Flashback with the Violent Femmes

The Violent Femmes’ folk punk sound speaks to nostalgia for the indie 1980s, appearing on such Gen-X oriented soundtracks as “Reality Bites” and “Grosse Pointe Blank.” And yet the Femmes’ 1960s-inspired music endures today, with Gnarls Barkely covering “Gone Daddy Gone” and Wendy’s tapping the opening of their enduring hit “Blister in the Sun” for a recent commercial.

Since their discovery 26 years ago, the Violent Femmes have released 16 albums, which include such hits as “Kiss Off,” “Add It Up” and “American Music,” as well as “Gone” and “Blister.”

And the inclusion of the Femmes as headliner at this year’s Justice Ball on July 28 will undoubtedly inspire wistful thoughts among the audience of young professionals, providing an interesting contrast to past Justice Ball performers — a list that includes Billy Idol and Macy Gray.

“We always want a band that people will have fun dancing to … people enjoy bands they remember from their high school and college days,” Bet Tzedek President and CEO Mitch Kamin said.

Kamin counts himself among those who will be reminiscing after the Violent Femmes take the stage.

“I’ll be singing along to every song,” he said.

Aside from his personal enthusiasm for having the Violent Femmes perform at this year’s Justice Ball, Kamin also takes great pride in the unique and energetic nature of the fundraiser for Bet Tzedek, a pro-bono legal service for the low income and elderly in Los Angeles. He views the Justice Ball as a creative alternative to “your typical sit-down dinner with people in suits.”

Now in its 11th year, the Justice Ball will be held this year at West Hollywood’s The Lot, branching out from its venue for the last two years, the Hollywood Palladium. While Kamin cites the recent sale and subsequent renovation of the Palladium as a reason behind the change, he is looking forward to hosting the event at The Lot.

“It’s always great to try a new space, and it gives us the flexibility to offer new things,” he said.

Changing the venue means that the Justice Ball will be outdoors, which allows for the option of VIP cabanas ($3,600 each, which have already sold out) and a second stage for the event, as well as casino gaming, a dance stage and a karaoke lounge. Kamin hopes to raise $500,000 this year.

While the Violent Femmes traditionally play concert venues, colleges and festivals, benefit shows are not out of the ordinary for a group whose songs occasionally verge on the political.

“The poor and elderly are being shoved aside not only by financial interests, but also cultural, social, and even artistic indifference,” Femmes bassist and co-founder Brian Ritchie said of Bet Tzedek’s target clientele.

Founded in 1980 by Ritchie and percussionist Victor DeLorenzo, the Violent Femmes added vocalist Gordon Gano before taking to the coffee houses and street corners of Milwaukee. In 1981, James Honeyman-Scott of The Pretenders heard the band busking in front of the Oriental Theatre and invited them to play as the opening act. Soon after their debut performance, the Violent Femmes were signed to Slash Records and released their first record, “Violent Femmes.”

So what keeps these rockers relevant after more than 25 years?

“We have retained the ability to laugh at the world, its inhabitants and particularly ourselves,” Ritchie told The Journal. “Musicians who take themselves too seriously are boring.”

For more information, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.vfemmes.com/

Book reveals secrets from the Patriarchs of Punk: CBGBs was really Heebie Jeebies

“The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk,” by Steven Lee Beeber (Chicago Review Press, $24.95).

They were your mother’s worst nightmare.

They wore beat-up leather jackets and ripped jeans held together with safety pins. They spat out three-minute, buzz-saw anthems of anger about nihilism, heroin and psychosis. They had a morbid fascination with Nazis. They often performed from the stage of a New York club that reeked of urine, vomit and “gifts” from the owner’s dog.

They were America’s original punks, and many of them were Jews.

As Steven Lee Beeber argues in his fascinating but flawed book, “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk,” the punk revolution had its origins less in the working-class slums of London than in Brooklyn’s Flatbush and Forest Hills, predominantly Jewish areas that spawned the alienated youth who became the movement’s singers, managers, publicists, agents, club owners, music critics and fans.

