The Smoke on the Water Grows Thicker

While Morrissey, Bjork and Ian Brown suffer meager ticket sales in Israel, Deep Purple have sold out - twice

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

The performance by Deep Purple at Tzemach at the start of the 1990s was, by most accounts, one of the most pathetic rock 'n' roll jokes ever seen here. The soloist, Joe Lynn Turner, (who at that time was replacing Ian Gillan, the singer in the 'classic' makeup of the band), struck ridiculous poses of a rock star, even though his renditions were very feeble. In the breaks between numbers, according to a soundman who was there, Turner hastened backstage where his girlfriend was waiting with a hot hairdryer to refresh and style his hair.

That was only the beginning. An even more embarrassing incident occurred when Ritchie Blackmore, Deep Purple's legendary guitarist, left the stage in the middle of the show and refused to come back. Why? There are two versions, both of them so funny one could weep. According to one version, Blackmore was frightened by the green sticklights that many in the audience were holding in their hands and screamed at Zeev Isaac, the show's producer, "They're throwing fire at me! I'm not going back until they stop throwing fire at me!"

According to the second version, some people in the audiences threw teddy bears onto the stage, and this is what frightened Blackmore. Teddy bears? Eyal Ortal, a lawyer from Netanya and a fan of Deep Purple who was at the performance, explains: "Ian Gillan was into animal rights and at one Deep Purple performance in the 1980s he spoke about the killing of bears in Canada.

After that, fans of the band started throwing teddy bears onto the stage as a sign of solidarity with Gillan's agenda, and that's what happened in Israel, even though Gillan was no longer in the band." Sticklights or teddy bears, Isaac should have gone down on his knees so that Blackmore would agree to go back onstage after many minutes, during which the band limped along without him. Isaac, who claims that the truth is that Blackmore was frightened by a stone thrown in the direction of the stage (in another version, the stone-throwing began because Blackmore had left), agrees that the entire event bordered on a fiasco. "Let's say that the story about Blackmore wil be mentioned in my autobiography, though I have encountered much worse things," he says with a laugh.

About two months ago, when it was reported that Deep Purple would be coming for a performance in Caesarea at the start of September (without Blackmore, who retired in the mid-1990s, but with Gillan), the story of the fiasco at Tzemach looked like material for an amusing piece about a band that was already considered geriatric 15 years ago. But then came a second thought: Maybe it's better not to mention that debacle so as not to hurt the chances of success.

This makes no impression on Deep Purple's Israeli audience. It turns out that nothing can hurt its love for the band. Just five days after the show at Caesarea was announced, the tickets were sold out. A second performance was announced and within a few days all the tickets for it were sold as well. What is happening here? Bjork cancels after she sold a few hundred tickets, Morrissey moves from the Yarkon park to the nearby fairground, Cypress Hill, Sean Kingston and Ian Brown move from the fairground to Hangar 11 because of unexpectedly meager ticket sales - yet the dinosaur Deep Purple is packing Caesarea, twice. Sorry, three times. A third performance in Caesarea was added after all the tickets to the first two were sold, and there will also be a fourth performance, at Hangar 11. The most successful show of this summer? Without a doubt, by miles.

And all this is happening despite the fact that prices for the Deep Purple performances are among the steepest that have ever been seen here for a rock concert - from NIS 370 to NIS 810. Isaac says that this is the only way to cover the tremendous cost of bringing the band to Israel, and adds that these prices aren't much higher than the prices for the band's performances abroad.

Attorney Ortal disagrees. "I've gone abroad several times to see Deep Purple and I don't recall such scandalous prices anywhere," he says.

Isaac says that he was surprised by the rush for tickets: "I imagined that we would hold another performance and I hoped that there would be demand for a third show. But four performances? This is way beyond my expectations."

However, when Isaac priced the performances, he knew what he was doing. According to him, "A large part of the audience for Deep Purple has been going with the band since the 1960 or 1970s. These are adults who can afford things, not children who need to ask their father for money. And because the band's previous visit to Israel was more than 15 years ago, and during the past 10 years there haven't been many great rock bands, this audience is thirsty for good performances and is prepared to pay a lot of money for them."

