Today in Tedium: There are two subjects I will talk and/or write about ad nauseam: Judaism, and horror movies. That said, it’s somewhat rare for those two disparate subjects (as objectively, obviously fascinating as they are) to cross paths. On those rare instances when they do intersect ... it’s usually not great. However, there is at least one exception to this rule, and it involves one of my favorite pop songs, to boot. Today’s Tedium explores the history behind Judaism’s most observant, mystically-minded communities, one of cinema’s most notorious villains, the iconic song that soundtracked 1991’s eeriest movie, and what they all say about one another. — Andrew @ Tedium
Be sure to check out the newsletter hiding in a newsletter inside of today’s piece, courtesy of our sponsor The Funnies.
The birth year of Hasidism’s founder, Yisroel ben Eliezer. Rabbi Eliezer is often referred to by his disciples as the divinely inspired Baal Shem Tov, or “Master of the Good Name.” The Baal Shem Tov taught a mystical form of Judaism emphasizing intense, meditative prayer, direct connection to God, and the esoteric importance of certain letters, numbers, and words. All mainstream Hasidic lines, including the Skver Hasids, trace their rabbis’ lineage directly back to the Baal Shem Tov.
How one Hasidic sect helped solve one of pop music’s most haunting mysteries
In 1986, Q Lazzarus introduced what would become one of pop music’s most haunting melodies in “Goodbye Horses.” The vocal hook somehow manages to simultaneously echo a mournful keening and a comforting murmur—both the bereaved’s elegiac wailing, and the mother hushing their child with reassurances the pain is only temporary. It’s a spiritual song in the most literal sense.
“Goodbye Horses” doesn’t simply stick with you; it can possess you entirely. For years, I’ve been unable to exorcize that possession. Performed by someone by the name of “Q Lazzarus,” almost no other available information existed about the artist. Initially, even their gender wasn’t entirely confirmed.
Yet nearly three years ago, the mystery of Q Lazzarus was most likely solved … thanks in large part to one of the most restrictive and reclusive sects of Hasidism.
The Skver Hasids originated in eighteenth-century Ukraine under the leadership of Reb Hershele Skverer, said to be a direct descendant of the Baal Shem Tov. Now largely based in New Square (itself an Anglicization of Skver), New York, the community is considered one of the strictest, and often most controversial, in all of Hasidism. Author Shulem Deen extensively detailed life within the sect in his 2015 memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, presenting a rarely seen world ruled by rabbinic legalese and the pronouncements of whichever patriarch currently sits calcified behind mountains of the Talmudic commentary and siddurim. The Skver faced multiple unsavory accusations in the past, ranging from sexual abuse to outright physical violence, but with such an insular world, many of the details still remain behind the eruv wires cordoning their neighborhoods.
The Skver are part of an intensely ultra-Orthodox strain requiring wives to shave their hair and don wigs, and only began women’s formal education within the last century, excluding obtaining any kind of degree. Their day jobs are often menial, taken largely to afford sending their children to yeshiva and for their husbands to study Torah full-time. Modesty is what’s most important, and so physical labor such as driving a vehicle is strictly verboten for women. In 2015, another, similar sect of Hasids from Ukraine, the Belz, went so far as to officially ban women from getting behind a wheel.
Skver women are the floorboards of a home made solely for men, all of whom are currently led by Rebbe David Twersky, a man who was already twenty years into his tenure as Grand Rabbi in New Square by the time Q Lazzarus began writing songs. It would be another twenty-five before these two wholly different worlds intersected.
For all those decades, Q Lazzarus’ low, androgynous register belonged to no one. During the song’s black-and-white music video, audiences heard this powerful, singular voice, but saw only flashes of a face—African American, seemingly female, but perhaps not. A profoundly human melody, missing an actual human.
Comics don’t have to be delivered in newspapers anymore. Your inbox is just fine. Today’s Tedium is sponsored by The Funnies, a newsletter that brings you five curated comics per day, each in a super-readable format that’s just perfect for your inbox and your phone. It’ll cost you just $2 a month—and your payment helps to support the comic artists who created gems such as these:
Solid work by a newsletter that supports its artists. So whaddya say? Give The Funnies a look—it’s a free 10-day trial. Tell ’em Tedium sent ya.
(They also sponsored our last issue, too; be sure to check out the comics there.)
The poverty rate for New Square, Skver Hasids’ main village in New York. In 2019, USA Today ranked New Square as the eighth poorest town in the United States (as well as New York’s most impoverished town), with a median income of $23,924. 77.1 percent of New Square’s residents rely on SNAP food stamp benefits—the highest rate in the country—compared to the national household average of 13 percent.
