Spain, Stocks and Rock UnBlocked

When I read the news of Spain’s youth taking over the streets, I had my typical these days reaction which was to bounce up and down in my seat and contain the energy surging in my veins that wanted me there, now, into the hopeful and encouraging FB status and link that maybe some would comment on. Boo.

But as a recovering lefty activist, I was inspired to see people redefining their movement to change the world outside of the left/right paradigm that has dominated the discussion of class politics for the last 50 years.

Why is UnBlock the Rock so special? Because nothing has epitomized the left/right dichotomy more than the relationship of Cuba and the United States. And so within this very confined discussion of “No, you” “No, YOU!” Somehow, someway, heavy metal arrived on the island in the mid 80’s. Somehow, someway, the same music that helped me identify my systems of oppression arrived at the polar opposite of that system and defined another. 

We have to be friends. Cuba and the United States that is. Regardless of what Cubans think about their situation, and it’s their decision to make, it’s really ridiculous that it’s illegal for US citizens to travel there. 

I believe in free health care and free education. I believe in freedom of speech. I believe they can all exist together. I also believe it’s time for us to focus on what brings us together and start determining our future in a time when the stocks are down and Spain is rising and the middle east is figuring things out and how rock and roll figures into all of this. I believe it’s time to stop being so left you’re right and so right you’re wrong and coming up with a new ideology, a new ideology that sounds good.

So what is UnBlock the Rock? It’s us recognizing that on an island where it is impossible to find toilet paper, these people found guitar strings. It’s us realizing that if nothing else, we all have Metallica. It’s us coming out to see three great bands for 10$ and that 10$ going towards legal fees to organize Cuban hard core band Escape, featured in the rocumentary “They Will Be Heard” (the website of which, surprisingly is theywillbeheard.com) and organizing the first Cuban metal tour on US soil ever.

Come out, June 24th, at 11 pm to see FireHaze, Iratetion, and Trash Executioner at Boca Grande (564 Washington BLVD) Jersey City.

Wake up, it’s the beginning of the new world.

-
Tracey Noelle Luz, Director, “They Will be Heard”

The Flanders – Havana Connection

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.

And the Award Goes to…

A documentary film maker records the present to present the past in the future. We are the Billy Pilgrims of film making. Our schizophrenia doesn’t become apparent until the editing process, if at all.

When I set out to document Cuban heavy metal band Escape, I had every intention of approaching the film with the sterility of a German dental assistant. I wasn’t going to chug vodka with the band, for example. I certainly wasn’t going to sleep with anyone. I was going to love them from afar, like a sick relative in the hospital you don’t want to touch. I would admire, observe, cringe, document.

But, I do not have the clinical approach of a German. I possess more the unbounded love of a German Shepard. Let’s be friends, let’s be friends, let’s be friends. It’s not entirely my lack of discipline, the band was really, if I have one memory, the band was really giving to me. So, when a handful of people who have nothing except but an Olympic sense of sharing are constantly giving to you, any objective purpose is lost between “Muchas gracias!” and “Ay! Que bueno!”

And so Escape and I were friends for 9 long months. This is tremendous and rare. Americans are not legally allowed to travel to Cuba. Once they arrive, the Cuban government does not allow Americans to live with Cubans. Often, Cubans and Americans fall in love. There are countless stories of how these predestined love affairs crumble once somebody gets a green card. But true international love? Tremendous and rare.

After you shoot a documentary, you have to edit it. I am trying to “manifest” the perfect editor by abandoning responsibility. I imagine leaving hard drives on someone’s doorstep wrapped in a blanket with a note. It’s a horrendous act, and even the kindest, shyest young editors will confront you with your actions. You need to look at the footage too, they say. It’s your movie.

So you look at the footage. It’s an interview with the guitar player who came with you to every bureaucratic ordeal possible. Whose mother, struck with Lupus and missing one leg, travels with you to immigration so you can live at their house legally. Everything he says is amazing. While you’re editing, you try to email someone in Cuba to pass along a message. “Oh, I love you all so much, not a day passes where I am not thinking of you.” Instead of returning to edit, you bask in the depth of your love, “It’s amazing I can feel this much! My heart has no limits!” Maybe you go clear your head and watch Law and Order, lost in the wonderment of it all.

