From Jewish roots, band sprouts afro/new wave wings


Luke Top and Lewis Pesacov of Fool’s Gold are surprised they don’t have a larger Jewish fan base. Most of the songs on the band’s 2009 self-titled debut are in Hebrew, vocalist Top was born in Israel, and earlier this year the band played Jewlicious, a music festival for Jewish college students.

“We kind of thought that it might happen, and it totally didn’t happen,” lead guitarist Pesacov said.

However, the L.A.-based band has steadily raised its profile among indie music fans over the past five years. Santa Monica radio station KCRW embraced Fool’s Gold, and a variety of publications gave its Aug. 16 sophomore release, “Leave No Trace” (IAMSOUND Records), high marks for its marriage of African rhythms and new wave sounds. The band will headline the Troubadour on Sept. 29, and, starting in November, it will join the Red Hot Chili Peppers on tour in Europe.

Top says he sang primarily in Hebrew on the band’s first album because of his insecurities as a vocalist. He thought he could hide behind a language that most people can’t understand.

“It’s a little veiled, you know, the Hebrew. People don’t understand it, and there was a little bit of security in there,” Top said.

By singing primarily in English on the latest album, Top said he’s pushing himself.

“I think the idea was just, ‘Don’t hold back.’ To go all out,” he said.

Top and Pesacov, both 31, first met during high school — Top attended Cleveland High School in Reseda, and Pesacov went to Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. The pair started Fool’s Gold as a musical side project in 2006, as a way to explore their common interests in African music (Congolese, Ethiopian, Eritrean and Malian), progressive German rock and ’80s synth pop. Over the next five years, the band evolved into a collective that at one time featured 15 members. On its most recent tour, Fool’s Good was left with its current lineup: Top, Pesacov, drummer Garrett Ray, multi-instrumentalist Brad Caulkins and percussionist Salvador Placencia.

“We were five people on tour, the smallest band we’ve ever been, and we were like, ‘This kind of works.’ More people started to listen, and it sounded better than ever,” Pesacov said.

Last year, from Christmas Day to New Year’s Eve, Top and Pesacov rented a house near Joshua Tree National Park, where they jammed and developed ideas for “Leave No Trace.” A four-month recording process in Los Angeles followed. The result is a more concise and radio-friendly effort, featuring the lead single, “Wild Window,” in which Top plays a funky bass and Pesacov offers a jangle pop sound.

Fool’s Gold’s sound doesn’t lend itself easily to classification.

“Some listeners have commented that their songs sound as if ’80s alternative band The Smiths were jamming with Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti,” KCRW music director Jason Bentley said in an e-mail interview.

Like Chasidic reggae star Mat-isyahu, Fool’s Gold lets Judaism inform its music rather than become its music, said Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, director of the Jewlicious festivals.

“They’re not setting out to make Jewish music in any way, shape or form. But their roots, their ethnic and religious and cultural background, influence their music,” Bookstein said.

Top, who immigrated to the United States from Israel when he was 3 years old, sings in Hebrew for one of the new album’s more uplifting songs, “Tel Aviv.” In the lyrics, Top negotiates the idea of having two homes, while craving a return to Tel Aviv, his birthplace. He sings in Hebrew, “I was born in Tel Aviv… I laid down on the sand,” and then switches to English, “I reach for you.”

“Am I Israeli? Am I American? I wanted to write a song kind of touching upon that, referencing my experiences going back to Israel and being here,” he said. “It’s pretty literally talking about being in both places.”

Top has also wrestled with his level of Jewish observance. He isn’t religious, but he said his family “had a small window where they were trying to be more Conservative and Orthodox.”

Pesacov, a native Angeleno who performs with drummer Ray in the band Foreign Born, said he grew up in an interfaith family with a Jewish father and a mother who wanted to convert to Judaism. And though he wanted to explore Judaism, his father discouraged him.

“I wanted to have a bar mitzvah as a kid and my dad’s like a hippie who did not believe in religion,” Pesacov said. “But it’s funny, because I grew up with all Jews in Los Angeles. I probably recognize myself as more Jewish than I am Christian.”

Arts in L.A. Quarterly Calendar: Cultural events through Feb. 2009


ALTTEXT

Robert Dowd — Pop Art Money — See Jan.17 listing

DECEMBER

Fri., Dec. 12
“Laemmle Through the Decades: 1938-2008, 70 Years in 7 Days.” It must have been an extraordinarily difficult task to select only seven films to represent the rich and diverse history of the Laemmle Theatres chain. But someone did it. For the next week, Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles will screen the seven most iconic foreign-language films to have graced the company’s silver screens, each one representing a different decade of its existence. The lineup includes “Children of Paradise” (1945, France), “La Strada” (1954, Italy), “Jules & Jim” (1962, France), “The Conformist” (1970, Italy, France and West Germany), “Fanny & Alexander” (1982, Sweden), “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988, Spain) and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001, Mexico). Films will screen several times a day. Through Dec. 18. $7-$10. Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 477-5581. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ecogift.com.

Sat., Dec. 13
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” With a long list of Top 40 favorites, such as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand by Me” and “On Broadway,” this musical mishmash of Leiber and Stoller hits is ideally jubilant for the holiday season. Since its 1995 premiere on Broadway, the 39-song revue has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, won a Grammy Award for the legendary duo’s songs and featured special appearances by megastars such as Gladys Knight, Gloria Gaynor and Rick Springfield. Starring in this NoHo production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” are DeLee Lively, Robert Torti and a host of other talented stage veterans. Special performances include tonight’s opening night gala and two New Year’s Eve shows, one with a champagne reception, the other followed by an all-out party with the cast. 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. Through Jan. 4. $25-$150. El Portal Theatre, Mainstage, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 508-4200. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.benjamintrigano.com.

Sat., Dec. 13
“Moonlight Rollerway Holiday Jubilee.” Charles Phoenix is addicted to thrift store shopping. Luckily for us, Phoenix has put together a collection of the goodies he has found. Now, Moonlight Rollerway, which calls itself Southern California’s last classic roller rink, is presenting Phoenix and his quirky, retro holiday slide show. The viewing event will be followed by a roller-skating revue spectacular, featuring 75 championship skaters and celebrating the entire year’s holidays, including Cinco de Mayo and Valentine’s Day. Snacks and an after-show skating party are included. 8 p.m. Also, Dec. 14 at 3 p.m. $35. Moonlight Rollerway, 5110 San Fernando Road, Glendale. (818) 241-3630. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.mbfala.com.

Sun., Dec. 14
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus Annual Winter Concert. There is an Academy Award-nominated documentary about this choir. It has toured Brazil, China, Italy and Poland, among other nations. And since its inception in 1986, the chorus has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Approximately 250 talented and dedicated children between the ages of 8 and 12 make up the LACC. The angelic voices of these preteen choristers will bring to life works by composers such as Aaron Copland, Pablo Casals, Randall Thompson and J.S. Bach in a winter concert inspired by literary luminaries Robert Frost, William Shakespeare and others. The program follows the 2008-2009 season theme, “The Poet Sings,” and features a varied selection of classical, folk and contemporary pieces. 7 p.m. $24-$42. Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 793-4231. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lamoth.org.

Mon., Dec. 15
Reel Talk: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Stephen Farber, film critic for Hollywood Life magazine and The Hollywood Reporter, has been treating audiences to sneak previews of the industry’s hottest films for more than 25 years. The veteran film buff concludes this year’s preview series with a fascinating film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who is born in his 80s and ages backward. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, the odd tale is already making waves and is set to hit theaters during prime-time movie-watching season, Christmas. The screening will be followed by a discussion with members of the filmmaking team, including Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline West. 7 p.m. $20. Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lacma.org.

Tue., Dec. 16
Carrie Fisher presents and signs “Wishful Drinking.” It’s not easy being an action figure before you can legally drink a beer, but that didn’t stop Princess Leia from having one, or two, or many more. Fisher’s first memoir, adapted from her one-woman stage show, is a revealing look at her childhood as a product of “Hollywood in-breeding” and her adulthood in the shadow of “Star Wars.” After electroshock therapy, marrying, divorcing then dating Paul Simon, a drug addition and a bipolar disorder, Fisher still manages to take an ironic and humorous survey of her bizarre life. Meet Fisher and get a copy of her book signed at this WeHo book haven. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Fri., Dec. 19
“Peter Pan.” Tinkerbell, Captain Hook, pirates, Indians — we know the cast of characters well. But how many of us have actually seen a full production of J.M. Barrie’s classic fantasy play, “Peter Pan” — especially one that features the complete musical score by Leonard Bernstein? Composer Alexander Frey — who helped reconstruct portions of Bernstein’s score that had been previously lost for a special CD — is flying in from Berlin to conduct the live orchestra. 7 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Dec. 28. $30-$70; $10 (seniors and students). Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara. (805) 963-0761. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Wed., Dec. 24
“49th Annual Los Angeles County Holiday Celebration.” Los Angeles’ biggest holiday show, featuring 45 groups and 1,200 performers, is a proud tradition — and it’s absolutely free! Running approximately six hours, the holiday extravaganza features the county’s cultural diversity. This year’s highlights include hip-hop group Antics Performances, South Bay Ballet and Grammy-nominated Lisa Haley and the Zydekats. Audiences will have the opportunity to listen to sounds and see sights from the world over, including Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. For those of you who can’t make it to see the event in person, KCET-TV will also be airing the event live. Sponsored by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and produced by the County Arts Commission. 3-9 p.m. Free. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3099. http:www.holidaycelebration.org.

Israel to rock the Kodak but hoping for more glam


There’s no shame in the Shondes’ melodious yelling


Comedy singer drawn to Jewish thought — but not shul


It is commonplace that the best comedy is essentially serious. Of course, clichés often have an underlying truth, so maybe that explains why Rob Tannenbaum, one half of the comedy-music duo, Good for the Jews, playing at the Knitting Factory on Dec. 14, is both a very funny guy, and nevertheless someone who discusses his work in surprisingly sober terms.

OK, he discusses it in sober terms some of the time. On the other hand, when asked about his Jewish upbringing in WASPy Fairfield County, Conn., the 32-year-old Tannenbaum replies with an ear-to-ear grin: “What Jewish upbringing? ‘Connecticut Jew’ is an oxymoron. I come from the land of the Izod yarmulke.”