“Punk is Jewish,” Beeber writes. “Not Judaic. Jewish, the reflection of a culture that’s three millennia old now. It reeks of humor and irony and preoccupations with Nazism. It’s all about outsiders who are ‘one of us’ in the shtetl of New York.”

According to Beeber, Jews make up a veritable who’s who in the punk pantheon. Among the more prominent figures are Lou Reed, the Godfather of Punk and Velvet Underground mastermind; Joey and Tommy Ramone (Jeffry Hyman and Tamás Erdélyi, respectively); Chris Stein, co-founder of Blondie; CBGB owner Hilly Kristal; and the half-Jewish Richard “Hell” Meyers of Television and the Voidoids.

Even the creator of England’s famed Sex Pistols, the cantankerous, infuriating provocateur Malcolm McLaren, had a bar mitzvah and got his inspiration for The Pistols after coming to New York to manage the cross-dressing, drug-gobbling New York Dolls, which had its own Jewish member in Sylvain Sylvain (Cairo-born Sil Mizrahi).

If “Heebie-Jeebies” simply name-checked famous Jewish punks, it would be little more than the literary equivalent of Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.” However, Beeber convincingly explores how the American Jewish experience of feeling like the perennial outsider in a Christian culture, combined with the psychological horrors of the Holocaust, helped forge a punk consciousness among young Jews coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s. Factor in a sense of irony and love of the printed word, and Jews made the perfect alienated punks.

Unfortunately, Beeber’s one-size-fits-all approach to the topic doesn’t always fit so well.

Take Richard Hell (né Meyers), the half-Jewish author of punk’s nihilist anthem, “Blank Generation.” Hell, in a testy exchange with the author, says that his Jewish father raised him as a “communist and an atheist” and not Jewish.

But to Beeber, that makes Hell all the more Jewish — the flight from religion and the alienation. Even after Beeber uncovers a posting on Hell’s Web site in which the singer tells a fan, “I don’t know anything about the religion/culture to speak of,” Beeber persists in making the shaky argument that Judaism played an important role in shaping Hell.

Throughout the book, Beeber’s penchant for such overstatement in pursuit of his “Jews are different and that’s why they’re punks” argument crops up.

Beeber also makes no attempt to understand what role the Jewish religion, as opposed to New York Jewish culture, played in the development of Jewish punks. Judaism is something more than just a love of Lenny Bruce, jazz and empathy for the underdog, although one might not get that from reading “Heebie-Jeebies.”

Still, Beeber’s talents as a master storyteller, as well as his ability at connecting the Jewish dots, come through in his chapter on “the Hebraic foundations” of the Ramones, arguably punk’s most influential group.

That the late lead singer Joey Ramone was Jewish is widely known. But Beeber reveals that the mysterious Tommy Ramone, the mastermind behind the leather-clad foursome that bashed out such classics as “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Beat on the Brat” and “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” not only is a Jew but the child of Holocaust survivors. Erdélyi kept his Jewish identity so well concealed that not even Danny Fields, the Ramone’s first manager (himself a Jew), knew of Tommy Ramone’s religious background until now.

That Tommy Ramone would want to keep his Judaism hidden makes sense. He was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1949, and his parents, both professional photographers, barely escaped from the clutches of the Nazis by hiding out with friends during the war. Most of Erdélyi’s family perished in the Holocaust.

Fleeing from Soviet tanks and an increasingly anti-Semitic environment in Budapest, the Erdélyis immigrated to Austria and then on to New York. At the urging of Orthodox relatives, his parents enrolled him at a Chasidic yeshiva in the Bronx, where his ultrareligious classmates shunned him “as a goy,” according Erdelyi, who later moved to heavily Jewish Forest Hills, Queens.

