Adam Mansbach presents a listening list that parallels his new novel, The End of the Jews.February 1, 2008
Letting me talk about music is a dangerous thing—I’ve got an office full of LPs, and every one of them has a story behind it. I don’t know if the ten songs listed below could be mixed into any kind of coherent set—the DJ would have to have some serious skills, and even then a few of them might clear the dance floor—but each one has some kind of relationship to my novel The End of the Jews.
1. “Why Is That,” Boogie Down Productions, from Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop, 1989
In The End of the Jews, this song is hugely important to Tris Freedman, aka RISK, a Jewish hip-hop kid who finds himself DJing Bar Mitzvahs in 1989—which is not what he was hoping would happen when he bought his turntables. “Why Is That” showcases BDP frontman KRS-One at the height of his lyrical power and political relevance. His importance in 1989 is impossible to overstate; hip-hoppers of my generation all thought he would be a senator and/or able to levitate by now. KRS was one of the first MCs to use songs as forums for sophisticated argumentation, and here he uses Biblical quotes and references in service of the assertion that Moses was black: “Moses had to be of the black race / because he spent forty years at Pharoah’s place.” Tris plays this song to kick off each Bar Mitzvah he DJs, as a form of protest and a statement of allegiance. Being in a Jewish space, even one as compromised as the rich suburban Bar Mitzvah party, makes him uncomfortable, and this song becomes his response (along with stealing liquor from the bar). Nobody but him listens to the lyrics, of course; the challenge goes unreceived.
I love it when hip-hoppers use samples to indicate their artistic lineage, as KRS does here. The voice on the chorus—“the government you have elected is inoperative”—is that of Gil Scott-Heron, perhaps the greatest and most underacknowledged political musician in American history. The depth and breadth of his engagement is unparalleled; he makes Bob Dylan look like Kevin Federline and if there was any justice he’d have a MacArthur grant and be chilling. Instead, he’s in prison on drug charges.
2. “A Lullaby of Itsugo Village,” Elvin Jones, from It Don’t Mean a Thing, 1993
I was a roadie for Elvin from 1997 through 2002, and he was a close friend and a mentor until his death in 2004. (I was also with him for what turned out to be his final week of performances; here’s the piece I wrote about it for JazzTimes: adammansbach.com/other/elvin.html. This is a song I saw him play countless times, in clubs all over the world; it’s a traditional Japanese tune that his wife and manager, Keiko Jones, arranged. Elvin’s commitment to his art, and his belief in the transformative and healing power of music, were profound and humbling. I wish everyone had the opportunity to spend some time with someone so connected to his calling, so centered by it.
Elvin was a titan; as John Coltrane’s percussionist throughout the sixties, he revolutionized the way the drums were played—not just in jazz, but in every form of American music. This is the kind of song—by turns beautiful, haunting and forceful—that I imagine Albert Van Horn, the musician in The End of the Jews, playing. Elvin and Keiko were certainly partial inspirations for Albert and Mariko in the book. Long before Elvin passed away, I remember contemplating what Keiko would do without him—without this man whose music was like their child, their mutual reason for being—and that led me to write the chapter in which Mariko finds herself alone for the first time in forty years.
3. “Welcome to the Terrordome,” Public Enemy, from Fear of a Black Planet, 1990
Boy, did this song set off some shit! This was the middle of the end for Public Enemy, who at the time were the most important and controversial group in the world. Professor Griff, their “Minster of Information” (a job that seemed to mostly involve standing around—he was never on their records, really) had said some stuff in an interview about the Jews being “responsible for the majority of the wickedness” in the world, and all of a sudden there was chaos. The media, who were scared of PE’s militance to begin with, jumped on it. Chuck D, the group’s leader, had to decide whether to fire Griff. At the time “Fight the Power” was out as part of the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and Chuck didn’t want the controversy to derail this important film, so he kind of stood by Griff, then fired him, then unfired him—all under incredible scrutiny.
