It's only rock 'n' roll
... to the cynical British but, to the Israeli teen idol Aviv Geffen, three chords and the truth are all you need to right the wrongs of the world. James Rampton talks to an exile on Acacia Avenue
Saturday 26 July 1997
Well, no, actually. Geffen is far from your average rock star. How many rock stars do you know who have been stoned off stage by Jewish fundamentalists, attacked by knifemen posing as fans, and subjected to so many death threats that they have to wear a bullet-proof vest and employ a phalanx of bodyguards for public appearances? As if that weren't enough, the vociferously anti- establishment Geffen has also been denounced by the Israeli President and was obliged to quit his homeland for his own safety and pursue his career in Britain. He is a genuine example of that over-used phrase, "the protest singer", living, breathing proof that pop and politics are joined at the hip - at least in Israel.
Geffen is cooling off in a cafe over the road from the studio after the sweaty, high-kicking, arms-windmilling jam. Diminutive, with dark good looks enhanced by mascara and a purple shirt open to the midriff, there is more than a touch of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince about him. A serious man who seems old before his time, he sighs that "it's impossible to avoid politics in art. There is a peace element to everything I write. I feel inspired by it. Every song is one of my screams. I don't want to sing 'the sky is blue' - that would be boring. It's hard to be happy in Israel. We don't have one day where everything is just normal, where you just lie on the grass and nothing happens. You open the paper and things just jump out at your face."
Geffen omits to mention that several of these headlines have in fact been caused by him. For many of his fellow countrymen, he is a walking provocation. In the past couple of years, he has enraged bullish hardliners with a series of red-rag pronouncements. After the election victory of the Likud Party, he advised young people to "pack your bags and flee Israel". His subsequent description of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an "empty, hollow-hearted man" was scarcely calculated to endear him to the authorities, either.
He went on to fan the flames of right-wing outrage when he said that: "The Wall of Pink Floyd means more to me than the Western Wall. I don't believe in stones. I believe in human beings." His refusal to be conscripted, his fierce criticism of the Israeli military, and his support for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, gays, cross-dressers, women and animals merely push him further beyond the pale for Israeli traditionalists. Unsurprisingly, fundamentalists have depicted Geffen as the Devil.
But to the followers of his Israeli youth movement, known as "The Tears Rebellion", he is anything but. In their eyes, Geffen is one figure who can achieve the seemingly impossible: melding the trivia of pop with the very grave business of politics. Israel's biggest-selling artist, Geffen can boast five platinum albums and concerts that sell out many times over. Teenagers hold nightly vigils outside his former flat in Tel Aviv (he is now domiciled in north London) and daub his lyrics in graffiti across the city. The fact that Israeli government ministers have urged parents to prohibit their children from listening to Geffen's records has merely boosted his street cred. We're talking serious, disaffected-youth rock- god here.
His iconic status was further bolstered in November 1995 when he played at the rally for peace in front of 300,000 on the main square in Tel Aviv. There he became the last person to embrace Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and bid him "Shalom" (peace), a mere 10 minutes before he was gunned down by the fanatical Yigal Amir. "I'm just 24, and I came face to face with death," Geffen says, still sounding shocked at the memory. "With three bullets, Amir killed both a very brave man and the peace."
Rabbi Schmuel Boteach, who describes himself as "in the camp of the Israeli right", speaks for many in voicing scepticism about the so-called "voice of a generation". Geffen's statement that he'd give up Israeli land is, he believes, naive. It forgets that the Jews are the most persecuted nation on earth. Throughout history, the majority were exploited or slaughtered. So for someone like Aviv to say that land is unimportant is to be ignorant of all Jewish history. It's like saying 'take my home'. Where are you going to live then? On the street and die from the elements? Jews deserve a country of their own. That's why Aviv is eliciting the ire of the older generation. They feel he's undermining their sacrifice. Jews must rely on themselves for protection. If they gave away land, they'd elicit the contempt of the world. Creating peace between Palestinians and Jews is an admirable goal, but not at the expense of civil war.
"His comments about the Army upset people, too," Boteach continues. "There's hardly a family in Israel that hasn't lost a member. It's an insult to all those who have sacrificed their lives. And for Aviv to say that The Wall means more to him than the Western Wall is offensive. To randomly fire off words offensive to religion is grossly immoral. Aviv's comments are incredibly simplistic. You need more complex solutions to complex situations. He has great vision, but it is not necessarily tied to reality."
In response, Geffen tries to explain why he has so upset the Israeli religious community. "Because I have an open mind and I'm always asking questions," he declares. "The Bible belongs to me as well as to them. They're afraid of me because I teach the youth and bring them to a new understanding. I don't want Israel to become like the Third World, like Iran. For the fanatically religious, I've become a symbol of modern Israel, someone who wears make-up and a dress and they don't like it. They prefer macho types. I'm holding the flag for weakness. Let's cry and write about the tears."
His language is littered with such phrases, apparently lifted straight from the Dictionary of Rock Star Cliches. If you can get beyond that, however, there is no doubting Geffen's bravery. "I don't give a shit about the death threats," he claims. "It's a price I'm prepared to pay. I'd prefer to die with the truth than live with the lies. My weapon is my pen. I believe in a God of love, and my opponents believe in a God of blood. When they start to shoot in the name of God, it's very dangerous and ugly. If I don't agree with someone, I never throw stones at them. I'll fight for their right to speak their minds against me, but the same must apply to me. I don't want to shut up. Never, never. It's my country, too. I have every right to speak my mind. If I stopped singing because of them, they'd have won." Stirring stuff.
For all that, Geffen is the first to admit that his actual music - tuneful, if unadventurous, guitar-driven rock anthems - is caught in a time-warp. After all, his country's rock heritage thus far amounts to two Eurovision Song Contest victories in the 1970s. "From an English point of view, our music can seem very tacky," he concedes, "because we're stuck in the 1980s. Israel has been culturally isolated, and we have to take steps to catch up. I'm very hippy - 'peace and love, man.' I may seem like an idiot, but on the other hand it's refreshing. I'm a reaction against the cynicism of English music."
Continuing in this uncynical vein, Geffen passionately states that his songs "can change things. I'm doing now what Bob Dylan did in the 1960s - fighting for peaceful ends. Israel now is like the US was in the 1960s." Like his other hero, John Lennon, he asserts that "we've got to give peace a chance. It's a very short life. On any day, a Russian politician could drink too much vodka, press the nuclear button and everything would explode. You have to live for the day."
He may sound naive to jaded, media-savvy British ears, but Geffen undeniably appeals to a younger generation in Israel, sick to the back teeth of conflict. "Yitzhak Rabin gave me the baton of peace," he concludes, grandly. "Now I have to give it to the youth. Anyway, if I stopped, I'd disappoint my critics. They'd have no one to complain about. They'd be bored."
Aviv Geffen plays at the Borderline, London, WC2 (0171-734 2095) on 4 Aug
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