Self-proclaimed anti-Israeli saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and prog rock legend Robert Wyatt have joined forces to make musical magic and “political noise.”
By Yaron Frid
This is a sad story with a jolting soundtrack made of the howl of a saxophone and the wail of a clarinet. It’s a story of displaced persons who have no other country, featuring war criminals, Nazi-hunters and God in a cameo role, tempered by large daubs of irony and a few crumbs of hope.
Morning. Rain. Rail strike. Soho, London. Who is the huge chuckling fellow in the Italian cafe who is polishing off a schnitzel sandwich (washed down with tea ) and welcomes me with comments like “There is no light at the end of the Israeli tunnel”? Or, “I think there is something untenable, simply untenable in the fact that the Jews, who suffered so much racial discrimination, should establish a state that is founded on race laws.” And, topping the charts, “I am dead against the existence of the Jewish state.” It’s still early in the morning, let me remind you. I-am-dead-against-the-existence-of-the-Jewish-state-and-pass-the-sweetener-please. Good morning to you, too, Gilad Atzmon.
The fact that the cafe is across from Ronnie Scott’s famous jazz club offers a subtle hint about Atzmon’s identity. He is one of the most acclaimed and in-demand jazz musicians in the world and he only enhances his glory – or totally destroys it, it depends whom you ask – when his mouth isn’t otherwise occupied with a saxophone (or a schnitzel ).
Atzmon says he is dealing not with politics, but with ethics. Maybe in his case it really isn’t just a matter of semantics. Or cosmetics. But we’re here to talk about music. And about beauty. “This beauty which simply spills out of you,” he says, “effortlessly, unconsciously, in the most wonderful moments of creativity, and when that happens you understand that you are only the carrier of the spirit, of something bigger than you, over which you have absolutely no control. I have no connection with that beauty, I just eat schnitzels. I am only the messenger. I don’t look for the beauty, the beauty finds me and through me finds its way into the world.”
And plenty of beauty finds its way into the world in “For the Ghosts Within,” the new album by Atzmon and his musical partners, which has already earned rave reviews in the British music press, with praise such as “the surprise of the year” and ecstatic descriptions of angels entering the listener’s heart. On the album Atzmon joins forces, as performer, composer, arranger and musical producer, with Ros Stephen and Robert Wyatt.
This is the great Robert Wyatt himself. Cult figure, one of the fathers and pioneers of progressive rock. The one calls the other a genius (“We have a mutual genius pact,” Atzmon chuckles ), while Wyatt says, “It’s a huge honor for me and not at all self-evident that Gilad agreed to work with me. He is an amazing musician, amazing.” But judging by the people Wyatt has worked with – Jimi Hendrix, Mike Oldfield, David Gilmour, Paul Weller, Syd Barrett, Brian Eno, Bjork (a “heavenly creature,” Wyatt sighed ) among others – it’s clear that the honor is also definitely Atzmon’s. He has performed with Paul McCartney, but the collaboration with Wyatt, 65, a unique object of admiration who cuts across tastes, generations and categories (just ask Radiohead’s Thom Yorke ), is something of a step up and a certificate of honor that further cements Atzmon’s status in the British music industry.
Wyatt is the hippie enfant terrible who became a white-bearded guru, a kind of secret national treasure, a genuine survivor who is almost unclassifiable. A drummer in Soft Machine (from which he was thrown out – to this day he maintains “there is nothing worse in life than humiliation” ) and in Matching Mole, he was reborn as a singer-songwriter after falling out of that London window during a drinking binge that lurched out of control. (Pink Floyd immediately rallied to the cause and organized a benefit concert for him. ) The fall left him in a wheelchair for life.
Few musicians have done all he has done – psychedelic, punk, post-punk, avant-garde, fusion and now “clean” jazz with his own twists.
