The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's
A Secret History of Jewish Punk
By Steven Lee Beeber
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2006 Steven Lee Beeber
All rights reserved.
THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF PUNK
Lenny Bruce: The Patron Saint of Jewish New York
There is a real common ground with the punk sensibility and the basic Jewish, Lenny Bruce, show-biz culture. There is something just generally punkish about the whole [thing] — I mean, what we see as punk, if you really break it down, I mean, what is it? It's sort of anti-establishment, and all that. Elements of it sort of remind me of the standard Jewish comedian thing. Maybe that's part of why it came out of New York. It's a smartass town. To me, it seems related.
— Chris Stein, 2004
In the beginning was the word, and the word was fuck.
No, wait, it was nigger.
We'll begin again.
In the beginning was Lenny Bruce, the comedian of dirty words, the taboo-breaking social critic who died like a martyr in his own land. A quintessential New Yorker, a quintessential Jew, he raised street smarts to a searing art. Punk musicians regard him as their patron saint. Many of the nearly 150 people interviewed for this book spoke of Bruce as the most important influence in their lives before the Beatles. Bruce showed Joey Ramone, Chris Stein, and Handsome Dick Manitoba how to behave like cool kids. He was the only adult they respected. Like them, Bruce was first and foremost a smartass.
Born in 1925 as Leonard Alfred Schneider to a stage mother who was a smalltime performer, Bruce epitomizes showbiz tradition in American Jewish culture, particularly New York Jewish culture. Jews predominated in Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, early nickelodeons (the precursors to Hollywood studios), comic books, radio, television, the Brill Building, The Velvet Underground, and punk. Bruce honed his craft as a truth- telling badass in strip clubs, gin joints, and broken-down burlesque houses where the comic was a filler between the acts, a dirty-joke teller who kept the audience in their seats while the girls went out for a cigarette and a shot. He was ready to move into the higher leagues by the 1950s, but like the punk rockers who followed him, he found that to succeed he had to bring the crassness of the streets along with him. In the end, he brought smartass aboveground, where it was uneasily tolerated by society.
"He was just so sarcastic," as Chris Stein puts it. "He was cool and uncompromising and he had street smarts." Stein comments that it wasn't until he was in his forties and listening again to Bruce's Carnegie Hall concert bit about his "Shiksa Goddess" wife, Honey, that he realized "how much that was like me and Debbie [Harry]."
It's not too surprising that early punk rockers worshipped Bruce. They came of age when Bruce was in his prime, a time when a new dark manifestation of the city's largest immigrant group was emerging, one that grew in the shadows of the Holocaust and burst out in shpilkes-like heebie-jeebies ready to exorcise those things that went bump in Elie Wiesel's night. Jewish stars like Dustin Hoffman, Elliott Gould, and George Segal ruled the screen. Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Bernard Malamud claimed the bestseller list. Jewish musicians like Philip Glass led the avant-garde in such a way that the classical establishment attacked him for bringing the music perilously close to pop, while Jewish artists like Diane Arbus photographed freaks; "A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents" seems to foretell the emergence of Israel as an occupying oppressor — not to mention the emergence of Jeffry Hyman/Joey Ramone as a star.
"There is a real common ground with the punk sensibility and the basic Jewish, Lenny Bruce, show-biz culture," says Chris Stein. "There is something just generally punkish about the whole [thing] — I mean, what we see as punk, if you really break it down, I mean, what is it? It's sort of anti-establishment, and all that. Elements of it sort of remind me of the standard Jewish comedian thing. Maybe that's part of why it came out of New York. It's a smartass town. To me, it seems related."
And, indeed, it is. From the moment in 1654 when a group of twenty-three Sephardic judíos landed at New Amsterdam, seeking asylum from the Brazilian Inquisition (they were only saved from incarceration by the protests of Jewish shareholders on the board of the Dutch West India Company), to the point nearly two hundred years later when a larger influx of Enlightenment-liberated Juden from Germany began arriving, to the period less than fifty years after that when a much larger and more culturally significant influx of Yidn from Eastern Europe began coming (and coming and coming, close to three million by the 1920s, two-thirds of these staying in New York), there was a tug between Nice Jewish Boys, who sought respectability and acceptance, and Bad Ass Heebs, who wanted nothing more than to shock you with sick jokes.
For every Haym Solomon, financier of the American Revolution, Solomon Schechter, Jewish educator, and Louis Brandeis, Supreme Court justice, there was an entertainer, gangster, or political rabble-rouser with a name like Eddie Iskowitz (Eddie Cantor), Samuel Gompers (who founded the American Federation of Labor), and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. Working outside polite society, these men created cool as we know it. Eddie Cantor led directly to Woody Allen and Ali G; Samuel Gompers set the stage for Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin; and Bugsy Siegel, not to mention his original boss and inspiration, Arnold Rothstein, helped to create the fashionably attired sex symbol oozing menace. Lucky Luciano said of Rothstein, "He taught me how to dress. He taught me how to not wear loud things, how to have good taste ... he was ... real smooth." Lucky could just as well have been describing Richard Meyers Hell's influence on Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols. He could have been talking about any rock star.
