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Our Manics In Havana, The Observer, 18th March 2001

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Title: Our Manics In Havana
Publication: The Observer
Date: Sunday 18th March 2001
Writer: Andrew Smith
Photos: Mitch Ikeda

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The hype surrounding their tour of Cuba, shot the Manic Street Preachers into the top 10. But with unprecedented access behind the scenes, Andrew Smith asks who really got the most of the media frenzy - the band, the Sony corporation or a wily old communist called Fidel Castro?

Thursday morning and the short journey to the national radio station affords a first look at Havana, which turns out to be exactly what I was expecting, only more. Salsa rhythms collide with rock and disco in the desiccated streets. Fifties-vintage Chevys clang past, flanked by buildings which appear ready to crumble to nothingness in the face of the first stiff breeze to blow in from the Caribbean.

Everything seems hand-tinted, washed by the sun. The only primary colours you see are worn by the prostitutes who keep hawkish watch on most street corners. You notice: the unusually pungent smell of the car fumes, because fuel is in short supply and almost anything flammable is put into petrol tanks; the massive 'camel' buses pulled by ancient Soviet trucks; the muddle of skin tones, from pale European to dark African, making it the first place you've ever been where you simply forget about race altogether after a while. You mark the fact that there are no overweight people at all, and no homeless on the streets.

Slightly later, in the almost comically chaotic radio studio, a DJ will ask Nicky Wire, Manic Street Preachers' lanky bass player-lyricist, why his band has come here.

'Well, the first gig we did last time was in Kettering,' he deadpans. 'So this seemed as far from that as we could go.'

Wire was being flippant, of course, and a little disingenuous. The idea of commemo rating tomorrow's release of a new Manics album by becoming the first major non-communist rock act to play Havana since 1979 came to them eight months ago and has cost a small fortune to realise.

Back home, it has also re-opened the old debate about pop stars playing with politics. The argument for is that they have access to a large audience. The more compelling case against has in one way or another touched everything from George Harrison's Concert For Bangladesh to Rock Against Racism, Live Aid, Red Wedge and the current Jubilee 2000 campaign around Third World debt. Who gains most from such involvement in the long run - cause or artist? Is hitching a serious issue to the ephemeral and fashion-sensitive pop counter-productive and self-serving? These questions have never been more urgent than they are in our age of mandatory celebrity endorsement of all things. And on the face of it, what cause could be more natural for a rock group to endorse than the Cuban revolution?

Most of the scepticism around Manic Street Preachers' decision to go to Havana has centred on the human-rights failings of the Castro regime. After a couple of days in the place, my concern about their presence here is different. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and consequent loss of its sponsorship, the government had little option but to open up to outsiders and now, if you listen, you begin to hear tales of a village to the south which has become a sex tourism destination for Canadian men. Meanwhile, amid the colonial splendour of the Nacional Hotel, where the Mafia held court in Batista's day, we watch two Englishmen acquire a prostitute for the duration of their stay and send her out to 'find her mate Charlie'.

Cuba is changing and no one is quite sure where the changes are leading. Fidel is 75 this year and can't last forever. Many Cubans still express what appears to be genuine respect and affection for him, blaming the US embargo for their plight: those who don't usually refuse to speak. A typical conversation is one I have with a taxi driver who used to earn $15 a month as a mechanical engineer - the average is $20 - after I've asked what people think of Fidel these days.

'Oh, some love him, some do not,' he edges. 'What about you?' I enquire and there is a long, long pause. 'I cannot answer you. Questions like that are.. dangerous. I don't know who you are. I could lose my job.'

And this is a good job, he adds. The fact is that there are two economies now, one driven by near-worthless pesos and the other running on US dollars, and like the legions of prostitutes, he makes dollars. Do people lose their jobs for saying the wrong thing? He shrugs, clearly wanting the conversation to end. Amnesty International reports that people do lose their jobs for saying the wrong thing, that there are political prisoners in Cuban jails (whose offences can and do consist merely of criticising the annual report of the Communist Party - a couple were handed three years for this), while gay people languish in squalid correctional institutes as a direct result of their sexuality. Until someone works out a way to look into Castro's soul, no one can say how much of this is purely a defensive reaction to years of US hostility, but it's a fact. Nicky Wire has been firmly instructed not to wear a skirt onstage, as he often does at home.