Wyatt is married to Alfreda (Alfie ) Benge, who came to England from Poland as a childhood war refugee. She does the artwork for his album covers, once wrote a searing song about his alcoholism (he has since kicked the habit, or maybe not ) and calls him an “overgrown baby,” while he calls her “the dark side of my moon.” He records his albums, which are like nothing else and are always received as an “event,” in a studio in his home. He has a distinctive tremulous voice (a kind of trademark ), which the composer and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto called “the saddest sound in the world.” Wyatt has survived periods of bottomless, suicidal depression, and for entire decades avoided performing live. (“I think it’s stage fright,” Atzmon says. )
In an interview with the Guardian in June 2009, Wyatt selected Atzmon as the “greatest living artist” and noted that he was “born in Israel, which I prefer to call occupied Palestine.” Atzmon, for his part, says Wyatt is “a genius of the kind that Kant described so well – a genius who seemingly has no part in his own genius, who creates beauty as though ex nihilo. Everything he touches sounds new and completely different and utterly his own. He is totally transparent and through him you see the light.”
Tranquillity of the storm
Their love story began “about 10 years ago,” Atzmon says. “At some festival, a woman named Alfie came over and said her husband is a musician but is very shy and loves my music and would like to talk to me. ‘Sure, no problem,’ I said. Robert approached, said he was an amateur musician or a crappy musician, something like that, he’s very modest, and gave me his card. I had no idea it was him and I put the card in my pocket without looking. Afterward someone asked me what I’d talked about with Robert Wyatt and I said, ‘Fuck! That was Robert Wyatt? I grew up on his music!'”
They invited each other to guest on their respective albums, including Wyatt’s acclaimed “Cuckooland” (2003 ) and “For the Ghosts Within.” (The song “The Ghosts Within” contains more than a hint to Palestinians sitting under olive trees, awaiting redemption, on the banks of the River of Shame. ) The album is on the trendy Domino label – its bands include Arctic Monkeys. Wyatt takes the role of the house singer, performing thrilling covers of jazz standards such as “In a Sentimental Mood” together with new material written and arranged by Atzmon and the violinist Ros Stephen. The result is almost a family affair (Gilad’s wife, Tali, sings a marvelous solo, Bob’s wife, Alfie, wrote powerful lyrics and Ros’s partner is one of the musicians ). Tender and melancholy, the album is only part of the panoply of illusive and elusive contradictions of Atzmon, who is haunted by ghosts and demons, filled with gentleness and rage, naivete and depth, stubbornness and openness, storminess and tranquillity.
“The first time I invited him to play on an album of mine,” Wyatt recalls, “Gilad warned me that it could be trouble. I don’t think he deliberately looks for trouble, it finds him. That didn’t scare me. I have been called a ‘Stalinist’ and a ‘traitor’ and worse, simply because I didn’t agree with the British government’s foreign policy. But that’s nothing compared to the systematic character assassination being done on Gilad. He takes so many risks with his remarks, most of which are then taken out of context or presented in a twisted way so that his true intention isn’t understood correctly.
“I sometimes feel a need to protect him,” Wyatt continues, “an almost paternal instinct – after all, he’s my son’s age. The friendship with him is one of the most important and meaningful things that have happened to me in life. I truly love him. And I admire his courage. Some will call it reckless or uninhibited, but he dares to say things that no one else would. I would die of fright. He gets threats to his life, but I hope they are not serious. He doesn’t enjoy the manifestations of hatred toward him but he doesn’t care if he causes grief or anguish, because that’s his truth, and contrary to politicians or diplomats he is committed to his truth. He’s so sweet, really, he wouldn’t hurt a fly, and I like his chutzpah, I think it’s fantastic. There’s something about him from the tradition of the great Jewish comics, like Lenny Bruce, who were never afraid to make people angry.”
It would be a big mistake to assume that Atzmon’s music is marginal and negligible compared with all the other noise he manages to make nonstop as a popular and prominent pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist activist. The music is important, superb, surpassingly sublime and acknowledged as such by international awards.
“My shows are always sold out, wherever I appear in the world,” says the busiest jazz artist in Britain, almost drily. But in the same breath, who are we kidding? Even when Robert Wyatt sings “At Last I Am Free” on the new album, not to mention the Arabic rap (“People dying of thirst / People are dying of hunger / We haven’t forgotten / And we won’t forget until the day we return” ) which leaves no room for doubt, or the “Palestinian shepherd’s flute,” one of the instruments Atzmon plays on the album according to the liner notes, the noise always penetrates, if not through the door then through the window – not that Atzmon goes out of his way to expel it.
