Music

Miles Davis and the Art of Living

Miles Davis (1926-1991) was one of the most important American musicians of all time—completely reinventing musical categories three or four times over during his turbulent career. Here’s the opening track of his 1971 album A Tribute to Jack Johnson, called “Right Off”:

Miles was a great trumpeter, but he was even more important as a bandleader, putting together some of the greatest groups in history. And he was known for giving cryptic instructions to his players, like a Zen master. He’d say, “Don’t just play what’s there, play what’s not there.” And: “Sometimes you have to play for a long time in order to play like yourself.” And: “There are no mistakes.”

There’s a moment in “Right Off” that illustrates Miles’s attitude of “no mistakes.” And in this instrumental drama, there’s a spiritual lesson.  You can hear the moment—Miles’s entrance after a dramatic introduction of drums, bass, and electric guitar—between 2:00 and 2:20 in the audio clip.

Here’s how jazz critic Paul Tingen describes what we’re hearing:

At 1:38 the guitarist takes down the volume, and at 2:11 he modulates to B-flat to heighten the dramatic effect of Miles’s entry. However, the bass player misses the modulation, and carries on playing in E.

In other words, the two principle players are now accidentally playing in different keys. It’s a train wreck. Surely they should stop and start the take over?

But that’s where Miles’s genius – his flexibility and his careful listening to his fellow musicians – comes in. Tingen continues:

In the middle of this clash of tonalities, Miles decides to make his entrance.

He starts by playing a D-flat, the minor third in the key of B-flat and the major sixth in the key of E. It is an ingenious choice – because the note is effective in either key. Miles than plays twelve staccato B-flat notes, phrasing them on the beat to drive the band on, and also as if to nudge [Michael] Henderson [the bass player] towards B-flat tonality. Henderson gets the message, comes into line by modulating to B-flat, and Miles carries on, giving one of the most commanding solo performances of his career.

 Tingen explains what’s so stunning about this:

Most musicians would have regarded the point when the 2 musicians were clashing in such incompatible keys as E and B-flat as an embarrassing mistake and would have stopped the band… Very few would have considered, or have had the courage, to come in at such a moment. And even fewer would have been able to make it into a resounding success.

Miles could have stopped the music, corrected the musicians, and started over. Instead, he picks the perfect note that takes the so-called mistake and makes it art.

Abraham Joshua Heschel told us that our task is to construct our lives as works of art, and what Miles does is illustrative of this.  On these days before Yom Kippur, we are tasked with having the courage to look honestly inward, reflecting on our choices and our deeds and their consequences. 

One important lesson of the Season of Teshuvah is that we don’t get to go back and erase our actions. They are done, with a ripple effect that has gone out into the world.  Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are not spiritual erasers, blotting our sins from the Book of Life.

But the Days of Awe are something else:  They are opportunities to transform those deeds and shape them. Every living soul is a work-in-progress. It’s been said: No one can make a brand-new start, but anyone can make a brand-new ending.

That’s what’s so empowering about Yom Kippur. It’s only for people who make mistakes. Perfect people are not invited:

 Rabbi Abbahu says: In the place where a baal teshuvah [one who has turned back to a good and decent path] stands, even a completely righteous person cannot stand. [Talmud, Berachot 34b]

Think about it this way: Teshuvah is one of 613 Mitzvot. That means if a person is perfect and has not sinned – then she can only do 612 of them! The rest of us get the upper hand!

To take what we’ve damaged and mangled and turn it into art: that’s the trick. Miles knew it; so did the Talmud. Maybe this year Yom Kippur can spur more of us in that direction. 

 

Quotes are from Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (New York: Billboard Books, 1991), p.106.

 

Bob Dylan's "Trouble No More: 1979-1981": Understanding an American Apikoros

I.  Carrying a Light Bulb

Dylan preaching.jpeg

The official release of Bob Dylan’s “Gospel Shows” is bringing a lot of people back to a time when, for them, the ‘60s counterculture really died. Here was Dylan—Hebrew name, Shabtai Zissel ben Avraham—singing songs of born again Christian faith, the glories of being saved by Christ, and condemning the unbelievers of Sodom. From 1979-1981 he released a triptych of albums of these songs—Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love—and, starting in November 1979, would only perform songs in concert that reflected his newfound covenant with God.  In so doing, a lot of old fans ran for the hills.