Then he gets serious,

“I was a ‘bar mitzvah’ Jew,” Tannenbaum admits. “But I believe my personality and my sense of humor are deeply Jewish. In fact, I’m Jewish in every way except my religion. I guess ‘real’ Jews would call me a Christian.”

Probably not, although they might call him an apikoros (apostate). The simple fact is, like so many other secular Jews, Tannenbaum feels drawn to Jewish thought, Jewish ethics and Jewish cultural efforts, but not to synagogue.

“The things I love [about being Jewish] have to do with my friends and family,” he says.

But he is completely committed to the idea of Jewish identity, so much so that several years ago, while fronting a punk band — “of no great significance,” he adds with a rueful smile — he was so miffed by the omnipresence of that other December holiday that he wrote a song, “It’s Good to Be a Jew at Christmas.”

“It’s a protest song about identity and pride,” Tannenbaum says. “And that’s how it started.”

The song ended up on a compilation of Jewish comedy songs, “with a song by my hero, Mel Brooks,” he notes proudly.

“The turning point in my songwriting was going to see ‘The Producers’ on Broadway,” Tannenbaum says. “There I was in a theater full of tourists who were laughing at songs about the Holocaust and the Nazis. I felt liberated.”

Tannenbaum is probably better known as a rock critic, the music editor of the magazine, Blender, than as a singer-songwriter-humorist. Or you may remember him as one-half of What I Like About Jew, with former Rockapella frontman Sean Altman. That was the project that brought him some prominence in Jewish circles. It also brought some tsuris (trouble) when the pair split up.

“It wasn’t a happy breakup,” he admits. “Talking about what happened would turn this into a different story. Look, thousands of rock groups have broken up; that’s what happens.”

Both he and Altman have continued in the comedy and music vein. Each still performs some of the songs they wrote together.

Several of those songs, and the new ones Tannenbaum is writing on his own or with his new musical partner, David Fagin, may hit the occasional raw nerve, like the sex-obsessed bar mitzvah ballad, “Today I Am a Man”; the minihistory lesson, “They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat)”; or his new anthem, “Shiksas Are for Practice.”

“We don’t expect consensus,” he says. “Not everybody is going to find every song funny.”

But he tells a story about receiving some important validation from a friend, “the only child of two survivors of Auschwitz,” he says. “She came to one of our shows, and I have some material about the difficulties of being a German Jew. This is the person I know who has experienced the most suffering from anti-Semitism, and she found joy and hopefulness in those jokes. If she finds a joke about German Jews funny, that’s all the license I need.”

At the same time, though, he readily acknowledges that others may not be so relaxed.

“As a college-educated Reform Jew, I understand that some people may feel I’m not entitled to speak on some subjects,” Tannenbaum says. “The Jewish people are not monolithic, and I’ve had dialogues with people after our shows who have misgivings about the material.”

The one area about which there can be no argument, however, is the comfort level of his partnership with Fagin, who is also the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for the Rosenbergs, a highly acclaimed power pop band.

“I met David at an event sponsored by Heeb,” Tannenbaum recalls. “He was performing, and I was emceeing. I’ve been a big fan of the Rosenbergs, so afterwards, I called him up and said, ‘Let’s start a band.’ I knew he was a great singer and musician, and the songs he wrote for the band were witty, but I didn’t know he was funny, too.”

Given that they’re in the middle of a 13-city tour over 17 days, he’d have to be funny.

But when you ask Tannenbaum if his forays into Jewish humor have affected his sense of Jewish identity, he gets serious again — serious and bit flummoxed.

“Yes, it has … but how?” he asks earnestly. “I went to shul for the High Holy Days this year for the first time in a long time. Was I looking for new material?

“Look, the stuff we’re doing brings me into pretty intensive contact with the Jewish community. It requires me to think about what it means to be a Jew. If you can accept the idea that someone can be a practicing Jew without being observant — well, I’ve spent a lot of time practicing my Judaism. And my sense of Judaism has developed. I guess I’m an Orthodox version of a secular Jew.”

Which may or may not be funny, but it’s certainly serious minded.

Good for the Jews will be playing the AlterKnit Lounge at the Knitting Factory Hollywood, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Dec. 14, 7 and 10 p.m. For information, phone (323) 463-0204 or visit http://www.knittingfactory.com.

Spectator – Teens Band Together in Music Battle


There is nothing like a battle to bring a people together.

At least this is the hope of Brian Greene, executive director of the Westside Jewish Community Center (JCC), as he plans the Los Angeles area’s first citywide Jewish Battle of the Bands.

“I believe that there needs to be a place where Jewish teens from various schools and denominations can gather … music is a way that that can happen,” he said.

The Nov. 4 event, which Greene describes as “an effort to make the Westside JCC a relevant part of Jewish teen life in Los Angeles,” is scheduled for 7 p.m., at the community center.

Any bands with Jewish members are encouraged to submit demos before Sept. 1 in order to be considered for the battle lineup. The event is geared toward embracing any and all forms of “the musical expression of Jewish teens,” Greene said.

Competing bands will be evaluated by a panel of judges expected to include music industry insiders, and winners will be awarded prizes including Sam Ash music merchandise gift certificates. Sam Ash Music Corp. is sponsoring the event, along with the Jonathan and Faye Kellerman Foundation.

Greene has motives that go beyond the music: He hopes the battle will bring together teens from all denominations and schools, fostering the kind of Jewish unity that the JCC has already kindled in its preschool and senior citizen patrons.

“Teens by their nature are not denominational,” he said. “I hope [this concert] is creative way to spark an interest among teens as to this being a place that can host events for the teen community.”

Similar citywide musical battles have met with much success in the Jewish communities of Vancouver and Miami, among others. Such an event, though, seems tailor-made for Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world.

So grab a microphone — and rock on.

The event will be held Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Westside JCC, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. $5. Only five bands will be able to compete. Send demos to: Battle of the Bands c/o Westside Jewish Community Center 5870 West Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036 For more information, visit ” target=”_blank”>www.myspace.com/wjccbattleofthebands.

 

For Musicians, It’s Good to Be Labeled


When Chasidic reggae-rapper Matisyahu sold 350,000 units of his new album, “Youth,” in the first weeks after its release, he redrew the rule book for marketing Jewish music.

Or, more accurately, Aaron Bisman and Jacob Harris, his now former managers and heads of JDub Records, the singer’s erstwhile label, redrew the rule book.

That had been their intention all along, and Matisyahu’s sudden departure from the JDub fold will have no apparent impact on their plans. Bisman and Harris simply will shift their energies to Balkan Beat Box, SoCalled, the newly signed Golem and other artists in their growing stable of Jewish hip-hop and rock musicians.

“This has all been the result of many years of plotting and planning,” Bisman confided last month in the label’s surprisingly quiet and tidy office in Greenwich Village.

Truth be told, it can’t have been that many years of plotting and planning — Bisman and Harris are only 26.

Their youth is actually one of the advantages they bring to the crowded independent-record label horse race, a race in which they are one of several new players with a distinctly Jewish slant to their choice of artists. Along with other Jewish-oriented labels like the L.A-based Jewish Music Group and the artist owned and driven Modular Moods, JDub is combining an uncanny ear for new sounds with an understanding of new media that makes these small companies big players.

Bisman and Harris grew up together in Scottsdale and Phoenix, Ariz., and music was always at the center of their career choices. After they moved to the East Coast, a third friend, Benjamin Hesse, cut a record, and they began trying to sell it.

“It was quality music, great songs,” Harris says. “It sounded good and we got to thinking…”

“…Who would put this out?” Bisman says, finishing the sentence for his long-time partner. “Wouldn’t it be cool to hear this at the Mercury Lounge?”

Around the same time, they befriended a young singer who was becoming involved with the Lubavitchers — Matisyahu.

“We really believe in high-quality Jewish music, so we began to think actively about what our definition of Jewish music was,” Bisman says. “We looked at what John Zorn was doing with Tzadik, his label. He would give an artist $5,000 and allow them to do what they wanted. Jewish Alternative Music was just closing its doors; their art was awesome, but the marketing was awful.”

With those two benchmarks available at the outset, Bisman and Harris began thinking through what JDub could be.

“We wanted to position our label so that it would have a chance of reaching a real audience,” Bisman says. “So we came up with a few simple guidelines. We wanted bands that would play comfortably in secular spaces, not just the JCCs and synagogues. We wanted artwork — record jackets, posters and so on — that would be appealing. And we wanted to stay away from klezmer at the outset, because that niche was pretty much sewed up and would limit us to an older audience.”

In short, JDub would try to make music that would appeal first to the founders’ cohort, the audience that they knew best and which, frankly, is the most active music-buying public.

More than that, though, JDub wouldn’t just release the records and kick the acts out on the road to fend for themselves.

“I had made some connections, I had been out on the road, frankly a little too much, and I know how to manage an act,” Harris says. “We wanted to be able to do everything for the bands we sign.”

“It’s not just about putting out a record,” Bisman says. “We want to make sure our artists are long-term successes and don’t burn out.”

The marketing plan Harris outlines was simple: “We speak to our peer group and other kids. We realized that if we do more events we would brand ourselves even before we had records to sell. Then you have an audience waiting.”

That strategy tied in nicely with their desire to use Jewish music as a way of bringing the community together, so nicely that the label is now a nonprofit Jewish organization, funded in part by UJA-Federation in New York, with a similar relationship in the offing in Los Angeles.

“We have a mailing list of 5,000-6,000,” Harris says, “They’re young, cool and have quality, and these are people that Jewish organizations need to, want to reach.”

Both Erez Handler, who owns and runs Modular Moods, and David McLees, one of the two heads of the Jewish Music Group, express a little good-natured envy of JDub’s nonprofit hookup.

“They don’t have some of the financial pressures we have,” McLees said in a phone call from Los Angeles. “We have to turn a profit faster than they do. But I think they do fine work. They’re very focused.”

Handler, who records on his own label as DJ Handler, notes that Modular Moods isn’t really “a Jewish label, but a lot of our music that gets attention is Jewish music.”

He points out that only two of the label’s 10 artists are overtly Jewish. But Modular Moods was the force behind last fall’s Sephardic Music Festival in New York City.

