Donald Trump might Make Punk Great Again, but in America, it was traumatized, and defiant, Jews who made it
By Steven Lee Beeber
It’s 3 a.m. in The Blue Room and the audience is sweaty with joy.
The Modern Lovers’ high-strung leader, Jonathan Richman, has just left the stage, his Nice-Jewish-Boy songs about being “in love with the Old World” having been delivered in the manner of his musical hero, the Not-So-Nice Jewish founder of the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed. In his place now are two ethnic-looking guys, one short, staring at the crowd, the other tall, carrying the kind of cheap organ that comes with preset Salsa and Cha Cha beats. The audience stares back, expecting the usual rock foreplay, the twang-twang of tune-up, the “sibilance” of sound check.
Suddenly the short guy leaps offstage and approaches the audience. In one hand he holds a microphone. In the other a knife. The crowd pulls back, realizing that he also has a chain looped around his neck. There’s the sound of some menacing alarm going off, a two-note organ pattern, insistent.
“Argggh,” a woman cries, rushing for the exit.
But the knife-wielding maniac is blocking her way, threatening anyone who tries to leave. And he’s whispering into the mic, yelping, whispering again, desperate, as if he’s being tortured, some sick story-song, Frankie picked up a gun, pointed it at the six-month-old in the crib…”
It goes on for five, 10, 20 minutes, the boos starting to rise. Then another song, and another, the boos increasing. When it’s over, nobody applauds.
That was Suicide’s debut at New York’s Mercer Arts Center, 1973. Or as the singer with the knife, Alan Vega, described it nearly 40 years later, the aural equivalent of Treblinka.
When Vega died this past July, he finally got his applause. There was a eulogy from the Boss and an obit in the Times, the usual lines being trotted out—he was more influential than commercial, ahead of his peers, an uncompromising artist, a forebear of punk rock. An even greater outpouring of words had appeared just weeks earlier to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Ramones’ first album. If Vega was a forebear, the Ramones were the true article, a kind of Ur Punk band. The excitement around the revolution they kicked off reached a fever pitch in England, where the capital—officially declaring itself Punk London—hosted a series of museum exhibits, roundtables, and lectures, in the process igniting a debate over the appropriateness of institutionalizing a movement seemingly dedicated to anarchy. One punk heir even burned a $1 million worth of artifacts in protest, simultaneously giving the finger to both the city and the burgeoning punk-archive industry at Yale, NYU, the New York Public Library, and the British Library.
What is it about punk that continues to generate such interest? Decades on, where are the anniversaries for bubble gum, glam, or psychedelia? No, only punk stands out as truly worthy of our attention. Punk speaks to our times. But why?
Perhaps it has something to do with what’s been left out of the story. When those obits for Vega appeared, almost none mentioned that bit about Treblinka. Or the fact that Vega—born Boruch Alan Bermowitz—was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, that his father was a refugee of Hitler’s Europe, that he married a Holocaust survivor, considered fighting for Israel in the Yom Kippur War, name-checked Dachau in song, and mocked neo-Nazi skinheads, having his nose broken repeatedly for his efforts.
The same was true of those articles about the Ramones. Almost none noted that half the band’s members (Joey and Tommy) were Jewish, or that Tommy was a son of Holocaust survivors, or that the group came from the same Jewish middle-class neighborhood, Forest Hills, that gave us Simon and Garfunkel.
As with Vega, the articles about the Ramones emphasized the state of New York in the early ’70s, focusing on economic devastation and lack of hope. In doing so, they failed to see the city in its totality. For as no less an authority than Lenny Bruce—the punks’ favorite comic—put it, “It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic—if you’re living in New York, you’re Jewish.” This was especially true in the period during which the punks were coming of age, the 1950s and ’60s, when NYC was the most Jewish city in the world. With a population of Jews larger even than Tel Aviv, it’s not surprising that a Jewish attitude should have prevailed there. It was in the shrugs of the neighborhood deli, the one-liners of the street-corner smartass, the red-diaper-baby politics of cranky uncles.
In 1961, a shadow was cast over the city that touched everyone, but Jews especially, which explains not just why punk is still relevant but why it appeared in the first place. It was that year that ABC first aired a criminal trial in its entirety. The defendant was Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief engineers of Hitler’s so-called Final Solution. Every day throughout that spring, the grisly details of the Nazi genocide were broadcast into New Yorkers’ homes. Questioned by Israeli prosecutors, witnesses described the selections for the gas chambers, the experiments on twins, the starvations and beatings and plans to work inmates to death.
Up until that point, the horror that we now call the Holocaust had been little known. There’d been a seeming collusion of silence immediately following the war, a numbed inability to speak. Now, 16 years later, the gag was ripped off. Day after day, television viewers were subjected to a kind of nightmare soap opera, one in which people were turned into soap. If they were appalled, they were also riveted—especially those most loyal TV viewers, children. Among those children were future Jewish punk legends such as Jeffrey Hyman (Joey Ramone), Tamas Erdelyi (Tommy Ramone), Lenny Kaye (the Patti Smith Group), the Dictators (all Jewish), Chris Stein (Blondie), Lou Reed (Velvet Underground), and Martin “Reverby” Rev (Vega’s partner in Suicide). Along with them were their slightly older “siblings,” future proto-punk performers such as Vega, Genyusha Zelkowitz (Genya Ravan), and Tuli “Naphtali” Kupferberg (the Fugs). They in turn were joined by pivotal behind-the-scenes players such as Danny “Feinberg” Fields (manager of the Ramones, Iggy Pop, Jonathan Richman, etc.), Seymour Stein (founder of the record company that broke many of the bands), Hillel “Hilly” Kristal (owner of CBGB’s, the club where punk was born), Bob Gruen (one of the many Jewish photographers who chronicled the scene), and Sandy Pearlman (mastermind behind the Dictators, producer of the Clash, and one of the main architects of the new, mostly-Jewish-penned, rock writing that championed the music).
