Join our man in Havana as the Manic Street Preachers reassert their revolutionary credentials with a historic gig in communist Cuba, plus a meeting with El Presidente himself.
Saturday, February 17, 2001
The whisper tears out of central Havana, through the police roadblocks around the Karl Marx Theatre, and smashes into the teenage throng outside the venue. It goes: "Castro is coming, Castro is
coming! Fidel Castro is coming to see the Manic Street Preachers!"
It soon sets the backstage parking lot alight, too. The Manics' management start ushering the group's immediate entourage inside, into the warren of stageside hallways, keen that nobody from the inner circle should miss any possible meeting with the iconic Cuban leader. Back outside in the lot, burly men wearing white suits and ear-pieces arrive and peer beneath parked cars. It is 8.15pm; 15 minutes to show time.
Suddenly, a delegation of Cubans sweep into the Manics' dressing room. "Good evening," booms the Minister Of Culture. "Would you like to meet someone very, very important?"
Nicky Wire raises his eyebrows: "Of course."
"OK, just the band and management," nods the Minister, clapping his hands together with finality. "Follow me, please."
And they're off, walking at pace down a corridor that runs parallel to the stage and into a small, brightly lit ante-chamber. Those not in the band or management are left on the other side of the stage looking desperately across into the room, aware that history is being etched close by.
"Bugger that," says Rob Stringer, Epic Records' UK chairman. "I'm not missing this."
He bolts across the stage. Those remaining - fellow label bigwigs, a Channel 4 film crew and NME - take one look at each other and run in his slipstream. The first door is slowly but firmly being closed as Stringer arrives, so we chase around to the side door where a security man stands guard. He looks at us, looks across at tour manager Mark Griffiths, who nods urgently, and then beckons us inside.
The Manics sit on the edge of one side of a square couch, grinning hysterically. On the other side, behind his famous long beard and wearing his trademark green military uniform, sits Fidel Castro.
The atmosphere crackles as the legendary revolutionary and dictator waves his arms expansively, talking to the band in Spanish (he speaks perfect English but vowed long ago never to converse in that tongue again). Fidel Castro is the face of Cuba. He is also one of the 20th century's most remarkable and enigmatic figures. In January 1959, after a brutal guerrilla war against a corrupt, right-wing government, he led his army down through the Cuban mountains into Havana, where he seized power to the delight of the masses - and to the horror of the Cuban ruling classes and their allies, the United States. He has been in power ever since. He has survived many attempts on his life, several reportedly masterminded by the CIA. He has presided over a communist state only 90 miles from the US for over 40 years. Successive American presidents have vowed to topple him, but he has seen ten come and go. He has seen horrific combat, ordered the execution of many enemies, and watched his ideals flourish in this tiny, geographically sensitive island long after the collapse of the entire Eastern bloc.
He is a 74-year-old mass of living history with thick, grey hair. Right at this moments, though, he's apologising to the Manic Street Preachers.
"I wanted to come early to be able to meet you," he says through an interpreter. "Because I'm afraid that at 10pm I will have to leave for an unavoidable engagement. But if you start at 8.30 I will be able to listen to your performance."
"It might be a bit noisy," says Nicky Wire.
"I will try to adapt my ears to the noise," Castro replies. "It cannot be more noisy than war, can it?"
"Maybe," laughs Wire, blushing.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2001
The Iberia 747 makes its shuddering descent into the bay of ligs. Down there, the recently checked.in Manics are nursing drinks in the bar of the grand old Nacional Hotel and bracing themselves for the onslaught. Not from the delegates of the Cuban Ministry of Culture, who mill around expressing delight at the band's arrival, but from the hordes of British and international press and the numerous film crews - including a team filming an hour-long documentary on the group's trip for Channel 4 - arriving in Cuba in wave after wave.
