It was one of rock's most bizarre and impressive spectacles - the Manic Street Preachers live in Cuba, in front of an audience including Fidel Castro! Stuart Clark was there, and spoke to James Dean Bradfield about Bill Clinton, Top Of The Pops, Bono, Elian Gonzales and the band's new album.
I've seen some surreal rock 'n' roll sights in my time, but this takes the custard cream. It's 10 minutes before the Manic Street Preachers are due on stage at the Karl Marx Theatre, and 5,000 pairs of lungs are roaring their approval as Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and Cuba's mulleted Minister for Culture take up position at the front of balcony.
They may be an everyday occurrence here, but les conciertos rock are a big deal in Havana, especially when they're by a visiting band who are up for a spot of Yank bashing.
We don't realise it at the time, but Fidel and the Manics have spent the past half-hour indulging in socialist intercourse together. Apologising in advance for the noise level, James Dean Bradfield is informed by El Presidente that, "Nothing is as loud as war!"
While Amnesty International will tell you that there's more to Fidel Castro than snappy soundbites, you have to admire a 74-year-old who can out-cool the greatest rock band on the planet.
If you're sceptical about that last claim, just wait till you hear the trio's new album, Know Your Enemy. By turns spikier and more delicate than anything they've done before, it's the perfect riposte to those who've dismissed them in the past as third-rate Clash copyists. Not that there isn't something Sandinista-ish about flying 4,000 miles to play in the west's last remaining communist State. Asked at the previous day's press conference if he thought it'd affect their American career prospects, Nicky Wire's answer was a heartfelt, "I hope so!"
There may be 100 journalists who are keen to analyse their reasons for being here, but everybody else in the crowd wants to party. Save for visits by Billy Joel and Don Henley - who said that the CIA have suspended their covert operations? - there hasn't been a night like this in Havana since Batista was run out of town.
Given the isolationist policy that's been in operation since 1958, it's amazing how many Korn, Limp Bizkit and Pantera t-shirts have made it into the country. The bands that the kids know are the ones who are fast rotated on the Miami FM stations that are received loud and clear all over the island. Given how select the Manics' Stateside appeal is - This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours only sold 50,000 copies there - this means that approx. 98% of the Karl Marx punters have never heard the opening 'Find That Soul' before. You also wonder how many of them have seen a mike stand with a pink feather boa wrapped round it - Nicky Wire has acceded to official requests not to wear a dress, but that isn't going to stop him indulging in a spot of glam.
Behind the band is the biggest fuck off Cuban flag you've ever seen, a gesture of solidarity that's rewarded with an invitation the next day to join Fidel for lunch. Of more relevance to the crowd is the fact that the Manics are in killer form. The atmosphere's strangely tense at first as the two sides suss each other out, but then 'Motorcycle Emptiness' arrives on the scene and the gaff goes mental. Ice well and truly broken, the band bring on a local trumpet-player who shows no signs of the nerves that resulted in him going AWOL during rehearsals. Indeed, by the time 'Kevin Carter' comes around, the guest muso is throwing the sort of shapes that until recently were illegal round these parts.
That might sound glib, but the past few years have seen unprecedented changes in Cuban society. With the massive handouts from the Soviet Bloc gone, and American sanctions biting, Castro has sanctioned the dollar as a second currency, and allowed those with the means at their disposal to start their own businesses. This leads to weird anomalies like taxi drivers earning five times as much as the $30 a month that doctors take home. And while José Publique still has to queue for such rationed staples as rice, sugar, fish and soap, foreign currency earners can march straight into a tourist shop and stock up on foie gras and champagne.
"Somebody who cleans hotel rooms makes more money in one day from tips than a teacher does in a whole week," a disgruntled local tells me earlier in the day. "There's no point going to university when all your qualifications do is keep you poor."
Away from the pre-gig hype, James Dean Bradfield had been eager to dispel the notion
that the Manics' presence in Cuba is a carte blanche endorsement of Castro and his policies. However, the fact that Cuba has been under the cosh has to be taken into account in any assessment of what's happening politically and economically there.
"There's obviously something contradictory about a regime that, on one hand, espouses hardline socialist principles, and on the other allows rampant capitalism," he reflects over a hotel cuppa. "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. They go on about a lack of human rights in Cuba, without ever acknowledging the superb health system they have, or the educational standards which are higher than any other country in the region.
"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."
