Hebrew School

Heavy-funny: Brute Force’s Planetwork

Brute Force, Planetwork (1980, cd release 2009)

Brute Force, a/k/a Stephen Friedland, is one of these folks of rare genius who’s so interwoven into culture that he’s at times, regrettably, invisible. Hot on the heels of a “Lion Sleeps Tonight” he joined the Tokens, penning songs and playing keyboard. Along the way, he wrote for a slew of A-list ’60s pop acts, including the Chiffons (“Nobody Knows What’s Going On”), Peggy March (“My Teenage Castle”), and Del Shannon (“She Still Remembers Tony”).

Brute struck out on his own in 1967, releasing the LP I, Brute Force, Confections of Love on Columbia records, but then getting panned and dropped (sound familiar?). He seemed to have an ace in the hole with his 1969 “King of Fuh,” produced by the Tokens, lauded by George Harrison and John Lennon, and released on Apple Records. Except that the song’s protagonist was referred to repeatedly in the lyrics as the “Fuh King,” putting the fear of Allah into FCC-averse radio DJs across America and driving the song underground. (“King of Fuh” lives on as part of the canon of hallmark censored songs from the era, songs that ultimately pushed the music industry and the U.S. towards more openness and freedom of expression.)

Fortunately for us he soldiered on, self-releasing “that Fuh King song” and more full-lengths, including the amazing live-studio-audience Extemporaneous. (Hebrew School can’t seem to find a complete Brute Force discography, but that just makes him more excited about what other surprises might be in store for re-release.)

Planetwork appears to have come at the tail-end of a ’70s hiatus, perhaps channeling the political spirit that moved him a decade earlier. After Confections, he had embarked on a Cold War swim across the Bering Strait, illustrating the small divide between East and West, and by association the one-ness of the world. What we have here, then, is not so much the early-’80s environmentalist music I feared in looking at the cover, but a touching and poignant call for a united humanity. This is peppered with Brute’s tragicomic wit (“heavy-funny” being his term) and ear for narrative, conflict, and theater.  That said, there’s not a moment of glibness or grandstanding to be found on Planetwork.

We begin with a Pledge of Allegiance…

…and move into a gapless 15-minute, 9-track performance. Brute’s piano and voice are rightfully prominent, but there’s a stellar rhythm section as well– effortlessly pocketing that elusive slow-to-mid-tempo rock groove– not to mention a shit-eating-fabulous two-part guitar solo. In “Fantasy of Nationality” he puts the nation-state in his crosshairs and pauses as if in self-reflection:

The fantasy of nationality drives you up a tree,
makes you think you have an enemy.
The fantasy of nationality drives you up a tree,
makes you think you are the enemy.
I’m my own worst enemy.
Enemy, enemy in me.

“Thunder,” a 25-second track, speaks of the one true borderline on Earth– its surface. We then move a little further from earth for a suite of three songs sharing the title “Spinning Rock.”

Life’s a weirdo mystery,
when there remain enemies.
Can’t we meet today to break bread?
It’s much better than breaking all those heads
on the best of worlds, yet the worst of worlds,
whirling through the firmament.

This is home, and the music seems to help cut through to the message. From here, it’s a nomadic journey through the galaxy (“Driving to The Stars”) followed by a final Pledge of Allegiance to the Planet. This time the pledge is a triumphal return, repeated as a constant refrain with choir-like vocal backings, a sort of intergalactic “Hey Jude.”

In my account, this sort of thing is staggering in ways that are hard to express. Hebrew School listens to a shitload of music, and rarely is moved to tears and laughter– let alone both at once. How does Brute Force manage to seamlessly combine peace politics and silliness, emotion and narrative, all while rocking so damn hard…. and making it all so relevant to the listener some 30 years later? And what of the Brute Force persona as vessel? I’ll let Mr. Friedland have the last word here, from an interview where he’s expressed it so well:

If a songwriter becomes anything during the writing of songs, it is another degree of being a songwriter. This is the way I put it:


Here we have two ways to understand the phenomenon which is presented to us, to decipher half the truth…(We, the living, alas, can understand but half of what this reality is.)… Seeing the feather fall we can describe it in any of the ways available. Both descriptions are secondary to the phenomenon anyway, the seeing of the real feather, and the mental seeing of the feather, as one would write a story. One may be called fact. One may be called fiction. Take your pick. This is the fulcrum upon which the media matrix see-saws, back and forth, creating a delerium of confusion, of artsy, slick, award-winning confusion: blistering the eyes with impossible editing not meant to be understood by the eyes; puncturing the eardrums with commercials spoken too quickly for the ears to understand; ripping off the public’s face with in-your-face moviescreen egomanical sex/sport/violence/playgames.