Pathetic and absurd
Gilad Atzmon was born in Tel Aviv in 1963 and grew up in Jerusalem. “It was a regular secular childhood,” he says, “with a right-wing Jabotinskyite grandfather. I wasn’t ashamed of him, no way. I understood where he was coming from. I understood where I was coming from.” Most of his military service was spent in the Air Force orchestra, after a stint as a combat medic. “In the first week of the Lebanon war in 1982 I saw a lot of wounded soldiers, but contrary to the rumors, that was not the turning point in my life. I think the big change actually started in the orchestra, when we went to Ansar, that concentration camp” – a prison built by the Israeli army in Lebanon – “and then I realized that I was in the wrong army.”
In Israel he played and was a musical producer with the singers Yardena Arazi – talk about diversity: chapter one Arazi, chapter two Wyatt – Si Himan and Yehuda Poliker, among others.
“Poliker opened my ears to Greek music and influenced me musically. My music is popular in Greece – more than his, I’d say – but Greece, like the whole world, is falling apart, so it doesn’t help me very much.”
In 1994 Atzmon planned to study abroad, in New York or Chicago, but in the end found a university in England with an interesting program combining psychoanalysis, philosophy and art history. “I didn’t have some five-year plan to leave the country or anything like that,” he recalls. “The truth is that I was worn out from everything: from the country, from music, from life. Everything wore me out. I didn’t want to play or produce anymore. I thought of starting a new career as a commercial pilot. I wanted to be like the El Al pilots, who bow to the applauding passengers after landing [he chuckles]. I liked flying planes but I wasn’t good enough at it.
“I was 30, and thought I would focus on an academic career. But then I fell in love with London, which was like a small village – it has changed completely since, and not for the better – and the local music scene gave me so much love. So I said to myself: We’ll play jazz for the jazz, we’ll live for art. We don’t need a lot of money, we have everything we need. So we’ll stay. And we stayed.”
“We” is Atzmon and his wife, Tali, a fine singer and a stage actress with a burgeoning career. They met – we promised you irony, we deliver – at the Hasidic Song Festival in Israel. “I didn’t like Israel and what was happening there but I wasn’t politically involved in any way. I also didn’t understand the Palestinian idea, the true story. Somehow things happened and I started to speak and write in all kinds of forums, and suddenly I was all over the place. I was a private person with all kinds of private opinions who suddenly became public because people wanted to hear what I had to say. I think people feel that I am telling the truth, that I am not rewriting facts for anyone, that I don’t have to lie because I am not part of any political body. I am Gilad Atzmon who represents Gilad Atzmon and that’s all. At first I was seen as a nice Jew who was badmouthing Israel, which the goyim liked. But it didn’t take me long to understand that I am not a nice Jew, because I don’t want to be a Jew, because Jewish values don’t really turn me on and all this ‘Pour out Thy wrath on the nations’ stuff doesn’t impress me.”
So you are pouring out your wrath on the Jews.
“I saw ‘Metzitzim’ a few days ago. You know where Uri Zohar is today [Zohar, the director, actor and screenwriter, is now an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and teacher], and he was the ultimate secular person, the absolute ultimate. Why are secular Israelis afraid of Uri Zohar? Because he left them alone in the dark to cope with questions like Why am I here? Why do I live on lands that are not mine, the plundered lands of another people whose owners want to return to them but cannot? Why do I send my children to kill and be killed, after I myself was a soldier, too? Why do I believe all this bullshit about ‘because it’s the land of our forefathers’ and ‘our patrimony’ if I am not even religious? What the fuck? That is something the secular Jews simply cannot cope with. They are deathly afraid of those questions. I see more truth among the settlers than among the biggest secular Jews in the country.