So you look at the footage again. It’s another interview with a friki you mistook for the man of your dreams, your soul mate, after you decided to never sleep together again. What a douche bag. Everything he says is stupid. You check your email to see if he sent you an apology yet, and he has not. Maybe you go ahead and watch Law and Order, fuming in the unfairness of it all.

The first months of editing were like that for me. Great Adventure could not conceive of dipping and rising, careening, turning twisting, upside downing and right side upping going on in the roller coaster of my psyche. I defied physics. Meanwhile, my life was passing me by. Spring was ending, but my May was still January. Since July of 2009 and March of 2010, Mexico was my home, my sanctuary when my Cuban visas ran out. I was anticipating another trip. There was no trip to Mexico. There was no more life savings. Only passionate cover letters about working in restaurants. In Jersey City, for better, for worse.

Thankfully, in June, I flew to Chicago for a friend’s wedding. I was reminded that an entire world existed outside of my computer screen. My friend got married, and I took pictures. Freezing moments in time that she had anticipated for the last 6 months, so she too could travel back in time and remember cake and kindness and cousins.

I returned, and my editor and I, one of the best people possible I could have expected to assist me, Anna, finished our grant proposal for Sundance. We took a period of 9 months and made it 26 minutes and 37 seconds in 6 weeks. We are amazing.

In my time travel, I write letters to the future. One, in particular, I post it future Facebook, announcing a huge amount of money that we have procured for the film. The letter is poetic, touching. Many people “like” this post.

I am so happy to have this grant done, I see it as the foundation of our fundraising to procur money, but I realize that I wouldn’t have been able to be here, in this moment, without some very important people. Whether or not we are successful with this particular grant, I am sure we will be successful with many of our other fundraising efforts and I want to say thank you now, because it’s not the money so much. The money is awesome, and necessary, like water, but it is the support of everyone who has allowed me, in the worst economy since the depression, to leave my stupid job and do whatever I want, to make a movie about a Cuban heavy metal band called Escape.

I am trying to stick to a chronological order, so nobody gets jealous of when they were thanked, but please forgive me if you are further down on the list than you think you should be. Thank you to the gorgeous people at 248 who encouraged me to make this decision. Thank you Aki for my beautiful amazing camera necklace and all your encouraging words! Thank you Dan Stafford for helping me pack. Thank you Ms. Macaroni and Danikins and Nikki for storing all my stuff for me. Thank you Michael Colluci for driving me to my sister’s house and sending me a cable one year ago. Thank you Judie for changing my ticket so we could spend extra time together before I left. Thank you Pat Lambe for driving me to the airport one year ago to begin this journey. Thank you High Mountain Mama’s for all your support while I was away. Thank you Nikki for sending me green stuff so I could survive. Thank you so much Escape, but especially Jenny for being my best friend and sister while I was trying to find my way. Thank you so much Judie for flying me to Puerta Vallarta! And thank you Judie and Cliff for letting me live at your house, and for letting me live in your house when it was stocked with Whole Foods! Thank you Esteban for letting me stay in your beautiful home and being my mentor. Thank you Anjelika for buying me and Jenny my first dinner in New York after almost a year. Thank you Sinem for letting me live in your living room while I collected my thoughts and watched Law and Order basking in the insanity of it all. Thank you Nikki and Drew for amazing dinner when I got back. Thank you Negro for all your help and support. Thank you Jen for correcting my submission. Thank you LE for always keeping me in the back of your mind. Thank you Darren for finding someone to brew Escape Beer for a fundraiser and thanks to Marty, the brew guy. Thank you Chiqui for the tattoo time and the Patio Maria video and for being pretty much the reason I was able to make this film. Thank you Alioth for letting me live on your couch. Thank you Kate for help with my free money! Suzy, thank you for website advice. Thank you Diana for being an amazing roommate and friend. Thank you Eric for lending me a camera so I can breathe. Thank you Anna for not killing me. Thank you Mom. Of course. For everything.