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
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.