In the winter of 1970, superstar pop singer Arik Einstein gave a concert in the gym of my high school. Arik was tall and skinny, with a squinty-eyed feline face that made everyone who saw him swoon, boys and girls alike (the squint was the result of his severe near-sightedness, which later deteriorated to near-blindness). He was your dream big brother, your fantasy friend, your imaginary uncle. His voice was imbued with that sexy groan, just this side of hoarse. He was as hip and as beautiful as Paul McCartney, but with the harsher edges of John Lennon.
He was bigger than life. Indeed, his success at the cash register, spanning six continuous decades, did not have a whole lot to do with superior singing talent. No one would argue the fact that Yehoram Gaon, who co-sang with him in several bands, including an IDF entertainment band, had a deep and delicious voice and a range that far outclassed Arik’s. And, unlike Arik, Gaon could sing in key effortlessly. But Arik’s je nais se quoi was astonishing.
The standard intro for the Yarkon Bridge Trio, an early ’60s vehicle featuring Gaon, Einstaein and late troubadour Benny Amdursky, had Benny saying, “I’m Amdursky,” then Gaon quipping, “I’m Gaon,” which in Hebrew also means, “I’m a genius.” And Arik would punchline, “If you’re a genius, then I’m Einstein.”
The joke was simple enough and always got the laugh, but it also offered an insight into the difference between those two very gifted singers, Gaon and Einstein. Yehoram Gaon was the finest scion of a lyrical tradition spanning centuries of Jewish and then Israeli life in Jerusalem. Arik Einstein, although he often dabbled with traditional Israeli music, was all Tel Aviv, all about ushering in the spirit and rhythms of foreign rock n’ roll and jazz. From his first and last names, both of which could pass for non-Israeli sounding, to his choice of material, to his anarchistic sense of humor (supported by his life-long friend, comedian-filmmaker Uri Zohar, who later became a distinctly unfunny Orthodox rabbi), Arik offered us a vital connection to Euromerican culture.
You must understand that in those years, cultural claustrophobia was the primary driving force for most Israelis my age. Isolated geographically, barred on all sides by hostile Arab countries and the Mediterranean, we were raised with the constant anticipation of the three years of military service at the end of our high school stint. All our cultural choices were measured against their effect on our patriotism and ability to serve, when enlistment day comes. Only two non-communist countries refused to let the Beatles in for live concerts: Israel and South Africa. You think it was tough being a hippie in America? We looked at pictures from Woodstock and San Francisco and salivated—spiritually.
In fact, Arik Einstein even tried his luck in Abbey Road-era London for a while, as part of the High Windows Trio, with singer-composer Shmulik Kraus and American-Israeli female vocalist Josie Katz. It was a disaster; the London pop critics rejected Arik et al for the same reasons we adored them back home: we appreciated their ties to our cultural heritage; the Brits found them a trifle archaic.
Back in 1970, my romanticized consciousness was at peek emergence. I was in love all the time, experimented with organic and chemical mind altering substances, was forever trying out new strategies for getting nookie and—my most profound characteristic of all—wrote between ten and twenty poems a day, every day. Some of them were not half bad, although none ever got published or sung. I had a file folder which I barely managed to keep from bursting with the aid of a large rubber band. In it I had stashed close to a thousand notebook pages and growing daily. Incidentally, one day an enterprising singer friend asked to borrow my folder and never returned it, thank God. I don’t believe there would have been any other way for me to stop that nauseating creativity.
So, when I found out Arik Einstein was performing in my school gym (it’s how artists make a living in small countries—they may be famous, but to survive they can’t possibly rely on album sales), I picked my best ten lyrics and took them along to the concert.