Prince of Tides

After a life and a career of many ups and downs, singer Shmulik Krauss looks back on the movie 'Rocking Horse,' in which he starred, and which premiered 30 years ago this month. Today, confined to a wheelchair, it seems he wants to be remembered as his character appeared at the end of the film: not speaking, just laughing, crying and smiling.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

His morning is not so much the beginning of a day, but rather the continuation of the previous night. He enjoys the coolness of the morning. Shmulik Kraus sits in his wheelchair on the Tel Aviv beach and looks ahead. He's in good spirits. A cloud blankets the beach. It's 7 A.M. and Kraus pulls out a pack of special cigarettes, filled with aromatic joints that have been meticulously rolled. On the table is a large cup of tea with mint and honey. As he takes out a cigarette, he flashes a sneaky smile, asking: "Do you smoke?"

There had been a small argument the day before, when he was begged once again to take part in the salute to the singing group Hahalonot Hagvohim (High Windows), being produced by Channel 24, the Israeli music station. But he didn't want to go. When the station's director, Yoav Kutner, called to ask why, Kraus replied, "I have a balls' ache." The frequenters of the Banana Beach Cafe, in the southern part of the Tel Aviv boardwalk, laugh at the retort.

The music channel wanted to organize a big celebration, but the two lanky jokers of Israeli music, Kraus and Arik Einstein, wanted no part of it. In the end, it was singer Josie Katz who reaped all the fruits, but didn't ignore Kraus, telling the audience: "A big thank you to Shmulik Krause for his lovely songs."

"I like those songs," Kraus says, leaning back. "I really like to hear them." Speech is a complicated thing with him. He was always laconic, and is now even more than before. He is even ashamed that this is what he has left: the broken words, the fragmented sentences. After suffering two strokes, this is no simple matter. But if he's forgoing the celebrations of the Hahalonot Hagvohim, he is ready to talk about another old project, the film "Susetz" ("Rocking Horse"). Principal shooting of that film ended 30 years ago last week, and at the party to mark the event back then, no few toasts were also raised in honor of the birthday of Kraus, the film's star. Now 72, he was to attend a special event to celebrate the anniversary of the film at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque this week.

"Rocking Horse" was directed by Yaky Yosha and based on the novel of the same name by Yoram Kaniuk. It tells the story of Aminadav Susetz (whose family name literally means "wooden horse"), a frustrated painter who after numerous difficulties succeeds in making a film about his life and then burns it. "Rocking Horse" was the first Israeli film that was invited to take part in the Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, in no small measure thanks to Kraus' performance.

"That forgotten movie is something close to my heart. I have pleasant memories of making it. It was a lot of fun. I liked the story," Kraus says and sips his tea. "I sometimes watch the movie at home. I remember that I wrote the song 'Rocking Horse' on the way from Tel Aviv to Kfar Sava. We were in the car, [songwriter] Yankele Rotblit and me. By the time we passed the orchards of Ramot Hashavim I already had a melody. Yankele added his words to it. I played the guitar and he tossed the words in; they entered the melody as we were traveling. It's a song I like more than other songs; it has something genuine. Arik Einstein sang it in the movie. In the recordings he sang over my singing and later we edited my singing out. But a small bit of me remained anyway. The whistling at the end. The whistling at the end is mine."

The king came late

There was a time when he roughed up people. Now he's weak. Has been for a few years. The Kraus legend takes on an additional hue when his Filipino caregiver pushes him down Hayarkon Street. The slightest word about hard times can rattle his already unsteady nerves. Best to be careful. The tranquilizers he takes regularly provide him with a certain lucidity in the morning, but in the evening he goes into a sinking mode. Now he knows the end is near, but that softens nothing, it only extends the silences. The celebration of "Rocking Horse" could be the last gift the friends who are left will give him.

And that is how he wants to be remembered. He is now sitting opposite the sea. "Good morning," the lifeguard bellows through a megaphone. "Bring me the pretzel," Kraus says in English to Edward, the smiling caregiver. The DVD of "Rocking Horse," which will be launched at the Cinematheque event is on the table; on the cover is a blurb that quotes from the film critic of Haaretz, Yosef Schrik: "The hero of the film, Aminadav Susetz, a 'lost soul,' melancholy and frustrated, asks the eternal question which has no answer: 'Who am I? What made me the person I am?' And because he is not satisfied with the world or with himself, yet is incapable of changing, the film ends the way it began: on a note of recoil, protest and loneliness."

