Tel Aviv, 1993, me, and the Afghan Whigs
I moved to Israel in the summer of 1988. The specific reasons why are complicated and irrelevant now, mostly; I was young and wanted an adventure. I thought it would all work out okay, and it did. Miraculously, despite only knowing how to say “orange juice” in Hebrew, I got a job within two weeks after arriving. The ad in the Jerusalem Post said “Wanted: Young person with good English and interest in popular music.” The job was Label Manager of Warner/Elektra/Atlantic (which included Geffen & MCA at the time), and since I had been stumbling around the music business before I moved to the Middle East, and had good English, I got the job.
In Israel, being the label manager meant weeding through the international roster and figuring out what would sell in my territory and what wouldn’t, which then translated into what we manufactured locally (which meant the price was lower) as opposed to what we imported from Europe. Sometimes a “release” was importing 50 albums from Germany, and seeing if anyone cared. It is a small market: a gold record is 20,000 albums, and that was very, very hard to achieve. (There is also no concept of a singles market; instead, compilation albums still sold briskly.) One of the first things I was told when I started my job was that there were two types of music that weren’t popular in Israel: “Black music” and heavy metal, and that I needed to avoid those. But the advent of MTV and changing musical tastes everywhere also meant Israel, and Prince and Tracy Chapman sold well like they did everywhere. But an Atlantic box set tanked while the soundtrack to The Commitments sold like hotcakes, so there was some truth to it (some, but not much).
I wanted to sell records, so I mostly tried to take the advice of people who had lived there for years, but the indie-loving music fan in me followed my heart and my gut. I also went out a lot, helping my friend Liron (who’s in the picture above) DJ at the main rock club in Tel Aviv (which was called Roxanne, after the Police song – I still can’t listen to it), so I saw what kids were actually responding to and asking for, things like Jane’s Addiction and Guns ‘n’ Roses and Pearl Jam. We weren’t selling tens of thousands of those records yet, but I knew there was an audience for things that sounded different. (Then again, Nick Cave was enormously popular in Israel, as were many of the 4AD bands, for example.) There were smaller breaks I was also proud of, just getting a foothold for some artists, getting one or two people to champion an artist everyone told me wouldn’t sell felt like an enormous success sometimes. And I remain enormously proud of the fact that we sold enough R.E.M. records to rate them coming over for a promo tour during Out of Time.
I got Mojo and the NME and Melody Maker couried over every week, and had video tapes from the States coming in, and kept up with things better than you would think in the days where there was no internet. My friends would send me mix tapes and important records, and I would beg the Warner people I talked with (okay, sent faxes and telexes to) to get me records that were on other labels, and they would occasionally be able to help me out. You would get on a plane when you absolutely had to see a band, you would figure out how to do it despite how crazy expensive it was and how little money you actually made. This meant I never got to see Nirvana, had to miss Pearl Jam opening for U2 in Rome, but did see the Stone Roses in Paris and U2 at Wembley during Zooropa. You had friends who were music crazy, as music crazy as any of my friends in London or New York or Chicago. And every time a friend went abroad, you gave them dollars that you bought on the black market from the candy store on Ben Yehuda St. and a list of records or t-shirts you wanted them to buy. Sometimes it was as simple as, “Just get me something cool.”
Just get me something cool. This is what I told my friends, the two brothers who were going to LA and then Seattle in 1992, on their way to check out grunge. They came back home with a Space Needle t-shirt, a Soundgarden bumper sticker, and a copy of Congregation by the Afghan Whigs, who I wasn’t that familiar with at the time. When I asked why they bought me that particular item, they said, “The cover looked interesting, there are a lot of guitars, we thought you would like it.”
I liked it. I liked it a lot. I made one of those two-sided tapes so I could run on the beach with it. The Whigs became that band that I liked that no one else really knew about.
In 1993, I was sitting in my office, opening the mail from abroad, stacking advance cassettes and going through label copy, when a cassette caught my eye: AFGHAN WHIGS. GENTLEMEN. I put it front and center, excited to hear it, happy to recognize something.
I opened the door to the cassette player and slid the tape in. I closed my office door. I hit play.
I remember almost everything about that moment. I remember what I was wearing, I remember the light streaming in through the blinds. I remember the guitars and Dulli’s voice and the whirling dervish of energy. It was the same band I already loved, only more so.
Two songs later my phone rang. It was one of our PR people, who sat right outside my office.
“What is that incredible thing you are listening to?”
I opened the door.
“It’s the Afghan Whigs, and we’re releasing this,” I said. I didn’t even need to hear the rest of it.
I had to fight hard to justify releasing the record. My manager disagreed (he disagreed with just about everything I released, including the records that would later be huge sellers). He made a case in the weekly meeting that this wasn’t the kind of music that was popular here, that only a handful of DJ’s and music writers would care about the record. I asked him how on earth we would ever break anything if we waited for it to become popular. (This was an argument we had a lot.)
But we released Gentlemen, and it got enough attention from the right people to keep me out of hot water. We would play “Gentleman” at Roxane at night and the kids who sing along to it just like “Been Caught Stealing” and “Paradise City” and “Evenflow”. It helped that everyone on staff, including our PR people and the guys who worked in the warehouse, loved the record. It was one of those small successes that made me smile.
I moved back to the U.S. in December of 1993. One of the first shows I saw in New York was the Afghan Whigs at the old Academy in Times Square, on April 8, 1994. It was everything I expected it would be, and this almost never happens. I know I said that about Bruce Springsteen and the Clash and the Ramones, but I hadn’t said it for a very long time. It was the beginning of a very beautiful friendship.
So this week, when the Whigs are heading to Israel, I feel a particular kind of pride and happiness, that I helped kickstart a connection. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but at least I helped open the door.