Ostracized twice because of his religion but for entirely different reasons, Erdélyi “began to think of himself as a perpetual outsider,” Beeber writes.

The future Tommy Ramone found a safe haven, at least for awhile, in The Ramones, a group he created by personally drafting guys from the old neighborhood, including lanky lead singer Joey Ramone, whose odd looks appealed to him. Erdelyi even came up with the group’s trademark leather-jacket-and-jeans outfit. Subconsciously, perhaps, he had recreated himself as a tough Jew, shedding the uncomfortable skin of the Jewish victim.

Ironically, Erdélyi found himself in a group whose two non-Jewish members shared a disturbing fascination with Nazism. Johnny Ramone (born John Cummings), the group’s guitarist, collected Nazi paraphernalia and later hung a portrait of Hitler above his fireplace in his Los Angeles home, according to Beeber.

Berlin-born Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin), the son of an American serviceman and a blue-eyed, blond German mother, sometimes accompanied Johnny on shopping expeditions for Nazi artifacts in Argentina and Brazil, countries known as havens for the Jews’ murderers. Whether Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone were “anti-Semites or the ultimate non-Jewish Jews” because of their alienation and rebelliousness is unclear, Beeber writes.

What is clear is that Erdélyi left the band after just three years. He assumed the group’s production duties for a time and then drifted away from his creation. The Hungarian-born Jew living in exile was, in effect, exiled again. What with Joey’s indifference, Johnny’s bullying and Dee Dee’s contemptuousness, to say nothing of the pair’s Nazi fetishism, it all became too much.

“Growing up with a fear of the Holocaust, being with Johnny and Dee Dee was like living with danger,” Erdélyi told Beeber. “There might have been an element of that — just as there was in my attraction to rock ‘n’ roll. It could have been that I was rebelling by hanging with them.”

How punk. How Jewish.

Eighth ‘Crazy Night’ for Jewish punks

A unique combination of mosh pits and hora dancing was one of the many cultural clashes during the last leg of the “Eight Crazy Nights” tour.

Local punk bands brought their own followers to the Workmen’s Circle on Robertson Boulevard, and a swarm of people flooded the building as the lights dimmed and the stage settled. Members of the Australian group, Yidcore, passed out kippot to the crowd, and once the last Chanukah candle was lit, the band launched into a cacophonous “Salaam” and “Mao Tzur.”

It was unclear who was there for the punk and who was there for the Judaism, but everyone seemed to be there for the music.

Hosted and funded by Workmen’s Circle, the seemingly unlikely marriage of Judaism and punk brought bands like Yidcore, Oakland’s Jewdriver and the Zydepunks from New Orleans to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on Dec. 22, the last night of Chanukah.

The idea was “to put culture back into punk,” said Aaron Brickman, the Workmen’s Circle youth programmer who envisioned the tour last Purim.

But “Eight Crazy Nights” provided more than punk with a Jewish face. It was also intended as a vehicle to expose Jews to different ways of being Jewish and to engage a more culturally diverse audience to the high-intensity music of punk rock, Brickman said.

The tour started on Dec. 15 in San Francisco, before moving on to punk venues in Berkeley, Santa Barbara, Las Vegas, Tucson, San Diego and Pomona.

As the intensity of the music increased at the Workmen’s Circle, the crowd’s energy grew. It didn’t take long for a slab of hummus from the snack table to end up across the room and on several fans, creating what can only be described as a “nosh pit.”

The madness continued with the Manischewitz-drinking melodies of Jewdriver, and the show wrapped with the klezmer tunes of the Zydepunks.

One of the main values of the religion is to constantly challenge convention, said Brickman, a University of Judaism graduate who added that Jewish punk rock can provide a unique path that is both educational and enjoyable.

Although at times the lyrics were drowned out by yelling and screaming, Jewish punk appears to offer its own very clear message that this ancient religion can continue to survive through continuous reinterpretation and musical transformation.

