Why Israelis Are Saying 'So What?' to the Rolling Stones

For a diehard Stones fan like myself, the sky-high concert ticket prices are less disheartening than realizing Israelis just don't get why they should go hear the greatest rock 'n' roll band of all time.

Motti Milrod

The greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of all time is coming to Israel this week, for the first and probably only time. Yet the Israeli public seems to be saying, “So what?”

Maybe the advance of the years has made me impervious, but I fail to sense the buzz that should surround such an event.

I somehow expected the radio waves to fill with those wonderful, raunchy tunes that so enriched my generation. But it turns out that there are more exhilarating acts in this summer’s unprecedentedly crowded concert schedule – like Justin Timberlake  or the Back Street Boys, whoever they are.

Sales for Wednesday’s show at Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park have been surprisingly sluggish, judging by the ongoing aggressive sales campaign. Even the Stones’ guitarist Ronnie Wood, who hardly ever gives interviews nowadays, made a broadcast appeal for Israelis to buy tickets. At the time of writing, it's still not clear whether this historic gig will be a sell-out.

Of course, the ridiculous price has a lot to do with it. Forking out 700 shekels ($200) is beyond many of us working-class folk. And of course, there are no long-distance trains or buses to the venue on Wednesday because in true Middle Eastern style, the concert falls only hours after the end of the Shavuot festival (don’t tell me the producers didn’t think of that when finalizing the date).

The other excuse I hear is the performers’ age – but the Stones are definitely no novelty act. “They’re amazing,” a veteran immigrant friend told me recently. “My wife and I saw them five years ago in Holland. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Every song they do is great – not like Dylan, who can turn his back on the audience. This show’s going to be full of energy.”

It’s a phenomenon: Numerous vestiges of the late 1960s-early 1970s rock generation are playing with verve to this day. Many of yesteryear’s dinosaurs are still going strong – bands like Deep Purple, Jethro Tull and Uriah Heep have repeatedly electrified Israeli stages, and even dear old Tom Jones showed us last year that he can still belt them out. As Paul McCartney himself said, in retrospect he should have written “When I’m 74.”

Yet even my elder brother – whose formative years spanned those two wonderful decades and should know better – used the “can’t afford it, and anyway they’re even older than me,” excuse.

As for me, wild horses couldn’t keep me away.

I have been waiting to see Mick and the boys perform on stage for a long time. Forty-one years ago, I held a coveted ticket to see the Stones perform inside Cardiff Castle, but the Lord Mayor, who to my shame happened to be Jewish, banned the event because of the “noise level” (as opposed to the annual military tattoo in the ancient castle, with its fake artillery shells that reverberated for miles – how attitudes have changed).

I’ve been eating my heart out ever since.

Some of my contemporaries do share my excitement. One, a New York-born lawyer, will be taking his two teenage children with him. “They’re both musicians and I want them to experience this classic band,” he told me over hummus last week. “My 14-year-old daughter says she’s never heard of them – she’s growing up on Lady Gaga. My 17-year-old son plays lots of Beatles songs on the guitar, but no Stones. I had to force them.”

I would be taking my boys too – like my mum took me to see the Beatles when I was only 8 – if only a journalist’s wage could cover such extravagances.

I’ve been in Israel long enough that the majority of my friends are not native English-speakers, and I’m seeing a similar picture everywhere: The white-collar sector is picking up much of the slack, but there are a lot of people out there who really want to see this show, but can’t afford it. That’s a great shame, because it’s not what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be about.

You see, the Rolling Stones personify the durability of a particularly creative and paradigm-shifting generation. The band evolved far beyond their early-1960s image as the “dirty” counterweight to the “clean” Beatles. Indeed, they played a central role in the morphing of mindsets at that pivotal time.

On July 1, 1967, The Times editor William Rees-Mogg penned an editorial entitled “Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?” that defended the perceived debauchery of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger’s lifestyle. In retrospect, it was a seminal moment in Western society’s evolution.

And here they are, in 2014 – Mick and Keith are both past 70 already – doing what they do best, especially for us. They’ll fly in, leave an impression, then go off to their next gig.

I haven’t even mentioned the music yet – that throbbing Rolling Stones sound that no other band can emulate. Those rock classics, the anthems, the ballads … and at center stage, the man we all dream(ed) of being.

Thousands will throng to the park on Wednesday evening. I dare say the audience will span three generations, and that is a good thing, for rock ‘n’ roll will never die – and we have Neil Young next month to verify this fact. Somehow I hope the park won’t be full to the brim. We’ll be left with more grass to dance on, and those who miss out … well, there’s always the next Kaveret reunion.

(In case a certain man called Van happens to be reading this: If you also come and sing to us here in Israel, I’ll know I have reached music-fan paradise.)


Daniel Ben-Tal is a copyeditor, translator and writer at Haaretz.

AP