Lesley Professor Chronicles Punk's Jewish Origins


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Connor Edwards's picture

Every new movement in music gives birth to a new rebellion, and no genre exemplifies rebellion more than punk rock. If genres were drinks, then punk rock would come in a shot glass. If the Grateful Dead and the Ramones played gigs on the same night, the Ramones would speed through their whole set long before the Dead were finished jamming. Steven Lee Beeber, clad in a leather jacket on his way to work as a professor at Lesley University, understands and appreciates the essence of punk rock, but also recognizes a vital aspect of the genre rarely explored in mainstream culture. Most people would not associate punk rock with Judaism, but Beeber views it as a central ingredient in making the genre what it is today. His book, The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk chronicles the origins of punk and sets out to prove that the genre is intrinsically Jewish. It is based on interviews with over 150 innovators of punk, including Tommy Ramone, Chris Stein of Blondie, Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group, and CBGB’s owner Hilly Kristal.

A lifelong music fan, Beeber enjoys early New York punk acts such as Patti Smith, Television, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He remembers how it wasn’t considered “cool” to be Jewish at the time. Musicians of his faith like Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan weren’t exactly the hardest of rockers. That is, until he learned that Joey Ramone, born Jeffrey Hyman, as well as the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, were both raised Jewish in New York, where the genre originated. This discovery gave way to further observations regarding punk’s Jewish roots. Punk is the only movement in rock to come from New York. The city itself is a cultural cornerstone with a prominent Jewish community, particularly in the 1970s. Beeber quickly noticed that one of punk’s most popular tropes is the satirical use of Nazi imagery. Tommy Ramone revealed in an interview that he was the son of holocaust survivors, hiding his Jewish identity for fear of anti-Semitism. In numerous aspects, punk was a reaction to the Holocaust, executed by the first generation to come of age.

Beeber spent close to two years doing research, and about a year writing A Secret History. He read numerous books and online articles, which he found to be much easier than tracking down his heroes. He would approach musicians at events and ask for an interview. In most instances, they were intrigued. He greatly enjoyed the interview process, although he was warned to expect the unexpected. In some cases, this was true, but overall he was honored to meet his idols. When NYU bought an archive of Richard Hell’s papers, Beeber was the first to review them before they were cataloged. Writing A Secret History was fun, stressful, and time-consuming, but altogether worth the effort.

Beeber still enjoys listening to punk rock. Just recently, he revisited Patti Smith’s Horses, a precursor to punk. He especially enjoys psychedelic and garage rock bands such as The Sonics, as well as post-punk, which allowed the genre to be more complicated but still stripped-down. He even enjoys the Beatles and, much like the Ramones, cites many of their songs as punk influences, even if hardcore fans may view them as “soft.” To Beeber, punk is important because it brought rock back to what it was supposed to be. Any beginner musician could play a punk rock song. While Beeber shows no disrespect to progressive rock bands, he does not feel they capture the essence of what rock is: basic, primal, and edgy. Culturally, punk changed the idea of the “hero” in the public eye. Beeber explains the contrast between Robert Plant and Joey Ramone, saying that Plant was a “macho guy,” while Ramone was more of a “freak,” with his lanky physique and struggles with OCD. Punk reclaimed the space for the “losers,” who were often more clever than the typical “heroes.” With its political dimension, punk was more democratic. It was more playable and showed pride in people rejected society’s definition of beauty. It dealt with topics that were troubling and unpleasant through a sense of humor, which Beeber sees as one of the most important ways to respond to tragedy. “You see things in a different way. You’re not so earnest about the political process, because you know it’s full of potential dangers, and these people who put themselves up as paradigms of virtue, are maybe to be feared or examined more closely. You got to have an ironic look at things. You have to always be questioning: Is this really what it seems to be or claims to be?”

The 10th anniversary of CBGB’s closing is October 15, and 2016 marks the 40th anniversary of the Ramones debut, as well as their first show in England, which influenced bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols. Beeber concluded by saying, “All of this stuff is 40 years ago, but it’s so relevant today because we’re back at a period where we’ve got an economic recession, we’ve got leaders potentially who are setting an example about what is considered ‘good’ and what is considered ‘righteous’ who exclude vast numbers of people for reasons that we might question. People used to spray on walls ‘Punk is Dead’ and ‘Punk Lives.’ If it wasn’t living, it’s back from the grave, and it’s needed more than ever.”