Today Decibel is honored to present the following guest post from Howie Abrams — In-Effect Records trailblazer, legendary A&R champion of underground music, author of The Merciless Book of Metal Lists and Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. from Bad Brains — in conversation with Elisha Wiesel, son of Elie, talking everything from Agnostic Front and Youth of Today to why “Creeping Death” can make for a solid Passover Seder soundtrack to “the complicated — and, at times, rocky — journey to forge his own identity, supported by his own beliefs and constitution.”
You never know who might be moshing next to you on the dance floor.
Over the years, there have been a number of intriguing non-musical figures who have identified themselves as having been punk rockers, metalheads or hardcore kids in their youth. Former The Daily Show host Jon Stewart comes to mind; having put in time as a bartender at Trenton, New Jersey underground music venue City Gardens, and who cites the likes of Bad Brains, Black Flag, Butthole Surfers and Agnostic Front among his favorites. Then there’s 80s/90s teen heartthrob Matt Dillon, who was known to frequent such seedy downtown spots as the Mudd Club, Max’s Kansas City, and occasionally attended the odd CBGB Sunday hardcore matinee. Even Prince Harry is said to have an iPod complete with Slayer and Metallica’s catalog loaded up.
While, you may or may not immediately recognize the name Elisha Wiesel, you are likely familiar with the story and life’s work of his father, Elie, who survived the Nazi concentration camps in Europe and eventually became recognized the world over for his tireless efforts as a writer, educator, Nobel laureate, and fervent political advocate on behalf of oppressed peoples around the globe, in addition to his assistance with launching the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. His 1960 book Night is considered a landmark work in Holocaust literature and has sold more than 10 million copies.
Unsurprisingly, Elisha — the only child of Elie Wiesel and Marion Erster Rose, now 45 years of age — carries with him an undying love for his father and his legacy, alongside a complicated — and, at times, rocky — journey to forge his own identity, supported by his own beliefs and constitution.
One of the most surprising things to learn about Elisha Wiesel is his longtime affinity for aggressive underground music, which came about as a result of some chance encounters with fellow computer-loving nerds in his teens. His musical exploration runs from the early days of MTV, to far less mainstream hard rock and heavy metal, to punk rock and it’s decidedly angrier cousin, hardcore.
This excursion was not unlike that of many average American teenagers. However, an average American teenager Elisha Wiesel has never been. — Howie Abrams
When did you first begin to understand who your father was, as far as what he meant to the world at large?
Well, certainly by the time he won the Nobel Prize. I was a freshman in high school — this was 1986 — and if I had thought I had a prayer of going to my Yeshiva high school without everybody seeing me only as Elie Wiesel’s son… I mean, my whole family is celebrating, everyone in my school is celebrating. And of course, I’m extremely happy for my dad. But I’m thinking, my chance to have my own identity… it’s like, Game over. It was a very important moment for me.
Is your mother a Holocaust survivor as well?
My mom wasn’t a Holocaust survivor per se, but she was born in Vienna and did flee the war. She was a refugee but was never in the German concentration camps. My maternal grandfather had been arrested and was miraculously released because he had done a favor for someone a long time before. They fled across the border, eventually ending up in a detention camp in Gurs in the south of France. Unlike most of the refugees in Gurs who were sent to Auschwitz, my mother’s family was lucky enough to make it to Marseilles where they were hidden by an Italian tailor and his wife, and then they ultimately made it to Basel, Switzerland where they survived the war with extended family.
I’m assuming your childhood didn’t look a whole lot like most other American children’s…
There was cool stuff. And there were challenges. For instance, when I was around seven years old, I got to go to communist Russia before the curtain came down because my dad was going to bring Jewish books undercover to Jewish refuseniks and help get them out of the country. I remember being chased by the KGB in the Russian subway system and staying in hotels in Moscow with cockroaches coming out of the sofas and finding old Carol Burnett episodes on TV. That was pretty cool to have that kind of experience at age seven or so. But then, there were challenging elements too: you’re still a kid, and at that age, what do you talk about to your friends? You know, what does your dad do for a living? Oh, my dad’s a pharmacist, or my dad was an Israeli Air Force pilot and now flies for an airline. Well, my dad is…a survivor. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. There were moments when I was younger that I was extremely excited and stimulated by all this stuff, and then there was the feeling that I was missing out on a lot of things. My parents used to pull me out of school for weeks at a time, so things like baseball and other normalities of American life — I didn’t get to enjoy them. I had very European parents. They spoke French at home, and I had to do a lot of work to catch up and figure out what kids were talking about at school. What is this baseball phenomenon? I guess I should figure out how it works, because my parents sure weren’t telling me about it. It felt very tough to fit in.