This invasion is under way because the Manics will be making history here. They will be the first foreign band to perform in Cuba, the island that has stood firm as those indomitable Gauls from the Asterix comic series against the frustrated attention of their overbearing near neighbours, in Cuba's case, America.
"Paul McCartney and Robert Plant have both visited us here," a local DJ tells Nicky Wire, as band members and crew exchange warm hugs with their welcoming party. "We are very grateful, but neither played a concert. It is time someone gave some love back to Cuba. You are that group."
"Very poetic these Cubans," says Wire, as he greets us with a soft handshake. The trip is of massive significance to Wire and his colleagues. Not only do the Manics want to express ideological solidarity with a nation that has been choked by US-imposed sanctions for 41 years. It also symbolises the group's own reinvigorated beliefs, which manifest themselves in their forthcoming album, 'Know Your Enemy'.
They too see themselves as an island, one of the few groups left who sing songs of an openly socialist bent, and have no interest in adapting for the american market. After the flappy ambition for mass success of their last album, 'This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours', the band had a rethink. The Manics decided they wanted to stand for something bigger and deeper than stadium rock. This concert symbolises just that.
"The way to justify this trip," says Wire, "is just to look at the NME Awards issue and see everyone slapping each other's back. Fine, NME has to sell issues. But this trip is the antithesis of all that. The music business in Britain is as bloated as it was in the mid-'70s before punk. When rock stars start appearing in Hello!, when supermodels and fashion designers become your friends because of what you are, you're fucked. We don't want to be a part of that. We want to stand for something." He momentarily climbs down from his high horse.
"Also, the first date of the last tour was in Kettering," he laughs. "I think that sums up our lack of artistic ambition last time. But we had to go through that to wake ourselves up."
With that, Wire slopes off to his customary early night and a quick flick through the local television channels. Singer James Bradfield, meanwhile, sits at the bar having a beer. True, James shares Nicky's ideological ambitions, but he also has concerns about the band's reception here.
"I have no idea who's coming to the gig," he says, shaking hands with the grip of a shot-putter. "It could be a load of international journalist and some government officials. It could be two Cuban kids and a dog. It could be 200 British Manics fans in feather boas. We just don't know and were very much on edge about that."
We talk of Cuba, of socialism, and of the suntans being obtained around the pool by one or two record execs. There's even talk from Sean Moore (firm drummerly handshake) of busting one of his own group's sanctions. "I'm actually a registered user of Napster," he says with regard to Nicky's recent comments damning the site.
"I'm one of the users Sony blocked! I just wanted to see what it was like. I managed to download 'If You Tolerate This...' just to see the quality. It was crap! I'd have no problem with it if the quality was good but it's like taping Radio Luxembourg in mono. It's rotten."
This is of no interest to the British tabloid hack trying to simultaneously eavesdrop and somehow shuffle Manics security man Steve Head's muscular bulk, on a stool between him and Bradfield's back. He scuttles out of the bar. His presence has sounded a warning, however.
Across town, the Ilberia 747 taxis across the runway and comes to a standstill on the boiling Tarmac. In London, an Air France jet takes off for Paris on its first leg of the journey to Cuba. And in Dublin, Belfast, Newport, Copenhagen, Berlin, London and Tokyo bags are being zipped tight in preparation for a long journey across the world to a gig in the Caribbean. The Manics are going to bed now, but tomorrow the swarm will descend.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 2001
The Manics are up early the next day and are soon out in the bubbling heat of Havana. Firstly, they head to a local radio station where the DJ waxes enthusiastically about both Cuba and the Manic Street Preachers before playing one of the songs he feels best represents the group. It's 'The Everlasting'. The band wince. They recently vowed never to play the song again because they hate it.
Next, they head back to the hotel and climb aboard a bus for a sightseeing tour. Within seconds they climb back out of the bus and into an open-top antique red car. The bus is for the entourage. The car is for the documentary. So James, Nicky and Sean sit in the back seat of their sport vehicle and a cameraman squeezes into the front seat alongside the driver. Steve Head leaps in to the back of a jeep with another cameraman, while band manager, tour manager, record label boss, record label underlings, band photographer, NME photographer, two-man HTV film crew and NME journalist climb aboard the bus with two guides. Never fear, with clever editing, it will look like the Manics are cruising through Havana alone.
