I've been teaching a course at Tufts University
on the Jewish roots -- cultural, not religious -- of punk rock. As you might
guess, it's an elective. On Wednesday evenings, my students and I examine
topics ranging from comic books to Zionism to the Holocaust and explore how
they relate to PUNK magazine, D.I.Y.
culture, and the Ramones' fascination with Nazi imagery. Along the way we also
engage - academically, of course - with terms like Juido (a Jew trying to pass
as an Italian), shpilkes (a nervous
state similar to punk excitement), and, um, Chicken-Fucker (think Lenny Bruce
at his most outrageous). If nothing else, it allows us to blast "Blitzkrieg
Bop" through the halls of academe.
When post-punks -- or at least Orange Juice and, later, the
critic Simon Reynolds -- demanded that we "rip it up and start again," I never
dreamed the words would apply to my syllabus. But when I saw that a couple of
Jewish-rooted electronic bands, Balkan Beat Box and the Sway Machinery, were coming
to the Paradise, I had a revelation - we
needed to get out of the classroom. What we needed now was to tear down the
walls and head back into the streets - or at least back into the beer-stained
halls and sticky floors of clubland, with an all-access backstage pass.
Thanks to the folks at JDub Records we were able to do just
that. After meeting over beers (for the 21-plus students only - and I'm
sticking with that story) we filed into a smoke-filled (only nicotine, for the
lurid among you) dressing room where various members of both Balkan Beat Box and
Sway Machinery were waiting to go onstage.
The musicians were intense, yet friendly. And the students
were encouragingly poised, a fact I'd like to attribute (but can't) to my
supremely cool example. Their questions made the traditional rock interview
look like so much chopped liver. The guys in BBB and SM are a mix of New
Yorkers and Israelis, and their music fuses electronica with Jewish, Arab, and
Balkan folk styles. My students and I asked whether they were "like the original
punks who were living in the shadow of the Holocaust and [committed to] social
justice?" And about how New York,
and a history of Jewish cosmopolitanism, has played into their music. The answers
were revelatory and even controversial. "[We're
no] more special than other people, like the Palestinians who are still having
a Holocaust ... but of course [the Holocaust] affects you," said BBB's
percussionist Tamir Muskat, who was born and raised in Tel Aviv. "Everyone [in
my grandparent's family] was completely erased."
"I often think of [us] as a New York band," added BBB
guitarist and Sway Machinery singer Jeremiah Lockwood, because their music "comes
from living in close proximity to people of other cultures and the kind of
spiritual growth you're forced to undergo by having to look through the eyes of
someone different than yourself and make them your brother." With their street
smarts and uncompromising honesty, both BBB and SM are deeply punk in attitude
if not style.
In the video above -- shot by Phoenix videographer Pat Howley, and including interviews conducted by me and the students (Meredith Turits, Mose Berkowitz, Andrew Sokoloff, Stephanie Coplan, and Max Glantzman) -- you can get a taste of what transpired when we escaped the
academy for the club.