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Havana Moon, The Rolling Stones

review by Kevin Harvey


There is a revelation hiding in Havana Moon, the documentary of the Stone’s performance in Cuba.  Let it be said that I was overjoyed to see them playing Cuba, the decades long embargo of Cuba having proved nothing but that Socialized Medicine has keep Castro in the line-up for close to a century and that the resilient Cuban people can run Studebakers on sewing machine parts. Nixon went to China, predicted a century earlier by Henry Adams, and OBAMA, a man so thoroughly decent that he failed to realize he was playing cards with thugs, had the great good sense and courage to lean against the Embargo Door.  And to actually visit Cuba! Something no President has dared or, given our current state of affairs, even consider.  Unless, god forbid, he’s building a casino.  Be that as it may, OBAMA visits Cuba and a day later (Was it really the next day?) The STONES arrive, construct a stage in one day that will live forever in the music-spectacle starved Cuban memory before descending on the island to play a time-defying set for an audience 1.2 MILLION people. That’s one point two MILLION people.  Old guys who beamed with joy to hear songs they’d managed to memorize on the Cultural Black Market- the way Elvis singles sold in Russia in the 1950’s - beautiful young women making American gestures acquired through Morphogenic Field transmission; crazed young men dancing together as if welded into single creature by a demented wizard; granddads, minus dentures, wearing TONGUE tee shirts; and women- in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s 60’s- overjoyed to be loud, roaring Honky Tonk Women in public, dancing for the Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band in the World.  Are they? They were, but are they still? Like many another soul old enough to have seen them with Brian Jones, pre-Altamont Mick Taylor, the ’72 return, and the FIRST Ronnie Wood tour- the year Wood played both his first Stone’s tour and last Faces romp across America -  I thought so; I believed so for a very long time; to miss them in ‘69 or ‘72 was to waste one’s life.  There was nothing like them on the planet; no one who embodied the SPIRIT so totally, who mattered more.  The ’74 Dylan/Band tour would come close and the ongoing Carnival of the DEAD would be life or death to people for years, but neither carried the iconic threat and beauty of the Imperial Stones of ’69 and ’72, which of course begs the question: Are they or are they not the Best Rock and Roll Band in the World? The tragedy of The Stones is that because of that undeniable period of extraordinary creativity and significance, many of us lost the ability to HEAR what they were continuing to do.  An occasional song would surprise one, heard out of context, free of expectations; it was possible that a couple of the albums were pretty good, better than one thought; but it was also possible that they were cynical professionals pretending to be themselves because the dough was just too damn good to pass up.  And yet…

Which brings us to Cuba.  The core band, the unaided four, are a strange, wizened group of scrawny elves.  But there is something glorious in the vanity that says we are so great we don’t give a shit about our wrinkles or Charlies’ bald spot, the fact that Ron Wood looks like that Italian widow you see at cop funerals, and no one knows why Keith is laughing or what the hell he’s talking about.  Mick, striated, pemmican lean, dancing now in goofy puppet ecstasy, is still Mick.  Is always Mick. And they are playing for people who care deeply about what they are playing.

I never read the set list on concert DVD’s or live discs before playing them, because I crave the weird pleasure of recognizing a song by its first two notes, and, just as important, I want to be surprised along with the audience.  Which brings us to the revelation in Havana Moon. They open with Jumpin’ Jack, instead of Start Me Up, which suggests they will close with Brown Sugar, the other punch in the combination.  It’s Only Rock N’ Roll is longer, more intricate, deeper than I remembered, or at least thought when it was new.  And, suddenly, something wonderful, something spooky that I can’t place, until I do. It’s Out of Control and it is superb. If I were limited to the binary two-word critical scale of the young- awesome and/or sucks, no middle ground- I’d call it awesome. It is just killer.  Watching and listening hard,          I place it on one or two possible discs: Voodoo Lounge or Bridges to Babylon.  It is, of course, on Babylon, and I am forced to admit that I underestimated the song, perhaps underestimated, many a tune, that I’d played the Expectation Game I so hate, that I should have allowed them to become a part of the soundtrack to my life and didn’t.  But there’s a totally unexpected pleasure here.  I can still play them, and like some old Cuban granddad, realizing that it is a privilege to be alive and listening, I can live for a time within a different context and hear what is there: solid, heartfelt Rock N’ Roll, played by an extraordinary drummer, a living archetype of a guitar player, a timeless singer in a demonic forty-pound cape or a Barney Fife vacation cap; a Cuban choir-French Horn intro to You Can’t Always Get What You Want, a pounding, endless Satisfaction, and I think: Well, sometimes you can get exactly what you want. All you have to do is wait forty or fifty years, because the sweeping final shot of the crowd is unable to capture its full immensity; because 1.2 million people stretch so far into the darkness that you gasp at the possibility of such an audience. Because they’ve all heard and seen the Greatest Rock n’ Roll band in the world. And they are all happy.  And to put a fine point on it: I’m proud of the Stones for sticking it out, for playing Cuba, and, bless them,  for recognizing exactly what it meant.