As this bizarre convoy wheels through town, NME is struck by how improved Havana appears since our last visit with Black Grape in 1995. Then, Cuba was still struggling to maintain its balance after the collapse of its main subsidiser, the Soviet Union, and the third world poverty of Havana was striking.
Now, as Cuba enjoys a burgeoning tourist boom, Havana is steadily being renovated by this influx of foreign currency. Instead of looking bankrupt and decrepit it sports a pronounced lick of its Spanish Colonial past, resembling the old town of Barcelona before its own Olympics-funded regeneration. The times are definitely changing and Havana is slowly catching up, although perhaps to slowly for some...
"Next time," says Rob Stringer, "why don't we have the album launch in Monaco? Or how about Barbados? We could say that it is ideologically imperative that we stay at the Shady Inn Beach Resort. What do you say?"
Everyone piles out of their various vehicles in the Plaza De La Revolución, a square that houses various government buildings and a memorial to revolutionary hero, José Marti. Aside from the huge white column dedicated to a statue of Marti and an impressive iron mural of Che Guevara, the square actually looks a bit like an empty parking lot in Birmingham.
Still, the band throw a few poses in front of Che for the NME photographer, who is in turn photographed by the band's photographer, who is filmed by the HTV cameraman, while the documentary team ushers to and fro filming an overview. Everyone else stands ten feet back and gossips. The process is repeated in front of Marti, and on the way back to his car James reveals misgivings about this part of the trip.
"The main thing is the gig, he emphasises. "Everything else is just fluff. Yeah, we get good publicity out of it, there's nothing wrong with that. I'm a tiny bit wary of the juxtaposition of us and Revolutionary Square, that's all. I've got that shady memory of seeing The Clash photographed at the barricades in Belfast."
Martin Hall, the band's manager, insists that while there are many media opportunities to exploit here, it's just a byproduct of the trip and not its purpose.
"Nicky came up with the idea while they were recording the album in Spain, so he can't complain about the heat like he normally does," he explains. "It's a real step into the unknown."
Hall travelled to Havana in December for a logistics meeting with the Cuban Ministry Of Culture.
"They were extremely helpful. We gave them our records and some videos and they were totally up for it. Then they saw Nick in a dress and they were, like, 'But he won't play wearing a dress, will he?' I said, 'He's the Wire. He does what he does.' I mean, in Thailand everything evolves around their king and they played his national anthem before we played. Nick came onstage and said, 'This is for the king.' Huge cheer. 'We hope he fucking dies!'"
As with any dictatorship, Cuba has a poor human rights record. Until recently, homosexuals weren't even legally recognised by the state. Does this make Nicky uncomfortable?
"Sure," Wire replies. "I know it's not a perfect place. There's huge problems, although I believe their attitude toward gay rights has changed over the last five years. But in terms of a communist ideal, this is the best example ever. It's still only 60 per cent there but if you compare it what happened in the eastern bloc after their collapse, with the subsequent rise there in fascism and organised crime, then I think what Cuba is trying to achieve is admirable. I had to see it because who know's how it'll be in ten years?
"Plus, when Martin came back and said, 'You're playing the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana', well, I couldn't turn that down. I'm too much of a romantic. It beats Kettering Leisure Center."
If, however, you bury deep enough below the socialist solidarity, the cool photo opportunities, the TV documentary, you'll eventually dig up the root of this jaunt: the Manics have a new album out soon. And Cuba is a local launching pad.
'Know Your Enemy' puts a definite full stop to the band's pursuit of mainstream success. Not because it's crap; it's a corker. But because it bins many of the attributes that brought them a stadium audience - strings and soft-bellied sing-a-longs - in favour of punchy left-wing bile.