“The Israelis can put an end to the conflict in two fucking minutes. Netanyahu gets up tomorrow morning, returns to the Palestinians the lands that belong to them, their fields and houses, and that’s it. The refugees will come home and the Jews will also finally be liberated: They will be free in their country and will be able to be like all the nations, get on with their lives and even salvage the bad reputation they have brought on themselves in the past 2,000 years. But for Netanyahu and the Israelis to do that, they have to undergo de-Judaization and accept the fact that they are like all peoples and are not the chosen people. So, in my analysis this is not a political, sociopolitical or socioeconomic issue but something basic that has to do with Jewish identity.
“Think for a minute about the dialectics of Jewish identity, about ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Who is your neighbor? Another Jew, of course. In other words, from the moment you were chosen to be the ‘chosen people’ you lost all respect for other peoples and for the other as such.
“Take, for example, the way gays are treated in Israel. It smacks so much of ‘Look how liberal we are, we have homosexuals in Israel.’ Max Nordau [Zionist leader, 1849-1923] wrote about the emancipation of the Jews, about how the Europeans don’t really like Jews but like themselves for supposedly liking Jews. I find a lot of similarity between Jews and gays as separatist, marginal philosophies. It’s very interesting.
“There are interesting values in Judaism, and the proof is that the Palestinians’ greatest supporters are the Jews of the Torah, Neturei Karta [an ultra-Orthodox sect]. Our problem – and it took me time to understand this – lies with the secular Jews, and even more with the left-wing Jews. The idea of left-wing Jews is fundamentally sickening. Totally. It contains an absolute internal contradiction. If you are leftists it doesn’t matter whether you’re Jewish or not, so on principle when you present yourselves as leftist Jews you are accepting the idea of national socialism. Nazism. That is pathetic. That is why the Israeli left has never succeeded in doing anything for the Palestinians. The absolute absurdity is that it’s actually the right wing that is leading toward a one-state solution and a final-status agreement.”
Illogic and wonder
Atzmon played into the hands of politicians such as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in a debate with President Shimon Peres quoted Atzmon by name, to the effect that “Israeli barbarism is greater than [regular] cruelty.” Atzmon has been accused from every possible platform of disseminating vitriol against Jews. He, though, maintains that he “hates everyone in equal measure.” He’s also been accused of self-hatred, but he is the first to admit this, and in comparison with Otto Weininger – the Austrian Jewish philosopher who converted to Christianity and of whom Hitler said, “There was one good Jew in Germany, and he killed himself” – he is even proud. “Otto and I are good friends.”
“What seriously? I am married to a Jew, I work and play in a band with Jews. I have adopted a Palestinian identity, true, but to accuse me of anti-Semitism is ridiculous. Part of my success derives from the recognition that I am ‘from there.’ I do not try to hide that or blur it or deny it. I look, speak and behave like someone from there.”
I address him in Hebrew and he replies in English with a distinctly Israeli accent, interspersed with Hebrew. He is sometimes amazed at some of the excellent Hebrew words he comes out with.
The hybrid language is intermittently amusing. Asked, for example, if he misses Israel, he replies, “I don’t miss the medina [the state], I miss the eretz [the land/country], and elaborates: “When I started missing the soil, the landscapes, the scents, I understood that what I actually miss is Palestine. Palestine is the land and Israel is the state. It took me time to realize that Israel was never my home, but only a fantasy saturated in blood and sweat.”
He speaks of “sweat” but really means “tears.” It’s a sad story, as we noted.
His children, Mai, 14, and Yan, 10, have no Jewish friends. Yan was not circumcised and bar or bat mitzvahs are out of the question. Atzmon’s computer does not have Hebrew. He says he writes, thinks and dreams in English. He will not set foot in Israel until it is again Palestine.
Doesn’t it hurt to cut yourself off like that? To burn all the bridges?
“No, but maybe it’s true what all my girlfriends before Tal said when they dumped me.”
What did they say?
“That I’m an emotional cripple.”
Is that true?
“Maybe, but I didn’t dump myself. I live at peace with myself.” He apparently reserves his emotional intelligence for his art. There are no cripples of any sort in “For the Ghosts Within.” In the music, they all fly to the highest places possible, perhaps touching the divine. Genuine talent, like passion, can’t be faked. The problem is, then, only the grating noises – that’s how they sound to many people – that the man haunted by ghosts and demons produces outside the recording studio.