Kraus identifies with every word. With him, too, every word is dipped in recoil, protest and loneliness. "The real Shmulik is in 'Rocking Horse,'" he says. "I was 42 at the time - not a kid, but also not some old guy. I feel that this character is the closest one to me. I performed in movies - that is a side of me that is not so well known - and I would like to be remembered for the movies I made. Not many people saw them - a pity. In those movies I was someone else, it was a different side of me, I think. You see a different Shmulik in every part. But 'Rocking Horse' is me, the closest there is."

Josie Katz, then his wife, was also in the film. "I remember that Shem, my son, was less than a year old at the time; he wasn't even walking yet. We brought him to the set. Our whole life moved to the set. That was when we recorded 'Yamei reshit hakayitz' ('Summer's First Days'). We sang it on every day of shooting. Everyone on the set knew it. I liked the movie, but there was also something there that really irked me, I have to say. There is a five-minute bit at the end of the movie, the concluding scene, in which I don't speak. I laugh and cry and smile. My whole life - the life of the hero - passes before me. It's a beautiful shot. It's photographed so that I am high up and the camera is under me. And I burn the film I made in a bonfire. And then, into that beauty, Yaky, the director, hits me with the credits, the whole list of actors and drivers, along the side. It really doesn't look good. Today, too. He ruined the shot for me. I suddenly remembered that, for no reason."

His speech is slurred. His tongue moves heavily in his mouth, a bit out of control. He is wearing a white T-shirt and over it a multi-pocketed jeans vest. "I was in other movies," he recalls. "There was a movie called 'The Royal Hunt of the Sun,' with Robert Shaw and Christopher Plummer. I played an Indian interpreter. They saw me perform with the Hahalonot Hagvohim in London and invited me. It was a small part, but clever. That was in 1967. I was supposed to play the king, but I came late. A few years before that I did Uri Zohar's 'Hor b'levana' ('Hole in the Moon'), where I played 10 characters. That's a very different movie, it has no story at all. I was a boy and a father, and I was a milkman and a cowboy. That was Uri's best movie, and then Pashanel (Avraham Deshe) came and spoiled him."

Love of the sea

Kraus gazes at the sea. He has always loved the sea, and that is actually where everything began. Back when he was working in the merchant marine as a young sailor on the "Tel Aviv," the "Daniella" and the "Gefen." He was born in 1935 in Jerusalem's Nahalat Ahim neighborhood, the eldest of four children. His mother, Rosa, was a housewife; his father, Mussa, a driver. In his youth he was a tap dancer and made a living by performing and by teaching at a tap-dancing school in Haifa.

He has a castaway's tempestuous biography. After service in the Israel Navy, he worked on freighters, and it was there, during his seafaring, that he began to compose his first tunes. Someone gave him a guitar on the dock in Haifa, he relates, and it was always with him. He was 25 then. In his endless journeys he learned for the first time how to act and go crazy.

"Once we came to Virginia, in the United States. I went with my buddies and we wandered around the city. Suddenly we saw a group of crazy people out for a walk in the street," he recalls, getting excited. "I made a $20 bet with my friends that I could make myself part of the group of crazy people without anyone noticing. So I worked my way into the group. Within a minute they went into some building, and I was with them. When I tried to leave, this huge guard wouldn't let me. It took three hours for my friends to get me out of there."

Kraus' artistic career began at the end of the 1950s, when he worked with the Ofarim Duo. The duo's song "Beit Ha'arava" was written in memory of Kraus' father, one of the founders of the Dead Sea kibbutz of that name. In 1961, Kraus established a pub in Be'er Sheva called Bar Sheva, in which he performed and also hosted popular performers. A year later he moved to Tel Aviv. He met Josie Katz in a production of the Habima theater company. They were married shortly afterward. In this period, between 1964 and 1967, Kraus appeared in four films: "Hole in the Moon," "Fortuna," "Aliza Mizrahi" and "Iris."

