Given that music’s resident misanthropes Steely Dan took their name from a giant flying dildo in William S. Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch, it’s no surprise that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker would cherrypick from across popular culture over their long career. From drawing on the science-fiction writers that inspired them as children to using James Joyce’s Ulysses, Steely Dan often looked to the works of others to create their unique pieces.
With that, one figure who greatly motivated their work was the late satirist and social critic Lenny Bruce. Bruce was highly influential in the comedy world and aimed a bright light on the many issues in society and became a countercultural hero because of it. Tragically though, he died before his time, aged 40 in 1966, owing to “acute morphine poisoning caused by an overdose”. Bruce’s death came during an intense period in his life after he was arrested in 1964 on a tenuous obscenity charge after one of his stand-up shows. The comic was eventually convicted, although he never served his sentence because of his death, with the ruling later overturned.
Bruce’s work is so impactful that he continued to be ubiquitous in popular culture following his death. Many prominent artists name-checked him in their work, confirming the great significance he held for the counterculture and those railing against backwards societal mores.
Perhaps the most notable example of his status is that he was included on the front cover of The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s, with Bruce pictured in the top row. Elsewhere, in October of that year, he was mentioned by Paul Simon in the Simon and Garfunkel song ‘A Simple Desultory Philippic’. Simon sings: “I learned the truth from Lenny Bruce, that all my wealth won’t buy me health.”
Other artists to have mentioned him include Grace Slick in the Great Society song ‘Father Bruce’, Nico on ‘Eulogy to Lenny Bruce’ and The Stranglers on their 1977 anthem ‘No More Heroes’. Of course, those citations are merely the tip of the iceberg, with the likes of R.E.M., Genesis, John Mayall and even Bob Dylan all following suit.
Demonstrating the essence of Bruce’s character is Reverend William Glenesk, who eulogises at the end of the documentary Lenny Bruce Without the Tears: “He was in a sense an evangelist, on a street corner. He was a man—up tight against an artificial world… who shattered its facades and its hypocrisy, and—if you will pardon the phrase which seems to become a cliche—he saw life as it is.”
As Steely Dan remain hailed by their fans as the most eminent uber-realists in music, with a penchant for biting satire, there’s no surprise that Lenny Bruce inspired Fagen and Becker’s outlook. Although this came to the fore at different points over their career, it is most notable in the track ‘Show Biz Kids’ from 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy. A critique of the music industry and show business that they intensely abhorred, lyrically, the song is arguably one of their best moments.
The refrain in the track, “You go to Lost Wages, Lost Wages,” which is sung by the backing vocalists to sound like “Las Vegas”, was directly inspired by one of Bruce’s jokes, crystallising the tremendous impact the comedian had on Fagen and Becker.
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