Wyatt, playing the Dalai Lama, expresses amazement at “Gilad’s struggle against racism and oppression of all kinds, and in his life’s work, the search for the meaning of Jewish identity. Gilad is a traumatic but optimistic example of a widespread phenomenon of migrants who try to push aside their tribal circumstances and try to reconnect to the world and to humanity. That is what the Jews in the Diaspora have always done. Look at their contribution to world culture. Ronnie Scott was from a Jewish immigrant family from Russia, and there are also the Gershwin brothers and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, not to mention Jesus and Karl Marx, two nice Jews who made a bit of a mess in the world.
“Gilad’s point of departure is humanitarian, not real estate. Thanks to him I learned to be more tolerant of religion, every religion, and show it respect. Thanks to him, for example, I have no problem with the fact that Evyatar Banai, a terrific musician whom I met a few years ago, became religiously observant, just as I hope he has no problem with my political opinions. Gilad believes that religion is a spiritual affair and not a license to plunder olive groves from someone else, and that is something I can connect to.
“The problem,” Wyatt continues, “arises when religion’s illogic becomes the basis for politics. Religion is based on illogical legends: Jesus’ mother was a virgin and Father Christmas comes down the chimney bringing toys. That’s all very nice but it cannot be a serious foundation for politics that is supposed to make the real world run. It is unthinkable to take lands that are not yours only because it’s written in the Bible – meaning the Old Testament, which is based on tribal mercilessness – that God said they are yours. And what about the other peoples? What were they told? Which God distributed what land to them? And what if they read a different book? There’s no way out of it.
“People use every excuse to screw the Middle East, visit colonialist guilt feelings on the Palestinians and compare them to Nazis, which is outrageous. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the toughest knot to undo that there is, but people like Gilad are truly dreaming of a solution and fighting to realize it in their lifetime.”
You once called him “Don Quixote.” Do you think he is fighting a lost battle?
“I called him Don Quixote in humor, and he has a great sense of humor. I knew he wouldn’t take offense. Possibly his battle is lost, but the war on crime, for example, is also lost, yet I still want the police to go on fighting it. Gilad is an artist who is trying to find meaning in a chaotic and insane world. For him, as for me, politics is the most personal thing there is. He and I cannot remain silent in the face of wrongs, injustice and inequality. Not all artists feel a need to express themselves or act politically, and you can’t force anyone to do that. During the Second World War, Picasso chose to sound his voice and Matisse chose to remain silent and disappear, and both were and remain great artists who enriched the world. Gilad likes to shock and surprise in everything he does, and his very existence enriches the world.”
And that world, however broken and ruined and complicated, is the same world that stars in the song that ends “For the Ghosts Within” as well as Atzmon’s concerts: “What a Wonderful World.”
“The newscasts report only disasters and wars, and that’s natural,” Wyatt notes. “I was born at the end of the Second World War, and since then the world has not stopped fighting and falling apart before our eyes. But if we forget the existence of beauty and joy and love and all the rest, what’s the point of staying alive at all? To say that the world is only screwed up is an insult to those who go to work every day and build homes for their children and cook meals for their friends. It’s important to sing this song with full intentionality and seriousness. I can’t sing it any other way. To sing it is to remember what we’re actually doing here.”
In praise of the spark
Atzmon, who has appeared and recorded with artists such as Sinead O’Connor, Ian Dury and Robbie Williams, this month is also launching “The Tide Has Changed,” the latest album by his jazz group, the Orient House Ensemble, now celebrating its 10th anniversary. (The other members are Frank Harrison, Eddie Hick and Yaron Stavi, the son of Zissi Stavi, the legendary former editor of Yedioth Ahronoth’s literary supplement ). Among the instrumental tracks are “London Gaza” and “We Lament.” Surprised?
Atzmon has even been accused of Holocaust denial.