Dylan—that is, Robert Alan Zimmerman—had a Jewish upbringing in Hibbing, Minnesota. His parents were American-born children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He trained for his bar mitzvah with Rabbi Reuben Maier in the rabbi’s apartment above a local café (his father later related that Bob showed great proficiency with Hebrew). He attended Camp Herzl, a Jewish and Zionist summer camp in Wisconsin, during his teen years.

The release of these Gospel Shows (and it’s momentous; I’ve been waiting for the so-called “Bootleg Series” to get around to this era) raises again questions that dogged music fans back then: What happened to America’s greatest songwriter in the late ‘70s? How could Jewish fans listen? And as for these songs of heavenly salvation—what the hell?

I’ll offer one fan’s interpretation. I’ve never met Bob Dylan, so I may be way off base. But I’ve read many biographies and interviews of the man, and more importantly, I’ve tried to pay close attention to every note of his recorded oeuvre (and many bootlegs, which are essential for understanding Dylan’s art).

Dylan himself can be hard to trust when it comes talking about himself or his music. While there are many pearls in his autobiography Chronicles, some reviewers noted that he totally avoided writing about the moments that most people would actually be interested in. In the ‘60s, his press conferences were a hoot—because most journalists were totally clueless about his efforts to bring poetry and art to popular music, he messed with them:

Interviewer:  What is your real message?
Bob Dylan:  My real message? Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb.

He tends to speak in parables, especially when he’s feeling like a trapped animal. I imagine he felt that way through much of the ‘60s, but it persisted in the subsequent decades. For instance, in 1991 he was presented with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. I suspect that Dylan recognized the Grammys for what they were:  hollow trophies given out by self-congratulatory ghouls from the music business, and “lifetime achievement” is even worse—what they give you when they acknowledge that your relevance is long past, and that if you’d just hurry up and die they can start reshaping your legacy to fit their own preconceptions. So Dylan—50 years old—slithered to the podium and virtually spoke in tongues, as far as the corporate throng was concerned.

Well, um… uh, yeah. Well my daddy, he didn’t leave me too much. My daddy once said to me… [looooooong uncomfortable pause. Nervous laughter from everyone. Security puts their hands on their holsters.] Well he said so many things, y’know?  [laughter

He said, son, it is possible for you to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. And if that happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your own ways. Thank you.

Add to his list of accomplishments: the best awards speech ever.

But in that speech (and its allusion to Psalm 27:10), which is a total fiction (Abe Zimmerman said no such thing) and a dodge (please get me off this godforsaken stage), there is also a great reveal: a desperate statement from a man “so defiled” who has been to hell and back, including the depths of alcoholism. And who believes in salvation—but only from an external force, a rock of ages.

II.  Apikoros

To understand Dylan’s gospel years, one has to understand that he has never been halfhearted with his art. When he commits to a guise, he dives in completely. I believe that Dylan was a true believer during these years. It proved short-lived and eventually he resumed performing non-Christian-themed songs (“Thank God,” said many old fans), but from 1979-1981 he was sincere in his devotion.

I sense that Dylan has a streak in him that makes him say, “You think you can put me in a box? Why should I be what you want me to be?” I find this orneriness to be very appealing—perhaps because I have some of  it myself. He devotes a lot of space in Chronicles to spitting with disgust when people tried to call him the “Voice of the Generation” of the ‘60’s. Who in hell, he asks, would want to be anyone’s “voice of the generation”? For a long time he was publicly putting down people who would pin a label on him—surely that’s what “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Positively Fourth Street” (“You’ve got a lot of nerve / to say you are my friend…”) are about?  And in case there was any doubt, there was “Idiot Wind,” the most vicious put-down song ever:

Even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it was at
I couldn’t believe, after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that, sweet lady

A recap of Dylan’s career shows this bait-and-switch. He’d adopt a certain style, and throw himself into it completely. He’d write such compelling music in that mode that fans would hop on board. Then, abruptly, he would discard that mode for another one… enraging those who thought they had embraced the “real Dylan.”

In Judaism, this is called being an apikoros—as close a word to “heretic” that we have. But we have a funny relationship with our apikorsim. Some of them are some of the most important Jews in history.

