Shmulik Kraus, a True Israeli Rock Star

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Shmulik Kraus, who died Sunday at the age of 77, was one of the greatest Israeli musical artists of the last half-century. He reportedly passed away at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv a week after being admitted with swine flu. His health is said to have deteriorated in recent years and he was confined to a wheelchair.

Alongside Israeli music icons Arik Einstein and Shalom Hanoch, Kraus was a key figure in the transition from Israeli folk music to pop and rock that took place in the mid- to late 1960s, changing the local music scene from the ground up. But despite his importance as one of the founders of Hebrew pop music and the undisputed beauty of dozens of his songs, Kraus’ career foundered time and again because of his unpredictable, difficult, bruised and bruising personality.

It is doubtful that Israeli music has ever had an artist beset by so many inner contradictions. "This is not someone you want to have as an enemy. He’s wild, but he’s also incredibly sensitive and possesses both an acute understanding of people and extraordinary intelligence," Yankele Rotblit, who composed the lyrics for most of Kraus' hits, wrote in the liner notes of his greatest hits album. With wondrous sensitivity of his own, Rotblit wrote Kraus’ fierce, complex and tragic character into his songs.

Rotblit also wrote about what he called "the chaos that engenders the harmony," which may be the best definition of Kraus’ artistic spirit and the incomprehensible tension between the belligerent human being and sensitive composer – between Kraus’ rough, raspy singing (sometimes in the right key and sometimes merely in the neighborhood) and the gentle grace emanating from his greatest songs such as "Again," "In Early Summer," "A Sad Song," "Twenty Years Later," "Rocking Horse," "It Happens" and many others.

How can someone be so rough yet so delicate? It’s a question that has no answer. "People keep asking me where all these melodies come from," Rotblit wrote. "What do I know about the relationship between genetics and poetics? Composers get their melodies the same place tormented people get sudden respite. Shmulik is one of them and these are his sudden respite."

Kraus was born in the Nahalat Ahim quarter of Jerusalem in 1935. His mother was a housewife and his father was a driver. "Think about this skinny kid growing up in the alleys of Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market – a school for survival – when the British are still in the country," wrote Rotblit. "Think about the son whose father is a member of the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem, tracing its lineage in the land over centuries before modern political Zionism, and whose mother is a member of the Urfeli clan, a mountain city on the Syrian-Turkish border where only the tough thrive.

"He wasn’t from the sociocultural background shared by almost all of his contemporary cultural icons and artists. He wasn’t a graduate of one of the military troupes and certainly did not have the musical background of most composers and musicians. He came from a different milieu where one made one’s way using one’s wits and fists."

As a young man, Kraus made a living as a tap dancer and later as a merchant seaman. One of the stories he told about that period captures with terrifying precision his complex, borderline personality. On one particular journey, Kraus’ ship docked in Virginia. "I went out with my buddies and wandered through the city," he recalled, "and suddenly we saw a bunch of crazy people going for a walk. I made a $20 bet with my friends that I could mix in among the crazies without anyone noticing. So I walked into the group. After a minute or so they went back into the mental hospital and I among them. When I tried to stop pretending to be crazy and leave, the massive guard wouldn’t let me. It took my friends three hours to get me out of there, giving me time to have lunch on the inside."

True or not, who cares? It’s a great story, both funny and tragic, and very Shmulik Kraus-like: the impulsive, defiant act that doesn’t take consequences into consideration; the porous, wavering line between sanity and madness, between omnipotence and helplessness; the inability to extricate himself from the chaos he has created without outside intervention; and also the presence of friends, thanks to whom order is restored, at least until next time.

In the early 1960s, Kraus was a member of the Ofarim Trio with Esther and Avi Ofarim. They would eventually part from Kraus and become the Ofarim Duo. Some years later he met Josie Katz and they, together with Arik Einstein, founded the High Windows. Their only album, the eponymous "High Windows" – which featured great hits such as "A Sad Song," "You Can’t," "Chocolate Soldier," "Zehava the Doll," "All Week Is Yours" and "Yehezkel" – was a watershed in Israeli music history: the moment that pop from abroad penetrated the closed world of Hebrew folk music after which the local music scene would never be the same.

After 45 years, the album has lost none of its fresh appeal, thanks to Kraus’ beautiful melodies, the unique melding of Einstein’s and Katz’s vocals and the innovative style of the musicians who played on the album. "At that time, if you ever tried to play differently, something that occurred to you after listening to albums from abroad, you’d usually be told, ‘That doesn’t sound Israeli,’" recalls bass player Shmulik Aroch, who played on "High Windows." "Shmulik Kraus as well as Ziggy [Skarbnik, a pianist who arranged the songs on the album] encouraged us to play in our own way. It wasn’t an attempt to force something, but it happened simply because they were original."