“That is very imprecise,” he says. “But I am fighting against all the disgusting laws and persecutions of those so-called Holocaust deniers – a categorization I don’t accept. I think the Holocaust, like any historical episode, must be open to research, to examination, to discussion and debate. I am sorry that Hitler did not live to write a summary of the events in his own words. And I am not sorry that people throw eggs at the war criminal Tony Blair, who in the Nuremberg trials of the Iraq war will be brought to trial, inshallah, along with all those who fostered and financed that benighted and unnecessary war. And at the same opportunity, it might be a good thing if the Nazi hunters hunt down [Shaul] Mofaz and [Ehud] Barak, for example, and not all kinds of 96-year-olds who are barely alive. It’s pathetic.”
Atzmon can be sharp, focused and trenchant, and at the same time nonsensical and diffuse, so much “pro” but also so much “con” – coarse and refined, raucous and subdued, pedantic and professional to an extreme, making declarations like “I never did homework. I wrote my two books in two weeks each, vomited them onto the page, and the first one began as a joke.”
The novels – “A Guide to the Perplexed” (2001; set in 2052, in the Palestinian state that has succeeded Israel ) and “My One and Only Love” (2005; about a trumpeter who chooses to play one note only and also about Nazi-hunters; spot the obsession ?) – have been translated into 27 languages. There is something childlike, if not childish, in the guide for the perplexed being someone who is himself occasionally perplexed, who radiates personal charm, frequently chuckles and acts the smart aleck and the provocateur, with a proven ability to electrify and to hypnotize an audience.
“There is a spark in Gilad, a passion and a natural joy of the kind found in children,” Robert Wyatt sums up. “His joy of creation is utterly pure. Picasso said that he tried his whole life to paint the way he painted as a child. Gilad hasn’t lost that, I think. He remains filled with curiosity and filled with life in the most positive and delightful way.”
“Let me make it perfectly clear,” says Atzmon. “There is a war of liberation of the Palestinian people and I support it unreservedly. I also have guilt feelings. I tried to communicate with Israelis and I failed, and it’s important for that to be said. I no longer know how to communicate with Israelis.”
For someone who is so cut-off, Atzmon (“I’m a voluntary exile, but also a DP and a refugee from my homeland” ) sounds quite connected. Never mind “Metzitzim”; he also heard, for example, that Poliker came out of the closet and that Miri Aloni is busking on the street (though he’d like to know whether for ideological reasons or “only for the money” ).
Why don’t you make a distinction between individuals and governments? For example, what happened with the Gaza flotilla was not “us.”
“It was you.”
It’s not me.
“It is you. Unequivocally. When you live in a democracy, every crime committed by your government is a crime committed by you.”
Even if I didn’t vote for that government?
“Absolutely. In a dictatorship the dictator takes responsibility, in a democracy all citizens bear equal responsibility.”
So what do we do? How do we fix it?
“That’s the big question.”
What do you want me to do, shoot Netanyahu?
“You said it, not me. And by the way, Netanyahu is a lot better for the Palestinians than Barak or Peres. I, too, as a British citizen, share in the crime of the Iraq war. But the British public at least expressed opposition to the war all along, whereas in Israel 94 percent of the nation supported Operation Cast Lead. On the one hand, you want to behave like a post-enlightenment state and talk to me about individualism, but on the other hand you surround yourselves with a wall and remain attached to a tribal identity. That’s a cake you can’t eat and have, too. There is a price to be paid and everyone is paying it, including me.”
But Atzmon, who has been crowned successor to Charlie Parker, doesn’t dwell on the price.
“Sometimes I ask myself what I need all these headaches for. And Tali says she married a musician and now she has a prime minister in her home.”
You might not be sad that you lost us, but I’m sad that we lost you.
“That’s all right, there’s a place in the world for sentimental people. I know I have many readers in Israel and they know how to contact me.”
I think about Gilad Atzmon the way that Arik Einstein thought about the girl he saw on her way to school in the iconic song: that to us, he is lost. Israeli public diplomacy lost someone who could have been one of its finest voices: articulate, charismatic, brilliant. The score, for now: 1-0, Palestine leading.