So in 1961 he shows up in New York completely enamored with Woody Guthrie’s Americana: work shirt, acoustic guitar, and hokey humor (to make sophisticated points about the human condition) intact. From there was an evolution to the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, hanging with Joan Baez and Dave van Ronk, and singing at the 1963 March on Washington for Martin Luther King.

The insular folk scene was so self-righteous and cocksure that to leave it was an act of blasphemy. So when Dylan showed up at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a raucous electric band, whomping out songs of surreal poetry, the self-appointed gatekeepers revolted. Pete Seeger tried to cut the electric cords with an ax. Peter Yarrow, the distressed master of ceremonies, tried to nudge “Bobby” back out for an encore… “This time with an acoustic guitar.”

That’s what Dylan left behind when he started his barnburning world tour of 1966 with his electric band The Hawks. But the folkies wouldn’t let it go. Some fans embraced this loud electric rock, but the old timers booed, and slow-clapped between songs. The zenith was in Manchester, England, when, just before the band tore into “Like a Rolling Stone,” a distressed old folkie had enough. “Judas!” he howled at the Jew standing on stage.

But the heckler was already a fossil. Dylan had recorded three electric albums that made him a hero to new rock counterculture. And we know what Dylan thinks about heroes, right?

So he retreated. After touring the world as one of the biggest and loudest rock acts… he shut up, and disappeared for 1967 and its hallucinatory Summer of Love. When he emerged, it was in a new guise: Country Bob, singing on the Johnny Cash show, and recording with Nashville session pros. Gone were the amphetamine screeds of 1965. And the counterculture was pissed. In 1971 Dylan released Self Portrait, two records of country songs and covers, and Greil Marcus opened his famous review of the album in Rolling Stone with the words, “What is this shit?”

Country music at the turn of the ‘70s was not the sterile commodity that it would become. It represented the antithesis of the ‘60s counterculture; the enemy of the hippies and all they stood for. Again, Dylan had adopted the pose of the heretic. He was saying, again, to his fans:  You really want to follow me? Well, let’s see if you’ll follow me here…

For all its integrity, this does show a rather perverse relationship with his audience, to say the least.

In the mid-70s, his star was ascendant again.  He reunited with The Band, and through 1974 performed the highest-grossing rock tour of all time. He made hugely well-received albums that reflected his mastery of the ‘70s singer-songwriter convention. By 1978 was performing a 115-date world tour with a big band, full of horns and back-up singers.  

But his was a tormented soul, and it was time for another sharp turn.


III.  Dylan & Religion

One other thing before we approach the Gospel Years. Religion—the Bible, specifically—has always been part of Dylan’s neshama.  Christopher Ricks has written an excruciating treatise on this, but I can add one or two points minus all his exegesis.

Dylan knows the Bible backwards and forwards; it pops up when you least expect it. There are moments like the “slain by a cane/Cain” line in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” for instance. But—hands up—how many people know the title of “Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35” (“everybody must get stoned!”) comes from Proverbs 27:15?

An endless dripping on a rainy day
And a contentious wife are alike

But I like to think that even in his early days, Dylan was attracted to the Old-Time Religion of America, the kind that includes periodic Great Awakenings and embraces Jonathan “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” Edwards, Jefferson’s Bible, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dorothy Day, and the apocalpyticism of bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. These were all forms of a distinctly American faith.

Even a Jew like Dylan—even a Jew like me—can love Woody Guthrie’s version of Jesus Christ. For Woody, this was the true Jesus:

Jesus Christ was a man that traveled through the land
A hard working man and brave
He said to the rich, "Give your money to the poor,"
So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

And:

This song was made in New York City
Of rich men and preachers and slaves
If Jesus was to preach like he preached in Galilee
They would lay Jesus Christ in his grave. 

Amen, selah, and tell me that those lines aren’t even more prophetic in Trump’s America than they were back in Woody’s dust bowl days?

It’s not hard to imagine a young Dylan absorbing the lessons, and assimilating them into the work.

IV.  Saved

With that background, I think there are three parts to understanding Dylan’s embrace of a born-again Christianity in 1979.

First:  As we’ve seen, it follows his pattern. When his fan base becomes enormous, he suddenly takes a sharp turn, shaking off fans who feel “betrayed” by his “heretical” embrace of something new, often the polar opposite of where he’s been.