The Manic Street Preachers have always worn their hearts on their record sleeves, and Know Your Enemy is no exception with titles like 'Dead Martyrs', 'My Guernica', 'Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children' and 'Baby Elian' confirming them as the anti-Wheatus. Fears about the latter's saccharine levels are quickly dispelled when, accompanied by a New Order-ish jangle, James Dean tears into Uncle Sam with the finesse of a rabid Rotweiller.
"It wasn't so much Bill Clinton thinking that Elian would be better off with his father, as the rest of the world saying, 'You've got to send the fucking kid back!'" Bradfield maintains. "The irony is that having been forced into doing the right thing, the Democrats lost the election because all the Cuban exiles in Miami voted against them."
Needless to say, 'Baby Elian' goes down a storm at the Karl Marx Theatre, with Castro the first to leap to his feet in appreciation. Any concerns that the Manics might've had about the crowd "getting them" are long since gone, with Nicky Wire scissor-kicking as if his life depended on it, and Bradfield pirouetting around like a ballet dancer on angel dust. With 'You Love Us' comes the realisation of just how far the band have travelled since their Generation Terrorist days. Well, how far three of them have travelled. As is tradition, the space stage left, which Richey Edwards used to patrol, has been left empty.
"Taking Know Your Enemy into account, we've now done as many albums without Richey as with, which is really, really weird. Part of you thinks, 'I don't want to make another record 'cause it'll tip the balance away from him'. Then reality sets in and you realise that, no matter what happens, his contribution will never be diminished."
While adamant there are no ghosts in the band, Bradfield concedes that there will always be a 'Richey factor'.
"There's still the thing, when an album's finished, of going through the songs and figuring out which ones he'd like, and which ones he'd moan about incessantly."
As passive as they normally are, you wonder what the Manic Street Preachers would do if they met ex-Wales footie supremo Bobby Gould down a dark alley.
"Do you remember the documentary for the last album? Shortly before he resigned as Wales manager, Bobby Gould was asked about it and said, 'That young boy who went missing - I think the way he lived his life was disgusting'. That man should never be let near a fucking football team again."
It can't be easy when, as was the case last year, somebody reported seeing Richey in the Canaries and his parents set off in hot pursuit.
"Shortly after that he was spotted in Spain, Egypt and India, which means he must have bought himself a private jet," his friend observes wryly. "While we've been philosophical about it, and tried to prepare ourselves for the eventual truth, his Mum and Dad haven't achieved even partial closure. I wish I could make it better for them, but I can't."
Perhaps that closure will come next month when, having been missing for seven years, Richey Edwards will officially be pronounced dead.
"There's me saying that we're being philosophical about it, but until something definite happens, there's always going to be a sense of 'what if…?'"
It's in no way meant to be dismissive of Richey, but Bradfield admits it's "liberating" to be judged on the here and now, rather than the past. With their new-found Cuban fans screaming for more, the Manics do what they've never done in the UK or Ireland before, which is play an encore. I just about manage to hold it together during 'Australia', but when they launch into a punk rock version of 'Rock 'N' Roll Music', that's it, I don't care who fucking sees me cry.
Fast-forward an hour to the impossibly plush Hotel Nacional, and there's still a sense of awe about what I've witnessed. The band are gobsmacked too, not only on account of the gig, but because two of Cuba's sporting heroes, boxer Felix Savon and runner Alberto Juantarino, have turned up for the after-show.
"I can't believe it," says James Dean, looking not only stunned, but tiny, compared to the 6ft 7" pugilist who's standing next to him. "I've seen these guys on the telly, but never in a million years did I think I'd get to talk to them."
I don't know about James, but when we meet in the cold light of day to discuss the new album, it feels like World War III's going on in my head. It appears that when making my Mojito's last night - rum, lime, soda, brown sugar and crushed mint - the barman was participating in some kind of anti-imperialist plot. Talking of political doctrines, what's with the Stalinist revision that This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours has been subjected to?
"We said in an interview that there are a few things on it that didn't work, and now everybody's going, 'The Manic Street Preachers think their last record's shit!'," he laughs. "With the exception of The Holy Bible - which was a suspension of reality, really - we've always tried to learn from our most recent mistakes.
"The main thing about This Is My Truth… is that it was too overwrought. I'm not saying it's a complete fucking disaster that should be thrown in the bin, but it could've been a lot better."
On the plus side it does contain the most literate song ever to get to number one, 'If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next'.
"I don't normally pay any attention to reviews, but there was one that went on about 'the Manics going for a big stadium sound', which I wanted to shove up the journalist's arse. It pisses me off that that song is so rarely recognised for its achievements.
