Pouring out heart and soul
It began with riffs on a portable electronic organ and a low budget, and ended up being a seminal Israeli rock album. Celebrating 25 years since Shalom Hanoch's 'Waiting for Messiah' came out.
"Mehakim Lemashiah" ("Waiting for Messiah") - one of the most beloved songs in the history of Israeli rock - was created by mistake. Shalom Hanoch wanted it to sound like his slow blues tune "Tiyul Leyafo" ("A Trip to Jaffa"). But a series of misunderstandings led musical producer and arranger Moshe Levi to double the tempo. The way the percussion was recorded necessarily affected the vocals, which were added later. Hanoch was unhappy, but budgetary limitations precluded additional recordings. In the end he was stuck with the fast version.
One evening, Hanoch and Levi had remained late at the studio, recording take after take of the song, trying to get it right. None of the recordings were satisfactory.
But then, recalls Levi, "The next morning we returned to the studio to listen to the takes and we heard something we hadn't been aware of the night before. In the third take, Shalom had done something experimental: He sang before the beat instead of with it. He did so for an entire take, to see if he could learn from it and catch certain nuances, some of which he might use in the final version. We listened to it and realized that this was it. This was our take. And that's what was used on the record."
This month, 25 years after the release of "Waiting for Messiah," the album, the people involved in its production are looking back at the frenetic months of work involved. The 1985 album, as well as the "Hatuna Levana" ("White Wedding") album that preceded it by four years, are still considered Hanoch's formative works as a solo artist.
Half a year after "Waiting for Messiah" went on sale, it went gold, selling 30,000 copies; Hanoch was also dubbed Singer of the Year for 1985 by Army Radio. Since then an additional 40,000 have been sold. According to Media Forest, which keeps track of radio-station broadcasts, in 2009 the song was played 509 times on the 20 stations the firm monitors. In 2008 it was played no fewer that 704 times, and in the first two and a half months of 2010, the song was played 144 times - in other words, twice a day.
The days before "Waiting for Messiah" came out were not easy for Hanoch. His fans and critics were still at the height of the trauma of "White Wedding," a formative album that introduced a heavier "wall of sound" style that listeners were not prepared for, and that ended up a commercial failure - in inverse proportion to the tremendous financial investment in it. Although his record company, CBS, did not give up on Hanoch, the budget available to him for the new album was significantly lower.
Etti Anetta-Segev, now the director of the culture department at Army Radio, was responsible for the album's production for CBS. In order to cut costs, she wanted a studio that was looking for an artist who would try out new equipment, in return for paying a small fee or none at all; in the end, she chose a studio that was still undergoing construction. She also mediated between Hanoch and the record company management, and explained every deviation from the budget; she even locked the doors of the studio with the artists inside when the recordings continued beyond the allotted time, so that they could finish their session.
"Waiting for Messiah" was Hanoch's fifth solo album. Levi remembers that the musician sang sketches of the songs accompanied by a small, primitive Casio electric organ - not even with a guitar. The two met at Hanoch's apartment on Hashoftim Street in Tel Aviv; until that point, Levi had worked on only one of the singer's albums (1983's "Al Pnei Ha'adama" - "On the Face of the Earth"), but from then on, he became Hanoch's regular musical producer. Anetta-Segev was also present at their initial meetings.
Levi: "On the one hand, Shalom is a genius, in terms of his ability to conjure up very complex, rich pictures. On the other hand, he doesn't have the technical skill to get them across. I was a young musician of 26 or 27 at the time. He was trying to convey something to me, and I understood something else entirely."
Even before the final selection was made for "Messiah," two songs were recorded in the Kolinor studios: "Zeh Lo Noah" ("Not Noah") and "Ein Mahloket" ("Ami and Tami"). Only then, in what Levi calls "an outburst of creativity," did Hanoch compose "Waiting for Messiah," "Lo Otzer Be'adom" ("Jumps Red Lights") and "Latzet Mehalahatz" ("Out From Under"). This group of songs became the core of the album, to which a few others were added - like "Beli Lomar Mila" ("Without a Single Word") and "Keren Shemesh Me'uheret" ("Last Ray of Sunshine").
"During the period of making 'Messiah,' we had just moved in to a new place together," recalls singer Dafna Armoni, Hanoch's partner at the time; he also wrote most of the songs for her debut album in 1986. She remembers precisely the moment when the opening track, "Not Noah," was written for the Hanoch album.