Web links:

‘ TARGET=’_blank’>www.yidcore.com

‘ TARGET=’_blank’>www.zydepunks.com

Punk Princesses: Jews With Attitude

There were always Jews in punk, even before there was punk.

“It really begins with Lenny Bruce,” says Steven Beeber, whose new book “The Heebie Jeebies at CBGBs: A Secret History of Jewish Punk,” will be published next year by A Capella Books. “Bruce sort of epitomizes the attitude, the whole smart-ass, clever truth-telling.”

In fact, the punk attitude is also a Jewish attitude that begins with the midrash, in which Abram smashes all but one of his father’s household idols and blames the sole survivor for the wreckage.

In its early days, punk was not only a form of music but also a philosophy, a way of looking at the world. And for three Jewish women musicians, it still is all that and more.

Jewlia Eisenberg, the founder and leader of Charming Hostess, a constantly mutating musical aggregation from the Bay Area, embraces the label “Jewish punk diva” with glee.

“Punk is a form of opposition,” Eisenberg wrote in an e-mail interview. “Real punks are radical in politics and culture. Punk is about screaming and dancing your way out of the margins. Punk is anti-materialist, DIY, direct, and in your face. Punk is a point of view; it’s a site of resistance, it’s a community…. And I can get with all that.”

But if you listen to records made by Charming Hostess — or Annette Ezekiel’s band Golem or Sophie Solomon’s Oi Va Voi — and expect shrieking three-chord rock played at the speed of light and the threshold of permanent hearing damage, you will be surprised. And if you are looking for torn T-shirts, safety pins and Doc Martens … well that’s so 1970s.

Or as Eisenberg dryly observes, “[Punk] is not defined simply by its symbols, which indeed are used to commodify punk and the energy it represents.”

Although the original spirit of punk was a kind of working-class outrage, expressed through a do-it-yourself homemade aesthetic, Eisenberg, Ezekiel and Solomon are university-educated, trained musicians. Of course, punk itself moved beyond three chords and inchoate snarls almost immediately, but the music of Charming Hostess, Golem and Oi Va Voi is stunning in its complexity.

Which is not to say you can’t dance to it.

When Golem played a couple of weddings during their West Coast tour this fall, there were horas and mosh pits side by side.

“Oh, yeah, that was our moshiest tour so far,” Ezekiel says with a grin.

So is Golem punk?

“It’s hard to label our music,” Ezekiel says. “I’m doing straight-up Yiddish music with a punk or rock attitude, but it’s not something you can see from the music.”

Heeb Magazine thinks they are punk, so much so that they won the award as “best punk band” at the publication’s first Jewish Music Awards. Reminded of this, Ezekiel laughed a little then noted that a friend of the late Joey Ramone, who was given a posthumous lifetime achievement award at the same ceremony, came up to her after hearing Golem and said approvingly, “You are so punk!”

For Ezekiel, too, it’s a question of attitude. She compares Golem’s approach to that of some of the more tradition-bound klezmer revival bands.

“I know deep down that we are punk, that we are a wild, edgy band,” she says. “I love the klezmer revival, but sometimes it’s missing the visceral energy, and everyone is playing the same material.”

By contrast, Golem leans more heavily on songs from Yiddish theater, perhaps not in a style that Molly Picon or Seymour Rechseit would recognize.

“People are always asking us why we don’t play more originals,” Ezekiel says. “I have no interest in writing songs. The research is what I love, and we reinterpret the songs we find by adding new elements.”

By contrast, much of Charming Hostess’s material is written by Eisenberg, although she draws on a bewildering variety of texts for her lyrics, ranging from the correspondence and diaries of Walter Benjamin to the verse of Bosnian poet Sem Mehmedinovic. She runs them through her own cerebral Mixmaster and creates delirious music for three female voices and occasional instrumental accompaniment. The result is best described by Ari Davidow, proprietor of the splendid KlezmerShack Web site (www.klezmershack.com) as “what Sweet Honey in the Rock might sound like if they had a bit more punk sensibility and broadened their range to include Balkan Ladino and Jewish campfire tunes.”

