The battle over a cultural boycott of Israel involving two of the most seminal rock musicians of the last half-century continued in earnest last week. In one corner was Nick Cave — former vocalist of the Birthday Party and presently the frontman of the Bad Seeds. In the other, Brian Eno — a founding member of Roxy Music, whose extraordinary talents as a producer can be heard on records by David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads and Coldplay, among others.
Cave played two concerts in Tel Aviv in 2017, much to the chagrin of Eno and the handful of other artists who believe that quarantining Israeli audiences and shunning Israeli musicians will help bring about the liberation of Palestine. Cave made a resounding case about why the boycott of Israeli was morally wrong, probably anti-Semitic and of no tangible benefit to the Palestinians themselves, for whom he has raised money in the past.
And like the myriad other rock and pop musicians who have defied the boycott and played in Israel — like John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon, Morrissey, Justin Bieber, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga — Cave has never expressed regret at having performed there.
Eno, by contrast, was one of the first serious musical artists to endorse BDS, a position he has since maintained with a dogmatism utterly at odds with his approach to music. This observation was noted by Cave, who reopened the boycott debate by making public — in response to a fan’s request for clarification — a private email that he sent to Eno about Israel.
“Brian Eno, beyond any other musician, taught my friends and me how to make music,” Cave wrote in a footnote to that email. “The records he made remain some of the most important and essential recordings I have ever heard. So, if there seems to be a thread of anguish that runs through this letter, this is indeed the case. I am writing to my hero.”
I am not a musician, of course, but I think I know how Cave feels. I am a music lover, and during those years when I was devouring as much contemporary music as I could find — blues from the Mississippi Delta, roots and reggae from Jamaica, space-age electronic music from Germany, punk and new wave from England and the United States — Brian Eno occupied a very special place in my vinyl collection. What I loved about Eno’s music (and still do) was his ability to overlay otherworldly sonic dimensions onto music that otherwise would have sounded rather ordinary.
Eno also wrote some great rock ’n’ roll songs — “Third Uncle,” “Kings Lead Hat” — in the years after his departure from Roxy Music. He produced two of David Bowie’s greatest albums — “Low” and “Heroes” — as well as U2’s classic, “The Joshua Tree.” But he was equally confident and creative when turning his hand to classical music, as evidenced by his ethereal rendition of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major.
And then there was Eno’s own, singular creation, known as “ambient music” — compositions with little discernible melody that blended pre-recorded natural sounds with electronic drones, encouraging the listener to hear music as part of their overall sensory experience of the world, rather than as a song with a beginning, a middle and an end.
The BDS movement bullies musicians and artists into treating Israelis as the only human beings in the world who should be denied the opportunity to hear a piece of music, read a particular book or view a specific painting.
Perhaps the most insidious example of this behavior came in September 2016, when Eno refused permission to Israel’s Batsheva dance company to use his piece “Neroli” for one of its performances, writing to the troupe’s artistic director, “though in one way I’m flattered that you chose my music for your work, I’m afraid it creates a serious conflict for me.”
That “conflict” was, in fact, a petty objection to the Israeli embassy’s partial sponsorship of Batsheva’s performance. “Your dance company might not be able to formally distance itself from the Israeli government but I can and will,” continued Eno. “I don’t want my music to be licensed for any event sponsored by the Israeli embassy.”
In other words, Eno was saying “not in my name” — a slogan that makes its adoptees feel noble and courageous, but looks to most other people like gratuitous narcissism.
Still, the question remains: Why?
In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Eno drew an analogy between how a society develops and how music is made. “If you think of the classical picture of how things were organized in an orchestra — where you have the composer, conductor, leader of the orchestra, section principals, section sub principals, rank and file — the flow of information is always downwards, ” said Eno. “The guy at the bottom doesn’t get to talk to that guy at the top. Almost none of us now would think that hierarchic model of social organisation, the pyramid, is a good way to arrange things.”
Eno, then, prefers the horizontal to the vertical — the act of debating and collaborating, rather than simply receiving instructions from a man wielding a baton. Elsewhere in the same interview, he described his own role as helping “people communicate with each other in one way or another.” All well and good, but utterly incompatible with support for the BDS movement!
BDS, after all, is a pyramid, with its anti-Zionist program set by a handful of ideologues who transmit talking points to the activist base. And of all people, Brian Eno — an artist who has delighted in smashing conventions — has turned into a cultural policeman, ready to fire off an insulting missive to any fellow musician who dares to contemplate contact with Israelis.
Eno is not the only great artist to have crossed swords with the Jews. That list includes Chopin, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and other poets, painters and musicians whose output leaves you contemplating how such profound beauty can coexist with the crude, paranoid fantasies of the anti-Semite.
Eno, doubtless, would angrily deny that anti-Semitism has anything to do with his loathing of Israel, which is the standard response of the boycott movement. Yet from someone with his intellect, we are entitled to expect much more.
So, Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno, if you happen to read this, please know that any explanation you provide on this point will be read, considered and argued over avidly, especially by those of us who love your music. We may decry your views, but we’re not going to boycott you.