The Grateful Dead Find a Home in Hebrew
“Tell the folks back home, this is the promised land calling, and the poor boy is on the line”
— Chuck Berry (“The Promised Land”, a song covered frequently by the Grateful Dead)
I got into the Grateful Dead in Israel, listening to concert bootleg cassettes given to me by a generous friend for long bus rides on our high school summer trip, and, a year later, on our gap year. They were my main soundtrack throughout college, in New York, while I plotted how to get back to Israel on aliyah. I was in Jerusalem when Jerry Garcia died in 1995, and knew to stumble in my grief over to the Mr. T t-shirt store, a gathering place for American Deadheads in Israel. Almost twenty years later, as I was announcing my plan to return to Chicago, the living members of the Grateful Dead announced a farewell trio of blowout shows in Chicago this coming July. The Dead have been very wrapped up in my Israel. The community of Deadheads in Israel is pretty small, though, almost entirely American ex-pats, adept at finding each other but lonely and perplexed why no one knows this precious band.
For this reason, the release of a new album of sixteen Hebrew adaptations of Grateful Dead songs is the source of extra enthusiasm for me. That project is Sagol 59 and Ami Yares’s The Promised Land, a fascinating, faithful, and very enjoyable love letter in honor of the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary.
To some, who know Sagol 59 (real name Khen Rotem) from his five rap albums, staples in the Israeli hip-hop canon, this project is as hard to imagine as, say, KRS-One covering The Weavers. However, Sagol 59’s (named for his laundry tag on Kibbbutz Ein Horesh) musical roots are in blues and rock, which he represented admirably on his 2011 album, Another Passenger (עוד נוסע אחד), and his prodigious mastery of all genres of music from the rock and roll era and beyond is apparent from his columns in Israeli media. Covering the Grateful Dead is no lark for this MC.
Ami Yares’s path to this album is clearer: a New Jersey-raised folk and rock singer and guitarist who made aliyah about eight years ago, Yares has had the Grateful Dead at the heart of his musical landscape for a long time. The Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-based band HOLLER!, which he fronted from 2007-12, focused on American Roots music, some bluegrass, some rhythm and blues — the building blocks of the Grateful Dead’s legacy, and covers of Dead songs such as “I Know You Rider”, “Bertha”, “Friend of the Devil” (all included on The Promised Land) and “Mississippi Halfstep Uptown Toodaloo” were staples of their energetic live shows.
A project of this sort threatens high kitsch risk. Sagol and Yares overcome this obstacle with great success: the album, which received the blessing of the official Grateful Dead establishment, reflects not only strong musical craftsmanship, but a real understanding of, respect for, and relationship with the songs. The musical performances are faithful renderings and familiar arrangements, but also loose and comfortable, not mimicking. The artists’ comfort with the material is clear, with a confidence earned through experience. “Bertha” and “New Speedway Boogie” are highlights, along with gorgeous renditions of “Friend of the Devil” and “Loser”, which features an especially poignant guitar solo. The organ on “New Minglewood Blues”, “Cold Rain and Snow” and “Mission in the Rain” is a real treat. Sagol and Yares clearly found synergy in working with each other, which they extended to their musicians. (I derive special pleasure from this because I’m fairly sure that Sagol and Yares met and experienced each other’s music for the first time at an open mic party I hosted in Jerusalem several years ago.)
The greatest success of the album, though, is the lyrics, on which Sagol 59 labored for two years. His rap credentials shine through here; he is known as an “MC’s MC”, whose main strength is his intelligent and creative lyrics. He made excellent song choices, wisely bypassing some of the Dead’s most beloved, but abstract songs, that would defy translation. No “Dark Star” or “Fire in the Mountain”. Moreover, in the sixteen songs he did select, he shows deep comprehension not only of the thematic content of the songs, but also to the sonic experience of listening to them. Having listened to these songs hundreds of times, he knows that part of the recognizability of, say, “Bertha”, is the elongated “oo” vowel in “I had to moooooove…really had to mooooove”. He retains that in the translation, “hayav la-zooooooooz…”. In that same song, he hears the punch of the hard “O” sound that punctuates the end of “Bertha don’t you come around here — anymo’”, which he retains with “yoter le-poh”. It is the mark of a virtuoso MC to know that “anymore” actually rhymes with “-ter le poh” to the human ear. Even more creative, in the chorus of “Sugaree”, he brilliantly sees past the literal meaning of “Shake it, shake it Sugaree” to retain the sonic experience, when he sings, “Sheket, sheket, metukati” (“Keep quiet, keep quiet, sweetie”). He retains the tambourine-like “sheket” vocal inflection while rendering the large sensibility of the singer’s message (“Just don’t tell her you know me.”)