Eisenberg herself describes Charming Hostess’ music as “nerdy-sexy-commie-girlie,” and can number Ezekiel as one her most enthusiastic fans. Golem and Charming Hostess played a number of concerts together in California last fall, each described the experience as a joy.

“We even did some tunes together, which was great fun,” Eisenberg notes.

“I’ve never been so happy with a double bill before,” Ezekiel says. “We’re both really into the background and research and culture behind the music we perform, but we’re not bogged down by it.”

“I was talking to Annette today,” Eisenberg wrote, “and I told her why I think the … music of Charming Hostess and the raucous klezmer of Golem are a good double bill; Charming Hostess does avant music framed by a folk sensibility and Golem does folk music framed by an avant sensibility.”

Sophie Solomon, like Eisenberg and Ezekiel, was trained as a classical musician. Her own sensibility is certainly avant, although she would probably opt for hip-hop rather than punk as a label, and Oi Va Voi’s wildly energetic mix of Yiddish, Balkan, Roma, rock and rap undoubtedly draws on as wide a range of folk musics as Hostess or Golem.

Asked about Solomon, Ezekiel exclaims, “Yeah! She’s taking the old stuff and making it sexy, wild and contemporarily relevant. Totally!”

Solomon’s own musical background includes stints as a DJ at clubs and raves in her native England, and she is probably as well-known here for her collaboration with Josh Dolgin, better known as Socalled, on the “Hip-Hop Khasene,” a spirited meeting of Jewish wedding, turntablism, sampling and rap, as for her frenetic fiddle playing with Oi Va Voi. Coincidentally, Golem was also part of a highly publicized musical spoof of Jewish wedding traditions, “Golem Gets Married,” featuring a cross-dressing bride and groom and the band’s spirited musical readings of traditional tunes.

“Hip-Hop Khasene” is a project that speaks directly to Solomon’s own interests and underlines her affinities with Eisenberg and Ezekiel.

“I want to evoke the Jewish musical experience of the past two centuries,” she says, discussing the live version of “Khasene.” “You hear a sample from Naftule Brandwein at the same time that [80-year-old] Elaine Hoffman Watts is playing onstage with David Krakauer and me.”

Socalled’s sampling magic and breakbeat manipulation speak directly to Solomon’s desire to combine Jewish music cross-generationally and her own cross-cultural influences.

“The collage nature of what Josh does is particularly interesting to me,” she says. “I wanted to do something that is authentic — these are real, living wedding traditions — and the concert is like a wedding from beginning to end, the wedding ceremony from ‘Dobriden’ to ‘Zay Gezunt.’ But I also wanted to do something that raises questions about what ‘authentic’ is. This isn’t 19th-century Eastern Europe.”

In a way, Solomon’s remark about authenticity sums up the distance that punk has traveled from the Sex Pistols, the Dictators and the Ramones through the hip-hop world and into the contemporary Jewish music world inhabited by Charming Hostess, Golem and Oi Va Voi. As Steven Beeber says, “Hip-hop is the new punk, and has been for a long time.”

So are these women Jewish punk divas or Jewish hip-hop divas or what?

Ari Davidow, a particularly astute observer of everything klezmer and beyond, remarks, “The issue … is less punk than mash-up — the incredible variety of sounds you get when people who have grown up part of the rich tapestry of musical heritages now care enough about Jewish sources to do a Jewish remix.”

Charming Hostess’s most recent album is “Sarajevo Blues,” on the Tzadik label. They will probably be performing in Los Angeles in February. Golem’s most recent CD is “Homesick Songs” on Aeronaut Records. Oi Va Voi’s most recent recording, “Laughter Through Tears,” is on the Outcaste label, and “Hip-Hop Khasene” by Solomon and Socalled is widely available.

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week; his new book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.