Seymour Stein, Record Company Man Who Signed the Ramones and Madonna
The music mogul and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer talks about his faith in God, rockstar Kabbalah, and the soundtracks of life
Not at all. She was in it before the trend. She didn’t do it because it was trendy, just like she doesn’t help little children in Africa because it’s a trendy thing to do. She does it because she wants to. She’s not very interested in her own religion, the Catholic religion. I shouldn’t say this because I don’t really know, but from knowing her and being close with her my interpretation is that a lot of it had to do with her schooling at Catholic school and also with the fact that both of her parents were very religious Catholic and her mother was taken away from her at such an early age. Her mother died of cancer and she never got over it. That’s it. And then she just found the Kabbalah. I have several Jewish friends who have found Buddhism. Is that any less strange?
While Madonna is coming closer to Judaism, another one of your biggest stars was actually Jewish.
Yes, Joey Ramone. He was Jewish, of course. His name was Jeffrey Hyman—how could he not be? I knew his mother, she was a lovely woman, and I knew his brother. But we never discussed the fact that we were both Jewish.
Joey Ramone was the quintessential outsider. Do you think the fact that he was Jewish had anything to do with that?
No matter what religion he would have been he was an outsider. He was a sickly kid, he was a bit strange looking. He would have been an outsider if he was a Catholic living in Vatican City. But he was a lovely giving human being. Two weeks before he died he sent me a CD of a new band, as he did quite often. He was always trying to help people.
Do you remember what band it was?
No, I don’t remember. They weren’t very good. But Joey was always very giving of himself to young artists. I was also very close with Johnny Ramone and with Dee Dee, and in some ways the one I was closest with most of all was the original drummer, Tommy Ramone. He is a Hungarian Jew, but I never explored that with him. He’s a lovely, lovely man. I love the Ramones and I was very close with them. My ex-wife Linda was even closer with them, she was their co-manager for a long time.
Did they really sniff glue all day?
Not at all. The antithesis of that. Dee Dee had a drug problem but none of the others did at all. They were very clean. They didn’t want to go on the first Sex Pistols tour, although the Sex Pistols begged them to go, because they didn’t want to be spat at. In those days that’s what people did as a show of appreciation. They said, “We don’t get all this shit” and refused to go.
Let’s go back to your roots.
Both my parents were born in the U.S. My mother was born in Brooklyn, and my father was born on the Lower East Side, which was a big Jewish ghetto. They were very different. My mother’s parents, both Jewish, were not very religious. They were in the Italian food business, although they weren’t Italian. They were from Galicia, which was part of Poland, although my grandmother never liked to think of it as Poland. She thought of it as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which at some point it was. It kept going back and forth. My mother’s family wasn’t kosher or anything like that. But my father was Orthodox and my mother did all of it because that’s what my father wanted. And they had a very nice marriage. I also have an older sister. We lived in a very small apartment, and I imagine one of the reasons I got into music so early is because my sister is six years older than me and she was listening to it, so I couldn’t help but hear it.
I was born in Brooklyn, in Bensonhurst, which is an Italian and Jewish neighborhood. I had as many, if not more, Italian friends than Jewish friends. I went to public school, I didn’t go to yeshiva, but my father was quite Orthodox. The synagogue I went to was Shaare Tefilah, which was on Quentin Road and West 1st St. My father was the vice president of the synagogue, the rabbi was Rabbi Yechezkel Kahane, who was the father of Meir Kahane—the founder of the Jewish Defense League—and my teacher was Rabbi Rosenfeld—the man responsible for reviving the Bratslav sect of the Jewish religion. There must have been only 200-300 of them left after World War II and he revived the sect with trips to Uman in the Ukraine to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nachman. Thirty-thousand go for Rosh Hashanah every year. I went there twice, early on, in the 1990s. If I’m well and healthy I hope to go again, one more time.
Rabbi Nachman is like the rock star of Judaism.
Yes, he is. And you know, that’s me. Rock ’n’ roll is my life, so it makes sense.
Whenever I see young Bratslaver Hasidim, they are in a state of ecstasy, much like fans going to a rock concert. Is it like that for you too? Do you feel it’s like being a rock fan?
No, I just feel an attachment. I feel a strong attachment to Nachman’s teachings. If I had more time on this visit to Israel I would visit the man who’s carrying on the cause these days in Jerusalem, Rabbi Chaim Kramer. He lives in Mea Shearim, and I see him whenever he comes to New York.
What did you experience on your trips to Uman?
It was a wonderful experience. It’s hard to put into words. I hung out mostly with Rabbi Kramer. I was with really super-religious people, which was overwhelming for me because I can hardly even read Hebrew anymore. What I know I know from memory. I love the songs. This morning at the conference I sang Hatikvah to open up the meeting, which is different, it’s a nonreligious song, but I love that too. And I like all the prayers. The ones that I remember I remember very well, like the grace after meals. My favorite Holiday is Pesach because it has the most songs.
As a music lover, it seems your connection to Judaism is also through music.
Well, that’s certainly one of the aspects, but it’s not just that. It’s a connection to my father most of all. He was a great influence on me and a very religious man. On Saturday mornings when I came back from the synagogue I used to listen to Martin Block’s Make Believe Ballroom, hiding the radio under my pillow so my father wouldn’t hear. He wanted me to keep Shabbos. My father was quite strict in his own way, but I lived my own life. I knew from a very early age that the only thing that would make me happy is being in the music business and I was very fortunate. My dream came true.
Do you practice Judaism in your everyday life?
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