“I like doing Jewish music or non-Jewish music, as long as it’s good music,”

Handler, who is an observant Jew, says. “You get to collaborate with more people when you don’t allow yourself to be pigeonholed.”

Like Harris and Bisman, Handler is 26 and says that the target audience for Modular’s releases “has always been myself and my friends from college. College-radio style, people who are searching for new music, not just one style but music fans with diverse tastes.”

Modular Moods’ artist list includes Juez, a high-energy jazz-funk band with a klezmer tang; African American Jewish rapper Y-Love, and alt-rockers Bellflur.

Jewish Music Group’s artists include satirical rapper Chutzpah, the Moshav Band, Connie Francis and Don Rickles.

Connie Francis and Don Rickles?

“Richard Foos and I worked together on Rhino Records for 18 years before we began JMG,” McLees explains. “We’re from the mainstream and we’ve got one foot in the mainstream and one in the niche market. That’s what sets us apart from JDub or Modular Moods.”

That and the fact that he and Foos are in the their mid-40s.

“We want to take the Jewish out of marketing Jewish music so that our artists have a chance of crossing over, but we also want to distribute the other way, to reaffirm their Jewish identity,” McLees says. “We have everything from Don Rickles to David Broza and Debbie Friedman, from the Moshav Band to Jackie Mason. We’re tying to hit all the different strata that Jewish music includes, everything from an Orthodox religious group to cultural Jews.”

As a result, unlike JDub and Modular, JMG has made a particular effort to place their records in Judaica stores throughout the country.

Harris characterizes Modular’s vibe as “more DIY than ours,” and JMG’s as more mainstream, but all three labels express admiration for one another and single out artists in their competitors’ stables that they like.

Handler is quick to sing the praises of Balkan Beat Box.

“I think they are the artists that could have a lasting career,” he predicts.

With Balkan Beat Box, the band is actually composed of musicians from different backgrounds playing a mix of a lot of cultures, and I think that is something very strong, as opposed to throwing this one style over this other style.”

“JDub does great stuff,” McLees says. “I think their first priority is to find something Jewish and break it into the mainstream. We should all be grateful for what they did with Matisyahu.”

Does that mean that Balkan Beat Box could be looking at platinum somewhere down the road?

It is impossible to answer that question. After all, that was the one thing that Bisman and Harris hadn’t planned on before.

Balkan Beat Box will be appearing at the Israeli Independence Day Festival at Woodley Park on May 7 at 3 p.m.

JDub Records is on the Web at www.jdubrecords.org; Modular Moods is at www.modularmoods.com ; Jewish Music Group is at www.jewishmusicgroup.com. For more information on the Israeli Festival, visit www.israelfestival.com.

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.

 

Cultural Mix Inspires Revenge’s Warfield


Get out a pen and the map to Los Angeles. Now, draw a crooked line from the dense neighborhoods of South Central to the suburb-hubbub of North Hollywood. No, this is not a story about a Metro route but rather one about familial roots. Justin Warfield, the monotone-voiced, seductive lead singer and co-songwriter of the local nouveau and dark-wave group, She Wants Revenge, has roots that stretch across the city, and truth be told, he really doesn’t feel any tinge of revenge these days, because his band’s moody, dance-club-beat debut self-titled album has not only conquered the radio waves nationally, but is about to take on the avid audience at the Coachella Music & Arts Festival this weekend, too.

The music of She Wants Revenge is a mix of light and dark tones, soft and harsh feelings and complicated sexual innuendo. Taking a peek behind the public mask, Warfield is more than ready to get into those complicated feelings.

If one person could embody the diversity of Los Angeles’ cultural mix, it may be Warfield. The product of a Jewish mother with a Russian-Romanian lineage, who lives in North Hollywood, and a Southern, African American father, who lives in South Central, he always felt a little on the fringes as a kid. “When I was growing up, it seemed like I was the only person experiencing such a drastic sharing of cultures. But since then, I’ve talked to a number of people, and because of the liberal and progressive nature of the entertainment industry in New York and Hollywood, there are more of us than I thought.” In fact, Warfield developed a friendship with rock star Lenny Kravitz because of their shared backgrounds — Kravitz’s father is a Russian Jew and his mother is a Bahamanian American.

Whatever the outside world thought about Warfield’s “different” family, inside the walls of his grandparents’ beach house in Malibu the two cultures were completely unified, Warfield remembers. “Every summer we’d have my dad’s side of the family from South Central meet up with my mom’s side of the family from Brooklyn, and we ate together and laughed together, like any other family.” And to this day, Warfield still finds comfort and “a feeling of being with grandma,” when he sees a group of elderly Jewish women eating at a table next to him.

“I grew up around Jews from Coney Island and Brighton Beach who all lived during the Depression. My mother’s father inherited a business from his father, a well-known eatery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan called, Sammy’s Romanian, and my grandmother’s father was a cantor and a kosher butcher.” And although Warfield wasn’t bar mitzvahed and never went to temple, his family did celebrate some of the holidays. But Warfield contends that he doesn’t regard Judaism so much as a religion but more as a way of life.

“When people ask about the darkness or sadness expressed in our music, although there is no obvious connection between the lyrics and Judaism, it does make me think of sitting at the dinner table with my family, because if you grew up around the kind of Jews I know, there’s a certain sense of humor that they all have. One moment, you’re laughing while you’re eating, and then, two seconds later, tragedy will creep into the conversation, and then, in no time, you’re all laughing again. Humor, food and tragedy, what could be more Jewish?” Warfield laughs.

The mere fact that someone so seemingly happy as Warfield would end up making minor-chord dance dirges is, in itself, ironic, especially when you find out that he was introduced to hip-hop at an early age because of his father’s job in the rhythm and blues and rap music industries. Even Warfield’s first full-length solo musical output titled, “My Fieldtrip to Planet 9,” was a hip-hop album.

So how did he end up writing songs with DJ Adam 12, (whose real name is Adam Bravin) the other songwriter of She Wants Revenge? Warfield, a self-proclaimed skateboarder, met the slightly older Bravin at a junior high party, where the latter was spinning ’80s new wave music. But it wasn’t until years later — at the suggestion of a mutual friend — that they teamed up to make music and what resulted was She Wants Revenge. Their music is inspired as much by pop-rock royalty, Prince, as by those British goth-fathers of rock, Bauhaus.

The pair will get a chance to bring their music to the masses this weekend at the mega seventh annual Coachella festival near Indio. Warfield is excited about being part of a festival that features the best in new- and old-school alternative bands. Coachella is a great stepping stone for any band with the desire to become a household name — for it, 50,000 people camp out for two days in the blistering desert sun to catch some rays, while tapping their toes to hottest names in rock.

Warfield promises that those coming to see them will be happy with their time slot, which is a highly guarded secret up until the day of the show. He’s also hoping that after this performance, the music of She Wants Revenge will be a secret no longer.

Karla S. Blume is an arts writer living in Los Angeles.

Spoof Rockers Pen ‘UnOrthodox’ Tunes


Two minutes into a What I Like About Jew concert, singer Rob Tannenbaum hears chairs scraping and feet trudging toward the exit.

“We tell people, ‘Look around, because not all of you are going to be here until the end,'” says the band’s co-founder, Sean Altman.

Never mind that the Boston Globe called the musical comedy duo “racy and funny and smart and affectionate … for a generation of fully assimilated Jews who grew up on punk rock and ‘South Park.'” The chair-scrapers apparently do not appreciate the band’s hillariously crass, politically incorrect, subversively funny and X-rated musical chutzpah, which makes Adam Sandler look like a choirboy. Consider “Reuben the Hook-Nosed Reindeer,” who is forced to buy Santa’s toys wholesale; the circumcision ditty, “A Little Off the Top”; and “Hot Jewish Chicks,” who put “the whore in hora.”

“They Tried to Kill Us, We Survived, Let’s Eat,” adds dandruff and acne to the list of Passover plagues.

The artists, who have performed together for seven years, will play for the first time in Los Angeles on April 20 and 21 at Tangier Lounge in Los Feliz. The revue will include a performance by Jewish comic Morgan Murphy (a writer on “The Jimmy Kimmel Show”) and songs from the band’s new CD, “UnOrthodox.”

What I Like About Jew is more irreverent than unorthodox, which is typical of artists immersed in what critics call the bourgeoning “hipster Heeb” movement. Like Jewcy T-shirts and the “Jewsploitation” flick, “The Hebrew Hammer,” their work sets out to replace images of the neurotic nebbish with an new persona: the cocky, hard-ass Jew.

“We’re having fun rejecting, embracing and acknowledging the stereotypes,” Altman, who is in his 40s, says from his Harlem brownstone.

“Our music appeals to Jews who connect to their roots by watching edgy comics like Sarah Silverman and Jon Stewart,” Tannenbaum, also 40-something, says from his Manhattan office. “People have criticized hipster Heebs for being glib and superficial and not getting Jews into synagogue, but we don’t have a cattle prod, which is what we’d need to get these Jews into temple. What we can do is share with them some of our own experiences about post-assimilationist Jewish identity.”

Actually, the musicians have lured Jews into shul, when they’ve played the occasional synagogue gig. Rabbi Lia Bass scheduled them for a concert at her Conservative, Arlington, Va., shul in 2005 — in part to draw a younger demographic to her congregation.

“The band has its pulse on the unaffiliated Jewish community,” she explains. But she was sure to warn congregants “that the show was raunchy and that they should come at their own risk.”

Rabbi Chava Koster wasn’t sure she’d be able to sit through her first What I Like About Jew concert at a club several years ago.

“But it proved to be an eye-opening take on American Jewry,” recalls the spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Reform B’nai Israel-The Village Temple. When the act later played at her synagogue, “people first squirmed, then you heard furtive laughter, and then roaring at the jokes about Christmas envy and factory bar mitzvahs.”

“Today I Am a Man” mocks the bandmates’ own bar mitzvahs, both of whom were so secular, “mine almost had a pork bar,” Tannenbaum says.

Tannenbaum met Altman at Brown University, where the two were (and still are) a study in contrasts. Altman, a professional musician and former front man of the band, Rockapella, is 6-foot-5, jovial and happily married to an opera singer he met on the Jewish online dating service, JDate. Tannenbaum is shorter, with a wicked wit, a day job as music editor of Blender magazine and a grudge against the 18 women who consecutively rejected him on JDate.

