February 20, 2003
MOTs Go Mainstream
One evening while Steve Schub was studying at Hebrew University in 1990, his punk rock band had an unlikely guest: Artimus Pyle, drummer for classic Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd. A year later, Schub was working as a bellboy Park Central Hotel in New York, when the Lynyrd Skynyrd tour bus rolled in. The drummer remembered Schub.
"Artimus said, 'Yid Vicious! What are you doing here?'" Schub told The Journal. Pyle promptly quit Lynyrd Skynyrd and formed the Fenwicks, a 17-piece "Afro-Celtic Yiddish Ska" band that put "third wave" ska on the map a decade before hybrids like Orange County's No Doubt hit the mainstream.
While lead singer/songwriter Schub is the only Jewish member of the Fenwicks, he has always been committed to expressing himself Jewishly.
"Although I'm secular," Schub said, "I'm very Zionist and I'm very vocal about being pro-American and pro-Israel," he said.
His expression has found its way into songs like "Burning Numbers," a Holocaust-themed song inspired by Schub's Auschwitz visit.
Like Schub, many local Jewish musicians working L.A.'s club circuit negotiate different relationships with their Jewish identity in relation to their art and aspirations.
While contemporary blues singer/songwriter Johnny Childs, 31, grew up in a religious household, the bluesman says his background doesn't figure into the music he's been performing for a decade at area blues outlets such as B.B. King's and Blue Cafe.
"There's a klezmer element that is evident on a couple of the songs," Childs said, "but I can't really take that angle because it isn't what I do."
Still, Childs is respectful of his sizable Jewish following.
"A lot of my Jewish fans are Modern Orthodox, and they'll only come out to shows on Saturday night," Childs said. "My manager is an Orthodox Jew who encourages me not to play on Friday nights."
Childs said he raised $20,000 to produce his independently released CD, "The Truth," through Modern Orthodox circles.
For piano-playing raconteur Brad Kay, who grew up in the flats of Encino, the Jewish connection in his work is cultural but secular. Kay, 51, has performed around Los Angeles since the '60s. A member of Janet Klein's Parlor Boys, the Venice resident solos every Sunday at West Los Angeles' Unurban Coffee House, where he plays satirical originals in the Dave Frishberg/Tom Lehrer vein.
"I feel a certain kinship with the old yids of showbiz. Jews, like blacks, had a lot in common in those days because they were all discriminated against."
But being "too Jewish" doesn't always work.
JEW, the power pop quartet that titled itself for shock-value and not for any Jewish musical content, has recently done an about-face. Although lead singer/songwriter Eric Fleischman told The Journal last summer that he was proud of his Jewishness and he was invigorated by the positive and negative reaction to the name -- "We have no intention of changing it," he said -- this year he's singing a different tune.
As of New Year's, JEW is now called 98 Lb. Weakling.
"The controversy was too intense. The name was beginning to work against us," said the bandleader, noting that the band lost spots on England's Redding Festival and a concert in Germany because of the name.
JEW was also offered a spot on the soundtrack of an upcoming Columbia Pictures movie, but theoffer was retracted because of apprehension over the band's name. Since the name change, Columbia is planning on using their music, according to Fleischman, who also said that JEW's songs were added to more than 300 radio stations within barely two days after the name change.
"We're still the same guys doing the same cool music," Fleischman said.
For many Jewish guys in the music biz, being Jewish is a matter of fact -- not music.
Singer-songwriter Brian Robbins just signed a non-exclusive deal with Bunim-Murray, producers of MTV's "The Real World" and "Road Rules," to license his songs to their programs. On a recent winter night at The Joint on Pico-Robertston, Robbins -- wearing jeans, a black tank top, and his trusty red white Stratocaster -- stands onstage before a packed house. With a dark mop of hair, a generous smile and boy-next-door looks, the longtime L.A. resident leads his eponymous band into an energetic pop set with "Earth Boy," "Brand New Day" and "Supercomputer," a funk song resembling the love child of Lenny Kravitz and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
From their one-hour set, you'd never realize that three-quarters of Brian Robbins Band -- which includes drummer Neil Sebba, bassist Raffi Bagdasarian and saxophonist-guitarist, Todd Grossman -- is Jewish.
For Robbins -- who was raised in a secular, nonsectarian home by a Christian mother and a Jewish father of Latvian and Ukrainian descent -- that shared heritage with his Jewish bandmates doesn't come up as a reference point.
Robbins said he did not encounter anti-Semitism growing up in Michigan, but he did feel different. "If you're Jewish in East Lansing," Robbins said, "you're not going to stick out like a sore thumb."
While Robbins is proud of his Jewish side and has gleaned a heightened awareness from his bicultural upbringing, his Jewish heritage does not surface into his repertoire of songs about relationships and socio-political hypocrisy.
"I'd be lying if I said it mattered," Robbins said.
The Fenwicks will play April 5 at Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. For information, call (310) 458-8634 or visit www.thefenwicks.com .
Johnny Childs will play on March 11 at B.B. King's at Universal CityWalk. Call (818) 622-5464.
Brad Kay performs every Sunday from 2-5 p.m. at Unurban, 3301 W. Pico, West Los Angeles. For information, call (310) 315-0056.
For information on 98 Lb. Weakling, visit www.98lbweakling.com .
Brian Robbins Band will perform a free, all-ages show on Feb. 27 at 8:45 p.m. at Loyola Marymount University's The Lion's Den, 1 LMU Drive, Los Angeles; and on March 21 at 10:45 p.m. at The Joint, 8771 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Visit www.brianrobbins.com .