About halfway through The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGBs: A Secret History of Jewish Punk, author Steven Lee Beeber has a moment of doubt. “Was I merely trying to lay claim to a group of individuals who had no similarities other than a superficial cultural link?” he wonders. While the answer isn’t a straight up, “yes”, Beeber is right to be concerned. If he had heeded the warning of his internal gadfly, he might have altered the tone of his narrative and constructed a thought-provoking book littered with mild, intriguing suggestions, rather than one filled with aggressive, over-the-top assertions.
The Heebie-Jeebies at the CBGBs, sets out to prove that the intense, subversive, incensed and alienated ideology behind punk is descended from estranged anger carried by the Jewish race. While the similarities, coincidences and over-laps are numerous, the causal relationship Beeber tries to illustrate is tenuous at best. The book is a successful ‘Who knew?’ sort of effort, and would make a great gift for any Jewish teenager with a guitar, but as cultural or aesthetic theory, it feels unsound.
In many chapters, Beeber supplies compelling tidbits of knowledge, but in others he carelessly unravels his argument. For example, he claims Johnny Ramone, an Irish Catholic, lived in a neighborhood “where he was the anomaly, the outsider, the minority. Where he was, in effect, Jewish.” With such a declaration, Beeber grossly undermines his credibility. It ought to be enough that Joey and Tommy are Jewish; instead Beeber insists that anyone who is alienated is essentially a Jew, an argument that verges on offensive, and more importantly, is factually unsubstantiated.
Beeber has done well to collect his facts; the book is brimming with first hand accounts and solid biographical information. Unfortunately, Beeber’s lively interpretations of his research come across as speculative conjecture, not a well-supported thesis. Beeber has done the research that support an argument, but not one as extreme as his. That being said, if one can shirk off the weight of Beeber’s assumptions, a colorful and intricate chronicle of punk’s genesis emerges.
Beeber’s rigorous psychological treatment of punk demonstrates his thorough understanding of the movement, and his words seamlessly transmit his vast knowledge. Chapters on Lou Reed and Lenny Kaye exemplify the united passion of artist and biographer. They are also the most truthful. These chapters robustly define the identities of these artists and their ensuing contributions to the punk movement.
Reed’s feeling of alienation is undeniable and poignantly revealed, but one wonders whether it grew out of having Jewish parents or having Jewish parents who gave him electroshock therapy when he was a teenager. Beeber argues that it is both: Reed’s parents were so appalled by his behavior because they were Jewish, and he was pushed toward being a rebel by parents who couldn’t let him be. Here, his theory holds because he is simply writing a mini-biography of Reed and emphasizing his Jewish heritage. In short, in the sections when Beeber is simply collecting a series of coincidences, his work is enjoyable. When he tries to assert a causal relationship, he inspires uneasy skepticism rather than a deeper understanding.
Beeber’s research and his ideas are each captivating in their own right, but they don’t jive together. In two instances, he applies his theories to artists who have deliberately disassociated themselves from Judaism and religion. One wonders why the chapter on Richard Hell is called “A Jewish Hell: Richard Meyer creates a Jewish mother’s worst nightmare,” when, as we learn, Hell’s mother wasn’t even Jewish. (Never mind that according to Jewish law that makes him Christian.)
Not only is Hell’s mother not Jewish, but his father did not practice, and Hell was raised in the South without religion. Hell refused to be interviewed for Heebie Jeebies, claiming he had no connection to Judaism. That didn’t stop Beeber from suggesting that Television broke up because WASP Tom Verlaine and “part-Jewish” Hell “came from two distinct cultures.” It was not made exactly clear why being Jewish would make Hell/Meyer unwilling to hone his bass-playing skills, but Beeber wants to draw a connection.
Beeber’s effort to justify Punk Jews’ interest in Nazi paraphernalia and philosophy also misses the mark. He suggests that Jews brought the Nazi obsession to punk out of a need to usurp German power in post-holocaust New York. He reports that Suicide’s Alan Vega wore a black arm band and gave Nazi salutes on stage, but lacks evidence to prove that it was any more “Jewish” than the band’s other confrontational behavior. In fact, it was directly in response to neo-Nazi audience members, and Suicide’s trademark contribution was aggression against the audience, not Judaic principles.
Ultimately, what can be safely said is that there were many Jews in the Punk movement and both punks and Heebs made their art from the perspective of rebellious outsiders. Beeber’s book is an affectionate and savvy tribute to both groups; even it falls short of soundly proving their connection.