A couple months ago, my then-girlfriend and I were surfing channels and happened to light upon Gene Simmons’ reality show. It was the end of the episode, and Simmons was lecturing a young band about something or other.
“He seems really smart,” my ex said, somewhat surprised.
“Of course he does,” I half-jokingly replied. “He’s Jewish.”
She was surprised to hear that The Tongued One was Jewish. Pressing my case, I continued: “Of course, most of your major rock stars are Jewish.”
Now, I’m known to BS a little. OK, a lot. You can imagine that any girlfriend of mine would be aware of that, and you’d be right. Bemused, she called me on it, asking me to name some other Jewish rock stars.
Of course, my mind went blank. But blank minds are what Yahweh created the Internet for, so I was soon googling up a passel of Jewish rockers.
Ah, yes. “Who’s Jewish”, the old favorite pastime of the American Jew. “You know who’s Jewish?” someone would ask around the archetypical Jewish-American dinner table. “Kirk Douglas! Tony Curtis! Paul Newman!” Some smart-ass would cry out “Marilyn Monroe” – she converted when she married Arthur Miller – and someone would reply “Elizabeth Taylor”.
By the 1950’s, as Jewish racial Otherness faded into generic whiteness, it was harder and harder to identify Jews. Their beloved and despised Yiddish has gone all but extinct, their clothes, homes, and lifestyles were indistinguishable from those of their goyishe neighbors, and the two defining elements of today’s Judaism – the Holocaust and Israel – had yet to enter the public consciousness in any major way. “Who’s Jewish” allowed increasingly non-descript Jewish families a way to act out the ambiguous nature of post-War American Jewishness, the simultaneous apart-from-ness and a-part-of-ness that made up the assimilated, modernist Jewish identity.
Although googling phrases like “Jewish rock stars” tends to pull you deep into the netherworld of Aryan conspiracy sites – alas, with the apparent death of Jewhoo.com, the one-stop directory of everyone Jewish, there’s no obvious reference for Internet-age “Who’s Jewish” players – I soon uncovered an assortment of reasonably famous Jewish rock musicians, from the obvious Dylan and Diamond to the not-so-obvious Perry Farrell and members of the Bad Livers.
As I looked over the list, I got to thinking: what’s Jewish about these musicians, about their music? It’s easy to see what’s Jewish about jazz – when Hitler singled the genre out as “Jewish music” (even going so far as to host “Entarte Musik” concerts of degenerate Jewish music, complimenting his “Entarte Kunst” exhibitions of Jewish art begun the year before) he virtually guaranteed a thousand dissertations – and volumes have been written on Jewish classical music from Mahler to Phillip Glass. So is there anything comparable to say about Jews in rock?
Well, it depends on when. The heyday of Jewish rock was the ‘70s: before that there’s some scattered Jewish major players, mostly behind-the-scenes – Phil Spector comes to mind, as do the Chess brothers and Alan Freed, the disc jockey – but nothing you could recognize as a distinct Jewish movement; after that, Jews are pretty widely dispersed and, again, there seems to be no major centers of Jewish rockfulness.
But in the ‘70s, Jews really shined. Literally, in some cases, with Jews playing a major role in the glam period, with strong outposts in bands like KISS (Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley,
Ace Frehley [note: apparently not], and Bruce Kulick), the New York Dolls (Syl Sylvain and possibly Arthur Kane), T. Rex (Marc Bolan), and early Twisted Sister (John Segal and [half-Jewish] Dee Snider), along with soloists like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop (née James Newell Osterberg). As glam and other proto-punk styles graded almost imperceptibly into punk, Jews remained highly visible, especially among the CBGB set – Richard Hell of Television, Lenny Kaye of Patti Smith’s group, Joey Ramone, Chris Stein of Blondie, and across the pond, Mick Jones of the Clash, 3 of the 4 members of 10cc (Lol Crème, Kevin Godley, and Gouldman), and from backstage Malcolm McLaren who gave us the Sex Pistols, and Nancy Spungen who took them away.
These men (well, Nancy excepted) were the inheritors of a generation of Jewish masculinity defined by men like Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer – tough guys who lived hard, loved baseball, and married America’s sexiest sexpots. Karen Brodkin writes in How Jews Became White Folks (Rutgers: 1999) that by the end of the ‘50s, the ideal of masculinity defined by post-War Jews had become the normative masculinity in American culture – especially defined in opposition to normative Jewish femininity, the Jewish American Princess stereotype of the voracious shopper/consumer emptying the Jewish male provider’s wallet.
Jewish men’s ambivalence revolved around the promise and the reality of patriarchal domesticity, upon which so much of 1950s white masculinity depended… Jewish wives… became Jewish American Princesses in the 1970s, as Jewish men confronted the hollowness of the materialist they had achieved and projected it onto their wives.(161)
The role of the “tough Jew” was solidified in the wake of the Six-Day War in1967. In the face of stereotypes of weak, bookish Jewish men, Israeli soldiers strode forth and kicked ass, landing them a place in Jewish-American consciousness. Being Jewish in American among the strapping gentile lads with their broad chests and gleaming white teeth was no longer something to be ashamed of; Israel’s muskeljudentum showed that Jews, too, could hack it in the modern militarized world.
Is it any coincidence that within a few short years, Jewish rock stars were crawling through broken glass and breathing fire to the amazement of their fans?