The one thing everyone agrees upon is that there is no obvious candidate to replace Castro and people start to hedge again around the question of what happens when he's gone. Now along come Manic Street Preachers, heavily subsidised by the multinational Sony corporation, perhaps paving the way for others.

By showtime, things seem a little different. It's 7.30pm on a clear, warm Saturday night and I'm standing on the pavement, listening to the gentle hiss of surf mingling with the chatter of thousands of young Cubans who are pouring excitedly into the Karl Marx Theatre to see a band they know next to nothing about. British rock is popular here and seems to contribute to a charming but laughable impression that we represent some kind of feisty, independent-minded alternative to American cultural hegemony. No one has the faintest idea of what the audience will make of them.

I'm out front, chatting to members of the audience, when word comes that Fidel is here, that he has been backstage for an impromptu summit with the band. No one can quite believe it. During the jovial exchange, the old man happens to mention that he has seen the lyrics to one of only two weak songs on the otherwise vivid Know Your Enemy - 'Baby Elian', about the Cuban boy who became the focus of a tussle between the US and Cuban governments last year - and that he finds them 'beautiful'. The problem is that the Manics hadn't intended to play the song ('We thought it would just be too much,' grins Wire), meaning that Bradfield has to bail them out with a solo acoustic version, at the end of which Castro rises in a flamboyant show of appreciation. What's all that about then? I find myself wondering.

Chatting again with members of the audience afterwards, most seem to have been impressed, not least by the scale of the show. I do manage to find one girl who spits, 'No, I don't like this - I am a punk!' and another who says 'I prefer alternative music', both of which cause Wire to roar with laughter later.

'I suspect that this concert will be talked about for years to come,' suggests Michael White, the British Council's country direc tor, at a reception he hosts afterwards. And despite myself, I have to acknowledge the pleasure ordinary Cubans appear to be taking in the mere fact that a well-known foreign band have made the effort to come here and lessen their sense of isolation.

That said, cultural solidarity isn't the only talking point afterwards. Bumping into Nick Naysmith, the amiable keyboard player, I ask him what his impressions of Fidel were.

'Well,' he offers, 'I can tell you one thing. He dresses to the left.'

'Er, sorry?'

'Yep. It was huge.'

Everybody's talking about it and it's not long before word gets out that Fidel has two local nicknames, these being 'The Beard' and 'The Horse'. Unable to quite believe what I'm hearing, I consult the ever-down-to-earth Bradfield. 'It was halfway down his leg,' he twinkles. 'Now we know the source of his power, don't we?'

For the first time, that old story about the CIA attempting to assassinate the father of the revolution by poisoning his underpants makes a kind of sense.

The next morning, Wire wakes to a deep sense of anticlimax. He'd played a blinding show, met one of his heroes, Fidel Castro, then two more, the athlete Alberto Juanterino and Felix Savon, an impossibly statuesque ex-boxer whose samba skills had mesmerised us all. Wire had retired early to his room to phone his wife and tell her about his adventure, then crashed. Now he feels drained.

Fidel has invited the Manics to be guests of honour at the opening of a new state university, la Escuela de Instructores de Arte Manuel Domenech, inland in Santa Clara. Right from the off, the atmosphere is strained, with the band becoming truculent as the day-long excursion wears on ('It was like a return to the old days of Communism,' Wire comments later. 'We were carted around, with no one giving us any information about what was happening'). Eventually, we arrive at the college, which is festooned with student artwork, a bizarre proportion of which deals with familiar images of Che. Wire and his colleagues are in a foul mood by this time, talking of going straight home and fucking Castro.

