Farts Will Be Heard: Jewish Audacity and the Punk Aesthetic

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In my days as an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, I attended an interesting array of classes. Being a history major I usually trolled the halls of the history department. However, being a Judaic Studies minor I also spent, as well as attended, many hours in the Jewish studies department. One of the classes I took was on American Jews and was taught by an extremely intelligent, and extremely old, professor. Professor Druks was his name, and most of the classes were his diatribes about the stupidity of our founding fathers. He went off on the doctor, and Declaration of Independence signer, Benjamin Rush. Apparently Rush was a huge critic of Jew and Judaism, while trying to convert them or put the fear of hell in their hearts. He also championed the idea of bloodletting, where he would dump the blood into the Potomac River. Not such a great idea s it attracted mosquitos and hence you have a leading cause of Malaria in the nation’s new capital. Besides that he also prodded us to seek out these stories of eccentric Jews who shook the rafters, seeing the status quo crumble to its knees. It was in this class that I decided to write my research paper on one of my favorite Jewish iconoclasts, Mel Brooks.

The paper, titled “Farts Will Be Heard” to the dismay of my professor led me to various sources, especially the book American Jewish Filmmakers by David Desser and Lester D. Friedman. The third chapter is devoted to Mel Brooks, and is titled farts will be heard. From the moment I saw the title I fell out laughing, but I also knew exactly what they were talking about. In one of Mel’s greatest films, Blazing Saddles, there’s a scene depicting an enormous amount of gas escaping from a group of cowboys’ rears.

Originally the studio was against the scene as the executives thought it was done in poor taste. However, the unrelenting attitude of Mel Brooks would never allow it. During the heated exchange between Mel and the studio executives he proclaimed in his New York Jewish accent that, “Farts Will be Heard.” Being one to never back down Mel has pushed the envelope going back to his first film The Producers. We take for granted the fact that humor and the Holocaust can be used in the modern-day, but when upon the film’s release this subject was extremely taboo. However, Mel being a boorish Jew, like the Jews before him, his contemporaries and future Jewish iconoclasts, pushed sensitivities that make these issues easier to embrace. Unfortunately, the US has gotten so sensitized to the idea of talking about race that a film like Blazing Saddles would not have gotten such a rave review if it was released in the present.

Mel Brooks is a genius, but he’s also got chutzpah, loosely meaning audacity, to push these ideas to shock and prod, but also to entertain and open the debate. Many Jews have done this in the many professions especially in popular culture, as this was the main way to make money when coming during the great immigration to the United States. This low-brow humor would prod the audience to laugh, but also to think about the constructs heaped on us by the elite, and usually waspish persuasion. Brooks brought that brand of comedy to the fore, forever changing the concept of American comedy.

Woody Allen is another example, although unlike the brashness of Brooks, Allen was started out with slapstick and would evolve into quite the auteur. Very few filmmakers can compete with the sheer amount of films, nor can they compete with the amount of accolades heaped on many of his films. His range is insane from the slapstick material (Bananas, Sleeper, and Take the Money and Run to name a few), to the sentimental nostalgia of New York City (Manhattan), to the complexity of relationships (Annie Hall and Husbands and Wives), and even the bizarrely serious (Interiors and Match Point), and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Both he and Brooks are not a rare breed as they are part of a bigger heritage of Jewish iconoclasts. We have to hark back before they came of age to the great Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce for a clearer picture.

Lenny Bruce’s influence lingers to this very day through the routines of such comedians as Chris Rock and Louis CK. Bruce had quite an influence by being one of the first successful comedians to use dirty language along with a smart-ass New York City attitude. His routines veered from language, as he was a supporter of the word “fuck,” but he also pushed an anti-establishment message. In the book The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s by Steven Lee Beeber, the author links Bruce to the performance traditions of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a Jewish bastion of performers. The author also asserts that before Bruce that “almost all comedians entertained both Jewish and non-Jewish worlds even as they internalized their exclusion and accepted it” (Beeber, p. 4). This feeling of exclusion was felt by Jews, but also by the best comics of the time as well who were African-American. He further shows that Bruce was aware of his Judaism because he said that, “I like to think of myself as a scholar of the Talmud of rock ‘n’ roll” (Ibid. p.7).

