Lenny Bruce is Dead: Dylan’s eulogy to the man who man fun of religion

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.

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  1. Haunting song. “I rode with him in a taxi once, only for a mile and a half, seems like it took a couple of months”

  2. Anyone that bad mouth Elvis Presley is pure jealous of the great man that Elvis is…..most singer’s are only in the singing business because of Elvis ..everyone wants what Elvis had great talent…Elvis is loved the world over Elvis is loved by many singers of today’s music…were every you go your going to hear Elvis…Elvis the greatest icon of all time’s…not to like Elvis is not to like music…..so all you shitheads except the Truth there is always going to be Elvis Presley and there is nothing you can do about that…R.I.P…T.C.B…ALLWAYS ELVIS..xx

  3. Yeah, there is an Elvis connection, the song is really directed at Albert Goldman, author of hatchet jobs, on Lenny, Elvis and Lennon, the line, “more of an outlaw than you ever were”, says it all, plus, “they stamped him and they labelled him like they do with pants and shirts” can apply to all three icons, Goldman wrote a scathing article on Bob back in the 70’s in Newsweek I think? and we all know Bob is a good man to hold a grudge, remember Merle Haggard.
    So nothing is ever too obvious with Dylan, one always has to read between the lines. Superb song regardless.

  4. i enjoy the song but he takes liberties with Lenny Bruce’s thoughts and Lenny was one person you should not try to presume the thought pattern of.

    He’s on some other shore. He didn’t want to live anymore.

    His daughter, Kitty Bruce, who he loved very much, told me that Bob Dylan is a great poet and makes good rhymes but the idea about Lenny wanting to be dead is a kind of grab for pathos. One detective is on record as admitting he died of ‘death by police’…and who would know how he thought better than his daughter, who was raised by Lenny’s mother Sally Marr and so brought up with the same values and outlooks.

    Better to say he’s on some other shore. the police left him on the floor.

    Contribute to the Lenny Bruce Foundation, a drug rehab program. Visit them on FB or Twitter.

  5. “He just showed the wise men of his day to be nothing more than fools”

    Just thought I’d point out that this is a Biblical reference: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” – Romans 1:22

    I didn’t care for this song when I first heard it on Shot of Love. But last time I saw him live, he did it, and it really grabbed me. Now I think it’s a gem.

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