Second:  Dylan is a polyglot of American music. He’s been an authentic purveyor of Woody Guthriesque Americana, protest folk, delta blues, electric rock, straight-up country, bluegrass, and, since 2011, jazz standards and the Great American Songbook. Since he’s embraced virtually every indigenous form of American music, it would be strange if he didn’t explore gospel music.

And when he explores something, he gets completely immersed in it. (In 2003 he wrote the song “’Cross the Green Mountain” for the Civil War movie Gods and Generals. They say he spent days in the New York Public Library researching the Civil War to get the lyrics just right.)

Third:  None of this is to say that his religious conversion, even though it was short-lived, wasn’t authentic. I believe that he believed.

With an increasingly jaundiced eye he surveyed the music business of the ‘70s. Drugs and decadence were everywhere. He’d been living this life for a while. And he was living in Malibu, where friends and acquaintances were receding into their own chemical hells (see under: The Band).

Furthermore, his marriage to Sara Lowndes had collapsed. They had been together since the ‘60s, and with Sara he had five kids and fled the turbulent “Judas!” years to a farmhouse in Woodstock. He wrote love songs to their family on New Morning, grieved their break-up on Blood on the Tracks, celebrated their reconciliation on Desire and its song “Sara,” and ultimately the whole thing went south. 

So picture the man’s state of mind: exhausted, divorced, cynical, burnt-out.

The story goes that several of his backing musicians were already born again, and his interest was piqued by their religious discipline during the ’78 tour. And then there’s this incident from the end of the tour, San Diego, November 17, 1979:

Towards the end of the show someone out in the crowd… knew I wasn’t feeling too well. I think they could see that. And they threw a silver cross on the stage. Now usually I don’t pick things up in front of the stage. Once in a while I do. Sometimes I don’t. But I looked down at that cross. I said, “I gotta pick that up.” So I picked up the cross and I put it in my pocket… And I brought it backstage and I brought it with me to the next town, which was out in Arizona… I was feeling even worse than I’d felt when I was in San Diego. I said, “Well, I need something tonight.” I didn’t know what it was. I was used to all kinds of things. I said, “I need something tonight that I didn’t have before.”  And I looked in my pocket and I had this cross.[1] 

At 38 years old, Shabtai Zissel met Jesus.  

V.  The Music

So what about the music? 

It’s electrifying. Listening to the Gospel Shows reminds you that, at many points through his six decades of performing, Dylan is one of the greatest performers—and yes, one of our greatest singers. The opening cut was “Slow Train,” and it is amazing to hear the singer so engaged and so committed to every syllable that comes out of his mouth.

He’s also got a whip-tight band to ride this particular train. So it’s clear that finding religion was the jolt this particular artist needed at this moment in his life—the intensity of “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Solid Rock” and “Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” rival the power of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone” from ’66, only this time no one had the chutzpah to yell “Judas!”

The quieter moments when he’s not preaching, but rather sharing his relationship with God—“Precious Angel,” “Pressing On,” “I Believe in You”—are as intimate a portrait of faith that any artist has ever shared. Even if, like me, you don’t share this specific vocabulary—Jesus is not my savior—there’s inspiration to be found in his inspiration.

My favorite song from this period is a late arrival, 1981’s “Every Grain of Sand.” Here’s a song of faith that Jew can approach without reservation: there’s no intermediary, just a very transcendent God who has ordained everything in Creation. It starts from the deepest depths of loneliness and despair:

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair

 And then revelation that everything is the way it is meant to be:

Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

Those words still give me chills, on the 1000th time I’ve heard them:  “…every hair is numbered…” They remind me of a story about Rav Kook that’s told in A Tzaddik in Our Time, the classic biography of Rabbi Aryeh Levin:

We chatted together on themes of Torah study… He went out, as his hallowed custom was, to stroll a bit in the fields and gather his thoughts; and I went along. On the way I plucked some branch or flower. [Rav Kook] was taken aback; and then he told me gently, “Believe me: In all my days I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of the Sages that there is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have a heavenly force (or angel) above telling it, ‘Grow!’ Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some inner hidden message in the silence. Every creation utters its song.”

Dylan Kotel.jpg

VI. Still on the Road

When Dylan released an album in 1983 entitled Infidels, fans and ex-fans prepared for more of the same. As it turned out, there was still plenty of apocalypse to go around: “Jokerman” has dense imagery invoking the Book of Revelations, and the refrain of “Man of Peace,” is a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians (“Sometimes Satan / comes as a man of peace.”) And there was a cover photo (taken by Sara Lowndes of all people!) of Dylan crouched on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. But there were respites from the fire and brimstone as well. 

