The Non-Jewish Side of My Jewish Punk Research
Some people (including Jews) don't appreciate this line of questioning. In his book The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk, author Steven Lee Beeber notes that Tamas "Tommy Ramone" Erdelyi (the drummer of The Ramones) asked, "Are you trying to out Jews with this book?" Richard "Hell" Meyers (the frontman of Richard Hell and the Voidoids) refused Beeber's request for an interview because he didn't want to be "defined" by his Jewish background. Beeber saw the importance of connecting musicians' Jewish identity to their art, but he couldn't help but reflect:
Was I merely trying to lay claim to a group of individuals who had no similarities other than a superficial cultural link? Was I using the worst sort of reductionist thinking and flattening them to two-dimensional representations of one thing and not another? Was my complicated argument based at bottom on a dichotomistic, black-and-white, overly simple division between "Jew" and "Gentile"? . . .No matter "how Jewish" musicians who play Jewish music or invoke Jewish themes might be, their relationship to Judaism is an important consideration. Here is some information about the non-Jews who have come up as part of my exploration of Jewish punk.
An argument could be made for this. I don't think it would hold. I am focusing on what I consider the 'Jewishness' of certain individuals, but in doing that I'm not saying that Jewishness is everything. I'm only saying that it plays, to varying degrees, a part.
In 2005, I learned that Schizophrenic Records, a Canadian label and distribution company, was selling a split record featuring Sweden's Netjajev SS and Holland's Johnny Cohen & The New Age Nazis (see my article that talks about the latter band). Schizophrenic Records' Web site described the album as "2 Jewcore bands total HC [hardcore] Holocaust." A representative from the record label told me that "they are Jewish HC/street punk bands" and that "there is no room for anti semitic, neo nazi s*** at our label or distro or with the people we associate with." I e-mailed Netjajev SS to find out if the band had an anti-Semitic outlook and if any of the band members were Jewish. Band member Magnus Lundberg responded and claimed that "neither" is the case. I then purchased the album.
The cover for Netjajev SS features two Jewish stars. The song "Talmud Boy" includes the lyrics "How long can Steven Spielberg sniff Zyklon B gas?" and "[T]he righteous is da Jew we've to exterminate and all the circus monkeys... Exterminate!" If the band had any Jewish members, perhaps I'd look for some explanation of how those lyrics aren't as appalling as they seem, but I can't help but conclude that this song has a horribly offensive, unacceptable anti-Semitic outlook.
That same year, I saw that Wikipedia and Jew Watch (check out an article about Jew Watch's anti-Semitic nature) listed Eric "Jello Biafra" Boucher, the founding frontman of the Dead Kennedys, as a Jew. I knew I couldn't trust either of those sources to be accurate. But I figured that Jello Biafra's potential Jewish background would offer fascinating insight into Dead Kennedys songs like "California Über Alles" and "Nazi Punks F*** Off."
Many months after I asked if he was Jewish, Jello Biafra e-mailed me to say, "I am not really Jewish. I found out recently I'm 1/8th, but I was not raised in a religious or ethnically conscious home." He added that the two songs I mentioned "are against fascism and violent fascist behavior," which I already knew. Had he actually considered himself Jewish (or been in touch with the Jewish roots he does have), it'd be fair to examine those songs in a different context.
In early 2006, I learned about Total Passover, a Jewish-themed punk band that played in Iowa in the early 1990s. I corresponded with some of the band's former members around that time and got to meet the band's ringleader, Andy Levy, later that year. I believe that Levy was the only Jew in the band, but the rest of the band members fondly recalled their days playing Jewish punk.
Bassist Tom Meehan said, "While I'm not Jewish, I did think the band was a good fit for me. . . . Even though I was born and confirmed Catholic, I proudly wore the Star of David around my neck. This really freaked my parents out!" Guitarist Jesse Trent said, "To me, being in Total Passover wasn't really about the whole Jewish thing. I mean, yeah, okay, I was down with the cause, and in fact, I too still own a star of David necklace that I wore even after I left the band. I was only Jewish by association. But I dug it." Guitarist Kurt Johnson added that "after my parents found out I was hanging around Jewish people they had me de-programmed and my head filled back up with the proper and correct Catholic dogma. So most of those Total Passover memories are lost to the ages ... along with any memory of owing Tom twenty dollars."
Photo courtesy of Tom Meehan
In late 2006, I found out about the Zydepunks, a New Orleans band that mixes punk rock with various types of folk music, including klezmer sung in Yiddish. I e-mailed the band to find out what their connection to klezmer was, and frontman Christian Küffner said none of the band's members are Jewish. He added, "I'm certain there is Spanish Jewish ancestry on my mother's side, but how far it goes back I cannot tell." He said that accordion player Eve Venema was "the one who got us into Klezmer in the first place - she's a Judeaophile (from a Dutch Reformed family)."
When I met Venema at the 2006 Hanukkah tour that I covered for the Forward, she told me that she got into klezmer while living in Spain. At that tour's opening show, Küffner introduced the Zydepunks as "the honorary gentile band from Louisiana." And as I wrote in my article, "Bassist Paul Edmonds proudly wore a yarmulke on the second night of the tour, and Jewdriver quipped that he’d be Jewish by the end of Hanukkah." The Zydepunks didn't need to be Jewish to fit right in.
On that same tour, I interviewed the lead singer of Jewdriver, who goes by the stage name "Ian Stuartstein." He told me that only two of the band's four members were Jewish. He said that while he and guitarist "Max Bagels" have a deep understanding of the meaning behind the group's Jewish shtick (e.g., lighting a menorah onstage, wearing yarmulkes while performing, having bagel fights, drinking Manischewitz wine, commenting on anti-Semitism), the two non-Jews in the band "just think it's funny."
Yesterday, I saw Polka Madre in concert in Richmond, Virginia. The Mexico City-based band blends punk and polka, and according to their MySpace page, their "princip[al] influences lie in Jewish music and the old sounds of Gypsy and Eastern European cultures." The band includes clarinet, accordion, bass, guitar, and drums.
After Polka Madre's set, the band's merchandise salesperson gave me a button featuring the band's name and a Magen David. When I asked her about the symbolism, she said that the band plays klezmer and that one of the band members is half-Jewish. But frontman Eric Bergman then told me that there aren't any Jews in the band. He said that the extent of the band's Jewish connection is that he was born in Finland (he claimed that Finnish music and Jewish/Eastern European music are similar in nature) and that his mother had been to Israel three times. I'd probably look to write an article about the band's take on Jewish music if any of the band's members were Jewish, but a Jewish angle doesn't seem like an appropriate way to tell Polka Madre's story.
Update (6/17/09): Oi-vey
In February 2009, Menashe Yaakov of Moshiach Oi told me that following one of the band's performances, the DJ played the song "Saturday Night" by Oi-vey, which includes a "Hava Negila" interlude. The song appeared on a 2004 compilation called Cheap Sampler Vol. 3, which was released by the British record label Damaged Goods. Today, Ian from Damaged Goods told me, "Oi-vey was more of a made up name for a six-track EP (a double 7” called ‘The New Wave Of The Close Shave’ (Damgood 0111) each track was by different people including Snuff, Hard Skin and a few indie bands all doing spoof Oi songs, therefore Oi-vey. I’m pretty sure there were no Jewish connections, it was basically another band (Oizone) with me attempting to sing, just a good pun! Wish there was more of a story for you."