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Scott Ian: The Hellish Childhood of a Jewish Metal God

In an excerpt from his new autobiography ‘I’m the Man,’ the guitarist from Anthrax remembers growing up in Bayside, Queens

Scott Ian
October 21, 2014
Scott Ian at the Sonisphere rock festival at Knebworth, England, August 2009.(Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)
Scott Ian at the Sonisphere rock festival at Knebworth, England, August 2009.(Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

I was born in Jamaica Hospital in Queens at 7 a.m. on New Year’s Eve, 1963. It was an auspicious beginning, sort of. Oddly enough, that’s where the legendary Music Building was located, which is where Anthrax, Metallica, and other bands made history writing and rehearsing some of the earliest and most memorable thrash songs. Metallica even lived at the place for a while. And man, it was a slum. When I went there with Anthrax, I used to think, “God, this neighborhood is such a dive. It must have been so much different when my parents were living here.” But maybe it wasn’t, and that was one of the hardships they had to face. If so, it was one of many.

My parents never had it easy. They were second-generation immigrants, and when I was growing up my father, Herbert Rosenfeld, was working in the jewelry business and my mom, Barbara Haar, was a housewife. I think that was part of why she was so unhappy. She didn’t want to be a happy homemaker. She wasn’t cut out for it and didn’t have the patience. My parents came from working-class families and got married way too young. My dad’s father, Harold Rosenfeld, was born in 1908 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and my grandmother Sylvia was born in 1912 in Manhattan. They met in the south shore of Brooklyn while he was driving a Good Humor truck. They got married in 1938 and he continued to work in the summer. Then in the winter before my aunt and dad were born, my grandparents would drive to Florida every winter in a Model-T Ford and live there with the money he made selling ice cream—like they were on vacation.

My dad and his sister were raised in a tenement house in a fourthfloor walkup. They never had any money even after my grandfather got a job as a shoe salesman to earn some extra cash. He was a good, hardworking man, but they could never afford any luxuries, and he kept a diary of every penny he spent in a day.

My grandmother on my mom’s side, Lena, was from Russia, and her husband, Moe, was born in 1902 in a tiny Polish village called Nisko, which is no longer on the map. During World War I the Germans occupied the village and started killing all the men. So, when he was seventeen, his parents smuggled him out of the country. He lived in Amsterdam with a family who hired him as a grocer. Once he saved up enough money to buy counterfeit identification papers, he stowed away on a ship to New York and got all the way to Ellis Island. He got off the boat and waited in line with all the other refugees, but, when the people at immigration saw that he didn’t have the right papers, they turned him around and put him on a boat back to Amsterdam. He spent another six months or so working and then he was able to get the proper paperwork. Then he got back on another ship, came back to New York, and this time immigration allowed him in.

My grandpa Moe was a smart guy but he was broke. So he went to the Lower East Side where there was a community of Jews that sort of looked after each other, and he got a job as a grocer. He hustled his ass off and climbed the ladder really quickly. By the time he was in his early twenties, he had his own grocery store in Rockaway, and when he had made enough money, he brought his parents over. They were strict Orthodox Jews, which was weird for my mom because she grew up in Queens in a household that wasn’t religious. They even used to have a Christmas tree around the holidays before her grandparents moved in. Then suddenly she was in this house with her dad’s parents, who only spoke Yiddish and wouldn’t even try to speak English. They were hardcore Jews. They hated Moe’s wife and my mom because they thought Moe deserved better. And they really weren’t good with children. When they made everything super religious, my mom rebelled and tried to run away, but they always got her back. And then her father whacked her with a belt.

It was a different time back then. Basically, you beat your kids when they didn’t behave. It wasn’t abnormal. It was just accepted. You got hit. It’s hard for me to believe because my grandparents never had anything but love for me and my brother Jason, but both of my parents took a lot of abuse growing up. My dad once told me a story about yelling to a friend through an open window when he was a kid. His mother got so mad she picked him up, flipped him upside down, held him by his underarms, and dangled him out the window four stories in the air. And when my uncle got caught stealing her cigarettes, she held his hand against a hot stove. They didn’t fuck around when it came to discipline. There were no time-outs or positive reinforcement. It was all spare the rod and spoil the child.

