Steven Lee Beeber explores punk rock's Jewish roots.
By Eva Geertz
Every time I hear the first line on “Horses,” “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” I smile, and the hair stands up on the back of my neck. I’m not even a Patti Smith fan. But from time to time I’ve wondered if Jews feel that line differently, perhaps more viscerally, than Christian listeners do. Steven Lee Beeber doesn’t answer my question in his awesome “The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk,” but he gets so many other things right, I don’t care. This book is worth the cover price for the bar mitzvah photos alone—and for the actual text, we should all give thanks.
Over the years I’ve pondered this Jewish/punk connection, but I’ve never gotten very far. I knew, for instance, that the fact that Joey Ramone was Jewish was somehow culturally significant, but I couldn’t explain why. Fortunately, Beeber has done it for me with his exuberant exploration of this 70’s scene that has, until now, been sadly neglected.
There’s no genre of American music, with the possible exception of C&W, where Jews have not been major performers (as opposed to producers, engineers, studio musicians, lyricists, or composers). So to assume a Jewish-punk connection isn’t folly; it’s just a little unexpected. Nice Jewish Boys, like those twins I went to high school with, attended Ivy League colleges and med school. Their goal was to make lots of money and bring lots of nachas to their proud mamas and papas. By contrast, the early punks’ wanted to make music, scrub disco from the airwaves, and horrify the general public. This was not the nachas crowd. This was the Fuck Nachas crowd.
In a time-honored showbiz tradition, the Jewish punks took stage names. In a not-so-time-honored showbiz tradition they donned clothes fit for criminals or lunatics, and wrote songs that sounded criminal or lunatic (sometimes both); they were also often hilariously funny. The big shocker, of course, was that they did all this in public. I’m sure some of their mothers had apoplexy. But what can you do? A movement was born.
Beeber opens with Lenny Bruce. Bruce wasn’t a musician, of course, but he obviously inspired many punk rockers, and not just in their choice of recreational drugs. The attitude is essential. Almost quaintly, the chapter closes with a neat tidbit that was news to me: Lenny Bruce’s daughter, Kitty, had a band, The Great Must Ache, that played at CBGB’s in the late ‘70s. “Heebie Jeebies” is filled with small joys like this.
From Lenny Bruce, we move to “the Punk Zeyde,” Lou Reed. Anyone who doesn’t already know that Lou is Jewish hasn’t been paying attention, but Beeber discusses how Reed’s Jewishness affected his work. Reed got his start working in a Brill Building-like songwriting factory—a field dominated by Jews—and, of course, at Syracuse studied under the Jewish writer Delmore Schwartz. Both of these elements prove influential in obvious and less-obvious ways. Beeber offers insight to the Nico/Reed relationship, discussing anti-Semitism at Warhol’s Factory, and guiding us through the rest of the Velvet Underground’s lifespan and into Reed’s long solo career.
The musical spawn of Lou Reed—the crowd that moved from Max’s Kansas City to CBGB’s—form the heart of the book. Beeber covers Danny Fields (a player in the music industry who shepherded bands, notably the Ramones, to contracts by introducing them to Seymour Stein at Sire Records); Alan Vega and Martin Rev of Suicide; and Jonathan Richman, whose epiphany on a trip to Israel inspired him to start his band. The chapter on Lenny Kaye is particularly interesting. Kaye is smart, thoughtful, and comfortable talking with Beeber, unlike many of the people you would hope to read interviews with—like, for instance, Richard Hell—who refused to be involved in this book. Kaye describes himself as “a scholar of the Talmud of rock’n’roll,” a phrase that will ring true for those who find rock and roll music in whatever form to be life-saving or cathartic.
Kaye is also the first interviewee to acknowledge the connection between left-wing politics and punk. While it’s obvious that Lenny Bruce was a lefty, what exactly was it that made early punk left-wing? Well, it turns out that a lot of the nice Jewish kids who became punk rockers were the offspring of good old-fashioned Jewish pinkos of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Hilly Kristal, founder of CBGB’s, grew up on a famous Jewish communal farm, the Jersey Homestead. Lenny Kaye was part of SDS. Who knew?
Discussing Malcolm McLaren, who got the Sex Pistols going in London, and who I would never have guessed was Jewish, Beeber describes crucial differences between being Jewish in New York, being Jewish in London, and being Jewish in America in general. While the author doesn’t dwell on anti-Semitism, he also doesn’t shy away from the subject when it comes up.
To his credit, Beeber addresses head-on the difficult subject of Nazi imagery in punk, tying the genre’s underlying Jewishness to, that’s right, the Holocaust. Or, as he puts it, “No Holocaust, no punk.” Some bands used the swastika and other Nazi-associated icons for their shock value and to vent feelings of victimization. For example, he writes, “The Stooges' embrace of Nazi imagery was based on economic resentment and a simple desire to align themselves with the darkest, most frightening and shocking forces imaginable." Whereas other bands, like the Ramones (“Blitzkrieg Bop”) and the Dictators (“Master Race Rock”) mocked Nazi symbols, not to trivialize the atrocities committed under them, but to dispel through parody any lingering power the may have had.
The book ends with a discussion of the mainstreaming of punk and the current “downtown” music scene in New York, a slightly dissatisfying finale, as there seemed to be a hole that needed to be filled with more interviews, particularly with legends like Joey Ramone. At the same time, as the first in-depth exploration of the connection between Jews and punk, “Heebie Jeebies” does fill a hole, and provides an enjoyable, enlightening introduction to a cultural phenomenon that deserves even more critical analysis.
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