STEVEN LEE BEEBER gives us The Heebie-Jeebies
Feb 20, 2009, 07:09
Now in paperback, Steven Lee Beeber's The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGBS: A Secret History of Jewish Punk (Chicago Review Press) is a gem of an account of the Jewish folks that played a major role in the shaping of the NY scene. Beeber provides insight and synopsis. But better than just chatting up the proficiency of his work, we give you the author:
Your Flesh: What was the biggest surprise as you wrote the book?
Beeber: First, that I wasn't crazy in thinking that there was a connection between Jews and Punk; second, that so many of those who I'd never suspected were Jewish, in fact were. Genya Ravan was actually a Holocaust survivor, as were Tommy Ramone's parents; third, that so many of the punks were so friendly in person; and fourth, that I didn't have a breakdown trying to track down and interview the more than 150 people who I ultimately talked to. Oh yes, there is one last thing—that on one occasion, and one occasion only, I actually liked cream cheese and lox. This was during my interview with Joey Ramone's mother. We were in her apartment in Forest Hills and she was giving me a hard time for not eating the schmear she had offered. â€˜What kind of Jew are you? Eat. Eat. You'll like it.'
And I did, even though I'd always hated it before. Unfortunately, I've tried it again since and it's vile.
Your Flesh: Did you meet any resistance as you reported for the book?
Beeber: Quite a bit in certain quarters. Some people were concerned that I was going to draw too much attention to Jews and arouse anti-Semitism. Others were worried that I was making punk seem parochial and limited to one people. Others still weren't thrilled to be advertising their Jewishness because they didn't think it fit with their image; in other words, that it wasn't cool. And then there were the big three who wouldn't have anything to do with me at all. Richard Hell's wife encouraged me repeatedly to approach him, but he grumbled that I was â€˜no gentleman' and let it be known that he wanted to â€˜kill' me. Jonathan Richman, meanwhile, got up and walked away when I broached the subject during a backstage meeting after one of his shows. And Lou Reed simply hung up after telling me to â€˜never call this number again.' To be honest, I did call a second time a few months later with my recorder running so that I could get that on tape. Imagine being insulted by the Godfather of Punk. What an honor.
Your Flesh: What was left on the cutting room floor? Interviews, narrationâ€¦
Beeber: My publisher was really great, but due to space constraints, there were some things lost that I regret. Primary among these were numerous footnotes that got across extra information without being academic. For instance, I had a long aside about the numerous Jewish photographers who were instrumental in creating a visual image for punk: Godlis, Stephanie Chernikowski, Jenny Lens and Bob Gruen are just some of the best known. Also, Roberta Bayley, who isn't Jewish, but had some great comments about how she was inspired by the Jewish NY and drew on the style of the famous urban photographer, Weegee, real name Arthur Fellig. Other than those notes, a big loss was a large section in the chapter on women in punk, primarily the story of Deerfrance, the one-time "bouncer" at CBGB who went on to tour with John Cale during his punk-inspired Mercenaries tour. She and I had a great time talking for hours while bar-hopping through the East Village, and she told me some great stories about being the daughter of a Jewish gangster and an Irish barmaid that really were the essence of New York Jew punk. Unfortunately, she didn't get mentioned in the book once the editing was over. I don't think she'll ever forgive me.
Your Flesh:Â Gimme your five top Jew punk singles.
Beeber: Absolutely. But only if I can call it my “Sinai Desert Island Disc.” Ok, ok, stop groaning, it wasn't that bad. Anyway, here it is: 5. "The Next Big Thing" (The Dictators), with its wonderful line, "We knocked 'em dead in Dallas/they didn't know we were Jews"; 4. "The Attack of the Giant Ants" (Blondie), which was written by Chris Stein for their first album and has the wonderfully ironic, yet haunting, line, "The world is holocaust. Everything is lost/Mankind is destroyed. Sprinkled in the void/La la la la la, la la la la la, la la la la la"; 3. "The Black Angel's Death Song" (The Velvet Underground), which, along with "Heroin" off the same album, conjures images of dead bodies in mounds and, in this case, the "ghost bloodied country" of the East (probably Poland or the Eastern Front); 2. "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" (The Ramones), Joey's classic dig at Reagan for visiting the German cemetery honoring SS officers, and, 1. Again The Ramones, "Commando," which is in many ways the essential Ramones song, in that it combines tongue in cheek fascism, digs at Nazis, silliness and shout outs to New York Jews in one nice package, namely, the chorus, which lists the rules for mercenaries: "First rule is, the laws of Germany/Second rule is, be nice to Mommy/Third rule is, don't talk to Commies/Fourth rule is, eat kosher salamis." Of course, if I had more room, I'd add "Nothing" (The Fugs), "The Old World" (The Modern Lovers), "Master Race Rock" (The Dictators), "I Wanna Be Black" (Lou Reed), "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" (Sleater Kinney), "Yo, I Killed Your God" (Marc Ribot), "They Can't Believe He's Risen Again" (Gary Lucas), "Kristalnacht" (John Zorn), "Yellow Star" (Serge Gainsbourg), "Dachau Blues" (Captain Beefheart), "Shadrach" (The Beastie Boys) and too many others to mention here.
Your Flesh: Tell me about your book in progress on first punk experiences? Who do you have on board?
Beeber: This one is near and dear to my heart and I just hope that it finds a good home. So far, I've got loads of folks, but just to give you a sampling, there's: Ian MacKaye (Fugazi), Roger Miller (Mission of Burma), Tuli Kupferberg (The Fugs), Colin Newman (Wire), Lee Renaldo (Sonic Youth), Kitty Bruce (Lenny Bruce's daughter), Mickey Leigh (Joey Ramone's brother), Hugo Burnham (Gang of Four), Ray Manzarek (The Doors), Ernie Brooks (The Modern Lovers), Leroy Hoikkala (drummer in Bob Dylan's first high school band), Max Muller (Mutter), Lydia Lunch (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks), Amanda Palmer (The Dresden Dolls), and Julia Rose (The Cramps). And those are only some of the musicians. I've also got writers like Neal Pollack (Never Mind the Pollacks), Steve Almond (My Life In Heavy Metal), Greil Marcus (Lipstick Traces), and Brian Evenson (The Open Curtain), just to name a few.
Your Flesh: Would it help or hinder to read the book Jews Who Rock before Heebies?
Beeber: This is a bit hard to answer, as I hate to say anything bad about anyone else's work. However, I was pretty disappointed in Jews Who Rock when it came out. It's simply a list of people in popular music who happen to be Jewish, many of whom have no real connection to rock—Barry Manilow? Lisa Loeb? Kenny G? It doesn't try to explain how, if at all, their Jewishness might have affected them. And, it's full of errors; Michelle and John Phillips were not Jewish—and where the hell are real rocking Jews like Lou Reed? If you do want to read a good book on Jews in rock check out Michael Billig's Rock 'n' Roll Jews, which is really great, if a tiny bit dry. Also, Jon Stratton, an academic in Australia, is getting ready to publish a very interesting book on the same subject—and he already has out a wonderful paper on Jews in punk. Oh yes, supposedly Mickey Leigh, Joey Ramone's brother, is soon to publish an autobiography co-written with Legs McNeil, of Please Kill Me fame. The working title: I Slept With Joey Ramone. Oh, for Christ's sake, they shared a bedroom as kids. Stop snickering.