The Kaveret Kid Turns 60

On the occasion of his special birthday, veteran singer-songwriter and comic Danny Sanderson looks back in modesty, not anger.

A photo of Danny Sanderson, who celebrated his 60th birthday on November 30, appears in a book of work by well-known Israeli photographer Yaakov Agor. The singer-songwriter is 23 in the photo, which today is surprising for several reasons. First, he had freckles. In multitudes. ("It was crazy. If I could only have connected them, I'd have looked suntanned," he quips. ) Second, he was photographed alone. These days we are used to seeing him on stage with six other people. It turns out that Agor, then a Haaretz photographer, spent a lot of time at Kaveret's rehearsals and struck up a close friendship with Sanderson. The fact that Agor was 62 years old at the time, was no hindrance. Agor was young at heart, and Sanderson, around that exact time, had composed the music for "Yeled Mizdaken" ("Things Could Be Better" but literally "aging child" ).

But the most surprising thing in young Sanderson's picture is his expression. Defiant, maybe even furious. The kind of look that a guitarist in a psychedelic rock band in San Francisco in 1968 would give a New York Times photographer. Sanderson does not think the person depicted in Agor's picture is angry. "I see something else in this picture: davka'ut [contrariness]," he declares. "Perhaps I was somewhat angry at that time, but there is no doubt it came from being stubborn. From an artistic point of view, that is a healthy characteristic. Sometimes I see it in today's young artists."

Danny Sanderson
Gabriel Baharlia

What do you mean, contrariness?

Sanderson: "Contrariness can be like, 'Ah, so if this is what is going on today then I'll do the opposite.'"

Did you have a problem with the culture back then of togetherness? With being in a closely knit group?

"No. I loved it. First of all I was born on Kibbutz Kfar Blum. I still think of [kibbutz] as one of the astonishing experiments in the history of mankind, the Three Musketeers' axiom: 'All for one and one for all.' In the [army's] Nahal entertainment troupe, you could clearly see the difference between the kibbutzniks and those who came from the cities. The kibbutzniks were into being part of the chorus, while the city dwellers wanted solos. I was a kibbutznik in this sense. Very much so."

Kaveret is associated with funny lyrics and a fast tempo, but alongside these characteristics, its songs also contained a heavy dose of loneliness, estrangement and sadness. Did you feel lonely at that time?

"I was more alone than lonely. I did not have a relationship. My first relationship ended, eventually, with marriage. But that was during the period of Gazoz (a later Sanderson band). And really, Gazoz's music was lighter. Children loved Gazoz the most. There was probably something infantile there. In [the songs of] Kaveret, too, there is, at bottom, a touch of optimism, but the top layer is somewhat morbid."

Another example of being different, or obstinate, during the Kaveret days, and later too, was your tendency toward absurdity. It was rare in Israeli music of that time.

"It was really almost nonexistent here. Frank Zappa says the absurd is his reality. Sometimes I felt that way, too. The absurdity mainly stemmed from things I read at that time. I loved Kafka and Joseph Heller. They greatly influenced me when I was young. Musically, totally contradictory things influenced me. My grandmother used to take me to musicals. 'Oklahoma.' Odd things happened there. A boy looks at a girl, says something, and begins to sing. That, by itself is a rather weird situation, and it's odd a big cynic like me could accept that. Such strange contradictions are what make a work slightly more complex."

'In defense of fear'

Sanderson today is involved in a relationship with actress Anat Atzmon, which started after his wife Naomi died, some five years ago.

"I admire the female sex," he says. "I think that besides their external beauty, they have a kind of pragmatism and a practical sense that we men ought to borrow from them. When I look at women, I often feel as though I am sitting in the audience; I see them as some kind of a show and then hurry backstage to wait for an autograph. They are delightful and I can say that in the two relationships I have had, women always had something very important and very right to say."

Sanderson was never a political writer per se, but just as the alienation and loneliness always seeped through in Kaveret's comedy routines, sometimes the politics got through, albeit camouflaged in a harmless tale. One outstanding example is his "Shir Malakhim" ("Sailors' Song" ), in which he describes pirates who attack a ship, whose sailors, contrary to the Zionist ethos of heads held high, quickly surrender.

"I think a lot can be said in defense of fear," Sanderson explains. "What always frightens me with the leadership is 'obsession,' absolutism, because nothing is absolute. Reality is much more surprising. I always said that if things were to be good here, it would be by mistake. That is what I cling to. After all, what is an optimist? A pessimist who has given up.

"Fear is an important element in my writing. A chord running through me ... In war movies there is always a scene where the commander orders his men to take over the hill. Why? Go around it. They have machine guns. You don't have to do it. They will stay there with their machine guns, but eventually they will get tired and go home. Fear is a great thing in my eyes. I made quite a good living from it."

"Shir Malakhim" and "Medina Ktana" ("Little Kingdom" ) were written shortly after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. One can sense this, behind the composition.

"There is no doubt it came from there. I think I tried to say that being a hero is not a full-time job. It ought to be a part-time job. Heroes also must go on vacation sometimes. The Israeli ethos of the absolute macho bothered me."