"We were just about to drive up to Belfast, after a brilliant gig in The Point, when the news of it getting to number one came through," he divulges. "I haven't had many better moments in my life than that."
As I was saying the other day to Marilyn Manson (sorry, I couldn't resist it!), it's far more subversive for someone like him to be on Top Of The Pops than it is to headline Reading.
"God forgive me for saying it because he's one of my heroes, but having made such a fuss about The Clash not doing it, how the fuck could Joe Strummer go on Top Of The Pops with a pile of shit like Fat Les? If we get a phone call next week asking us to do the National Lottery, we'll go 'yeah', because that's 14 million people we can reach with our message.
"As for Marilyn Manson, I think he's a brilliant lyricist and far more worthy of attention than Fred Durst, who's so conservative it's not true. Listen to the new Limp Bizkit album, and I bet you there isn't a single song that's critical of the American way of life. It's absolute fucking shite."
We won't ask him what he thinks of Linkin Park, then. Having been highly appreciative of his 'If You Tolerate This…' and 'You Stole The Sun From My Heart' remixes, the Manics decided to hand three of the Know Your Enemy tracks over to David Holmes for tweaking purposes.
"We'd taken them to about 80%, but were so brain-fried that we needed somebody else to finish them off. I went into the studio one day to see how he was getting on with 'Freedom Of Speech Won't Feed My Children', and he said, all matter-of-factly, 'I got Kevin Shields to play guitar on this.' I was expecting a shard of light bursting through the veneer, but what he actually came up with were all these arpeggios (quiet widdly-diddly bits. S.C.) . He could have passed wind on it, though, and I'd have been happy."
I'm not sure if the other people in the studio would've. You assume as frontman that he's done it countless times before, but Know Your Enemy actually marks James Dean Bradfield's debut as a lyricist. While not immediately apparent, 'Ocean Spray' was inspired by his mother's death two years ago from cancer.
"One of the things that people in hospital are told to do to avoid infections is drink cranberry juice. It became a mantra that every time I visited my mum she'd say, 'Go and get me some Ocean Spray cranberry juice.' Basically, it's about the emotions you go through watching someone close to you die. I'd written lyrics before but they'd always ended up sounding contrived. This time, though, the words just fell into place."
Runner-up in the poignancy stakes is 'Let Robeson Sing', a paen to the black singer and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson.
"America is always going on about its great democratic past, but during the '50s they took away Paul Robeson's passport because he was a communist. He wasn't allowed to sing or do anything without the CIA giving him hassle.
"They're still doing it today. One of the things that the US objects to about Cuba is that they won't let their people travel abroad. What do they do in protest? Make it an offence for Americans to go to Cuba. The double-standard inherent in that is breathtaking."
Playing in Cuba is such an iconic thing to do, I'm amazed that U2 didn't think of it first.
"Bono was probably worried that they wouldn't let him back into the White House," he chuckles. "No, that's being unfair to him. His approach is a bit too Kofi Annan softly softly for me, but you can't argue with the fact that he's sincere in his beliefs, and has got things done. It's the same aesthetic quarrel that John-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus had. They sort of agreed, but had such different ways of going about it that they ended up criticising the fuck out of each other.
"Getting back to your original point, yeah, Bono would've looked great puffing away on a cigar with Fidel."
As impeccable as their socialist credentials are, the Manic Street Preachers wouldn't have gone to the trouble they have to gig in Cuba if there wasn't a new album to promote.
"Yeah, 5,000 tickets at 25 cents would just about pay for one of the air fares! I tell you exactly what happened - a friend of ours was going through the album and pointed out that there were three or four references to Cuba. 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!"
How keen was the record company on this 'Bay of Ligs' scenario?
"They were a bit reticent at first, but when they realised how determined we were, they went, 'sod it, what do you need us to do?' Sony would be a lot happier if, once the gig's over, they could ship 50,000 albums into Cuba, but that's still a bit in the future."
Judging by the "Rock Solidario" screamer that the official state organ, Juventud Rebelde, runs with the following day, the rock 'n' roll invasion of Cuba may be more imminent than James Dean Bradfield thinks. For the time being, though, Viva La Revolucion!
The Manic Street Preachers' 'Found That Soul' and 'So Why So Sad' singles are out now, with Know Your Enemy following on March 26th. You can also see them live at Smithfield Market, Dublin on May 4th.