"It was written in our other, previous apartment. The trigger was the mouthpieces I had bought him for his cigarettes, so that he would inhale less nicotine. They were on the table in the living room and Maya [Hanoch's daughter], who had come to spend her vacation with us, asked what they were. He explained. 'So why aren't you using them?' she asked, and he answered, 'Zeh lo noah [it isn't comfortable].' Suddenly he took a pen and paper and in 10 minutes he had two stanzas and a refrain." (The name "Zeh Lo Noah" is a double entendre, playing on the meaning of "noah" as a name and as as Hebrew for "comfortable.")
In 1984, music aficionado Yoav Kutner began to broadcast his daily program on Army Radio, and the first track he played was "Not Noah," which had been released in advance of the album.
"When the song came out it sounded like something created to counter the reactions to 'White Wedding,'" says Kutner today. "People called Hanoch a 'traitor' at the time; they asked why he didn't sing the song 'Maya' any more. Now it sounds idiotic, but at the time the sound of the [new] album was strange to me. It was rock with a little dance and some electronics, and it bothered me. I preferred the quiet songs. But it was back in the day of the [now-closed music club] Kolnoa Dan, and the sound was dance music, sort of New Wave."
According to Kutner, "I always look at 'Messiah' in terms of a context that is beyond Shalom himself. It was a period of change in the attitude toward rock in Israel. Dire Straits came for its first performance in the park, and Shalom was in the right place at the right time. 'Messiah' is the album that turned him into a superstar in Israel. It was one of the only times when he didn't zigzag between aggressiveness, as in 'White Wedding,' and the other extreme, seen in 'On the Face of the Earth.' He found the middle path there. It's also his most commercial album, production-wise."
Sign of the times
When "Messiah" went on sale, the country was in a state of upheval. Israel was still deeply mired in Lebanon, but beginning its withdrawal to the security zone, and there were still reverberations from events such as the Peace Now protest of 400,000 (held in the wake of the massacre in Sabra and Chatila, in September 1982), and the murder of Peace Now activist Emil Greenzweig during a demonstration a half year later. Hanoch himself was asked about speculation that "Jumps Red Lights" referred to then-defense minister Ariel Sharon. He claimed that although the man's actions in Lebanon and elsewhere definitely warranted criticism, Sharon was not worthy of having a song written about him.
In an interview with Hanoch in June 1985, Kutner asked why he didn't take a clearer stand in his songs. "I didn't go all the way, because ['Messiah'] is not a totally political album," replied Hanoch (who did not agree to be interviewed for this article). "It's more social than political. Although it comes from the same source, it's not party politics ... I think what I'm saying is clear."
Later he added: "'Waiting for Messiah' expresses pressure, tension, nerves. All the songs are about mistakes that we make all the time because of the constraints of living here. About the directions taken by groups and people in power. You say, so they got out of Lebanon. Is that the end of the story? It's not certain. The question is what they learn from it."
In an interview in the journal Hotam in July 1985, Hanoch said: "Many people, who are supposed to be very intelligent, ask me, 'Nu, will the Messiah come or not?' I send them all back to the song. If you don't try to interpret it, you'll be wiser for it."
"Many people attribute 'Waiting for Messiah' to the suicide of businessman Mickey Albin," he said in an interview in the Maariv teen magazine in October 1985, by which time the album had already gone gold. (Albin, who was also involved in Israel's Liberal Party, died when he jumped from a window in the police station where he was being interrogated on suspicion of financial crimes.)
"They're looking for a context. With young people that doesn't happen. I'm not a sociologist and I'm not trying to analyze the reactions of the audience, but it's great when a song has an influence in several dimensions, on several levels, without making light of any reaction ... The song is not only anti-religious, it's anti-secular. In Israel there are clearly efforts to pursue easy solutions."
In the same interview he added that he was writing lyrics with political overtones as early as "White Wedding": "In 'Messiah' the outburst was more concentrated. The situation in Israel was getting worse, especially when I began to work on the recording. It seemed very natural to me to touch on things that made me angry, that were bothering me. In principle, the abcess was burst by the [Lebanon] war and by the people who were in the government here at the time. They made me too angry. The demagoguery that was flying around here seemed really dangerous. I felt things in this country were beginning to go backward, that destruction was being fomented, that depression was beginning to dominate everywhere ... This nation is led by people who are deceiving us. In 'Jumps Red Lights,' I talk about that."
