Legal Riff Ends; Web Site Hails Jewish Rockers
This has been a heady year for the Jews of rock ‘n’ roll. After three fans announced their intention to launch a Web site called the Jewish Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the already well-established Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland sued for trademark infringement. Suddenly, a bevy of world-class lawyers was fighting over . . . the right to tell the stories of Gene Simmons, Michael Bolton and four-fifths of the J. Geils Band. Then, a few weeks ago, the legal clouds lifted sufficiently to allow the three fans — New Yorker writer Jeffrey Goldberg, Washington Post reporter David Segal and radio executive Allen Goldberg (no relation to Jeffrey) — to launch their diplomatically renamed site, Jewsrock.org.
So now, the world has a place to go if it wants to find out whether Paula Abdul is Jewish, how Alan “Moondog” Freed helped set rock ‘n’ roll in motion, who Nudie Cohn was and why David Lee Roth is a hero to his people. In honor of the occasion, we asked Jeffrey Goldberg about the Web site, the Jewish contribution to rock ‘n’ roll, and his own experience at the hands of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The following is an edited transcript:
Q. Our people gave the world Albert Einstein and Anne Frank, what . . .
A. Anne Frank?
Q. Anne Frank.
A. All right. Fine, fine. How ’bout Moses? Don’t forget Moses. He’s big. And the founder of Christianity, as well. And both Neiman and Marcus. Sorry. All right, go on.
Q. Our people gave the world Albert Einstein and Anne Frank; what, if anything, do we have to gain by exploring our connection to Gene Simmons, Barry Manilow and Kenny G?
A. What do we have to gain? What do we have to gain by disseminating knowledge? It’s knowledge about an interesting and unexplored intersection in American life, the intersection between Jews and popular culture.
Q. So you’re conceding the point? I mean, it’s fair to see you’re looking beyond the A-list to find most of your Jewish rockers?
A. What do you mean?
Q. Gene Simmons, Barry Manilow, Kenny G . . .
A. But we’re not just talking about just Gene Simmons, Kenny G, we’re talking about Lou Reed and Joey Ramone and Bob Dylan. We’re talking about Leiber and Stoller. We’re talking about a whole range of people. We recognize Kenny G for what he is; we put him in the category called “Bad for the Jews.” But if you look at our list, there are some pretty amazing people. Malcolm McLaren, who basically invented punk rock. I don’t mean to sound defensive about the Jewish contribution to rock, but Bob Dylan is the single most influential popular music writer of the last half century. And he’s a person who’s deeply, if fitfully, involved in his Jewishness. And don’t knock Neil Diamond, OK? I know you were thinking about it, but don’t do it. Just don’t do it — ’cause I think he’s a musical genius.
A. I love Neil Diamond.
Q. Anything in particular?
A. Uh, the entire canon. Put down, “the entire canon.” Not “The Jazz Singer” that much, to tell you the truth. Not my favorite.
Q. You mentioned Bob Dylan — Bob Dylan is, I think, religiously best known for renouncing his Judaism.
A. Yeah, but then he came back.
Q. So it still counts?
A. It totally counts. I mean, we’re not judging people and their commitment to Judaism, we’re simply saying these are people who are Americans and Jews and have done something interesting in music. But the fact is, he came back. And that’s what counts. And, in all seriousness, I’m surprised at the depth of the American Jewish contribution to rock ‘n’ roll, not only in terms of performers, but in terms of the people who define the canon in some way. I mean, Leiber and Stoller, two Jewish boys from Los Angeles, wrote Elvis Presley’s biggest songs. That’s kind of interesting and it’s not well-known.
Q. Paula Abdul is listed on your Web site. Are both her parents Jewish?
A. To the best of my knowledge. We are not applying strict rabbinical standards to the judgment of who’s Jewish. I mean, if somebody wants to be Jewish, if some rock ‘n’ roll star says, “Hey, I feel Jewish,” we’ll put ’em in there under the category of “Feels Jewish.”
Q. Who’s your favorite Jewish rock ‘n’ roller?
A. If I say Dylan, is that just too obvious? It has to be Dylan, [Lou] Reed, Joey Ramone and David Lee Roth, only because he went into rock ‘n’ roll to disprove Jewish stereotypes. I think he’s said — semicoherently — on many occasions that that’s why he wanted to become a rock star. I didn’t even know that he was Jewish until relatively recently, I’m embarrassed to tell you.
Q. It never would have occurred to me.
A. Well, here, take out the Lee: David Roth. Then you say, “Jewish.” [Say] David Lee Roth, [and] you think, Lynyrd Skynyrd. By the way, not a Jewish rock band. Definitely not. Randy Newman’s a great songwriter, by the way. Let’s not knock Randy Newman. You’re only touching a part of it when you’re talking about performers. You’re talking about some incredible people who’ve influenced rock music. Phil Spector and Alan Freed and Leiber and Stoller. I mean, the list goes on. And these are people whose influence has been far deeper than the J. Geils band, even though the J. Geils band is four-fifths Jewish.
A. Everybody in the J. Geils Band, except J. Geils: Jewish.
Q. Aside from David Lee Roth, was there stuff that really surprised you in your research?
A. Beck. Beck was one of my favorites. One of Beck’s great regrets is that he never had a bar mitzvah.
Q. Tell me about your legal problems.
A. We originally wanted to call [the Web site] the Jewish Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame objected to that and they sued us. We got a whole mess of lawyers who told us we could probably win and keep the name, except that the Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was utterly humorless and would fight us all the way to the Supreme Court. So we decided rather than fight forever for a marginally interesting name, we would change the name and launch. We couldn’t launch and fight at the same time. We suggested as part of a compromise that we call ourselves the Jewish Rock & Roll Challah Fame, like the bread. And their lawyers objected, saying people would still confuse us with the Hall of Fame in Cleveland. And I was like, wait: a Web site named after a braided Jewish egg bread is going to be confused with a massive, well-funded museum in Cleveland? But lawyers: not a funny group of people, generally speaking.
Q. Is there a lesson there?
A. We learned a lot of trademark law and we met a lot of nice lawyers in Cleveland. And they did us a tremendous service. One, they got us a tremendous amount of attention, for free. And in their lawsuit they listed Jewish rock ‘n’ rollers in the Hall of Fame. One in particular — the Flamingoes, a doo-wop group in the 50s — they were all Jewish, they were black Jews and they were among the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So we put the Flamingos on our Web site, and we never would have known, otherwise.
Q. Sounds good.
A. You should only be so lucky, to be sued by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.