The day of the band's appearance in Beit Keshet, the van left Sanderson's home in Tel Aviv for the Lower Galilee kibbutz at about 5:30 P.M., carrying seven musicians, a stage manager and a lighting technician. Together, Tamar Eisenman (guitar ), Kfir Ben Layish (vocals and guitar ), Yotam Ben Horin (bass ), Shaul Eshet (keyboard ), Shay Vetzer (percussion ) and Ravit Harel (vocals ) constitute one of the best back-up groups in Israeli music today. The band will also be giving five festive performances at Tel Aviv's Zappa club on Dec. 25 and 26, in celebration of Sanderson's 60th. He will be hosting Gidi Gov, Miri Messika, Rami Kleinstein, Guri Alfi, Roy Bar-Natan and Tali Oren, as well as Elisheva Bat-Israel and Nava Bat-Israel from the Hebrew Israelite community in Dimona.

What does he think of the birthday celebration?

"I like it," he answers. "At the most basic level, it reflects a real appreciation. Of course, a media element is involved and people like round numbers. I just hope there won't be an overdose, so much that people will get tired of me. When I was young and dated girls, I would sit with them in the car hoping it would lead to something and the minute things began to move in the right direction, I'd come out with 14 superfluous sentences. Before that I was in a wonderful position. In our profession, you must be able to sense whether there is an overdose."

Quite often there is something artificial in such celebrations. People praise you and say how great you are, but don't bother to listen to your new album.

"There will always be those who love you, those who love you less and those who do not love you. By the way, I understand the latter, too. When I enter a store, I assume people do not know me. I don't have to be in anyone's 'agenda.' This is something I understood many years ago and it has made my life easier. We, as artists, think that people wake up with us in the morning, but it's not so. People have their own lives and if we succeed in penetrating some of them, that's fine. The years make you more modest. That's my point."

Has there been a significant change in your compositions?

"It is difficult for me to say. I think I write more simply. Leonard Bernstein once came to one of Kaveret's concerts. We played the song 'Moshe ken, Moshe loh' ('Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No' ) and afterward, Bernstein said: Do you know that in that song you have all the chords in the chromatic scale? I didn't have a clue, but we checked and of course he was right. That shows a kind of crazy complexity ... Today I write more simply. There's a line in 'Alice in Wonderland': Say what you mean and mean what you say. This is a system of writing in which I believe. Say what you've got to say or don't say anything at all."

Disappointing silence

The performance in Beit Keshet will not be remembered as one of his best, but Sanderson and his group maintained a positive atmosphere, the songs, one after the other, were terrific, and the audience sang along with the old hits and even got up to dance. They laughed at the standup sketches, but kept disappointingly silent when he performed tracks from his latest and excellent album, "Lo Yafrid Davar" ("Nothing Will Separate" ), from last year. After several hours with Sanderson, it was easy to guess that the first thing he would say when he returned to the green room after the performance would be a rather dejected "Oh my goodness," but he immediately added, in English, "But it was okay. It was fun."

While Sanderson and the musicians were still backstage, recuperating from the show, a man who came to see them and thought the club had wronged him, stood outside, shouting at one of the club's staff and demanding compensation. When the musicians headed for the van, Sanderson stopped near the man, looked into his eyes and said one word: "Ahmadinejad." At first the man did not understand what Sanderson was after. The singer repeated: "Ahmadinejad. You have to take all in proportion. There are worse things." It worked. The man smiled, thanked Sanderson and left.

At 1 A.M., the seven musicians, the lighting person and the stage manager piled back into the van and set off on the long ride back to Tel Aviv. An acoustic guitar that was present moved from Ben Layish's hands into Sanderson's. What happened in the following hour was pure bliss.

You will have to imagine Sanderson's wonderful and precise playing (as much as possible in a crowded van ) and the enchanting combination of voices (the weak journalistic contribution from the back seat did not improve the situation ). But get a load of the repertoire: Lots of Beatles, of course, mainly from 1964 ("If I Fell"; "I'll Be Back," "Eight Days a Week" ), plus Aretha Franklin's "I Say a Little Prayer," Neil Sedaka's "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset," and the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" Abba's "S.O.S." represented the '70s, the Bangles' "Eternal Flame" represented the '80s, but on the whole it was a movable feast of the '60s. Not in the serious and artistic sense of the end of that revolutionary decade, but in the sweet and light, pop sense of its beginning.

Indeed, Sanderson, more than any other great Israeli musician, is tied heart and soul to the naive but sophisticated pop of the early 1960s. If you've ever paid attention, for example, it should have been obvious that "He Loh Teda" ("She'll Never Know" ) was written as an experiment in creating a song that would recall the aesthetics of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

"I was there as a child and there's nothing you can do about it," says Sanderson.

His boyhood was spent in New York which, for an Israeli kid who adores American rock 'n roll, was not a bad place to be at the end of the '60s. "I studied at a high school where part of the studies was devoted to music and part to painting. I was in painting, but that is a totally different story. In the music track there were several African-American singers. Can I say black? Then black. Now imagine: I'm in the cafeteria and I see them walking with the trays and singing [the Marvelettes'] 'Don't Mess with Bill.' Do you know what it is to see such a thing? It does you in. So cool! In English, you say: 'Bringing cool to school.' One can't describe it."

The memory of the singing black girls in the cafeteria reminds him of the band he was in growing up in New York, called the Catacombs. "I was 16 years old. I played with kids who studied with me in high school. Then came summer vacation and each one went his way. When the vacation ended, I called the drummer, Eddie Anterman, and I said 'Hey, Eddie, we want to set a rehearsal for next week.' And he said. 'What? Are you still doing that?' I think that was the moment I realized that this would probably be my profession."