So there's this book about Shakespeare and pop culture that I have been skimming for a few years now, and early on it talks about some outdoor store hSo there's this book about Shakespeare and pop culture that I have been skimming for a few years now, and early on it talks about some outdoor store having a sale. The advertisements read NOW IS THE WINTER OF OUR DISCOUNT TENTS. And the point is -- have you read Richard III? Maybe, maybe not. Do you get the joke? Probably.
And so reading this book, it struck me that in some ways, Saturday Night Live is not so different. A very minor example: I say "more cowbell!" all the time. Have I seen that skit? Well, I have now, but yesterday? No. And yet.
I never watched much SNL (meow Reasons meow -- seriously, the piece of SNL history I am most aware of is that time Fear showed up as the musical guest and trashed the studio, which is an absurd statement on multiple levels), but I absorbed so much of it anyway without ever realizing it. The [pop-]cultural impact is fairly stunning if that is the sort of thing you're into, and it definitely IS the sort of thing I'm into. The fact that SNL is so pervasive also made the book pretty easy to follow. I was worried that most of it would be lost on me, and although I did stop reading pretty regularly to look up people or skits, I never felt like I had to do it.
Anyway! I like oral histories and inside jokes and weird subcultures, so I was bound to like this book. I did think it slowed down and got a bit repetitive toward the end, and the last chapter on Lorne didn't really need to be there, but skimming's no problem....more
waffled between 3 and 4, but it was thought-provoking enough, and the prose interesting enough, that I rounded up. still, I am bored to death of Searcwaffled between 3 and 4, but it was thought-provoking enough, and the prose interesting enough, that I rounded up. still, I am bored to death of Searching For Daddy stories, and I keep reading them accidentally, and just because this one was twistier and more interesting than most doesn't mean I did not spend significant chunks of it thinking "oh, for fuck's sake."...more
I was like 2/3 of the way through and like "WHEN WILL THIS BE OVER," which is always the sign of a good read.
I should have liked it more than I did, bI was like 2/3 of the way through and like "WHEN WILL THIS BE OVER," which is always the sign of a good read.
I should have liked it more than I did, but the absurdist paranoia degenerated too quickly into farce, and the gender roles were... almost certainly satirical, but also really boring. There's one lady in this entire book and no one ever bothers with a name for her -- she's just "the girl" -- and everyone just takes turns slapping her on the ass. It's so overdone that I can't believe it's not a pointed commentary, but at the same time, yaaaawn....more
I read this at the same time I read Please Kill Me, and that’s actually something I think everyone should do. Or, if you are not someone who reads mulI read this at the same time I read Please Kill Me, and that’s actually something I think everyone should do. Or, if you are not someone who reads multiple books at once, you should read these close together. They complement one another extremely well. That one’s the oral history, the dirt and the gossip and who’s fucking whom in which bathroom while on what drugs; this one is the background, the influences, the history and the culture that made that other book possible. (While you're at it, read Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book around the time you read this, for a look at the Jewishness of an earlier NYC subculture that has a lot in common with punk.)
Beeber’s thesis, stated in the intro, is:
Punk is Jewish. 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. It’s about nervous energy, the same nervous energy that has characterized jews from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through the Hasids to the plays of David Mamet. Punks, like Jews, self-consciously identify with the sick and twisted, what Hitler referred to as “the decadent.” Punk’s home is the home of the Jews — New York, especially downtown Lower East Side/East Village New York, the birthplace of this new music known for its populist vibe, its revolutionary attitudes, its promotion of do-it-yourself like some sort of anarchist mantra.
It’s not just that so many in the music, as well as so many in the audience, happen to be Jewish, among them Lou Reed, Joey and Tommy Ramone, the Dictators, Richard Hell, Malcolm McLaren, Lenny Kaye, Genya Ravan, Chris Stein, Jonathan Richman, and Helen Wheels. Punk reflects the whole Jewish history of oppression and uncertainty, flight and wandering, belonging and not belonging, always being divided, being both in and out, good and bad, part and apart. The shpilkes, the nervous energy, of punk is Jewish. That shpilkes, the “Heebie Jeebies” of Little Richard’s song, captures exactly what was happening in the Bowery as that first generation to come of age after the Holocaust made its mark on poplar music at a little Jewish-owned and -run club called CBGB.
Of course, people can — and do — go back and forth ad infinitum about where punk rock started: New York or London, New York or London. I don’t really care; that part of it isn’t particularly interesting to me, and it’s not like there’s ever going to be a definitive answer. But let’s just pretend that we’ve decided that the answer is New York, that American acts like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges and the MC5 were the progenitors of punk, that the Clash and the Pistols came from us and not the other way around.
Given that, I find Beeber’s Punk-Is-Jewish argument completely persuasive. I mean, it’s not like he’s talking about a handful of people no one’s heard of; it’s a lot of big names, both in and out of the spotlight, and although Beeber focuses on the Jews, he doesn’t do so the exclusion of everyone else. You don’t come away thinking the early NYC punk scene was only Jews, which can be a risk with a book like this one. So you’ve got this book about the history of a movement, about many of the people who were pivotal to that movement, and about what they had in common. And it was quite a lot.
I really learned a lot from this book. I wasn’t surprised that there were Jewish punks, but I hadn’t realized (or even thought about) how many Jews were involved in the early days, or how pivotal they were, or what the stories were behind many of the stories. As far as I can tell, not many people did — the book has a lot of anecdotes about the author tracking people down who didn’t much want to talk to him, who would neither confirm nor deny their Jewishness, who had no idea there were so many others like them.
It’s a fairly academic text (my copy has a giant USED sticker on the back of the type you find on books at college bookstores), and there are a few places Beeber was trying too hard to be a ~writer~. At the beginning of one chapter, he takes several pages to try to enticingly set a scene, lovingly describing who’s on stage at CB’s, how the scene is doing, what Seymour Stein is up to, on and on and on, and meanwhile there is this dude on stage with his back to the audience. And it’s like, for fuck’s sake, WHO IS IT. JUST TELL ME. Months later, and I get frustrated thinking about it.
Still, despite the occasional misstep, I found the writing to be smooth and entertaining; it definitely wasn’t one of those books where I read three pages and then had to read comics for a week until my brain recovered. I mostly appreciated that it offered a different perspective on punk history. As you may have gathered, I’ve read a lot of books about punk rock, and it’s totally awesome whenever one brings something new to the table: a new perspective, a new way of telling the same stories, anything. Beeber does a good job of slotting the punks into the better-known pantheon of smartass Jewish entertainers — he starts with Lenny Bruce — and branching out into John Zorn’s dissonant art and then back around to the Beastie Boys, who, if you will recall, started as a shitty hardcore band. But these days, I don’t know, they’re just three emcees and they’re on the go; Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego.
Verdict: Essential reading for music nerds.
[review originally posted here. I'm moving those reviews to GR at a rate of one per day, if any regular GR friends are wondering why you're suddenly getting updates with really long reviews of books I read years ago.]...more
More like 3.5, I think, but I rounded up. It started a bit slow (I keep trying to care about the early pub rock scene, but I just don't) and ended a bMore like 3.5, I think, but I rounded up. It started a bit slow (I keep trying to care about the early pub rock scene, but I just don't) and ended a bit slow, but I thought the middle chunk was great. More splintered than Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk -- really, the more oral histories I read, the more impressed I am with that one and its strangely cohesive narrative, which is very difficult to pull off -- and faaaar more about the music than the gossip. I learned hardly any gossip! Still a pretty good read, though....more