Our Man In Havana - When Manic Street Preachers performed for Fidel Castro

Stuart Clark hopped a plane to Havana in February 2001 to see the Manic Street Preachers perform in front of Fidel Castro. Along with Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield, he recalls what was going down at the time in Cuba.

I’ve seen some surreal rock ‘n’ roll sights in my time, but none that even remotely compare to Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and Cuba’s Minister For Culture duding their way into Manic Street Preachers’ Karl Marx Theatre gig. Looking like a cross between ZZ Top and Sandinista-era Clash,the duo duly shook combat fatigued legs to ‘Baby Elian’, ‘Let Robeson Sing’, ‘Freedom Of Speech Won’t Feed My Children’ and the other leftist-leaning tracks from the Manics’ then soon-to-be-released Know Your Enemy album.

With over a hundred ladies and gentlemen of the world press there, it was a major PR coup but not one that the Welsh trio had particularly planned.

“I tell you exactly what happened – a friend of ours was going through Know Your Enemy and pointed out that there were three or four references to Cuba,” James Dean Bradfield had told me beforehand. “Nobody believes me when I say this, but we honestly hadn’t made the connection ourselves. As a reflex, I said ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could play in Havana’, and thusly a great idea was born! I didn’t think our manager would seriously pursue it, but a couple of weeks later he came back to us and said, ‘It’ll be complicated but we can pull it off.’

“There’s no grand gesture. We just wanted to do something different for our sixth album that didn’t involve The Met Bar!”

At this stage, I ought to point out that I have very mixed feelings about El Comandante. On one hand, Cuba has one of the best health services in the region, but on the other I met a nurse who was forced to prostitute herself because she was only earning the peso equivalent of $23 month while the party elite and their families were splashing the cash in foreign currency-only shops. And what good is that first-class education, if you’re not allowed to leave the country? The longer I spent in Cuba, the more it began to resemble a giant prison camp – albeit one with fabulous rum cocktails.

The Manics apologised to Fidel for the noise levels, and he shot back: ‘Nothing is as loud as war!’ Fidel didn’t go to the all-night party the Manics threw afterwards in the Hotel Nacional, which is perhaps why one of his very drunken aides took me to a window at 6am, pointed at the coast road below and said, “There will be a Sheraton, there will be a Hilton… The land has already been sold. Nothing will happen now, but when Fidel dies everything will change. The Americans will come.” I suspect they will…

“There’s obviously something contradictory about a regime that, on one hand, espouses hardline socialist principles, and on the other allows rampant capitalism,” James Dean Bradfield added when we spoke. “Everything has to be measured against the fact that, for the past 30 years, this tiny island has been bullied and intimidated by its superpower neighbour. What I admire about Fidel Castro is that rather than caving into them, he’s told America to ‘fuck off!’ The Bay of Pigs/Cold War scenario says an awful lot about the United States. Their arrogance in thinking that you need McDonald’s and Burger King to lead a fulfilled life is breathtaking. Worse than that, they’re willing to break international law and maintain a blockade against a country whose biggest crime is not wanting to have their culture taken away from them.”

Asked for his thoughts on the gig a year later, Nicky Wire told me: “Cuba is one of the last places in the world with a totally different political system and we wanted to see it. It wasn’t a carte blanche endorsement of Fidel Castro, although I have to say there were some things, some remnants of human spirit, which seem to have disappeared everywhere else “The thing about the Cuban revolution is that it was so iconic. The hiding out in the mountains, the riding into Havana on donkeys… it’s all on film. Half, maybe three-quarters of it was a romantic gesture on our part. Somebody asked recently, ‘What would you have been like parachuted behind enemy lines age 19?’ and I said, ‘Fucking useless!’ I’m always self-critical about my lack of urgency. It’s alright for me to sit around being a thinker, but Camus and Orwell actually put their bollocks on the line and went to the front in the Spanish Civil War.

“It wasn’t from the higher echelons, but two weeks before we flew over a fax arrived asking, ‘Do you think Nicky will be wearing a dress on this trip?’ It was a good communist subtle hint! Not feeling the need to be a revolutionary among revolutionaries, I settled for a feather boa instead!

“The gig itself was majestic. It was like 1972 in Sacramento watching The Eagles. You had people playing air guitar, black girls disco dancing to us and Fidel nodding along. The disquieting bit came afterwards when you realised that the propaganda machine was in full swing. You realise who you’re dealing with when you say, ‘Sorry, we can’t come to lunch because we’ve got to fly home’, and he goes, ‘We’ll hold the plane!’ I don’t know if he’s well briefed or just takes a keen interest in everything, but Fidel was completely on the button. There were lots of things – like him knowing the subtle differences between England, Wales and Scotland – that impressed me. He also serves a mean slice of cake!”

 

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