Why Israelis Don't Care About the Rolling Stones

Smaller acts have caused mass hysteria by announcing they are coming to Israel, so why not the band that epitomizes rock and roll?

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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The Rolling Stones performing during their concert at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Feb. 26.
The Rolling Stones performing during their concert at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Feb. 26.Credit: AP
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Rumors of the Rolling Stones show in Tel Aviv this summer spread for several weeks before the official announcement, and during that time, someone asked me if I knew where the show would take place. I said I didn't know, stupidly adding that I hoped that the show’s producer had found an area big enough to hold 200,000 people. Or was it 300,000?

What made me come up with these off-the-wall numbers? Two things. One is the symbolism of the Stones’ show. This isn't just another big group, but the group that embodies the thing known as rock and roll. The music, the attitude, the values (or lack of them) — the Rolling Stones are the living symbol of the whole culture. That is beyond dispute. The symbol of rock and roll must be a band, and the only possible band is the Stones. That's not opinion; it's an axiom. So the thought behind my answer was that every Israeli who saw him- or herself as a citizen of the cultural continent that the Rolling Stones symbolized had to be there, in that unknown field capable of containing 200,000 people.

It's Only Rock 'n' Roll

I had another thought as well: Leonard Cohen. And another: Kaveret. These were two recent cases of performances that caused mass hysteria. All 50,000 tickets to Cohen’s show in Ramat Gan in the summer of 2009 sold out in a few hours. A similar thing happened a year ago when Israeli rock band Kaveret got back together for the last time. All the tickets for the first show in Tel Aviv's Hayarkon Park (after several smaller shows in Jerusalem) sold out within 12 hours. In the end, about 100,000 people saw Kaveret last summer. Could it be that a similar number of people will not go for tickets to the Stones’ show?

It's definitely possible. Contrary to expectations — mine, at least — there is no hysteria. It's been a month since tickets went on sale for the Rolling Stones concert in Hayarkon Park on June 4, and the words “sold out” have yet to be heard. “The madness continues,” screamed an email sent from the show’s public relations department about two weeks ago. But then it became clear that it was just a message about how a few hundred lucky numbers that the Stones offered at a discount were sold in 27 seconds. The regular sale is still rumbling along. The Stones cannot do in a month what Leonard Cohen did in a few hours.

I suspect that even Shuki Weiss, the show’s producer, is surprised. As mentioned, for the first two days after the tickets went on sale, only Pelephone cellphone service customers could buy them, and when Weiss was asked what would happen if the tickets sold out in those two days, before the rest of the public had a chance to buy any, he smiled and said the Israeli audience knew how to manage. Maybe it's just me, but Weiss’s face and smile and smile seemed to suggest he thought that was exactly what would happen. A month later, the sale is still going on.

It's not all that heroic to try to explain after the fact why a cultural phenomenon that went against your expectations happened as it did. Still, the question begs to be asked: Why didn’t the Stones’ show cause mass hysteria? The obvious answer is: the price. Seven-hundred shekels. That is one of the most expensive ticket prices in the history of Israeli rock shows, if not the most expensive. That was probably by order of the Stones’ management team, not Weiss. But the public doesn't care who set the price. Seven hundred shekels is a lot of money. That's 300 shekels more than tickets to Neil Young in the same park this summer (Weiss is producing that show as well).

Sympathy for the Devil

There's no doubt that this price has put many people off. But that's not the only reason why hysteria over the Rolling Stones is not running as high as predicted. Another reason that music critics are having a hard time understanding is that very few people are interested in symbols. People don't go to an artist’s show because he symbolizes something. They go for other reasons: Because his music is the soundtrack of their lives, because they feel a special closeness to him, and sometimes, particularly at mass shows, simply because it seems like the right thing to do. In the Stones’ case, it seems that there's a disconnect between the fact that they are the ultimate symbol of rock and roll and the emotional connection that the Israeli audience feels with them.

Even the hard core of Israeli rock fans is not connected to the Stones in a way that reflects the band’s superior status. Listeners of the program “Hit Me with Some Rock” on 88 FM, who take pride in being the largest rock community in Israel, recently chose the hundred biggest rock bands of all time. Pink Floyd got first place, followed by Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Queen and the Doors. The Stones got eighth place, after Pearl Jam. I have a feeling that if Pearl Jam were to announce tomorrow that they were coming to Israel, all the tickets for their show would be sold out before the tickets for the Stones’ show.

But why is that? Why does it seem that there is a gap between the Stones’ indisputable status as the ultimate rock band and the emotional connection that the Israeli audience feels toward it? The answer could lie in the certain amount of distance that typifies the images and writing of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. They loved to take an ironic stance, regarding the protagonists of their songs with a bit of mockery. Values that seem to be important to the Israeli audience, such as honesty, empathy and eye contact with the listener, are not found among the Stones, certainly not in abundance. You will find them much more in the work of Leonard Cohen and Pearl Jam.

As long as we're talking about irony, it's also ironic that I — who value things like symbolism, actually like artists who look at the world from a distance and with irony and in general like the Stones much more than Leonard Cohen or Pearl Jam — am not as excited about the Stones’ show as I might be. A few days ago, I listened to the tremendous song “Wild Horses” on the radio and thought that hearing it in the park with tens of thousands of people would definitely be an unforgettable experience. But I still have not bought a ticket. That cannot be said of tickets to Neil Young (and Crazy Horse!) and the Pixies, which I reverently keep in the drawer, atop a bed of wool and fragrant spices.

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