Most prominent Jewish Americans, of course, fell somewhere in the middle. Among them were Hollywood moguls Samuel Goldwyn (Samuel Gold-fish), Jack Warner (John Leonard Eichelbaum), and Louis B. Mayer (Eliezer Meir). Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson) was a first-generation New Yorker who, like the character he portrayed in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer(1927), epitomized the tug between the old world and new. Defying his cantor father to pursue popular music, Jolson paved the way for numerous others, such as Fanny Brice (Fanny Borach), John Garfield (Julius Garfinkle), Molly Picon (Margaret Pyekoon), and the Borscht Belt comics, all of whom embodied the cultural conflict at the heart of Jolson's largely autobiographical film.
Fanny Brice, the darling of vaudeville-bred Tin Pan Alley, joked about the old ways while spicing up her act with a sexuality that played on the public's perception of "Jewesses" as exotic, sensual "others." John Garfield, on the other hand, took an angry, almost punkish stance toward attempts to exclude him, repeatedly playing a character who was attached to his "East Side" (code for ethnic/Jewish) origins, yet was ready to use his fists to punish any slights. Molly Picon withdrew into a sentimental world that disappeared along with the East Side's many Yiddish theaters, while the comics of the Borscht Belt, among them Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett (Leonard Hacker), and Jerry Lewis (Jerome Levitch), created a new, cutting, self-deprecating Jewish identity that could clearly mock power but instead chose to direct its anger at itself.
Beginning as a tumler (master of ceremonies) in the Catskills, Lewis morphed into a personification of impotent anger and self-hatred. As B. Kite writes, Lewis was in the main a physical comic, but unlike Chaplin, he exhibited alienation from his body rather than grace. As a result, Kite says, critics often attacked him for being "too 'ethnic' (read: Jewish), and [having] an unhealthy tendency to go 'nantz.' "Kite added, "Jewishness and sissiness were often seen as equivalents." Eventually, Lewis shirked this eternal child as jerk mode, playing the Rat Pack–like punk Buddy Love opposite the bucktoothed scientist Julius Kelp in the Jekyll-and-Hyde spoof The Nutty Professor (1963) — a transformation from schlemiel to hipster that Mickey Leigh (Mitchell Hyman) referred to when he said that his brother, Joey Ramone, had "changed when he'd gotten onstage, almost like Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor." Lewis also directly addressed his Jewishness in a made-for-TV version of The Jazz Singer (1961) and in a never-released film, The Day the Clown Cried, which he starred in and directed about a clown who entertains children on their way to the gas chambers.
In short, almost all of the comedians entertained both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds even as they internalized their exclusion and accepted it. That is, until Lenny Bruce.
A tough outsider who not only mixed with strippers, junkies, and hepcats (in the minds of traditionalists, the dreaded goyim), Bruce also functioned as a social critic while openly referring to his Jewishness. Yiddish phrases and jokes and kamikaze-style humor that actually risked using the Holocaust as material were all hallmarks of Bruce's act — indeed, they were the components that often got the biggest laughs in his day, just as they continued to do decades later when Bruce was embraced by the emerging punks.
From the confrontational Bruce, there's a clear line to the social-critiquing Bob Dylan, the social-mocking Tuli Kupferberg, and the social underbelly–exposing Lou Reed. Dylan, who praised Bruce in song ("he was the brother that you never had ..."), is the consummate outsider with a moral conscience, a "voice of a generation" who defended blacks ("The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol"), immigrants ("I Pity the Poor Immigrant"), convicts ("Hurricane"), and even Israel ("The Neighborhood Bully"), all while preaching like an Old Testament prophet warning the people of destruction both actual ("A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall") and moral ("Frankie Lee and Judas Priest"). It's not too hard to imagine Dylan onstage reading court transcripts, as Lenny Bruce did near the end of his career, nor too difficult to envision Fugs cofounder and self-proclaimed "old time Jewish anarchist" Tuli (short for the Hebrew "Naphtali") Kupferberg being banned for gleefully shouting out Bruce's infamously dirty words. In fact, it's pretty easy to see early Fugs contemporary Lou Reed backing up Tuli on guitar while occasionally taking the mike to shout about being a white boy waiting uptown for his connection (a black man who provides both figurative and literal spiritual uplift) or his anger at the hypocrisy of onetime presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, who referred to New York City as "Hymietown."
These precursors helped create not just the setting, but also the musical and lyrical template for what was soon to become punk rock. They range from Jonathan Richman, a Boston acolyte of Reed's Velvet Underground who imparted his cool nerd, outsider sensibility to New York via the Modern Lovers, to Eric Bloom (singer), Sandy Pearlman (manager/lyricist), and Richard Meltzer (lyricist) of the Blue Öyster Cult, all of whom incorporated Nazi imagery, stripped-down power chords, and comedic purpose into their music, fueling an ironic strain of "light metal" that bore deep resemblances to punk.* Pearlman and Meltzer later played an integral role in creating New York punk by defining and championing it as critics, as did numerous other Jewish music writers, such as Lenny Kaye, Lisa Robinson, Jon Landau, and Billy Altman.
