"Punk is Jewish."
In this history of the jarring music that rose from New York's battered Lower East Side in the 1970s, that opening line comes across, at first, as overreaching, even absurd. Yet by the end of this agile, well-researched book, author Steven Lee Beeber's proclamation seems not only obvious, but something of an understatement.
It's not just that punk pioneers such as Lou Reed , Blondie's Chris Stein , and half of the legendary Ramones , Joey and Tommy, were Jewish, or that the celebrated (and recently shuttered) Bowery dive CBGB, punk's original home, was owned by Hilly Kristal, a fellow Jew. Punk, Beeber exhaustively argues, was infused with a singular Jewish sensibility forged by hardship, perseverance, and a potent cocktail of optimism and cynicism that gave the music -- and the larger cultural movement -- its twitchy swagger.
"Punk reflects the whole Jewish history of oppression and uncertainty, flight and wandering, belonging and not belonging, always being divided, being both in and out, good and bad, part and apart," Beeber writes in the introduction to his book "The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk."
"The shpilkes , the nervous energy, of punk," he contends, "is Jewish."
Even those unfamiliar with that Yiddish word can understand what Beeber means if they've ever heard such abrasive anthems as Richard Hell & The Voidoids' "Blank Generation," or watched clips of the spontaneous combustibility of punk musicians. Propelled more by attitude than ability, their songs weren't just two- or three-minute spurts of bratty rage, but the defiant rhythm of a fierce heart shaped by displacement, prejudice, and what Beeber calls a self-conscious identification "with the sick and twisted."
Appropriately, he anoints comedian Lenny Bruce as "the patron saint of Jewish New York." An agitator and instigator, Bruce shocked the world as punks would more than a decade later, and it hardly matters that Bruce died seven years before CBGB opened its doors; he defined the New York Jew cool that permeated the punks (who came of age during Bruce's bawdy prime) and gave the Lower East Side a kind of gutter glitter. Punk was a triumph of brazen otherness.
While such composers as George Gershwin and Irving Berlin fashioned music that embraced assimilation -- after all, Berlin, a Russian Jew, wrote "White Christmas" and "God Bless America" -- Jewish punks reveled in their outsider status, and crammed it in society's smug face. (It's worth noting that as punk was ricocheting off downtown tenements, this nation's other perpetual outsiders, African-Americans, were a few uptown subway lines away in the Bronx creating their own sound -- hip-hop -- also born from alienation and disenfranchisement.)
Central to Beeber's idea of punk's inherent Jewishness is the Holocaust. He even goes so far as to declare "No Holocaust, no punk." Yes, the roiling anger and dark humor of punk was a reaction to lingering feelings of victimization. Yet, Jewish punks also adapted Nazi slogans and symbols both as a shock tactic and a campy send up. Songs like the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop " and the Dictators' "Master Race Rock " weren't celebrating Nazism as much as mocking its ignominious defeat, the author maintains.
With more than 125 sources interviewed, "The Heebee-Jeebees at CBGB's" is the best account of punk's nascent years since Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's seminal "Please Kill Me." With equal parts spirit and scholarship, Beeber succeeds in placing this still-influential music within a broader historical and cultural context, and assures that punk's "secret history" is a secret no more.