Obituaries

Susan Beschta, punk rocker turned judge, dies at 67

Ms. Beschta (second from left) performed with the Erasers in the 1970s before pivoting to a career in immigration law.
Joe Stevens via New York Times
Ms. Beschta (second from left) performed with the Erasers in the 1970s before pivoting to a career in immigration law.

NEW YORK — Susan Beschta, who performed in the 1970s art-punk band the Erasers as frontwoman Susan Springfield before taking an unlikely career turn, becoming a human rights lawyer and then an immigration judge, died May 2 in hospice care in Manhattan. She was 67.

A close friend, Sylvia Reed, said the cause was brain cancer.

If a life is a journey, Ms. Beschta’s was full of twists and turns, geographically and vocationally. After growing up in Wisconsin, a stint at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and a brief period living in Berkeley, Calif., she hitchhiked across the country to New York with dreams of becoming a fine artist.

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In the 1970s, when punk rock burst loudly on the music world, Ms. Beschta, a self-taught guitarist and vocalist, could be found in crowded, raucous downtown Manhattan nightclubs belting out attitude-laced three-chord rockers in the Patti Smith vein.

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By the end of the ’80s she had gone in a completely new direction, earning a law degree and working for a charity representing abuse victims and immigrants.

By the early 2000s, she was a federal government lawyer in New York handling immigration cases. And early this year she became a federal judge, also in New York — not long after she learned of her cancer diagnosis.

To those who recall her days at CBGB, the epicenter of the punk scene in 1970s New York, Ms. Beschta’s career path may have seemed incongruous. But to friends, there was always a common thread.

“For Susan, music and art were there to lift up all people, and this deep-seated belief was what she took with her from the downtown scene to the halls of justice,” Reed, who was once married to Lou Reed, said in an e-mail. “To her, all were equal, all were entitled to human compassion.”

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In their ’70s heyday, the Erasers — made up of two men and, unusually, three women — were well known among the rock cognoscenti. In clubs like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, the band opened for the likes of Smith, the Feelies, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Frequently, the Erasers headlined.

Ms. Beschta was also at the center of punk’s downtown social scene, presiding over parties at the Elizabeth Street loft she shared with her bandmates Jody Beach and Jane Fire. Poet Allen Ginsberg and musicians like John Cale, Johnny Rotten, and Iggy Pop might show up.

But even by the here-today-gone-tomorrow ethos of punk, the Erasers’ recording output was minuscule. The band — its other members were Richie Lure and David Ebony — recorded only three songs. One, a single — “Funny,” with “I Won’t Give Up” on the B side — was produced by Richard Lloyd of the band Television but remained unreleased until it was included in a 2015 boxed set celebrating a defunct New York label, Ork Records.

“Susan was one of the musicians at the heart of CBGB, when what was to be called ‘punk’ was still an undefined desire and attitude developing there,” Richard Hell, who dated Ms. Beschta in her musician days, recalled in an e-mail. “And ‘heart’ is the word, because she was unusual in that environment for her kindness and drive to work for justice.”

That drive started with the cause of gender equality.

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“One of the things I’ve been particularly curious of throughout my whole career as a performing artist was the fact of being a woman,” Ms. Beschta said in an interview with the alternative newspaper The East Village Eye in the 1980s, when she went by the name Susan Springfield. “One of my main concerns as a woman was to set a good example as an individual for other women, particularly young girls in the middle of nowhere. The place where I came from.”

Susan Marie Beschta was born on April 21, 1952, in Appleton, Wis., to Gerald and Jean (Gericke) Beschta. After hitchhiking to New York, she enrolled as an undergraduate at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with plans of becoming a painter and a fine-art photographer. During that time she met another aspiring artist, Jane Fire, and the two decided to investigate a more raucous form of art.

“I wanted to do something in a more populist way,” Ms. Beschta told Flavorwire. With fine art, she said, “I would only be able to sell it to rich people.”

After batting around the idea of starting a band with Fire and Ebony, they formed the Erasers, taking the name from a surrealistic detective novel by French avant-garde writer Alain Robbe-Grillet.

After the band made its final appearance, at the Peppermint Lounge in Midtown in 1981, Ms. Beschta pursued a solo career.

Eventually, however, she came to believe that she had accomplished all that she could with music and decided to chart a new path, entering the City University of New York School of Law and earning her degree in 1989.

Ms. Beschta spent nine years doing legal work for Catholic Charities in New York, in some instances taking on asylum cases involving victims of sexual slavery and female genital mutilation. She later worked for Bretz & Coven, an immigration law firm in New York.

“Susan was a crusader who was passionate about every case and every person,” said Kerry Bretz, a founding partner of the firm.

In 2002, Ms. Beschta joined the Department of Homeland Security as an assistant chief counsel in New York, focusing on immigration cases. She remained there for 16 years and was ultimately promoted to deputy chief counsel.

She died at the Dawn Greene Hospice in Manhattan.

Ms. Beschta, who never married, leaves two sons, Thando Marshall and Vuyisile Jamal Beschta; a daughter, Layla Marie Beschta; three brothers, Randy, Greg, and Rick Beschta; and a sister, Debbie Alswager.

Ms. Beschta had been appointed to the New York City Immigration Court, an arm of the Justice Department, when she received her cancer diagnosis in March 2018. After a brain tumor was removed that month, she recovered enough to complete her training as an immigration judge in Washington. She was sworn in in November.