Hardcore in the Holy Land: Scenes from Tel Aviv’s Underground
It’s true what they say about Israel’s airline security meaning business. The beautiful attendant at the El Al flight counter seemed nice enough, but after two hours, four interrogations and one full-body search from her decidedly- not-as-beautiful male counterpart, I was left wondering if “a dangerous investigative journalism piece about Tel Aviv’s alternative culture—you know, the real gritty stuff” was taken a bit more seriously than as a magazine writer’s pathetic attempt to impress a pretty girl in uniform. Later that day, halfway across the Atlantic, pride dismantled, I was more than happy to admit to an elderly seatmate that “a fun story about Tel Aviv’s indie music scene” would do just fine when asked about my trip to the Holy Land.
Additionally, a week after the deadly flotilla incident involving an intercepted shipment of weapons to the Israel-controlled Palestinian territory in Gaza left the world nervous, outraged and a little confused, I myself felt mostly just the former. After all, the Pixies had just cancelled a concert, which was to be the band’s first ever in the country, that was to take place in Tel Aviv the night of my arrival. If this situation could give pause to a man named Black Francis, then what in Doolittle’s name was I doing? Perhaps sensing my concern, or maybe just tired of holding my sweaty hand, my seatmate leaned over and looked me in the eye. “You have nothing to fear,” she whispered in a heavy accent, “I’ve lived in Tel Aviv my whole life, and look how old I am.” I would cling to that line like a mantra for the rest of the flight.
As soon as we touched down, though, I was greeted by a city with a safety level surpassed only by its friendliness. I immediately set aside any fear and began exploring, my weary body reinvigorated by the sight of the Mediterranean tide crashing semi-circularly onto Tel Aviv’s golden shores—pushed that way by sandbars designed to preserve the beaches. After a swim and a steak, I headed for the center of town, where I had been invited to an impromptu house party hastily organized by a music blogger to take some of the sting out of the Pixies’ cancellation.
When I arrived, a number of the city’s musicians, writers and indie rock fans were crammed into a small room in an apartment loft where speakers and a drum kit sectioned off a corner into a stage. It was like an open-mic night with an entire town; guitarists from this band jammed with saxophonists from that band; singers improvised lyrics over a beat laid down by a stranger; a 19-year-old kid in the Israeli Army sang Tom Waits’ “Make It Rain” in Hebrew. A bassist poured five-shekel drinks in the kitchen; a nerdy older guy scowled in the corner; at around midnight, somebody threw up in the bathroom. Amused but jetlagged, I swear I heard somebody scream, “Death to the Pixies!” as I headed out the door.
In the morning, I strolled through the most ancient part of town, an artistic suburb and port called Jaffa, a place so old that Saint Peter lived within its walls before he got his prefix. Fine artists and craftspeople live above their galleries and workspaces here in the Old City, a government-sanctioned live/work village of windy stone streets opening up to breathtaking views of the sea and modern Tel Aviv. I would return to Jaffa’s Nalaga’at Theater that night for a remarkable production called Not by Bread Alone, a play starring a deaf and blind cast.
After a lunch of shakshuka (egg in tomato sauce), mafroum (potatoes with meat) and the not-as-popular kishke (intestines) at a crowded spot in the Jaffa Flea Market, I took a cab to a non-descript area near Tel Aviv’s commerce center to meet with the members of Monotonix, a rock band known far and wide for its explosive, fiery live show—which often features real flames. Interestingly, the trio is Israel’s best known band everywhere except in Israel—it is signed to Drag City Records in the States and recently opened for Pavement at a few European dates, but rarely even plays a hometown gig. The band’s rehearsal space was small and poorly lit, but perfectly fitting for its brand of blues-based garage punk, and after showing me around, singer Ami, guitarist Yonatan and drummer Haggai blazed through a handful of new songs at ear- shattering volume.
Ami—whose hair reached to his ass and who stood in the alley in nothing but a pair of rainbow-colored Speedos and tennis shoes when I arrived—said the band’s goal was simply to enjoy making music and to have a good time. “Let it loose, don’t take art too seriously,” he said, obviously quite comfortable with that notion in his own life. According to Ami, this is not a personality trait many Israeli men share: “The Israeli man knows more than you; he’s rude,” he declared. “Respect here is more important than money. Look at the traffic. A guy driving will cut you off and keep you out of his lane if you just use your turn signal. But if you roll your window down and ask him to get over, not only will he let you in but he’ll yell at others to get out of your way.” Talking to the crowd at the previous night’s show, it was clear that even though Monotonix isn’t the biggest champion of Tel Aviv, it is still the most respected band in town among the indie scene.
At Yonatan’s suggestion, I visited a late-night hummus restaurant and downed a few Black Star beers while listening to a street performance in the bohemian neighborhood of Neve Tzedek—the musician was the Army kid from the night before, right down to the Waits tune. The next day, after a quick how-to lesson on falafel from a friendly chef and a stop by Tel Aviv’s best record store (Ami’s assessment proves true; here, just like home, the clerks are snobs), I met a local radio DJ named Leon Feldman and headed to a bar. Leon held court as we clinked glasses of a nearly-impossible-to- find Palestinian beer called Taybeh with various creative types who dropped by. After an incident involving a pickled cauliflower “borrowed” from its jar that resulted in the purchase of the entire barrel-sized cask at the manager’s insistence and the need for a swift change of location, we found ourselves in a cab headed to a hardcore show across town at four o’clock in the afternoon.
As most travelers know, when a crusty old punk rocker offers you something called “Chinese drink” from a bottle boasting biohazard warnings as you enter his decrepit club in the middle of a strange town in broad daylight, the best plan of attack is to simply pour it down the hatch and see what happens next. While we may never know for sure, I seem to recall standing in a room no bigger than the paint area underneath a basketball goal as a punk band called Mess, with what seemed to be a tiny girl at the microphone screaming her head off, pummeled my brain further into oblivion. After 15 minutes and 40 songs, I stumbled out into the daylight to find Leon and company standing around looking very pleased with themselves. Apparently, the best way to enjoy hardcore in the Holy Land is to keep a safe distance—it’s the idea that counts.
The next day was Saturday—Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest—and after a morning dash to Jerusalem made even quicker by the absence of cars on the highway, I was back in Neve Tzedek for a filmed performance on an apartment building rooftop by a band called Acollectíve. A mix of Beirut and Devotchka, the band consists of friends from Tel Aviv who add saxophone, harmonica, whistling and glass bottle percussion to a standard indie rock backline, resulting in a mix of songs that could come from a progressive NPR-affiliate anywhere in the world. As the band wailed away against the city’s skyline, an angry resident of the apartment below suddenly appeared, yelling at us in Hebrew for disturbing her day of rest. After an intense confrontation during which I found myself absentmindedly humming my plane companion’s survival mantra, the entire band broke out in laughter and applause as the woman smiled slightly and turned back down the stairs. The band’s manager explained that even though the woman was still not happy to host a concert 10-feet above her bedroom, she at least admitted that the music was good.
We headed to a nearby bar to celebrate the victory, passing through the quiet streets that mark a typical Saturday evening in Tel Aviv. Turning the corner, I laughed loudly when I realized I’d been led back to the place of yesterday’s cauliflower transgression. It was suddenly clear to me just how small this city is—the whole country, really. Sure, the real gritty stuff hangs in the air, but as long as you keep a safe distance, you have nothing to fear. F