Rockin' Out



Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Jewish Stories
By Scott R. Benarde
375 pages. Brandeis University Press. $29.95.

One day, someone is going to write a book explaining why Jewish musicians and songwriters have been at the forefront of nearly every major trend in rock music—how people like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, members of Kiss, the Ramones, the Clash, the Beastie Boys, and Jane’s Addiction came to shape that quintessentially American style, the spawn of African-American rhythm-and-blues and white Southern honky-tonk.

The cheekily-titled Stars of David: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Jewish Stories isn’t that book.

In fact, other than Dylan, the book overlooks most of the major Jewish performers in rock. Instead, author Scott R. Benarde trains his sights mostly on lesser-known artists and secondary band members, most of whom just happen to be Jewish, interspersing trivial tidbits of their Jewish biographies along the order of grew up Conservative, mother lit Shabbat candles, attended family seders into encyclopedic summaries of their careers that otherwise do little to put them or their music into a Jewish context.

Benarde occasionally comes up with a gem, shining light on Jewish rock curiosities such as the band Spirit’s psychedelic version of “Hinei Ma Tov” called, simply, “Jewish,” and Jay and the Americans’ English rewrite of the old Yiddish song “Vi iz dus gesele,” translated by erstwhile yeshiva student and lead singer Jay Black.

But when he attempts to elucidate more serious connections between an artist’s work and Judaism, Benarde stumbles both musically and Jewishly. For example, while noting the Jewish lyrical content of many of Bob Dylan’s songs, he neglects to mention the cantorial and klezmer influences in the music on Dylan’s album, Desire, the kabbalistic notions embedded in his song “Everything Is Broken,” or the fact that for the past several years in concert Dylan has prefaced “All Along the Watchtower”—which borrows its imagery from the book of Isaiah—with the unmistakable theme music to the Zionist film epic, “Exodus.”

In trying to build a case for the Jewishly observant upbringing of singer-songwriter Norman Greenbaum—the one-hit wonder whose “Spirit in the Sky” included the lyric “I got a friend in Jesus”—Benarde notes that the singer “wrapped tefillin every Shabbat to say kaddish” after his father died, leaving it to the reader to wonder if the author is even aware that tefillin, in fact, are not supposed to be touched, much less worn, on the Sabbath.

Benarde repeatedly points to the socially and politically conscious efforts of Jewish songwriters as evidence that they are engaged in tikkun olam, a spiritual approach to repairing the world. In doing so, he perpetuates the false notion that good deeds are tikkun olam even when they have nothing to do with Jewish ritual observance. This feel-good definition of Judaism is stretched to the absurd in the chapter on Lee Oskar of the group War, who while no longer “involved in organized Jewish life,” Benarde assures us, still “performs mitzvot, especially when it comes to helping children.”

He probably helps old ladies cross the street, too.

The only apparent justification Benarde could muster for writing a chapter about Marc Bolan, the son of an Anglican mother and founder of English glam-rock group T-Rex—and about whom his record producer, a gentile from Brooklyn who knew more Yiddish than the singer, said he “had very little Jewish identity that I was aware of”—is that “Bolan did once refer to a shirt as a shmata.”

Benarde leaves us asking more questions than he answers, the main one being why he included entire chapters on obscure figures like Sixties studio musician Carol Kaye, an adult convert to Judaism, and sidemen like David Bowie pianist Mike Garson and Bob Seger backup singer Marcella Detroit, while only mentioning in passing far more influential figures including Lou Reed, Paul Simon, and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, to say nothing of far more profoundly Jewish artists like Leonard Cohen, whose songs include “Story of Isaac,” a retelling of that seminal Bible tale, and “Who By Fire,” inspired by the Yom Kippur liturgy.

In his focus on the individual performers’ stories, Benarde misses the forest for the trees. Something gave Jews growing up in postwar America (and England and South Africa) a unique though by no means exclusive purchase on creativity in rock music—particularly around its transformative edges—a purchase that saw them play key roles in every major trend from doo-wop to folk-rock to country-rock to punk and rap.

Reading between the lines in Stars of David, that much comes through. In the end, what that something is, however, remains unexplored.