Turn off the klezmer and turn up the Ramones

The current vogue for ‘Jewish roots’ music is misconceived. The true Jewish sound is a modern one

By Paul Lester, February 5, 2009

I hate Jewish music, but I love Jews who make music. Or to put it another way: I never listen to klezmer or any other types of so-called traditional “Jewish music”, but my record collection is full of albums by Jewish musicians.

Now, if I had been born several hundred years ago and was lucky enough to get a job on a Jewish, 16th-century version of the NME (the Jew Musical Express, perhaps), I would probably have been out every night, lapping up the latest sounds by the hottest klezmer ensembles in all the coolest Eastern European dive bars.

Klezmer was in a way the punk of its day, “Klezmer” apparently being a derogatory term for low-class street musicians. I am sure it sent audiences into paroxysms of excitement. But the point of punk — and of all music movements — was that it was “of its day”. Every era needs its own sound.

This is of course not to say that the music of any particular era dies at the end of that era. There are plenty of musicians who today play very little other than the music of past centuries. Some play it for its eternal qualities. Others, however, are more concerned to convey “authenticity”.

Such musicians peddle klezmer as though it were the truest expression of the Jewish experience. They perhaps even imagine that, if there is a Jewish “voice” in music, klezmer captures it best.

But, for me, the best Jewish music — or rather, the best music by Jews — reflects the moment and is somehow a response to the times in which it was made. And if there is a “Jewish voice”, it is not to be heard in klezmer, maybe because it is being drowned out by all those clarinets, violins and accordions.

No, the Jewish voice is urbane, witty, sharp, smart, savvy, often satirical and thoroughly contemporary. It also has a distinctly American accent.

When I think of the great popular music of the post-war period, more often than not I think of the music made by American Jews: Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Randy Newman, Steely Dan, Was (Not Was), Leonard Cohen (OK, Canadian, too)…

You can hear echoes of this critical/satirical voice across a range of media, in the rock journalism of Greil Marcus and Richard Meltzer through to the sitcoms of the past couple or so of decades: Roseanne, Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm. There must be something about being Jewish and American that makes you want to take a humorous view of life and current events, which is maybe why one of the best programmes on US TV right now is The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

But Jewish wit is far from restricted to the satirical form. Jews are masters of melody and romance, from Gershwin, Berlin and Kern to Bernstein, Sondheim and Bacharach, as well as purveyors of classy, middle-of-the-road schlock (Diamond, Streisand, Sedaka, Manilow, Midler). And, despite a reputation for enjoying the finer things in life and a penchant for upward mobility, Jews can do street-tough, too. It is interesting how many Jewish musicians featured prominently in one of the most influential periods and styles in rock’n’roll: the pioneering NYC “new wave” 1970s bands.

Suicide, the New York Dolls, Jonathan Richman, Ramones, Blondie, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, The Patti Smith Group, all included or were fronted by Jews. Unlike the British punks whose songs about council estates and dole-queue boredom were delivered straight, the US punks’ vision seemed more detached, as though they were commenting on alienation and despair as much as they were living it: that critical, satirical voice again. You can hear that voice today, in the absurdist raps of the Beastie Boys and the pastiche-funk of Chromeo. Long may it continue to drown out the fake roots music of the klezmer brigade.

Paul Lester is the JC’s rock critic

Last updated: 2:43pm, February 5 2009