Even though they had a difficult upbringing, my parents didn’t pass that on to Jason and me. They were not hitters. Maybe once in a blue moon if one of us really got out of line, we’d get a slap. But, when I was a kid, just the sound of my dad’s raised voice was enough to scare the shit out of me. I’d like to say I had a well-adjusted home life, but that wouldn’t really be true. My dad was twenty-two and my mom was twenty when they got married. And then my mom immediately got pregnant with me. That wasn’t the plan for either of them, but back then if you got pregnant, you got married. No one from a good Jewish home got an abortion. It was unheard of—lucky for me!

Soon after I was born, my mom cheated on my dad with the love of her life, who had previously spurned her, Lenny Chumsky, and my dad found out. They split up for a while. During that time my mom started drinking heavily, and her father, Moe, shamed her into begging my dad’s forgiveness. He accepted her apology, and they got back together. This was 1964, and people really weren’t getting divorced back then. Maybe it would have been better if they had made a clean break. I feel like their marriage was doomed from the start.

We moved to Florida when I was three because my dad was unjustly accused of stealing diamonds from the company where he worked, Harry Winston Jewelry. He failed a polygraph test because he’s untestable—meaning he’ll fail no matter what—so they fired him even though he hadn’t taken anything and no one had any evidence that he had. He got another offer from a family in Florida to work at Mayer’s Jewelers in Miami to do repairs and sizing for rings. My parents thought a change of scenery might be good for the family. I don’t remember most of our time in Florida, except for my first vivid memory in July 1966.

Maybe it was an omen or a metaphor for the trauma that was about to strike our family—okay, it was nothing that dramatic. I was stung by a bee. I wasn’t allergic or anything, but it hurt like hell and I’ll never forget that day. We were living in this apartment complex, and the back of the place had sliding glass doors that led outside. There was a grassy area near the pool, and I was walking through the grass barefoot. The bee was resting on a small piece of clover, and I stepped right on him. He didn’t sting me right away. He flew up and I ran. I remember thinking, “I’ll jump in the pool to escape the bee,” but before I got there the bee stung the inside of my ear. It was really loud, and I screamed because of the noise and the pain. That began my lifelong hatred of most stinging and biting insects. I hate spiders, and I can’t look at a wasp without feeling murderous. Bees and I have a grudging respect for each other nowadays. Fortunately, they removed the stinger and it didn’t cause any serious damage because it didn’t sting my eardrum. My ear just swelled up and hurt like a motherfucker.

My mom hated Florida and longed to get back to New York. My dad loved it. But, as fate would have it, someone at my dad’s company stole a bunch of jewelry and the boss made everyone take a polygraph test. My dad explained what had happened to him in New York. They polygraphed him anyway, and of course he failed again, so the boss— who dealt with the mafia buying and selling hot jewelry—fired my dad and told him that if he found out he was the thief he was going to find himself at the bottom of the ocean with cement shoes. My dad was indignant and stormed out. Later, his boss discovered his private secretary and her daughter were on heavy drugs and they were the thieves. But my dad never got an apology.

As soon as he lost his job, we moved back to New York, and for nine months my mom had to work in a bagel shop to help pay the bills. My dad got another job in the jewelry business with Gimbel Brothers as an appraiser, and then he became manager of the production department and a buyer of stones at Aaron Perkis Company. We were still far from rich, but at least he had some income flowing in.

My dad would do anything he could think of to make my mother happy, but she always had something to complain about. That’s when I first noticed that my parents didn’t like being together. By the time I was four or five, my mom seemed weird and distant. She did all the things she felt she had to do as a mother taking care of two kids, but, even at that age, I could tell there was no joy there. When I got a little older, I understood that she didn’t want to be a housewife and she didn’t like being with my father. Then I realized she drank.