But glam and punk caught Jews at the breaking point of Jewish toughness; Israel had arrived on the global scene just as assimilated American Jews were beginning to worry at the edges of the prosperity post-War whiteness had brought them. As Brodkin noted above, out in suburbia these concerns were wrapped up into the JAP stereotype – but the CBGB crowd were of a different breed than the suburban Jews of Long Island. Intensely urban and wedded to nascent sexual liberatism and the avant-garde bohemianism of the late ‘60s art scene, these Jews dealt with the hollowness of consumerist prosperity in a rather more claustrophobic way. Rather than projecting their dissatisfaction onto the female Others with whom they shared their domestic emptiness, the rockers of the early ‘70s crawled inside of the female Otherness their suburban counterparts were rejecting. Wearing high heels, dresses, and lipstick, they blunted the Jewish masculinity of their fathers by becoming their mothers – and then pummeling their pseudo-female forms with drugs, violence, hard living, alcohol, promiscuity.
Punk wasn’t the only home Jewish musicians were making for themselves in the ‘70s, though. Strangely, the other center of Jewish musical activity was across the dial in soft rock – about as anti-punk as you can get. Simon and Garfunkel, Billy Joel, Randy Newman, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Carly Simon, Barry Manilow, Barbara Streisand, Better Midler, Carly Simon, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, Phil Ochs, Jim Croce (a convert), Janis Ian, and Leonard Cohen all followed in some degree the trail blazed by Dylan, merging folk and rock traditions mostly as that most ‘70s of troubadours, the singer-songwriter.
With a few exceptions (Neil Diamond’s leather pants, Leonard Cohen’s blowjobs amid disarrayed sheets in Chelsea) these weren’t tough Jews acting out an ambiguously rewarding masculinity. In fact, unlike the early punkers, a lot of them were women. Like the glam rockers, some of the soft rockers were also theatrical in style and inspiration, although for folks like Manilow, Streisand, and Midler it was Broadway, not Kabuki, that inspired them.
The quieter sound of the am radio set expressed a discontent not totally unlike the punkers, though – a search for meaning and connection in an increasingly alienating world. Manilow, who supported himself writing commerical jingles, included them in his concerts (and popular live album) as “VSM (Very Strange Medley)”, both celebrating and mocking the consumerism that nipped at the heels of the arts. Midler took a page from her Jewish sistren blazing the feminist trail, putting her sexuality front-and-center, offering to “drop my dress for Israel” for a $5,000 pledge during a televised 1973 telethon. Midler’s persona both embraced and rejected the JAP stereotype – one got the impression that Midler did more than drop her nail file when she got off. Neil Diamond dived deep into the ambivalence of assimilation in his remake of The Jazz Singer, the main character attempting and ultimately failing to reconcile the conflicting demands of Jewishness and Americanness. The Jazz Singer, recall, ends with the pseudo-triumphant concert performance of “Coming to America” – Diamond finding connection with his country only in the fact of his and other immigrants’ and immigrants’ children’s shared Otherness.
Male soft rockers also expressed an uneasiness with the tough Jew role left them by their fathers, though not as spectacularly. The epitome is Paul Simon’s role in Annie Hall, a nebbishy materialistic Jewish womanizer who acts as the foil for Woody Allen’s tortured grappling with the emptiness of the contemporary Jewish legacy. In his music, Simon and partner Art Garfunkel spun delicate, “womanly” melodies (even as Better Midler was belting out raucous double entendres – sometimes single entendres). Wrapped in this sweet candy, though, was bitter medicine – songs like “Mrs. Robinson”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, and the unreleased “Cuba Si, Nixon No” drew their inspiration from the same well as Dylan’s early protest music and angry denunciations of the state of the world (as later Jewish punks like Mick Jones, Jello Biafra, Joey Ramone, the Circle Jerks — all Jewish — and the Dictators — also all Jewish — would do).
By the end of the ‘70s, these “clumps” of Jewish involvement would be dispersed throughout pop music. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Jews would be involved in practically every genre of music, from the New Wave of the Bangles (Susanna Hoffs), Souixsie Sioux, and Depêche Mode (Martin Gore) to the hair metal of Def Leppard (Joe Elliott) and David Lee Roth to the top-40 tunesmithing of Pat Benatar, Melissa Manchester, and Paula Abdul to the hip-hop of the Beastie Boys (Mike Diamond, Adam Youch, and Adam Horowitz) to the hard rock of Guns ‘N’ Roses (Slash, née Saul Hudson) to the retro-rock of Lenny Kravitz (half-Jewish) to the neo-punk of Jane’s Addiction (Perry Farrell), Courtney Love (disputed), Elastica (Justine Frischman), and Veruca Salt (Jim Shapiro and Nina Gordon) to the heavy metal of Anthrax (Scott Ian) and Megadeth (Marty Friedman) to the neo-funk of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (original guitarist Hillel Slovak) to the neo-soft rock of Lisa Loeb, and beyond (Matisyahu, members of Jamiroquai and Phish, Rick Rubin whose behind-the-scenes work brought us Johnny Cash’s late-life revival).
This scattering of the tribes suggests an ever-increasing success of the Jewish assimilative drive whose uncertainties peaked in the punk and anti-punk of the early ‘70s. There’s nothing particularly Jewish about Elastica or Phish or Depêche Mode, but maybe that in itself is particularly Jewish. Meanwhile, it is in Jazz where, once again, Jews are pushing a uniquely Jewish expression, largely through the work of John Zorn and other klezmer-influenced players, many of whom – like Don Byron and Dave Douglas – are not Jewish at all. Whether this shift reflects the need for a more complex medium to express the subtleties of contemporary Jewishness or because rock music has moved so far from the urban avant-gardism of the early ‘70s I cannot say. And I‘m not sure I’m particularly worried; seems Muslims like Rachid Taha and Natacha Atlas are making interesting noises out of their own ambiguous relationships with their adopted Western European homes…