The Hahalonot Hagvohim trio - Kraus, Katz and Arik Einstein - was formed at the end of 1966. Their first album included songs that have become Israeli pop classics. As composer and vocal arranger, Kraus was the group's moving spirit. Indeed the album, which went on sale in April 1967, six weeks before the Six-Day War, signaled a new direction in the local rock and pop revolution.

The Hahalonot Hagvohim had a very brief life span: one year. After Einstein left, in the wake of a disagreement with Kraus, the remaining twosome tried to make a go of it in London, but failed and moved to New York, where they spent the next three years. "The truth is that in New York I wanted to go on doing music," Kraus recalls. "But I saw that there was so much music there and that the competition was too much, so with the little money I had I opened a leather-goods store. My brother, Zadok, was there with me. It turned into an 'in' thing. I called the store Trumpeldor" - after Joseph Trumpeldor, a hero of the early Jewish settlement in Palestine - "because I like the name and the story." Trumpeldor is also the name of the street on which Kraus lives to this day in Tel Aviv.

The store was a hit with American rock stars, among them Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, who became friends of the owner. "Hendrix came in to buy a leather suit and we connected," Kraus says, a broad smile lighting up his face. "He even took me to see him perform at the Woodstock Festival. I was so high that day that I don't remember a thing about it," he adds, taking visible pleasure in the story.

Katz and Kraus returned to Israel in 1970, after his father's death; at his mother's request, they remained in the country. In 1970s Tel Aviv, to paraphrase his song "Galgal mistovev" ("Spinning Wheel"), the wheel began to spin madly. Kraus was part of the legendary Lul group, and took part in the recording sessions of Arik Einstein's albums. He wrote the music for Einstein songs, such as the well-known "Kshe'at bocha at lo yafa" ("You're Not Pretty When You Cry"), and also "Zeh koreh" ("It Happens") for Arik Lavie. But something was burning inside him, he says: "I gave them the songs." He always had that feeling - that he was giving them the songs, but that actually there was no one more talented than he. It was not until 1971 that he recorded his first song as a soloist, "Luach ve'gir" ("Blackboard and Chalk"), with lyrics by Yankele Rotblit.

Despite this, 1971 was a rough year for Kraus. Many things did not come easily for him. At the time, he was involved in a legal battle over a plot of land he had inherited at Nebi Samwil, north of Jerusalem, traditionally considered the birthplace of the prophet Samuel. "I had a kushan (an Ottoman deed) from my grandmother. There were four dunams (one acre) there. I took that piece of land and fenced it off. There was an abandoned synagogue there; I saw the tablets of the Ten Commandments inscribed in the ruins. I cleaned up the place," he recalls. When soldiers came to evacuate him - the site is in the West Bank - he threatened them with a Kalashnikov and a sniper's rifle, whereupon he was arrested for illegal possession of weapons.

In prison, one of the guards introduced Kraus to the children's author and poet Miriam Yalan-Shteklis. "One day she came into the visiting room with a cake. She stood across from me and asked, 'What are you doing here?' I told her the story. That was our first meeting. And somehow we hit it off very well." He takes another sip from the tall glass of tea and asks Edward to bring him another. "She talked to the judge and got me released on bail," Kraus continues. "We talked about the poem she had written, 'Habuba zahava' ('The Doll Zahava')," which Kraus had set to music for the Hahalonot Hagvohim. "She said she had liked the melody and the execution very much, and wanted me to set more of her poems to music. And so I did. We kept in touch all along. Later, I also cared for her in my home in Tel Aviv. People don't know that. She was too old to go drinking in pubs, but she laughed a lot."

Other good things came out of a subsequent arrest. Kraus: "I was arrested a few times for hashish. One of the times, I started to write in jail. There was something interesting there, because I got special furlough to record the songs I had written, and from them came the album 'State of Israel vs. Krauz [sic] Shmuel,' which was released that same year, 1977. The moment I got out of jail on furlough I called friends to come and play. We were really into the record, and the playing went smoothly. That was a period when I was against everyone and everyone was against me. I let off a lot of anger on that record."

