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Old Jan 02, 2002, 03:43 PM   #1
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Default The Ballad of John and Cuba

Lennon joins Lenin as a memory for revolutionary generations
By Achy Obejas
Tribune staff reporter

January 1, 2002

HAVANA -- Of all places -- John Lennon is slowly turning into a saint here.

At all hours of the day and night, Cubans -- it's mostly Cubans, though tourist buses stop by at appointed hours -- come to a quiet park between 6th and 8th streets in the leafy Vedado neighborhood and heap fresh bunches of flowers at a life-size statue featuring Lennon sitting on a park bench, his arm draped over the back of the bench, his head slightly inclined, as if listening to a friend talk.

Thousands have taken the bronze Beatle's invitation to heart and nestled next to him, some posing for photos, others whispering secrets. Many simply sit, keeping him company, imagining -- as it may be particularly appropriate with Lennon -- other possibilities.

All around the Cuban Lennon -- a tender rendering by sculptor Jose Villa -- votive candles burn. Among the flowers are tucked poems, prayers for peace, detailed descriptions of dreams and ambitions, an occasional apology for past misunderstandings, and promises if only Lennon might grant this or that wish. A much-too-bright spotlight shines on the scene 24/7, a uniformed cop sitting quietly in its shadow.

"'San' [Saint] Lennon," said the officer in charge on Dec. 8, the anniversary of Lennon's assassination at the hands of a deranged fan, openly marveling at all the fuss over an Englishman 21 years dead.

The Lennon cult is so feverish here that an official video by digital artist Eduardo Molto called "Yo Lo Vi en La Habana" ("I Saw Him in Havana") -- in which Lennon's white-suited Abbey Road figure is superimposed on a Havana thoroughfare as well as the Malecon, the seawall ringing the city -- is received less as fantasy than as some sort of docu-dispatch from another dimension.

Long before last year's official unveiling of the statue, Lennon was an object of popular veneration. For years, musicians and fans had gathered spontaneously in that same park on the anniversary of his death to sing his songs until the first first white streaks of dawn.

In Havana, a Beatles club has been meeting weekly for more than a decade to sing, watch clips and documentaries, and talk about the Fab Four. For three years beginning in 1995, various academic and professional groups held conferences to celebrate, examine and ponder the boys from Liverpool, although it was always Lennon who emerged as a principal figure.

And in spite of years of prohibition (now officially denied), Cubans who came of age in the '60s hoarded Beatles vinyl and cassettes and introduced the music to their children. Indeed, it's not rare to find Cubans of all ages who can't speak a word of English but can sing much of the Beatles songbook in a phonetic mash.

So perhaps it was no surprise that as the '60s generation filtered up the Cuban bureaucracy, the Lennon legend would ascend with them. And when a young, long-haired, black leather-decked writer named Yoss suggested the idea for the Lennon statue, the country's minister of culture, Abel Prieto, rushed to approve the project. Prieto, after all, had featured a furious debate among fans over the relative merits of Lennon and Paul McCartney fans as the centerpiece in his coming-of-age novel "El Vuelo del Gato" ("The Flight of the Cat").

Last year, Fidel Castro showed up at the statue's unveiling, said he wished he'd had time to meet Lennon, expressed admiration for the ex-Beatle's pacifist principles, and claimed ignorance of any past persecution of Beatles fans in Cuba.

This year, the ceremony to commemorate Lennon's passing drew a few hundred people to "el parque de Lennon" (not to be confused with "el parque Lenin" a few miles away) and featured a mushy medley of Beatles tunes played by the national concert band.

"He is the hero of young women who come to kiss him with the dream of resurrection," the city's historian, Eusebio Leal, intoned as young women bent to place their lips on the statue's cold mouth.

Later that Saturday, festivities included an art exhibit of work about Lennon, a screening of the U.S. cable-cast Lennon tribute concert from New York, a massive display of Beatles books at the national library, and an official rock concert by Cuban musicians, almost totally in English, at the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Plaza, the same seaside tribunal from which Castro routinely denounces American policies and capitalism.

Cuba's adopted son

Why is Cuba so keen on Lennon? What is it about the ex-Beatle that places him higher on the altar than, say, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Elvis Presley, or home-grown Cuban artists?

"He was progressive," said Kiko Mederos, the imposing blue-haired lead singer of Tendencia, a metal group from Pinar del Rio, who played the concert at the plaza. "He was the brains, he was the man. Here people realized early on he was different. He was like Che [Guevara] -- individuals like that don't come along very often."

The comparison is not entirely off: The way Lennon is presented in Cuba, he was not only a musical genius, but a prophet of peace and a victim of U.S. persecution. Lennon's causes -- some specific, most abstract -- are as important as the way he could rip into a song.

