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On the Bookshelf

Playing music: Books on too-expensive concert tickets, the too-Jewish-sounding Simon and Garfunkel, and the just-Jewish-enough Louis Armstrong

by
Josh Lambert
July 05, 2011
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

It wouldn’t be the summer concert season without absurd ticket prices, or, for that matter, without ticketing systems that everybody loves to hate. Among other things, Dean Budnick and Josh Baron explain why service fees are more expensive than the tickets themselves in Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped (ECW, June). Given that American Jews turned ticket sales into an art in the heyday of vaudeville and the nickelodeon, it seems appropriate that they also contributed to the field’s modernization: Budnick and Baron’s tale begins in 1966, when the Bronfman family bankrolled a computer hardware expert named Harvey Dubner to develop an electronic sales system, and then takes off in 1982 when a lawyer, Fred Rosen, centralized ticketing for sports and concert venues, tacking on fees and building his company, Ticketmaster, into an industry juggernaut with ticket sales reaching almost $2.5 billion per year.

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Cashing in on massive concert tours was not always de rigeur for pop musicians. Take Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, two members of the Jewish AEPi fraternity, whose names some record execs at first considered “too Jewish-sounding.” The duo gave only seven concerts in 1970 in support of Bridge Over Troubled Water, according to David Browne’s Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970 (Da Capo Press, June), which contextualizes four classic albums released in that year. Simon and Garfunkel split up soon after the release, but even without much touring the LP reportedly sold 1.7 million copies in its first three weeks, unseating the Beatles’ Abbey Road from the top of the charts.

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Popular music has always managed to beguile the poor and the wealthy alike. Jerry Blavat—a half-Jewish, half-Italian son of a bookie—first appeared on Bandstand at the age of 13 in the early 1950s and then went on to distinguish himself as a Philadelphia disc jockey and nightclub owner with ties to stars like Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra, and also, stereotypically, to organized crime families. Pushing 70 now and still spinning oldies, he recounts the highlights in You Only Rock Once: My Life in Music (Running Press, July). Around the same time Blavat was starting out as a teenybopper, Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild de Koenigswarter, a 40-year-old European aristocrat, was seriously digging jazz: In fact, she left her husband and five young kids so as to become the patron of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, among others. Telling her story in Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness (Norton, June), David Kastin suggests that she gravitated to jazz musicians as a way of escaping from the suffocating Rothschild “mishbocho [sic]” and the “aristocratic Jewish banker with deeply held traditional values” who she’d married.

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Ricky Riccardi also focuses on the postwar decades in What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years (Pantheon, June), which takes seriously Satchmo’s late career, during which the trumpeter functioned not just as a performer, but also as a symbol of American pop. It was in these years, Riccardi reminds us, that Armstrong recorded some of his most iconic tunes; Pops also reflected, toward the end of his life, on his relations with the Karnofskys, the Jewish New Orleans family for whom he had worked as a boy.

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Among his other achievements—popularizing the term “sexual revolution”; fascinating Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, and Allen Ginsberg; dying in prison after being busted by the FDA for selling large wooden boxes in which people would sit to gather up their “orgone energy”—the radical sex theorist Wilhelm Reich also managed to inspire at least two pop songs, as Kim Cooper pointed out in a talk, in May, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Patti Smith’s “Birdland” and Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting.” For those who want to know more about Reich than can be conveyed in a music video starring Donald Sutherland, Christopher Turner surveys the man’s bizarre but consequential career in Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America (FSG, June).

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Should the prayer that begins Yom Kippur, and is the subject of Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s edited collection All These Vows: Kol Nidre (Jewish Lights, August), be considered American popular music? Yes, it absolutely should: As Tablet Magazine Contributing Editor Ari Y. Kelman noted last year, the medieval Aramaic prayer has been covered by the likes of Perry Como and Johnny Mathis. Hoffman’s book includes dozens of short essays by rabbis and artists who discuss the historical and theological aspects of the prayer, as well as its modern resonances.

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Want to make Jewish pop music? The good folks at the Hal Leonard Corporation are here to help with their new Jewish Songs for Accordion (Hal Leonard, June). If you play the accordion—and, honestly, who doesn’t?—you should easily master synagogue favorites “Adom Olam” and “Avinu Malkenu,” and Yiddish classics like “Tum Balalaika” and “Der Rebbe Elimelech.” Practice diligently this summer, and by October you should be ready to jam with Socalled in San Antonio at the International Accordion Festival.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

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