What Does Jewish Rock Look Like?

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…

29 thoughts on “What Does Jewish Rock Look Like?

  1. Arlen Specter? The junior Warren Commission member and Senator from Pennsylvania? I think you mean Phil Spector, the songwriter/producer/accused-murderer.

  2. the ‘who’s jewish’ game you described quite amused me! it reminds me of that sketch in the comedy show ‘goodness gracious me’ where the crusty old father would argue, in each episode, how some famous personality was certainly indian. my favourite was his argument for how prince charles was indian: ‘he still lives with his mother!’

    perhaps i’m being irreverent, but i remember one episode of the Simpsons where Bart visits new york and sees a bunch of hasidic jews in their distinctive attire and long beards and goes ‘wow, ZZ top!’

    it’s fascinating to find out that so many famous people actually have jewish heritage but it might be fodder for those who are convinced of a jewish conspiracy to take over the world…. 😉

  3. Yes, the Knack (all Jewish) are in it with the bankers and Hollywood! Mwahahahahaha!

    Wait, was I not supposed to let anyone know that?

  4. Clare,

    One of the reasons I wrote this is because it does appear that Jewish elements and identities are reurfacing in pop/rock music — Kinky Friedman has a new album out (“The Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore”), the Silver Jews are starting to embrace their Jewishness, Matisyahu performs in Hassidic garb/”Jewface” (a term I first saw used to describe blackface performer Al Jolson’s scene in the synagogue before his final “Mammy” scene in _The Jazz Singer_), etc. I could even swear there’s a klezmer bit in the outro of ZIon I’s “The Bay”. I hadn’t heard the groups you mention, so add them (and others, I’m sure) to the list. So the question is, why this resergence now, particularly in pop music? Is it because of the failure of Israel as a hook to hang our Jewish identities on? Merely blowback from the John Zorn Masada adventure and ensuing klezmer revival of the ’90s? Is it because pop/rock music is so desperately in need of new life? Is there a new kind of anxiety over assimilation and cultural identity that’s being expressed, or a resurgance of the *old* kind of anxiety? Some combination of the above, or all, or none?

  5. Those are all good questions. My first thought is that this is somehow linked to the realization that globalization is accompanied by local cultural differentiation (… thinking here of how hip-hop is being remolded in British Asian music, Indi-pop, to name but two instances). And then those elements being restirred into the global mix…. Although in this particular instance, I think that shifting attachments to Israel could also be a factor….

  6. I like the point you made about the two opposite poles of the Jewish musical spectrum in the 70’s. It’s particularly interesting to see how they occasionally converge. Billy Joel’s “Glass Houses” album comes to mind, which finds Billy Joel crossing into Elvis Costello territory, while keeping his piano front and center. The album is remarkably well crafted and always feels a bit askew, since it’s oddly more accessible than the rest of his output, but filled with quirky meta-songs like “Still Rock and Roll to Me,” ironic, theatrical machismo in songs like “You May Be Right,” and typical Jewish anxiety in the album’s highlight “Sleeping with the Television on.”

  7. You got it wrong on Ace Frehley. He is actually of Dutch heritage, not Jewish. He was raised in a Lutheran household, and there is documentation that he maintains a deference to the Nazis. One recent book claims he would dress up in Nazi uniforms and taunt Gene and Paul. The same book also claims the SS in KISS were his homage to the Nazis, and that Paul and Gene were too naive to realize it, and believed Frehley when he said they were lightning bolts.

  8. great list of jewish rockers! however, i don’t believe iggy pop is jewish( according to wikipedia, and his bio). also, david johansen is half jewish( new york dolls lead singer). there is also some controversy over jello biafra’s jewish heritage. i actually don’t think it matters who is jewish and who is not. pride in ones ethnicity tends to lead to racism and “nazi” istic philosophies.

  9. yeah I dont believe that iggy is jewish but i do believe that to much pride in ones ethnicity absolutley leads to racism

  10. Iggy Pop AND his mother have repeatedly commented on being Jewish in television and magazine interviews. The same with David Bowie, David’s father was not Jewish but his mother was (which is what counts in the Jewish community). I am not not sure if anybody in Iggy’s (James) family went to the temple, actually practiced the faith. David said that neither he or his parents did when he was a child but that his sister did and that when David was in his twenties, he studied Kabbalah (Jewish mysticsm).David has joked about putting together a “Jew Wave Supergroup” consisting of himself, Philip Glass, John Zorn, Lou Reed, and Leonard Cohen. I say that he take it further and invite Simon and Garfunkel as well. They could all harmonize and record an album of Jew Wop music. (the Wop in that is NOT a racial slur).

  11. Karl: I’m afraid I don’t really see your point. Jello’s not Jewish — well, he’s 1/8, but that’s a technicality — but that’s been covered above. Was there a particular criticism you wanted to make?

  12. Hey!
    You wrote back!
    I didn’t think you would.
    I thought your web-site was a non-responding one.
    I’m not Jewish but I have many Jeiwsh associates in College.
    Now before I begin… No disrespect! I RESPECT Jewish culture! It’s just that Jello Biafra (Eric Boucher) is NOT Jewish! You may have interviewed him and replenished the facts, but truth be told he’s NOT Jewish only beacause he is supported by Jewish corporatins (again, no disrespect!) so he made it up like David Bowie said in the 70’s when he saluted like a Nazi and claimed straight after when the press thought (and got into a hullaballo) and the press that he said he is Jewish, when in fact his Mother and so on is Irish Cathoilc (look it up, if you don’t believe me.)
    SHALOM! 🙂
    Peace, out! V

  13. …And Iggy Pop is NOT Jewish! His Father was raised by two Jewish sisters that adopted him, he himself was not Jewish. And his Mother is not Jewish at all!

  14. …And Iggy Pop is NOT Jewish! His Father was raised by two Jewish sisters that adopted him, he himself was not Jewish. And his Mother was not Jewish at all!

  15. …And Iggy Pop is NOT Jewish! His Father was raised by two Jewish sisters that adopted him, he himself was not Jewish. And his Mother was not Jewish at all!
    Peace, out! V

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