The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: a secret History of Jewish Punk By Steven Lee Beeber Chicago Review Press, 272 pages, $24.95.
By turns entertaining and infuriating, Steven Lee Beeber’s “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s” is a study in contradictions: Rarely have so many carefully researched facts been placed in service of such deeply flawed arguments.
Beeber’s basic premise is simple: Jewish New Yorkers played an important role in defining, playing, promoting, producing, recording and writing about punk rock. That much he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, laying out the evidence in an orgy of enumeration that occasionally devolves into a game of “Name That Jew.” Alan Vega and Martin Rev, of the band Suicide? Jewish. Richard Hell, of Television, the Heartbreakers and the Voidoids? Half-Jewish. Debbie Harry, of Blondie? Not so Jewish, but married for a time to musical partner Chris Stein, a certified member of the tribe. On more than one occasion, “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s” made me feel as if I were back at my mother’s kitchen table, getting a lesson in Jewish geography. Except that none of the people Mom talked about ever slept atop Nazi regalia or had chairs thrown at them onstage.
Beeber does an admirable job of totting up all the Jews who were even tangentially involved in the early New York punk scene, but his attempts at proving that punk was a fundamentally Jewish art form rely on the kind of fuzzy logic that makes for muddled reading and worse social history. If one is dead set on proving that punk is intrinsically Jewish, then one had better decide what being Jewish means, no? Instead, we are told at various times that Jews are by nature sensitive and intellectual, thick skinned and confrontational, alienated and empathetic. Rejecting your bourgeois Jewish roots is deeply Jewish, as is having a strong moral conscience and identifying with African Americans. That kind of equivocation is confusing to a reader, and lethal to a coherent argument.
If literally anything can be a marker of Jewishness, then nothing is. And if every formative influence on punk must be Jewish, one can wind up making some very strange allegations. When Beeber claims that Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers “seemed tortured by the forces that had forced him to withdraw from the world, the same forces that had historically damaged Jews like him,” you have to wonder: Were distant parents and poor social skills really to blame for 5,000 years of persecution? Consider, too, the following, which Beeber offers in support of the contention that the ethnic intermingling between Jews and gentiles on the early punk scene had deep roots in American popular music: “… one could look at jazz, where almost all the performers who weren’t black were either Italian or Jewish.…” So that’s how all those musicians of Latin, Nordic and Germanic descent crept into jazz. Clearly, they were passing as Jews. This kind of loony assertion makes the entire book seem like a sloppy cultural-reclamation project, driven by an almost comical Jewish chauvinism. When Beeber writes that Lou Reed brought to rock “the sophisticated song craft and lyrics made famous by Jews on Broadway and Tin Pan Alley for decades,” one can’t help but think of Woody Allen’s comedic essay “Hassidic Tales,” in which a rabbi is considered to be the most learned man in the world by his followers — who make up a tenth of 1% of the total population of Western Europe.
There are other problems with Beeber’s “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s,” like the author’s willingness to take the profundity of punk at face value (for example, when Richman compares the commuter trains trundling through Scarsdale, N.Y., to Nazi death-camp transports, is he really fashioning a complex metaphor about the horrors of life in suburban America, or is he just being a jackass?). His eagerness to make sweeping generalizations and to engage in shallow psychoanalysis at a distance (“Gershwin, Berlin and Jolson dipped into black culture to get in touch with their own sense of otherness”), even his fundamental assumption that music made by Jews must be innately Jewish.
Yet Beeber is also capable of great perspicacity and clarity of expression, as when he adroitly sketches the relationships between various punk and new-wave bands, from the Modern Lovers to the Talking Heads and the Cars; or explores the affinity between Jewish and Latino culture; or describes the role that rock critics (Jewish ones, of course) played in shaping the sound and attitude of punk. In the end, however, those moments of lucidity only make the steady stream of questionable assumptions and tortured logic all the more frustrating. If Beeber can make such good sense, why does he so often choose not to? It’s enough to make you feel like you’d had, in the words of the late Joey Ramone, a “Teenage Lobotomy.”
Alexander Gelfand is a writer living in New York City.