In the realm of music it could be argued that many of the iconoclasts who pushed the music were Jewish. We have the olden days of Jazz, Ragtime, Blues, and what would become R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll. However, by the decade of the 1960’s two entities ruled the world of music, The Beatles and Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan, along with other Jewish songwriters at the time fused their Jewish versions with Americana. Sean Wilentz’s book Bob Dylan in America encapsulates specific eras of his life, while showing that his music always harked back to an American source. Other great artists of the time like Lou Reed (who was one of the first to record songs about Sadism and Masochism and Heroin) kept pushing the content further. Reed came from a typical Long Island suburban Jewish family, yet he embraced “suburban alienation and resentment.” Jews coming of age might have had a comfortable bed in their suburban household. However, this didn’t necessarily mean that they were fully assimilated into the American way.

By the decade of the 1970’s the musical terrain had gotten so bloated, even Rolling Stone magazine moved to posh locations amidst rising skyscrapers. So, naturally who would be the new crop of iconoclasts clothed in a new/old music later labeled Punk? It’s the Jews! to little surprise. Also, when the Punk culture began to take shape in New York City, as well as in Cleveland, Ohio, most of its roots were based on the antics of Lenny Bruce, the destitution of Lou Reed, and Bob Dylan’s Resolve. Beeber’s book is a treasure trove of information because he shows how most of these progenitors of Punk were almost all Jews. Along with the influence of Lou Reed, Danny Fields was another mythical character.

Danny Fields is standing on the right, along with Dee Dee and Joey Ramone, Linda Stein and David Bowie.

Danny Fields came from a conventional background, and is a very smart scholar who pushed and helped publicize various punk styles and groups from the MC5 to the Stooges to the Ramones. He’s also such a character that when seen being interviewed you laugh out loud. He a charmer and one of the early cheerleaders of the proto-Punk bands like the MC5 and The Stooges, to the Punk era Ramones. Many others were also part of the tribe like the duo of Martin Rev and Alan Vega, known as Suicide.

Suicide was an event to watch as their art was confrontational street culture, personified through minimalist performances, influential to many in the scene. Through a violent performance Vega interacted with the crowd while acting in a masochistic fashion. With the use of vocals and synthesizer, they paved the way for many minimalist groups like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. There are countless others including Jonathan Richman, of the Modern Lovers, was another sentimental straight man who gave us ballads Punk ballads about Boston, the proprietor of the legendary CBGB’s, Hilly Krystal, was another Jew who lived on a commune in upstate New York during his youth, the main singer (“Handsome” Dick Manitoba) and songwriter (Andy Shernof) of the first American Punk group to release a record, The Dictators, Joey and Tommy Ramone of the Ramones, Richard Meyers, B/K/A Richard Hell of Television, and the Voidoids, Chris Stein who molded the Punk goddess Debbie Harry of Blondie, were all Jewish.

Talking about women I have to mention the first real all girl rock group. Goldie and the Gingerbreads preceded the record company manufactured Runaways. Goldie – Genyusha Zelkowitz or best known as – Genya Ravan, is considered the mother of the Riot Grrrl music scene. Her and Helen Wheels were very influential but their brashness intimidated the men. These women who paved the way for the Riot Grrrl wave in the 1980’s and 1990’s, were mostly Jewish women. Being of little coincidence is the fact that many of these groups like Bikini Kill, Sleater Kinny have Jewish members.

There’s even an argument that the same goes for the Punk scene in England that was spearheaded by two Jewish businessmen. Malcolm McLaren, who would go on to manage the Sex Pistols as well as make some legendary rap records, was one and the other was Bernie Rhodes who would manage the Clash.

Besides the iconoclasts of music, music journalism by the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was beginning to change. In the past music journalism was on the fringe, or a marginal pariah where the journalist was usually treated like a sub-human species, like crap! By the 1970’s a new breed of journalists were taking the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) model, fusing it into their words. The new crop consisted of such luminaries as Lenny Kaye, Richard Meltzer, Sandy Pearlman who wrote for Crawdaddy, Jon Landau and Lisa Robinson who wrote for Creem, Greil Marcus and Nik Cohn who wrote for Rolling Stone, and Andy Schwartz who wrote for the New York Rocker.

 

John Holmstrom and his founding of Punk magazine along with Legs McNeil was another watershed moment for the movement. He embraced the idea of naming the magazine Punk because it was like a curse word and very forceful to viewers, a la Lenny Bruce. This magazine would pave the way for the label that historians would position it with this music. These journalists became celebrities in their own write, and the print culture in New York was changing with the likes of R. Crumb and the founding of MAD magazine. There was also a change of tone in the content with more serious slant and topics in the comic world in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, which paved the way for innovative comic works like Maus and Ghost World. All these writers and publications formulated the rules which were anti-establishment, DIY, and promoting the punk aesthetic.

