Still Waiting for the Messiah, Israeli Rock Icon Shalom Hanoch Turns 70

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Shalom Hanoch, center, and Moshe Levy, at the Piano Festival in Tel Aviv, October 22, 2015.
Shalom Hanoch, center, and Moshe Levy, at the Piano Festival in Tel Aviv, October 22, 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

The performance two weeks ago at Tel Aviv’s Zappa Club by Shalom Hanoch, who for years has been considered the most important and influential rock musician in Israel, took place at exactly the same time when judoka Ori Sasson was fighting for a medal at the Olympic Games. At about 11:30 P.M., in the middle of Hanoch's performance, something dramatic happened on the mattress in Rio. The information made its way immediately to the club, and after waiting a few minutes until Hanoch finished the song he was singing, a member of the audience shouted out excitedly, “Shalom, we brought a medal!”

Singer Shalom Hanoch, in 1977.Credit: Gerard Allon

Only five words, but what comic potential they provided to the space in Zappa. A shout from the sports arena in the midst of an artistic event, addressing Hanoch like an old friend as “Shalom,” and the use of the rather belligerent “brought” instead of the more refined “won.”

Now all eyes were turned to Hanoch. Would he exploit the comic potential of the moment? Absolutely. “What? What did you say?” he asked the man, confused. “We brought a medal!” the man repeated. Even now Hanoch didn’t hear him correctly. “Galia??” [rhymes with the Hebrew word “medalia”], the singer asked in surprise. It wasn’t clear whether Shalom was addressing the person shouting or his long-time keyboard-playing partner, Moshe Levy. “You want me to sing a song called ‘Galia’? There is no such song.”

There were another two or three attempts to explain to Hanoch what the shouter meant, but apparently he wasn’t into the Olympics at all. “Okay, let’s go on,” the singer said, and then quite amazingly began to sing “Don’t Call me a Nation”: “Need nothing from you, need nothing from them / A person is a person / Don’t call me a nation.”

It wasn’t a brilliant impromptu response to what had happened a moment earlier, for the simple reason that Hanoch didn’t understand what had actually happened. It was a totally random choice, but so fitting. The guy in the audience had tried to drag Hanoch into a patriotic celebration in which all of us, not only one athlete, “brought” a medal – and the singer responded to him, unwittingly, with a song that presents the opposite worldview and claims that long before there is “all of us,” there is “I” and “you.” A man lives within himself, and only afterward within his people.

When I left Zappa, I thought mainly about the huge number of wonderful songs that Hanoch hadn’t performed. One could think of approximately 30 great hits that would have suited the playlist that night, at what had been intimate acoustic show featuring only Hanoch and Levy, who has been performing with Hanoch and producing his albums for over 30 years. And one could think of another 20 wonderful songs that weren’t suited to an event of this type, and were not performed.

Message of silence

There’s nothing surprising in easily recalling Hanoch’s huge inventory of songs. It’s almost taken for granted. But there are moments – for example, when celebrating the 70th birthday of this popular singer, which takes place on Thursday – when you want to stop and say: No, it really shouldn’t be taken for granted. Indeed, just the opposite is true: This inventory of songs is a unique cultural resource, a tremendous lifetime achievement.

Shalom Hanoch performing at the Israel Peace Festival in Neve Shalom, in 1985.Credit: Chananya Herman / GPO

The other thing that occurred to me after the performance was related to a certain element that has always existed in Hanoch's songs, but that I never really noticed before: Hanoch’s image as a political and opinionated artist, who expresses in his songs incisive views about Israeli reality, is so much a part of our collective awareness that I never realized that in many of his songs he actually expresses an opposite message, an absence of any statement – a message of silence, to the effect that words themselves are useless.

Along these same lines, involving that underlying silent channel in Hanoch’s work, and in advance of his 70th birthday – I would like to refine and update the image that's been identified with him in the past decades.

The first identifying label that's been automatically associated with Hanoch since he sat down with the wrinkled white suit, the electric guitar and the unshaven face in the hotel room where the cover of the album “White Wedding” was photographed – is “rock.” That happened 35 years ago, when he was half his present age. Since that moment he has been categorized as the most important and influential rock musician in Israel. The hoarse voice, the noise, the incisive texts – those are the elements immediately identified with him, even if not the only ones.

