December 14, 2018

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.