February 13th, 2001

Cuba, The Manics And Rock Music


Cuba, The Manics And Rock Music

(This piece, considered and balanced, appeared in NME in February 2001, when the Manics visited Cuba. I append it with a rather more satirical view I took in the funny pages a week later . . . )

So, Manic Street Preachers are to breach one of the last territories forbidden to rock’n’roll and play Cuba. Nicky Wire admits that it could be “a disaster – there might be no PA.” but states that the band are making this journey in a spirit of “adventure” and to defy the usual cliches of the rock comeback. Since the Cuban Missile Crisis concentrated the minds of the US folk-rock protest movement (Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan), Cuban has exerted a magentic pull on rock music – whether it be the ardent politics of The Clash, on ”Washington Bullets’ from Sandinista! Havana for the playboys in the Cuban sun/For Castro is a colour, redder than red/Those Washington Bullets want Castro dead.” or the more superficial vogue for Cuban heels or musical salsa trappings (very popular in the cocktail-swigging early Eighties), or the radical chic of bands ranging from Rage Against The Machine to The Go -Betweens, posing in front of images of the late revolutionary icon Che Guevara. However, The Manics have gone a step further than their radical forbears in actually setting foot on the much-idealised Communist Caribbean island and playing there.

The relationship between rock’n’roll and the impassioned iconography of the Cuban revolution, however, has always been ambivalent. One appeal of Cuba is that, despite its perilous proximity to America, despite the supposed end of the Cold War and collapse of its Soviet patrons, its “revolution” has held, as personified in its ageing but defiant leader Fidel Castro. Here was a man who bought a rickety 50 foot yacht, and, gathering together a handful of rebels, made the journey from Mexico to Cuba to raise a guerrilla revolt against that country’s odious President Batista.

In the Fifties, Cuba was a playground for the American decadent elite, a paradise of Salsa, sun, sea, Bacardi and betting, a high life for lowlives. It was a haven for the Mafia, a hangout for Frank Sinatra and his ratpack boys, a Cuba Libre immortalised in movies like Guys And Dolls and later, The Godfather II. Castro, however, routed the venal regime in 1959 and swiftly ejected such Capitalist stalwarts as the Bacardi family, nationalising American business concerns, erasing the carnival colours of the old regime to the drab uniform olive of the new.

The Americans were enraged but ineffectual. Ineptly advised by the CIA, President Kennedy launched a bungled counter-revolutionary offensive on the Bay Of Pigs in 1961 which was easily squashed by Castro. It was this failure which prompted Russian leader Kruschev to attempt to install nuclear missile bases in Cuba. The crisis which followed almost led to World War III, as Kruschev sent ships to Cuba containing arms supplies and Kennedy moved to blockade the island. After seven excruciatingly tense days, Kruschev finally blinked and called back his ships – catastrophe was averted but Castro was still in place.

Further plans to rout Castro included a preposterous one to slip him a poisoned cigar, though long-term trade embargoes have been the main weapon used against the country these past four decades. Nonetheless, Castro survives, still delivering long and windy raspberries to Uncle Sam from his perch across the 160 km of water that separate him from the States. To rock’s left-field, from The Clash to Rage Against The Machine, from Primal Scream to The Manics (whose single, ‘Masses Against The Classes’ featured the Cuban flag on its sleeve), America is the author of all global evil, the enemy of international socialism. Cuba’s continued defiance, coupled, ironically, with the leftover aroma of Latino decadence Castro hasn’t yet expunged, makes the country, in Nicky Wire’s words, “one of the last symbols that really fights against the Americanisation of the world.”

All well and good, all very Fuck You G.I. However, there are clear contradictions when trying to reconcile this ardent socialist ethos with rock’n’roll which is, after all, as Simon Frith put it, essentially about “fascination with America.” There is little or no contemporary rock from The Beatles onwards that doesn’t owe its origin to Motown, Elvis, Buddy Holly and rock dreamers still dream of America – The Primals themselves used the Confederate flag on a sleeve during their “Rocks Off” Period, U2 combine ten gallon hats and shades, even rabid Anglophiles Blur eventually submitted to a Seattle-style slacker sound. Castro instinctively knew that rock music is fundamentally as insidiously American as McDonalds, which is why he instigated a clampdown against rock music in revolutionary Cuba. The Beatles in particular were severely repressed, their music condemned as “ideological diversionism”. Anyone caught in possession of a Fab Four record could expect to receive at least a lump on the head in the Sixties.

To make a reality of the revolution, Castro felt it his joyless task to suppress the natural passion of his countrymen for music and hedonism. Even visitor Jean Paul Sartre, cerebral French leftie and Castro sympatico, couldn’t suppress a sigh of dismay that victory had been won at the expense of “gaiety” in the country. There would be little gaiety of any sort tolerated in Cuba. Castro’s loathing of homosexuals is lifelong and, in a 1980 incident which inspired the remake of Scarface, he banished homosexuals, alongside criminals and other deviant elements deemed out of kilter with the revolution, dispatching them by leaky boats to Miami.

