For several years I have listened to the original songs and clever parodies of the group Shlock Rock. You can imagine my anticipation as I traveled in Israel on the scenic "Tsuba" road from Kibbutz Tsova to meet with Lenny Solomon, the founder and driving force behind the group. We met at Lenny's house in Beit Shemesh (the "house of sun" is an appropriate name, this was a sweltering July day). Lenny Solomon is nothing if not enthusiastic and he was eager to talk about Shlock Rock, Jewish music, and all things Jewish during our visit.
Firstly, I wanted to know how he started Shlock Rock and why. "The first thing you should know is nothing happened by design", he said, "I had been playing with a Hassidic rock band called Kesher and I was in my early 20's. I had started writing these parodies which were used to keep Jewish children interested in Judaism. But, never for one second when I went into the studio in December of 1985 to record "Shlock Rock, Learning is Good" did I think this was going to be a living. I did it, frankly, just to have a good time. We went into the studio in Manhattan and recorded from midnight to 8AM two weeks in a row and came out with the album. I thought it would be a one-album thing. I didn't think it would do anything more than just... I don't know what I thought. I didn't think anything, that's the key. God guided and directed me down the path of Shlock Rock, which is where I am right now after 16 years, 21 albums later. But, you know, I didn't plan to do this as a career at all".
I commented to Lenny that most groups have a fixed group of members that travel around with the band from place to place for concert appearances. I had a vague notion this was not the case with Shlock Rock. He discussed this as well as the basic concept of Shlock Rock. "What happened was that when we started, there were 6 guys in the band including myself, we were the originals. If you go to the Shlock Rock web site they are all on the "Hall of Fame". But the band is 16 years old, people grow up, they get real lives, as I like to say. I have never grown up so I still do Shlock Rock. Shlock Rock is Weird Al Yankovic does Jewish. It's Jewish song parodies based on English pop music. Over the years the band has evolved and we've created a band in every city that I go to. For instance when I go to Des Moines, IA, I've got musicians in Des Moines, IA. When I go to Columbia, SC, Birmingham, AL, the West Coast or Chicago it's the same. There are different Shlock Rock bands. This is mostly for monetary reasons because the places that hire me can't afford to pay 5 or 6 airfares from New York, which is where I am based on my American tours. So I've developed this system where I take one guy with me, that's my rapper, Etan G, and everybody else is local.
It was interesting to learn of the bands operating procedure, but I wanted to know something more, namely: how does Lenny choose the songs that he wants to parody, I wanted to understand the process of his songwriting. Uncharacteristically, he paused a short while before answering. "Basically, it comes upon you, you are riding in the car, a song comes on the radio, and you say 'Boom, I've got to do that song'. Now the question becomes: what words do you put to it? After 9 parody albums you can't just take the word "Torah" and rhyme it with "hora", you can't do that, people won't buy it, it's not creative. You've got to be creative with every album, which is the hard part. But, to get back to your original question: the song kind of picks you! For instance, "Under the Boardwalk", which become "Under the Chuppah", that was a song that picked me. One of the keys is, it's got to be a classic, it's got to last. It can't be a hit that just lasts for 3 months, flies in and out of the pop charts, because then people won't know it after 3 years. A couple of times, I picked those songs, I thought they'd be classics, but they never were. On the other hand other songs became classics that weren't at the time".
I had a set up a "5 questions" for Lenny on his own music, with 21 albums and over 200 songs I wondered if he recalled some of the people he had written about in his songs. "Who lived in many places from Cordoba to a place called Fez"?, I asked. Without hesitating Lenny answered "Rambam" [based on " Help Me Rhonda"]. "Who was born in France, and went to Yeshiva"? "Rashi" [ "Windy"]. Who had "students at his feet and up in Eden, he's got a front row seat"? "Rabbi Akiva" [ "Lady Madonna"] "Who has got us reaching for the teaching, yearning for the learning"? "That would be the Abarbanel" [ "Barbara Ann" ] and "who went to Bnei Brak and would learn there each day"? "That would be Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai" ["Brown Eyed Girl"]. Lenny was 5 for 5. I had to try one more, one of his original songs from the "Stories From the Holy Land" CD. Not a parody, I wanted to hear how Lenny's personal experiences might enter into such a song.
