Growing up in Flanders, NJ in the 1980’s was a lot like living in Cuba in the first decade of the new millennium. In both epochs of my life, my friends and I ate copious amounts of pizza. We had nothing to do and nowhere to go. There was no internet, and no one had cell phones. Our pot was lame. We finagled beer and vodka and drank on the streets. We were made stronger by the Power of Metal. When I write that, it is said like thunder and each syllable is very important. The Power of Metal.
Except, in the 80’s, in Flanders, I was a very young teenager. I had no control over my circumstances. At the age of 11, my father would finally leave, which was a good thing because he took his out of control temper with him. The judge awarded custody to my mother, forcing my father to contribute the legal equivalent of pitching in here and there. We were struggling financially, and the absence of a father, not necessarily mine, made adolescence even more difficult. Heavy metal was a natural outlet. Metal united me with all the other misfits of society, and we loved the Misfits. The voice of my frustration against the injustice of my circumstances, against the suffocating feeling of adolescence, of being controlled by adults who stood in the way of my fierce determination to be self destructive, was heard through Metallica, Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue, Testament, Anthrax.
To live in Cuba means to be isolated from the world. Kind of like living in Flanders in the 80’s. There are three television channels that show Friends, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and Gilmore Girls, courtesy of the state. There are three newspapers. To have access to internet, you must have permission from the government. Most Cubans do not have access to the internet.
Living in Cuba is the eternal suffocating feeling of adolescence, even when you’re a grown up. You have no control over your external circumstances. You live with your parents. In most cases, your bedroom, when you have one, the guitar player Yanio does not, bears the same decorating savvy as it did when I ripped my first centerfold out of Circus Magazine.
In Flanders, in the 80’s, when I lived with my mother, and I was angry, pictures from metal magazines, right angle to right angle, joined forces to create a motley montage of hair and heavy metal hands. Ratt, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Queensryche, with an occasional intruder like Chief Seattle because he was also righteous and had long hair. Alejandro,the drummer of Escape, has this wall, with Scarlett Johansen looking completely comfortable out of place because she knew, if given the chance, that Slipknot and Megadeath would love to be her boyfriend. She had no fear on the wall of metal.
I ripped down my photos when I became more sophisticated and slightly gothy and punk rocky and wrote poetry like most ugly girls in high school. My hair was thankful. So was my vagina, in lieu of skin tight jeans, I started wearing loose anti-objectification garb. But, I had options. There were choices. Even in culturally vapid Flanders, I could land my hands on DK and Black Flag and go through my whole Sid and Nancy worship phase. (I kid you not, I saw that movie no less than 20 times and still confuse Sid Vicious with Gary Oldman. Watching JFK was a complete mind fuck.)
Metal came to the island poco a poco after the ban against John Lennon was lifted in 1966, after the first wave of rock music came to Cuba. Cubans who had the opportunity to travel to Germany or other countries of the USSR came back toting Metallica and Judas Priest. Metal did not come to Cuba from the US, as the majority of US tourists go to see old cars and marvel at the musicians in the square who play Guantanamera or Hotel California. The activists who travel there on some humanitarian mission or another tend to cling to the hip hop movement, also state controlled, extolling Martin Luther King who can’t get any peace where ever he is trying to rest, since Cubans aren’t permitted in hotels, nor or they permitted to demonstrate against these segregationist policies. Todavia.
Metal is an expression of individual liberty, explosive and furious, passionate. For these Cubans, born into the successes of the revolution and the suffering of the Special Period, they are finding their own way, despite all odds, to define who they are.
In Cuba, this is especially difficult. In Cuba, this is especially courageous. Access to instruments, practice space, electricity, social acceptance, accessories, is difficult. You are not permitted to speak freely. Escape, the band featured in this documentary, shouts, growls, screams what they feel, explosively, forcing people to listen.
Metal, the white, working class equivalent of hip hop, the trumpet, I mean electric guitar, for collective frustrations, was identified with western values and ideals by the Cuban government and seen as contraband. Cuban metalheads, frikis, were arrested for having long hair only 15 years ago. Patio Maria, Havana’s equivalent of CBGB’s, gave a home to those early bands, Zeus, Agonizer, Escape, and Hipnosis and a birthplace for metal until it was shut down in 2000.
What is so ironic, so fucking ironic, about that, is that metal led me down the path to my commitment to social and political justice. I found a deep correlation in the injustice of my parent’s relationship, the subsequent lousy divorce settlement, our financial struggle, in the themes explored in my favorite metal songs. And I loved Stephen King. (See Among the Living) I emphasized with the plight of native americans (Chief Seattle, again, righteous and long hair. The first metal head ever! Run to the HIlls, brothers!) I was concerned about the nature of good and evil, I also wanted to bring the noise. Metal, when you scratch the surface, is against the status quo. I wanted to rock and roll all night, and party every day. That first act of resistance, of realizing you had choices, you didn’t have to participate in the capitalist 80’s culture of cocaine and bad hair, yes, Cuba, the worst tenets of capitalism, were born into the consciousness through metal.
It was through metal, and punk, and hip hop, through Dee Snider and John Denver and NWA, that I became politicized and took my first steps towards becoming anti -imperialist. It was because of the PMRC (Parent’s Music Resource Center, led by Tipper Gore) and “Tales of the Witch Trials”, cassettes by Jello Biafra on his political views and why pot was really illegal, it was because of “Injustice for All”, that I became a “revolutionary” in college. It was really because my sister bought “Back in Black” on vinyl when I was 11 that I would arrive with hungry eyes and narrow perspective in Havana 15 years later. To find other metal heads, despondent and discouraged by their own society’s shortcomings, just like me. Just like me.
Two years ago, visionary and metalhead, Yuri Max Avila rallied the Cuban government for support, and Maxim Rock, the premiere (and only!) metal venue was born in Havana. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Escape, Combat Noise, Zeus, Agonizer, or Hipnosis play. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the club closes and frikis trudge on down to the park at G and 23rd. Five or 6 people contribute towards purchasing a bottle of vodka and the night begins. Again. The same way it did the night before. A week before. Years ago.