Friday, December 11, 2009

Electric Worrier

by Ben Greenman

Marc Bolan, of course, was the front man and principal songwriter for T. Rex, both in the band’s early hippie incarnation (Tyrannosaurus Rex, which evolved out of the psychedelic folk ensemble John’s Children) and in its later, more successful glam-rock version. You know T. Rex, of course, from “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” which went top ten in 1972 and the band’s only American hit. In Britain, though, Bolan and T. Rex were a rock-and-roll phenomenon who repeatedly rose into the top five with songs like “Hot Love,” “Jeepster,” “Metal Guru,” “Telegram Sam.” Bolan was the original glam superstar, with glitter on his cheeks and a particularly phallic V guitar. He was also Jewish.

It is perhaps gimmicky to end a paragraph with that sentence, because that implies significance, and it’s not clear that Bolan’s Judaism had any. Bolan was born Mark Feld to a truck driver named Simeon and a housewife named Phyllis, and though he was raised Jewish, he was technically a half-Jew, and not the kind that counts. (Bolan’s father, the truck driver, was the Jew, which is odd to begin with—truck driving isn’t in the top ten of Favorite Jewish Professions). Bolan’s lyrics ranged far and wide, into both earthy realms (lust and sex; the “vampire for your love” of “Jeepster”) and unearthly realms (nearly half of the 1972 album “The Slider” takes place in space), but they rarely seemed Jewish. And when Bolan’s mother visited a psychic after his death, the subject of his faith never even came up once.

And yet, if you scratch the surface, Bolan was a prototypical Jewish rock star. He trafficked in outrageous behavior, but from behind a disguise (see David Lee Roth). He assimilated completely, changing his name, like Robert Zimmerman before him or Chaim Witz after him. Finally, T. Rex’s music was almost liturgical in character: impossible to understand, easy to sing along with. In that spirit, I’m offering three T. Rex covers by Jewish artists: Paul Westerberg and the Replacements with a boozy “20th Century Boy,” Richard Hell (born Richard Meyers) and Dim Stars with a sharp “Rip Off,” and Kramer (born Mark Kramer) with a creepy “Get It On” that includes the creepiest of all pop-music ingredients, the children's choir. Only the last of these is explicitly figured as Jewish, appearing as it does on the Bolan installment of Tzadik Records’ “Great Jewish Music” series. The other two are Jewish only by implication, though the “move like a cat, talk like a rat” line in “20th Century Boy” has an uncomfortable echo of the Nazi propaganda film “The Eternal Jew.”

On September 16, 1977—a few days after Rosh Hashanah—Bolan got into a purple Mini driven by the singer Gloria Jones, his girlfriend, and never got out. The car struck a tree on Queens Ridge, Barnes, in southwest London. Jones broke her arm and her jaw. Bolan lost his life. Is it a coincidence that Bolan’s age when he died, twenty-nine and then some, almost exactly equaled the average length of a month in the traditional Jewish lunisolar calendar? Probably.


"20th Century Boy" mp3
by The Replacements, 1984.
available on Let It Be

"Rip Off" mp3
by Dim Stars, 1992.
available on Dim Stars

"Get It On" mp3
by Kramer, 1998.
available on Great Jewish Music: Marc Bolan


"Ride A White Swan" mp3
by T. Rex, 1970
available on T. Rex

"Monolith" mp3
by T. Rex, 1971.
available on Electric Warrior

"Life's A Gas" mp3
by T. Rex, 1971.
available on Electric Warrior

"Metal Guru" mp3
by T. Rex, 1972.
available on The Slider


Anonymous said...

Sorry to disappoint, and only matters pertaining to your particular discussion point, but Paul Westerberg isn't Jewish. You can look it up.

Ted Barron said...

Well, I thought the same thing, until Ben pointed me to this:

If there's snow on the ground, it can only lead me to one conclusion, Christmas and Hanukkah are just days away! It also means that I'm gonna have to work my ass off to finish my shopping without getting too panicked and without stepping on any housewives to find Johnny's transformers. I'm trying to keep myself from being too sentimental but there is nothing more amazing on Christmas morning than to see my little buddy running down the stairs and ripping the paper off all 400 of his gifts within a matter of seconds and then asking for more. Well, either way, I think it will be a good holiday from my part -- don't know about the wife, but she will probably have it just as well in line for the little guy. Just a little side note, in case you haven't come this "conclusion," I didn't start celebrating Christmas until I met the wife, as Westerberg is a very Jewish name and I have a very Jewish nose. I grew up only experiencing Hanukkah and when I hit about 25, she had turned me around. Afterall, eight days of presents may seem sweet, but there was too much work involved. Johnny will be exposed to it, but the great religious decision will have to be within himself.

Anonymous said...

You do know that this is not written by the real Paul Westerberg, don't you? There are a number of people writing on the web pretending to be him. I don't have a clue why. Anyway, there are a number of interviews with the real Westerberg printed in real magazines concerning his Catholic upbringing.