"How about a street smart boy from Brooklyn who went to Yeshiva"? I asked. Lenny jumped at this: " That's very funny, that's the 'Tel Aviv PD' song. Now what's interesting about that is if you watch CNN, you see him on television all the time. His name is Gil Kleinman, when I wrote this song I had just moved to Israel in 1996. He was my neighbor who lived across the hall from us in an apartment that we moved into before we moved into the house we had bought which wasn't ready yet. For 4 months Gil lived across the hall from us. He WAS a street smart boy from Yeshiva, from Flatbush, Brooklyn, who made Aliya and became a cop here in Tel Aviv. Then he switched jobs. Because of the whole PR campaign to explain Israel's viewpoint he is the spokesperson for the entire Jerusalem Police Dept."
I was very interested that Lenny's song was based on a personal relationship and not an abstract concept. I asked about the motivation behind another non-parody CD, his "We're Coming Back" CD. "The concept was we wanted to make a CD that we could hand to anyone that we would meet at the Western Wall, who didn't really know much about Judaism, but was just there exploring their roots. This is why we wrote the songs 'A Note in the Kotel (Western Wall)' and 'We're Coming Back' which talks about Jews immigrating to Israel from Ethiopia, Argentina, France and Russia. Just this week 500 Americans from the Nefesh B'Nefesh (Soul to Soul) organization are making Aliya. The recording is from 1992 and the album was all about Israel, 5 English songs, 5 Hebrew songs. Again, we wanted to make a CD, that we could give to anyone at the Kotel so they could relate to their experiences immediately.
I was very curious. After 21 albums what was there left to do? Lenny was very excited to talk about his new projects. "There are a whole bunch of different projects in my head right now. The one I'm currently recording is a Hebrew Haddisic album (B'itah Achishenah [Rak Mashiach]). The next Shlock Rock album, I hope, will be Shlock Rock on Broadway, all Broadway tunes set with my words [released in 2003 as Shlock Rock: Almost on Broadway]. I've thought about this for 5-7 years and have never done it. I hope it'll go over well, there are some hilarious yet educational ideas I have on this already. That's one project. I also have another project in mind: Shabbat in Liverpool. It'll be all Sabbath liturgy done to Beatles tunes. Some people may think this sounds sacreligious, 'how can you take the prayers and put Beatles songs to them?'. Lenny continued, preempting the question, "Rebbe Nachman of Breslav says that you can take the sparks of music from the secular world, and raise them up, especially on the sabbath. Many of our liturgy songs from the old days come from the church or the secular world, for instance "Maoz Tsur" (Rock of Ages) I understand was a German drinking song. The music will only be available via down load when it comes out which will not be for a while cause there's still a lot of work to do on this. Eventually, we will do another mainstream parody album, but right now I think the Broadway one, and also a Shlock Rock for kids, Volume 3, we'll do as well. Meanwhile, there are 21 albums of ours out on CD, and I'm sure not everyone has them, so you are more than welcome to check out our web site, www.shlockrock.com, and check them out there".
If you have no Shlock Rock albums, I recommend starting with their "Greatest Hits, 1986-1990" album. It's a broad and exciting introduction to the band via their early classic parodies. Their web site is both fun and informative. Besides the music of Shlock Rock there is material for teachers and educators who want to teach Jewish concepts through music. There is a game, the Shlock Rock Torah Challenge where you answer questions and can win prizes. I encourage anyone who wants to learn more about the band to visit their web site, and you can, as Lenny admonishes: "Keep on Shlockin".