While Western rock bands like The Clash longed for the Cuban idyll, professing themselves bored with the USA, one has to spare a thought for the poor fuckers actually forced to live out this experiment in makeshift socialism. Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, more and more young people became roqueros (rock fans), illicitly importing the trappings of punk, Goth, hippiedom, their sense of being misfits far more urgently felt than their Western brat counterparts. The culmination of this came in the Nineties, as documented by film maker Vladimir Ceballos, who tells the astounding, harrowing tale of rock fans deliberately injecting themselves with the HIV virus, rather than endure a long life in Castro’s regime. (In a further twist, they also wished to enjoy the relatively comfortable facilities enjoyed by HIV sufferers, a backhanded tribute to Cuba’s social planning).

And so, when Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream shook his maracas onstage during their Vanishing Point period (1997) and looked up longingly at a backdrop of Che Guevara, shouting “Sayonora!” in tribute, you can’t help thinking what his fate might have been if he’d been born in Havana. Chances are, he’d have been out on the first boat to Miami in 1980.

In fairness, most left-field rockers are not unaware of these contradictions. There are few toe-curling paeans to dear old Fidel in the rock canon. However, when it comes to Che Guevara, whom Fidel appointed Commandante of the Revolutionary Army, it’s a different matter. Whereas Castro is an Eric Clapton, long since fossilised, there merely to cultivate a grizzly beard, guilty of all manner of dubious career-serving atrocities, Guevara is the revolution’s Hendrix, a beautiful icon of youthful idealism, a forever frozen image of romantic tragedy, the dreamer of an impossible dream. Spectular failure of the sort Che eventually suffered, rather than the grey squalor of pragmatic “success” is far more rock’n’roll.

Argentinian born, Guevara enjoyed a wayward, Kerouac-style existence before joining up with Castro, travelling across South America by motorcycle. However, fired up by the revolution and infatuated with Fidel, he embodied the spirit of the revolution, suppressing his own ill-health, Bohemian proclivities and even natural human sympathies for the sake of the Cause. He could be unbelievably cold-hearted and had many men executed without fair trial. He was also driven by a dream of unity and egalitarianism. Castro knew he had a firebrand on his hands and, while he preferred such a comrade at arm’s length for domestic political purposes, was disinclined to do away with him, the way Stalin did with his former ideological comrade Trotsky, assassinated with an ice-pick in Mexico.

Guevara was dispatched on numerous international errands; he went to ostensibly Socialist states such as India, China and The Soviet Union and in each case was disillusioned by the gap between ideal and reality. However, such disillusion only inflamed his visions of world socialism. He travelled to the African Congo to aid the rebels there but was again disappointed by the tribal infighting he encountered.

By now, Guevera had selflessly abandoned a safe political career in the cause of international Socialist guerilla warfare. Sponsored by Castro, he led a final rebel expedition into the Bolivian jungle, but was defeated, betrayed by everyone from the local peasants to the CIA and, in 1967, executed by the Bolivian militar. “Victory or death”, had been Guevara’s rallying cry – yet it was in death that he attained his ultimate victory. An Italian publisher named Feltrinelli obtained a striking photo of Guevara in Havana from a young photographer, Korda, in which Guevara, long-haired, high-cheekboned, seems to stare longingly at some radical Utopia glowing beyond the foothills of guerilla combat. (Actually, he was probably just startled by the camera). Korda, poor lad, handed Feltrinelli the pic for free, since he was a “friend of the revolution”. Feltrinelli, who sensed Guevara’s posthumous potential as a symbol of struggle, had posters of the revolutionary drawn up, which, in that era of counter-cultural insurgence against Vietnam, racism, US imperialism, etc, became an instant best-seller (in six months it sold 2 million copies), a permanent fixture on every student wall and in rock iconography.

It was Phil Ochs, a folk contemporary of Bob Dylan’s, who first said that the ideal rock band should be a cross between Elvis Presley and Che Guevara and since his death, he has become a touchstone for rock’n’roll radicalism. Rage Against The Machine coupled their own logo with his image on their most famous t-shirt – they more than anyone have invoked his image, in their kamikaze, often clumsy and derided and ultimately, doomed and contradictory assault on US imperialism.

What Guevara would have made of his rock’n’roll status we shall never know. His iconic influence endures, however – Mick Jagger plans to executive-produce a biopic of the man, perhaps starring Antonio Banderas, exploring his relationship with an East German female agent in the Bolivian jungle. Meanwhile, Che’s image is used nowadays to sell everything from beer to Swiss Watches. (Everything but rock’n’roll is ‘the new rock’n’roll’ nowadays). As the Manics enter Cuba, however, some things have changed. There is some sanctioned rock music – a Cubarock festival now takes place, while Rage Against The Blockade were invited by the Union of Young Communists to bring over a sound system for the dance-starved youth. And recently, Castro himself endorsed a statue and park commemorating John Lennon of the once-despised Beatles, hailing him as a “true revolutionary”.

