What You Need


I finally saw the two documentaries that feature The Rolling Stones in Havana. One bears the unfortunate title of Olé Olé Olé!, which might be a soccer chant but also suggests Latin America is a land of toreadors, true for Mexico and Colombia but certainly not for Cuba. In fact, the film is all about the buildup to Havana while the Stones, or los Rolling, as they're called in Spanish, tour other Latin countries. It's beautifully filmed and it had the collateral effect of showing ruined Havana has its own weird esthetics. 

The second one, Havana Moon, is the Cuban concert. Trouble is that's almost two hours of the geezers -- my age -- doing their golden oldies, which, frankly, sound better in their original recordings. Though some numbers included minor Latin percussion, I felt there was a missed opportunity to enrich "Sympathy of the Devil" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" with some Cubans on the drums that ramp up the beat in the originals and go so well with Jagger's trademark strut.

Be that as it may, I think the concert was important. The audience was more than massive and more than one generation lost in space, from the Stones-age geezers who'd been waiting a lifetime to see this before they died to youngsters worshipping at the altar of rock while its high priests -- cardinals by now -- officiated. 

Three newsworthy Cuban events happened within a relatively short space of time, short in relation to the longevity of the Revolution. Obama's visit, the Stones concert, Fidel's death. There are solid arguments for their irrelevance. Obama was an outgoing US President, his legacy now trampled; few people actually saw him; a wave of repression followed his visit. The Stones came and went, and even if I like it, it's only rock and roll. By the time Fidel died he was practically embalmed, having survived practically all his enemies, never mind all the premature rumors that chronically roiled Miami.

But is that the whole story? I don't think so.

Culture does not move on the same track as politics, even if they sometimes come very close or even intersect -- and crash. Its effect is on the psyche. What does it do to Cubans who saw Obama, live to a few but on media to the others, to catch an American president who's, like, cool. And then compare this leader of the enemy to the north with their own once hip but now ridiculously outdated gerontocracy. Those who have met Fidel back when he was still vital say he had charisma. Even in his advanced old age he remained a touchstone. No one has ever accused Raul Castro of either. Young, agile both physically and intellectually, sassy in his walk, gentlemanly in his demeanor, the mulatto leader of the free world, Obama was the quintessence of what Cubans admire. He would not be out of place dancing in the comparsas in tails and top hat with Los Dandys. What did it do to my fellow Cubans in the island to experience this cool cat? How might it influence which way the wind blows?

Let me jump to Fidel. A touchstone, yes, but he's gone. Nothing to touch. And a lot of bad memories. Even though nothing changed with his death, it felt as a turn of the calendar pages. An era ended. Whatever the Revolution was is now over, held together by structures but not by myth. A myth -- if there ever was one -- is Che Guevara. His death in revolutionary action enshrined the myth. Sure, he has a lot to answer for, but there's no longer anyone there to answer. Myths don't need to answer. Fidel didn't answer for anything either, but his was not a heroic death; instead, he crumbled in plain sight. Che will always be Korda's photo. Fidel will always be a decrepit old man who abdicated and died. And that, dear friends, is not the stuff of myth.

And then los Rolling. It was the concert, yes, with all the trimmings of arena rock, con todos los hierros. But it was the crowd. Cuba is not a happy place. Blame whomever your ideology tells you to, but Cubans have plenty to be unhappy about. This malaise I noticed on my first visit back. Everyone seemed like they were having a bad day, though it's become more like a bad lifetime. And now here was a humongous crowd of Cubans in a state of happiness, practically ecstatic. If those wrinkled old artists who just do the same numbers over and over again -- giving the lie to the young Mick Jagger's assertion that he never wanted to become that -- had a perfect audience it was the Cubans, hungry for generations -- literally hungry too -- for their live performance.

And the takeaway? ¿Quién sabe? The Cubans had a taste of what's commonplace outside their island: the ecstasy of rock and roll. And if there's one thing we love, just love, it's ecstasy. We practice African-based religions where an altered state is commonplace during rituals -- being possessed, "mounted" in religious parlance, by the orishas, the African deities popularly known as saints. And we love to get high. Perversely, I've always told exiles that the first thing coming to a post-Revolution Cuba is drugs. Not that there aren't any now. But just you wait.

Will this experience with the College of Cardinals of rock have a lasting influence? When the Berlin Wall fell and Soviet Communism ended, many observers commented that rock and roll had as much of a hand as anything else. An esthetics, an ethos, coming from the US originally, that had traversed the world and had its roots in the African-American experience. Instead of dialectical materialism, funk. Instead of the dictatorship of the proletariat, love. Instead of militarization, peace.

Yes, yes, so much of it floundered and continues to do so. No matter. I'm not here to prescribe. I'm here to observe. Maybe what's coming to Cuba is unmitigated disaster. It's possible. Or simply no change. That I don't believe. The wheels of history roll on and regardless of where they're headed, they gather no moss.