In concert, he started backing off from the preaching. He started mixing in his older numbers. His faith seemed to have ebbed.

Then something funny happened: Dylan started sounding Jewish again. He was reported to be hanging out with Lubavitcher chasidim, and performed on a televised Chabad telethon (grinning, with a kippah on his head). In September 1983, he was photographed celebrating his son Jesse’s bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. In September 1987, he brought along Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Roger McGuinn for concerts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Was Shabtai Zissel back?

In a 1983 interview he said:

Roots, man—we’re talking about Jewish roots, you want to know more? Check on Elijah the prophet. He could make rain. Isaiah the prophet, even Jeremiah, see if their brethren didn’t want to bust their brains for telling it right like it is, yeah—these are my roots, I suppose.

Then he immediately qualified that search for his roots:

Am I looking for them?... I ain’t looking for them in synagogues, with six-pointed Egyptian stars shining down from every window, I can tell you that much.

So he’s never going to be what you want him to be. You might want him to be the old folkie that he was in his 20s; someone else might want him to sing “Forever Young” every night; I might wish he were more unequivocal about his Judaism. But the artist forges his own path, never tiring of wishing restless farewells to those who want to define him.

And you gotta admit, there’s a lot of integrity in that stance. He may be an apikoros, but he’s a damn righteous one.

 

[1] Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades—Take Two, 2000, p.491

G-d Bless the Rolling Stones

June 17, 2014

After the Rolling Stones packed up from their performance in Tel Aviv last week, I found myself wondering:  Is it possible to separate the artist from the art?  Is it possible not to?

That’s a classic conundrum, and most of the time we have to agree that we’d have to make such a separation. We can’t expect moral perfection from the artists, musicians, and writers who touch us, and why should we? If we did, we’d have a very short list of pretty much zero entertainment that we could enjoy guilt-free. Further, who would want to do an entire biographical vetting of every new performer we discover, just to make sure she or he was “clean”? 

But that said, I have to tell you:  I can’t listen to my old Pink Floyd albums anymore.

Pink Floyd was one of the first rock bands that ever really touched me. I was 13 when I got The Wall, and although I haven’t played it in 20 years (it could be the most depressing music ever made) it led me on to their earlier records which had a lot more staying-power on my sound system: Meddle, Animals, “Cymbaline,” “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

But for the past few years, Pink Floyd’s bassist and primary songwriter Roger Waters has emerged as the most crass and vehement support of the BDS (“boycott, divestment, & sanctions”) movement to marginalize the State of Israel. He’s missed no opportunity to name Israel as the primary villain in the Middle East and the sole source of the conflict with the Palestinians. When confronted by well-meaning people who have criticized the coarseness of his arguments, he hasn’t mitigated them a bit.

Let’s be clear: the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is a disaster; the world needs moral leadership to broker a just two-state solution that will ensure Palestinian dignity and Israel’s right to live in terror-free safety and security. There are people of good faith working every day to build those bridges and bring that about.  And the BDS supporters are not among them.The BDS campaign is a vile attempt to stigmatize the world’s only Jewish state, to make it a pariah in the world community, and, I believe, to delegitimize it to the point of its erasure from the community of nations. It is anti-Semitism – because no other nation in the world, including ones with genuinely horrific human rights records, is targeted for such bile. It completely ignores the fear and suffering of the Israelis, the astonishing racism that is taught from official Palestinian literature in their schools, and the unapologetic and unabated terrorism from the likes of Hamas, who have recently been legitimized in a unity government with the PLO. 

And that is the movement that Roger Waters and his ignoble ilk align themselves with. Thus they encourage other rock artists to boycott Israel as part of their campaign of pressure until Israel… does what, exactly? 

So as much as I may appreciate “Echoes” as a really terrific piece of progressive rock, I find that it makes me sick these days. Ditto the music of Elvis Costello, who never meant much to me.

On the other hand, the cultural boycott that Waters promotes is pretty leaky; there are far more performers who are saying yes to performing in Israel. Neil Young (hooray!), Paul McCartney, Radiohead, The Pixies, Lady Gaga, and others have recently appeared or will be performing in Israel – which isn’t so easy, when you consider how much money and energy it takes to shlep a modern day rock crew to Tel Aviv for a single show. (After all, where else in “the neighborhood” are these artists going to play?)