They may have greeted the new millennium with a massive show at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, but as the Manics looked out over the crowd holding lighters aloft during 'The Everlasting', they knew it was the last epic they ever wanted to record.
Instead they wrote an album that's designed very differently to all their previous output. For a start, 'Know Your Enemy'is informed by more than one style. There are songs that sound like The Beach Boys ('So Why So Sad'), Queens Of The Stone Age ('Found That Soul'), Nirvana ('Dead Martyrs'), and even early-'80s white boy British funk on 'Miss Europa Disco Dancer'(although you sense that like the white boy funkers, that may not have been the aim). It is also the most satirical and overtly political collection of lyrics that Wire's ever written. Indeed, with Rage Against The Machine now gone, the Manics feel duty-bound to kick over the statues in their place. In doing so, Wire also finally steps out of the shadow cast by Richey's lyrical genius. And after a day spent sightseeing on camera but not actually seeing any sights, Nicky Wire decides it's time he'd like to talk about some of these things.
Wire's suite is, of course, immaculate. Once, the Nacional was the base for the American Mafia bosses who ran drug and prostitution rackets here before the revolution kicked them into touch. It's likely that one would have lived in this prize suite, although less likely that they'd have kept it quite so clean.
There is little sign that anybody is staying here, apart from the fact that the television is on and that The Smiths are moaning away softly from a compact DVD player. He's brought a collection of movies on DVD too, and momentarily gets lost in the dilemma over which to watch tonight, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai or The Insider.
He surprises even himself with the discovery of his next treat: a cold flannel in the minibar fridge.
"Oooh, my lovely cold flannel," he coos, patting his face. "I'll get to work with this when you leave."
Intrigued, but also slightly disgusted, we take out our tape recorder. Wire takes the hint and settles into a stiff chair as unbeknown to him two Spanish soap stars wrestle athletically and silently in the near-nude on telly behind him.
The most striking thing about conversation with Nicky Wire is that comments that in print appear vitriolic are delivered with a lot more charm in person. He discusses everything with a wry smile that suggests not only self knowledge, but also that there are few of life's punchlines that he is unaware of. He's a clever man, who starts most answers with the words 'I think'.
The thought process behind 'Know Your Enemy' - of which Nicky wrote all the lyrics aside from 'Ocean Spray', which James constructed movingly about his mother's last days alive (she always asked for Ocean Spray cranberry juice because she'd read it was a health drink) - is plain. He wanted to write short songs about something. Songs that declared his politics, that hailed his heroes, that marked out his enemies and that revealed things about himself. Above all, he'd decided what the Manics really stood for.
"We stand for being a band that uses its brain, that always strives to outstrip our history. If that ambition stops then there's just no point. There's so many sad bands in NME. Why do Terrorvision continue? Their album went in at Number 48 in the weakest chart of the year! They must love what they do. It's more than that for us. We want to take risks. I think we've done that with this album."
By that, he means restating his socialism in the clearest possible language. "I decided that I'd rather be called a hypocrite than just be called crap. The idea that you stop being a socialist when you become financially secure is not true for me."
Wire plays homage to one of his socialist heroes on the album's semi-ballad, 'Let Robeson Sing'.
It's a tribute to Paul Robeson, the black American singer and activist who was ostracised for decades for refusing to renounce his communism in the politically paranoid USA of the '50s over a sweet guitar motif, the song samples a speech he made to striking Welsh miners 50 years ago. Eventually, America withdrew his passport and he died penniless.
"It doesn't seem that people so principle exist anymore," he explains. "It's unfashionable to have political principles and few people have the guts to declare any. Whatever anyone says about us, it takes guts to come to Cuba and openly ally yourself with the last successful communist regime. It's not winning a war, but I love the idea of having a huge impact just by saying something you believe in."
