Finding the bagels, knishes and schmaltz in punk rock
I met Somerville writer Steven Beeber, author of Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk. This study of the intersection of punk rock and Jewish culture should make for some very interesting reading. I don’t know if any punk rock chants ever made it an anthem or can be interpreted by Talmudic law… but hey, as the bard wrote, “Ah, sweet mystery of life.”
Doug Holder: What life in Somerville has been like for your life as a writer. Do you think it’s a good place for creatives?
Steven Beeber: Somerville is a great place to be a writer. I’ve heard that there are more writers here per capita than anywhere else in the country. I’m not sure that’s true – I’m not a statistician – but I do know that in an often lonely and isolating field, there is a real community here, which is so important. It may not be the Paris of the 1920s, but the cafes are plentiful and the gatherings are regular, so it’s not far. Also, my wife and I both have writing “cabins” in our backyard, so that’s yet another plus. More seriously, it must be said that the institutional support of the city itself is incredible. The Somerville Arts Council, among other institutions, is essential in providing not just support, but a forum in which writers can reach an audience.
DH: How the hell is Jewish culture reflected in punk rock?
SB: Jewish culture, as opposed to Judaism religion, is deeply rooted in punk, especially the original version of punk that came out of New York. Needless to say, New York is home to many Jews, and this was especially true in the 1950s and 1960s, when punks came of age. The character of Jewish culture – ironic, humorous, sensitive to the injustices inflicted on the marginalized – is anything but synonymous with punk. Add to that a preoccupation with neurosis, anxiety and, above all, the Nazis, and you have all the ingredients for a new rock movement. Ultimately, I’d say punk was a reaction to the Holocaust by the first generation that rose up after it.
DH: Did the Ramones, John Zorn, Lou Reed, the Dictators, etc., ever talk at length about their Jewish background when it comes to their music?
SB: Only John Zorn did before I approached them about my book. His Radical Jewish Culture movement took the unspoken elements of NY Punk to an explicit level, which makes sense since he’s categorized as Post-Punk more than Punk. But as for the others, they all spoke at length about their backgrounds for my book.
Tommy Ramone (born Tamas Erdelyi), for example, was raised in an anti-Semitic Hungary until arriving in New York as a child, and his idea of what became of the Ramones bore all the hallmarks of his conflicting feelings. about being a foreigner. In many ways, Tommy was the mastermind behind the band, the original manager who insisted they look and behave a certain way, the one who found their signature drum sound and joined the band because no one else could learn to play it. , the one who, above all, insisted against the protests of the other members, for Joey to be the lead singer. While Dee Dee and Johnny felt Joey was the opposite of what a rock star should look like, Tommy knew it was this very quality that made Joey perfect. As I say in my book, that look was about as Jewish as it got, so much so that Joey could have passed for an anti-Semitic caricature in the official Nazi newspaper. The Sturmer.
As for The Dictators – who were all Jewish – lead singer, Handsome Dick Manitoba, and original songwriter, Richard Meltzer, have been particularly open about the connection, though others like producer, Sandy Pearlman — of “Mo cowbell” fame — and lead guitarist and band founder Andy Shernoff were clearly influenced by their backgrounds.
Lou Reed, of course, wrote indirectly about his Jewishness early on and more explicitly about it near the end. The Black Angel’s Dirgefrom the early days of the Velvet Underground, seems to be about the killing fields of Holocaust-ravaged Poland, and Egg cream, taken from one of his last albums, exalts the magic of this “Jewish elixir” which was so much a part of his New York Jewish childhood. Reed also attended the annual gathering known as The Downtown Seder, a hip Passover gathering hosted by Knitting Factory founder Michael Dorf, at which Reed would read the traditional four questions attributed to the Naughty Child.
Many other members of the punk scene have also spoken at length about their Jewish background, including, among others, Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group, Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, Alan Vega of Suicide, and Punk manager and impresario Danny Fields, to whom Legacy McNeil dedicates his oral history of Punk, please kill me. My book, The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punkcontains profiles based on in-depth interviews with nearly every major early punk rocker.
DH: The punk rock scene originated on New York’s Lower East Side, once home to many Jewish immigrants at the turn of the last century. It was fertile ground for Jews starting out in America. How did this neighborhood contribute to the birth of this new genre of rock music?
SB: I have also published an essay on this same subject in a collection entitled Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side. In it, I posited that LES was essential to the burgeoning punk scene. Not only did Hilly Kristal – born Hillel Kristal in a socialist Zionist collective in New Jersey – choose this location for CBGB, the club that became ground zero for the scene.
Tuli (Naphtali) Kupferberg of the Fugs and Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground performed there regularly in the late 60s when future punks like Blondie’s Chris Stein went religiously to see them. Tuli stayed there most of his life, and Richard Hell (Richard Meyers) fled anti-Semitic Lexington, Kentucky there as a teenager. I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that many of those who laid the foundations of punk and many of those who carried it through lived and worked there, and even if they didn’t , they were influenced by its volatile mix of gritty urban drama and theatrical liberal schmaltz. It’s no mistake that CGBG was a short distance from Ratners, Katz’s and the Second Avenue Deli.
DH: I’m Jewish and have a thing for Concord, Grossinger’s style of Jewish borscht belt humor. How did it play out in this music scene?
SB: The Borscht Belt is at the heart of it all. Teenage punk rockers idolized Lenny Bruce, who started out in this world before becoming too brash to continue in it. But other Borscht Belt comics, while more tame on the surface — at least in terms of four-letter words — still had the same attitudes as Bruce and treated them the same way. Much of Borscht Belt’s humor is a coded attack on polite societal mores, a dismissal of the stuffy, hypocritical world in which the Jews found themselves.
Think, in an earlier era, of Groucho doing his number on society dean Margaret Dumont. At the same time, this humor was also self-directed, a way of defusing the attack through self-mockery that sometimes hinted at genuine internalized self-hatred. Jerry Lewis and his Arrested Development act, Henry Youngman and his “take my wife, please”. Groucho himself and his, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that had me as a member.” Also remember, however, that Groucho is also renowned for his response to a select club that refused admission to his half-Jewish daughter: “If she stays out of the water from the waist down, maybe that you could let her in the pool?”
DH: I don’t know if my former rabbi would agree with your thesis. Was the book used for serious study in the Jewish academy?
SB: Yes. But I wouldn’t say it’s limited to the Jewish academy. I’ve been asked to speak on the subject at conferences and universities around the world, and I’m actually quite well known in Germany. You know the phrase “I’m big in Japan?” I often say that I am big in the other former Axis power.