How much of a role did religion play in your life when you were younger?
I started becoming close with my family in Israel in my 20s and 30s. I reconnected with a first cousin there whom I hadn’t seen since I was very young, who is like a brother to me now. He was in the Israeli army, and a neurosurgeon, and there was so much about him that I looked up to… it was a turning point for me to realize that I could truly build a friendship with someone deeply religious. Religion had been a big problem for me for so long. I was totally anti. I desperately needed oxygen as a teenager. I was going to a stuffy synagogue, saying prayers I didn’t believe in, and then, there was fourteen years of going to Yeshiva. It felt like a lot of hypocrisy happening. Religion was being pushed at me, and I felt as if it were no different than all the cliquey bullshit happening elsewhere. At the time, that was my judgment on it. At some point in my twenties I began to realize it was pretty cool being referred to as “the people of the book.” Not many people can say that. I began to discover real elements of pride in my history. I now wrap Tefillin every day, which I barely ever did before my dad died.
Do you remember there being music in your house?
My parents liked classical music. My mom also liked jazz, but my dad didn’t. We had a piano, but I gave up on piano because the 3:30 practice time conflicted with me watching Battle of the Planets which was my favorite TV show. I mean, we had major wars over this, but ultimately my parents caved. I just wouldn’t study the piano. This was my childhood: it was coming home after school, doing my homework, but then getting to watch two to three hours of TV. Gilligan’s Island, Battle of the Planets, Scooby-Doo, and eating Milky Way and Three Musketeers bars. That’s what it was all about. And if I had a friend over, they’d just jump into all of that with me.
And at what point did you find yourself becoming a real fan of music?
Music for me began with MTV. Obviously, I was watching a lot of TV, and everyone was talking about this MTV thing. There were all of these music videos and that, I think, was my first exposure to rock n’ roll. Also, my parents had some friends with a son, and he had a Walkman and played me some things. I think my first few albums were by: Devo, Men at Work, Hall and Oates. All that kind of stuff. Because of MTV, I also heard J Geils. I remember when I was in third or fourth grade, I was known as the kid who liked classical music. I took some abuse for that. Everyone else already knew about at least some rock. It wasn’t until a few years later with MTV that I began to catch up. I still remember all the zombies in that Greg Kihn “Jeopardy” video. There was a whole phenomenon going on, and I was the right age at the right time. I started taping MTV because we had this VHS recorder, and I was making my own collection of songs that I really liked and began becoming this sort of collector. Eventually, I realized there was radio, and I didn’t have to rely on MTV. I could just tune in to different stations.
Did you ever aspire of becoming a musician?
No. I had my brief time with the piano. Later in tenth grade, I got a guitar. I really wanted to play guitar, and by that time, I was really into all sorts of music, and wanted to start making my own. I also thought it would help me get girls, quite frankly. I actually gave up computer programming to take up guitar…but thankfully came back to it in college.
So, how do you become introduced to all this aggressive underground music?
The real turning point was receiving a Bar Mitzvah gift from an old friend of my mom’s. It was a modem. I had one of those Apple II computers. You pop that modem into the slot, and all of a sudden, there are all these bulletin boards you can call up. There was this new software system at the time called Diversi-Dial. It was the internet before the internet. These Apple II computers had seven slots, and you could put in seven modems. People could call in to that computer and talk to the six other people dialed in to those modems. It was the first seven-way chat. In fact, if you had two computers and you had a modem in each going between the two computers, you could extend it to twelve or eighteen. You built these little daisy chains. I discovered this Diversi-Dial system called “The Great Beyond” on a bulletin board, and there I met some people, one of whom is one of my very best friends still today. It was a turning point in my life because for the first time ever, I was exposed to kids my own age, and older people too, who were not going to my Yeshiva; who were from all walks of life: skinheads from Brooklyn, metalheads from Queens…a crew of misfits where I somehow fit in. There was a plugged-in gay neocon older than me by a few years urging me to read Darkness at Noon, a subway conductor spreading the gospel of jury nullification, and there were predatory Long Island housewives being…predatory.
