February 1, 2007
Book reveals secrets from the Patriarchs of Punk: CBGBs was really Heebie Jeebies
"The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk," by Steven Lee Beeber (Chicago Review Press, $24.95).
They were your mother's worst nightmare.
They wore beat-up leather jackets and ripped jeans held together with safety pins. They spat out three-minute, buzz-saw anthems of anger about nihilism, heroin and psychosis. They had a morbid fascination with Nazis. They often performed from the stage of a New York club that reeked of urine, vomit and "gifts" from the owner's dog.
They were America's original punks, and many of them were Jews.
As Steven Lee Beeber argues in his fascinating but flawed book, "The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk," the punk revolution had its origins less in the working-class slums of London than in Brooklyn's Flatbush and Forest Hills, predominantly Jewish areas that spawned the alienated youth who became the movement's singers, managers, publicists, agents, club owners, music critics and fans.
"Punk is Jewish," Beeber writes. "Not Judaic. Jewish, the reflection of a culture that's three millennia old now. It reeks of humor and irony and preoccupations with Nazism. It's all about outsiders who are 'one of us' in the shtetl of New York."
According to Beeber, Jews make up a veritable who's who in the punk pantheon. Among the more prominent figures are Lou Reed, the Godfather of Punk and Velvet Underground mastermind; Joey and Tommy Ramone (Jeffry Hyman and Tamás Erdélyi, respectively); Chris Stein, co-founder of Blondie; CBGB owner Hilly Kristal; and the half-Jewish Richard "Hell" Meyers of Television and the Voidoids.
Even the creator of England's famed Sex Pistols, the cantankerous, infuriating provocateur Malcolm McLaren, had a bar mitzvah and got his inspiration for The Pistols after coming to New York to manage the cross-dressing, drug-gobbling New York Dolls, which had its own Jewish member in Sylvain Sylvain (Cairo-born Sil Mizrahi).
If "Heebie-Jeebies" simply name-checked famous Jewish punks, it would be little more than the literary equivalent of Adam Sandler's "Chanukah Song." However, Beeber convincingly explores how the American Jewish experience of feeling like the perennial outsider in a Christian culture, combined with the psychological horrors of the Holocaust, helped forge a punk consciousness among young Jews coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s. Factor in a sense of irony and love of the printed word, and Jews made the perfect alienated punks.
Unfortunately, Beeber's one-size-fits-all approach to the topic doesn't always fit so well.
Take Richard Hell (né Meyers), the half-Jewish author of punk's nihilist anthem, "Blank Generation." Hell, in a testy exchange with the author, says that his Jewish father raised him as a "communist and an atheist" and not Jewish.
But to Beeber, that makes Hell all the more Jewish -- the flight from religion and the alienation. Even after Beeber uncovers a posting on Hell's Web site in which the singer tells a fan, "I don't know anything about the religion/culture to speak of," Beeber persists in making the shaky argument that Judaism played an important role in shaping Hell.
Throughout the book, Beeber's penchant for such overstatement in pursuit of his "Jews are different and that's why they're punks" argument crops up.
Beeber also makes no attempt to understand what role the Jewish religion, as opposed to New York Jewish culture, played in the development of Jewish punks. Judaism is something more than just a love of Lenny Bruce, jazz and empathy for the underdog, although one might not get that from reading "Heebie-Jeebies."
Still, Beeber's talents as a master storyteller, as well as his ability at connecting the Jewish dots, come through in his chapter on "the Hebraic foundations" of the Ramones, arguably punk's most influential group.
That the late lead singer Joey Ramone was Jewish is widely known. But Beeber reveals that the mysterious Tommy Ramone, the mastermind behind the leather-clad foursome that bashed out such classics as "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Beat on the Brat" and "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," not only is a Jew but the child of Holocaust survivors. Erdélyi kept his Jewish identity so well concealed that not even Danny Fields, the Ramone's first manager (himself a Jew), knew of Tommy Ramone's religious background until now.
That Tommy Ramone would want to keep his Judaism hidden makes sense. He was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1949, and his parents, both professional photographers, barely escaped from the clutches of the Nazis by hiding out with friends during the war. Most of Erdélyi's family perished in the Holocaust.
Fleeing from Soviet tanks and an increasingly anti-Semitic environment in Budapest, the Erdélyis immigrated to Austria and then on to New York. At the urging of Orthodox relatives, his parents enrolled him at a Chasidic yeshiva in the Bronx, where his ultrareligious classmates shunned him "as a goy," according Erdelyi, who later moved to heavily Jewish Forest Hills, Queens.
Ostracized twice because of his religion but for entirely different reasons, Erdélyi "began to think of himself as a perpetual outsider," Beeber writes.
The future Tommy Ramone found a safe haven, at least for awhile, in The Ramones, a group he created by personally drafting guys from the old neighborhood, including lanky lead singer Joey Ramone, whose odd looks appealed to him. Erdelyi even came up with the group's trademark leather-jacket-and-jeans outfit. Subconsciously, perhaps, he had recreated himself as a tough Jew, shedding the uncomfortable skin of the Jewish victim.
Ironically, Erdélyi found himself in a group whose two non-Jewish members shared a disturbing fascination with Nazism. Johnny Ramone (born John Cummings), the group's guitarist, collected Nazi paraphernalia and later hung a portrait of Hitler above his fireplace in his Los Angeles home, according to Beeber.
Berlin-born Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin), the son of an American serviceman and a blue-eyed, blond German mother, sometimes accompanied Johnny on shopping expeditions for Nazi artifacts in Argentina and Brazil, countries known as havens for the Jews' murderers. Whether Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone were "anti-Semites or the ultimate non-Jewish Jews" because of their alienation and rebelliousness is unclear, Beeber writes.
What is clear is that Erdélyi left the band after just three years. He assumed the group's production duties for a time and then drifted away from his creation. The Hungarian-born Jew living in exile was, in effect, exiled again. What with Joey's indifference, Johnny's bullying and Dee Dee's contemptuousness, to say nothing of the pair's Nazi fetishism, it all became too much.
"Growing up with a fear of the Holocaust, being with Johnny and Dee Dee was like living with danger," Erdélyi told Beeber. "There might have been an element of that -- just as there was in my attraction to rock 'n' roll. It could have been that I was rebelling by hanging with them."
How punk. How Jewish.