The story of the chance encounter that landed a NYC taxi driver’s song in an Academy Award-winning film
Pop culture junkies pass down the legend of Q Lazzarus like tales of the Wise Men of Chelm. The most widely accepted legend goes as thus:
One night, the late director, Jonathan Demme, is sitting in a New York City taxi cab when the driver asks if he would like to listen to their band. Politely acquiescing, he’s floored by the song coming from the tape deck.
“Oh my God. What is this and who are you?” he tells the woman behind the wheel.
From there, he helps the band re-record the demo of “Goodbye Horses.” He wants to use it in a new film he’s making, Married to the Mob. He likes the song so much he also uses it in his next movie, an adaptation of a crime novel, itself loosely influenced by real life serial killers. Silence of the Lambs is hailed as an instant horror and crime classic.
The scene set to Q’s new version of “Goodbye Horses” produces nightmares. Ted Levine, the actor responsible for making skin crawl, both literally and figuratively, would have difficulty getting major roles for years afterwards. Casting agents couldn’t erase the image of Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill, in a woman’s wig and caftan, his schvonz tucked behind his legs, shimmying in front of a mirror to Q’s wounded howls, promising himself, “I’d fuck me so hard.”
Today, many still have trouble erasing the image, for far more personal, legitimate reasons.
After the film, it all “passed into the night,” as the song’s lyrics go. One of the band’s main architects and co-writer of “Goodbye Horses,” William Garvey, would occasionally surface and mention Q, often disparagingly. Rumors began about what happened to this person—drug addiction, domestic abuse, perhaps even suicide. The band dissolved sometime in or before 1996, Garvey died in 2009, and little else could be found about that anonymous taxi driver.
For almost ten years, the case ran cold. Then, in the summer of 2018, a journalist and Lazzarus fan named Kelsey Chapman innocuously tweeted about wanting to once again research the mystery surrounding Q. Out of nowhere, a woman named Diane Luckey responded, claiming to be the artist. Initially thinking it was a prank, Chapman humored the messenger to hear their version of where they’d been these past decades.
“Hi, sorry to bother you,” began Luckey’s private message to Chapman. “I just wanted people to know I am still alive, I have no interest in singing anymore. I am a bus driver in Staten Island (I have been for YEARS), I see hundreds of passengers everyday so I am hardly hiding (or dead!) … [S]orry if this is a boring end to the story, I am going to come off twitter soon as I find it odd, please take note of this message incase [sic] anyone else is interested. THANK YOU.”
Luckey also mentioned giving her phone number and address to Thomas Gorton, a digital editor at Dazed who recently wrote his own excellent piece on the mystery that was Q, to confirm she was real. In what became her own article for Dazed, Chapman then pieced together a handful of additional online clues, and uncovered a paper trail linking Luckey to a 2015 class-action lawsuit filed against Monsey Trails, an NYC-contracted bus company, alleging they refused to hire female drivers.
But why would they? Monsey Trails is owned by the Skver Hasidim, and everyone knows what the rebbes said about women’s roles in the wider world, especially when it came to driving.
This wasn’t the first time the Skver-owned business faced legal criticism in the city. A few years ago, a small exposé revealed gender discrimination in the bus seating arrangements, with the largely Hasidic women passengers often made to sit in the rear separate from the men up front. The case was settled outside of court, but what’s left behind—in particular a tiny New York Post recap—undoubtedly points to Luckey.
The estimated, unconfirmed age of Diane Luckey, the presumed woman behind the Q Lazzarus pseudonym.
The great irony to all this meshugas is most Skver will never know, let alone understand, what they helped reveal. The good, pious Hasids walled off from modern society’s decadence and immodesty will never commune with Q Lazzarus’ ghost song, never hear Luckey’s echo in stereo. Their blood will never reverse course, attempting to retreat deeper into themselves, at the sight of Buffalo Bill’s interpretation of what a body is and can do. If they do see Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece, they’ll most likely find the themes of sexuality and gender roles as distasteful as a cannibal psychiatrist, or a female federal law agent. Or, heaven forbid, a bus driver.
I don’t know anything else about Diane Luckey, but even if she was comfortable with a more public life, I wouldn’t want to know more. Part of the power of Q Lazzarus and “Goodbye Horses” comes from the unknown, the wonder at who or what is behind it all. Even now, no one can be absolutely sure Luckey is the woman so many want her to be. But we don’t need to see the entirety of the picture, and what’s more, it’s unlikely we could even comprehend it. Like Moses at Sinai, sometimes a glimpse of the face is all one needs before it passes into the night.
Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!
Correction: An earlier version of this piece falsely stated Kelsey Chapman’s last name, and failed to make it clear she had written an in-depth piece on this saga for Dazed in 2019. We regret the error.