Farewell concert for blues artist Mark Rashkow

Mark Rashkow (photo credit: SHARON SHAPIRA)
Mark Rashkow
(photo credit: SHARON SHAPIRA)
Sometimes we tend to think of Israel as the very epicenter of global interest. After all, doesn’t “the whole world” constantly follow developments in our neck of the geopolitical woods, never missing a beat as Trump or Bibi or Abbas says this or that, or some violence breaks out somewhere around here? Personally, as someone who endeavors to abstain from following news coverage of that nature, I think of this little country more in relation to its diminutive corporeal spread, and to its location far away from the wealthier environs of the “real” Western world.

But, once in a while, we come across a bona fide world beater in our midst. We are talking about the real McCoy here, not a figment of some over-stimulated media professional’s furtive imagination. The gent in question is Mark Rashkow. If the name does not immediately set some bells apealin’ perhaps mention of the likes of Michael Jackson, blues icon Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles might do the business.

All of the above, and quite a few other American rock, pop and blues A-listers, have benefited from the support of the emotive instrumental and vocal output of Chicago-born Rashkow, who says he is “close to 70.” For the past 17 years, since his return to these shores, he has been doing his bit to up the bluesy ante up and down the country, proffering quality heartfelt musical fare to blues-loving audiences.

On February 26 (9 p.m.), Rashkow will take his leave of the local entertainment sector when he plays a farewell concert at Tel Aviv’s Terminal 4 music venue. The valedictory turn has been prompted by failing health, as Rashkow looks to drop down a gear and take care of some ongoing cardiological issues. “I don’t want to push anything,” he notes. “I just want to live as long as I can and be happy.”

Not that the bass player-guitarist-vocalist is looking to check out anytime soon, but he says he has plenty to look back on with a broad smile. “I’ve been there and done that already. I have been blessed. I don’t know too many people during my lifetime, who have been blessed to do the things they wanted to do, in a way they wanted to do, without anybody changing it. I did it my way.”

Rashkow will certainly step aside from the spotlight “in his own way,” and in the best of company. The roll call for the show features a veritable Who’s Who of the Israeli rock, pop and blues community, taking in blues-leaning stalwart Dani Litani, guitar wizard Avi
Singolda, American-born blues singer and harmonica player Dov Hammer and veteran pop artist Hanan Yovel. Peerless rock-pop radio show presenter, and sometime percussionist, Yoav Kutner will also be on hand to underscore the beat, and probably to expound on Rashkow’s invaluable part in enhancing the local blues scene over the years.

When Rashkow says he has “been there and done that,” that’s not the stuff of bravado. The man has really managed a few things in his time thus far. He also comes from right side of the blues tracks, growing up on the rough and ready South Side of Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s. Then again, he talks about coming from the only Jewish family in the neighborhood, so one wouldn’t have expected him to find his way to the very core of the Chicago-based blues community.

But Lady Luck intervened just at the right time. And he didn’t exactly start in the Junior League either. “My first professional was when I was 14 years old, when I played bass for Buddy Miles,” he exclaims. That is nothing short of miraculous, especially considering that, at his own admission, he wasn’t quite a wunderkind. “I wasn’t a great player,” he recalls. “There’s a lot of truth and a lot of myth about Mark Rashkow,” he chuckles. “The truth is I was a little tiny, 5’3” white kid – that’s how tall I was when I was 14. I didn’t grow until I was 18. When I went into the Israeli army I was about 5’6” or 5’7”. So, we’re still not talking basketball dimensions here. “I’m probably about 5’9” now.”

But, it seems, height challenges were not an issue for the bassist, especially when Miles lost his bass player. “I think he broke a finger, and somebody said to Buddy, there’s a guy that lives on the South Side of Chicago whose nickname is Last Minute Mark. I heard this from Buddy later. That person told him he’s not going to get a bass player to come out and play on a Friday night, and he should get a hold of this 14-year-old-kid.”

Out of desperation Miles promptly called the Rashkow household and was countered by a tough-talking, protective Mrs. Rashkow, who was not about to let her adolescent offspring go out on some jaunt, with someone he she didn’t know, without getting some pretty strong assurances and decent collateral. “He called up my house and my mother answered the phone,” Rashkow recalls.
“This is 1965. This is Chicago and a black man calling my house. He says let me talk to Mark, and he tells her he wants me to play with him that night.” Mrs. Rashkow was clearly not born yesterday. “She asks him how much and Buddy tells her he’ll pay me 50 bucks. That was a lot of money in 1965. But she says, ‘nah I don’t think so.’ She gets him up to 100 bucks! That was a lot of money back then.”