It’s understandable why this "portrait" has been ingrained in our awareness. Hanoch really was the most outstanding figure in the process of turning rock into something Israeli, and in the 35 years that have passed since “White Wedding,” he has perpetuated and nurtured his image as a rocker in albums and performances alike.

But while this portrait is based on reality, it seems to do the singer an injustice: It’s far from reflecting the full picture of his oeuvre, it emphasizes his later, less beautiful incarnation at the expense of the brilliant early-middle era of his activity – and in general it tailors a suit for Hanoch that, although regal, doesn’t necessarily flatter his overall body of work.

In his early and middle period, dating from the start of his collaboration with singer Arik Einstein in 1968 until the album “Waiting for the Messiah” in 1985, Hanoch has been responsible for one of the most wonderful stretches of creativity in the history of music in this country. This chapter could be called “The invention and development of Israeli rock,” but if you listen attentively to the songs and absorb the music and the words as they really are, you discover that the rock experience in its rough/electric/defiant sense is present actually in relatively low dosages. It’s very doubtful if that’s the thing that defines Hanoch.

The young Hanoch was the principal artist who transformed Israeli music from the “we” experience to the “I” experience – apropos “Don’t Call Me a Nation.” At first that happened when it came to the division of labor. Arik Einstein was there of course to nurture Hanoch, to open doors for him and sing his songs, but in the late 1960s, it was Hanoch who was the first local musician to compose the music, write the lyrics and also sing his own works.

Golden age

If we want to talk about the work itself, Hanoch’s major step during his golden age – from the late 1960s until the mid-1980s – was to open up Israeli music in terms of how it was being written: meaning, what could be said in a song or an album and how it could be said – and to compose the music for it.

Hanoch expanded the horizon of music here in two opposite and yet complementary ways. One aspect concerned that of the human body, of human passion. Hanoch was not the only one who freed Israeli music in the 1970s from its sensual and sexual inhibitions, but he played an important role in that, together with Meir Ariel.

Hanoch expanded the horizon of Israeli music from another point of view, too, that of the spirit. For him there was no contradiction between spirit and flesh. In the 1970s and 1980s he wrote several of the most profound and beautiful songs of thought and deliberation that were created here. “In a Strange City,” for example, or “Song Without a Name,” which in my opinion even has a touch of something sacred (especially in the original and wonderful rendition by Yehudit Ravitz).

Another important contribution by Hanoch, which is related to the ethos of rock, but indirectly, was his attempt to draw a self-portrait by means of an entire album. It is doubtful whether that urge existed in Israeli music before him. The first wonderful realization of this was “A Man Within Himself,” his first solo album in Hebrew, which came out when he was 31. The attempt to create an album that was a comprehensive and uncompromising portrait remained and even deepened in the next one, “White Wedding.” But the means of expression changed totally. The light feathery-ness disappeared and the heavy guns came out. From a distance of 35 years, “White Wedding” is still one of the most intense albums ever made here.

The thesis of Shalom the rocker, with the heavy political baggage, also colors his next album, “Waiting for the Messiah,” in strong rocker colors. There is some justice to this image, but in this case too it is far from being the entire picture. It is surprising to realize in a repeat listening the degree to which “Waiting for the Messiah” demonstrated a healthy link to what was happening in the hit parades in England and the United States during the period when it was made.

Compared to other Israeli albums from the period, “Waiting for the Messiah” does sound new, and even innovative. I think it’s impossible to separate Hanoch’s profound musical commitment to what was going on at the present (in other words, to the sounds of 1984, the year when it was recorded) and his burning need to confront the reality in his country at that time in his songs, to defy it, to experience its pain.

If you want to make an album that will be connected to the flesh and blood of the contemporary experience, you have to speak in the musical language of the present. Hanoch understood that when he recorded “Waiting for the Messiah.” And that was the last time when he had his hand on the pulse. After almost 20 years of peak creativity, however, that was his absolute right.

His superstar status was retained in the next 30 years, but in many senses he retreated to the second tier of Israeli music. He no longer charted the course.

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