by Tony Attwood
This article updated 22 June 2018, with the addition of two superb live versions at the end and some additional thoughts.
In his interviews Dylan says that he wrote the Lenny Bruce song in about five minutes. Bruce died in 1966, and Dylan wrote the song around the time of the recording of Shot of Love in 1980. Dylan never expressed any interest in Lenny Bruce before or since, and claims he has no idea why he wrote it.
What is really fascinating is that Lenny Bruce made fun of religion – it was one of the key targets of his work – and Dylan wrote this during his religious period. An interesting contradiction and one that Bob has addressed in his comments about what Christianity is all about – although I am not sure I fully followed the answer.
It is also one of those songs that Heylin really can’t stand, complaining that Dylan wasted a great tune on lyrics like this. Again I disagree – but then I am not a Christian so I guess I see things from another perspective.
But Dylan’s comments do give us a real insight into the meaning of Dylan songs, for here, virtually by his own admission, we have a stunningly elegant piece of writing in which the words have no deep meaning, but are part of a contextual whole, equal in many regards to the melody, chords, the piano and the voice.
It works so well because the music manages to be utterly haunting, and so matches the first line (which is the only line those who only just about remember the song actually know)
Lenny Bruce is dead but his ghost lives on and on
Indeed it can be argued, because of Dylan’s comments, that the words don’t matter too much – what matters here is the total sound. And yet as you can here from the versions below, no matter which way it is performed the message is enhanced.
Each version does give us the feeling of an overall sound, even if you never once listen to the words – at least not until we get to the final line…
Lenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had.
And that is about it. An opening line and a closing line, a piano and a voice. All making a simple song that is haunting and exquisite. Sometimes things just work. What is amazing is that as Dylan changed it, so it continued to work.
Between 1981 and 2008 Bob played this song 103 times, showing that (I think) he too had got the message that there was something very special in this song. The lyrics, yes, the music, yes, and then the overall impact of the song sandwiched between that first and last line.
So of course the song didn’t end with that simple album version, because with Dylan songs are revisited and re-arranged. Here are two.
I love this version
And here’s another knock out performance…
Maybe in the end the attraction between Bob and Lenny Bruce is to be found in one particular line
He just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools
Bob and Lenny both.
What else is on the site?
You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page. You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.
The index to the 500+ songs reviewed is now on a new page of its own. You will find it here. It contains links to reviews of every Dylan composition that we can find a recording of – if you know of anything we have missed please do write in.
We also now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews