Saturday, January 29, 2022

Somerville writer Steven Beeber: Finding the bagels, knishes and schmaltz in Punk Rock


I caught up with Somerville writer Steven Beeber, author of Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk. This study of the intersection of Punk Rock and Jewish culture must make for a very interesting read. I don't know if any Punk Rock dirges have made it into a hymnal yet, or can be interpreted through Talmudic Law.... but hey, as the Bard wrote, " Ah, Sweet mystery of life."

How has living in Somerville been for your writing life. Do you think it is a good place for creatives?

Somerville is an excellent place to be a writer. I’ve heard it said that there are more writers here per capita than anywhere else in the country. I’m not sure that’s true (I’m not a statistician), but I do know that in a field that can often be lonely and isolating, that there is a genuine community here, which is so important. It’s not Paris in the ‘20s, maybe, but the cafes are plentiful and the gatherings regular, so it isn’t far off. Also, my wife and I both have writing “sheds” in our backyard, so that’s yet another plus. On a more serious note, it should be said that the institutional support from the city itself is amazing. The Somerville Arts Council, among other institutions, is pivotal to providing not just support, but a forum in which writers can reach an audience.

How in the world is Jewish culture reflected in of all things-- Punk Rock?

Jewish culture, as opposed to Judaism the religion, is deeply embedded in Punk, especially the original version of Punk that came out of New York City. Needless to say, New York is home to many Jews, and this was especially true in the 1950s and ‘60s, the period during which the Punks came of age. The character of Jewish culture—ironic, humorous, attuned to the injustices inflicted upon the marginalized—is all but synonymous with Punk. Add to that a preoccupation with neurosis, anxiety, and, above all, Nazis, and you have all the ingredients to birth a new rock movement. Ultimately, I would say that Punk was a reaction to the Holocaust by the first generation that was raised in its aftermath.

Did the Ramones, John Zorn, Lou Reed, the Dictators, etc... ever talk extensively about their Jewish background in regards to their music?

Only John Zorn did before I approached them about my book. His Radical Jewish Culture movement took the unspoken elements of NY Punk to an explicit level, which makes sense since he is categorized as Post-Punk more than Punk. But in regard to the others, all of them did speak about their backgrounds extensively on record for my book. Tommy Ramone (born Tamas Erdelyi), for instance, was raised in anti-Semitic Hungary until coming to NY as a child, and his idea for what became the Ramones bore all the hallmarks of his conflicted feelings about being an outsider. In many ways, Tommy was the mastermind behind the band, the original manager who insisted that they look and behave a certain way, the one who came up with their signature drum sound and joined the band because no one else could be taught to play it, the one who, most pivotally, insisted against the other members protests, that Joey be the lead singer. While Dee Dee and Johnny felt that Joey was the opposite of what a rock star should look like, Tommy knew that it was this very quality that made Joey perfect. As I say in my book, this look was about as Jewish as it could be, to the point where Joey could have passed for an anti-Semitic caricature in the official Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer. In regards to The Dictators (all of whom were Jewish), the lead singer, Handsome Dick Manitoba and the original songwriter Richard Meltzer, were especially forthcoming about the connection, though others such as the producer, Sandy Pearlman (of “Mo cowbell” fame) and lead guitarist and band founder, Andy Shernoff, were clearly influenced by their backgrounds. Lou Reed, of course, wrote indirectly about his Jewishness from the beginning and more explicitly about it near the end. “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” from the Velvet Underground’s debut, appears to be about the killing fields of Holocaust-ravaged Poland, and “Egg Cream,” from one of his last albums, extolls the magic of that “Jewish elixir” that was so much a part of his New York Jewish boyhood. Reed also took part annually in the gathering known as The Downtown Seder, a hip Passover gathering organized by the Knitting Factory founder Michael Dorf, in which Reed would read the traditional Four Questions attributed to the Wicked Child. Many other members of the Punk scene also spoke at length about their Jewish backgrounds, including, among others, Lenny Kaye of The Patti Smith Group, Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs, Alan Vega of Suicide, and Punk manager and impresario, Danny Fields (to whom Legs McNeil dedicates his oral history of Punk Please Kill Me.) My book, The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk, contains profiles based on extensive interviews with almost every early Punk rocker of importance.

The Punk Rock scene originated in the Lower East Side of New York City, once the home of many Jewish immigrants in the early part of the last century. This was fertile ground for the Jews starting out in America. How did this neighborhood help to birth this new genre of rock music?

I actually published an essay about this very subject in a collection called Jews: A People’s History of the Lower East Side. In it, I posited that the LES was pivotal to the burgeoning Punk scene. Not only did Hilly Kristal (born Hillel Kristal on a Zionist Socialist collective in New Jersey) choose that location for CBGB, the club that became the ground zero for the scene, Tuli (Naphtali) Kupferberg of The Fugs and Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground both performed there regularly during the late ‘60s when future punks such as Chris Stein of Blondie religiously went to see them. Tuli remained there most of his life, and Richard Hell (Richard Meyers) fled there from anti-Semitic Lexington, Kentucky as a teenager. I could go on, but the bottom-line is that many of those who laid the groundwork for Punk and many of those who brought it to fruition, both lived and worked there, and even if they didn’t, they were influenced by its volatile mix of gritty urban drama and theatrical liberal schmaltz. It’s no mistake that CGBG was within spitting distance of Ratners, Katz’s and the Second Avenue Deli.

I am Jewish, and have a weakness for the Concord, Grossinger's style of Jewish Borscht Belt humor. How did this play out in this music scene?

The Borscht Belt is at the heart of everything. The Punk rockers as teens idolized Lenny Bruce, who began in that world before becoming too risqué to continue there. But other Borscht Belt comics, while tamer on the surface (at least in terms of four letter words), still held the same attitudes as Bruce and dealt with them in the same way. So much of Borscht Belt humor is a coded attack on the mores of polite society, a sendup of the stuffy, hypocritical world in which Jews found themselves. Think, in an earlier era, Groucho doing his number on society doyenne Margaret Dumont. At the same time, this humor was also self-directed, a way of defusing the attack through self-deprecation that at times hinted at genuine internalized self-loathing. Jerry Lewis and his arrested development act, Henry Youngman and his “take my wife, please,” Groucho himself and his “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Remember, too, though that Groucho is also renowned for his reply to a restricted club that denied his half-Jewish daughter admittance: “If she keeps out of the water from the waist up, maybe you could let her in the pool?”

I don't know if my old Rabbi would agree with your thesis. Has the book been used for serious study in the Jewish academy?

Yes. But I wouldn’t say it’s limited to the Jewish academy. I have been asked to speak on the topic at conferences and universities around the world, and in fact am pretty well known in Germany. You know the phrase, “I’m big in Japan?” I often say I’m big in the other former Axis power.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Red Letter Poem #95

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner




Red Letter Poem #95



What should I not say about this poem? 


Because, when reading the work of Rae Armantrout – author of ten poetry collections that have brought her such honors as the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship – some of the richest moments are triggered by what is not included within the verse yet somehow materializes in the gaps between lines or even in the magnetic zone between two words.  In the house that is Rae’s consciousness, it seems the walls are paper-thin; strains of poignant music are interwoven with bits of familial patter, pop culture tidbits, solitary reflection – all bleeding through and interacting on the page.  And because of this, her poems can make us feel the current speeding along the skeins of neurons as thoughts leap across various areas of the brain.  In an Armantrout poem, creativity is connectivity and, reading our way inside, we thrill to see where the signals will lead us.


Rae was one of the early West Coast practitioners of Language poetry – something of a cross between verse, philosophy, and rarified semiotics.  But unlike many of her New York counterparts, her poems always possessed a sort of ingrained lyricism, and imagery that was less abstract and more intimately connected to our workaday (and contradictory) selves.  As she herself explained, “you can hold the various elements of my poems in your mind at one time, but those elements may be hissing and spitting at one another.”  Today’s poem will appear in her new collection, Finalists, coming from Wesleyan Press early in March.  In some of her recent work, those context-shifting sparks have been muted a bit in the service of a deeper emotionality – and yet we still feel ourselves stepping lightly, sensing the tremors beneath our feet.  So when she says: “I’ll miss you so much when you’re gone”, does she mean the leaves?  The day?  The autumn?  This thinking-aloud on the page?  Or is she seeing right through the page to fix upon our eyes passing over each line, our interaction (our very lives) fleeting?  Saying would only still that tuning fork her words have struck; not saying – even to myself – allows me to feel the vibrations rippling out across my inner darkness where thoughts begin to move in sympathy.  I have the sense I am continually homing-in; and then, exiting the poem, I can see my own home in sharper relief.     


I think this points to what, in the past, our educational system has gotten wrong about the teaching of poetry: it conveyed the idea that there was a right answer concerning a poem – an astute and demonstrably correct interpretation that we too would reach – if only we were smart enough.  And who (but those of us already irretrievably addicted to this material) would want to embrace such a calculating intelligence test?  We sons and daughters of Walt Whitman are more likely to believe there are a multiplicity of right answers at work inside any poem containing real power – an overdetermined set of meanings, neither random nor trivial, quietly arising from within the text.  Or put another way: there is indeed a right answer for a poem such as “Crescendo”, and it’s the one that poet and reader alike will conceive of – and continually reconceive – according to their evolving hearts and the passing days.  This is the sense I get from reading Rae’s poetry: that I can shake free from the habits of mind, even if only for a few minutes, and better understand our human circumstance.  In a time when the pandemic has wholly reshaped how we think about our lives, I often feel my mind traversing the suddenly-unstable, then gradually-luminous earth beneath my feet.  As the poet Rilke urged, standing beneath Apollo’s vacant gaze: “You must revise your life.”  I find the work of poets like Ms. Armantrout helps in that re-envisioning.







   The Light 1


Three o’clock, about two hours of light left,

glorious on the ornamental pear,

some leaves grizzled dark red.

The large leaves of what we think is

mock orange— yellow again, as when they first

appeared— and will soon fall.


I’ll miss you so much when you’re gone.

I’d miss you if I looked away

or if a cloud covered the sun.

I miss this moment

as it goes on happening.



   The Light 2


That little tree,

leaves now grizzled

gold and dark

red, is past

all transaction––

stiff in crescendo,

praising no one.


The gold my people

razed the world for­­––


cashed out there.



  –– Rae Armantrout




The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)   

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our homes, we could still face this challenge together.  As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors.  Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country.  And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.”


Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified.  Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.


Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0.  For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives?  It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy.  Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love.  Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member?  Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?  So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life?  Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse?  Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet?  Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?  The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.


Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog (, and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene (  If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:

Thursday, January 27, 2022



MY BROTHER IS NOT A MONSTER, By Lee Varon, Illustration, Alisha Monnin (Rachlee Books, Boston MA) - Available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or

When I began my career as a clinician at a substance abuse program, my treatment team met with an agent from the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). I learned that the fastest rising group of drug users was 8th graders - this, in the early 1990’s. 30 years later, the drug epidemic has killed thousands of Americans, including many young. As a comparison, in 2020, 52 people aged 0-39 died from Covid-19. In 2020, there were over 2,000 overdoses, just from opioids, in Massachusetts alone; 554 were under age 35. As I read My Brother Is Not A Monster: A Story of Addiction and Recovery, I recalled many situations from my clinical days - parents dealing drugs hidden in their baby strollers, 4-year-olds babysitting their younger siblings when parents left to get high, empty refrigerators, kids finding their parents or siblings overdosed, or dead.

Lee Varon, Cambridge poet and author, has never been one to shy away from controversial and difficult subjects. Now she has authored My Brother Is Not A Monster: A Story of Addiction and Recovery (Rachlee Books, Boston, MA). This is one of a few (and sorely needed) books I am aware of on the subject of teen drug addiction. Addictions are commonly viewed as moral and/or individual weakness, so it's on the addict and those near and dear to ignore and/or hide it, or deal with it. But, the truth will out, in all its messiness. That is the premise of Varon’s book.

This is the story of Sophia, her friend, Casey, both youngsters, and Sophia's older brother Joey. It’s Halloween night, there’s costumes, and trick or treating. Sophia’s Mom has to work the night shift, so leaves big brother Joey in charge. But Joey, dressed as a monster, meets his pal Harry during trick-or-treating, and up to no good, abandons his two charges. When Sophia and Casey get back to Sophia’s, things go swiftly downhill. They find Joey passed out in his room. Then it’s fear, panic, and calling 911. EMTs arrive, give Joey Narcan and save his life. The artful illustrations by Alisha Monnin are realistic, and do not sugar-coat events. Joey’s ashen face as he is wheeled away, and the worried look on Sophia’s as she talks with her mom, depict the gravity of the situation. Thankfully the story has a positive ending, with Joey heading to rehab and then recovery school. The story is compelling and realistic. If only all addicts were so lucky…

Varon has skillfully woven many facets of addiction into this tale, from common symptoms (Joey’s stealing and skipping family events) to explanations (Mom educating Sophia about addiction). Monnin’s illustrations add to the mix, such as the “One Day At A Time” poster in the illustration of Joey’s recovery school room). The language is straight-forward and simple. Varon avoids a lot of technical terminology so the story will be understandable to youngsters. I’m not a professional educator, but this book seems appropriate for ages 10 (around 5th grade) and up.