Character identification

That was also the year in which "Rocking Horse" was made. Yaky Yosha, the director, was 25 at the time. "We shot the film in six months, during the winter, in Neveh Tzedek" - at the time, a rundown Tel Aviv neighborhood - says Yosha, who joins us at the table. "The truth is that at the beginning I took Alex Ansky for the part. That sounds a bit funny now."

"It took him three days to figure it out," Kraus interjects.

"That's right," Yosha confirms. "Then I stopped the shooting. I knew Shmulik. He had been in a few stage productions, but he was not an obvious choice for the role. He joined not because of his skills as an actor, but because of the character he was."

What kind of actor was he?

Yosha: "He identified with the character way beyond what's healthy for an actor to do. There was a total symbiosis between the character and him. Just as he never studied music, he never studied acting, either. He didn't have the tools to work on a character. He identified very strongly with the character he portrayed. He let himself be him, without any connection to the image he was expected to fulfill. Shmulik beating up on people became a regular scene, you know, but I think it's marginal, because his softness is so much greater, and that is what you see in the film. You simply feel it strongly."

The film had a powerful influence on him.

"He was able to get into the character, but didn't know how to get out of it. After the film was finished he was hospitalized again. His sensitivity threshold would take him there. When he embarks on a creative project, he is totally there: The creative work becomes him and he becomes the creative work. How many people are there like that? He went on living it. After everyone left, folded up the cameras and everything, he stayed to live there, in the same dump where we shot the film. And then people came from the municipality and the police, and things fell apart."

Did he also contribute to the screenplay?

"A great many texts were thrown out of the script, because his presence reduced the need to talk and explain. That is cinema: Dialogues come in only where you have no choice. Suddenly there was no need to talk so much. So much was said with a look. And there is something in that, for which he would like to be remembered."

But what people will always remember is Shmulik Kraus from the newspaper headlines, the violent, drunk husband who made Josie Katz's life a misery. The person who was afflicted by crisis after crisis. His frequent hospitalizations in mental institutions for his manic-depressive illness led Katz to flee in 1981 to the United States, to her family there, taking with their children, Ben and Shem, with her. Kraus tried to kill himself, and Katz returned to rescue him. It was written about in the papers. Much bad blood was spilled. Then she left again. Kraus started to withdraw from society; insularity became his way of life. In that year, Hed Artzi released the album "80-70," containing 11 tracks, in which he took part. The album "Spinning Wheel" appeared the following year.

And then came a great silence. For six years Kraus was unable to reprise the success of "Spinning Wheel." After the successes, he was haunted by psychological pressures. He spent most of 1984 in detention facilities and mental institutions, where he was sent after outbursts of violence. Every joint seems to have led him to the Abu Kabir police facility or to court. He celebrated his 50th birthday in Abarbanel Mental Health Center. The production of his next album, "Aharei 20 shana" ("After 20 Years"), in 1988 was delayed for three years because of his personal troubles.

Yankele Rotblit was with him throughout the entire period. He also furnished the lyrics for most of Kraus' melodies. He knows him inside out, wounds and all. "I connect with Shmulik through the writing," Rotblit explains. "He does not choose his sick, eruptive side; it is something he has no control over. It is a problem he has. He learned quite late to take drugs that restore his equilibrium. It's usually creative periods that bring it on in him. But during the attacks I backed off; only Hanna, his wife was able to take it. It's a time when he is demanding and quite wild. But in the end the softness comes. The softness is in his melodies. You can't miss it."

In "Shir ha'hai" ("The Song of the Living"), you wrote: "I saw him gallop to freedom like a noble wild horse, captive to bitter bad magic," and " I saw [people] in madhouses chained until morning to crazed dreams and electric shocks." Did you write that song for him?

"I think the song tells his story. A small biography. It is my observation of him. There were always two sides in Shmulik: He is blessed, but also cursed."

