February 1, 2007
I was a teenage punk
Over the years, there's been a lot of music that has mattered to me. That I have enjoyed; that I have loved. But if you asked me what music was mine -- I would name without hesitation a bunch of bands that first flourished in New York in the late 1970s, such as The Talking Heads, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Blondie and the Patti Smith Group.
I don't listen to them much these days, but that doesn't matter. There was a moment in time when I was so deeply connected to what they were doing, their music and their ambition, that it seemed they were playing the soundtrack to my life.
Secretly, I believed that I had discovered these bands; whereas in truth, I had probably first read about them in the Village Voice or the Soho News (as if I were the only one reading those publications). I heard Patti Smith reading poetry at the St. Mark's Poetry Project and purchased a copy of "Witt," a collection of her poetry that featured a Polaroid cover portrait by would-be photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, at the Gotham Book Mart.
I was at one of Blondies' first performances Upstairs at Max's Kansas City (The Runaways opened for them). Each weekend and many a weeknight was a search for the music of my times, as I stood by the wall or on my seat in clubs and concert halls, such as Hurrah's, The Mudd Club, Danceteria and the Academy of Music (which became the Palladium).
It might have been the place, or the time, or the time of my life, but the bands were smart, ironic, disaffected and spoke to my privileged New York bourgeois conflicts and alienation. They sprang from The Who, but their references included Verlaine and Rimbaud. They were different; they were unique; they were creating a tribe of their own.
Or at least I thought so. However, according to a new book I am reading, "The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB'S: A Secret History of Jewish Punk," by Steven Lee Beeber (Chicago Review Press), it turns out that what I shared with many of my musical idols was that we already were members of a tribe.
Beeber, whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Paris Review, makes a compelling case that New York punk owed a lot to the Jewish backgrounds (hidden or acknowledged) of Lou Reed, Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group), Chris Stein (Blondie), Jerry Harrison (Modern Lovers, Talking Heads), Joey Ramone, Tommy Ramone, Sylvain Sylvain (New York Dolls), Johnny Thunders (New York Dolls), Jonathan Richman (Modern Lovers), Alan Vega (Suicide), Handsome Dick Manitoba (The Dictators), Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols impresario) and Hilly Kristal, owner of CBGB's.
As Beeber tells it, New York punk was born of the Lower East Side, the shtetl of the golden land, and forged by the children of Jewish immigrants as a post-Holocaust response to the Jewish American dream of assimilation and success.
Charting a course from Lenny Bruce to Malcolm McLaren and filled with profiles of the major bands of era (Suicide, The Dictators, The Ramones, Blondie) and interviews with many of the original participants and their cohorts, Beeber's book occasionally reads like a theory in search of the facts to support it. A point he addresses in the book, asking and deflecting a possible charge that he is merely reducing these artists to a link many of them would not acknowledge as meaningful.
But that doesn't stop Beeber, who goes on to argue that even denying one's Jewish background is a Jewish thing to do -- which reminds me of George Steiner's famous quote that the 20th century showed that being Jewish was not a club one could resign from. Nonetheless, the more one considers Beeber's argument, the more persuasive it becomes, not only as an explanation of Jewishness or punk but of human nature.
We would all like to believe that we are unique -- yet, at the same time, we are part of a mass culture. We each dress in our own way, putting on clothes that more often than not are produced for a large group of consumers. The music we like, the movies and shows we watch, even the foods we love, those things that define our taste are more often than not all created for an audience greater than ourselves.
At the same time, in an increasingly fragmented society, we find comfort in brands, in belonging to tribes. The pierced and the tattooed recognize each other, as do the Prada and Marni clad. We need to be different even as we need to belong.
I once spent an afternoon interviewing Ralph Lauren, philosopher of style semiotics, who explained to me that fashion is all about one question: When you close your eyes, what sort of person do you see yourself as? Uptown or downtown? Businessman or gangster? Similarly with music you might ask, are you a Beatle or a Rolling Stone? A White Stripe or a Raconteur? Or as a soft drink ad once put it: "Are you a Pepper?"
We may listen to a lot of music, but when we close our eyes, which band or artist is our secret self?
Turns out the musicians and singers who made the music that I consider mine, and that I, in my secret self, still belong to were each, in their own way, nice and not-so-nice Jewish boys rebelling against their backgrounds and their times. They were searching for the transcendent and the transgressive, and channeling their talent and, at times, their self-loathing into a way to be different than who they were supposed to be.
Punk was an act of rebellion. Still, as Beeber reveals, their music struck a chord reaching back into their personal histories and created for me, as much as for them, a way to belong.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.