Then “Terrordome” came out in the fall. Chuck said “apology made to whoever pleases / still they got me like Jesus,” a line about the media that got misinterpreted as being a line about Jews. Whew. This is another song that, in ’89, mattered a lot to Tris. Even at the tail end of the eighties, black-Jewish tension was still crazy, especially in New York—the Crown Heights riots, Minister Farrakan and Reverend Jackson’s comments—and, if you were a Jewish hip-hop fan like Tris, you were rolling your eyes and wondering when the manufactured hysteria would die down and people would actually listen to what groups like PE were really saying. This music meant more to you than being Jewish did, and you inherently grasped the fact that there was no actual threat involved, that PE or whoever was not invested in hurting Jews—hell, you read their liner notes and knew they were down with Bill Adler and Lyor Cohen!
4. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Rashaan Roland Kirk, from Return of the 5000 Lb. Man, 1976
This is a Charles Mingus tune, an elegy to Lester Young. Rashaan Roland Kirk wrote these beautiful lyrics to it and recorded his own version. Lester Young appears briefly in The End of the Jews; Tristan Brodsky (Tris’s grandfather) sees him play at a club in 1935, shortly before Prez becomes famous. It’s Tristan’s introduction to jazz—he’s introduced to a lot of things that night.
Lester was a real character, renowned for inventing all kinds of slang, for ushering in a whole sartorial style with the rumpled three-piece suits, the porkpies, the casual way he held his horn. That photograph of him sitting with his sax, smoke rising from the cigarette between his fingers, might still be the most iconic image in all of jazz. I think this song makes this list, rather than an actual Lester Young tune, because my jazz education really began with the music of the sixties, and I had to go backward to pick up Lester Young. So in some way, I connect more with the Kirk/Mingus elegy for him than I do with the actual music he made, as great as it is.
5. “The Gas Face,” 3rd Bass, from The Cactus Album, 1989
3rd Bass was the first credible white hip-hop group, and this song was their take on race and racism—very much a behind-enemy-lines piece that cosigns and validates the kinds of statements their black peers were making at the time. MC Serch, who delivers the last (and strongest) verse here, is a Jewish cat from Far Rockaway, Queens, whose story is kind of the hip-hop version of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer—he was planning on becoming a rabbi or a cantor until a racist rabbi turned him away from the religion. He found his way back to it years and years later. He’s now the host of The White Rapper Show on VH1, and a friend of mine; I recently interviewed him for the magazine Guilt & Pleasure: "Soul Serching."
This song, alongside the BDP and PE cuts, forms a kind of tryptich detailing how race, hip-hop and Jewishness came together in 1989, when Tris was coming of age. Incidentally, the first white rapper ever—also Jewish—is another friend of mine, Vanilla B aka Lord Scotch, aka Keo, aka Blake Lethem. He actually designed the cover of my previous novel, Angry Black White Boy. And yes, he and Jonathan are brothers.
6. “Misterioso,” J.J. Johnson, from J.J. in Person, 1958
Devon Marbury, the other important musician in The End of the Jews, is a trombonist—outside of that one Paul Newman/Sidney Poitier movie, Paris Blues, trombonists never get to be leading men, romantic figures, so I figured I should give the instrument a little shine. Delfeayo Marsalis—who prefers to call his instrument a “trambone,”—was one of the people who educated me about jazz, and he introduced me to the work of J.J., the greatest trambonist of all time and the guy Devon gets compared to in the novel. J.J. was also the first person to take Elvin Jones out on the road, so I heard a lot of stories about him—how he and Tommy Flanagan and Wilbur Little and the rest of that band took Elvin out to eat all the time when he could barely afford better than hot dogs. This is J.J.’s take on the great Thelonious Monk tune, and it features an explosive, killer opening solo by Nat Adderley on cornet. I remember listening to this song with Delfeayo, and rewinding that solo again and again because Adderley just came at it so hard.
