Of all the tributes following the death this week of Lou Reed, the transgressive, subversive bard of the street-wild and deviant, one of the strangest is this celebration by British journalist Tom Gross, which appeared online in the National Review. Yes, that National Review—the conservative journal founded by the high priest of upper-crust propriety, William F. Buckley.
Perhaps even more than other American-Jewish rock stars such as Billy Joel and Bob Dylan, Lou Reed was fiercely proud of being Jewish — and included lyrics on behalf of Israel and against anti-Semitism in some of his songs.
I mention Reed’s Jewishness because not a single obituary I have read of him in the mainstream press mentions it, when for Reed it was an important factor.
The evidence Gross offers consists mainly of the mockingly bitter song “Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim,” from Reed’s 1989 album New York (video below, lyrics after the jump). But that’s actually plenty—only a handful of major American rockers have recorded even a single statement as proudly Jewish. (I think of Paul Simon’s “Silent Eyes,” Randy Newman’s “Dixie Flyer,” Bob Dylan’s “Neighborhood Bully” — and, arguably, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Father of Night.” Others?)
At the same time, Gross is right to note that Reed appeared in Israel several times. He wasn’t quite the “frequent visitor to the country” that Gross makes him out to be, but he performed there repeatedly: he gave concerts in 1994 and 2000 and joined his wife Laurie Anderson on stage for a few numbers during her Tel Aviv concerts in 2008 (video after the jump). Not many American pop stars have appeared in Israel so frequently (though Dylan matched him—concerts in 1987, 1993 and 2011—and several private visits).
And though Gross doesn’t mention it, Reed involved himself in a public way in recent years in New York’s emerging downtown Jewish culture. That’s described lovingly in this appreciation in The Jewish Week by Reed’s friend, impresario Michael Dorf. Among other things, Dorf describes Reed’s appearances as the Wise Son at Dorf’s annual Passover Seder at the Knitting Factory.
What’s most curious about the National Review piece is how it’s captured imaginations on the right with its image of Reed the defiant battler against anti-Semitism. It’s been cited by several right-wing blogs, including the Breitbart-linked Big Hollywood and Islam-bashing arch-conservative Debbie Schlussel. Schlussel’s piece is particularly wacky — she seems delighted that Reed “defied” the boycotters to play Israel, though she’s dubious of what she presumes are his leftie leanings, wary of his countercultural ethos and judges him:
Lou Reed, “Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim”:
As we approach the holiest day of the year, I’ve put together a selection of songs that sum up the day and capture its spirit, at least for me. I’ve tried to follow the order of the day, from the introductory prayer to Kol Nidre, the Maariv service, some highlights of Mussaf, the Jonah story and finally Neilah and absolution. Some selections are traditional liturgy in particularly excellent musical rendering; others are American songs that capture the message and the flavor IMHO. Included are performances by Bob Dylan, Al Jolson, Barbra Streisand, Joe Cocker, Cass Elliott and Joni Mitchell, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme and Louis Armstrong, among many others.
Note: Steve and Eydie are a late addition, erev chag. I don’t know how I forgot them, as you’ll see when you hear their tune. They close the concert. Eydie closed hers just a month ago, on the 4th of Ellul, August 10.
We start as evening approaches and we prepare to stand before the Gates of Heaven. You know the drill: It’s getting too dark to see, and we’re Knocking on Heaven’s Door. This is a live version of the Bob Dylan song, from his 1976 Rolling Thunder Review concert tour, and he’s joined by Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn. By the way, the most emotionally devastating version of the song ever recorded might be this one; it’s sung by Warren Zevon on his final album, “The Wind,” reflections on his own upcoming death of cancer, which came just 10 years ago, on September 7, 2003, at age 56, a few days after the album was released.
Incidentally, Dylan originally wrote and performed “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” for the soundtrack (here’s the original) of the 1973 Sam Peckinpah film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” At the time Dylan was living in New York and meeting with kibbutz aliyah shaliach Shaul Pe’er, who was negotiating for Dylan and his family to spend a trial year at Kibbutz Kfar Blum. But in late 1972 Dylan told Shaul he was putting the talks on hold for several months while he went to Los Angeles to make the film. He never left LA.
Next are the two most powerful versions of Kol Nidre ever committed to film, in my opinion. The first is the iconic rendition by Al Jolson at the climax of the very first talking picture, “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927. It’s a tale that closely parallels Jolson’s own life of a cantor’s son who runs off to become a pop crooner and finally comes home on Yom Kippur to fill in on the bima for his dying father.
The second is sung by the great cantor Moishe Oysher in the 1939 Yiddish film “Overture to Glory” (“Der Vilner Shtot Khazn” or “Vilna City Cantor”). It’s a variation on the “Jazz Singer” theme with Oysher playing a young cantor who is lured from the synagogue to become an opera singer, learns his son has died, loses his voice, takes to the streets and finally stumbles back into shul for one last Kol Nidre before dying. Not to be missed.
After Kol Nidre we enter the evening Maariv service, which more or less begins with the Maariv Aravim prayer, Blessed is He who creates night and day and arranges the stars in the heavens. This is Bob Dylan’s approximate translation of the prayer, Father of Night, sung here by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band:
We’re back for Week 2 of our High Holy Day songfest as promised, this time in two parts. Part One includes Bob Dylan, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt and Joe Cocker, plus the legendary Cantor Moishe Oysher, Jerry Lewis (in a serious moment, sort of), Larry David and the Red Army Chorus performing with the Leningrad Cowboys. Part Two includes Barbra Streisand, Leonard Cohen, Abbott and Costello, Louis Armstrong, Israeli rocker Meir Banai and The Band, among others.