Now let us come full circle with Mel Brooks and the Punk aesthetic. One of the main markers of Punk was the use of Nazi imagery. The use of Nazi imagery in Punk music was prevalent and Beeber asserts that the “responses to the Holocaust range from the mocking to the shocking to the world rocking”(Beeber, p.164). Punk groups (both in the US and UK) dealt with the issue through their art as scholar Jon Stratton argues in his book and articles, especially the articles. He also makes the same point about England’s pride at beating the Nazis and loss of their dominance, the reactions to the loss of an empire. When he veers to France and the popular Jewish artist Serge Gainsbourg, who lived in France during the Nazi occupation wearing a yellow star, there is a comparison to Mel Brooks and his first film The Producers. In 1975 Serge Gainsbourg released his album on the legacy of the Nazis and the Holocaust titled Rock Around the Bunker. It was done for shock values, an element of rebellion, while tearing down the symbols of oppression, as well as oppressive seriousness. Mel Brooks achieved the same goal by breaking down the barriers of accepted comedy. Bruce did this, as the Punk musicians did the same with the music. There is even a connection with these Jews and the Jews who would be involved in the other burgeoning art of 1970’s New York City, Hip-Hop.

What does it all mean? G-d only knows, but thankfully farts were heard!

Peace

#MelBrooks #BlazingSaddles #WoodyAllen #CBGB’s #LennyBruce #StevenLeeBeeber #SeanWilentz #TheHeebie-JeebiesatCBGB’s #Suicide #The Ramones #TheProducers #PunkMagazine

 

 

 

 

JewDan’s Manifesting

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My Dissertation Ideas for the Masses

This blog post is part of my dissertation ideas and the analysis. The dissertation analysis will cover the historical relationship between Jewish Americans and African Americans in popular American music. Were Jews responsible for the theft and exploitation of black artists? Or was the relationship more complicated, as shown by the past half-century of scholarship. In the past five decades scholars have written on this so-called relationship by chronicling its heights, such as with the labor unions, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Civil Rights Movement, to its fracturing due to black militancy, Islamic extremism, and Jewish disillusionment. Other scholars have written on the fiction of a cohesive relationship that never existed, or at least in the way it is portrayed. Historians like Hasia Diner, Paul Berman, Seth Forman, and Ethan Goffman have written on this myth over the decades in their works. According to the Jewish scholar Emily Miller Budick their works, along with Jeffrey Melnick’s study, are all part of the larger argument that, “Identification and the utilization of black cultural materials were less acts of Jewish commitment to the black cause than a way American Jews had of positioning themselves as white Americans within a racist and potentially anti-Semitic social structure.”[1] This is not the entire story because Jewish immigrants to the United States had their past severed by these scholars. European Jews constantly faced violence and oppression due to their beliefs. It would take centuries for them to attain emancipation from the ghettos, but the next challenge would be assimilation. European Jews have always adapted their country’s culture, so much so that most of the Jews who perished in the Holocaust were not observant. Once the great waves immigrated to the United States they naturally continued the process of assimilation. These scholars also do not state the fact that European Jewish immigrants had a long tradition of music through liturgy, one example being Mark Slobin’s book Tenement Songs, and other religious observances and celebrations, not to mention that the Eastern European Ashkenazim and the Middle Eastern and North African Sephardim have very distinct differences with regards to tunes, melodies, and music making. The story of the Jews in music, as well as their relationship with black artists, is far more complicated and rich.

 

These Jewish immigrants, and their children, had very little encounters with African Americans before the 20th Century. Once they both arrived at the urban centers of the United States due to the immigration rates and the great migration from the south, they began to encounter each other. They worked with each other and though Jews began to gain more power by positioning themselves as owners, they still were not the settled Christians of the nation. Due to their history in Europe there was a sense of anxiety, which in certain sections remains to this day, so they felt far more dutiful to assimilate. Scholars have asked why so many Jewish personalities have been part of the music industry, especially when working with black artists? Jonathan Karp argues that certain Jews could immerse themselves in blackness while remaining distant to its true implications. He writes that, “Jews attracted to the black mystique may have sought escape from their own ethnic heritage through immersion in the culture of a hipper “other,” but such empathy did not mean sharing in any debilitating anxieties that blacks may have felt over their capacity to succeed in business.”[2] These individuals he calls “non-Jewish Jews” or “Jewish white negroes” were mostly the businessmen of the 1950’s and 1960’s. By the 1960’s and 1970’s many Jews became visible artists, yet they shared the same interests in black music promoting the electric blues genre, as argued by Jon Stratton in his work Jews, Race and Popular Music. This sentiment changed, but the equation would remain for the next great music genre, rap music.