What I Like About Jew began in 1998, when Tannenbaum showed Altman a song he had written after performing in a punk-metal band in order to write about the experience for Details magazine. It was a December dilemma diatribe, satirically sung like a Nat King Cole ballad, which cheekily cites a certain anti-Semitic slur.

The impressed Altman immediately invited Tannenbaum to perform the song with him at a downtown Christmas concert, where the club’s manager dourly approached them during intermission. Some patrons had been offended by their use of the K-word, the manager said. Undaunted, the musicians enunciated the epithet even more clearly during their next set.

“I thought, ‘African American rappers aren’t afraid to use the N-word; gays aren’t afraid to say, “fag,” but Jews are still terrified of the term, “kike,”‘” Tannenbaum recalls. “It’s part of that old Jewish fear that if you stand out, someone’s going to take you to Auschwitz. But we wanted to deflate the power of the slur by not making it taboo anymore.”

The performers decided to stand out during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal by writing “Hanukah With Monica,” which describes “Eight whole days of goin’ nuts/on the presidential putz.” The clever ditty received national radio airplay in 1999 and put the band on the Manhattan club circuit.

The musicians went on to play sold-out crowds and receive mostly rave reviews everywhere, from the Village Voice to the Washington Post. (“If I were a rich man, I’d plunk down the cash to see this show,” The New York Times quipped).

Their repertoire now includes “J-Date,” where “everyone’s funny and everyone’s smart/and 20 pounds heavier than they say they are.” “Let’s Eat” mocks the musicians’ own ignorance about Judaism: “We were slaves to pharaoh in Egypt; the year was 1492. Hitler had just invaded Poland. Madonna had just become a Jew.”

Then there’s “Jews for Jesus,” which came about when the songwriters mused that while they’re unobservant, they haven’t sunk so low as to become Christian. The Ramones-inspired tirade attacks the sect with punk rock vitriol: “Jews for Jesus, I wanna chop you into pieces … I hope you get lots of diseases. You’re born again, that’s nice. Stay dead — that’s my advice.”

But while the performers are bad boys, “We’re bad Jewish boys, which means we’re not really so bad,” Tannenbaum insists. True, there are those chair-scrapers and the reviewer who couldn’t decide if the Rat Pack-style “Chicks” was racist or misogynistic.

Altman insists the song is affectionate in both ways: “We present the characters as buffoons, like Archie Bunker in ‘All in the Family,’ so you can’t really take them seriously.”

What I Like About Jew will play the Tangier Lounge, 2138 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, April 20 at 7:30 p.m. and April 21 at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tickets are $15. For tickets, contact (323) 666-8666 or www.virtuous.com. The “UnOrthodox” CD is in stores.

The “UnOrthodox” CD is in stores or can be purchased online at www.whatilikeaboutjew.com.

 

Rocker Grrrl Memoir Charts Swift Decline


Zeroing in on 30, rocker Jen Trynin gave herself an ultimatum: either make it now or get out of the game.

Her youthful looks belied the years she spent slogging through the Boston music scene without much to show for it besides too many hangovers. Having graduated from what she called the “Sunday-through-Wednesday-night-folk/acoustic-chick-band wasteland” to the edgier world of indie rock, Trynin decided it was time for her dues paying to start paying off. Either that or grow up, get a real job and, in the process, mollify her Jewish parents, a lawyer and a psychologist, respectively.

And then a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. Trynin’s musical talent — and an attitude as snarly as her Gibson guitar — intersected with the female singer-songwriter zeitgeist of the early ’90s, precipitating a bidding war for her among major labels. At the dawn of the Lilith Fair era, the Oberlin College creative writing and philosophy graduate suddenly found herself courted by industry titans such as David Geffen and Danny Goldberg, former manager of her heroes Nirvana.

For a brief moment, Trynin was the Next Big Thing. And then it was all over.

“I was the big signing that year, and my record company tried to make me successful as quickly as possible,” she said in a phone interview from her suburban Boston home. “But nobody thought about what would happen if it didn’t work.”

Now older, wiser and happier, Trynin has drawn on her experiences to pen a moving memoir devoid of bitterness but filled with hard-nosed truths about the music industry. Leavened with wit and written with the sharp observations that characterized her best lyrics, “Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be: A Rock & Roll Fairy Tale” (Harcourt) is a heartbreaking account of her journey through what she calls “the belly of the beast.” Stitched together with the help of old journal entries and phone messages saved on her answering machine, Trynin’s memoir possesses a near cinematic quality that captures the stench of the smoky, beer-stained clubs she often played and the rollercoaster ride that was her career.

And before the fall, there was the ascent.

In 1994, Trynin self-released “Cockamamie,” a pop-tinged album that generated a tidal wave of interest among music industry execs hungry to land a promising female artist. The frenzy to sign her grew even more desperate when the suits realized they were competing against one another. Suddenly, managers, entertainment lawyers and music label presidents, who, just months earlier, had refused her calls, materialized at gigs with big smiles and bigger promises.

“Hello, Jennifer Trynin. You should go with us because we’re small or we’re big or we have other successful acts just like you or we don’t have any other acts like you,” Trynin writes of life at the height of Tryninmania. “We’re the best, best, best and I know you must be hearing this all the time, but I’m sincere, I’m genuine, I get it: your record/voice/songs/real deal/special/substance.”

Labels put her up in four-star hotels; flew her first-class, and flattered her like a prom queen. At Mercury Records, an exec handed her a bat and encouraged her to take a whack at a piñata hanging from a light fixture. When Trynin did, large gumballs emblazoned with, “Jennifer Come With Us,” fell to the ground. Geffen told her that she reminded him of Linda Ronstadt.

And then there was the Goldberg seduction. After praising “Cockamamie,” the then-chief executive of Warner Bros. Records told her that he missed the personal connection he had with Nirvana’s lead singer, the late Kurt Cobain: “I was just thinking how if you go with Warner Bros., that maybe I’d have a chance to have another relationship like I had with Kurt, you know.”

Those magical words, combined with a generous deal that netted her a nearly $1 million advance for three records, persuaded Trynin to go with Warner Bros.

Given her newfound buzz in the rock world, her overbearing-but-loving Jewish mother stopped hinting that she had wasted her life by not working at Goldman Sachs or The New York Times or by teaching at Harvard. Trynin also felt a certain amount of pride in finally getting to the big leagues.

But Trynin felt less than exhilarated. What if she lacked the energy or talent to truly make it? What if the journey to the major labels turned out to be more meaningful than the arrival?

Trynin’s misgivings would prove prescient. Warner Bros. head Goldberg left soon after her signing, leaving Trynin without her biggest and most powerful booster. Soon thereafter, she found herself on an endless tour of faceless clubs in faceless cities, subsisting on booze, cigarettes, junk food and an ill-fated affair with her hipper-than-thou bassist. At every stop, a long-lost boyfriend or friend or friend of a friend wanted to reminisce about the good old days, wanted a piece of her.

As a Jewish woman trained to speak her mind, Trynin alienated some Warner Bros. execs by questioning their marketing and advertising strategies, and by her refusal to play nice-nice with them or anyone. The wear and tear of her nomadic existence on the road to nowhere made her even crankier. When a persistent fan encroached on her space, she whipped out a pen and surprised him by signing his nose. (She later learned that her unwitting victim was a DJ.) During a visit with a clueless disc jockey who vanished after spinning her quasi hit, “Better Than Nothing,” Trynin rebelled against the inanity of it all by interviewing herself, playing the dual roles of DJ and Jen Trynin.

“So Jen, about how long do you think we’re supposed to be doing this solo interview thing?”

“Not very often,” I said, craning my head around hoping that someone, somewhere in the station, might actually be listening to the broadcast and come help me out. “In fact, it’s getting a little spooky in here.”

“Is it?” I said. “How so?”

“Well,” I said, “I’m feeling a little like I’m in the end of that movie “Westworld,” like this station is run by machines who just look like human beings and they’re all short-circuiting somewhere out in the back, and any minute now Yul Brynner is going to come crashing through that plate-glass window and kill me.”

Trynin’s shenanigans didn’t endear her to her record company. None of that would have mattered, though, if “Cockamamie” had gone platinum or at least gold. But the album stalled, despite Warner’s marketing muscle, a slew of gushing reviews and the imprimatur of taste-maker Rolling Stone, which, touted “Cockamamie” as Hot Debut in its Hot Summer issue. Ticket sales for her concerts fell off, and a planned European tour never materialized. Just a year after her much ballyhooed arrival, the Wall Street Journal used her as an example of new overpaid, over-hyped artists who failed to deliver.

After a much-needed break and reassessment of priorities, Trynin laid off the booze and cigarettes and recorded a second album. “Gun Shy, Trigger Happy,” like her first effort, garnered stellar reviews, with Entertainment Weekly picking it as the No. 2 Record of the Year, behind U2’s “Pop.” Unlike the first time around, Trynin dropped her attitude and made nice. But 1997 wasn’t 1994; her time had passed. When Warner Bros. declined to release to radio the single, “Writing Notes,” a personal favorite, Trynin finally realized her bosses had moved on to the Next Big Thing. Her records, like her career, would soon languish in the bargain bin.

So dispirited, burned out and disillusioned did she become that she accepted a buyout to not record her contractually guaranteed third album. Two years would pass before she picked up a guitar again.

What went wrong? Well, superstar Alanis Morissette burst onto the scene around the same time as Trynin. Signed to a Warner Bros. subsidiary label, her success diverted away attention and sales. Trynin also said the company’s marketing approach veered from selling her as a sensitive singer-songwriter to a tough-as-nails rocker chick, sending consumers a confusing and muddled message.

But she also looks inward for an explanation.

“To be a rock star, you just really have to believe you’re the [stuff], even if late at night you have doubts,” she said. “You need super confidence to the point of narcissism. Although I’m incredibly self-involved, I don’t cross that line. If you don’t, you’re just an artist.”

Trynin has since reclaimed her life. She took courses at Harvard Extension, got married, penned her memoir, which, she said, allowed her to “neutralize the past.” She also joined a local band, singing back-up vocals and playing rhythm guitar. Music became fun again.