Now… the naming of the person, the ego who describes a truth or a fiction, compounds the illusion of communication and description. Should I have only been called Stephen Friedland, perhaps the whole trip would have been different. But the pseudonym was perceived as false by anyone and everyone, although people go along with the projection of the ego, for they themselves have an ego trip and are basically kind to accept Brute Force. However, my work and the appreciation of my person would have been initially appreciated in a more serious manner… young, Jewish songwriter. “Brute Force” incorrectly avoided that.

from “Brute Force Speaks! An Interview with Stephen Friedland” by Michael Lucas, Scram Magazine.


brute source

listen to samples, buy the cd


allmusic bio

article by david chiu, arts & culture, fall 2007

wfmu’s 365 days project, february 7

nypress article, “brute force is back”

brute force & daughter of force, “dwayne of the upper regions”


from the mailbag…
August 18, 2009, 8:27 am
Filed under: mailbag | Tags: , , ,

Yesterday, I received the nicest note from a highly-respected fellow musician here in Brooklyn who had checked out my CD. It has some of the kindest words I’ve received to date about the project, especially since it conveys a lot of my intention for the album’s listeners. With her permission, I reprint it below:

David, I keep meaning to write to you about your album. The first time I put it on I thought it was pleasant but didn’t have much of a reaction. But then I put it on again, and again. And it’s funny, but it’s just about the only thing I listen to at home. I don’t actually listen to music very much (I try to keep my place mostly silent) but when I do, Hebrew School is all I want to hear. I put it on when I do the dishes. I put it on when I do situps and pushups. I put it on when I have friends over for dinner. I keep wondering why this is. If it matches my mood, or if it’s the mood I want to be in, or what. What I like is the coolness and elegance, the restraint of the vibe combined with the bits of warmth and compassion that spark out of the lyrics. I have no idea what the songs are about, I don’t really listen to the words, but to me they feel like someone who is quietly talking to him- or herself or to the universe in a very nice gentle way. And it’s just a really pleasant and happy experience for me. I don’t know if this is actually anything you intended, or that is actually in the songs, but that’s what’s there for me. I thought you might be interested in hearing one person’s reaction. And I wanted to thank you for making the recording because it’s added something really nice to my life.

Awesome, Brooklyn! I’m feelin the love.

Who’s your Jew? Hebrew School quiz!

“Who’s your Jew” is the first in a series of posts where Hebrew School attempts to digest, swallow and/or spit out his experiences around this project’s creation and, by extension, mainstream Jewish organizational culture in the United States.

Quiz: What do you make of “identity politics?”

a) say what now?

b) to them we owe a lot! can you say, “President?”

c) makes me “think of my art and how it informs my culture.” i mean, the other way around

d) it is something from the ’60s and has to do with hippies

e) it’s the name of a spoken-word jazz sextet formed by Amiri Baraka, Leroi Jones, and Bella Abzug

f) i’m just in it for the gravlax / free falafel-based snacks / open bars

g) it’s a convenient decoy for mimicking procreation/davening, à la Grateful Dead concerts

h) it’s a cynical money-making/social-ladder-climbing gimmick within cultures

i) like health care reform it is a “socialist conspiracy

j) it’s about being a “good jew

k) it was eschewed 40 years ago by white male post-modernists

l) it’s an assurance that only folks outside of your culture/ethnicity will like your art

m) it’s a strategy to get rich Jews/gentiles/LGBTs to fund your mass-circumcision performance art piece in a public “greenspace.”

n) its current application has something to do with “networking” and “web 2.0”

o) it’s all about “yielding power” from voter demographics

p) it’s about “communing with your tribe


r) it has to do with jewish guilt/your mom

s) it is a venture capital firm invested in by Bernie Madoff

t) kidney harvesting

u) it’ll lay the groundwork for a discussion with your child about Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day falling on Rosh Hashanah.

v) it is a “voice for the voiceless” / it is “cultural hegemony”

w) it is why you can make a living by playing clarinet in rich Jewish peoples’ weddings

x) charedi pheromones

y) it obscures the only viable path to meaning which is G-d

z) OTHER (answer below)

“So Hebrew School, what’s next?”
August 4, 2009, 8:09 am
Filed under: > Project | Tags: , , , , , ,

You will hear silence… followed by a tone.