At an acoustic concert at the Museum of Fine Arts, yet another version of Molto's digital images were accompanied by verses from a Chilean poet that concluded: "Oh Lennon, you were almost Lenin."

"He was a symbol of peace but it's more than that," said Frank Munoz, a member of Trio Efa, a Beatles tribute group that got left out of the festivities. (In response, Munoz and some pals trotted down to the park between 8th and 6th streets and offered a heartfelt rendition of "Love is Real" to the Lennon statue.)

"The thing about Lennon is, he also represents a music and a past that's impossible to recover," he concluded.

Fans felt the heat

Right now, the Beatles' Cuban past is a little cloudy.

Cubans of a certain age undoubtedly offer up anecdotes of being grabbed on the street by revolutionary matrons who threatened -- and sometimes managed -- to cut their long tresses. It's said that, in the '60s, tight jeans could bar you from the Union of Communist Youth, an essential membership to get ahead in Cuban society

A few years back, during a television program celebrating the youth association, a former president of the group who held office during the '60s offered an apology to his generation for a series of misunderstandings and mistakes that clearly referred to the way rock fans were once discriminated against.

And in the mid-'90s, those state-sponsored Beatles conferences gave fans a chance to have a catharsis about what they claimed was official persecution. But since Castro disavowed knowledge of it last year, right now no one's stepping up to say otherwise.

Guillermo Vilar, who wrote a rock column for Caiman Barbudo, an influential culture magazine, from 1979 to 1989, when the post-Soviet economic collapse of the country forced the magazine to temporarily cease publication, is of the school that the Beatles -- and by extension rock music -- was never banned, just misunderstood.

"At the beginning of the revolution, there was too much going on here to think about rock music," said Vilar. "There was lots of effervescence, lots of change. We were dealing with the fleeing bourgeoisie, the threats. There was Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis. And then relations [with the U.S.] broke, and we not only weren't getting food and oil, but suddenly certain music was beyond our grasp too."

Vilar had Paul Anka and Little Richard records, but he remembers hearing "Meet the Beatles" at a friend's house and "just going crazy."

"If things had been normal," he said, "Capitol records would have distributed the Beatles in Cuba, we would have heard their music on Radio Kramer [an American-owned, pre-revolution radio station in Havana]. But nothing was or has ever been normal because we have the U.S. blockade."

They found a way

Instead, Cuban youth depended on short-wave radios to catch WQAM in Miami. Those with privileged parents who could travel abroad begged them to bring them back a Beatles record or two, which would then be shared with friends at parties. Ironically, it was the very children of those in power who most fueled the Beatles craze.

"Here, like in the U.S., I think what was really going was a generation gap," said Vilar, who has also produced scores of musical radio and TV shows. "My father hated my tight jeans. I wanted to grow my hair long but it was too curly so I couldn't, but my parents had comments about all my friends who did."

But the Beatles' worldwide impact had a special resonance: Their music became the soundtrack to an entire Cuban generation's yearning.

"Because of the blockade, it's almost like we're deformed," said Vilar. "For us, the Beatles were a way to connect with the rest of the world at a time when we were completely alone. It was the only thing we had in common."

According to Vilar, the Lennon cult took off at another time of crisis in Cuba, in 1990, on the 10th anniversary of his death, when, in the wake of the Soviet Union's dissolution, Cuba was once more alone in the world, the last bastion of communism.

"There was a concert in that park, an informal concert," he said. "Cuban musicians like Carlos Alfonso and Carlos Varela came and played Lennon songs. And suddenly we were connected again, and we remembered better days."

That there is a Lennon cult does not, however, mean that otherwise savvy Cuban musicians have a clue about rock 'n' roll. The concert at the plaza, for example, was wholly lip-synched, making spontaneity impossible.

"That was to facilitate coming off and on the stage," said metal-head Mederos, whose group choreographed swinging their long, gorgeous manes more in the spirit of pre-packaged popsters 'N Sync than their heroes, Metallica.

With the exception of the sultry "Anytime at All" offered by a group called Buena Fe and an unnamed collective of Havana rappers, most of the performances were over the top, over-excited, completely lacking the cool that was so Lennon.

Moreover, where Lennon rebelled against the status quo, Cuban rockers aspire to it.

"It's good for us this is official," said Mederos without a hint of irony. "We're killing ourselves to break down barriers -- the more official, the better for us."

Still, not everybody was pleased. Though the Monday after the festivities, Granma -- the Communist party's official newspaper -- offered a congratulatory editorial, it also strongly suggested that cultural authorities might want to plan a similar tribute to a Cuban artist.

And at the museum concert, the staff openly rebelled against the Lennon overload. When the show ended, security and other staff were found out in the halls singing, not Lennon, but the very kitschy Jose Jose's "Alpiste."

Song of the moment-Blackbird
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