George Tabb, the Brooklyn-born lead singer of the punk band Furious George, moved with his father and brothers to Connecticut after his parents divorced. He met Jonathan Ames when the two wrote regular columns for the New York Press; between them, they covered everything from sex to Jello Biafra. They recently discussed Tabb’s memoir Playing Right Field: A Jew Grows in Greenwich, which recounts, from a child’s point of view, episodes from his embattled youth in his homogenous hometown.
George, what was the compelling inner demon that made you write this outrageous book?
It’s memories of my wasted youth in the richest suburb in the United States. In Greenwich, there weren’t many Jews, and the ones that were there hid themselves well.
But with my big nose and curly brown hair, they had me pegged. So I got beat up everyday. It sucked. But it makes for great stories. About myself, others—my father. He was a boxer and I was his punching bag. He was the king, I was the reason his kingdom was failing.
Your dad is deceased. Did that free you up to write about him?
Not really, Jonathan. I started writing stories about him while he was still alive. Just to get it out of my head and on paper. Truthfully, as mean as this sounds, I wish he was still alive to read this book. To face himself in my mirror, and see what I saw. I still dream about wanting to kill him. In fact, the cover illustration for the book is a reproduction of a drawing I did for the school shrink in second grade. After coming to school with black eyes and stuff, they asked me to draw a picture of “Mommy, Daddy and Me.” That’s what I gave them. They called my father into the school, where he told me that if I ever drew something like that again, he wouldn’t just chop me up, he’d use a chainsaw to make it hurt more. I wish he could read this book. I also wish my real mom could have as well. But she has passed on as well.
Once I was in Harlem in strange circumstances in a rent-by-the-hour hotel and it was around 3:00 a.m. and there you were on cable off in the corner of my eye. It was just very odd. What caught my eye was your dyed-white hair. Did you dye it to escape being pegged as a Jew?
You saw me on my show, Destroy Television, which was on cable in New York City for about 10 years. Sorry to have intruded into your, well, whatever you were doing. I started dyeing my hair blue-black or jet black when I was around 19. At first it was so when I looked in the mirror I didn’t have to see, well, me. I also began cutting it very short at that time as well. I was no longer that Jewish kid with the curly brown Jewfro, I was a punk rock guy. As the years went by, gray began to grow in, so, I switched to blonde to cover it. It’s as simple as that. Plus the blonde makes my blue eyes stand out. But, yeah, I do sorta look like what I despised in Greenwich. It’s a mixed bag.
How Jewish was your upbringing?
Every December 25th, Jesus Christ came down our chimney and brought us lots of nicely wrapped gifts. Wait, that’s Santa. Doh. Anyway, we did have a menorah, and if we chose to use it, it was my brother’s and my job to light it. Since we liked fire, anyway, we did do the eight days, but got the gifts with the rest of the Christians. Oh, and Passover (which I liked to call Passout), we’d drink wine with my mom’s relatives until we puked matzo. It was wonderful.
Talk to me, as they say, about the title.
The title is really in two parts. Playing Right Field is sort of poetry in motion, it’s got a slight hint of Catcher in the Rye. A Jew Grows in Greenwich is more about being an outsider—as well as a play on A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. When you are called enough names, it becomes your nickname: George the Jew. Furious George the Jew. George the Dirty Kike. You get the picture. It wasn’t so much that I practiced the religion that I was and am a Jew by race. And in Greenwich, Connecticut, they are very race-conscious.
Did you ever confront your dad while he was still alive?
Oh yeah. I always felt I had to stand up to him, but I also always felt responsible for having a “relationship” with him. Lots of guilt that just ended so badly I’ll never recover. But that’s fine. In a way, my father did me the greatest favor any dad could do for his son, show him who he never wants to be.
I’m always asked this about my nonfiction: how much of this is made up or exaggerated?
It’s all true. 100%. Okay, well, 99%. Some people have been compressed and times moved around to fit tightly. But only very minor changes. It’s more of a perspective thing than a “true” thing.
I’m often asked this too, so I’ll spring it on you: Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?
Um, nope. I consider myself a guy who just happened to fall into things. Like punk rock, television, movies and writing. I was or am always at the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time. Life has kinda steered me, instead of me steering it. I’m now learning how to take control of the helm. Mr. Data, take us ahead at warp factor two. Engage.
A writer who happens to be Jewish?
Yeah, that could work. Truth is, I really wouldn’t know if the other kids hadn’t pounded it into me. I wanted to get a bar mitzvah really bad. I heard you got neat stuff and it made you a man and all. Which meant maybe I’d be able to even touch a girl.
Are you a musician first, writer second?
Like I said, I’m whatever I seem to fall into. I would have said musician a couple of years ago…but now I am beginning to realize it’s all the same. Creative is creative. Art is art. Emotion is emotion. However one expresses it is fine. I’m more of a songwriter than musician, anyway. I never practice!
Can a person be a punk after they turn 40?
I think you can be punk till the day you die. In fact, I know a few people who were. Punk, to me, is not about age, it’s about attitude, style, and your heart.