Before I dive in, I just want to thank everyone who’s been supporting me on this project for the past couple of years, including my bandmates, the throngs of you who made it to our shows, the tens of millions of you who bought my cd or got the tracks on iTunes, folks keeping up with these bloggings, folks who’ve been extolling the band’s virtues in print, web, and radio, the twitterati, and everyone who’s whispered an encouraging sweet nothing into my slightly challenged left ear. Couldn’t have done this– couldn’t be doing this– without you.

The Six Points Fellowship has been a game-changer in terms of my career as a musician. For the past decade, I’ve gotten a chance to be involved in other performers’ projects, much to my happiness and unimaginable success. From moonlighting with what has to be the coolest and joyfully irreverent Jewish band to ears and feet, to an extended dalliance into the college radio charts with another, I’ve never really looked the other way, much less had a chance to. All the while, though, I had secretly been scurrying away my own creations– with no false modesty, way too many of them. It was at this point that the Fellowship swooped in, encouraging and challenging me to take my music from the nether-reaches of my hard drive to the stage. For all this, a serious helping of gratitude is in order– who knows how long my music’s beard would have otherwise grown until it saw the light of day?

Hebrew School has represented a beginning for me to get more of this stuff out into the world, and there’s definitely more Hebrew School to come: Keep your browsers tuned here. At the same time, there are several other separate music projects I’ve been working on, to be unveiled in these pages in due course. What’s more, I’ve been developing some exciting new stuff for the web, focusing on music and jew-ish culture, soon to be linked to the light of day.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be putting together some reflections on some of what I’ve learned in this particular project’s peculiar trenches. For now, I’ll leave you with this:


Las Rubias at Barbès this Saturday

Las Rubias del Norte are playing at Barbès this Saturday, 3/28. It sounds like they’re going to be previewing some songs that they’re working on for their next album. Las Rubias includes Hebrew Schoolers Taylor Bergren-Chrisman and Giancarlo Vulcano on bass and guitar.

Every time I go to Barbès, there’s a group of bright-eyed young whippersnappers on their way in, one telling the other “have you been here yet?” It’s been around quite a while, but it’s somehow really that special kind of place– always an exciting new discovery.

The Rubias start at 10pm, but the 8pm band, Gato Loco looks like they’ll be very good, too (“Cuban son dance hits from the 1920s-1940s” + “amazing lineup of musicians”), so maybe I’ll come by early and have one of those hoppy beers they have there in the big tall glasses. Yum!

376 9th St. (corner of 6th Ave.)
Brooklyn, NY
F train to 7th Ave. / R train to 9th St.

** also, tonight: catch The Dollars, a modern take on the music of Abdullah Ibrahim (a.k.a. Dollar Brand) at Le Grand Dakar restaurant in Fort Greene, 8:30pm

Protocols of the Hypertexts of Zion (Quick Quick Slow)
February 25, 2009, 8:37 am
Filed under: webs | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

recovering the yiddish cha-cha [teruah]

the people of the magazine [n+1]

park slope food co-op to recommend that jewish members wear star of david [fips]

here comes the sun: jewish groups gear up for rare ritual [jta]

the quiet cabal behind the new jewish culture [new voices]

where alvy singer must have gone [umamimart]

bad news for jewcy and an update from zeek [my machberet]

Jews make love, war, music

It looks things are a little quieter in Israel/Palestine/Gaza, I guess, but I suppose you would really have to be there to know.

My cousin nomadmatan, who made aliyah last year, is there putting in his time in the forces. He’s a master linguist and Arabic translator.

He was twittering just now about arriving to base, mentioning how warm it was. Here in Brooklyn, it is a predictable mix of 2-4 inches of slush. It sometimes seems hard to reconcile his occasional dodging of qassams with my existence here in New York, making weird Jewish music. But I do think we’re both wandering nomads, and for that I love him.

“silence in between the aleinu” – hebrew school (demo)