Audioslave’s Havana Affair: John Norris Reports From Cuba

John Norris explores the Cuban capital with culture-crossing rock band.

HAVANA — I admit I have been lucky enough to visit many of the places in the world I’d always wanted to, but among those places on my “gotta see — and gotta see soon” list was Cuba. I’d definitely considered going the, ahem, “third country” route in the past, but it never happened. And going to Cuba for work? I thought that was unlikely, and certainly never thought I’d be going because an American band was going to be playing in Havana, of all places.

But that’s exactly what happened this week, when we got the word that Audioslave had achieved what most U.S. artists wouldn’t even think possible — they had booked a trip to Havana to play a free outdoor concert for as many hard rock-starved fans as wanted to attend.

We flew to Atlanta, and the next morning we made it to a private terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport to board not just any old private jet, mind you, but the Miami Heat’s own jet, for the flight to the Caribbean. (Seems the Heat, having already secured a berth in the second round of the NBA playoffs and taking it easy for the week, could spare their ride.) Our five-person MTV News team boarded and awaited the arrival of the band’s crew, managers, road management, their own video crew (they’ll be releasing a DVD of the trip) and then the guys themselves — Brad, Tim, Chris and the man that you had to figure was behind this whole idea, the man who’s always worn his politics on his sleeve like a badge of honor, the guitar god with a conscience: Tom Morello.

But it quickly became apparent that politics and polemic were not the point of this trip. In a quick airborne interview, Morello talked about the excitement of bringing Audioslave’s brand of hard rock to the Cuban masses, and said he’d been dreaming of playing there for years. He insisted the point of this trip was not to make a political statement, but to take part in a musical cultural exchange.

After a half-hour stop in Miami (apparently, if you fly from the U.S., you can only fly into Cuba via Miami), the Heat plane (now unofficially designated “Audioslave One”) took off for what I can only call the most exhilarating 30-minute plane ride of my life. To leave the Florida Keys and head into Cuban airspace was truly amazing. Call it the appeal of the “forbidden”; whatever it was, it was a new kind of exciting.

As has been everything we have seen since we got here. From the landing at José Martí Airport — where the Cuban press seemed fascinated, and maybe a little unsure of, what to make of this American band that had seemingly done the impossible — to the drive from the airport, where you are immediately struck by — what? Yes, the ’50s cars; yes, the crowded buses; yes, the generally shabby condition of things. But more than anything? No McDonald’s, no Starbucks, no Wal-Mart and no billboards trying to sell you stuff. Well that’s not entirely true. Plenty of billboards. What they’re selling, though, is not material, but philosophy: “Viva La Revolución!” “La Obra De La Revolución Es Invincible” and the simple “Vamos Bien,” featuring a beaming Fidel Castro. This may have been a trip about cultural exchange, but there is simply no escaping politics in Cuba. It’s everywhere.

Once settled into our hotel — La Nacional, Cuba’s most famous and infamous hotel, having once been a favorite haunt of gangster Meyer Lansky — our entourage, which numbered about 30, hit the town to take in some sights. First stop, as it is for most visitors here: Old Havana, the colonial part of town where 500 years of architecture comes together, some of it beautifully preserved and/or restored, a lot of it in worse shape. Along with the band, we listened to our guide explain the history of the fortress known as Castillo De La Real Fuerza. We visited the Plaza De Las Armas, where each of the guys got a 60-second caricature drawn by one of the enterprising locals, and Tom picked up a couple of books — one on Cuban music, the other on baseball. We walked the narrow streets of La Vieja Habana, saw Ernest Hemingway’s old house, and Brad and Timmy said that, like Tom, they’d been wanting to come here since the days of Rage.

Finally after a trip to Cathedral Square, where Morello cut a rug with a local woman to some mariachi music, and an encounter with possibly the friendliest stray dog on the planet (he wanted to go home with Wilk), we boarded the bus for some politics.

That came in the form of the Plaza De La Revolución. Dominated by a monument to Cuban hero José Martí and surrounded by revolutionary billboards, government buildings, an imposing image of Che Guevara and lots and lots of asphalt, the plaza is the place in Havana where that old Soviet-style socialism feels most prevalent.

Enough Lenin — time for Lennon. We made a quick stop to the very green John Lennon Park, where Chris Cornell struck a pose on the park bench next to the bronze statue of the former Beatle.

Dinnertime meant more history: Floridita restaurant was a favorite hangout of Hemingway’s (there’s a great shot of Papa and Fidel on the wall) and it’s where the daiquiri was invented. Yes, I had one.

Day 2? The band made an early-morning stop at a local radio station, where the DJ told Cornell he had “not only one of the greatest voices of all time, but of all genres of music.” That was followed by a private tour of the Karl Marx Theatre, and then back to the hotel for a midday press conference for a fascinated throng of Cuban reporters. Questions ranged from the provocative (“How does it feel to be playing a venue known as the ‘Anti-Imperialist Tribunal’?”) to the simple (“How did you leave your old bands to form Audioslave?” Brad: “Well for us it was simple; we no longer had a singer”) to the downright bizarre (“Chris, could you sing some of ‘Black Hole Sun’ for us?”).

We got some one-on-one time with the guys after that, and at the halfway point of this unprecedented trip, they still seemed elated, maybe even more so. They’re not gonna talk politics (at least not as long as they’re here). They’re not gonna give too many details about how this unimaginable trip became a reality (but they are loving the Cuban people, revelling in the Cuban culture and the warm welcome and getting set to play the “loudest concert Havana has ever heard” along the Malecon tomorrow night). As Morello said, “There’s been an embargo against rock and roll for too long, and at least that embargo is coming to and end.”

It should be quite a show.