Loud Fast Jews
Last week I attended an event at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan entitled Loud Fast Jews. Up on stage together were Tommy Ramone, Lenny Kaye, Chris Stein and Handsome Dick Manitoba, and when I told someone I was going off to see them, they were almost besides themselves with excitement: “OMG, what a great band.”
Yeah, it would have been. As it happened, however, this quartet of pioneering punks had come together not to play music but “to speak on their Jewish heritage and how it’s influenced their own lives, and the punk rock community as a whole.” In other words, this was a seminar of sorts, certainly not a gig – though at times, especially given the familiar faces in the audience, it had the air of a CBGBs reunion.
The issue of Jewishness in punk rock is one that has only recently been discussed, in part because so many of the original punks went by different last names (of the panelists, only Chris Stein has always used his family’s original Jewish name, which is ironic considering that he was the only secular Jew on the panel). Steven Lee Beeber’s 2006 book, The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk was perhaps the first serious attempt to draw the connection, citing Johnny Ramone, Hilly Kristal, the Beastie Boys and Lou Reed, as well as those who comprised the Loud Fast Jews panel, and certainly he has a point. It’s an indisputable fact that many of the founding New York punks were Jewish.
But on the panel itself, the four pioneers were damned if they could draw any conclusions from it. Though they willingly talked about their neighborhood upbringings – all but Hungarian-born future Ramone Tommy Erdelyi were from the Tri-State area – and their Bar Mitzvahs (Manitoba used the money from his to buy pot), they couldn’t explain whether their Jewishness had any connection with their involvement in punk (or vice-versa). Somewhat apologetically, the best they could offer was a confirmation of demographics: New York is heavily Jewish, therefore it made sense that a number of people in the city’s punk movement would be of Jewish heritage. Anyone in the audience looking for something more profound would have come away disappointed.
Still, this remains a subject of interest. When I sat down to start work on All Hopped Up and Ready To Go: Music from the Streets of New York 1927-77, I became immediately aware that the story of music in New York City is intrinsically wrapped up with the Jewish experience. From Irving Berlin and George Gershwin onwards, Jewish immigrants and their offspring have played a vital role in the city’s thriving music culture. And they have done so in absolutely all aspects: as songwriters (from the aforementioned Berlin and Gershwin through to Sedaka-Greenfield, Goffin-King, Mann-Weil), as musicians (from Benny Goodman and Woody Herman through to Bob Dylan, John Sebastian, Janis Ian, almost anyone else involved in the folk revival, and on, of course, to the punk era), and most emphatically, as entrepreneurs. From Café Society’s Barney Josephson to CBGBs’ Hilly Kristal, the Folkways label’s founder Moe Asch to Sire’s Seymour Stein, the Commodore store owner and jazz pioneer Milt Gabler to the Folklore store owner and folk revival pioneer Izzy Young, and passing through a variety of other colorful figures, including Jerry Wexler, George Goldner and Danny Fields, a vast number of New York City’s independent labels, magazine publishers, managers, promoters and club owners of note have been Jewish.
Why? I’ve attempted to answer that one early on in the book, around the time that the Apollo Theater, managed by the Schiffman family and employing primarily black people, gets going in the 1930s…
“The relationship between Jewish businessmen and black entertainers is a recurrent and increasingly controversial theme throughout the history of the New York music scene. It’s worth noting at the outset then, that as of the early 1930s, there was little or no conflict between the Jewish people in Harlem, and either the blacks or Latinos who gradually came to dominate the neighborhood. Essayist Roi Ottley was emphatic on this subject, writing in 1943, in New World A-Coming, that “Anti-Jewish sentiment among Negroes … is a very recent manifestation, perhaps about ten years old,” blaming Harlem’s “back-to-Africa” leader Marcus Garvey for introducing the “Jewish question” – while noting also the impact of the Depression, the rise of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, the arrival of Jewish refugees, and anti-white sentiment in Harlem that could only be expressed against those with whom black people interacted: Jewish shopkeepers and businessmen.
That so many Jewish people found themselves operating small businesses was itself a direct result of discrimination, barred as they were from the “white-collar” enterprises on Wall Street, and the entrepreneurs among them were drawn instinctively into the world of movies, music, and theater. In addition, those Jewish New Yorkers who tended towards (far) left-wing politics (and it was a majority) found themselves ideally positioned to advance the cause of racial integration via their involvement in entertainment. And so, if it could be posited, honestly, that the Jewish businessman and the black entertainer each took from the other what they needed to succeed, it should also be stated, more generously, that given their shared ostracism from mainstream society, they had more in common than many would sometimes like them to believe.”
Jewish involvement in the New York City music scene probably peaked in the 50s and 60s, twice over. Once was with the aforementioned songwriters who are frequently associated with Broadway’s Brill Building, many of whom were the children of aspiring middle class Jewish families from South Brooklyn. And again with the contemporaneous folk revival: a vast percentage of the kids who gathered in Washington Square Park on Sunday afternoons, and who then gravitated to the baskethouses and eventually the rock clubs of Greenwich Village, were children of progressive Jewish families, almost all of whom also attended summer camps in the Catskills and the like. (To call them “red diaper babies” is to oversimplify the matter, though it’s a convenient tag.) By the time punk rock came around, in the early 1970s, it was, as the panelists readily accepted last week, inevitable that a number of the major figures would be Jewish. The only surprise perhaps, is that there weren’t even more of them.
The aspect that went unstated on the panel was the relevance of the Lower East Side itself to the Jewish experience. According to my own research, at the start of the 20th Century almost 1,000,000 people were crowded in to the slum tenements of the Lower East Side, and no less than 95% of them were Jewish. Yet by the 1950s, so many Jewish immigrants had managed to clawed their way out of the “ghetto” that apartments were going begging. It was this abundance of living space at almost impossibly cheap prices that drew young people of all races to live in the area, in the case of the Jewish kids often against their parents’ wishes (“we worked all our lives to get out of the ghetto, and now you’re moving back there?!”). Add in the Lower East Side’s reputations as a political cauldron, from the first documented riot in Tompkins Square Park, of 1857, to the one I witnessed there and in the surrounding streets in 1988, and its open door policy towards all artistic movements, and it’s no wonder that punk came to fruition in that corner of Manhattan.
Ultimately then, the Loud Fast Jews panel, other than as an excuse for old punks to get together in the same room (once more) was something of a damp squib. The last word should nonetheless go to Handsome Dick Manitoba, the Dictators’ lead singer whose ready humor kept the panel lively and the audience laughing. Manitoba grew up in the Bronx, which in the 1930s was 50% Jewish but by the time of his own childhood in the 1960s, was equally dominated, among white families at least, by the Italians. As his following joke clarifies, the differences, at least to the kids, were so slight that they represented little more than a punchline.
“What’s the difference between an Italian mother and a Jewish mother? An Italian mother says, ‘Eat your dinner or I’ll kill you.’ A Jewish mother says, ‘Eat your dinner or I’ll kill myself.’”
It’s the way he told it.