But this year’s gold star has to go to the Stones. The Stones acknowledged from the moment they announced they were going to be playing in Tel Aviv on June 4, that the BDS crowd was pressuring them to cancel. They refused. (Didn’t those haters read Keith’s autobiography?  No one tells him to do anything!) They arrived in Israel a few days early and took plenty of photo-ops: Ron Wood and Charlie Watts at the Western Wall; Mick Jagger, more in character, in the high-end Tel Aviv nightlife.                               

There was even in-house controversy: The concert was scheduled to start before the Jewish festival of Shavuot was officially over, which would have prevented observant fans from attending. Yet the Stones graciously delayed the start of the concert. 

And onstage, the real fun began. Mick’s patter between songs was full of Hebrew, from his opening “Chag Shavuot Samayach!” (“Happy Shavuot!”), to teasing Ronnie about whether the guitarist had purchased his ugly shoes in the shuk. I’m not a sucker; I presume a smart p.r. staffer was feeding Mick his lines. Who cares? The effort means so much to a community that has been called a pariah by lesser stars!

So G-d Bless the Rolling Stones. And Paul McCartney. And Johnny Rotten. And Madonna. And Metallica. And Dylan (saw him in ’93 on a soccer field in Beersheva!). And so many others who have defied racist boycotts, and brought a real message of peace: one that says we’re not going to demonize anybody, and that music can build bridges, not burn them.

A Hesped for Lou Reed

I have at least three books on my bookshelf about "Jews in Rock." None of those books are great, but each seems to have an agenda to prove: that you can be cool, young, and Jewish, and that some Jews have been at the epicenter of everything fundamentally cool in the second half of the 20th Century. From my perspective, there's something a little desperate about that; after all, what's more uncool than trying to show how cool you are?

Lou Reed, who died last week, never had to establish his credentials in that department; he was often the coolest guy in the room. He started his writing career as the disciple of the legendary Delmore Schwartz ("In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," one of the greatest short stories in American literature) at Syracuse University, and went on to form the Velvet Underground under the tutelage of Andy Warhol. Suffice to say that the VU influenced just about every underground and punk rock band of the past forty years, even while they never particularly sold all that many records (and what could be cooler than that?).

In the 70s and 80s, Lou Reed was one of those cultural figures who seem important even though they are never overwhelmingly popular. Like many of my favorites, he had an ornery streak and thrived on confrontation with his fans; like Dylan, when you thought you could pigeonhole him as one thing, he bucked and came back as something different. With the album Transformer—the closest thing he ever had to a hit—he brought gay consciousness into the mainstream when it was still a cultural stigma. I mean, in 1972 "Walk on the Wild Side," was a top 40 hit, with the lyric "shaved her legs and then he was a she." How in the world did that happen? When I was a teenager, those sorts of gestures meant something: they implied that the world out there was a whole lot funkier than a stifling public high school in the suburbs would indicate. (And I wasn't even gay. For some, those gestures were positively liberating.)

But this is a Jewish blog, and author Steven Lee Beeber called Lou "the zeyde of punk." So is Lou Reed a Jewish rock star or a rock star who happened to be Jewish?

Certainly there is a Jewish trope in his biographical arc: growing up in the middle class suburbs of Long Island; heading off to Syracuse where he discovered new intellectual horizons; making a home in the avant garde scene of downtown New York and shedding the suburbs as much as he could; continuing to run away from his roots by embracing every outrageous image he could throughout the seventies. Then cleaning up, getting sober, and starting to revisit some Jewish themes in his writing. In "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim," from 1989's album New York, he called out Waldheim, Arafat, and Farrakhan for their anti-Semitism and maintained the rest of media were hypocrites when it came to anti-Jewish bigotry: "If I ran for president," he wrote in verse to Jesse Jackson, "and once was a member of the Klan/ wouldn't you call me on it / the way I call you on Farrakhan?"

He appeared in Israel on a handful of occasions, which also is a valuable gesture. In a world where pop figures occasionally buckle to racist boycott and divestment groups, Lou had no problem playing in Israel, which makes him in my book a figure of much greater integrity and honor than the likes of Elvis Costello or Roger Waters.