Three years ago, Trynin gave birth to a baby girl, prompting her to re-examine her Jewish roots. Although married to a non-practicing Catholic, Trynin is considering raising her daughter Jewish. Unlike other faiths, Judaism is “not fake and false. There are no silly bunnies,” she said, adding that the religion’s bedrock values, including its emphasis on questioning authority, also appeal to her.

Trynin said she has few regrets. She would even make the same choices, because they led her to her current contented place. Still, Trynin misses imagining a future rich with rock-‘n’-roll fantasies.

“The loudest silence of all is the absence of my old daydream, the one where I used to picture myself in the future, sauntering through the streets of some city, freewheeling, beautiful, unafraid,” she writes. “What I miss most is no longer having the dreamy vision of myself floating somewhere on the horizon. Because the truth is, once my future finally arrived, I was still just me – a little nervous, kind of plain, always preparing for the worst.”

 

Shticking It to the Classics


My 5-year-old thinks “My Yiddishe Mama,” the soulful ballad immortalized by Sophie Tucker in 1928, is a rock anthem. The version he learned didn’t come from a dusty old record, but from a CD released in 2004 by the group, Yiddishe Cup, called “Meshugeneh Mambo.”

This is not your grandmother’s Jewish music. Like other recent Jewish parody CDs, “Meshugeneh Mambo” carries on the tradition of Jewish humor popularized by such forbearers as Mickey Katz and Allan Sherman. Although the lounge acts of the Catskills have all but vanished, a few intrepid souls are bringing a modern brand of Borscht Belt humor to a whole new generation.

Yiddishe Cup’s album combines soulful klezmer ballads, doo-wop and, of course, Latin flair. The title track sets the tone, promising “No frailech [joyful] hora can compare/ to shaking your Yiddishe dierriere/ to the lovely Mesugheneh Mambo.”

The group’s rendition of “My Yiddishe Mama” throws in homage to James Bond’s “Goldfinger” and the theme song to “The Patty Duke Show.” Listen closely and you will hear spoofs of “Star Trek,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Outer Limits” scattered about in the traditional melodies and remakes of comedy routines created in the 1950s.

Newer artists like Yiddishe Cup have learned from the old comedic masters that classic Jewish humor relies on cleverness rather than anger. The best comics “tell a story that is visual and makes you think,” said Simon Rutberg of Hatikvah International on Fairfax Avenue. “Using the word ‘shmuck’ doesn’t make it Jewish.”

Instead, skilled artists allow listeners to recognize themselves and the universal truths behind the tales and tunes.

One artist who stresses ruach (spirit) over raunch is Michael Lange. The director, whose credits include “Life Goes On” and “The X-Files,” has released several titles under his Silly Music label. In November, Lange will release “A Kosher Christmas,” a collection of popular yuletide melodies coupled with decidedly Jewish-themed lyrics. It’s a strange experience indeed to hear the traditional orchestrations — think bells, trumpets and choral harmonies — as singers croon about litigation, food, guilt and family (categories that Lange refers to as “the four cornerstones of the Jewish experience.”)

In “Such a Loyal Son Am I,” a take-off on “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” a mother and son alternate kvetching about one another: (Him:) Not so easy with this mother/Still a loyal son am I. (Her:) Not a doctor like his brother/Such a shanda [shame] I should cry. “Greensleeves” is re-imagined as “Greenstein,” an ode to the singer’s childhood crush, Tiffany Greenstein.

And, of course, food plays a significant role, as in “Harvey Weisenberg” (to the tune of “Good King Wenceslas”): “[which] Soup would he pick, wondered he:/Lentil, borscht or chicken/As he ate he thought with glee:/This is finger lickin’….

Lange previously created two Broadway musical parodies. “Goys and Dolls,” released in 2002, uses the original melodies of “Guys and Dolls” to tell the story of a young man who begins dating a non-Jewish woman, while “Say Oy Vey” re-imagines “Cabaret” as the story of two seniors who find romance at synagogue bridge night.

Musicals are also the targets of spoofs created by the group Shlock Rock, whose founder, Lenny Solomon, hails from a long line of cantors. Their 2003 release, “Almost on Broadway,” transforms “Maria” from “West Side Story” to “Tekia”: “Tekia! I’ve just heard the sound called Tekia!”

Shlock Rock boasts 23 albums to its credit, ranging from original compositions to children’s music to parody. The group’s nine other parody CD’s display an impressive range of musical styles, Judaic knowledge and humor. In one, for example, Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” becomes “49 Days to Count the Omer,” while in another, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin morphs into “Learning to Do the Hora.” And you’ve got to wonder what kind of mind would think of transforming the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” into “Rabbi Akiva”: “Rabbi Akiva had straw for a bed/Love thy neighbor like thyself is what he said.”

While they’re amusing to listen to, be forewarned: The lyrics stick with you. So when the time comes for my son to join his kindergarten classmates for the annual holiday assembly in December, he’ll be easy to pick out. He’ll be the one singing “Goys Rule the World.”

 

Saved His Soul With Rock ‘n’ Roll


 

Rock ‘n’ roll saved Gary Stewart.

It’s not that he ever felt desperate enough to end his life, but music played a major role in keeping him out of the abyss. The Beach Boys’ masterwork “Pet Sounds” made him realize that others shared his feelings of loneliness, alienation and despondency. Listening to the Clash rail against injustice in short, angry bursts of energy helped him vent his rage. The cerebral musings of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads taught him that things aren’t always as they seem, and that truth, beauty and art often reveal themselves in mysterious ways.

For more than 35 years, Stewart has lived as a disciple of rock ‘n’ roll — with a dollop of soul, funk and country thrown in for good measure. Ever since he built a radio in junior high electric shop and tuned in to the late, great 93 KHJ, Stewart has passionately spread the word — literally.

The new chief music officer for Apple Computer and former senior vice president of A&R at Rhino Records, Stewart has left an indelible mark on pop culture in the past quarter century, even if he is largely unknown outside the industry. His work has rescued talented artists from obscurity, taken listeners on a wild musical journey from raucous ’50s rock to sultry ’70s soul and beyond, and rehabilitated the reputations of once dismissed artists.

“I would love to be remembered as someone who turned people on to great music, art, culture or ideas that they otherwise wouldn’t know about,” he said.

At Apple, Stewart oversees the newly revamped Essentials Section that catalogues artists’ best songs. Until recently, Stewart worked at Rhino. There, he and other music maniacs transformed the company from a niche player that put out novelty records to one that popularized box sets, anthologies and greatest-hits packages with high-quality art work, extensive liner notes, rare photos and an obsessive attention to detail.

Seated in his cozy Santa Monica home, a black-clad Stewart looked and acted the part of the music junkie he is. With the enthusiasm of a teenager, the 48-year-old musicologist gushed when discussing his favorite albums. Stacks of Rolling Stone, Uncut, Magnet and other music magazines weighed down a coffee table. An estimated 5,000 CDs fill his record room, which, the single Stewart half-joked, have impressed more than a few women visitors “who were equally unimpressed during my high school and college days.”

Stewart analyzes, dissects and consumes music with the zeal of a Torah scholar, always striving for deeper meaning and understanding. His affability notwithstanding, he trusts his instincts and won’t compromise his beliefs for the sake of consensus. Too much is at stake. That meant no Bangles or Squeeze on a recent ’80s box set, no matter how much he loved the bands or how hard his Rhino colleagues lobbied him. The reason: They weren’t alternative enough.

“I’m a ‘no thank you’ kind of bully,” Stewart admitted. “In the end, I’ll say this is how it’s going to be, which I think is a necessary ingredient for good art.”

A self-described workaholic, he has produced or co-produced 400 CDs ranging from the ’60s pop group The Turtles to country rocker Gram Parsons to the recent deluxe reissues of his favorite artist, Costello.

In recent years, Stewart has taken listeners on a veritable journey through the music of the second half of the 20th century. His 10 Rhino box sets include the bestseller “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968,” “No Thanks! The ’70s Punk Rebellion” and 2004’s “Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the ’80s Underground.” A third volume of “Nuggets” is slated for a summer release, and a compilation of overlooked girl groups from the ’60s — Stewart’s final Rhino release — will appear later this year.

“He has an amazing knowledge that blows my mind,” said Richard Foos, Rhino’s cofounder and current chief executive of Shout! Factory, which reissues DVDs and CDs. “From The Beatles on, he knows, in incredible detail, music from every year, whether popular or unpopular, underground, alternative, whatever.”

Stewart’s work has helped rescue greatest hits and anthology collections from dusty car wash bargain bins and elevate them to respectability on the shelves on the nation’s biggest retailers, said Bill Inglot, a producer who digitally remasters CDs for Rhino and other Warner Music Group labels. Whenever a 23-year-old buys a Ray Charles or Doobie Brothers record, Stewart and his colleagues at Rhino deserve an assist for “helping to spearhead an appreciation for great old music and bringing it to new generations of young people,” said Inglot, who has collaborated with Stewart on hundreds of projects.

Stewart, a cultural Jew who attended Sunday school in his youth, takes pride in his heritage and its emphasis on fairness, justice and improving the world. In that tradition, he has contributed both time and money to causes close to his heart. For years, Stewart has served on the board of the progressive Liberty Hill Foundation, which helps combat poverty and injustice in Los Angeles. At Rhino — a company founded by Jews so committed to tikkun olam, or healing the world, that employees had time off for community service — Stewart headed a committee that encouraged volunteerism and philanthropy.

His religious background might have shaped his philanthropic impulses, Stewart said, but he sees little connection between it and chosen profession. Indeed, references to The Sex Pistols, The Sonics or The Slits never appear in Jewish liturgy.

On a subconscious level, though, Judaism seems to have influenced him. As in his philanthropic endeavors, Stewart passionately roots for the underdog. It offends his sense of fairness and justice that some great acts have failed to receive their due. As much as Stewart enjoys Elvis Presley or The Rolling Stones, nothing gives him greater satisfaction than turning people on to cool undiscovered music.

That’s why Stewart gives friends free CDs of beloved, under-the-radar artists like the Pernice Brothers. Or why he toiled so hard on the recently released career retrospective of Roky Erickson, a veteran singer who made a ripple in the ’60s with psychedelic rockers The Thirteenth Floor Elevators before a drug bust landed him in Texas mental institution.

“He has rescued countless artists and their music from the dustbin of history and brought them back to public consciousness,” said Steve Greenberg, a long-time friend and president of Columbia Records in New York.