In the end it all worked out. Rashkow got the gig, playing with an acclaimed blues drummer just one year after picking up a bass guitar, and having played in a band with a bunch of friends in what he calls “a wedding-bar mitzvah band.” Miles sent his latest LP round to the Rashkow home by taxi, so the kid could learn the numbers ahead of the show, and another cab took him to the venue and back home again. Not bad doing for a young lad who says he didn’t even know who Miles was at the time.

He must have done a decent job, and the word quickly got out that there was a skillful young bass player around. “It was cool playing the gig, and I didn’t realize who I was playing with. But after that I became really hot property. Everybody wanted to play with me.” That included some of the giants of the blues fraternity. “There was Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. And Buddy took me to
Chess Records and I met the owners, Leonard and Phil Chess, who were Jewish by the way.” That was one of the top blues labels around at the time, and the encounter helped to cement the teenager’s position in the upper echelons of the sector. “Who was the manager of Chess at the time? Muddy Waters! The reason why Phil and his brother hired Muddy as their manager was because he knew all the blues players, so he could bring them all to record there. And he was smart. That was it for me. I started to play with everybody.”

Rashkow attracted attention for all sorts of reasons. “I was a novelty for them,” he chuckles. “Here was this 5’4” white Jewish kid, and I could kick ass! The next thing I knew I was playing at the High Chaparral [in Chicago], and I played with Michael Jackson and lots of other stuff. The reality of it is that it was all because of Muddy Waters.”

The youngster may have been making musical hay while the sun shined, but he was also getting himself into trouble. He says his domestic backdrop was not too healthy and he began to let off steam on the wrong side of the social tracks. That ended abruptly, when an older sibling – Rashkow was the youngest of five – suggested he go over to Israel for a while. The young bluesman was not exactly a fervent Zionist at the time, but the brother’s suggestion that the Promised Land was teaming with beautiful women just waiting for a bass-playing young man from Chicago proved to be too much for Rashkow and he soon found himself working and studying in an ulpan at Kibbutz Hazorea on the western rim of the Jezreel Valley.

It didn’t take him too long to lose his heart either. Two weeks into his stay on the kibbutz he met 16-year-old Rina. Rashkow was 19 at the time, and the two quickly became a couple, living together for more than three years. But things became a little sticky for the
Chicagoan after Rina joined the army and, broken hearted, he upped stakes and returned to the Windy City.

Fast forward 30 or so years, both are parents to several offspring and stuck in unhappy marriages. In fact, while Rashkow had separated from his wife, Rina was still living in the same house as her husband, but as Rashkow puts it, “they were separated inside.” The two yesteryear lovers reunited and were duly wed a year or so later. “The rest is history,” says Rashkow.

He eventually got back to his bluesy ways here with a little help from top rock and popular culture magazine Rolling Stone. “I didn’t play the first year I was back,” Rashkow explains. “Rolling Stone found out I was here and contacted Eli Zak to ask if he knew where I was.” Zak, founder and owner of the Shablul music club in Tel Aviv, didn’t know Rashkow but soon tracked him down. A regular gig at Shablul ensued, in addition to other forays around the country. Kutner got wind that Rashkow was back in town and began
spreading the word via his radio show.

Rashkow says he has been in numerous scraps, and even faced death on several occasions, and says it is time he bowed from live performances. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re 40 or 140. When it’s your time you have to go. This is my time. I didn’t compromise with anybody. I said f*** you when it wasn’t right. It’s all been good.”

Rashkow is clearly not only appreciated by blues fans, but also by his fellow professionals. It’s unbelievable that everyone has agreed to play at the gig for free,” he says. The idea is that the proceeds will help to send Rashkow to Chicago so, as he puts it, “I can go to the University of Chicago and get my heart checked out by a real pro. The University of Chicago is one of the first places where they did open-heart surgery.”

The bluesman says he is touched by the generosity of the other blues cats. “My mam taught me something when I was very young, that I always remembered. She said there are people who have their hands out to give and there are people who have their hands out to take. Be a giver. It’s very simple. That’s my way.”

For tickets and more information: (054) 477-1774 and http://www.terminal-4.co.il/en/