When they were making the album, "We were just getting going, searching. In such a situation you ask questions that you don't usually ask when you have a specific style," recalls Levi. "We started from the beginning, from zero, with all the lack of confidence that entails. Do you see my white hair? I always say that I entered the studio with black hair, and emerged with white hair."
The mix technician for the album was Englishman John Maxwell, who was brought over to Israel specially for the recording; Hanoch had met him while he was living in London, through singer Arik Sinai.
"Shalom was very impressed by him and when 'On the Face of the Earth' was being made, he asked to bring him," says Levi. "They checked the books and said that in order to bring John we had to economize - that's why the recording sessions were short."
In a similar financial frame of mind, when "Messiah" was about to be recorded, Anetta-Segev turned to Yehoshua Ben Yehoshua, owner of Syntron, a studio located in the area of the Ramat Gan Stock Exchange.
"Syntron had not been completely built and we did the work on the album in one room, with renovations still being done all around," she explains. "The agreement was that Hanoch would record in difficult conditions, but at a far lower cost than at the established and expensive studios. They knew that if Shalom recorded there, others would come after him. It was in an office building, and I remember that the windows shook."
The electronic staccato sounds heard in the title track were inspired by the sound of dialing a phone: When Levi went to study in Boston in the early 1980s, he was exposed to the new touch-tone sound, now familiar to us.
"People are sitting and waiting to hear the ring. That was the inspiration for this sound in 'Messiah,'" he explains.
"I have no idea how I managed to play it," says Ohad Inger, who played bass guitar in the recordings, but did not continue to work with Hanoch.
Says percussionist Alon Hillel: "It was a tough time in Shalom's career as an artist; what they did was new and amazing ... There were perfect things there, great lyrics, melodies and arrangements, everything was on the highest level possible. I remember that if I made a mistake it was because I was concentrating on the words."
When the recording was finished, Hanoch and impresario Yehuda Talit decided to organize a "Messiah" tour - five performances in open locales - and also brought aboard Gadi Oron, who during the same period produced the Dire Straits concert in Yarkon Park.
"I heard the material at an early stage and liked it very much," recalls Oron. "But that was after 'White Wedding' and Talit was worried about getting involved in a production of the scope that was being planned. I believed in the material. I though it was amazing and that Shalom had the ability to attract an audience. I decided to take a risk. In this case my gut feeling proved itself."
For rehearsals they leased an empty hangar at the Jaffa Port. Hanoch and his band apparently made so much noise during rehearsal that a restraining order was issued against them and they had to move to a circus tent in the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. The conflict with the neighbors there [in Jaffa] reached the newspapers too, one reason being that the plaintiffs were celebrities like Dahn Ben Amotz and Dubi Zeltzer.
"Shalom opened the park," recalls percussionist Hillel, "with a huge stage whose end you can't see. Everything was new and different. All at once the magnitude of these performances became huge. Only years later did you understand that it was an important point in Israeli culture, that you were a part of it."
But above all, Hillel remembers the noise - the sound of 20,000 people. "The audience was screaming so much that I didn't hear my drums. It's hard to explain. After those performances I couldn't sleep for hours; with all the adrenaline, you can't be calm, not before and not after. It was great to stand behind Shalom, his entire soul was poured out there."
Thus, within half a year after "Messiah" came out, tens of thousands of people had attended the concerts and record sales had shot up. The tour was extended and lasted into the winter. One of the performances was attended by two soldiers who had deserted their base in Ashkelon for the purpose. As they explained later: "Shalom is worth any punishment."
As for the album cover, admits Anetta-Segev today, "I was somewhat in shock. I actually wanted the nice picture of Shalom that's on the back be on the front." In spite of that, the jacket, designed by artist David Tartakover, remained as planned: an ashtray piled high with cigarette butts - one of the most familiar and beloved jackets in Israeli rock. Oded Klein photographed the ashtray from above.
"Messiah" was the fourth jacket designed by Tartakover for Hanoch; their work together began with the design of two of the albums that Hanoch recorded with Arik Einstein.
"I soon found a solution [to the design problem]," recalls Tartakover, who adds that Hanoch liked the jacket immediately. "The name of the record attests to nervousness, you smoke cigarettes unconsciously, like an expectant father waiting outside the delivery room. This ashtray contains everything; it's the most Israeli thing there is. I chose an object found in every small office, and in it planted hints of a sedative - a joint."