7. “Cocaine,” Sly & Robbie, from Black Ash Dub, 1980
I listen to more dub than anything when I’m writing: it’s mellow, it keeps you locked into a zone, and there are no vocals or changes to distract you: just these incredibly thick, funky basslines and hard-ass drum patterns, and snippets of other instruments coming in and out of the mix with crazy reverb and effects on them. Dub is really the first producer-based music; the Jamaican studio bands would lay the instrumentals, and then cats like King Tubby and Scientist and Lee “Scratch” Perry would come in and do these dub mixes to put on the b-sides of singles and have deejays chat over. So this is reflective of the kind of stuff I often bump when I’m writing, and also of the music I imagine would be playing at Talking Blues, the coffee shop (i.e., herb shop) Mariko sends Tris to in Amsterdam at the beginning of Book 2.
8. “When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band,” Collins & Harlan, 1906 (from the complilation Jewface, 2006)
First of all, yes—those six notes are indeed the melody to “God Bless America,” and yes, Irving Berlin jacked this bit of turn-of-the-century silliness about a conductor with a schnozz so big he doesn’t need a baton, and turned it into a baseball park anthem. This is from a fascinating compilation some friends of mine over at Reboot Stereophonic put together, and it’s an example of the kind of now-forgotten tune you might have heard at the Yiddish theater during the first quarter of the last century. Tristan references this song in the book, during a speech he delivers at Harvard University in 1953. He’s defending himself against charges that it was wrong of him to write Manacles—a novel about a Jewish-owned slaveship making middle passage—in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. He says that to understand evil, we must first understand it in ourselves, and brings up these songs to argue that Jews are comfortable being reduced to caricature but refuse to reckon with the reality that they, too, have been the hunters rather than the prey.
Long after I wrote this scene, I read Arnold Rampersand’s new biography of Ralph Ellison (whose name also comes up in this scene—Tristan responds to a student who quotes a vicious review of Manacles by Irving Howe by saying he’s in good company, since Howe didn’t like Invisible Man, either) and came across a scene in which Ellison, in 1967, is shouted down at a college gig by black power advocates in a strikingly similar manner. It’s funny; I didn’t intend for Tristan to evoke anybody, but I continue to find small commonalities between him and different writers of his generation: Ellison, Malamud, Mailer, Bellow, and so on.
9. “The Legend of Buddy Bolden,” Wynton Marsalis Septet, from Citi Movement, 1993
Devon Marbury’s band is an octet, and I imagine their music—improvisational but orchestrated, jubilant, historically inclined, New Orleansy—to be much like that of Wynton’s early nineties band, which I got to see play a lot, and which was one of my favorites. This tune has been a favorite of mine forever; I remember trying to write a poem to correspond to the notes of Wynton’s solo when I was in high school, and using the last few phrases of it—up until the part when Herlin Riley comes in with the cymbal—on my answering machine back when that type of thing was acceptable.
10. “Cold Crush Brothers at the Dixie,” Cold Crush Brothers, from the Wild Style soundtrack, 1982
My novel begins in the Bronx, and the Bronx contines to make its presence felt, in different ways, throughout. So I thought it would be appropriate to have something on here that gave a nod to the early days of hip-hop, which also started in the BX. There weren’t too many Jews left there (some, though) by the time Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa started spinning records in school yards and local cats started grabbing the mics and the spray cans and busting headspins, but it’s the same terrain, the same few square miles. This song is as faithful and accurate a recording as there is in terms of capturing the early Bronx sound. The Cold Crush Brothers are one of the original crews, and one of the best. Grandmaster Caz, their leader, made the mistake of lending his book of rhymes to a nonrapper named Big Bank Hank. His slapped-together crew, The Sugarhill Gang, usurped Cold Crush and ended up being the one to blow hip-hop up worldwide with “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979 (and no, Caz didn’t get a credit, or a check), but this is what the real shit sounded like.