Before Oi! there was Oy! Punk’s Jewish roots


By Bonnie Rosenstock

Take a fistful of New York attitude, more than a dash of kvetching, irony, humor and sarcasm; throw in the memory of the Holocaust and aspiring to assimilate; blend with lefty politics and social justice; stir up youthful disaffection, outsider status and rejection of your parents’ and society’s values, and you’ve got the makings of a movement. In the early 1970s, its musical expression devolved into punk. And according to author Steven Lee Beeber’s entertaining, engrossing and provocative new book, “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk,” it was “the most Jewish of rock movements.”

Beeber interviewed more than 125 people relevant to pre-, early and post-punk, including Tommy Ramone (Budapest-born Tommy Erdelyi, changed from Grunewald, whose parents were hidden during the Holocaust); Chris Stein, creator of the first punk princess, the “shiksa goddess” Blondie (Debbie Harry); Danny Fields; Lenny Kaye; Hilly Kristal; Andy Shernoff, Richard Blum, Scott Kempner and J. P. Patterson, the all-Jewish members of the Dictators; the mother and brother of Joey Ramone (né Jeffrey Hyman); Malcolm McLaren, the British Jew who imported punk to the U.K. and transformed it into hardcore; Radical Jewish Music founder John Zorn; and John Holmstrom, the man who popularized and promoted punk in his magazine of the same title. Holstrom credits his buddy Eddie (“Legs”) McNeil with coining the term, when — hearing the strange new musical force — he observed, “You know, like punk kids, losers, smart asses.”

At a recent panel discussion at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, Beeber and several illuminati of the early New York punk scene discussed among themselves how Jewish sensibility, consciously or unconsciously, was instrumental in creating the punk sounds, symbols and shtick, and how the Jewish-owned CBGB was instrumental in unleashing every parent’s worst nightmare. Moderated by Mary Lucia, music host on Minnesota Public Radio’s “The Current,” the panel also included Fields — former manager of the Ramones, the MC5 and Iggy Pop — whom Beeber characterizes as “forever the coolest guy in the room” and “the Zelig of punk;” Susan Blond, who guided the careers of such bands as The Clash at CBS records and was the first female vice president of a major record label; and Kaye, founding member of the Patti Smith Group and creator of the influential garage rock anthology “Nuggets.”

The nexus of the punk universe was CBGB on the Bowery in the low-rent East Village, former Jewish ghetto, founded by Hilly (Hillel) Kristal, former farm boy. His uncle, Benjamin Brown, founded the back-to-the-land cooperative farm movement around Hightstown, N.J., known as the Jersey Homestead, which mirrored Zionist principles in Israel, explained Beeber. The book’s chapter on Kristal, who once played the violin, is entitled, “The Fiddler on the Bowery.” When Kristal opened CBGB — Country, Bluegrass and Blues, with the coda OMFUG: Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers — he incorporated these ideals of self-sufficiency. All music was acceptable and accepted as long as it was original, that is, by and of the people. Within weeks, the Ramones, the Patti Smith Group, Television, Blondie and others found a welcoming home.

Kaye said, “When you look at the bands that played at CBGB’s, they were extremely different from each other, except for punk attitude. I liked that it was a kind of outsider’s music, and if you are looking for a Jewish connection, one of the things that Jews in the music business have often done is function on these fringes. I’m culturally and spiritually Jewish, but I don’t think in the early days of CBGB’s there was any sense of religious identity, except by using the symbols and the touchstones of religion and spirituality as elements within a larger artistic work. It was a place where you could get a foothold and stake your claim and work your way in with your sense of idealism, mission and creativity; in many cases, really slowly, like the Ramones, to the point where now, ironically, they could probably fill Madison Square Garden,” he noted.

Even though there were many Jews involved in the punk music scene, from musicians, promoters, managers and record label producers, to critics and writers, Beeber states in his book that he doesn’t mean to imply that Jewishness is everything, but that it played a part in varying degrees. While Tommy Ramone, Lenny Kaye, Richard Meltzer (co-manager of the Dictators with Sandy Pearlman) and Handsome Dick Manitoba (a Dictator, real name: Richard Blum) “might find their connection to Jewishness essential, others such as Richard Hell, Chris Stein and Joey Ramone might find it tangential . . . [However,] there is no way to fully understand these musicians without exploring the Jewish part of them, whatever that may consist of,” he contends.

Case in point was Beeber’s contentious exchange with poet-writer-musician-artist Richard “Hell” Meyers, who refused to be interviewed or provide any information for the book. Hell, who was raised in Kentucky in the 1950s, at first denied his Jewish roots, declaring he didn’t want to be appropriated by any group. (Beeber was born in Atlanta and can understand his reluctance to out himself as a Jew.) Hell finally admitted his father was born Jewish but raised him to be a Communist and an atheist, to which Beeber related to the audience, who laughed knowingly, “That’s a definition of a Jew.”

Blond could identify with that, as in those days she hated anything to do with religion. Now she is an Orthodox Jew.

“New York attitude is really a Jewish attitude,” she observed. “Jewish culture is an impulse toward scholarship and writing,” said Blond, who also worked with Andy Warhol at Interview magazine.

“This is a music city,” added Fields, who grew up in Queens, “in a world where everyone was sarcastic and yentas, and that’s how I thought people were.” He asked, “What are Jews going to do? Build cars? That’s for the goyim. Jews entertain. Broadway is Jews, and the people who started Hollywood in the nineteen teens were Jews.”

The panel reminisced about the unusual childhood and extraordinary if not controversial career of Malcolm McLaren, who grew up in the predominately Jewish village of Islington in London’s crime-ridden East End, the Brit version of the Lower East Side. He has been variously called the Fagin, or the Svengali, of the Sex Pistols — the former by the band and the latter by the British press — both obvious references to negative Jewish stereotypes. Strange but apparently true, McLaren met two of his “artful Dodgers,” future Pistols members Steve Jones and Paul Cook, when they were shoplifting clothing from his trendy shop on Kings Row.

Said Fields, “Malcolm expressed punk in class warfare in England. He was also in the forefront of styles, fashion and lifestyle.”

Well before the demise of CBGB on Oct. 15, the music scene had been moving and expanding all over the city, including to Brooklyn. But Kaye, who spent 33 years playing and hanging out at the club, isn’t that sad it is gone.

“Patti and I were not only not possessive of the scene,” he said. “One of the reasons we began was to spread the word and to generate new energy within the music, so that this music that we loved would have another lifetime. To me, religion is like music. I take comfort from the rock ’n’ roll faith, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like to listen to other musical forms. I believe they all express our spirit.”

For Beeber, however, “New York is still a punk town, and Yahweh is punk, at least in my mind.”

“The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk,” by Steven Lee Beeber, Chicago Review Press, 2006, 259 pages, 35 black and white photographs, $24.95, published October 2006.