The Rock Star’s Guide to Eating, Praying, and Loving in the High Security State of Israel
Why Justin Bieber, Elton John, Madonna, and, yes, Alicia Keys, love to play Tel Aviv—and why Israel loves them back
There are several plausible explanations for this reverence Israelis of all ages feel for rock’s dinosaurs, but chief among them is that perhaps Israelis feel about rock stars the same way rock stars feel about Israel. An act like Lady Gaga or Kaiser Chiefs can make Israel feel like just another normal country, but when artists like John or Stewart arrive and send tens of thousands of fans, of all ages and all walks of life, to their feet cheering, Israel feels special. It feels the same thing the visiting rockers feel when they check into the Dan Hotel, a special bond between country and performer, a bubble that, for a day or two at a time, pretends like the only thing that matters in the world is rock ’n’ roll.
Which, pretty much, describes every day in the life of Shuki Weiss. When he was young, Weiss wanted to be a rock star; he stood in front of the mirror, strummed on his bass guitar, and howled happily. Soon, however, he discovered that his talents lay elsewhere, not on stage but behind it: With a general’s attention to detail and a roadie’s commitment to rock, he took over one of Tel Aviv’s hottest clubs in the 1980s and turned it into a Mecca for visiting celebrities.
Celebrities, perhaps, isn’t the right word. The performers Weiss attracted were, for the most part, a year or two or 20 past their prime. But having an uncanny feel for his audience, he realized that mattered little: What Israelis wanted was recognition, and they didn’t need more than Ian Dury or Peter Hammill or John Cale, decades after his Velvet Underground heyday, to feel as if they’ve been admitted to the Family of Man. And so, while other producers did whatever they could to diversify their portfolios—not a bad strategy in a market as tiny as Israel—and took to managing local artists or producing television shows, Weiss focused mainly on attracting foreign entertainers. A decade or so into his career, he was the only game in town.
This, in part, has to do with the economics of putting up enormous concerts like those by Madonna or the Chili Peppers or any other of Weiss’ productions. Because no insurance company in the world will sell an Israeli promoter a policy against possible cancellations—these, given the political climate and security situation, are far too likely to make the risk worthwhile—anyone wishing to put up a big, international show in Tel Aviv has to be able to take major risks. Others have tried and failed; Weiss persevered. In 2006, when Depeche Mode canceled their concert at the last minute because of the war with Lebanon, Weiss lost millions. Shortly thereafter, when Waters threatened to cancel his arrival, Weiss convinced him to play not in Tel Aviv’s large park as usual for shows of that scale but in Neveh Shalom, a joint Jewish and Arab community. Because Neveh Shalom had no appropriate venue in which to mount Waters’s extravagant and pyrotechnics-rich concert, Weiss had to strike a deal with a local farmer, promising to buy an entire year’s supply of a nearby chickpea field for the rights to host Waters and his fans.
It’s that kind of thinking that has made Weiss a successful producer, and that kind of thinking that has made Israel an unbeatable stop on the world tour of famous artists. Landing in Tel Aviv, pop’s luminaries know that someone will always find a way to take care of them; just ask Justin Bieber.
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The ‘Color Purple’ author showed more than just naivete in penning an open letter to the pop star. She also showed ignorance.