In October 2006, Steven Lee Beeber’s The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk was published. While both that book and Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk featured the Ramones and the Dictators, Beeber included original interviews with key people involved with both bands. He also painted a much more comprehensive picture of the 1970s New York proto-punk/punk scene as well as other important figures, with chapters on Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, Richard Hell, Suicide, Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group), Chris Stein (Blondie), Malcolm McLaren, and more.
Over the last decade, I’ve been in touch with Beeber on numerous occasions and I’m thrilled to have him as my Jewish punk ally. I’m glad that his book came out shortly after I started my own Jewish punk adventure, I’m pleased we got to do a joint presentation together in 2013, and I’m grateful for his blurb on the back of my book. In honor of the 10-year anniversary (albeit just a little late!), I’m pleased to share this interview with Steven Lee Beeber.
Since your book was published a decade ago, some new details have emerged about key figures in proto-punk and punk (eg, Iggy Pop’s father was adopted by two Jewish sisters). If you could do it all over, what do you wish you could have included?
If I could do it all over again (and I hope at some point I can), I’d include the info about Iggy’s father, as well as some equally intriguing info on Iggy’s relationships with Jewish women. For instance, during The Stooges era, Iggy decided to surprise his then-girlfriend (a daughter of Holocaust survivors) with a new addition to his act — a bit in which Ron Asheton, dressed in full Nazi regalia, stomped on and bloodied his chest. Some have seen this as evidence that Iggy was anti-Semitic, but I don’t think that was the case. Like many other punk and pre-punk figures, Iggy was deeply affected by the horrors of World War II. It’s part of what made him one of the godfathers of punk.
Others I’d look at in a similar light are Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tuli Kupferberg (The Fugs), Wild Man Fischer (a paranoid-schizoid street performer on Zappa’s “Bizarre” label) and, though not Jewish, Captain Beefheart. …
Since your book was published, the Ramones’ legacy and influence have been more widely appreciated. While there has certainly been attention given to some of the other acts (eg, Suicide when Alan Vega died), by and large that hasn’t been true for the others anywhere near as much as it’s been for the Ramones. What are your thoughts?
While there are many bands who deserve more attention (The Voidoids, Suicide, The Dictators, Mink DeVille), The Ramones get the most attention because they encapsulate everything. The Ramones are generally thought of as the first punk band for good reason. They had the music, the image and the attitude, pulling together various strands of pre-punk. Like Iggy, they were wild. Like Lou Reed, they were dark. Like The Dictators, they were funny. And, like Dylan, they were mysteriously confounding, as much a concept of a band as a real one. Of course, it depends on how you define punk, but I think The Ramones have it all. … The Ramones brought together the various elements of punk and they did so to an even greater extent than The Sex Pistols. The Pistols might have been more confrontational, but they lacked the lovable “loser” quality that Joey especially brought to The Ramones. …
As an extension of that last question, I want to ask about the Dictators specifically. You had an essay about the Dictators included in Sounds and the City in 2014. Besides in your book and your essay (and going beyond a Jewish focus), do you think the Dictators have been under-appreciated in terms of their impact on the emerging punk movement?
Absolutely. The Dictators were essential to punk, kind of a template for The Ramones with a different emphasis. The first incarnation of the band was jokier, the later one tougher. But either way they created great music, and their image was unique. Like The Ramones, they made fun of the idea of rock even as they celebrated it. Handsome Dick Manitoba was a parody of a wild pop star, a lead singer who bellowed abuse at the audience while winking at it. The others acted like Italian street toughs while letting slip their “nerdy” Jewishness. Perhaps best of all, they’re still out there, at least in part. Andy Shernoff is not part of the spinoff, The Dictators NYC, but I wish he was. He—along with Richard Meltzer and Sandy Pearlman—was the sly, subtle architect of that band, and there’s a reason he and Joey Ramone were great friends. They had that same New York Jewish punk attitude.
Some key figures in your book have passed away since the book was published. Please share your thoughts.
That’s one of the sadder aspects of this anniversary. I was so honored to meet the people I interviewed, and it’s a little hard to believe they’re now gone. Alan Vega of Suicide was a true mensch, which is surprising considering his scary onstage image (complete with switchblade and chain). Malcolm McLaren was charming, inviting me to his Paris home and then taking me out for drinks …. Joey Ramone’s mom was funny and insightful, and her berating me to eat some lox is one of my cherished memories. … Perhaps saddest of all was Tommy Ramone’s passing. Tommy was a gentle, self-effacing guy who never really got his due. He was the one who put The Ramones together, telling them how they would look and sound, bringing Joey upfront and creating the drumbeat that drove everything. …
Finally, I regret never meeting certain people who are also now gone, such as Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen. And others who passed just before I began writing the book, such as Joey and Dee Dee, and not long after, Johnny.
Please talk about the interest in your book (and the larger topic) in Germany. Did that surprise you?
A bit, but I now realize that it shouldn’t have. The Germans are way into punk and, next to Jews, they have the closest relationship to the Holocaust. For decades, they’ve grappled with the consequences of anti-Semitism. And they’ve increasingly sought to recover something lost from their culture, the Jewish influence ….
Is there anything else you’d like to add from the vantage point of 10 years since publication?
For all its comedy, wildness and drug-soaked behavior, punk—as you note in your own book—was ultimately about tikkun olam. The punks aimed to heal the world through a more honest approach to music and living. And they often did this in literally political terms, such as when Joey Ramone denounced Reagan for visiting a cemetery full of SS officers (“Bonzo Goes to Bitburg”). Punk made the personal political and the political personal. In the era of Trump, we need it more than ever.