Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Review: The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk by Steven Lee Beeber

It's an odd bit of nomenclature, the difference in implication in the expressions "Christian musician" and "Jewish musician." To call someone a Christian musician is taken to mean an artist whose material deals with religious and spiritual matters. Christian music is a recognized genre, even with its own Billboard charts. However, to call someone a Jewish musicians refers only to their religious background but says nothing about content of their songs. To talk about Jewish musicians, the default assumption is secular music by people who happen to be Jewish.

All of which boils down to this: don't approach Steven Lee Beeber's book The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk expecting to learn about an unknown subgenre of punk featuring the likes of a sped-up, angry version of "Kol Nidre," not that anyone is apt to make that mistake. Beeber even makes his outlook explicit, examining what it means to be Jewish from a cultural rather than religious perspective, on par with being Italian, Irish or Indian rather than Catholic or Hindu. He may trot out anecdotes about bar mitzvahs as evidence of Lou Reed's religious heritage, but Beeber is much more interested in Jews as an ethnic rather than religious group. And the big surprise is that the history of punk includes a lot of Jews in crucial roles.

Beeber goes far beyond the mere curiosity "outing" Jewish punks. Sure, you know that Joey Ramone was Jewish, but did you guess that Tommy Ramone is, too? The author even questions his own motivation when Richard Hell (né Meyers) asks Beeber his point in writing the book. Beeber examines the common cultural forces that influenced this set of people. Some manifestations are overt, such as the Ramones' exhortation to eat Kosher salami. Others are more subtle, such as the status of Jews as outsiders in American society and rebellion against parental desires to assimilate via respectable high-paying professions.

The author trips up when he lacks primary sources. Most notably in the chapters on Lou Reed and the reclusive Jonathan Richman, he struggles to interpret their inspiration through their lyrics and other press clippings. In doing so, his analysis gets stretched too thin and his writing becomes repetitive. In other instances, he worked around his inability to interview his subjects by drawing on other sources. Richard Hell was suspicious of Beeber's angle and refused to be interviewed, but Beeber researched Hell's archival materials at NYU for insights. Joey Ramone died before Beeber began to work on the book, but those close to Joey were clearly forthcoming about him.

The book's greatest strength is in examining early punk's obsession with Nazi Germany. The Ramone's brought it to the forefront with one of their most political songs, "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg." But before that, many in the scene used Nazi iconography in their work or collected it privately. Beeber teases this out, observing the place of this generation of Jews in history. For many, they were just young enough to have not been directly affected by the Holocaust but just old enough to grow up around those who were. Drawing on Susan Sontag's work in Notes on "Camp," he theorizes that the obsession is a manifestation of an ultimate psychology victory over the Nazis.

Many ethnic groups take justifiable pride in the accomplishments of its members in various fields. But in chronicling the impact of people such as band managers Danny Fields and Malcolm McLaren, CBGB's founder Hilly Kristal, Chris Stein of Blondie and Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group as well as lesser lights in the punk spectrum, Beeber assembles a compelling argument. The Jewish experience provided a unique influence on this group of people, and without this cluster of Jews, punk as we know it would not exist.


Anonymous said...

Richard Hell's birth name was "Meyers," not "Meltzer." Richard Meltzer was a rock writer. Also, Hell's father was a non-practicing Jew, but Hell's mother, who brought him up -- Hell's father died when Hell was seven -- was a southern WASP.

Marci said...

Thanks for catching my error, which I have corrected. Meltzer is also mentioned in the book.