One group who do make an effort to say something politically are the Beastie Boys, but Wire fixes them with particular poison on - ahem - 'Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children': We love to kiss the Dalai Lama's ass...little boys with dangerous toys/All bow down to the Beastie Boys".
"I hate the way the Dalai Lama is used as a showbiz icon by the American glitterati. Their own nation wiped out their indigenous race, yet all they do is criticise China. America will trade with China but they still have an embargo with Cuba. Why don't they write songs about that? Apart from Rage, American groups never criticise America. None of them ever write songs about gun control. Why?
"I bet they're like all American groups when they come to Europe, they just sit around moaning about the fucking food. I've heard them moaning about breakfasts on planes. It's true!"
Wire, needless to say, isn't afraid to criticise anything in his own homeland. So on the slightly awkward funk of 'Miss Europa Disco Dancer', he damns a whole generation as he intones "braindead motherfuckerss" repeatedly until the song fades.
"It's actually inspired by Blur's 'Girls And Boys' and that 18-30 mentality. The extra dimension being that we have all these terrible fly-on-the-wall programmes like The Villa on Sky One - the worst channel in the world. Documentaries on all these people who just scream, get pissed, snog someone, snog someone else, and they're all dull as fuck."
Do you watch Popstars?
"Well, it's brilliant TV. That's the sick thing. I wanted Darious out. But its not The Villa or Prickly Heat on the evil Sky One. I'm wary of criticising Popstars because I don't think what they're doing lyrically is any worse than many supposedly credible bands. I hear Brian Moloko singing politics and it makes me embarrassed to be a musician. This bloke who suddenly decides that
rioting in the streets of London is cool. Fucking hell! I'm a one-man political party against asinine cunts like him. What happened to Paul Weller? He was one person who could write simple political songs. Why does he deny it?"
He feels he outgrew it.
"Why? I saw that John Lennon documentary on Channel 4 when we were mixing the album and it was hideous. Nobody on it said anything the lyrics John Lennon wrote. It was all about the music, maaan. Christ, didn't they realise that to get where he was John Lennon was a Maoist revolutionary, that he went to see the Maharishi. They don't take in any outside culture, they just take in John Lennon and that's dangerous. I'm sorry, Noel, it's not just about the songs. Lennon was smearing himself in paint with Yoko and making abstract art! Liam was the only who said anything: Lennon was my alphabet. That was sweet. "But talk about second hand culture. You can't write songs like Lennon unless you live like Lennon. That's why a song like '...Robeson' is important because it introduces someone else into popular culture. Like when we did 'Kevin Carter', our fans made an effort to find out who he was. I found out about George Orwell from seeing Weller holding a copy of 1984 in Smash Hits. But I was embarrassed by having reference points on the last album."
"Because I turned 30. I don't know why. It was a weird sensation and I didn't enjoy it. All the research points to most male suicides being between 28 and 31 and I was really uncomfortable with myself. 30-year-old males get more prescriptive medicine than anyone else.
How are you doing now?
"(Softening) I'm much, much better. I was 32 two weeks ago."
As we leave Nicky to an evening in front of Ghost Dog, he distills exactly why he feels so much pride about 'Know Your Enemy'.
"When we did 'Found That Soul' it was such a joyous, defining moment. Just hearing James' Gibson turned up to ten was such a relief. We'd found out why we do this again, just like when we did 'Everything Must Go' after Richey disappeared. And I know Richey would've loved this record. He'd have done a duet with me on 'Wattsville Blues' with my little nasal voice (it's the first Manics song that Nicky's sung. He sounds like Mark E. Smith. "Perfect," he beams). Lyrically I've caught up with him. I can stand on my own two feet. That makes me very, very proud."
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 17, 2001
Fidel Castro enters the auditorium to 'Regular John' by Queens Of The Stone Age being played at full volume by the Manics' DJ.
