Sometimes, songs about places are about not where someone has been but where they would like to go, either because they have idealised it in their mind or perhaps because they just like the sound of the name (as with the Bee Gees and Massachusetts). On occasion, they may even know they will never get there because the place is imaginary (Somewhere Over The Rainbow). The song here, Going Down to Cuba by Jackson Browne, is a different sort of song of this ilk - about a place the author hasn’t been to yet because obstacles have been placed in the way. These aren’t the usual obstacles that appear in songs for someone to overcome in the pursuit of their heart’s desire-“ You can reach me by caravan, cross the desert like an arab man....you can jump on a speedy colt, cross the border in a blaze of hope” etc, etc. These are not heroic challenges but political barriers and not the usual stuff of songs.
The motivation for this song has, of course, a perspective from the USA - one can get on a plane in London and arrive at Havana 9 hours later with no more difficulty than flying to Spain. However, the travel restrictions between the USA and Cuba have added an extra dimension - and maybe the frisson of forbidden fruit - to American songs about Cuba over the years. As early as 1964, Phil Ochs covered the visit to Cuba-and subsequent arrest- of the African-American reporter, William Worthy, in his typically witty Ballad of William Worthy-“Well, there really is no need to travel to these evil lands, Yes, and though the list grows larger you must try to understand. Try hard not to be surprised if someday you should hear that the whole world is off limits, visit Disneyland this year”.
44 years, and 8 American Presidents, later Jackson Browne echoed the same sentiments in Going Down to Cuba. It is a longer and more earnest song than Ochs’ and reads at times what it actually is - a musical rewriting of his article in the New York Times of 2004 about the embargo on cultural exchange: 'Songs of Cuba, silenced in America’. It is not often one expects to hear a line like “They make such continuous use of the verb, ‘to resolve’ “ outside of a Paul Simon song. As such, it is less a song about Cuba itself than about another country’s perspective on it, though at a different end of the political spectrum than, say, Gloria Estefan’s Cuba Libre. Music and politics have always mingled easily in Cuba, with the murals of Che Guevara and posters of the Cuban 5 overlooking the musicians playing at every street corner and café. That mix does not always come so easy to songs that look at the country from outside,
However, it is a song that quietly grows, with the gentle rhythm of the music and background vocals and the hopeful expectation of the singer of finally experiencing the Havana landmarks that any visitor to Cuba might expect to see. The Hotel Nacional overlooking the Malecon, where once in pre-Castro days Frank Sinatra sung at mafia gatherings where guests dined on tortoise and flamingo and where now you can stay in the Nat King Cole room or look at the photos in the lobby of more recent visitors like Naomi Campbell and Ken Livingstone. Or the Malecon itself, the long coastal stretch where the crumbling grandeur of the palatial buildings is buffeted by the waves and sporadic hurricanes and the smell of brine and fish hangs in the air. Or the initially bizarre sight of 1950’s Chevrolets, Dodges and Cadillacs still driving round, held together by Soviet parts and the ingenuity of Cuban mechanics." It’ll put a smile on your face to see a Chevrolet with a Soviet transmission”. Or the ubiquitous mojitos and cigars. It is through these little touches and the gently barbed comments-‘they know what to do in a hurricane’- that the song becomes more than a worthy editorial on the cultural and economic blockade.
The music of the Beatles was once seen as western decadence in Cuba. However, now in a small park - known as Rockers’ Park- - in the Vedado district of Havana there is a bronze sculpture of John Lennon, with a plaque of some of the lines from Imagine in Spanish, ‘You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one’. (Tourists trying to find it need to pronunciate the name clearly to taxi drivers, as they may end up looking at the statue of Lenin in Parque Lenin south of the city instead.) There is, of course, another memorial to John Lennon in a park: in Central Park, New York, a 3 hour flight away. There must be a moral there somewhere.
Link to song