All I knew back then was that there was alcohol in the house. She drank a lot of scotch and it was a problem for her. Later on, I found out she was also taking pills—Quaaludes, Valium, diet pills, anything she could get a prescription for to help her escape. She was miserable because she never wanted to be with my dad. She wanted Lenny Chumsky, but she compromised. It was a fucked-up position for my dad to be in, and from the time I was four years old up until I was eleven and my parents split up, there was a lot of tension in the house. I don’t think they ever loved each other. But for some reason they thought having another child might make their relationship better, so three and a half years after I was born, my mom gave birth to Jason, who became both my responsibility and my right-hand man all through childhood.

As difficult as it was to be with my mother, there were some good times. When I was four years old she used to read MAD magazine to me. When she was a kid, she had every issue, but my grandmother would clean her room and throw them out. Who knows what they’d be worth today? My mom was also a big horror fan. She loved scary movies. In New York on Saturday and Sunday mornings, there used to be Chiller Theater on WPIX and Creature Feature on WNYC, channel 11 and channel 5 back before cable. A lot of times, instead of watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, we’d watch horror movies with my mom. Mostly, it was the old black-and-white Universal classic monster movies— Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula—and I loved them all from the time I was four or five.

We didn’t know it at the time, but on a psychological level my brother and I related to characters who were thrown into a life they didn’t ask for. Growing up, we tried to shield ourselves from our parents’ unhappiness as much as we could. Like Frankenstein, we just wanted to be left alone.

We lived in Bayside, Queens, in Bay Terrace until I was eight years old. It was a very Jewish, upper-middle-class-to-rich part of the city. We were certainly not in the upper middle class. We lived on Bell Boulevard in an attached two-family house. We were on one side and some other family was on the other side. But there were giant houses right down the street from the house we lived in. So in the wintertime we’d get snow shovels and walk around and offer to shovel people’s driveways for twenty bucks. We made a fucking fortune—by preadolescent standards. I had tons of friends on that block and the next block over. Everyone knew everybody else. The rest of Bayside was Irish, Italian, German, and it ranged from very lower middle class to filthy rich—a mishmash of wealth and ethnicity.

In around 1972 we moved out of Queens, which sucked because I was leaving all my friends right after third grade. We moved to Seaford, Long Island, and I started fourth grade at a new elementary school. As bad as it was for me, it was way worse for my mom. My dad had good intentions. We had been renting in Queens, and suddenly he was able to buy a house in Long Island, so hey, we were following the American dream. We had a backyard and a driveway. But my mom didn’t want to move out of Queens and leave her friends any more than I did. My dad did it to put her in a new environment where she might be happier. The effect was just the opposite. She was even more depressed in Seaford, and that’s when her life started getting really dark. She was not a Stepford Wives mom. She drank more, took more pills, and even became suicidal. The strongest memories I have from that time are of her in hysterics, crying or screaming at me and my brother. She would fly off the handle and we would just try our best to stay out of the way. Sometimes no matter how careful I was, and I was one careful eggshell-walking motherfucker, I’d get caught in her crazy tornado and then I would literally just run for my life. I can remember one of these delightful occasions when she was screaming at me for something and I turned and ran from her, out of the living room and into the hall, head down in a full-on sprint, hoping to make it to the relative safety of my room, when suddenly I got hit in the back with something hard. I went sprawling forward and was lucky to break my fall with my hands. I got up quickly, clutching at my back, trying to figure out what hit me, and saw my mom at the end of the hallway crying. I was crying as well, my back was killing me, and I realized that she had thrown something at me. She was shrieking in hysterics and apologizing and I saw the ceramic Exxon coffee mug (free with a $5 purchase!) lying broken on the floor. I just beat it to my room and slammed the door. My mom stayed away, and I avoided her until my dad came home and we sat down for dinner. She told my dad what she did and how sorry she was and that was fuel (no pun intended) for another screaming match later that evening after Jason and I went to bed. I was okay physically; mentally I was fucking pissed off, and looking back on it now this was probably the beginning of me figuring out how to get the hell out of that house and away from all the dysfunction.

Excerpted from I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, by Scott Ian with Jon Wiederhorn. Available from Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright ©2014.


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Scott Ian is the guitarist for Anthrax.

Scott Ian is the guitarist for Anthrax.