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

By Stratton, Jon | Shofar, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

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


Stratton, Jon, Shofar


The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk, by Steven Lee Beeber. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2006. 272 pp. $24.95.

Over the last few years there has been an increasing amount of sophisticated, critical scholarship on the Jewish-American relationship with American popular music. Books such as Michael Rogin's Blackface, White Noise and Jeffrey Melnick's A Right to Sing the Blues represent major contributions to our understanding of the relationship of Jewish performers and composers to African-American music in the early part of the twentieth century. Michael Billig's Rock 'n Roll Jews is a useful survey that runs up to the end of that century.

Billig's discussion is centered on the lack of visibility of Jews in American popular music. In his outline of the Jewish contribution in the 1960s and 1970s he concentrates on the composers of the Brill Building and on the singer-songwriters, many of whom, like Bob Dylan, changed their names. Punk gets a couple of perfunctory mentions. Perhaps this is because the Jewish role in punk was different. In punk, especially New York punk, Jews were central to the music's formation and its performance. The time is right for an assessment of this massive contribution. Here, I must declare my own interest: at the same time that Steven Beeber was researching and writing his account of that contribution, on the other side of the world, and without knowledge of the wotk each was doing, I was researching and writing two articles on the same subject (see Popular Music, Vol. 24, No. 1 [2005] and Shofar, Vol. 26, No. 4 [2007]). One thing that both of us found is that the Jewish contribution to punk, especially in the United States, was enormous. Indeed, it would not be hyperbolic to describe punk as Jewish music.

Beeber's book benefits greatly from his interviews with the main players including Lenny Kaye (of the Nuggets collection fame and Patti Smith collaboration), Andy Shernoff(of the Dictators), Tommy Erdelyi (Tommy Ramone of the Ramones), Genya Ravan (singer and producer), Hilly Kristal (of the club, CBGBs) and many, many more. However, I do not want to give the impression that Beeber's book is simply a history held together by interviews - if it were, though, it would still be an important achievement. Tfce Heebie-jeebies at CBGBi is much more than this. Through the fascinating accounts of the Jewish presence in punk Beeber weaves other stories. His history begins with Lenny Bruce, whom he connects to the social critiques of Bob Dylan. Beeber interviewed Tuli Kupferberg of the foundational countercultural group, the Fugs. Beeber wants to think about why Jews started to stand up and offer criticisms of American society, and to think about what was specifically Jewish in those criticisms.

Beeber's book was written for a general, intellectually engaged authence, so he does not start out with definitions of Jews and Jewishness, or of punk for that matter. Rather, these come through as the book proceeds. In his accounts of punk Beeber connects the post- Holocaust anguish at the genocide with Rich Cohen's idea of the tough Jew (in Tough Jews), an idea also used by Paul Breines (whose book is also titled Tough Jews), whose ambit is rather larger than Cohen's and who, like Beeber, sees the Six Day War as an historical marker in a Jewish sense of empowerment that spread far beyond Israel. …

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