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 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!
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