Punk architect Tommy Erdelyi pays tribute to these bands and others: "The Blue Öyster Cult was like an intellectual's version of a heavy metal band and they inspired me in many ways — just as did Leslie West of Mountain. When I was growing up in Forest Hills, West was still playing with the Vagrants, perhaps the first real band to emerge in the New York scene. I mean, there were the Rascals from Long Island, but the Vagrants were more like the real thing — a garage band with a monstrous sound. And they looked like us, like kids in my mostly Jewish neighborhood. They made me think putting together a band might be possible."
Others echo these sentiments and more. Here's Richard "Handsome Dick Manitoba" Blum on the creation of the Dictators' comic persona: "I'm a Jew. I grew up around lots of Italians and Jews in the Bronx and I understood the way we were an oppressed people who had to fight back to survive and how we often did that with comedy. The Dictators were funny — as were all of the early punk bands to varying degrees. You wouldn't be wrong to say that I was doing stand up onstage between songs — that's why we left the spoken word bits between tracks on the first album, the ones where I'm talking about making it big and retiring to Florida. I mean, just look at our name for Christ's sake! The Dictators! Get it?"
The Patti Smith Group's musical mastermind Lenny Kaye, originally a rock critic best known for compiling Nuggets, a collection of 1960s garage tunes that later influenced many of the punk bands, says: "Jews have always been a writerly race ... what is the Bible but an explication of art's implications ... and what are biblical scholars but critics of the Bible? I like to see myself as part of that tradition ... I like to think of myself as a scholar of the Talmud of rock 'n' roll."
Ultimately, the Jewish aspect of New York culture influenced to varying degrees even a non-Jewish band such as the Dead Boys — just as the non-Jewish aspect of the city's culture affected many of the largely Jewish bands. The Dictators (five-sixths Jewish), the Ramones (at least half-Jewish), and numerous other bands built on a tradition of cultural "collaboration" that stretched back at least as far as Irving Berlin's wedding of Jewish folk music (or klezmer) to American jazz (one of his early hits was "Yiddle on Your Fiddle Play Some Ragtime," 1909). The "immigrant" Dead Boys from Cleveland, an industrial city with a large German/Slavic population, arrived in New York looking and sounding like a heavy metal band. They quickly transformed themselves into crazed, sick, comically demented pranksters who liked to dress in Nazi regalia and, offstage, sleep almost exclusively with Jewish girls, often atop a Nazi flag while wearing a swastika. Lead guitarist Cheetah Chrome's half-Jewish former girlfriend Gyda Gash has the word "stigmata" tattooed on one arm and a Jewish star on the other. She comments, "What do you expect from a self-loathing half-Jew?"
There's no denying that, on some level, the "self-loathing" Gash half-jokingly describes deeply informed New York punk. The emergence of Israel as a national power* and an awareness of the Holocaust were of supreme importance to it. As audience members, performers, and behind-the-scenes players have revealed in interviews, these realities created a split Jewish consciousness that felt pride in the newfound power of Israel even as it experienced shame — and anger — at a history of victimization in Europe.
This transformation of Jewish consciousness couldn't help but have an effect on punk, as the New York audience that first accepted the music was either Jewish or, at the very least, schooled in Jewishness. So were the music's critics (Meltzer et al.), producers (child of Holocaust survivors Genya Ravan, etc.), deejays (Alan Freed created the term "rock 'n' roll"), managers (Iggy Pop and MC5 discoverer Danny Fields), executives (Sire Records president Seymour Stein) club owners (CBGB's founder Hilly Kristal), publicists (Orthodox Jew Ida Langsam, who before handling the Ramones, created the punning Apple Juice newsletter as president of the Beatles New York Fan Club), roadies (Ramones "tour director" Monte Melnick), groupies (Nancy Spungen), "translators" (Sex Pistols "creator" Malcolm McLaren), and many, many others.
They all welcomed this new music and lifestyle that were both outside the mainstream, yet as close-knit (especially in the East Village) as a shtetl. It was a celebration of the degenerate (as Hitler termed Jewish art), the sick (as critics described Lenny Bruce), and the alienated (as Jewish writer Franz Kafka called himself ), not to mention the socially outrageous (think the Marx Brothers with ripped T-shirts) and comic ("If it wasn't funny, it wasn't punk," says Snooky Bellomo).
Only in New York, that city where, as Lenny Bruce said, "It doesn't matter if you're Catholic ... you're Jewish," could a "popular" art form like punk have found a birthplace. There, on that island of immigrants, where Jews formed such a sizable portion of the population, they could take their Jewishness and all its intellectual, nonviolent, comic-driven aspects for granted. Joey Ramone, a figure straight out of Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Richard Hell, a Jewish mother's worst nightmare, and Lenny Kaye, a kind of post-1960s Jewish mystic, rose up, ready to take over the world. They didn't, of course — at least not in their time. But for a few years, at least, they reigned as gods on that island where they had been born, raised, and nurtured, that city that had formed them, Hymietown. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's by Steven Lee Beeber. Copyright © 2006 Steven Lee Beeber. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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