Jewish Punk: If Anyone Can, Can Can Can

By Saul Austerlitz

Published January 15, 2009, issue of January 23, 2009.
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Among those who raised money for Chabad in response to the murder of the group’s Mumbai representatives last month during the terrorist attack on that city, Patrick A.’s appeal was probably unique:


“I had people put dollar bills in my pants while I was onstage, and I started screaming, ‘Put your money in my crotch for Mumbai!’” said the lead singer of Jewish-inflected punk rock group Can Can.

Such is the odd conjunction of punk and Jewishness embraced by the Atlanta-based band.

Can Can, whose first full-length album, “All Hell,” will be released January 27, is looking to redefine just what it means to be a punk-rocker and —in Patrick A.’s case, at least —what it means to be Jewish. But in doing so, the band is following in the footsteps of earlier artists whose less self-conscious Jewish attitudes were formative for the punk movement in America.

Can Can, of which Patrick A. is the only Jewish member, plays songs that weld punk attitude to heavy metal’s metaphorically dense, lyrically pungent aura. “All Hell,” is more punk than Jewish, with explicitly religious content only glimpsed between the margins. But such tracks as “Locked In” and “Make a Pretty Motion” borrow biblical language to describe a relationship gone sour. “Betrayer/Deceiver” is, perhaps, the most overtly Jewish song on the album, its apocalyptic “walk in the Promised Land” threatening to lead to a trip “down into the common grave.”

Patrick A., a 26-year-old Southerner who discovered religion when he was a teenager, incorporates Jewish themes into his music in mostly allusive fashion. In this way, Can Can has much in common with the Christian-rock groups that are a regular feature of the music scene in Atlanta and elsewhere in the South, playing shows at clubs, and in churches, with no particular change in focus.

“If I can give young Jews a sense of spiritual connection through heavy music in the same way that my Christian colleagues have done so, then that’s a wonderful thing, but that’s not necessarily what I’m trying to do,” Patrick A said. Instead, he prefers to see Can Can as an act that smuggles Jewish content into otherwise familiar, secular punk rock, leaving its discovery to those who seek it out. “If they go the extra step and read the lyrics and see that there are songs about creation mythology, and a song about olam haba [the afterlife], well, what is that? Then that’s great,” he said.

Like a 21st-century Joseph, this songwriter makes profitable use of his dreams. One particularly vivid nighttime vision of a war between the people of the earth and the people of the water inspired “Locked In.” Later, Patrick A. came to see the song as a reinterpretation of the biblical creation story, and an accidental reflection on the religiously fueled battles raging in his state over high-school science textbooks, pitting defenders of evolution against their creationist opponents — the people of the water vs. the people of the earth.

Can Can is hardly the first punk band with a Jewish identity. As Steven Lee Beeber documents in his authoritative history of Jews in punk, “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s” (Chicago Review Press, 2006) many (if not most) of the early New York punks were Jewish, and identified as such. The Ramones, Richard Hell and Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith’s guitarist) were products of middle-class Jewish families, and punk was, in some ways, an expression of a particular Jewish sensibility. “The punks in New York were sort of peek-a-boo,” Beeber said. “They weren’t always conscious of what they were doing, but in some senses were speaking to their Jewishness.”

Punk would later evolve in less explicitly Jewish fashion, with West Coast punk in particular adopting a whiter, less egalitarian, angrier ethos at odds with New York punk’s patchwork, inclusive vision. Atlanta has never been known as a hotbed of punk with most of Georgia’s indie groups (think R.E.M., or Neutral Milk Hotel) preferring a gentler, more lyrical sound.

With few exceptions, most of the contemporary Jewish punks are tongue in cheek about their religion of choice. “All the bands I’ve heard that are Jewish punk bands, they aren’t like Christian punk bands that are so sincere, like, “I will follow you, Jesus!” said Liz Nord, director of the 2005 documentary film “Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land.” “They’re much more like silly, funny punk bands.” Groups such as Jewdriver and Yidcore mock the stripped-down, occasionally Jew-hating aesthetic of hardcore.

Beeber, for one, is concerned that the Jewish punks veer perilously close to kitsch in their appropriation of Jewish themes. “When there’s a punk song, and there’s a little break for a klezmer moment, it feels tagged on,” he noted. “I don’t know that there’s any real connection there with the people performing it.”

With their metaphorically resonant lyrics and generally serious approach to Jewishness, Can Can has far more in common with its counterparts in the Israeli punk scene. Bands such as Useless I.D. and Smartut Kahol Lavan (Blue and White Rag) are explicitly, angrily political, their left-wing, anti-government ethos a throwback to the era of The Clash and the Dead Kennedys.

If the Americans have eschewed politics for humor and nostalgia, their Israeli counterparts have fully embraced the countercultural side of punk rock. Smartut Kahol Lavan, a purposefully disrespectful reference to the Israeli flag, plays a thrashing Black Flag-inspired brand of hardcore, its nearly incomprehensible shouted lyrics dotted with references to massacres in Hebron and the like. Useless I.D. is pop-ier, with Fall Out Boy’s taste for juicy hooks, but the band’s Web site still shouts out to Punkvoter and to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

Nord also highlights the work of Va’adat Kishoot, an all-female group with a taste for sprinkling glitter on fans and a desire to undercut Israel’s macho culture. “Their outlook is, ‘Everything is gray here, and we’re always depressed, and we want to be celebratory,’” Nord said. “It’s almost like performance art.” Onetime hardcore band Ha Pussy Shel Lucy has kept the style, and the attitude, while transitioning to a dance-friendly electronica sound. Putting on underground raves, the band is “one of the bastions of DIY [Do It Yourself — the official punk ethos] in Israel,” according to Nord. Since the music scene in Israel still remains small in comparison with that of the United States, there is more interaction between groups and fans from different subcultures that might never mix in the United States.

For the Israeli groups, punk is a means of expressing alienation from the Jewish state. For Patrick A., it is a means of expressing his own affiliation. Punk and Judaism “go together, because being religious is very countercultural now,” he said. Having spiritual ideas and expressing them is very countercultural, and punk rock is very countercultural.”

Will there ever be a scene of Jewish punk and hardcore, sincerely paying tribute to religion the way the band’s Christian counterparts do? It seems doubtful, but Patrick A., for one, envisions a world where synagogues host livelier events. “There is no culture in the synagogue, in the Jewish community center, for rock and roll music. Anytime there’s any kind of musical performance, it’s always a klezmer band or it’s some acoustic singer-songwriter guy in his 40s,” he said, laughing. “It’s time for all-ages hardcore shows in the shuls.”

Listen to Can Can’s Boreska Mines:

Saul Austerlitz is a writer living in New York.

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