Richard Hell, one of the last-surviving colossi of the 1970s/1980s East Village, still ensconced in his original nest, is a figure who commands attention and respect when he strides Avenues A-B-C. He was a seminal star of punk rock and an eccentric eye-catcher in indie films and he has always been an acute observer of the cultural landscape.
A paperback collection of his essays, reviews, lectures and profiles will be released in October with the title Massive Pissed Love. He sent an advance copy to Orbmagazine and we are pleased to present an excerpt.
Richard Hell writes with the eye of an eagle and the sang-froid of a surgeon. In this introspective rumination, the celebrated rock star and author, born in 1949 as Richard Lester Meyers, biopsies his own Jewish blood.[from “Massive Pissed Love”, to be published October 9 by Soft Skull Press, an Imprint of Counterpoint/Berkeley. Copyright © Richard Meyers 2015]
“Nathanael West in Five Parts” (a lecture delivered in 2005)
1. Jewish Prologue
When Elinor Nauen called me up and asked me if I’d like to deliver a lecture on a Jewish writer, I didn’t know it was because she regarded me as a Jew. I thought she liked me for myself!
But in the last few years I’ve been finding that more and more people are regarding me as a Jew, so part of the reason I agreed to do this talk was to investigate the issue a little. Frankly, I hadn’t thought of myself as a Jew. Am I a Jew? What is a Jew? I’ve asked a few people. My favorite reply to that came from Cliff Fyman: “It’s a great question. Why spoil it with an answer?”
Nathanael West’s real, or original, name was Nathan Weinstein.. His mother’s maiden name was Wallenstein. Both sides of the family were Russian Jews. There was a period in his early twenties when West would sometimes represent himself as Nathan von Wallenstein Weinstein. The “von Wallenstein” was a fantasy reference to the 17th Century Czech Duke and soldier about whom Schiller wrote a cycle of plays. Was West embarrassed to be a Jew? Maybe a tiny bit. Maybe not. Anyway, he didn’t want to be held back by it.
In America, you’re supposed to be whoever you want to be. Some people would think less of him for changing his name. I remember how funny it seemed and how surprised I was when I learned that Erich Von Stroheim, the great and famously strict and meticulous Teutonic film director and actor, was actually the Austrian Jewish son of a hat-maker. Josef Von Sternberg, the mentor of Marlene Dietrich and director of her baroque, lavish and darkly erotic greatest films was born Jonas Sternberg in Vienna, the son of very poor Orthodox Jews.
What am I getting at? I don’t know exactly. I guess that it’s that I’m ambivalent about my own Jewishness. I think also that West’s desire to have charge of his own identity, and his rejection, to some extent at least, of his Jewish roots, played a part in his artistic sensibility. But that isn’t really the subject of my talk. I want to bring it up, but I also want to get it out of the way and move on. Which is kind of my whole attitude towards my own Jewishness.
So, what is a Jew? I’ve come to a conclusion about that. My father Ernest Meyers was an intellectual secular humanist, son of Jews. He was an atheist, or at least what they call an agnostic, behaviorist psychology professor whose parents were also professionals who didn’t practice religion though they certainly regarded themselves as Jews. My best information is that their predecessors emigrated from Germany in the early nineteenth century.
My mother came from poor Southern WASPs in Birmingham, Alabama, of Welsh and English ancestry, and they were Methodists. She was the first person in her family to go to college. She met my father at Columbia University. I was born and grew up in Kentucky. My father died when I was seven, and as you can see, I don’t even know what a Jew is. Nobody ever told me anything about it. I’m fifty-five and I wore my first yarmulke at Elinor’s Bat Mitzvah a couple of years ago.
But some way or another I’ve in recent years become publicly identified as a Jew in a way I hadn’t been before. I was invited onto a Jewish-oriented radio show back in the ‘90s and I went on it and talked about my ethnic background a little, so maybe that was a factor….
Four or five years ago a book called “Jews Who Rock” came out that listed me as a Jew, and I started getting regular requests for interviews and gigs that had some Jewish connection. I was kind of annoyed by that book. I thought, “Shouldn’t they have talked to me before they claimed me?” I didn’t really regard myself as a Jew. Anyway, it was muddy. What is a Jew?
Well, I’ve concluded that a Jew is anyone whom anyone else calls a Jew. I realize that I am a Jew because it’s only healthy to understand that that’s the case. Put plainly, Hitler was not an isolated phenomenon. We know it happened in Germany in our parents’ or grandparents’ lifetimes to many Jews who regarded themselves first as Germans. But the most cursory knowledge, even the history in this lecture about Nathanael West, makes it clear it can happen at any time, anywhere.
That’s what being a Jew means to me, because that’s what I know about Jewishness. That Jews are whom other Jews can claim and whom bigots can reject and attack and seek to harm. So I realize that I qualify. Maybe someday I’ll know more, but for now that’s enough.
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Talk given for lecture series “By the Waters of Manhattan” “by/on Jewish poets” for Jewish Below 14th and Committee on Poetry, at Poets & Writers, NYC, 2005
Richard Hell wonders if he’s a Jew in new collection of essays
by Richard Johnson
Richard Hell, who helped create punk rock at CBGB in the ’70s, asks himself “Am I a Jew?” in a new book, and his answer is “Yes.”
Hell, who played in Television and Richard Hell and the Voidoids, has a collection of essays, “Massive Pissed Love,” coming out next week from Soft Skull Press, an Imprint of Counterpoint.
In an excerpt in OrbMagazine.com, Hell — born to a Jewish father and a Methodist mother in 1949 as Richard Lester Meyers — says he was annoyed a few years ago when he was included in a book called “Jews Who Rock.”
“I thought, ‘Shouldn’t they have talked to me before they claimed me?’ I didn’t really regard myself as a Jew. Anyway, it was muddy. What is a Jew?”
Hell points out that Hollywood legend Erich von Stroheim was Jewish, as was Nathanael West (ne Weinstein), who wrote “The Day of the Locust.”
“Was West embarrassed to be a Jew? Maybe a tiny bit. Maybe not. Anyway, he didn’t want to be held back by it,” Hell wrote. “In America, you’re supposed to be whomever you want to be.”
But if Jews claim him as one of their own, and bigots discriminate against him, Hell says that makes him Jewish. “I’ve concluded that a Jew is anyone whom anyone else calls a Jew.”
“Hitler was not an isolated phenomenon,” Hell states. “It can happen at any time, anywhere.”