If the youngest viewers were raised in the cathode shadow of the Holocaust, the oldest came of age in it. Some like Genya were themselves Holocaust survivors, while others like Tommy and Vega were the children of survivors. Then there was Richard (Meyers) Hell, often credited with creating the punk look, who with his punk anthem “Blank Generation,” band The Voidoids, and “Please Kill Me” T-shirt, exhibited a nihilism and self-destruction more often associated with guilt-ridden survivors.
In a kind of parody of a then-popular bread commercial (“You don’t have to be Jewish to like Levy’s Rye”), there were also non-Jewish punk rockers who seemed to identify with the trauma. Iggy “Osterberg” Pop (then known as Iggy Stooge) had a father who’d been adopted by two Jewish sisters, and himself dated Jewish women almost exclusively. When one of these came to see an early show, he surprised her with what he thought would be a welcome addition to his performance, a piece he dubbed “The Murder of the Virgin,” in which his bassist, dressed in a Nazi uniform, whipped and stomped on his bloodied chest. Patti Smith, who co-founded her group with the Jewish music critic Lenny Kaye, opened both her early shows and her debut record intoning, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” And John Holmstrom, co-founder of PUNK magazine, drew a comic in which the nihilistic Richard Hell did battle with “Nazi dykes.”
Still, in general, it was the Jews who were most affected by the Holocaust and who reacted by acting out. Lou Reed crooned of “dead bodies piled up in mounds” and the “ghost bloodied country … in the east.” Jonathan Richman wrote though never released a song comparing the trains from the Jewish suburb of Scarsdale to those heading for the death camps, and in concert introduced “Hospital”—about a girl suffering a nervous breakdown—as really being about the “Jewish American Princess concept.” Sandy Pearlman, who died less than a week after Vega, created both Blue Oyster Cult and the Dictators, in the former giving the albums names like Secret Treaties (a reference to an alleged conspiracy between American and German Jewish armament dealers to profit from WWII), and in the latter, despite the band’s protests, including the Henny Youngman-style studio chatter of lead singer Handsome Dick Manitoba (“With my vast financial holdings I could have been basking in the sun in Florida. This is just a hobby for me … ya hear?!”).
The post-Holocaust Jewish influence on punk could be felt too as it broke in England. Malcolm McLaren, who briefly managed the New York Dolls, took what he saw as the Jewish energy of New York and translated it into the Sex Pistols, particularly the Irish outsider Johnny Rotten (McLaren had wanted the Jews Richard Hell and Sylvain (Mizrachi) Sylvain instead). The Sex Pistols’ song “Belsen Was a Gas,” while in poor taste, could be read as an ironic send-up of the Nazis’ deadly seriousness, just as their bassist’s predilection for wearing swastika T-shirts could be viewed as the same, especially when one sees him doing so next to his Jewish-American girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. McLaren’s protégé, Bernie Rhodes, meanwhile, took his intense interest in leftist politics and used it to encourage Joe Strummer to stop writing pub rock and start creating “political songs” for the Clash—a band that initially not only sounded like the Ramones (see “White Riot”), but, like them, was half-Jewish (founding members Mick Jones and Keith Levene).
Is it any surprise that the kids who’d viewed the Eichmann trial created bands like the Dictators and Shrapnel, songs like “Master Race Rock” and “Blitzkrieg Bop,” and lyrics such as: “First rule is, the laws of Germany; second rule is, be nice to mommy; third rule is, don’t talk to Commies; fourth rule is, eat kosher salamis.” In her essay “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag proposes that Jews and gays react in unique ways to oppression: Jews with the weapon of “moral seriousness,” gays with the irony of “camp.” The Jews who made up the world of punk created a new sensibility—a kind of concentration camp. When Joey Ramone, in “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” attacked President Ronald Reagan for visiting a cemetery full of SS dead, he wasn’t just making a political statement; he was undercutting the deadly seriousness of the fascist enterprise. No wonder one of the biggest songs by the Dictators was “The Next Big Thing”—and not just because of the much-quoted brag “We knocked ’em dead in Dallas, they didn’t know we were Jews,” but even more so for the sentiments expressed in its opening lines: “I used to shiver in the wings, but then I was young. I used to shiver in the wings, then I found my own tongue.” Like Chris Stein of Blondie, who, according to lead singer Debbie Harry, collected Nazi memorabilia to show “the Jews had won,” the five Jews in the Dictators were taking back their lives from the silence. They were saying that they’d won, that they laughed in the face of their one-time oppressors.
Punk is a galvanizing force that rises in opposition to oppression and injustice. If it’s taken Trump and his administration’s accompanying anti-Semitism to remind us of punk’s importance, so be it. As The New York Times noted in a recent article about political resistance among poets, “The singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer roused the audience when she said President Trump might make punk rock great again.” After all, Palmer should know. Though the Times didn’t mention it, she’s most celebrated as the founder of an influential punk-cabaret duo from the early 2000s. Its name? The Dresden Dolls.