I met Texans, Mexicans, New Yorkers, Amsterdammers, Londoners, more than a few Australians, and of course Cubans, many of whom were sipping rum out of juice boxes. Glass containers of any kind were forbidden.
After deciding that I was going to abandon my lone-wolf tendencies and camp out with my new-found crew in the center of the field near a tall column of speakers, the Stones took the stage and kicked into “Jumping Jack Flash.” I threw my Stetson hat high into the air, caught it, put it back on my head. Like everyone else around me, I began to dance wildly to the music. The Rolling Stones tour company had pulled it off — truck loads of gear, multitudinous speaker columns, and massive video screens, all left behind as part of their Musician To Musician initiative.
The band was classically loose, with Keith often being just a hair behind the beat, but we loved it all. The sound was far superior to last year’s Nashville show, and Mick had obviously been working on his Spanish over the course of the recent Latin American tour. There were so many musical highlights, particularly “Brown Sugar,” “Angie,” “Miss You,” “Simpático Por El Diablo,” and of course, “Gimme Shelter,” which Mick introduced by saying, “Pienso que finalamente los tiempos estan cambiando” (which translates to “I think that the times are finally changing”).
People were either “shaking it” in every manner possible or staring wide-eyed at the big screens. On the closing tune, “Satisfaction,” I could have sworn Keith did not want it to end. After Charlie clearly ended the tune, Keith seemed to want to push the band on, causing an apparently improvised jam. Was it to be their last show, as everyone had been saying? To me, it sounded like Keith may have realized this and wanted to stretch it out just a few more bars. Maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part. We shall see what transpires, but consider that we are talking about some seriously older guys who, except Charlie, have certainly not been sitting down on the job all these years. The band’s spirit and energy is something we can all aspire to. Even if you are not a fan of their live shows anymore, one has to hand it to the Stones for their longevity and overall e’spirit de corp.
Major kudos to “the revolutionary Ronnie Wood,” as Mick had introduced him, for really bringing the jams. Charlie Watts seemed to be as steady as ever, and Mick more than got the job done on vocals. As we made our slow and fairly unsteady progress toward the main road back to Havana, several more rounds of high fives were had in the field of leftover garbage and dreams. It was pretty difficult to get any kind of taxi or bus out of there, as the Cuban transportation infrastructure was in no way prepared for the amount of people that showed up. Some estimations have it at 700,000. Some over a million.
Somewhere along the way, while trying to take useless photos in the dark, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and with it came all of the money I was holding for that night. I’m sure the person who found it put it to good use. Passing through endless drag queen sidewalks of exhaust and jammed taxis, I finally caught a lift with my sympathetic friends and we made our way back to the Malecón to rendezvous with others and carry on into the night.
When it comes to the concerns of whether or not Havana is ready for events of this magnitude, I’m here to tell you that those concerns are founded on reality. The Stones were forced to postpone their show because of Obama’s visit. Havana’s infrastructure is so bad that it is hard not to examine each building and road as you walk along the fragile streets. Looking up, you often see laundry hanging on buildings that appear as if they could crumble to the ground with one strong gust of wind. Looking down, there are seemingly bottomless potholes and even whole chunks of road or sidewalk missing. Add to that scores of buildings that are nothing more than skeletons and others with whole sections caved in due to faulty construction and poor maintenance.
For an artistic reference to this, read Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy, a book forbidden in Cuba. Combined with seedy stories of Havana’s underbelly, you’ll hear about how tragic and desperate life became for Cubans in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the Russians stopped sending financial support to Cuba. Gutiérrez is known as the Bukowski of Cuban literature. Unfortunately, my attempts to locate and interview him in Havana were unsuccessful.