Just crazy shit going on, and for me, it was a total rebirth. It was the exact moment where I needed an outlet. I could live under a different name; I could be someone completely different. That was the beginning of modern life for me — and as a result of that, I started to become aware of some cool music. I think I got into Blue Oyster Cult, which proved to be a great crossover for me. Then it wasn’t too far away from Iron Maiden — my first concert — and then a friend introduced me to Metallica. I made it backwards from Master of Puppets, to Ride the Lightning, back to Kill ‘Em All. Then someone introduced me to Slayer. I was definitely interested in going further with it than some of my friends. Then a skinhead friend of mine says, “Now I’m really gonna blow your mind.” He made me a tape with Agnostic Front’s Victim in Pain on one side. That album changed my life. Then there was D.R.I, Sick of it All and Token Entry and a whole bunch of other bands. This all happened in 1986, when I desperately needed an outlet.
At some point, did you get out from behind the computer and meet some of these Diversi-Dial people face-to-face?
Yes, and it was a real pivotal moment. My parents were like, “You’re going to go to some diner; some meet-up with these people you don’t even know? That’s dangerous.” So, they hired a driver to wait outside for me. It was SO embarrassing, but I pretended I’d taken the subway, and made some really great friends. Fast forward a year or two to my little bedroom in the Wiesel household; there were fourteen people sleeping over: skinheads, metalheads, hippies in their denim jackets… My parents would open the door and cringe at all the bodies passed out on the floor of their Upper East Side apartment. They couldn’t believe it. And the next morning, they’d be at the breakfast table staring at this motley crew, one by one, parading out of our place.
But it sounds as if they were pretty cool about it…
Well, they were smart. They thought, Better to let his friends come to our home rather than allowing me to vanish into the night somewhere. They were really into me coming home at night, even if it was three in the morning after [a midnight screening of] The Rocky Horror Picture show at the Midway in Queens where we spent quite a few Saturday nights.
Were some of these people already going to clubs and seeing the bands you mentioned?
For the longest time, I didn’t even start going to shows. I began going to metal shows first. Iron Maiden was the first concert I ever went to. Later, Metallica. By this time, most of these bands were arena acts. It wasn’t until maybe around senior year that I really began going to see punk and hardcore bands. I felt at that point that I had enough edge and was strong enough to go. The band I saw most often was the Ramones. Agnostic Front was pretty early on; GBH on the punk side. Murphy’s Law was an early one too, and the first time I ever stage dived.
The excitement of the music aside, were you attracted to the communal aspect of the hardcore scene?
I was much more about the communal aspect of my computer nerd community. Some of them were skinhead nerds, and others were hardcore nerds or heavy metal nerds, but what really unified that community was our nerd-ship. We might have been into some really crazy things, but we were really into computers. I mean, were all chatting away, and messaging on our computers late at night, effectively, twenty years before everyone else. That’s where I was getting the communal stuff. I wasn’t really ever a part of any hardcore cliques or clans. We were all just geeks who were into wild forms of music. I loved it. I couldn’t believe there was music with that much energy, and truth, and vitality to it. I was in my everyday life; going back and forth to school with people who not only had no idea it even existed but wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it even if it was put right in front of them. It was too foreign, but I was lucky enough to have tapped into it and I felt very blessed. I felt very lucky to have had all this in my pocket and walk around with it. If I had the right tape in my Walkman, the world would roll off of me.
Your parents were obviously aware of your Diversi-Dial friends, but at what point did they become hip to this crazy music world you’d discovered? Did you share it with them at all?
I definitely tried. It’s amazing to think, but I actually wrote out lyrics for them, so they’d know what they were listening to and played it for them. I probably didn’t do the best job trying to explain it, but they couldn’t really get it. They assumed it was just a phase.
Do you remember what you played for them?
I’m pretty sure I played them Agnostic Front.
You’re telling me, you played Victim in Pain for your parents?!
Yeah! I even remember at one Passover Seder playing “Creeping Death” by Metallica — you know, trying to explain that this was the story of the exodus according to Metallica. I also played Iron Maiden’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to my eighth grade English class because we were reading [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge, and god bless my teacher — she let me play the whole damn thirteen minutes, but the entire class thought I’d lost the plot.
Man, your parents seem to have let a lot a lot of things slide…
Well, there was a lot of stress. My grades weren’t so good in high school, because as all of this was happening, my interest in academics was kind of falling off the cliff, because I had been discovering girls, and I was discovering all this music, as well as other things. It was a stressful time. My mom was like, “What the hell is happening with your education? This is your future at stake.” All the stuff you’d expect. And by the way, now, I look back and I’m like, man, there was a lot she was right about. There were some really dicey moments, but I consider myself lucky. There were some things that happened, where I definitely could have blown it. I definitely made some mistakes.
Are there things that you’ve learned from these teenage experiences which you still carry with you and apply to your adulthood?
