The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk

The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk

The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk

The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk


Based in part on the recent interviews with more than 125 people -among them Tommy Ramone, Chris Stein (Blondie), Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group), Hilly Kristal (CBGBs owner), and John Zorn-this book focuses on punk's beginnings in New York City to show that punk was the most Jewish of rock movements, in both makeup and attitude. As it originated in Manhattan's Lower East Side in the early 1970s, punk rock was the apotheosis of a Jewish cultural tradition that found its ultimate expression in the generation born after the Holocaust. Beginning with Lenny Bruce, "the patron saint of punk," and following pre-punk progenitors such as Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, Suicide, and the Dictators, this fascinating mixture of biography, cultural studies, and musical analysis delves into the lives of these and other Jewish punks-including Richard Hell and Joey Ramone-to create a fascinating historical overview of the scene. Reflecting the irony, romanticism, and, above all, the humor of the Jewish experience, this tale of changing Jewish identity in America reveals the conscious and unconscious forces that drove New York Jewish rockers to reinvent themselves-and popular music.


The punks were Jewish?!

—answering the question I’ve been asked
repeatedly while writing this book

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 the first generation to come of age after the Holocaust made its mark on popular music at a little Jewish-owned and -run club called CBGB.

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