Jamaica Plain–based freelancer and Allston-Brighton Community Development Corporation staffer Steven Lee Beeber was waiting for a plane at the airport a number of years ago when his girlfriend let out a gasp. She pointed out an item about Madonna’s A&R guy inking a deal to write a book about Jews in rock and roll. Beeber was crushed. He had been thinking of doing the same.
“Luckily, it sucked. . . . It was everything that I did not want to do. It was cutesy in that sort of ‘Hey, did you know that Paul Simon is a Jew?’ . . . I think Adam Sandler wrote the introduction.”
Beeber set out to create something more than just a game of “spot the Jew.” His new book, The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk (Chicago Review Press), is an ambitious attempt to show how ’70s-era NYC punk rock was edged by Jewish culture. Beginning with the legacy of comedian and social critic Lenny Bruce and moving on to pre-punk hero Lou Reed, Beeber works his way through tough-talking jokesters the Dictators to the Ramones (in its original incarnation, two of its four members were Jewish). He contends that the sarcastic, self-loathing humor and “outsider” status of these bands, and for that matter punk in general, were distinctly Jewish, born of experiences such as the Holocaust and the subsequent relocation from Europe to suburban America.
No one has yet gone to such great lengths to uncover the strain of Jewish culture that ran through the scene at CBGB’s. In his quest for interviews, he encountered much skepticism and, occasionally, hostility. An annoyed Jonathan Richman of the Massachusetts-born Modern Lovers got up and walked away. The half-Jewish Richard Hell also dismissed him. Even Tommy Ramone, who agreed to participate, asked Beeber at one point if in writing the book he was “trying to out Jews.”
Why all the surreptitiousness? Everybody has their reasons. Hell says that he doesn’t “define himself” by his cultural heritage. Richman, according to Beeber, “is notoriously guarded about his past and personal life.” In the case of the Budapest-born Tommy Ramone, the majority of whose family died in the Holocaust, his reluctance could be rooted in something much more insidious, namely, a lingering fear of anti-Semitism left over from the old days.
To compensate, Beeber went out and talked to anyone who could help him fill in the blanks. He interviewed about 150 people — some easier to find than others. He trekked to California to find Jerry Harrison (The Modern Lovers, Talking Heads) and flew to Paris on his own dime to track down Sex Pistols Hebe mastermind Malcolm McLaren. “I am in debt because of this book,” says Beeber.
For the most part, Beeber’s efforts have been warmly received. The back of the book boasts accolades from prominent punk rockers, including Tommy Ramone himself. Hilly Kristal, long-time Jewish owner of CBGB’s, opened his doors on the last Friday of the club’s existence for the author’s book party on October 13. And in a moment of sweet irony for the author, Ernie Brooks, Richman’s former bassist in the Modern Lovers (Brooks performed that weekend at the club) approached Beeber the night of his reading to tell him that he really loved the book: “It was more than just ‘spot the Jew,’ you know; it’s actually about other stuff.”
Steven Lee Beeber | Brookline Booksmith | Thursday, November 2 | 7 pm.