The High Windows broke up shortly thereafter, and Kraus and Katz left Israel for New York, where Kraus worked in a leather-clothing store and rubbed elbows with American rock and roll royalty. He was back in Israel three years later and wrote several songs for Arik Einstein’s albums "Posy" and "Modeling Clay" and joined the Cape of Good Hope band, which broke up before producing a record but not before creating some wonderful songs, including "Everything’s Fine with Me" and "A Ballad for an Ex-Kibbutznik,"composed together with Shalom Hanoch.

Kraus’ first solo album – or Krauz as he was calling himself then, in what was in fact a return to the original pronunciation of his surname – is one of the most disorderly, slapdash records in Israeli recording history. That year, Kraus wanted to build a home and recording studio on land he had inherited in Nabi Samwil, the purported burial place of the prophet Samuel, some 4 kilometers north of Jerusalem in the West Bank, but this landed him in legal trouble. Soldiers were sent to evict Kraus whereupon he threatened them with weapons and was sent to jail. While jailed, he asked for a guitar and was told he could have one if he agreed to a haircut. The songs he wrote behind bars were recorded in a short, crazy session soon after his release.

In the liner notes of his 1977 album "Criminal Record," Kraus wrote, "What do I really want to say? I almost had it all but wanted to experience what sometimes has to happen. I had it all but wanted ‘Kraus solitary.’ And to get to solitary, you have to be truly bad. Among the worst, really. What could be worse than a nest of vipers or scorpions? I’ve never believed in God but I’ve also never tried a solitary retreat. There you can really do it. I’m a great believer in Mother Nature and in myself. I like to describe Samuel even with a few screws loose." In one of the album’s songs, '"Don’t Pay Me Any Attention," Kraus repeats the line "Don’t pay me any attention, I have a screw loose."

The 1970s were chaotic for Kraus and replete with missed career opportunities, even though he managed to write and record some of his most beautiful and graceful songs, such as "Again," "In Early Summer," "It Happens" and "Rocking Horse," which became the theme song of Yaky Yosha’s classic film, based on the novel by Yoram Kaniuk and starring Kraus. "He was capable of getting into character but incapable of getting out again," said Yosha. "When we finished the movie, he had to be hospitalized again. His sensitivity threshold got him there. When he went into the creative mode it was all-consuming. The art became him and he became the art. How many people like that are there?"

"The guy who won’t comply," was Rotblit’s nickname for Kraus, and the singer’s moody personality caused his private and artistic life to be filled with misery, mayhem and mistakes. Kraus’ second album, "Spinning Wheel," came out in 1982 when he was 47. Great artists abroad with similar personalities tended to die 20 years before reaching that age while leaving behind a respectable number of albums.

"Spinning Wheel," which was a fantastic album (as was the next, "Twenty Years Later"), marked the start of Kraus’ collaboration with producer and arranger Ilan Wirtzberg (and continued collaboration with Rotblit). It’s hard to imagine two people more different than Kraus and Wirtzberg: Kraus, the extroverted wild man, and Wirtzberg, the introverted gentle soul. "But everyone has an external 'I' and an internal 'I,'" said Wirtzberg, "Shmulik is shameless on the outside and soft on the inside, while I’m soft on the outside and a killer on the inside."

The collaboration with Rotblit and Wirtzberg is a reminder of the extent to which Kraus’ biggest hits were a product of working with other artists. It’s funny: The most difficult musician in the history of Israeli music, someone who made many potential partners flee the recording studio in tears, was also the musician most strikingly dependent on the contribution of collaborators. Because of the persona and musician he was, he always needed a guiding hand.

Kraus and Wirtzberg’s last album, "Environmentally Friendly," came out in 1994. In 2003, Kraus recorded what would be his final album, the gorgeous "Day After Day." In the title song, Kraus sings Rotblit’s lyrics: "Someone came into the world / someone who’s gone. / If one lives or dies / the world can’t go on."

This wasn’t the first time that death – and, in a sense, his death – showed up in his work. Twenty years before, in one of the most beautiful Kraus-Rotblit songs, he sang: "I saw how, like a noble, wild horse, galloping to freedom / captured by an evil spell as bitter as wormwood / bound by spells, sorceries and holy fire, / he bursts towards his end in the light of the moon. / I’ve loved and will love again / the living song of the dead singer. / I’ve loved and will love again / the living song of the dead singer."

Shmulik Kraus.Credit: Courtesy
Shmulik KrausCredit: Daniel Chechik

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