That said, they’re entering a country whose people are thoroughly pissed off, where doctors are forced to take jobs as cabbies to supplement their living, where the material comforts of the evil West that make life worth living are a short but tantalising distance away. They don’t give a shit about Guevara. They hate Castro. They want to have fun. And, if they weren’t in danger of being drowned by Castro’s coastguards, they’d be out of there. By all accounts, the Manics were greeted ecstatically, both by Castro himself and by the Cuban rock fans, many of whom were wearing heavy metal t-shirts, whom he for so long attempted to repress. A blast of guitars, some shouting in a foreign language, tributes to a local boxer and Baby Elian, everybody happy. But you have to wonder if everyone caught the full nuances and irony of the situation.

Do the Cuban youth really approve of The Manics’ somewhat misty-eyed reverence for Castro (“meeting him was the greatest honour of our lives”) and their unqualified view of the revolution, which is pleasing to their own, peculiarly austere aesthetic but less so to most rock tastes? Maybe they arrived at the right time, catching a relaxed, post-Elian mood of universal patriotism. Or maybe it’s churlish to point up these contradictions amid the general euphoria of the occasion. At least, like Che Guevera, the Manics entered jungles of potential uncertainty and had a go for that, at least, one, maybe two cheers.

MANICS MEET CASTRO – The Uncut Version

In exchange for three pairs of faded jeans and a set of Bazooka Joe cards, we managed to get its hands on unbroadcast segments of the meeting between Fidel Castro and Manic Street Preachers from the Cuban authorities.

(Scene: El Presidente’s Quarters)

SEAN (quietly, to JAMES): I’m starved, me. I couldn’t eat that breakfast. Looked like some old cigar ends covered in pasteurized milk, it did.

JAMES: I know. (Looks on table) Bloody hell, no biscuits.

NICKY: Shut up, you two! This is the greatest honour of our lives, this!

CASTRO (entering, with entourage): Ah! El Manico! You make boom boom music, yes! Ha ha! Ringo Starr! Aha!

NICKY: It’s an – honour to meet you, sir. Vive Les – er – workers. Che Guevara!

CASTRO: Ah! Yes! Very good. You are English student, yes?

NICKY (indignantly): English?? Student? But I hate . . I mean . . .

CASTRO: Yes, of course you are English student. El Che! Good! Ringo Starr! Haha!

NICKY: Haha . . . it is good to be in your country.

CASTRO: Is it? What you like best, eh, my gringo English student friend, the poverty, the food shortage, the non-existent plumbing, or zer collapsing infrastructure? Ha ha! You are funny guys! I bet you cannot wait to get back to your Piccadilly Circus with the flash lights, jiggling girls and boom-boom music, hot dog! Hahahaha!

NICKY: No! Not at all. The struggle continues!

CASTRO: Does it? Not for me it doesn’t. I won! And I have been sitting here for 42 years taking it easy smoking many big cigars and telling your Yankee friends to kiss my big rump and eat my farts! Of course, for the people it is different, it is how you say, shit! But too bad, that is revolucion. Good for Fidel! Many cigars!

SEAN (hissing to JAMES): You ask.

JAMES: No, you ask him!

SEAN: But you’re lead singer.

JAMES: All right: Er . . . Presidente? Mr Castrol? Er . . . we were wondering – do you have any . . . er – pies?


JAMES: No. Pies. Y’know. Grub. Food. Anything, really. See, we – er – missed breakfast and –

NICKY: James! Bloody hell!

CASTRO: What are these ‘pies’ you speak of?

SEAN: Oh, y’know – steak and kidney, pork, pasties, we’re not fussed.

CASTRO: Ah! Pies! Like your Desperate Dan and his Cow Pies! Hahaha!

JAMES: One of them’d go down a treat, like.

CASTRO: Excellent! (Claps hand) Dominguez! Have the men slaughter the regimental goat! There will be enough for many pies for our excellent English friends! Ringo Starr! Hahaha!

NICKY: Oh but really, Presidente, you shouldn’t . . . (glowers at JAMES)

CASTRO: And you, my tall friend, you have no request of Fidel?

NICKY: Eh? Oh. Well, er . . .actually, there was one thing.

CASTRO: Speak up, Englishman!

NICKY: Well, er – I was wondering – see, I’ve run a bit short of mascara. Left some on the hotel balcony and it melted. I was wondering if . . . maybe Mrs Castro’s got some going spare, she could see her way to . . .

CASTRO: MASCARA! MAKE-UP?? El Presidente thought El Manico were men – not women who cry of mascara! Out! Out of my sight each and all of you!

NICKY: But Mr Castro, I . . .


SEAN: Er – Mr Fidel – could you have the pies sent on to our hotel rooms? I’m in 303, James is in 304 and . . . . (exit MANICS at gunpoint) . . .

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