We start as evening approaches and we prepare to stand before the Gates of Heaven. You know the drill: It’s getting too dark to see, and we’re Knocking on Heaven’s Door. This is a live version sung by Bob Dylan, from a 1976 concert. Déjà vu: Joan Baez is again singing along, and verse 2 is sung, I think, by Roger McGuinn. (For a different perspective, try this version sung very credibly by the Red Army Chorus with the Leningrad Cowboys, or this one sung Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, released in 1996 with an beautiful new verse written with Dylan’s permission by Scottish musician Ted Christopher in memory of the schoolchildren killed in the Dunblane massacre that year. Children from the village are singing backup.)
Off to shul. Do you have a ticket? Uh oh. Here’s a very, very funny clip (3:21 total) about a ticket scalper working the street outside the shul, Bad Karma on the Kippur, created for the 2008 L.A. Film Race by Men on the Streets. (And here is the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry David picks up High Holiday tickets from a scalper and things proceed downhill.)
Next is the most powerful version of Kol Nidre ever committed to film, in my opinion. It’s sung by the great cantor Moishe Oysher in the 1939 Yiddish film “Overture to Glory” (“Der Vilner Shtot Khazn” or “Vilna City Cantor”). It’s a variation on the “Jazz Singer” theme with Oysher playing a young cantor who is lured from the synagogue to become an opera singer, learns his son has died, loses his voice, takes to the streets and finally stumbles back into shul for one last Kol Nidre before dying. Oysher joins in at 3:28.
The first Kol Nidre on film was in the very first talkie, “The Jazz Singer” with Al Jolson. I don’t have that piece of soundtrack, but here is the (partial) version Jolson recorded in 1947. For a complete Kol Nidre, you can’t do better than this one by Richard Tucker, the Lower East Side cantor who actually did become a famed operatic tenor. Note the fragment of Yaaleh Tachanunenu at the end. Here is a lovely Moroccan version of Kol Nidre sung by Erez Bitton. And for a peek at how the other half lives, don’t miss the renditions of Kol Nidre sung here by Perry Como and here by Johnny Mathis. Hey, if Irving Berlin can write White Christmas…
If there’s a Kol Nidre that comes close to Oysher’s for sheer pathos, though, it’s got to be the one that ends the 1959 televised version of “The Jazz Singer” starring Jerry Lewis. Following are the last 9 minutes of the show, with Jerry agonizingly torn between his big opening show and his papa’s pulpit. If you don’t have time for it all, the singing starts around 7:33.
O.K., so we did Kol Nidre and now we’re into the evening Maariv service, which more or less begins with the Maariv Aravim, Blessed is He who creates night and day and arranges the stars in the heavens. Up next is Manfred Mann’s Earth Band singing the Dylan version, Father of Night:
A new year approacheth, and it’s time for another holiday video concert. Actually, I’m doing two of them. This first one is a collection of songs that put me in the high holy day mood. The second one, coming next week, will include some holy-mackerel renditions of the Yom Kippur liturgy, including what I think might be the greatest Kol Nidre ever put on film and an Israeli rock ‘n roll version of a climactic moment in the closing Ne’ilah service.
But that’s next week. What I’ve put together right here includes songs on themes of sin, atonement, forgiveness and redemption, sort of in that order. It includes Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, Connie Francis, an Irving Berlin number, a few gospel numbers, Nina Simone, Kinky Friedman and a unjustly neglected masterpiece from Bob Dylan ‘s early days. Also Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme singing Bashanah Haba’ah. And more…
Up first is a gospel number, “(Please Forgive Me, Lord) For the Wrong I’ve Done,” sung by the late, legendary Willie Banks and his Messengers.
“For the Wrong I’ve Done,” Willie Banks and the Messengers.
“Mama Tried,” country great Merle Haggard’s huge, breakthrough No. 1 hit in 1968, is a searing, more or less autobiographical statement about Haggard’s childhood poverty, the loss of his father and his (then recently ended) life of crime. Unlike the song, though, in real life Haggard was never sentenced to life, much less without parole. He did several stints in juvie and San Quentin for burglary, assault and repeatedly escaping prison, before hitting it big in music and giving up burglary. He received a full pardon from Governor Ronald Reagan in 1972, shortly after releasing “Okie From Muskogee.” He once told Johnny Cash that he had been with him at his famous 1958 concert in San Quentin Prison, and when Cash said he didn’t remember Haggard being on stage with him, Merle said, “No, in the audience.”
“Mama Tried,” Merle Haggard.”
Now we move on from sin to repentance and forgiveness. We begin with Connie Francis’s deep meditation on the meaning of contrition, “Who’s Sorry Now?” Kidding. Actually it’s a sardonic observation about the uselessness of apology in fixing a wrong that’s been done. It was written in 1923 by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Francis recorded it in 1958. It instantly became a monster hit and catapulted her to fame.
“Who’s Sorry Now?” Connie Francis.
Next is Nina Simone’s 1965 version of “Oh, Sinner Man (Where You Gonna Run To?).” It’s notable for its hypnotic beat and this recently created, powerful documentary montage that goes with it.