Lawrence A's Reviews > The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk

The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's by Steven Lee Beeber
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Jul 13, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: judaica-holocaust-middle-east, new-york-history, non-fiction, music-arts
Read from July 13 to 25, 2012

When I saw the title of this book, I nearly plotzed. I became a punk/new wave fan in 1976-1977, during my freshman year at Brandeis, when my classmate Neil Kaplan (younger brother of Ira Kaplan, the soon-to-be-frontman of Yo La Tengo), played me the compilation record "Live From CBGB's" and Television's "Marquee Moon," the latter of which quickly became one of my 2 or 3 favorite records of all time (see, e.g., my profile picture on Goodreads, in which I'm wearing the cover art of that album on my t-shirt). I was hooked. While I was then, and still am, a big fan of classic rock, psychedelic rock, and jam bands, the immediacy, humor, and outrageousness of the punk ethos appealed to my sense of the absurd and my dislike of sacred cows. In addition, although I've always loved playing the parlor game "Jewish or not Jewish," and I had known for quite some time that several leading lights in the punk movement had Jewish backgrounds (Joey and Tommy Ramone, Chris Stein, Richard Hell), I hadn't thought to connect the issues of Jewish outsiderness, musicality, and the propensity for questioning and arguing about everything, with the sudden flowering of punk as a uniquely Jewish aesthetic. Beeber has done that brilliantly here, tracing the punk attitude back to my "landsman," the great comedian and social critic Lenny Bruce (we both grew up in the same suburban town---North Bellmore, on the south shore of Long Island's Nassau County) and rock icon and Velvet Underground founder, Lou Reed (who grew up in Freeport, only 2 stops away on the Long Island Rail Road), as well as the great Jewish Brill Building pop song craftsmen and women who sometimes informed the interests and influences of their wilder musical progeny. The writing is excellent, both analytically and descriptively, with lots of Jewish humor and more than a little poetry. Beeber not only has meticulously delved into source material and obtained excellent interviews with many of the movers and shakers of the punk era, he also gives a cogent aesthetic, social, and political explanation for the Jewish influence over, if not the conscious creation of, punk and DIY music. Moreover, Beeber has good explanations for the seeming incongruity of Nazi and fascist imagery in much of punk music, both American and British, despite punk's reputation as an inclusive, outsider artform. As he explains it, it was a semi-conscious, or sometimes blatantly self-conscious, attempt by the sons and daughters of the Holocaust generation to defeat fear with irony and humor, as if to say "the f***ing Nazis lost and we won" or "we're not little puking Yeshivah-buchers, we're badass" (see e.g., the great Jewish proto-punk band The Dictators or mostly Jewish hardrockers Blue Oyster Cult).

This book was a delight to read, and truly reveals the spirit of the mid-to-late 70s and early 80s, as well as where the various artistic and musical branches led thereafter. Highly recommended!
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