In 1980, some 14 years following Lenny Bruce’s tragic and premature death, Bob Dylan unexpectedly eulogised the comedy icon with a song which later became a stalwart of his setlists and a permanent fixture on the fan favourite board. On some occasions, Tom Petty even joined Dylan on stage for a special rendition, which made for a dazzling performance in Australia.
When Dylan released the track on his 1981 album Shot Of Love, it was seen as somewhat of a strange decision. Given the fact that he had never mentioned any affinity towards the comic before this at any point, the release was made even more fascinating when it coincided with the musician’s brief evangelical Christian period despite Bruce being openly vocal in his criticism of organised religion.
The song sees Dylan paying his tributes to a person he greatly admired and, in 1986 once his stint with Christianity had ended, he spoke in detail about Bruce’s impact on comedy: “I saw [Lenny Bruce] perform in the early sixties, around 1963 before he got caught up in all that legal stuff. He’s someone who’s never really been attributed the respect he deserves for what he did and the influences he had on so many people.”
Dylan added: “Guys like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, they owe such a huge debt to him, but no one makes the same fuss about him as they do about all those other guys that died before they should have,” showing his love for comics in general.
Dylan’s song, which came from a good place as he aimed to immortalise Bruce as the legend he was, was met by some criticism following its release as some of the lyrics in it didn’t go down well with the comic’s family. In a 2011 interview with Beatdom, the comedian’s daughter Kitty Bruce said: ‘He’s on some other shore, he didn’t want to live anymore…’ We did not think that to be the case, since Lenny seemed to love life and had no reason to die, aside from the police admittedly trying to kill him, outright, as they said in the press after his death. They killed him with the law. He fought for the Law. He did not kill himself on purpose and it even makes you wonder if he gave himself the last dose that killed him or if it was administered by an officer…but that is just opinion and conjecture.”
The track made a shock return to Dylan’s setlist during his winter North American tour last year and was the first time the great man had played it since 2008. Prior to it being shelved for over a decade, ‘Lenny Bruce’ had been performed live on 103 times, but one of those occasions is somewhat more special than the rest as Tom Petty joined him.
Playing alongside Petty and The Heartbreakers for Dylan’s tour of Australia in 1986, a special show at Sydney’s Entertainment Centre was later turned into a live concert film and, in it, shows the two legends come together for this stunning performance of ‘Lenny Bruce’. The friendship between Tom Petty and Bob Dylan can be felt in every performance they shared together but there’s something more poignant about this performance.
Watch footage of the pair performing the track in Sydney, below.