The wage of whiteness is important to mention because these Jews were still considered white, yet some felt far more akin with blacks. This kinship is complicated because Jews are white therefore they have more power than blacks in the industry, which was built on illegality and racism. This issue is important with regards to the relationships being called exploitative or one sided. This is the case in certain examples, but it wasn’t the norm. By the decade of the 1950’s and 1960’s the Civil Rights Movement, and later the Black Power Movement, African Americans were becoming far more empowered than in the past. They had more control over their destinies, yet the music business remained racially hierarchical. By the decade of the 1970’s a new art form began to take hold first in New York City, and later in the tri-state area, and globally in the present. Hip Hop is the newest musical form created by blacks, as well as Hispanics, and the dynamic remains. Just like the independent record labels of the 1950’s, which were overwhelmingly almost all owned by Jews, and mentioned in Karp’s article and by other writers like Jon Stratton and Michael Billig, the same story occurred with the early years of rap music. Rap music saw the rise of many Jewish personalities, and the best example of this literature is by Dan Charnas, who have helped it in its infancy to become the global phenomenon it is today. But unlike the past African American artists, as well as producers, label owners, radio personalities, and promoters, were far more empowered than in the past. This has sparked some controversy with rappers openly chiding Jewish ownership. However, the relationship between Jews and blacks in Hip-Hop is far stronger today than ever before. This bond helped create American popular culture, and remains fixed in most of our imaginations.

[1] Budick, Emily Miller. “A…..

[2] Karp, Jonathan.

The Blurred Lines…….of Music

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The man awakes in his cave, wipes the corn out his eyes while shuffling around his man cave. He then walks to the entrance of the cave awaiting the news from the neighboring caves. He waits, waits, and waits until he hears the faint sound of news. Apparently like this cave dweller of land’s past we all know the fateful outcome of the copyright infringement lawsuit against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. They were found guilty of flagrant usage of Marvin Gaye’s great boogie down anthem “Got to Give It Up.” The song “Blurred Lines” used the same bass line and drum break sequence in order to give it that party feel akin to the song by Marvin Gaye. In his recent article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/12/arts/music/whats-wrong-with-the-blurred-lines-copyright-ruling.html?_r=0 on the verdict New York Times columnist Jon Caramanica laments the fact that this was an antiquated interpretation of music making. The verdict followed the sheet music, but Caramanica adds, and I agree, that the current state of music making is very different from the past. Gone are the days of the Brill Building where songwriters competed in order to peddle their songs to the young singers and groups. The modern interpretation of music making is complex due to the vast technological chasm that we leapt into a few decades ago. However, has music always been pure and original or is it all borrowed from previous sources? This quandary has been explored by many scholars and popular writers, but it should be re-examined in light of this verdict.

 


Music is always created in a context where place, time, and the state of affairs all impact its creation. Johann Sebastian Bach, the great German organist, choir master and composer who lived from 1685-1750, created these magnificent pieces every Sunday for his church. He was influenced by the Renaissance and the musical modes of the chants. However, we take for granted the fact that he was virtually unknown outside of the Germanic lands until after his death. What propelled him to be considered the father of the Baroque period? It was Mozart who, influenced by this master, pushed for his music to be played and used ideas from his compositions. It was Mozart who championed Bach’s music being played in the concert halls of Vienna. Right there we see an influence, and it’s no surprise that Mozart used certain modes and notations in order to bolster his material. Did Bach mind? Probably not, but we see the influences, both conscious and unconscious, and how they are constantly re-interpreted.

The entire case against Thicke and Williams revolves like a whirlwind around Marvin Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up.” The song was created, chiefly by Gaye, in a hybrid situation where he was surrounded by friends and family at the studio. The song was recorded for his upcoming album Here, My Dear, which would pay off his debts to his first wife and daughter of Barry Gordy Jr. Although some critics lump it into the disco phase of Motown artists, this song is not disco. The song has a funk and R&B feeling while the track has a lot of sounds and voices, including a friend who he shouts out by the name of Don. That’s Don Cornelius of Soul Train fame. The point of this is that Marvin Gaye had the idea for the song and its lyrics, but it was the group effort by these fellow travellers and musicians who lifted the song off the ground. So the question beckons as to was this purely Marvin Gaye alone? And even more so, was it Gaye’s property that was violated or the group itself that should all be compensated. A parallel to this is the case of Rap music sampling beats while solely crediting James Brown. Brown was a prolific singer, composer and musician, but he took all the credit for every note played, which scholars know was unfair to the rest of the musicians.