Attorney Ortal, for example, will take his three children to the show and pay a total of NIS 2,500. He complains about the price, but the possibility of not attending was never considered. The first record he ever bought in his life was by Deep Purple. The band's songs are the soundtrack of his life. "In their music there are strength and energy and electricity, not violence. They aren't doped, they aren't drunk. They have always preached stability. On Ian Gillan's albums is the motto 'Heroin is a death sentence,' and I haven't even said anything yet about their connection to classical music. When you listen to Deep Purple you hear Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. Where do you hear such things in the music being made today?"

Victor Malka, a 51-year-old Defense Ministry employee from Netanya, laughs when asked whether the prices for tickets to the Deep Purple shows deterred him. "Are you kidding? I've gone abroad to see them in England and Crete. Would I make a fuss about NIS 800?"

At home, Malka has a pick used by Ritchie Blackmore and sticks that belonged to drummer Ian Paice. He was in the clouds even at the performance at Tzemach. Nor does he miss performances by the Israeli Deep Purple homage bands. "No matter how many times I hear 'Lalena' it will always sound like it did the first time," he says. "My God, what a band."

Malka, Ortal and the other Israeli fans of Deep Purple were not surprised by the success of the shows. They, if anyone, know that affection for the band - and for other dinosaurs from the same era - is not reflected in the radio or the press. The media coverage of Morrissey's performance, for example, was 10 times more comprehensive, "But the resonance that there was for the Smiths and Morrisey didn't begin to approximate the resonance there has been here for the rock of the 1960s and 1970s," says a veteran producer. The phrase "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out," the title of one of the Smiths' songs, was heard many times before and after Morrissey's performance in Tel Aviv. It is very easy to forget that the light of classic rock, with all of the cliches and mothballs that have clung to it, continues to burn brightly in Israel - and much more strongly.

In the 1970s Deep Purple was as popular (or nearly as popular) as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. This is not the case today. According to Cheli Sigalsky, founder and guitarist of the Blues Messengers band that specializes in homage performances to these three bands (and will perform on the 20th of this month at the Barbie club in Tel Aviv), "When we do homage performances to Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, we pack Barbie. In homage shows for Deep Purple the hall is a lot less full. The audience for that band is more specific. Therefore I was very surprised that its performances sold out so fast. I thought that, like for the performances in Israel of old heavy metal bands like Uriah Heep or Nazareth, a thousand Russians would come and that's it."

There is no doubt that Russian speakers play a large part in the clamor for tickets to the Deep Purple concerts. "I estimate that it will be about half and half - half veteran Israelis and half Russian-speakers," says Yuri Laschov of the Hadran production company of the makeup of the expected audiences.

What is the explanation for the great love that people from the Commonwealth of Independent States have for Deep Purple? One explanation is that the band represented the spirit of freedom and the West during the period when the Soviet Union was closed. "The music that we heard on radio and television was so boring," says Nikolai Benikov, guitarist of the Burn band that will also perform at the evening of homage to Deep Purple at Barbie. Cassettes of Deep Purple, which were passed from hand to hand in secret, were the diametric opposite: sophisticated, progressive, electrifying music.

But the tremendous thirst for rock 'n' roll in the Soviet Union does not explain why Deep Purple in particular became such a favorite. "It's a matter of taste, and there's a difference between Israeli taste and Russian taste," says Laschov. "The three biggest bands in the Soviet union were The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple - not The Rolling Stones, not Neil Young. They listened to them, they loved them, but not to the same extent. Not like here. If the Rolling Stones came to Israel they would sell no fewer tickets than Paul McCartney, right? In Russia that wouldn't happen because the Russians don't look for the spirit of rebellion - they look above all for the strong melody. Deep Purple - this is a band with very strong, very classical melodies. You listen to Ritchie Blackmore playing and you hear a little Bach, a little Beethoven. The Russian audience connects to this very strongly."

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