The Birth of the 'Voice': 1955–1965

From the Beats to Civil Rights, Lenny Bruce to Warhol's Factory . . .

Later, in his room at one of the Village's less elegant hotels, where there is no carpeting, just blankets and miscellaneous junk on the floor, Bruce kind of nervously jumps around, occasionally flopping down on the messed-up bed with a law book, all his attention focused on working out the legal strategy to get him out from under the latest charge against him. His steadily mounting experience in cases like this has made him somewhat of a specialist on the subject. The whole scene is reminiscent of poet Allen Ginsberg spouting the expertise he accumulated in his recent battle with the City License Department for the right of poets to read their work in coffee houses. Here too the authorities are, if nothing else, succeeding in distracting an artist from his work and turning him into a legalist.

But when Bruce is finally lured out of his law book and into a more general discussion of his problems, there is no display of bitterness—against neither the police nor the law itself. In fact, Bruce displays more compassion for the police than just about anyone around the Village these days. "They die for less than $400 a month," he points out. "And they're ashamed of being cops. It's a shitty gig." He feels it isn't fair to treat individual policemen as symbols. Newspapers, he says, depend too much on symbols. "When they talk about Alec Guinness they say he's Chaplinesque. And when they talk about Peter Sellers they say he's Guinness-like," Bruce complained, shoulders hunched, hands in pockets, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling and looking exactly like James Dean.

As for the obscenity law, he says he thinks it's "correct." "The whole issue," says Bruce, "is not that the state should keep its dirty hands off," as the liberal he visited had insisted. For Bruce "the key word is 'prurient.' Don't get people horny." And he says, insisting he is serious, that there should be a law against getting people aroused because "it's bad for marriages." He says he's not for the repeal of obscenity laws because "most laws have been defined and tested under Constitutional law by men like Judge Black and some other pretty wise old cats . . . Here's how wonderful the law is," he goes on, getting enthusiastic. "Even if (what you say) gets people horny, if it has some social importance it's not obscene."

Bruce's quarrel is not with the law as written. He feels that the obscenity law as written and correctly defined does not inhibit his freedom of speech. He is confident that, as has happened in California, if his case has to go to a higher court, the words he has been hauled in on will not be judged obscene. The only fear Lenny Bruce has is "of running out of carfare to the Supreme Court."
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Surf and Turf. Carolee Schneeman’s "happening" titled "Meat Joy" at the Judson Church was one of its recent sensational events that was overshadowed only by a concert of two nude dancers. In this happening the players got swatted with raw fish and plucked limp chickens. (Nov. 1964)
photo: Fred W. McDarrah

Marching to Montgomery: The Cradle Did Rock

by Jack Newfield
April 1, 1965

see full text

It was the Ecumenical Council, a hootenanny, a happening, and a revolution all rolled into one. And it happened in Montgomery, "Cradle of the Confederacy."

A broken-down hipster, the Realist sticking out of his dungarees, marched alongside an Episcopal bishop clutching the Holy Bible. There were the kamikazes of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee—SNCC—in their blue-denim overalls, mud-caked boots, and rash helmets, next to middle-class housewives who won't ride the subways after dark. There were nuns in flowing black habits arm in arm with jowly labor leaders who discriminate in their unions.

There were rabbis, junkies, schoolboys, actors, sharecroppers, intellectuals, maids, novelists, folk-singers, and politicians—40,000 motives and 40,000 people marching to Montgomery behind James Forman who hates the oppressor and Martin Luther King who loves the oppressed.

There were hundreds of high school and college youngsters—that new breed of revolutionary that has somehow grown up inside the bowels of prosperous America. There were kids who rioted against HUAC, vigiled against the Bomb, invaded Mississippi last summer, and turned Berkeley upside down. They are a new generation of insurgents, nourished not by Marx or Trotsky, but by Camus, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and SNCC. Their revolution is not against capitalism, but against what they deem to be the values of an enlightened America—Brotherhood Weeks, factories called colleges, desperation called success, and sex twice a week.

And there were thousands of clergymen symbolizing the revolution within a revolution—the nun with suntan cream on her face who marched all the way from Selma, priests, ministers, rabbis with yarmulkes. There was a huge sign: "Lutherans are Here Because Christ Cared." Another read: "Kansas Mennonites Support Civil Rights." And another: "SMU Marches for Freedom."

On the streets of the Confederacy's cradle that "coalition of conscience" Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington have tried to will into existence materialized spontaneously. A line of marchers, strung out as far as the eye could see, sang "America the Beautiful" and made it sound like a revolutionary anthem . . .

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