He certainly didn't show the biblical or Jewish literacy of, say, Dylan. But there is an outrageous scene in Beeber's book of Lou Reed reciting the Four Questions at a hipster "Downtown Seder" and in a heartfelt, not ironic, way.

For me, his most moving album was the follow-up to New York called Magic and Loss. It's a full-length meditation on the death of two friends (legendary songwriter Doc Pomus and Warhol Factory diva Rotten Rita). It follows the mourner through the stages of denial, melancholy, rage against the cosmos, and ultimately, a completely unsentimental sort of transcendence. In my 5th year of rabbinical school, I presented in class the climax song "Magic and Loss," as a valuable text for grappling with death and mourning. Here's part of that song; it is one exquisite hesped.

They say no one person can do it all But you want to in your head
But you can't be Shakespeare
and you can't be Joyce
So what is left instead

You're stuck with yourself
and a rage that can hurt you
You have to start at the beginning again
And just this moment this wonderful fire
Started up again ....

When the past makes you laugh
and you can savor the magic
That let you survive your own war
You find that that fire is passion
And there's a door up ahead not a wall  

As you pass through fire as you pass through fire
Try to remember its name
When you pass through fire licking at your lips
You cannot remain the same
And if the building's burning move towards that door
But don't put the flames out

There's a bit of magic in everything
And then some loss to even things out

'Bye Lou, and thanks for those words. Hope you're slugging it out with Lester Bangs in the olam ha-ba even as we speak.

 

Death of a Beastie Boy

I was saddened to hear about the death, just before Shabbat, of MCA (Adam Yauch) from the Beastie Boys, because I've always liked their music (there's a band who matured and deepened dramatically over the years) and because MCA always seemed like a righteous guy. 

But his death also prompts a few thoughts about identity. I remember a few years ago there was a news item in the Jerusalem Report about the Beastie Boys' visit to Israel, and how bemused and startled they were when they realized that they had become role models to a generation of Jewish youth. 

They were the real deal, but it makes me think about how in every generation young Jews especially Jewish boys look to other cultures for roots and for escape. We look especially, it seems, towards African-American culture. 

The Beastie Boys were Jewish pioneers in an African-American milieu (hip-hop). That itself is part of a grand history of partnerships between blacks and Jews in American music in blues, R & B, jazz, and funk before the preeminence of rap. And the Beastie Boys stood out because they weren't poseurs; their music was the real deal: complex, exploratory, creative, humorous, righteous, and fun. 

Which is not to say that there should be ghettos of "Jewish music" or that the Beastie Boys didn't have a clear sense of exactly what they were doing. They always seemed to be aware that their work was absolutely authentic and mildly ridiculous at the same time, which is an appealing combination. But all those 80s and 90s Jewish kids in their baggy pants and urban patois didn't generally seem to have the same sense of self-awareness as MCA, Mike D, and Ad-Rock. I got a sense that urban culture for those kids was an escape from the middle- and upper-middle class conformist identities that they had inherited, including a rather tepid form of Judaism. The Beastie Boys became role models because they were recognizably not from the street, but from those similar sorts of Jewish homes; they were cool and undeniably Jewish at the same time. 

If you're like me, you blanch when you have to fill out a biographical form and under "race/ethnic background" your choices are: white/black/Latino/Asian/Aleutian Islander... and you don't know what to check off. Knowing the history of anti-Jewish prejudice, as well as the desire to be something different like all those hip-hop kids, makes it really hard to check off "white." When I'm feeling particularly ornery, I sometimes write in "Jewish" when asked to list my "race." Since when did Jews become "white folks", with all those connotations of bourgeois conformity? (I borrowed the phrase from a study of Jews in America by Karen Brodkin called How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America.

I happen to think that authentic Judaism is radical, provocative, intellectually rigorous, and potentially dangerous; a far cry from everything that is connoted by the lame term "white." But those of us in Jewish education are still fighting a battle against the mid-century conformist mindset that the Coen Brothers skewered so knowingly in A Serious Man. 

As far as I know, the Beastie Boys never tapped into those Jewish sources to inform their art. Still, there was something very recognizable in their attitude and their music to young Jewish boys, and their desire for something a little... cooler than what they've been handed. The next step, for ourselves and the next generation, is to rediscover that coolness that remains inherent in Judaism.