"Who are you, boy/Who are you, girl?" sings Josh Homme as Fidel steps through the door of the second tier of the auditorium. As he makes slow progress to his seat in the centre of the front row the whole hall stands as one and waves little red 'Manics In Cuba' flags. As the packed young crowd of 5,000 Cubans whoop and scream, Castro stands and proudly waves back. It is an awesome
magical moment. This doesn't seem a forced salute to a dictator, but true affection. It is astonishing. There cannot be a leader on Earth who could provoke such affection at a rock concert.
"They really do love him," says Greg, a 40-year old Mancunian sitting next to NME who married a Cuban some years ago. "Don't believe the propaganda the Americans put out. There may be poor people here, but there are no homeless. The state provides a net for everyone. It's been a struggle but these are the proudest people in the world, and that's down to Castro."
Nicky and James head back to their dressing room having watched Castro's entrance from the side of the stage with their mouths agape.
"Did you see that?" asks Wire. "Tony Blair doesn't get a reception like that anywhere. Not even from his family."
Steve Head closes the door to their dressing room and stands cross-armed in front of it. There are only a couple of minutes before stage time and their privacy is sacred now. Head leans over conspiratorially.
"All these businessmen getting excited about meeting Castro, he whispers," sotto voce. "Half of those cunts vote Tory!"
"What are you talking about?" shouts a passing Stringer. "I'm a socialist...I did sociology at college anyway."
The house lights dim. The crowd, made up of local student bodies that the tickets were mainly distributed to, along with a dozen British Manics fans and a couple of hundred from the media, stomp their feet until a little old man wanders onstage. He takes the mic: "Manic Street Preachers!"
The venue erupts. The band walk on and launch into 'Found That Soul'. Suddenly, their frustration with all the hanging around evaporates, yesterday's tense press conference (the highlight of which was the man from Associated Press idiotically refusing to allow James to answer his question: "I want the singer to answer," he demanded) is quite forgotten. And if you squint you can even imagine there isn't a film crew filming every moment. It reduces to a bold step into the unknown by a rejuvenated band, and the Manics are received like heroes. Kids in Pantera T-shirts headbang to 'Motown Junk'; Greg's young wife and her friends dance to 'Miss Europa...' and '...Tolerate'; a condom is blown up and patted between groups.
Throughout, the Cubans gape and point at the Manics' light show, having never seen the like.
The most touching moment is during 'Baby Elian', about which Castro had personally inquired. It's a ballad that James performs alone which addresses the issue of Elian Gonzales, the Cuban boy at the centre of a tug-of-war between America and Cuba in Florida last year, who now resides in Cuba with his father. As James belts out the closing line of, "You don't just sit in a rocking chair/When you've built a revolution", Castro rises to his feet and leads the applause. He leaves to more cheers and flag-waving before the second song of a rare Manics encore, a ragged version of 'Rock'n'Roll Music'.
"It was monumental," says a drained Nicky afterwards. "Some bands go to Downing Street to meet the PM. We play Cuba and Castro turns up." "It was absolute insanity," agrees James. "Never in my life have I been so distracted while singing. It did seem like - ha! - our destiny." Another surprise awaits back at the hotel. As the band walk in they're greeted by two Olympic champions, middle distance runner Alberto Juanterino and gold medal-winning boxer Felix Savon.
As tiny Sean is repeatedly patted on the back by the mountainous Savon, Wire looks almost more awe-struck than by Castro.
"You're a legend, you are, " he says to almost no discernible reaction.
"Because you always beat the Americans."
Juanterino bursts out laughing and claps. Savon - who looks like a male Grace Jones, says nothing. He simply nods solemnly.
And that's where we leave the Manics and their party. Toasting the night in an elegant ballroom in the Caribbean, as Felix Savon glides surreally across the floor with a seemingly endless supply of salsa partners. All of them apart from Nicky. He doesn't want to ruin his night by spending it backslapping. So he goes up to his room and phones home. He wants to tell his wife all about
his amazing evening.