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2000
The New York Times
December 13, 2000

A Tribute by So Many to Interpret a Solitary Man

"I grew up detesting Neil Diamond," Sean Altman said during "Hot December Night," the Loser's Lounge tribute to that self-described Solitary Man, which ended its four-night run on Saturday at the Westbeth Theater Center.

Taking his turn in a lineup that featured 30 different singers interpreting Mr. Diamond's songbook, Mr. Altman said he had initially been repulsed because his parents embraced the hirsute singer-songwriter. But then Mr. Altman raised his silky tenor voice in a rendition of Mr. Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" that produced chills, despite its dubious lyrics about gentle deflowering.

Ann Powers

(The full review is on the New York Times web site.)
The Washington Post
July 22, 2000

Rock-and-Roll Mensch

NEW YORK ≠≠ "Being Jewish isn't a problem for some rock stars," says Rob Tannenbaum, a New York freelance journalist who often writes about pop music. "If you want to be a singer-songwriter who writes smart, sensitive lyrics, that fits in with the archetype of Jews as being smart. But if you want to be in a hard rock band, then it's more of a problem.

"Overall, rock is about appearing cool," he explains. "And the pre-rock archetypes of being Jewish are really more about being smart and nerdy, which isn't cool."

Tannenbaum's observations were the impetus behind "From the Shtetl to Heavy Metal," the latest installment of his performance series "What I Like About Jew." The new show, presented Thursday night at the downtown CB's Gallery, underscores the often-downplayed Jewish contribution to hard rock and heavy-metal music.

"From the Shtetl to Heavy Metal" is a tongue-in-cheek celebration of Jewish rockers ranging from such '70s and '80s embarrassments as Kiss, Van Halen and Blue Oyster Cult to the seminal New York punks the Ramones and heavy-metal acts like Anthrax and Quiet Riot. "This evening," Tannenbaum announced as the show began, "pays tribute to loud stupid Jews with lots of chest hair."

A ragtag assemblage of musicians performed electric and unplugged versions of songs by various Jewish rockers, as well as their own original material. The program was a showcase rather than a revue, with a sprinkling of comedy between sets. There were plenty of jokes about circumcision and much self-deprecating humor; often, the two intersected. Audience participation was part of the show. One guy inexplicably sat in the front row and waved a chicken puppet throughout much of the evening. Tannenbaum co-hosts the series with singer-guitarist Sean Altman, whose father, Al, had traveled from Massachusetts for the performance. When Tannenbaum boasted about his sartorial splendor-"the full Miami" of white pants, white shoes, white belt and a striped blazer-Al Altman, like any Jewish parent, had a better idea. "Gold chains!" he bellowed. "No gold chains!"

Tannenbaum says he wants the series to be a cross between Van Halen and Billy Crystal, which might explain the song "Jews, Jews, Jews," whose lyrics include: "Jews run banks/ For this we get no thanks/ But we wonít have control of Hollywood / Until we have Tom Hanks." Then there was humor in the Catskills tradition. As singer-songwriter Lee Feldman settled in front of his keyboards, Sean Altman asked if he was comfortable. "I make a living," Feldman replied.

Ba-da-bing!

Feldman performed "Sally Canít Dance" by rock icon Lou Reed ("also a Jew!" crowed Tannenbaum). A Long Island woman, described in the program as "the artist formerly known as princess," sang Van Halenís "Hot for Teacher," a nod to "the Jewness" of the bandís former front man, David Lee Roth. Altman shared a taped snippet of what he said was cantorial singing by his grandfather before playing really bad cover versions of really bad songs by Van Halen, Kiss and Blue Oyster Cult.

The evening included Andy Shernoff, songwriter and bassist for the vintage punk band the Dictators, but the most riveting performer was Howie Statland, a scruffy rocker who wore a T-shirt that read "I Partied at Joannaís Bat Mitzvah" and who opened his two-song set with a terse comment about the anatomy of Jewish men that broke with the eveningís theme of self-deprecation.

For Tannenbaum, a drawling downtown wisenheimer, the subject of Jews in rock is a treasure trove of yuks. "Take as an example one of the most heavily Jewish rock bands," he said after the performance. "Iím sure there are lots of fans in the Kiss army who donít know how Jewish the band is. The two main singers and songwriters are both Jewish. One is Paul Stanley, whose real name is Stanley Eisen-heís the guitar player with the really hairy chest. . . . The other is the bass player, Gene Simmons, the guy with the long tongue. His real name is Chaim Witz, and he was actually born in Israel.

"If youíre calling yourself Eisen and Witz, itís great for an accounting firm, but itís not all that great for a rock band."

Ba-da-boom!

According to Tannenbaum, these artists are engaging in what he calls "the entertainment business equivalent of assimilation: In music, so much of it is about persona and invented identity. Thereís a long tradition of Jews and non-Jews changing their names. Whether youíre John Lydon or Chaim Witz, you want a cooler name, like Johnny Rotten or Gene Simmons." But Feldman views the subject with a little more gravity. "So many people change their names," he laments. "Maybe theyíre afraid or embarrassed about their Jewish identity and not that comfortable with their Jewishness." Feldman thinks that this may be changing, and he points to composer John Zornís recent "Radical Jewish Culture" series at the Knitting Factory, as well as the klezmer revival of the last decade. "As a Jewish musician working in New York, I find that affirming," he says. "From the Shtetl to Heavy Metal" ended with Tannenbaum inviting "all Jewsicians to the stage" for a grand finale version of Kissís "Rock and Roll All Nite" that felt a lot like karaoke. He reminded the audience that the next installment of "What I Like About Jew" will take place around the Jewish holiday of atonement, Yom Kippur, and that its theme will be Songs of Sin & Redemption."

Standing outside CBís Gallery, Al Altman boasted about his sonís accomplishments, including a song he wrote titled "Hanukah With Monica." The elder Altman, who is a college professor, has another son, the doctor. But he insisted he was never troubled by Seanís career choice in rock-and-roll.

"Disappointed? No," he said. "I just hope he makes a living."

Alona Wartofsky
Special to The Washington Post
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