I shared this with a “tween” I know, who deemed it “pretty intense” but could see it in a health education class, or read with a parent or caregiver. There’s a glossary, worksheets and a resource list included, helpful for teachers and parents. Personally, I think My Brother Is Not A Monster should be in every school and public library. And for those who think the topic isn’t appropriate for kids, addiction is a topic everywhere - on TV, on-line and on social media, in movies, and in schoolyard chatter. And sadly, it’s often in their own families. Our kids are probably more aware than we think.

****Julia Carlson, MSW, worked as a clinical social worker in addictions for over 25 years.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Somerville’s Denise Penizzotto: An artist of the 'sacred'


Somerville’s Denise Penizzotto: An artist of the 'sacred'

by Doug Holder

I met Somerville artist Denise Penizzotto at the Tatte cafe in Harvard Square. Penizzotto is new to this area, and is studying for an advanced degree at the Harvard Divinity School. For a woman with an impressive, and long resume she presents herself in a decidedly unaffected way, and has the sensibility of a serious, working artist… with a good heart.

Penizzotto, who is originally from Minnesota has lived in New York City for the past 30 years. Recently she got a Mellon Foundation grant to explore what makes art sacred, with contemporary art and sacred space in mind. Penizzotto said, “ Historically—art has expressed faith and religion. At times in history, when a lot of folks didn’t read, art provided the narrative and the message of the Bible, Koran, etc…

Before our interview, I looked at her art on her website. One of the many pieces that interested me was a picture-based storytelling project that Penizzotto calls her “Chicken Book.” Penizzotto explains, “ The book has watercolor paintings of a beautiful-looking chicken. This unfortunate bird eventually loses its feathers, and without  her beautiful plumage, well...the center does not hold, and the bird falls apart. This is an apt metaphor for a world that is losing its own ‘ beautiful plumage’ to climate change, and other sins of our fathers, and our sins as a whole. Below is a beautifully, evocative painting by Pennizzotto titled, "12 Birds of Extinction" that has in some ways a similar theme to the " Chicken Book."  The reader see that behind all this floral fecundity, there lies the birds of extinction... avian messengers of impending disaster.

Although Penizzotto has a definite social message in her art, sometimes... well... it is-- what it is. In one intriguing painting Penizzotto imposes her own expressive face in the John Singer Sargent work -- “Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.” (1882). She told me she simply wanted to feel what it was like to inhabit these flowing dresses, these undoubtedly corseted bodies-- of these very privileged women.

Penizzotto, also told me she has worked at Riker’s Island, the notorious prison located in New York City. In her workshops there --with 17-21 year old inmates, after a bit of trial and error she found success with her students by having them create portraits of each other. According to the artist, this made her classes far more interesting and fun for her charges. This in not to say that it was not a frightening environment. There were many scary things to encounter while working in a prison, such as the time the prison was locked-down because of violence and Penizzotto had to wait for over six hours before she could leave. She reflected, “It was a very., powerful and emotional time for me, but I am convinced that art can be a rehabilitate experience.”

An eclectic woman, Penizzotto has done work in the theater. She talked about her stints at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where she worked as a set-designer for a joint project with England’s Old Vic Theater. She did set design for these Shakespeare productions, and traveled around with the company. Later Penizzotto worked with BAM’s Harvey Theater, where she worked with the restoration of the plaster-work of its walls to give it, as she put it, “that oddly, romantic and decrepit feel.”

The artist told me she is also at work in Hell’s Kitchen section of New York, to restore the only Arnold Belkin mural in existence now, “Against Domestic Colonialism.”

Penizzotto told me that her main focus is finishing her studies at Harvard, and to also find studio space in Somerville. She also wants to connect with our rich mother-lode of artist that live in our burg. We heartily welcome her!!