Snatching the bride

Kraus now ekes out a living from the royalties on his songs. His wife, curator Hanna Koffler, is the lifebelt that keeps him afloat. If she should leave, he will sink. Every morning he starts taking a series of pills: for the psyche, for relaxation, for pain, for old age. Koffler, who for 20 years has been there to pick up the pieces, lives in a separate apartment - close by. They are together every day. From the early morning, his most lucid time, she sits with him on his balcony. As the day unfolds, the pills dull his senses. In his home on Trumpeldor Street he listens to a great deal of music: "I like to listen to Mozart, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Beethoven, Tim Hardin, Jimi Hendrix, Bach, Shostakovich, Paolo Conte, Bill Evans, and in general all types of jazz, all types of classical, a lot of things." He ticks them off slowly.

Israeli music?

Kraus: "Einstein and Mazi Cohen."

Who do you miss?

"My Jerusalem grandmother. She pampered me. I miss all my friends who have died. Mona Zilberstein, a beautiful actress who died of an overdose; Yevi, who wrote in Haaretz; Moshe Ish-Kassit [the restaurateur]. I miss Adi Semel [a prominent figure on the local cultural scene], who died a month ago. One time we snatched a woman he loved from her wedding. We hustled her into a car in her white gown before the ceremony and got out of there. The whole way she screamed that she was getting married and that we were crazy. I didn't stop until Rehovot, because a cop was standing at a red light. We dropped her off and she took a taxi back to the wedding."

If there is a God, what would you want him to tell you?

"That there is no God."

Establishment recognition of Kraus' status arrived late, but it did arrive. In 2006, he was awarded the prize of the education and culture minister for his life's work, over the protests of feminist groups. The judges wrote that Kraus "is responsible for the creation - composing, performing and arranging - of dozens of songs, many of which are immortal." That made him feel very good; it was a beautiful moment. Before accepting the award, Kraus said: "The policy of giving a prize to people who don't yet have a foot in the earth is a fine policy, that's for sure."

But again, success ended with psychiatric confinement. It was the same old story for the prince of tides. In 2002, Kraus physically assaulted composer and arranger Effi Netzer at the annual meeting of AKUM, the composers and lyricists association, and was sent to Abarbanel for a few days. In 2003, immediately after the release of his last album, "Yom rodef yom" ("Day After Day"), which received excellent reviews, he was stopped by the Traffic Police while driving with a license that expired in 1986. The judge ordered him to be confined. It happened again the following year. Kraus was arrested for violating the terms of the house arrest which was imposed on him in the wake of a traffic-court trial, and the judge again sent him to Abarbanel.

It's not easy to talk to him about these incidents; these black holes that savage his soul. You have to tread cautiously. When a young woman comes up to the table on the beach, another hurt is revealed. She asks him for his son's phone number.

"I met Ben in India and we traveled together for three days," she tells the silent father. "I don't have his number," Kraus replies distantly. "I don't know where he is." Two years ago, Ben Kraus was arrested after he assaulted his father and threatened to kill him. They have not been in touch since.

Minimal exposure

A lot of things are lost. Maybe that is why his wife is working on a big project: a comprehensive collection of his songs. "I never talked about our relationship: It's a decision to have as little exposure as possible," Koffler says. "But the time has come to put out a book with the music to all his melodies. I will insert texts from friends and people who worked with him and will talk about his songs. A large part of the book will consist of photos from all the periods, family photos, portraits and stills from the films he was in. This is a project that will make Shmulik very happy. And he deserves it. The problem is that I have the feeling all the time that I can't complete the book, because maybe another album will come out."

Kraus is not very involved in the book project. He was certain that the book would have come out by now, and the continued occupation with it is a source of frustration for him. He takes such things to heart. At 9 A.M. he takes a piece of pretzel from a brown bag and gives it to the dog lying under his chair. "Take it," he says. "Take it. Good dog." His songs are playing in the background. "A fire burned inside me, I left on a quest," he sings through the loudspeakers.

"We have been together 22 years," he says. "Hanna is a very smart lady. The secret of our relationship is that we live in different apartments. That's a good thing. She understands me." As a giant Hercules transport aircraft flies over, Kraus recalls that he once flew in a plane like that. "It was in the Six-Day War. Josie, Arik and I went to sing for the troops."

Just before asking Edward to take him home, he makes one more comment: "Not long ago, Rotblit sent me a new song. I haven't started to arrange it yet, but it will happen."

Is there anything else you want to say?

"No. You asked too many questions." W



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