Stewart grew up in middle-class Mar Vista, a ’70s version of an “Ozzie and Harriet” neighborhood with manicured lawns and well-tended houses. His father worked as an electrical engineer and his mother taught arts and crafts. In many ways, his was a typical childhood. Stewart was neither the most popular nor least popular kid in school and enjoyed hanging out with friends.

What separated him was his love of music.

At 13, he bought his first album, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Cosmo’s Factory.” The band’s dirty, swampy sound spoke to him. Hooked, the young Stewart began making weekly pilgrimages to the Do-Re-Mi record store. He rarely left without an armful of records. In time, Stewart had assembled one of the best music collection’s at Venice High School.

His knowledge of rock would help him land a job at the venerable Rhino Records shop on Westwood Boulevard and forever change his life.

The year was 1977. Stewart, then a college student at Cal State Northridge, found himself at the West Coast’s epicenter of the burgeoning punk/new wave movement. Hired as a Rhino sales clerk and later promoted to store manager, he remembers Devo dropping off the group’s first single and Alice Cooper and Bryan Ferry sightings. When New York’s Ramones swung by during tours, an awed Stewart and his colleagues showered members with free discs. (Twenty years later, Stewart would co produce the group’s 2000 two-disc greatest hits, “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go! The Ramones Anthology,” a lauded collection that some say played a role in the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

“I caught something that was the equivalent of the birth of rock and roll, the British Invasion, the Summer of Love or any great movement,” Stewart said of his time at the store in the late ’70s. “I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Stewart’s encyclopedic knowledge didn’t go unnoticed. After Rhino launched a record label, his bosses named him head of sales and later a vice president of A&R. To keep his edge, Stewart listened incessantly to music and prowled local clubs scouting talent.

His obsessiveness made him a highly valued employee but also an occasional nuisance, Rhino cofounder Foos quiped. Sometimes, Stewart would insist on delaying a set until Rhino could license just the right tune. He often prevailed. Good thing, too.

“He has impeccable taste,” said Shawn Amos, a former Rhino director of A&R and a current Shout! Factory vice president. “In many ways, he was the heart and soul of Rhino.”

But Stewart’s heart and soul occasionally trumped his common sense.

In the late 80s, he signed a garage rock band to the Rhino label at the height of synth-pop revolution. Though critically lauded, the group never clicked with the record-buying public. Stewart also managed a band called The Last, although he had no prior managerial experience. Despite Stewart’s huge financial, emotional and time investment, his efforts failed to secure the band a major-label record deal; The Last broke up.

“I remember them very well. My bank account remembers them very vividly,” Stewart said, with a laugh. “But it was a good clean-out. I was part of getting across good music.”

His fidelity to music has taken more than a toll on his net worth. Without going into much detail, Stewart said he has made many sacrifices for his career. He has never married.

Still, Stewart said his time at Rhino made it all worth it, even if his 27-year tenure just ended.

Although he declined to say anything negative about his former employer, several former company executives said life at Rhino slowly changed after media titan Time Warner fully acquired it in 1998. They said that although still a wonderful place, especially compared to other record companies, Rhino grew more corporate and bureaucratic.

When the company moved from its Westside office to Burbank in 1999, Stewart didn’t make the trek over the hill to the Valley. Instead, he became a consultant, a position he held until last year.

These days, Stewart devotes all his energy to Apple and iTunes. Like the teenager who used to make a weekly treks to Do-Re-Mi, the song remains the same for him.

“Yeah, it’s a little weird being so much older than most folks at concerts or record stores, but I’m not the only person who still loves rock and roll and culture who’s over 40,” he said. “If I can’t be excited about religion, then I shouldn’t have the job I have.”

 

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Aaron Samson wrote and stars in “Not Dead Yet,” a piece inspired by his grandfather’s memoirs of his Russian past: working for Leon Trotsky, the consequent threat of execution by Russia’s communist regime and his quick escape to the United States where he began a new life. The one-man show follows the journey of a grandson, Jacob Samson, back to Russia to find his roots and the missing pieces of the story his grandfather Leo wrote down. It plays today at the Elephant Lab.Runs Saturdays, through Sept. 18. 8 p.m. $10. 1078 Lillian Way, Los Angeles. (323) 878-2377.

Sunday

Might wanna throw some buttered popcorn into the picnic basket tonight for the Hollywood Bowl’s movie night program, “The Big Picture.” John Mauceri conducts the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in selections from MGM/UA movie scores, as scenes from the films are projected on the Bowl’s giant screen. The James Bond series, “Rocky,” “The Pink Panther” and “West Side Story” are some of the featured films.7:30 p.m. $3-$88. 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (213) 480-3232 (for tickets).

Monday

Horn in on High Holiday fun with shofar-making activities this week. The Hebrew Discovery Center holds a Shofar Factory Party on Sunday for kids ages 5 and up, while Calabasas Shul holds a shofar-making workshop at the local Albertsons today.HDC: Sept. 5, Noon. $7 (per child, include slice of pizza and refreshments). (818) 348-4432. Calabasas Shul: Sept. 6, 5-6:30 p.m. $5 (per shofar). (818) 591-7485.

Tuesday

The Mexican Jewish community isn’t one that gets much ofa spotlight, but for filmmaker Guita Shyfter, it made sense to focus on her ownroots and community. “Like a Bride” (“Novia Que Te Vea”) is the result. Thefilm’s uncommon subject matter is made more unique by its treatment: the storyof two women friends coming of age in 1960s Mexico City is told primarilythrough dialogue in Ladino and Spanish, with some Hebrew and Yiddish, as well.It is newly released on DVD. $17.96. www.amazon.com

.

Wednesday

Klezmer goes upbeat in the latest CD by Yiddishe Cup,”Meshugeneh Mambo.” Six parody tracks pay tribute to klezmer comedian MickeyKatz, with the rest offering up original or reworked “neo-Borscht Belt klezmercomedy” tunes, and the titles say it all: “K’nock Around the Clock,” “I Am A Manof Constant Blessings” and “Second Avenue Square Dance.” $15. www.yiddishecup.com .

Thursday

Sports nuts despair not. With the close of this summer’s Olympic Games also comes the opening of “Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?” at USC Fisher Gallery. The exhibition features photographs of women from the 1890s to today participating in sports from hunting to ping-pong to soccer. Creator Jane Gottesman has compiled images from myriad sources, including the Associated Press and various renown photographers including Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, April Saul and Annie Leibowitz.Runs through Oct. 30. Noon-5 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). Harris Hall, 823 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 740-4561.

Friday

The Nuart goes behind the music tonight, presenting the L.A. premiere of “End of the Century,” a documentary about the seminal punk rock band, The Ramones. From their interpersonal disputes to their struggles for fame, the doc takes a hard look at the hard-living band that arguably failed to achieve the recognition they deserved until long after they’d split.11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 281-8223.

‘Lucky’ Friends


Since they met at a mommy and me 13 years ago, Adam Schlesinger and Sean Abramson have been coming up with innovative schemes together, such as the time they sold novelty items like Whoopie Cushions and electrified hand buzzers. (They pulled in $100.)

But now the two recent graduates of Sinai Akiba Academy are onto something bigger and better. Their latest venture — a simple plastic guitar pick on a ball chain called “Lucky Pix,” selling for $10 — seems to be catching on.

Some high-powered connections forged through the boys’ parents landed them an appearance on Fox’s “Good Day L.A.” and placed some of their Lucky Pix around the necks of celebrities. Intuition, a trend-setting Web boutique known to cater to celebrities, is the sole outlet for Lucky Pix, giving the boys the kind of publicity and panache other retailers covet.

Schlesinger and Abramson, whose families are longtime members of Sinai Temple, are donating 25 percent of all sales to children’s charities.

“It was Adam’s idea to give to charity, and we thought that would be great,” Sean said. “By giving luck to others, you also bring luck to yourself.”

Both boys play guitar with Raw Material, a rock band at Sinai, and Sean says he has one pick he considers his “lucky” one that helps make his music come together. The boys researched the idea themselves, designed a logo and a found a manufacturer for the first several hundred picks in tortoise-shell brown, hot pink, turquoise and black.

Those have long since sold out and the next order of 2,000 is already on the way.

And the boys are about to meet a whole bunch of new teenage necks from which to hang Lucky-Pix. Both boys are attending Milken Community High School next year and Camp Ramah this summer.

“We’re really excited because this has a lot of potential for us to be able to donate a lot and help a lot of kids,” Adam said.

To view or purchase Lucky Pix, visit www.lucky-pix.com .

The New Color of Rock


Does New York’s Orthodox Jewish rock band Blue Fringe have groupies? “It’s not really sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” lead singer Dov Rosenblatt, 22, said. “One father e-mailed us and he wrote it reminded him of ‘Beatlemania.'”

About 4,000 fans attended the Yeshiva University-originating quartet’s Passover weekend performance in South Florida.

Rosenblatt told The Journal that the group’s style is “pop rock with a lot of funk influence. The lyrics are Jewish, but the music could be stuff you hear on the radio.”

Blue Fringe performs at a Yom Ha’Atzmaut concert April 26 at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, followed by a May 29 appearance at a Southern California regional Shabbaton of the National Council of Synagogue Youth. Blue Fringe’s debut album last year, “My Awakening,” sold 10,000 copies.

Rosenblatt, one of Jewish Week Editor Gary Rosenblatt’s three children, studies psychology and music at Yeshiva University. Two and a half years ago, an invitation to play at a Jewish student event at the University of Pennsylvania found Dov Rosenblatt forming Blue Fringe with Yeshiva University psych major/drummer Danny Zwillenberg, music major/guitarist Avi Hoffman and psych major/bassist Hayyim Danzig. They played last month at Yeshiva’s “Pesachpalooza,” and also have performed in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue.

The group joins Jewish-identified bands such as Soulfarm and Moshav in advancing Jewish rock.

“We’re sold in Lakewood, [N.J.], which is a yeshiva community,” Rosenblatt said. “And then we get e-mails from kids who say they don’t listen to Jewish music at all, but they like us. There’s no reason why high school kids can’t have in their CD book Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses and all of us.”

