“The Penguiners: The Secret History of Tel Aviv,” by Ariel Semmel, self-published, 176 pp., 180 shekels ($51)
Her words rife with pathos, her eyes gleaming, the principal of my Tel Aviv high school told the graduating class of June 1982 that she and the faculty were proud that we were about to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, in the just-launched Operation Peace for Galilee (now better known as the first Lebanon war). A few of us got to our feet, jeered loudly and even stalked out of the hall in protest. But instead of going from there to that place on the dark side of Yehuda Halevi Street, to a club where, a school-dropout friend had told us, weird and wonderful things went on – instead, that is, of going directly to the Penguin Club – we went to the army.
Everyone went. Some didn’t come back, and many of those who did were screwed up in one way or another. In fact, they were a lot more screwed up than what people said about the weird young people of the new clubs – and without the added fillip of sex, drugs (or liquor) and rock ’n’ roll (or punk).
So “The Penguiners: The Secret History of Tel Aviv” – conceived, written, photographed and compiled by Ariel Semmel (he raised most of the publication costs via an Internet campaign, and the book is being sold via his Facebook page) – can be seen, if you like, as a reverse, alternative memory album, a challenge to the Zeitgeist.
It’s also rife with nostalgia for particular places, and for people who yearned to say something different from the lovable, sweetish sound of “good old Eretz Israel” – which stretched from the army entertainment troupes to Uri Zohar’s Lul group and the Kaveret band (aka Poogy), meandered melodiously in the calmingly authoritative voice of the newscaster Haim Yavin, proudly wore the uniforms of youth movements and the army, and walked in fields of alfalfa and blood.
On the other hand, we need to read and look at this beautiful volume not only through the unavoidable prism of nostalgia, but also – and more meaningfully – as a small part of a whole that is not passive and does not perpetuate the past as something static, but as a dynamic entity that continues to empower us here and now.
I went to the Penguin – and afterward to other clubs such as Liquid and Kolnoa Dan – only a very few times: on furloughs from guarding the bridge between Tyre and Sidon, or between training periods in the Nahal Paratroops Brigade; and later, when I became a communard in Tel Aviv. I was what Semmel calls one of the “‘guests’: those who came to peek and rub elbows, those who heard that something was happening that was new here (and, the truth is, hasn’t happened since).”
What I saw and heard was hypnotic: punks, rockers and glams, all doing solo and group fashion, and performance gigs from somewhere else entirely. It was only after I moved to New York, a week after my army discharge, that I realized they were conversing with New York’s East Village, London and Berlin – and definitely not with the local community center or the green grass of the kibbutz. The people Semmel focuses on, and to whom he dedicates his thrilling book, were, as Avi Pitchon says in his own excellent article, a group “that took no notice of the army.”
Semmel, who was a barman at Penguin and later at Kolnoa Dan, went back to the hundreds of negatives he had shot as he walked around the dance floor to the bathroom, the club’s entrance and the “hosting” floor above, armed with a camera and tremendous empathy and love for the people who were his community. The result is visual anthropology and a history of culture, or actually a (contra-)distinctive subculture from the viewpoint of the ultimate insider.
Everyone trusted him. They knew he was aiming his lens not to exploit them, not to portray them as a freak show, but to document and revel in an explosion of alternative energy, libido and youthful fluids. The alternative reality these small universes and communities offered was a lot more sane, creative, just, generous and happy than the gray, violent reality that Israel offered “five minutes from Kfar Sava” and “two fingers from Sidon.”
One thing that Semmel’s marvelous photographs clearly show is the gender richness and sexual freedom that existed within a protected space. Contrary to Independence Park, for example – where not only gays gathered but also gay bashers – the gender spectrum and range of sexual expressions in Penguin, Liquid and Kolnoa Dan were displayed potently and proudly. It’s hard to know whether this was done without fear, but, in the photographs at least, in those places and at those moments, people of every persuasion, male and female, look as though they are free of the terror of being a strange bird in the conservative Israeli society of the 1980s – and that’s a great deal.
The book is suffused with an almost palpable sensual presence: The smell of the beer that has seeped into the wood on the small stage; the acrid mix of bodily liquids in the bathroom (and, yes, sometimes also on the stage); the horny perspiration of exposed body organs; the thick smoke of various kinds of cigarettes. And not, as Semmel points out, the smell of violence, but of youth and desire.
In contrast to the violent image of punk and fringe clubs – and contrary to today’s knife culture-ridden club scene – no one left Penguin in handcuffs or an ambulance. People left – often at first light – high, happy, hallucinatory and with ears ringing, leaving only to return again and again.
“The trippy, sexy crowd of disturbed social rejects became my family,” Semmel writes. “I was an anomaly among anomalies, and Penguin became my home.” The Penguin Club and the diverse outsider community gathered within it were a home and platform for fashion, music, lifestyle, sex, and for all those who weren’t wanted around the tribal campfire.
Not everyone survived – which is how it is when you walk a thin line or are perched on the edge. Ola, the first model Semmel photographed; Yossi Elefant, the superb guitarist and musician; Eva and Lidia, who hung out there every evening; Eitan Tavor, the deejay at Liquid, and a few more were all snatched from us too soon. Others, like Semmel himself (currently, after 20 crazy years in Manhattan, a high-tech entrepreneur), have moved away from the fraught, dangerous edge.
And all of us – punks, rockers, glams, gays and trans, poor girls and bourgeois boys, transient guests and pious Penguiners – are waiting to hear again that “London’s Calling.” Maybe this time the call will emerge from a cellar in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, from a club in Haifa’s Lower City, even from the boardwalk in Beirut. Drums are fine, only without war.