Gabriel Balachsan: Every Time He Sang a Song He Died a Little

The Israeli musician's ongoing battle with mental illness was reflected in his music. His death aged 37 is one of the greatest losses to Israeli music in recent years.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Musician Gabriel Balachsan, who died Tuesday aged 37, had died many times in his songs. In “Satan,” for example, from his album “Atid” (Future), he describes himself lying in the grave with Satan urinating upon him “everything he had built up in his polluted bladder over the years, that bastard a thousand times over.” In his songs, even death gives no rest to his tormented, sensitive soul. His struggle lasts forever. If there is any small comfort in his real death, of an unknown cause, perhaps it is the idea that death ended his suffering and his tortured fight against the mental illness he suffered from — a fight he documented so devastatingly in his songs.

Balachsan’s death is one of the greatest losses to Israeli music and culture over the past few years. We are used to bidding a final farewell to artists who die in old age after living full, creative lives. But the sorrow over the death of a relatively young artist, who showed us his bleeding insides with such talent, is much deeper. It seems that the last time music-lovers in Israel felt similar grief was when Inbal Perlmuter, the singer-songwriter who founded the band Hamachshefot (The Witches) died in a car accident, 16 years ago, at the age of 26. Balachsan was 37 when he died. “Ten years of schooling, an army profile of 21, bipolar, 32 years of life that seem like 400,” he sings on “Future.” The five years that passed since that time certainly seemed like a century to him.

Balachsan was never a popular artist. An artist who doesn’t know how to lie can never be a successful pop star, and Balachsan sang the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But thousands of people, maybe more, were deeply connected to his songs. His absolute honesty, and mainly his ability to translate it into wonderful artistry, engraved those songs on their hearts. Some music-lovers were amazed by Balachsan’s songs, but had to keep their distance from them. The words were too searing, the honesty too frightening. Even those people, the outer circle of Balachsan’s fans, certainly feel deep sorrow at his death.

Balachsan was discovered for the first time when he was the frontman of the band Algiers, working alongside musicians Aviv Guedj and Shalom Gad, all natives of Moshav Talmei Eliyahu in the northwestern Negev. In 1999, he put out his first solo album, “Rakavot” (Trains), which was almost entirely about his psychiatric hospitalization. In 2002 he put out the album “Hashanim Hayafot Shel Gavriel” (Gabriel’s Good Years). He released “Basadot” (In The Fields) in 2006 and “Atid” in 2010. One of the things that made Balachsan into such a unique writer and singer was his combination of enormous courage and incredible sensitivity; of expressiveness - he had a rocker’s strength and a poet’s soul. Artists usually have one or the other, if they have either. Balachsan had both, and the meeting with his songs shook the listener violently between both extremes.

“Kadur harga’ah bidvash” (A tranquilizer in honey), his magnum opus, an apocalyptic tour de force lasting 15 minutes, is the most decisive example. Balachsan could have described masturbating in a bathroom stall at the Central Bus Station in the dirtiest, most realistic way possible. Instead, the picture he draws is as soft, compassionate and moving as a lullaby. Or, after he hurls a feverish stream of rebuke at the incredible speed of 200 words in ten seconds, he suddenly throws out a line like “Hollow days of my head between my hands, of a dead baby in my belly.” This is a man who feels as though there is a dead baby in his belly, or that he himself is the dead baby. Only a man like Balachsan, who had no layer of protection, could write like that.

Here is another example of the tender poetry he was capable of. On Tuesday afternoon, when rumors of his death began circulating, the first thought in my head was of the dog who played a starring role in his album “Basadot.” In one of the songs on the album, Balachsan described him as “a dog with an injured eye, bitten in a fierce fight near Talmei Eliyahu.” A few minutes later, in the album’s final song, Balachsan mentions the dog again, singing: “And this dog, who slowly faded away under the tree/is carried in arms spattered with blood./They lay me down on the bed,/cover me gently/and turn out the light.”

The blurring of the boundaries between the injured dog and Balachsan — actually, their merging into a single being (“The dog... is carried in arms spattered with blood/They lay me down”) — together with the stirring description of being carried, laid down and covered, and the light turned out — all these do what only great art can accomplish. They crush the heart to pieces, and do so with the silent explosive material of precise poetic writing. Now that Balachsan’s body has been lifted and carried in truth, the lyrics are more chilling than ever.

Not only was Balachsan in a class by himself as a writer; he was also an excellent performer. He performed his songs with strong and sharp expression. Perhaps he was not a great composer, but the way he sang and spoke his songs, with his wondrous skill at their rhythm, made him an excellent musician. Unlike other singers, who need a band to accompany them, he was capable of singing on his own, with only guitar accompaniment, and making his songs breach the gates of heaven. The best example of this is his wonderful song “Basadot.” On the album “Atid,” which came out several years later, his vocal abilities declined. Perhaps it was the illness that extinguished the flame of his voice. But when he spoke the songs, or screamed them, he remained a lion, and his ability to create electricity from the meeting between the words and the rhythm remained very impressive. On his last album, “Gam kshe’einai pekuhot” (Even when my eyes are open), which was released in 2011, Balachsan returned to a more restrained musical style.

Another thing that made Balachsan such a complex and profound artist was his constant shift between apocalyptic despair and optimism. Balachsan saw and felt the horror beneath the appearance of normal life that most of us live. Inevitably, this made him pessimistic and despondent, but he also saw, at the same time, the opposite of the horror — the goodness. His relationship to religion, to the synagogue, was very complex and charged. He had a deep awareness of sin, but it seems that at least until the past few years, he also had an awareness of redemption. At first, he considered calling his penultimate album “Adama Hareva” (Dry Land), and chose in the end to call it “Atid” (Future) — a U-turn from despair to faith. During a show in 2006, shortly before he released “Basadot,” I heard him sing: “When we forget ourselves we will be privileged to receive. When we forgive, we will be forgiven. When we die, we will be born to eternal life.”

An artist who doesn’t know how to lie can never be a successful pop star, and Balachsan sang the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.Credit: Noam Nathan

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