Like most music freaks, if you ask me where punk rock originated, I wouldn't hesitate to tell you that it happened in England. After all, the Brits lay claim to pogo dancing, safety pins as a fashion statement, and the Sex Pistols. The whole concept of punk rock is, essentially, very Clockwork Orange.
Steven Lee Beeber's The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk challenges that notion by showing us that punk began in New York -- and was heavily influenced and shaped by a variety of Jews from a variety of backgrounds. Beginning with the cutting-edge comedy of Lenny Bruce and the musical innovations that were Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Beeber shows us how the music evolved. It is clear that without the involvement of Jews, there would have been no punk movement.
Chapter by chapter, Beeber traces the bands and the people, focusing on the Jewish players who coalesced around the Jewish-owned punk mecca, CBGB. This is dense reading, best taken slowly so that all of the facts and details -- not to mention the personalities -- can sink in.
One theme that Beeber refers to often is the link between the Holocaust and punk. His claims make perfect sense: the emotions invested in the children of survivors provided the fuel for punk's trademark anger. Yes, there is anger that so many people were eradicated, but one of the more surprising revelations is that some of the anger comes from and is fueled by the fact that the Jews allowed themselves to be victims. At the same time, though, there is an awareness that the word allowed is inaccurate. That anyone, faced with such a circumstance, would have done exactly the same thing. Ultimately, this isn't an emotion of victimization, but of helplessness and futility -- two strong emotions that run through the undercurrent of punk, both in its lyrics and its attitudes.
Beeber takes us across the ocean for a visit with the start of British punk -- the Sex Pistols -- but focuses on the Jews involved in creating that scene. From Sex Pistols creator Malcolm MacLaren to the ill-fated Nancy Spungeon, lover of Pistols frontman Sid Vicious, it is obvious that here, too, punk music and the Jewish tradition are linked so closely that removal of the Jew removes the music.
Many would argue that punk died out with the Sex Pistols, to be replaced by music from cities like LA and San Francisco, peopled with musicians and fans who shocked New York ex-pats with virulent anti-Semitic themes, attitudes, and lyrics.
Beeber returns to New York to show us what punk evolved into: John Zorn's dissonant art and even, perhaps unbelievably, the Beastie Boys, perhaps the most punk of all the bands in the book.
Even more than the Ramones, those poster boys for American punk?
You be the judge. For any music fan, this is essential reading. It's not just that this is a clear evolution of the music scene over the span of forty-some years, from the late 1960s to the present. This book traces the shifts in our culture during this time period, and the shifts in attitude that allowed punk to be as vibrant as it was.
Beeber's prose is smooth and charming, always focused on the topic at hand and never getting sidetracked like so many Jewish storytellers of old. He's also a master craftsman, showing his writer's roots in the construction of each chapter, bringing back points made in opening paragraphs, tying it all together with a neat black leather jacket and peppy beat.
For the music lover, the historian interested in Jewish history, or for anyone intrigued by how someone as tall, skinny, and scary as Joey Ramone could become a pop icon, The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk is one of those books you won't want to miss. Certainly, my copy now occupies a space between Deena Weinstein's seminal Heavy Metal and Joe Berlinger's Metallica: This Monster Lives.