This deep fealty to the sensibility of the songs, and not to the literal vessels in which the Dead expressed them, is the most revelatory feature of The Promised Land. In a number of places, Sagol’s Hebrew seems more subtle, more interesting, even more original than the English source. “New Speedway Boogie” is a strong example of that. One of the most noticeable expressions of the sensibility to the feel of the songs is that rather than sing anachronistically in Hebrew about West Texas cowboys, San Francisco’s Mission district, and characters named Bertha and Tennessee Jed, the songs are adapted to the Israeli places and names that best evoke the feeling of the originals in an Israeli context. Bertha becomes Netta. Sweet Anne Marie (“Friend of the Devil”) becomes Chanaleh. The San Francisco Mission (“Mission in the Rain”) becomes Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood (“Nahlaot baGeshem HaShotef”). The American Southwest is restaged in Israel’s Negev: West Texas cowboys (“Me and My Uncle”) are “three fellas from Ofakim” (shlosha chevreh me-Ofakim”), and instead of the singer and his uncle stopping over in Santa Fe, they now do so in Mitzpe Ramon. Similarly, in “Friend of the Devil”, the line “Got a wife in Chino and one in Cherokee” translates those two, small California towns to Ramle and Nahalal. And so on. This choice offers good hope that this album will gain some traction in introducing the Grateful Dead to a wider Israeli audience.
One subtle but poignant adaptation especially highlighted for me Sagol’s sensitivity to the feeling of the song. In “Mission in the Rain”, the wistful narrator recalls:“Ten years ago I walked this street; my dreams were riding tall. Tonight I would be thankful Lord, for any dreams at all”. The Hebrew renders this “lifnei esrim shanah” — twenty years ago. In 2015 Israel, a reference to a lost moment of hopeful dreaming could not be placed ten years ago, when Jerusalemites were reeling from the terror of the 2nd Intifada — the Jewish residents their terror, Palestinian residents their terror. Twenty years ago, however, the Oslo process was going ahead full steam, Prime Minister Rabin had not yet been assassinated, and Jerusalemites had lots of dreams. That reference to the Oslo days elegantly captures and translates the feeling of the Dead’s 1976, song, longingly looking back at the youthful hope and peace of 1966, before hippiedom met its darkest confrontations and excesses.
The album is not flawless. To put it frankly, Sagol’s vocals aren’t great. He struggles to hit high notes, even dropping an octave for the high parts in “I Know You Rider” and “Loser”, blunting the emotional punch and leaving me to wonder why they didn’t just arrange the songs in a different key. Granted, Jerry Garcia’s voice wasn’t great either, but it was so emotionally expressive and raw that its technical shortcomings were redeemed into virtues. The same can’t be said for Sagol’s singing in this album. Another thing that elevated Garcia’s voice was the band’s rich use of harmonies and backup vocals. The Promised Land effectively employs background vocals on “Bertha”, “Friend of the Devil” and “Deal”, but it is far too little. Sagol is vocally at his strongest with the sexual bravado of New Minglewood Blues, the post-love melancholy of “Cold Rain and Snow” and the tender ode to song, “Black Muddy River”, but it is a mystery to me why Yares, who carried much of the vocal burden in HOLLER! and, of course, in his solo work, wasn’t called on more to join Sagol.
This weakness is not damning of the project; it just makes it feel sometimes like the recording was rushed and carried out on a shoestring budget, which, to be fair, it was. The artists completely funded it themselves, hoping that after the fact, sales would replenish their losses. The musicianship is tight, because the musicians know these songs and have been playing them for years; the lyrics are brilliant, because Sagol has been working on them for a long time. The vocal arrangements, too, promise to strengthen if sales are strong enough to enable them to carry the project on tour and get more comfortable with the performances of the songs. For Deadheads, the live performance is the heart of the matter, anyway.
Casual rock listeners will find what to like, but may find The Promised Land dispensable. However, for Deadheads who know Hebrew or even just like Hebrew; for Israeli folk music fans unfamiliar with the Grateful Dead; for Hebrew educators looking for smart, elegant, cultural vessels for teaching Hebrew, The Promised Land is a precious gift, which I highly recommend. The album was released independently and all earnings from its modest $7 price go directly and totally to the artists. The digital album download comes with a PDF download of the lyrics.