The April 26 performance at Beth Jacob, 9030 W. Olympic
Blvd., Beverly Hills, begins at 7 p.m. with doors opening at 6:15. For tickets,
$18, call (310) 248-2450. For more information on the Shabbaton, call (310)
229-9000 ext. 2. For more information about the group, visit

Etan G — A Nice Jewish Homeboy


"Yo, welcome to my crib."

It’s a greeting one might expect, say, in a hip-hop movie, but is slightly jarring from this friendly, compact boychick wearing a knitted yarmulke in the doorway of his Pico-Robertson apartment.

The boychick is Etan G, who calls himself The Jewish Rapper and whose CD, "South Side of the Synagogue," features songs such as "Yo Yo Yarmulke" and "Hava Na Wha?" Even so, it’s startling when he ushers a visitor into a living room that appears to be decorated by the set dressers from both "Yentl" and "Shaft."

Across from the Shabbos candlesticks is a chocolate-colored velvet couch draped with fluffy white furs. There’s a "davening station" heaped with tallitot, tefillin and yarmulkes knitted by Etan’s "honeybabies … my girls," the 30ish G says. There’s the "pimpass" outfit he wore to the Grammys (rust bell bottoms, Navy polyester shirt) where he refrained from eating the non-kosher food.

"While I’m an observant Jew, I’m definitely the coolest pimp out there, ah-ite," he says, using a hipster term for all right. "I’m the man who brings the house down."

G plans to do just that in a Chabad of Irvine Purim concert March 6, when he’ll rap, breakdance and sing backup vocals with Shlock Rock, a band he’s been performing with since he was a teenager. The show will include tunes from Shlock’s 23 albums, such as the original rap song, "Be Good, Be Cool, Be Jewish."

G and Shlock’s Lenny Solomon — a kind of Jewish Weird Al Yankovic — are a study in contrasts. The earnest, 43-year-old Solomon looks like exactly what he is: a nice Jewish ex-accountant from Queens, "white-bread Orthodox," as he puts it. Yet the singer and keyboardist has achieved acclaim in Jewish circles for clever parodies of pop hits such as The Beach Boys’ "Help Me Rhonda" ("Help Me Rambam") and the Village People’s "Macho Man" ("Matza Man"). He’s also released CDs of original and children’s music and says his "whole being is devoted to spreading Jewish identity."

G, meanwhile, is flashy, garrulous, extroverted, a natural schmoozer and storyteller. He colorfully describes appearing on the Howard Stern show, prompting the shock jock to joke, "I can see why Jews aren’t in the rap business."

In 2002, Hits magazine lauded G for helping to expand "the rise of Hebe-Hop" and "the notion of ethnic flava originally essayed by the likes of the Beastie Boys and M.O.T."

But in person, G seems more focused on presenting the kind of cocky, macho image proffered by mainstream rappers such as Dr. Dre. Like that artist, he plays down his married status, citing his "girls," until a reporter opens a photo album and sees a beaming G in his wedding kittel. The busted G blushes, laughs and politely requests that this detail, and his impending fatherhood, is omitted from the article. (Sorry, Etan.)

Unlike Solomon, he’s hoping to cross over into the mainstream music business.

Despite their differences, the rapper and the shlocker have co-written songs and toured the Jewish circuit together, at times in beat-up cars crowded with musicians and equipment. They’ve eaten whatever kosher food they could find on the road: "Sometimes a meal would be chocolate and potato chips from 7-11," Solomon recalls. "But we never compromised. It was always the letter of the law."

Their music also shares a message: "It’s Be Good, Be Cool, Be Jewish," Solomon says.

While G’s "crib" is in the Jewish hood of Pico-Robertson, Solomon’s is in Beit Shemesh, Israel, where the Zionist musician relocated in 1996. After a band rehearsal late one Tuesday night, he spoke to The Journal by phone to describe the roots of his shlock ‘n’ roll.

The Jewish part is genetic, he says. He’s descended from generations of cantors and grew up listening to his father, who was also an IRS agent, sing the signature pieces of famed chantors such as Moshe Koussevitzky. Solomon discovered the Beatles and Billy Joel courtesy of his friends; at 21, he formed his own Jewish rock group.

Although he majored in accounting as a practical measure at Queens College, Solomon had given that up by the time his band, Shlock Rock, and released a 1986 album of parodies composed for youth conventions.

It was behind the bandstand of a National Conference of Synagogue Youth concert in Baltimore that he met the then-13-year-old Etan G (né Goldman) in the early 1980s. The energetic teen seemed to have his boom box, a bar mitzvah gift, permanently glued to his shoulder.

"We’d be onstage performing and Etan would be down on the ground, breakdancing," Solomon recalls. "Gradually, he became part of the band."

Shlock’s 1987 "Purim Torah" album features two parodies penned by the 15-year-old Etan, including a Purim spoof of Falco’s "Rock Me Amadeus" called "Achashverosh."

As incense wafts in his bright yellow living room, G reflects that Shlock gave him "a forum, a place to fit in. He had felt himself to be a genetic "fluke" in his family of doctors, accountants, and Ivy League graduates. And he hadn’t felt particularly welcome at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, where he was frequently marched to the principal’s office for stunts such as wearing fake tzizit and davening with a "Grease" movie book hidden in his siddur.

"The teachers were always, ‘You need to do this my way,’ but their way was not my way," says G, who now has a master’s in education from Loyola Marymount.

After the first of several suspensions from yeshiva, the sixth-grade G landed in a predominantly African American public school where he discovered rhythm and blues. He began drawing graffiti art, listening to musicians such as Grandmaster Flash and practicing his own rap skills with Shlock Rock. He says he connected with black music because of the rhythm, the storytelling and the "underdog mentality."

But not everyone connected with G. At a party several years ago, a guest scoffed, "Who is this idiot and where does he think he’s from, the south side of the synagogue?" G recalls.

The Jewish rapper defiantly turned the insult into his 2002 album, in which the titular shul represents a fictitious place where iconoclasts like himself fit in.

At times he’s still dissed, he says — not by blacks, but by Jews who insist a Jewish rapper "isn’t legit."

Solomon, who’s faced criticism that Shlock’s parodies are sacrilegious, disagrees. "Jews have always borrowed from their musical environment," he says. "If a song has a Jewish message, it’s Jewish."

As an interview winds down in Pico-Robertson late one afternoon, G describes his next album, "Bringing Down the House," which is "about the party" but also about the legendary Third Temple.

"They say [it’s] gonna come down from the heavens, and a brother like me has the ability to assist in that bringing down," he says.

He sounds even more incongruous while extending his arms for a good-bye hug in his mezzuzahed doorway.

"Gimme some love," he says. "Everybody’s gotta give a brothah love."

Shlock Rock, with Etan G, will appear Sat., March 6, 7:30 p.m. at the Lake View Senior Center, 20 Lake Road, Irvine. For information and tickets, $18, call (949) 786-5000.

True Tales of the Tribe’s Rockers


For young American males of a certain generation, catching a Van Halen concert was a coming-of-age experience. So imagine Scott Benarde’s surprise when he learned firsthand that the band’s iconic lead singer shared his rite of passage — in the cultural sense.

Backstage at a 1986 show, Benarde, with his cousin Russell in tow, told David Lee Roth that attending the concert was his bar mitzvah gift to his young relative.

"That’s when I started learning to sing," Roth responded. "When I was studying for my bar mitzvah."

"Roth had said, in effect, that being Jewish mattered," Benarde realized.

Now, nearly two decades later, Benarde has written "Stars of David: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Jewish Stories" (Brandeis University Press, $29.95), which he will sign at this year’s music-minded Los Angeles Jewish Festival in Woodland Hills on Sept. 7 (see sidebar).

"Every book that exists out there on Jewish celebrities talks about their accomplishments, but not their Jewishness," Benarde, 50, told The Journal from his Florida home, where he resides with his wife and two children. "I became very frustrated and I wanted to take it a step farther: How did being Jewish make that accomplishment happen or influence them in that profession?"

With chapters organized by decades, "Stars" devotes chapters to some shopworn but necessary rock pioneers — Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Bob Dylan, Roth — as well as more eclectic entries: late T-Rex frontman Marc Bolan, Lee Oskar of WAR and Phish bassist Mike Gordon, suddenly topical after he was arrested Aug. 16 and charged with endangering the welfare of a minor.

"Stars" is rife with insights on the Orthodox Jewish upbringing of Bon Jovi’s keyboardist; the assimilation of Randy Newman’s family, which included movie composers Lionel, Emil and Alfred Newman; the hanukkiah one of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers packs when he hits the road; how Bruce Springsteen’s drummer loved attending Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, N.J., as a youth; and observing Shabbat while on tour with members of The Wallflowers, including Fairfax High alum Rami Jaffee.

Brushes with anti-Semitism and ignorance of the Jewish culture abound in many of the rockers’ pasts, whether it was Roth’s childhood years in Brookline, Mass., and Pasadena, or the Florida upbringing of former Heartbreaker Stan Lynch.

"Jews were a big mystery in Gainesville," said Lynch, who in Benarde’s book recalls knowing of only two other Jewish kids in high school.

"When people found out I was Jewish, they stood back in horror and delight," he says. "One guy wanted to shake my hand because he had never shaken a Jew’s hand before."

Roth — who devoted a chapter of his own autobiography to Jewish pride — felt that the social alienation that came with being Jewish made him work twice as hard to succeed.

"The funniest person I interviewed was Phoebe Snow," Benarde said. "If she wanted to retire tomorrow and do stand-up, she could do it."

Benarde was also alternately entertained and fascinated by Wendy Waldman, Kinky Friedman and Carol Kaye, who converted for marriage but, post-divorce, could not return to her original faith. Keith Reid of Procol Harum proved the most tense interview, as Benarde uncovered a man scarred by his parents’ Holocaust experience and his own brushes with anti-Semitism.

"The most surprising thing I learned," Benarde said, "was how many prominent Jewish musicians and songwriters have a connection to the Holocaust. I didn’t expect that."

In the Raphael chapter, it is revealed that the uncle of Willie Nelson’s harmonica player was imprisoned by Nazis for saying, "We Jews got through the Red Sea, we’ll get through the Brown[shirts]."

