The Lyrics and the Music: Lenny Bruce is Dead

I don’t know what it means either: an index to the current series appearing on this website.    A list of the previous articles in this series appears at the end.

“The Lyrics and the Music” is a series by Tony Attwood which tries to find out what happens when one reviews a Dylan song not primarily as a set of lyrics, but as a piece of music which includes lyrics.   An updated list of previous articles in the series is given at the end.

Lenny Bruce

We only have to look at the opening verse to understand why the music of “Lenny Bruce is dead” is as it is.   Dylan is not offering an opinion, he is absolutely telling us how it is.

Lenny Bruce is dead, but his ghost lives on and onNever did get any Golden Globe AwardNever made it to SynanonHe was an outlaw, that's for sureMore of an outlaw than you ever wereLenny Bruce is gone, but his spirit's livin' on and on

But as we will see from the two musical examples offered below, these lyrics can be interpreted in utterly different ways, while still carrying the same meaning.

The music to accompany these lyrics needs to be clear – it can’t have a range of violins giving an ethereal backing.   But ut can be gentle or it can be solid and pounding musically – which is quite remarkable because this is not how songs about the departed generally are.   They often highlight the good parts in a person’s life, and have a certain gentility, but Bob will have none of that.

But if we move on to the last verse we can see that this is very much a fighting song.

They said that he was sick, 'cause he didn't play by the rulesHe just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than foolsThey stamped him, and they labeled him like they do with pants and shirtsHe fought a war on a battlefield where every victory hurtsLenny Bruce was bad, he was the brother that you never had

That line “where every victory hurts” tells us what this is about – but then it is followed by probably one of the most powerful lines in the whole of Bob Dylan’s songwriting: “he was the brother that you never had”.

So let’s turn to the two arrangements of the music…

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

And that line can be sung with aggression and anger or with a deep sadness.

But the point about the song, is that even whichever of these two ways it is performed the music still carries the message.  In the original Bob is much more sympathetic far less forceful.  Later he was powerful to the point of aggression in blaming those around Lenny Bruce.

And yet the same basic musical structure works, whatever the arrangement.   And that is a remarkable musical achievement, to make the music work whether it is performed in a sad and regretful manner or making it quite clear that this is our loss.

Personally I prefer the forceful performance above rather than the original version below, but either way the music fits utterly with the lyrics – and that is quite a remarkable achievement.

The songs reviewed from the music plus lyrics viewpoint…

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