August 03, 2014

“I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing God.”

On August 3, 1966, the brilliant, boundary-stretching and, unfortunately, drug-addicted American comedian Lenny Bruce was found dead in the bathroom of his home in Hollywood, California.

A syringe and other drug paraphernalia were on the floor next to him. The cause of death was ruled to be an accidental overdose of morphine.

Bruce was just 40 years old.

It was the sad fulfillment of a famous quote about the peril and pleasure of drug addiction that is widely credited to Bruce:

       “I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing God.”

Many books of quotations simply cite the quote as “attributed.”

Those that give a specific source for the attribution cite the 1970 book Play Power: Exploring the International Underground by Richard Neville.

Neville is himself a legendary 1960s counterculture celebrity.

He initially gained notoriety in Australia as editor of the underground magazine OZ.

In Play Power, Neville used the Bruce quotation at the end of a point he made about the unintended consequences of public hysteria over marijuana.

“When one discovers that cannabis is harmless, exposing society’s lie, heroin by analogy may seem tempting,” Neville wrote. “Moral: Tell the truth about pot and there will be fewer junkies.”

Neville then inserted Bruce’s “kissing God” quote, without giving any source information other than Bruce’s name.

It’s possible that Neville heard Bruce say the line in a conversation.

He mentioned in an interview in DUKE magazine that he’d met Bruce briefly in 1962, when the comedian came to Australia for an ill-fated tour that was shut down after one performance for “obscenity.”

I emailed Neville and asked him if Bruce used the “kissing God” quote when they met.

He emailed back saying he didn’t remember hearing it from Bruce himself.

“I can’t recall the first time I heard it,” Neville told me, “though I do remember the saying being quoted in the London OZ office in the late Sixties.”

I’ve been unable to find the “kissing God” quote in anything written by Lenny Bruce.

Nor could I find any evidence that he said it in any of his stand-up comedy routines.

However, a version of the quip is mentioned in the 1974 biography Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!, written by Albert Harry Goldman and Lawrence Schiller.

According to an anecdote recorded in that book, Bruce once told his friend, writer Terry Southern:

“You start off with one or two pills, then it’s three or four and pretty soon to get that flash, you gotta have a whole handful. An’ shit! Who wants to shoot without the flash? You understand? It’s like kissing God!”

On August 3, 1966, Lenny Bruce “kissed God” for last time.

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