Well, for one, I still have all that music on my iPhone. I still listen to it. In fact, my day was made just the other day when someone asked my son Elijah what his favorite band was, and he said, “The Ramones.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s my kid!” He in particular, likes the song “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” which I explained to him was in part about his grandfather. His grandpa put Bitburg on the map as far as national consciousness, and he loves it because of that, and thinks it’s so cool that the Ramones wrote a song about his grandpa challenging Reagan. My son really likes it. When we’re in the car figuring out what to listen to, he’ll be chanting, “Go hard, go hard,” and I’ll introduce him to a few tunes, and my wife is looking at me like, please stop, and my daughter is like, “Elijah, really… You actually like this?!”
What about the ethos, or the “do it yourself” nature of punk and hardcore?
It’s just an energy I bring with me. If I ever feel scratched out, burned out, or not sure of what to do next and I need a shot in the arm, I know what songs I’m going to play. It might be Minor Threat’s “Filler,” or “I Don’t Wanna Hear It,” or “Victim in Pain” by Agnostic Front, or “Start Today” or “New Direction” by Gorilla Biscuits. There are just certain songs that kick my ass and make me say “Let me at it!” Just a shot of raw energy, and it didn’t come from a molecule. And I love that all this music is under-produced, that’s influenced a life-long focus on content rather than shine.
You mention Minor Threat and Gorilla Biscuits: Were you partial to any of the other straight edge bands?
There was a time I gravitated toward that stuff and those bands. Youth of Today’s Break Down the Walls and all that stuff. Project X… Some of that stuff was pure poetry: “I’m as bad as the shit you breathe into your lungs, and I’ll fuck you up as fast as the pill on your tongue – STRAIGHT EDGE REVENGE!”
Were you aware that at some point neo-Nazi skinheads had become some sort of factor in the hardcore scene?
The fact that this stuff was happening really only reached me through word of mouth. It was confusing sometimes. Take for instance the iron cross, which was a German military symbol, during World War II: How and why was that adopted by skinheads, even the non-racist skinheads?
What about the original album cover of Agnostic Front’s Victim in Pain with the prisoner about to be shot in the head by an SS officer: Did you “get” the imagery? Or was that confusing too?
Well, I listened to the music, and I read the lyrics. I heard the song “Fascist Attitudes…”
Your fascist attitudes, we need the least,
With a scene that’s fighting for unity and peace.
For a while, I couldn’t reconcile those songs with that cover image. I thought, did they make a mistake? Was it conscious? Why would they want to use a German military image in that way as an album cover?
Roger Miret, the singer for Agnostic Front says in his recent autobiography that he wanted to shock people into having to face the brutal atrocities of mankind, hence the choice of such a brutal image.
Look, I used to wear a Dead Kennedys Nazi Punks Fuck Off shirt, with the crossed-out swastika on it, and my dad would be like, “How can you wear that?” I tried to explain to him that it was anti-Nazi, etcetera, but all he saw was the swastika, and I had to stop wearing it.
Speaking of context, a lot seems to have changed for you as you’ve proceeded through adulthood. How do you see things differently these days? For instance, has your view of religion changed at all?
There are people way more observant than me. At best, we keep a B+ kosher home. I went to shul and said Kaddish with a minyan every day during my father’s Kaddish year, except for one day where I was bedridden and exhausted from a nasty norovirus bout of projectile vomiting. I still try to go almost every Shabbos, and I love going to the Carlebach shul. People are really going for it. There are portions of the service which have a lot in common with a mosh pit at a hardcore show. Everyone is really into it and feeling the same vibe. It’s about the music and the intensity. There’s a positive energy, and you’re not being preached at. Everybody there is feeling something. There’s a high you get. There’s a lot of sweat on the more packed evenings. I remember being so bored by services when I was in my twenties that I would bring a [secular] book which would fit into my Siddur, and I would just read that. My father would catch me and say, “At least if you’re going to do that, make it a good book.” So, I would bring Plato, or Dostoyevsky. At the end of the day, he loved me and just wanted to be with me. He wanted me there to remember his relationship with his own father, who he didn’t get to know past the age of fourteen. This was his way of remembering his time with his dad. Just my being with him gave him that connection. Once I began to realize that this didn’t have to be about God, but could be about connection, it all started to make more sense to me.
Do you feel more comfortable with your identity now?
Yes. It’s got all these interesting parts. If I’m part of the connection with my father, that’s fantastic, and it’s because I get to choose to be part of that, but it doesn’t mean I’m not still the guy who listens to hardcore… It’s all still part of me.