As with most laundry list books of this ilk, glaring omissions abound. The Beastie Boys (mentioned in passing) and producer Rick Rubin — architect of rap’s commercialization — are absent. MIAs also include KISS’ Israeli-born Gene Simmons; punk architects Jerry Hyman, a.k.a. Joey Ramone of The Ramones; Mick Jones of The Clash (outed as Jewish in Guy Oseary’s 2000 tome "Jews Who Rock"); and late Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak.

If certain subjects are missing, Benarde explained that it was not from a lack of trying.

"[Jane’s Addiction frontman] Perry Farrell and I were supposed to do an interview, but it never happened," Benarde said. "I tried to get Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley [of KISS], but I got nowhere. Mick Jones’ people said he really liked this idea, but he declined to do the interview."

Neil Diamond, Paul Simon and Rush singer Geddy Lee also proved elusive. Billy Joel would not give an interview, but did fact-check the material after Benarde wrote it.

"The only feedback I got was that I misspelled his mother’s maiden name," Benarde said.

He makes a few odd choices in his otherwise insightful book. A chapter on producer Don Was evolves into a de facto bio of Israeli singer Ofra Haza, whom Was worked with before her 2000 death. Younger readers might be let down by how incomplete the "Nineties and Beyond" section — the book’s skimpiest — feels.

And while Blood of Abraham never enjoyed a Beasties-level popularity, the militant Jewish rap outfit, discovered by NWA’s Eazy-E, is more revered by rap fans than like-minded, quasi-Wu-Tang Clan affiliate Remedy, which gets an entire chapter.

Nevertheless, books such as "Stars" continue to illuminate Jewish contributions to the pop culture.

"Non-Jewish readers and Jewish readers alike will get insight into what influences great songwriters and musicians," Benarde said. "Behind much of the music, there is a spirituality and morality and a lot of these musicians get it from their Judaism. Even if you don’t know it, behind the rock ‘n’ rolling, Judaism is at play."

Scott Benarde will sign copies of "Stars of David: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Jewish Stories" at the Young Adult’s Cabana at 2 p.m.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Rules at 2003 Valley Fest


The 11th biannual Los Angeles Jewish Festival, co-sponsored by The Jewish Federation and a host of Jewish organizations, synagogues and corporate sponsors, promises an eclectic lineup of rock and rock hybrids.

The Main Stage, sponsored by Countrywide, will include rockers Rick Recht and RebbeSoul; the folk/reggae-tinged Moshav Band; Golem, a New York-based klezmer/rock collective; the comical pop music entourage, The Nudniks; and the Purim-inspired, Temple Ahavat Shalom-spawned amalgam Sgt. Schlepper’s Purim Shpieler Band. The Los Angeles Jewish Symphony will also present excerpts from its upcoming “Symphony Sephardi.”

The Family Stage, sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, will welcome children’s entertainer Robbo; puppeteer Len Levitt; Emmy award-winning recording artist Dan Crow; and Ira Scott Levin, billed as “The Willy Wonka of Children’s Music.”

Among the activities offered at this year’s festival: interactive exhibits from synagogues and social service groups; young adult pavilions; the Israel Extreme Challenge adventure game; jewelry and Judaica stands; and kiosks cooking up exotic kosher foods.

This year, organizers anticipate attracting more than 30,000 attendees.

The Los Angeles Jewish Festival, known until recently as the Valley Jewish Festival, originally began as the Exodus Festival to drum up support and awareness for the rescue of Soviet Jews, under the leadership of The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee.

The event will continue to underscore Jewish values with a SOVA canned-food drive. This year’s social action theme, “World Jewry,” emphasizes what needs to be done to help Jews in Israel, Argentina and Eastern Europe.

The festival’s lead sponsors include the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, Laemmle Theatres, OPI, Western Bagel, Gelson’s, Union Bank of California, Auto Stiegler and Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary.

The Los Angeles Jewish Festival takes place on Sept. 7, 11 a.m.- 6 p.m., at Pierce College, 6201 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. Free admission. Parking $7. To get a $1 discount on parking and be eligible for a drawing, bring a canned good/nonperishable donation for the SOVA Food Pantry. For more information, call (818) 464-3230 or visit on the Web at www.lajewishfestival.org

Ozzy’s Father-in-Law Bails Out Synagogue


Rock legend Ozzy Osbourne’s father-in-law has intervened in the Higher Crumpsall/Higher Broughton Synagogue row with the Synagogue Council to settle the shul’s debt with a burial board.

Manchester-born Don Arden (formerly Harry Levy), whose sister Eileen Somers is administrator of the synagogue, was so grieved to hear of the shul’s problems that this week he transferred funds of £3,695 (almost $6,033) to cover the shortfall, plus a significant donation.

Arden — now 77 and living in Los Angeles, where he bought Howard Hughes’ former home — was a member of Higher Crumpsall’s choir and was bar mitzvahed there. His daughter, Sharon, is married to Osbourne and Arden himself is often seen on MTV’s highly rated Osbournes’ family saga.

Arden himself is a legendary name in the music business. Having left school, Arden began his show business career at 13 as a singer and stand-up comic in Manchester. In the 1960s, he began booking American rockers for European tours. Then he started to manage major ’60s acts like The Move and The Small Faces, before reaching a commercial pinnacle in the ’70s as manager of ELO and of singer Lynsey de Paul. He also founded his own Jet record label.

Arden worked as an entertainer on the British variety circuit. He impersonated famous tenors, like Caruso, and movie gangsters such as Edward G. Robinson and George Raft. On weekends, Yiddish-speaking Arden wowed Jewish audiences with his Al Jolson routine. In 1954, he became a showbiz agent and started organizing Hebrew folk song contests, then putting together his own shows. He signed up American rock ‘n’ roller Gene Vincent in 1960 and, for several years, brought American rockers, including Vincent, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, to England. — The Manchester Jewish Telegraph

Eight Nights of Rock


From Lennon and Jagger to Bono and Shakira, America has never been reluctant to import its treasured rock stars. The road to the top is a little more crooked when you’re the quartet in RockFour, a psychedelic rock band from Tel Aviv. But the band, already a gold-selling act in Israel, should take another step toward the dream of breakthrough success with an eight-night residency at the Knitting Factory to coincide with Chanukah.

In such turbulent political times, it is tempting for some to imagine an Israeli band coming to town with a powerful message for the holiday. But if RockFour comes bearing an agenda, it is decidedly more in tune with the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson than with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"We don’t want to fight Israel’s fight," said RockFour drummer Issar Tennenbaum. "We live it, and music is a different thing for us. We don’t want it to become a gimmick. We want to bring out our uniqueness … without riding on Israel’s back."

Nonetheless, certain factions of the American press can’t resist trying to force a square peg into a political round hole. As one example, when the band played the Roxy this past summer, a review in the Los Angeles Times made prominent mention of the Israeli flag draped on an amplifier, lending the concert a mood supposedly more CNN than MTV.

"Some people see the flag and right away they think politics," Tennenbaum said with a chuckle. "But it’s really not there. We kept seeing all these English bands putting up their English flags; why can’t we do it with ours? It’s an honor that we’re able to put up our Israeli flag in America just out of patriotism. In Israel, we can’t do that."

The band is delighted to have received the holiday invitation from the Knitting Factory. An earlier gig there led to the band being signed by New York label Rainbow Quartz. Since then, the band has been steadily touring in an attempt to keep building its American fan base with its blend of classic (Byrds, Animals, Beach Boys) and modern (Blonde Redhead) influences. While Tennenbaum admits that Los Angeles and New York are the easiest cities to build support in, thanks to larger Israeli and Jewish populations, RockFour has also found other pockets of America that are very ready for its unique blend of rock ‘n’ roll past and present.

"It’s strange — we’ve played Indianapolis six times in the last four or five months," Tennenbaum said, adding that other Midwestern cities like Omaha, Neb., and Cleveland have also been especially receptive. A gig in Indianapolis was responsible for the band getting some backing from media hulk Clear Channel Communications, Inc., which is helping spread the word.

Back in Israel, meanwhile, RockFour routinely fills clubs of 400 or more. Its reputation and success at home, of course, helps tremendously as it tours the United States. "If there are 100 people at the Knitting Factory, probably 20 or 30 would be Israeli," Tennenbaum said. "They already know us in Israel, and American people come and see the show and see 20-30 people really go crazy about us and know some of the songs. That helps the atmosphere and crowd and builds up a natural tier for the band to start with."

The Chanukah shows this year could be a deciding factor in whether the band returns to Israel or stays in the United States to record its next album. While the band has certainly earned the rest, band members also seem to be itching to get into the studio and keep the momentum going. when the time comes to record, they’re hoping to be working under the sponsorship of one of the industry’s big players.

"In America, we don’t want to see ourselves as an indie act," Tennenbaum said. "We feel we have a major label act on stage and that may justify getting signed by a major label. We’ve seen a lot of indie acts that are so much more extreme than us, but in Israel singing psychedelic music in English is ‘indie.’"

While Tennenbaum said that RockFour will be sprinkling some of the new songs into the band’s Chanukah set, he indicates that the group will probably not be playing any traditional Chanukah songs or, for that matter, their older songs in Hebrew. While religion or homeland politics would be a convenient (and timely) platform for attention, RockFour keeps its focus squarely on the great escape of rock ‘n’ roll.

RockFour plays at 10 p.m. from Nov. 29 to Dec. 6. at the Knitting Factory Alterknit Lounge, 7021 Hollywood Blvd. Suite 209, Hollywood. $7. For information, call (323) 463-0204

The Return of Poogy


The fabled Poogy, Israel’s most celebrated rock band, is reuniting in the United States next month for a three-city tour, billed as their “final reunion.” It’s worth watching the reviews to see how they’re received. The results will offer data on the state of Jewish identity and Israel-Diaspora relations. Israel’s soul will be on display. Will American Jews come listen?

The last time they toured here was 1976, shortly before they broke up.

“We played 20 cities, and every concert was sold out,” says the band’s drummer, Meir “Poogy” Fenigstein, now a Los Angeles-based impresario. “Every place we performed, from Winnipeg to Phoenix, audiences knew the words and sang along. And it wasn’t Israelis. It was American Jews.”

“I don’t know how they learned it. Maybe because we came out at the time of the Yom Kippur War, when American Jews were closer to Israel. A lot of American kibbutz volunteers probably heard Poogy on the radio, and brought back the memories. I think we became a sort of bond between them and Israel.”