ting

Im­age two decades on, it was the driv­ing phi­los­o­phy.

He looked like a de­gen­er­ate mat­inée idol. Which I sup­pose he was

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