Q&A: Scott Ian
Before the “Big 4” heavy metal show at Yankee Stadium, the Anthrax guitarist and lyricist talks Queens, Jews, and Louis Farrakhan
Scott Ian was a 14-year-old kid from Bayside, Queens, when he saw his first KISS show at Madison Square Garden. Now 47, and living in California with his wife Pearl Aday, who is Meat Loaf’s daughter, the rhythm guitarist and primary lyricist for the heavy metal band Anthrax is an energetic little man with an outlandishly long and pointy billy-goat beard that immediately marks him as a stage performer of some kind, or a refugee from a reality show or a circus.
A proud freak and knowing fan, a talented performer, a songwriter and businessman who has sold over 10 million albums of his music worldwide, Ian is a funny mix of brainless extrovert and outer-borough sharpie. Born Scott Ian Rosenfeld, he at first denied that being Jewish meant anything in particular to him growing up. As he tried to solve the riddle of why a Jew from Queens would be attracted to the music of meth addicts and assembly-line workers, he revealed a streak of ethnic pride that helped him explain why the Jew and the metal-head in him are actually the same person.
We met in the lobby of a boutique hotel in the East Village that was made up to resemble a boutique hotel in Los Angeles. We talked for 45 minutes during a round of press interviews leading up to tomorrow night’s “Big 4” concert at Yankee Stadium, featuring four of the biggest metal bands in the world: Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax.
Tell me about growing up in Bayside, Queens.
I didn’t know anything else. That’s where I lived. I loved it. It was great growing up there. Looking back on it now, even though we were growing up in Queens, it was very Americana, growing up with a pack of kids, Jewish, Italian, and Irish. We all played baseball. We all read comics. We all liked music. I thought it was a great place to grow up.
And your family was Jewish?
What did that mean in your family?
No. My parents at that point in time weren’t religious at all. We had a Christmas tree every year. We had a Seder. We had Rosh Hashanah. We’d go to Florida every Passover, to my grandparents’. My grandfather was Orthodox, and he was religious, but neither of my parents were. Of course, as they got older, it seems like they get more religious the older they get, even though they’re still not practicing Jews.
So who’s the better band from Queens: Anthrax or the Ramones?
I will absolutely say that Johnny Ramone was a huge influence on me. I’m a giant Ramones fan. But we couldn’t be more different as far as being a heavy metal band and what the Ramones are about, whether you want to call it a punk band or a rock ’n’ roll band or pop band. They had all of that. We don’t really have much of that. But, yeah, there’s definitely a line through from the Ramones to us because we all listened to the Ramones as kids. I saw them at Queens College in ’79, I think. I remember seeing them on the Sha Na Na TV show when I was a kid and then finding out they were from Forest Hills, which was only six, seven miles away from where I lived. It was just kind of amazing to me because they seemed completely reachable, whereas KISS—even though Gene Simmons’ mom lived a mile from where I lived—seemed completely out of reach, in a different universe. You could never do that.
Because they were too big, they played these huge stages with the tongues and the fire?
Yeah. The image. But the Ramones were just a bunch of dudes in Levis and leather jackets just like I was. So, that to me seemed obviously much more reachable and made the idea of being in a band a lot more real to me. Here were a bunch of dudes I could identify with because we looked the same.
When people think about rock ’n’ roll Jews from New York people think Lou Reed—that’s a Jewish rock ’n’ roll guy. Or the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village. But actually, there’s you, the Ramones, and KISS.
You spend a lot of time with Gene Simmons.
Yeah, we’re friends.
So, you see a guy who did what with his life?
He made every possible dream come true. He really did. He came here from Israel with nothing, him and his mother. No money. He created an empire that’s gotta be worth billions of dollars, and that’s pretty amazing considering that when he first moved to America he couldn’t even speak English. He had a thick, thick Israeli accent. That says a lot about his tenacity, his fortitude. He’s always been a role model for me in that sense.
That’s kind of how I feel I’ve been in this band in a lot of ways. It’s entertainment and it’s fun and everything else, but if you don’t handle the business side of things, it’s going to fall apart. Go find a new job. I think KISS is a very good role model looking at it that way. Obviously we’ve never been able to merchandise ourselves the way they do because we don’t have the image and the stuff. But from just meeting those guys over the years and touring with them over the years, you get a good sense of how their operation works and how they do things. You could sit and ask Gene questions for three hours. There’s nothing he loves more than to sit and talk about himself, which works out great for me.
Even though I know him and I’m friends with him, I’m still a sweaty 13-year-old when I’m with him. There’s still that part of me that’s thinking, I can’t believe I’m sitting there talking with Gene Simmons.
Of all the forms where you’d find Jewish musicians, heavy metal would not be the first one I would choose.
Why not? I’m certainly not a practicing Jew. I would never claim, “I’m Jewish.” That’s not the first and foremost thing in my mind, as far as who I am as a person. But I know a lot of Jewish history, of course. And if you take the Jewish history up to the Jewish immigrants coming to New York in the late 1800s and early 1900s, think about just how tough those people had to be, I can relate it to my own history. My grandfather, in 1916 I think it was, his parents had to smuggle him out of his village in Poland because the Germans had occupied it and they were killing all the men in the village. So, they paid people to smuggle him to Amsterdam, where he stowed away on a boat and got to Ellis Island with no papers, so they put him back on a boat. Lucky they didn’t send him back to Poland. They sent him back to Amsterdam, where he worked for six months, eight months, until he had enough money to get proper papers. Some family took him in, gave him a place to sleep. Came back to Ellis Island, this time with papers, went to the Lower East Side, got a job at a grocery store, and within a couple of years, he had his own store on Rockaway. When I think about how tough that was, anytime I complain about anything, it’s easy to think, you know, I don’t have things so bad.
But to answer your question: Jews are tough people. People think of Jews as the Woody Allen stereotype, the nebbishy kind of thing, but that’s not the kind of Jews I know. I know plenty of Israelis and plenty of tough guys that are Jewish. So, I think it makes sense that Jews play metal.
This brings me to the point where you became a hero of mine. When I was a young hip-hop kid, I was really into Public Enemy, because they were the greatest. And they were from here. And then they did “Bring the Noise,” which was on one hand the best song ever. And then it had that Farrakhan line there, “Farrakhan’s a prophet that I think you oughta listen to.” And I was just like, “Oh shit, this makes me sad. I love this band, I love this song, and here they’re promoting this weird, hating creep.” And then you did your cover. And I was like, man, he took this song back from them. Was that in your head at all?
For the 50th anniversary edition of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her publisher remembers the urban activist