The CIA-backed exile invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs failed in 1961. The Beatles were more successful, taking the beaches in the years that followed via portable radios perched precariously on Havana's sea wall and secretly tuned to Miami's WQAM (560-AM). Sixty-one-year-old Alexander Dominguez remembers listening to "La W" and dancing to the Fab Four along the Malecón in the early Sixties, until Castro's police forces would show up and drag the daring rockers to jail. "When the Beatles came out," he recalls, "it was like a storm took over Cuba." The regime prohibited rock music as an ideological diversion from the fight against yanqui imperialism, shutting down parties and confiscating guitars throughout the decade. The measure backfired. Fans took to smuggling A Hard Day's Night, Help!, and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band into the country and hiding them in the covers of Cuban platters. Underground parties flourished. Rock-starved youth dreamed of a ticket to ride right off the island. "Our one desire was to go to la yuma," says Dominguez on behalf of all Beatlemanicos, "because we couldn't listen to our music."
Jorge Conde became a rockero when he wandered into a party in Havana in 1967. The band asked him to sing "Black Is Black" (you know, "I want my baby back"), the 1964 international English-language hit by Spanish rockers Los Bravos. With that spur-of-the-moment performance, he got himself a steady illegal gig playing covers of Los Rolling Stones, Los Animals, and Los Beatles with Los Kent and later Los Almas Vertiginosas (Vertiginous Souls), two of the most famous clandestine outfits in Cuba that also included Dimension Vertical, Los Gnomos, Los Jets, and Los Hanks. The guerrilla rockers began composing their own music, in English, styled on the chords and lyrics of the imperialists. "I was never an official artist," recalls Conde, "but I pulled down up to $500 a week playing parties and weddings, all underground." In 1970 the regime softened its position on rock, inviting Almas Vertiginosas to play Carnival that year. "We were right across the corner from [the Cuban dance band] Orquesta Revé, and we drew a much bigger crowd than they did," he recalls. That didn't sit well with the revolutionary state. "They cancelled us the third day."
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Conde took a raft to Miami in 1979, the same year Billy Joel and other U.S. soft-rockers played the Karl Marx Theater as part of the historic "Havana Jam." After five days at sea, Conde found himself an instant celebrity in the exile community, but with rock no longer forbidden, the fanfare faded fast. "There was no trace of rock here whatsoever," he remembers. After six years without singing at all, Conde reinvented himself as a salsero. Until 1996, when Dominguez -- who left the island in 1991 and arrived in Miami via Toronto in 1994 -- rounded up the retired exile rockers for a gig at the Radisson Mart Plaza called Rockstalgia, backed by Cuban media pirate Waldo Fernandez of Marakka 2000. That same year the Castro regime drifted from Lenin to Lennon, hosting the first egghead revolutionary forum on the social significance of the Beatles. Every year since, the exile and island forces have laid stronger claims on the classic-rock legacy.
On December 8, the twentieth anniversary of John Lennon's assassination, Rockstalgia will play a 28-song slate of rock from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin at the seat of exile culture, the Tropigala, while the Cuban government will unveil a bronze statue of John Lennon in Havana Park (informally known as Rockeros' Park), where covert jam sessions once took place. To confuse matters further, former Beatle Paul McCartney made a much ballyhooed visit to the island this past spring, signing "Viva la Revolucion!" in a guest book at a tourist attraction in Santiago. If the logic of exile extremism takes its merry course, we might look forward to a protest of the middle-age musicians of Rockstalgia for playing in Miami the same songs Castro prohibited in their youth.
From rock to rave, the harder the state tries to dictate fun, the more kids (even old kids) get off on getting around the prohibitions. The point is now so obvious that it's painful to repeat: This is Big Brother's brain and he's stupid. Or is he? Without even tallying the billion-dollar business of Beatlemania in terms of album sales, publishing rights, and tie-ins around the world, the landmark (and illegal) use of Lennon's "Revolution" by Nike in a commercial run during the Super Bowl in 1988 proved that nothing sells better than sedition. Book your (illegal) holiday now to see Lennon's statue in Havana! Fork over 40 clams for the Zen Muzik Festival and pony up for the pills Miami-Dade County doesn't want you to pop! No wonder capitalism won. Just when you think you're bucking the system, all you're really doing is passing your bucks.