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Book Excerpt: 'Heebie Jeebies at CBGB's'

Born in Brooklyn in 1942 to George Sidney Reed (an accountant and synagogue president) and Toby Futterman Reed (a former beauty queen and Hadassah leader), Lewis Allen Reed was in many ways the All-American-Jewish-Kid. Growing up in Freeport, Long Island, where his parents felt they could find those all-important essentials to a brighter future -- respectability and class -- Reed, like so many others of his generation, found instead suburban alienation and resentment.

Less than a year after the Reeds moved to Freeport, the then 12-year-old Lou embraced to his parents' regret the world of rock 'n' roll -- or its initial manifestation, rhythm and blues. Reed's biographer Victor Bockris, in his book Transformer, describes the family as increasingly troubled by Reed's interest in the music, worrying that it would derail him from his -- or rather their -- plans that he become a doctor or, like his father, an accountant. Keeping a wary eye on their son's increasing moodiness, they hoped for the best, even as they indulged his more outlandish desires, such as his demand that he be given an electric guitar and, a couple of years later, a motorcycle.

In "Standing on Ceremony," a song Reed claims to have written for his mother, he answers his parents' fears with his own attack: "Remember your manners, will you please take your hat off, your mother is dying, listen to her cough. We were always standing on ceremony, we were always standing on ceremony" (Growing Up in Public, 1980). This sterile world of manners and propriety rankled Reed as it did many of his generation. The so-called generation gap -- all the wider for Jewish Baby Boomers -- largely resulted from the disjunct these kids felt between their comfortable circumstances and those of their forebears. Like Reed -- the grandson of Russian Jews fleeing anti-Semitism -- the Jewish Baby Boomers knew that their grandparents, and to a lesser extent their parents, had known hard times. They knew that the lives they'd fled had contained ghettos, pogroms and even death camps. Yet, at the same time, they knew that those lives had contained a multitude of positive experiences that were forever lost to their American descendants. As even Hitler had observed -- albeit disparagingly -- Jewish "cosmopolitans" had helped make European cities vibrant centers of cultural excitement.

Growing up in the suburbs, divorced from his past (his father had changed the family name from Rabinowitz when Lou was 1), aware on some level that kids just like himself were being rounded up and gassed in Europe, Reed would have had plenty to feel angry, or at least nervous, about. Prominent anti-Semites such as radio preacher Father Coughlin and auto magnate Henry Ford reflected a general distaste for Jews among the American populace. As Bockris notes, even in childhood Reed exhibited that heebie-jeebies-like condition known as shpilkes. "The small, thin child with kinky black hair" perhaps suffered from the overprotective "Jewish mother syndrome" (according to a family friend), or perhaps was hurt by his father's "sarcastic Jewish sense of humor," which Reed clearly displayed on his album-as-stand-up-routine, Take No Prisoners: Live. Perhaps he was a taboo-breaking bisexual (though evidence suggests he may have been feigning effeminacy to torment his parents.) Or, most damning of all, perhaps he was a victim of what Albert Goldman, in his biography of Lenny Bruce (Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!!) called "Jewish love": "Jewish love is love, all right, but it's mingled with such a big slug of pity, cut with so much condescension, embittered with so much tacit disapproval, disapprobation, even disgust, that when you are the object of this love, you might as well be an object of hate. Jewish love made Kafka feel like a cockroach."

Whatever the case, one thing's for sure. When Reed began riding around his neighborhood on a motorcycle, a guitar strapped across his back, a sneer on his face in imitation of Lenny Bruce and Marlon Brando, his parents -- who'd heard more than enough from their son about his intention to become a musician -- reacted, determined to put him "right." They weren't about to see him turn into some sort of beatnik fag folksinger. They were going to nip this thing in the bud even if it meant subjecting their teenage son to procedures worthy of that Eastern European crypto-Jew, Dr. Frankenstein. They allowed doctors to administer electro-shock treatments nearly one hundred times during the summer between Reed's junior and senior years. They let those medical men play with his brain in an attempt to save the respectability of his soul.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steven Lee Beeber