An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

Who Was That Masked Man?

In the late 1950s in Minneapolis, the top night club for white folks was a place called Freddy’s Café Exceptional. Expensive, but not pretentious, Freddy’s had just been redecorated in a sort of faux Polynesian motif: bright flowery cushions, cane and wicker. It was the place you used to go to hear the likes of Sara Vaughn or Tony Martin, but Freddy had decided to keep up with the trends, and now it was more likely to be Mort Sahl or The Kingston Trio. I had been there a few weeks before to dig Josh White, but on this night, having been advised by my buddy Bruce Rubenstein, who later became a pretty big deal crime reporter, I was waiting for the very tardy appearance of a new comedian named Lenny Bruce. I had noticed another friend, who functioned as the house publicity person and general all-round assistant to whomever was appearing, disappearing through an unmarked door with a worried look on her face. I later found out she was searching for Lenny in the basement, where she found him behind some packing crates, nodded out from some heroin he had just shot; roused him awake, and pointed him to the stage door.

Finally, the announcement came: “Ladies and Gentlemen, direct from the Hungry I in San Francisco, welcome Lenny Bruce.”

Lenny walked out, took a look around, stepped up to the mike and said “Would the decorator come up and take a bow? Don Ho? You here? I love this Hawaiian modern here. Very tasteful. It’s snowing outside, up to your pippik, but hey, in here it’s Waikiki.”

Excuse me, waitress? Yeah, you, honey. Do me a favor, ok? Hand me that empty chair down in front there, yeah, that one, hand it right up here. Thanks.” Lenny holds the chair up by the back legs.

“Take a good look at this chair. What do you see? Well, there’s some wood, some upholstery, maybe a little padding, it’s a chair, right? There’s more to this chair than meets our eye. Take Clyde Beatty, the lion tamer, for example. He walks into a cage with five lions, two tigers and a black panther. He’s got a whip. He’s got a gun. He’s got a chair. The lions, fierce and unhappy beasts, hate Clyde Beatty. They would love to jump on his ass, tear him to shreds. But they don’t. Why is that? Are they afraid of his gun? No. What about the whip? Not the whip. It’s the chair? That’s right. You see, they see things differently. They look at the chair and they see all the asses that have sat on the chair. Those asses, they are looking at the lions. Hundreds, thousands of asses. And the lions, they figure they can handle Clyde Beatty, but the asses overwhelm them. Some day, Clyde Beatty is going to go into that cage with a brand new chair, and that will be the end of Clyde Beatty.”

The next time I saw Lenny was in 1963. I was down in Saint Louis, visiting a friend of mine who was playing guitar and singing in an Irish bar in the Gaslight Square entertainment district, just around the corner from the Crystal Palace, which along with places like the Ash Grove in L.A., the Cave in Denver and the Hungry I in San Francisco was on the “A circuit”. Lenny was playing the Palace. My friend Mike, the son of a doctor in Sioux City Iowa, had affected a biker/pirate appearance, complete with cape, and was a well known character recognized by one and all.

On a sultry summer night in August, we were taking a stroll between his sets, and happened to pass by the Palace, when Lenny walked out. “Hey, man”, he said to Mike. “I’ve seen you around. Mind if I walk with you?”

Clearly agitated, he started telling us about how he could hardly ever get any time to himself; how his management hired people to keep him out of trouble; how with all the spying and contractual rules he couldn’t get high anymore. He asked if we had drugs. We didn’t. He pulled out a silver snuff box with candy coated almonds in it, and offered each of us an almond. For twenty minutes, as we walked together, he talked about how much he wanted to get high, and ate almonds. We dropped him back at the Palace on our way to the Irish bar. By the time we got around the corner, we both realized that we were stoned – from one almond. Lenny had eaten several. What, Mike pondered, must Lenny’s definition of high be like?

The last time I saw Lenny was the last time he performed at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were the opening band. Lenny had long since ceased to do his comedy routines. He did two sets, reading from his trial transcripts and his FBI files. He was, as he had always been, in the moment, and the moment was painful and bizarre and absurd. He had become an expert on first amendment law, and was totally fixated on his “case”. It was very definitely a bitter sweet experience.

When he came back from the break he told a story. Seems he had wandered out the front door, and as he was walking up the street, he realized he needed to pee. There, right next to the Fillmore, was another large building with a big, deep, arched doorway. So there he was, facing in and pissing in the corner, when the door opened. It was a synagogue, and he got caught with his putz in his hand by the Rabbi. I have forgotten the punch line, but it was the only genuinely funny bit in the whole evening.

I left the Fillmore that night with a deep feeling that Lenny had already left us; that finally the burden of drugs and legal hassles had overwhelmed him. When he actually died from an overdose sometime later, it was no surprise, and for me, the mourning period had long been over.

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All materials copyrighted, 1994-2004 by Stan Gotlieb and