Since the late '80s, Shlomo Artzi has maintained his status as Israel's biggest rock star. Artzi, whose high-energy tours garner a large and loyal following, releases studio albums every five or six years, each reaching platinum within weeks. Artzi's summer live tours are synonymous with the historical Caesaria Amphitheater, an open-air Roman-era arena. In fact, "achieving Caesaria" has become, following Artzi, a merit of success for Israel's leading performers. Yet although Artzi and his electrifying concerts have obtained cult-like status, his latter-day material is far from being critically acclaimed: many reviewers balk at Artzi's MOR direction and mainstream following in light of his more adventurous past efforts. Artzi's career can be roughly divided in two: the early days, when he became an overnight sensation, then spent years searching for his musical path, and, from 1984 onward, his current position, as stadium rock king. His transformation is often credited to the artistic alliance with record producer Louis Lahav. Lahav spent time in the U.S., serving as recording technician in Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run sessions. After returning, he taught Artzi the basics of rock & roll, picked up from the Boss himself.
Artzi was born in 1949 in a kibbutz, and grew up in Tel Aviv. His father, Yitzhak, a future parliament member, survived the holocaust in the Zionist underground in Romania. Artzi has been known to address "second generation" issues in his later songs, especially "In Germany Before the War" and "Like a Large Yard." In his military service, Artzi joined the navy band, which, like other military bands in the '60s, achieved success beyond military circles, with high-charting singles and albums. Artzi soon became the band's star. In 1970, while still a soldier, Artzi participated in the prestigious Israel Song Festival, with the ballad "Pitom Ahshav, Pitom Hayom" (Suddenly Now, Suddenly Today). Artzi, dapper in his white navy uniform, came in first in the competition and became the national sweetheart, voted "Singer of the Year" by listeners of the Voice of Israel radio network. That same year he released his debut album, including liner notes by his father and a rendition of A.A. Milne's "Vespers." Most of the songs were written by professional songwriters. Yet for his second album, Artzi elected to write his own material. His next few albums incorporated both original material and texts by renowned Israeli poets, which Artzi set to music. By 1973, in an attempt to break internationally, Artzi recorded the song "White Bird" and wrote music to Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee." Two years later, he represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest with "At Va'ani" (You and I). In preparation, he recorded a German version of the song, released as a single on Decca Records, yet the song came in at 11, and thwarted the expansion abroad.
The following period could be seen as musical soul-searching: in coming years, Artzi released a children's album (Yan the Dwarf) followed by a genre-defying album, the oddly titled I Have a Wife, a Child and a Lambretta and I Live in Tel Aviv, mixing disco, bossa nova, and prog rock. Then came a surprising turn to Sephardic history with "Romansa u Piyuta" (Romanca and Poesy), a collection of traditional songs translated from the Judeo-Spanish language Ladino. In 1978, the former pop idol seemed at a loss as to where to take his creation. Yet the aptly titled "Gever Holech Leibud" (He Lost His Way) was actually one of his most cohesive albums, balancing gently between ballads with a local flavor and rock-tinged hits. In a promotional interview for Israeli television, Artzi candidly admitted of his old material: "There are many songs I wrote that I abhor...the biggest problem is that they remain on records. And people play them. You can't call them up and demand they won't play them." Encouraged by the warm reception of "Gever Holech Leibud," Artzi followed up the same path with two more well-crafted albums. He created a soft rock triumvirate that invoked dusty roads and late-night meandering. The album Drachim (Ways), released in 1979, included the hit song "Shinuyei Mezeg Ha'avir" (Changes in the Weather), heavily inspired by Jean-Luc Ponty's "Mirage"; and "Ani Shomea Shuv" (I Listen Again), a song based on a soldier's letter, sent before dying in battle. The third installment, Hatzot (Midnight), released in 1981, included the gorgeous "Lo Ozev Et Ha" (Not Leaving Town) and "Mahen Hamilim" (What Are the Words).
After cultivating his own craft, Artzi elected to return to singing poets' songs in Makom (A Place). The album was released in September 1982, three months into Israel's war with Lebanon. When Artzi met Louis Lahav in 1982, the producer had already worked with many Israeli stars, trying to instill in them the rock sensibilities he acquired abroad, working behind the scenes with Springsteen and Lou Reed. Artzi and Lahav spent two years working on the album Tirkod (Dance), which was already scrapped once by a dissatisfied Artzi. In its second version, the raw, inter-personal lyrics ("You're my wife, most of the time"; "Her eyes were not harder than usual, neither were her breasts") were coated with synthesizers and walls of sound. This was done, according to Artzi, "to create a contrast to the lyrics, because a bit more and we would reach schmaltz." Tirkod would prove Artzi's turning point. Lahav, credited as musical and artistic director, taught Artzi rock phrasing, raspy singing, and, above all, music production. In fact, the album made history with its unprecedented budget: $40,000. But that paid off, as it quickly achieved platinum status. The pairing with Lahav would continue to prove itself with two other albums: Laila Lo Shaket (Unquiet Night) and the double Chom Yuli-August (July-August Heat), which sold 160,000 copies (quadruple platinum).
By this time Artzi's status as a bona fide performance star began to set in. The next Lahav-Artzi creation, Kartis la Luna Park (Ticket to the Amusement Park) didn't fare as well, and in 1992 Artzi made another stab at international success, writing music to a Bridget Fonda film, the disregarded Leather Jackets. Fortunately, Artzi returned to Israel to reach mega success: his album Yareach (Moon) sold over 200,000 copies, this time without Lahav's direction. Four years later came Shnayim (Two), another successful double album. In 1999 Artzi released an album of remakes to his old creations, Ahavtihem (I Have Loved Them), including versions of songs written for others, and a Hebrew rendition of the White Plains' hit "When You Are a King." The album reached gold before its release. Eventually, it would sell 220,000, becoming the decade's biggest-selling album. In 2002, Artzi released Tzima'on (Thirst), an album four years in the making. The album, and subsequent tour, were inevitable hits. In 2005, an unlikely duo was formed: Artzi and fellow rock star Shalom Hanoch announced they would join forces for a summer tour. Although Hanoch is Artzi's contemporary, the separate paths they took in their careers caused many to raise an eyebrow at the pairing. But the tour was a success, with 100,000 viewers. In 2007, Artzi released Shfuim (Sane), again reaching double platinum within days. The album was preceded by the singles "Ha'amiti" (The Real) and "Iceland." Production duties of the album were divided between eight people, including Louis Lahav and Artzi's son Ben. ~ Ayelet Yagil