HAVANA — A day later and I'm still reeling from one of the truly great musical, cultural, life-affirming events I've ever been lucky enough to be a part of.
First of all, to Green Day, Bruce Springsteen, Bright Eyes, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews, System of a Down — to any band from the U.S. that has ever dreamed of playing Cuba, but dismissed the idea as being virtually impossible — think again. A North American band played the hell out of Havana on Friday night, and it was an encounter that neither Audioslave nor the tens of thousands of rabid young Cubans jammed into La Tribuna Anti-Imperialista plaza and spilling out onto the seaside highway known as the Malecon — will soon forget (see "Audioslave Slay Havana With Historic Show").
A note about the venue: It's a surprisingly modern-looking — at least by Cuba's normally shopworn standards — open-air plaza featuring tubular steel arches that create a tunnel effect, ending in a stage that can accommodate events musical or political. In fact, La Tribuna became famous several years ago as the place Cubans rallied for the return of Elian Gonzales, the boy that sadly became a political football in the decades-old chest-thumping contest between Cuba and its large and powerful neighbor to the north. So the plaza just happens to sit smack-dab in front of the only American government presence in Cuba, the heavily fortified U.S. Interests Section (Guantanamo Bay is not technically part of Cuba), and the billboards the Cubans have erected in front of it give new meaning to in-your-face defiance. "Señores Imperialistas, no los tenemos absolutamente ningún miedo!" (Mr. Imperialists, we have absolutely no fear of you!). Scenes of Abu Ghraib, captioned simply "Fascistas." And just behind the stage, "Venceremos!" (We will win!).
An intimidating, less than welcoming place for a U.S. rock band to play, perhaps? Not at all. Because this wasn't about winning. This wasn't about old disagreements, paranoias, rivalries, embargoes or isolation. This was about inclusion, exchange and that one thing we all get — this was about rocking. That this crowd was ready to rock was apparent from the second we arrived, as local artist X Alfonso (who a couple of hours later would himself join Audioslave onstage) had his fellow Cubanos well primed, and a chant swept like a wave across the sea of, let's say 50 to 60 thousand: "Ow-dyo-slave," "Ow-dyo-slave."
Click for photos from Audioslave's performance in Havana
From the second the guys launched into "Set It Off," the night was off and running. And for two hours and 20 minutes — easily the band's longest show ever — they never looked back. From salsa dancing to pits breaking out down front and out in the middle to flags from all over the world — banners including "Te Queremos Chris Cornell" (We love you, Chris Cornell) — this crowd displayed the pure unadulterated kind of joy you get from finally tasting something you knew was out there, only it was always 90 miles out of reach. As Morello said, the rock-and-roll embargo had come to an end. It was all rock, all love, no hate. (OK, there was that one American flag being displayed upside down — and probably not by accident — for the entirety of the show, but there's always one in the bunch ...).
The music young Cubans were most familiar with? Definitely the songs from Audioslave's first album, especially the closer "Cochise" and "Like a Stone," which came early on and inspired a singalong, as did Chris Cornell's acoustic turn on "Black Hole Sun" later on. To no one's surprise, the instrumental take on Rage Against the Machine's "Bulls on Parade" generated enough electricity to light up the entire island, and with Cornell's new vocal flavor added to "Killing in the Name" — the Cubanos went, well, what's Spanish for "apesh--"?
And for a passing moment, I did think of a certain dreadlocked, politically hell-bent young man named Zack de la Rocha, and what he of all people would have made of this historic trip. Well, maybe he'll make it here some day. Hopefully a lot of people will make it here. As new Audioslave song titles and lyrics like "Out of Exile" and the jamming new single "Your Time Has Come" seemed to take on special meaning on this night, all of us involved in this incredible journey were hoping that, at least culturally, this island's time really has come.
Brad Wilk described his impressions of Cuba on his first day here as a place of "tragic beauty" — but then told me the next day that he discovered the truth is that the real beauty is in their people, who live life and love music to the fullest, despite whatever limitations they might have to deal with. From the music school the band visited on Friday to the local musicians who kept coming up to talk to me, the "MTV guy," about their band or asking what music was like in the States, to the street musicians jamming at night along the Malecon — music is everywhere in Cuba.
And finally, two citations for the phenom known as Tom Morello. Best line of the week, when I told him how a kid in the crowd at soundcheck had said that Audioslave playing Havana was the most important thing to happen to Cuba since Christopher Columbus came here more than 500 years ago, Morello quipped, "Well, hopefully we'll spread less anthrax and gonorrhea." No worries there, Tom. You spread the right kind of love.
Even with animals. Not only is he quick, not only can he make a guitar sound like something from another world, not only does he have the balls to make his dream of rocking Cuba a reality, but Tom loves dogs. No, I mean he really loves dogs. There are strays all over Havana. One that hung out at our hotel was the sweetest dog you've ever seen, but clearly had been injured and needed some food, a vet and a home. Morello saw to all of it — in fact, even when we were at the airport getting set to leave Havana, he was making sure the dog — who we all named "Audio" — was on his way to his new owner.
Morello for president, dude.
What a week. Viva Audioslave! Viva Cuba!
For more on Audioslave's visit to Cuba, see "Audioslave's Havana Affair: John Norris Reports From Cuba".