We are herded into a small theatre and take up positions at the end of three narrow rows of seats, where we wait for a further 20 minutes or so. Then there is a bustle at the door and he is among us. In fact, he is at the end of my row and one of his aids is motioning urgently for me to come forward. Unfortunately, by the time I've understood the instruction, Fidel has already started towards me. We meet in the middle and both instantly realise that there is no possibility of circumnavigating each other. I look at him. He looks at me. He offers his hand and I respond tentatively, fearful that I might miss and accidentally shake his penis instead, thereby ensuring that I spend the rest of my days festering in a military dungeon. Eventually, there is nothing for it but to clamber over the seats in the most undignified way imaginable. My big moment, blown.

He banters with the band, through an interpreter. Everyone is entertained: being all military bearing, mischievous grin and raised eyebrows, he is essentially Mel Brooks with a beard. Provided you're not gay, of course, at which point he becomes Adolf Hitler with a beard.

Before yesterday's show, Wire had cautioned that 'It might be a bit loud tonight' and Castro had replied, brilliantly, 'Will it be as loud as war?' - despite the fact that he hasn't been to one for 42 years. Now Wire has the chance to ask if it had been as loud as war and the older man shoots back, with mock incredulity 'It was louder!', before ribbing drummer Sean Moore about his role as artillery. He is animated as he compares notes on song composition and speeches and wisecracks about relations between the Welsh, Scots and English. Then, as if on cue, he seems to turn towards the battery of media and raises the subject of Baby Elian.

Instantly, it is as if we have stepped into one of those old-fashioned TV soap powder ads, where Bruce Forsyth or Leslie Crowther collars a housewife in a supermarket and hustles her into saying something nice about a product she's probably never seen before. She needed to be there, but it wasn't about her. As it isn't about the Manics now - or me, as a representative of the foreign media. We are being monstered, used to help facilitate a bit of nationalist fervour.

I find myself laughing. You don't get to be in power for forty years without knowing how to turn on the charm, or without recognising a useful photo opportunity when you see one. The long journey back is spent happily compiling top 10s with Bradfield. If you're going to be monstered, you might as well be monstered by the best.

By the next day, Wire's version of events has undergone a revisionist rewrite. He had merely been exhausted, rather than pissed off, during the pre-Fidel part of the trip. The adrenalin rush of Saturday night had been 'so gigantic' that there was bound to be a reaction. 'Everybody could have just burst out crying,' he says. He doesn't mind having been used for propaganda purposes.

'Oh, I thought that would happen anyway. I'm not naive enough to believe that they wouldn't use us to promote something for them. And let's face it, we're using them just as much. To think of it in terms of being used and abused.. it might have felt like that for a couple of minutes, but it just wasn't.

So you're sold, then? 'Well..' There is a deep sigh. 'I think it's different to anywhere else I've ever been. It has a different spirit. And, for all the things we might disapprove of, Castro stands out as someone who's really tried to do something good.

'The literacy rate here is higher than in the UK and the health service works. There are no homeless people. They have kind of jumped on Baby Elian, but I don't think that was pre-planned. And to be honest, I wouldn't have wrote the song if I didn't feel strongly about it myself.'

Wire's good at being a pop star and seems to be enjoying it again. On the last album, he suggests, they were all pretty happy in their outside lives and some of the desire had gone. Now, he feels less contended and has more that he wants to say.

He aims gleeful tirades at a range of subjects including the cult of celebrity, the supineness of the media, John Lennon's 'Imagine' ('Sexy Sadie', he rightly points out, is much truer to the man's spirit) and is happy as a sandboy until we get on to the subject of Richey Edward - the troubled guitarist/lyricist who played Che to his Castro but disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1995. Manic Street Preachers have now made as many albums without him as with him. It seems like an important watershed, but Wire admits that they still haven't grieved for the colleague who had been his best mate since the age of 10, though his feelings are changing with time.

'I think that's true and that's the frightening thing and that's why I try not to dwell on it too much. You do read about what delayed grief can do to people when it settles on you. But, however bad you feel about that last year, I'm still romantic enough to think that those pictures of Richey in Thailand with blood all over his chest are fucking beautiful and magnificent - I mean, it's better than looking at Brian Moloko [singer in gothy angst-merchants Placebo] or any of those other dead-weight, useless imposters... I still can't think of him as being dead, though. None of us knows.'

And after a while. you start to suspect that Nicky Wire sees Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution in a similar way.