The greater mystery surrounding this controversy is the complexity of music, and its intangible nature. Music is thought up or comes from a spark, is created, and then it flies off into the ether, never being the same again. Musicologists and scholars from various disciplines have grappled with this notion for the past two decades. Two recent works have thrown more complexity into the issue with regards to the racial barriers as well as the drive for financial success. Karl Hagstrom Miller’s great book Segregating Sounds: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow discusses these complexities. The book shows how the recording industry has always had a keen eye on its audience, dating back to its infancy in the late 19th Century. They had various streams of income mainly from live recordings, studio recordings and publishing. He argues, through the use of original source material, that it was this industry that created the “black” and “white” categries, which remain pervasive and salient to this very day. It is ironic how cyclical the music industry recycles these successful models. The big companies of the past provided the guidelines that were still used by MTV, VH1 and BET.

Another recent feat of scholarship argues in the same vein. David Suisman’s Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, argues that with the rise of music as big business these lines became far more rigid. The blurred lines of music are far more obscure than we think. The question then beckons as to what is original music. These questions of copyright have been brought to court before, and the first cases that came to my mind included rap songs that sampled sections of songs from the days of yore.

The cases of De La Soul and Biz Markie set the precedent for the friday night showdown between music and the law. Although it should be known that rap music wasn’t the first genre of music to be sued for lifting literal sections of recorded music onto new interpretations. One example is the a 45′ record released in 1956 titled “The Flying Saucer Parts 1&2” by Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman. It’s the earliest example of what we consider a “mashup,” which featured these samples of popular songs amidst a report of a visit from a flying saucer. It’s a first of its kind where the samples compliment the main thread of the track, in this particular case being news of flying saucers. Some of the samples on the record include “Open Up That Door” by Nappy Brown, “The Great Pretender” by The Platters, “I Want You To Be My Girl” by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard, “Poor Me” by Fats Domino, “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley, “Earth Angel” by The Penguins, “I Hear You Knocking” by Smiley Lewis, “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard, and “The Magic Touch” by The Platters. Interestingly enough the people who created the track were sued, but the lawsuit was quickly retracted. Why? Once it came out more people heard these songs, had them in their heads, and ended up buying them raising revenue for the original recordings. This was usually the case when it came to covers, but the logic remains that the sample would create the incentive to find the original.

 

 

De La Soul was sued in 1989 by the group the Turtles for using a sample from their 1969 hit “You Showed Me.” The De La soul track that sampled the song, titled “Transmitting Live from Mars” from their debut album 3 Feet High and Rising, is a minute long with an ominous feel as it segues into the next song. The most interesting thing about the case was that none of the members of The Turtles actually wrote the song! Unlike the case against Biz Markie By Gilbert O Sullivan, this seems rather perplexing. There are also vast amount of recordings that never reach stardom that are sample laden. Madlib’s first Quasimodo Album The Unseen is filled with an, pun intended, unseemly amount of samples that were probably never cleared, but who cares he ain’t famous. When the law gets involved it becomes a contradictory, ingenuous battle, that is extremely biased and racist. The intervention of the courts also eschews the fact that the history of the music business, up the present, has been built on illegalities and criminal intentions. The criminal element was in the guise of mob connections, exploitation, and financial gain at the expense of the real artists. The business isn’t called shady for nothing.

Music is always light years ahead of the so-called system. When the Recording companies were banned from recording music in the early 1940’s the system was reacting to unpaid wages of union musicians. However, this boycott hurt the musicians more than it helped. This shows that the industry is always three steps behind the music. These complications and various factors blur the true intent of music. Music is heard, music influences, and music is a creation that prods artists to create something better. The Beatles were influenced by many artists, and no lawsuits were filed when they used classical pieces in their pop music. The yellow brick road leads us down two paths, One is a form of imitation through musical flattery, and the second points to the true rooted nature of music. It is always created outside of a vacuum, and it always pushes for more variation, more artistry and more style.