She started out as a blast of hot air from an expresso machine on the counter of Café Americana in Guatamala City. That blast of hot air was carried north until it got mixed with the down draught from a herd stampede in the San benito valley. When that heady combination of hot air hit the exhaust from a clapped out VW carrying a family of six across down town Belize a violent gust of wind, with a temperature of 110 degrees F, spiralled into the atmosphere. Heading east towards Kingston, that mass of hot air pulled in some cooler winds from the Caribbean and all hell broke loose. We had the start of a twister. They gave it a name: they called it ‘Claudette’. It was the third tropical storm of the season and it was coming our way. If it turned into a hurricane, it could destroy my holiday in Cuba.
CNN kept track of Claudette and I kept track of CNN, watching every weather report until Claudette became something of an obsession. It’s a funny thing about names, especially girl’s names. With a girl’s name, there’s always a song to go with it and I knew that Dylan had written a song with ‘Claudette’ in the lyric somewhere. It would have been easier for me if they had called the TS ‘Ramona’ or ‘Rita Mae’ or ‘Sara’ but we were only in July, you would have to wait until early next year before the hurricane alphabet got to the R’s or the S’s. So I was haunted by the Everly’s with their ‘ Oh, woe Claudette. Pretty little pet Claudette. Never make me fret Claudette’. Haunted that is until those lines from ‘The Grooms Still Waiting At the Altar’ dawned on me:
How could I forget those lines, especially as we were holidaying west of the Jordan and also west of the Rock of Gibraltar. Then, with something of a shudder, I also remembered the opening lines of the verse just quoted:
Was Bob trying to warn me about Claudette? Jeeze, I hoped not.
As it turned out Claudette turned left into the Gulf of Mexico and missed us completely. The folks of Texas weren’t so lucky however as the angry lady lashed out at Brownsville and Galveston, uprooting trees and destroying homes in the process.
So we were safe in Cuba; safe in Havana despite the declaration of George Dubbleya that this particular city was at the centre of the ‘Axis of Evil’; safe, despite the humidity in the 90’s playing havoc with the sensitivities of our delicate European constitutions; and safe despite the street hustlers who would, every 10 yards or so, harangue any obvious tourist with: “Hey, Senor. Wanna buy a seegar?” or “Hey Amigo, my friend. Wanna have a nice meal?” Apparently, if you took up the offer of a cigar or a nice place to eat, you get lead to some squat where anything was for sale from watered down Club Rum to young mulatto girls with coral anklets. We resisted the offers.
It’s no wonder that Ernest Hemingway fell in love with Havana. The place has a 24 hour buzz that would have perfectly suited Hemingway’s own 24 hour lifestyle. No matter what time of the day or night I walked onto our hotel balcony overlooking Parque Central in Havana, the population was on a constant meander. At 2.45 am there were people walking their dogs, families out with children, passengers being carried in rickshaws and all this against a background of what looked like a 1950’s film set with vintage Cadillacs and Chevrolets being used as taxis. Perhaps it was the heat and the humidity that brought these night walkers out on to the streets; perhaps they were exercising their right to search in the darkness for some kind of destiny as they found themselves caught up in Castro’s continual struggle with the outside world; or perhaps it was just that they found it hard to sleep in a city that is forever awake. On none of their faces though did I trace marks of weakness or marks of woe. In none of their cries did I hear mind-forg’d manacles; but then I was a tourist, only here for a short period, only here to holiday, to soak up the atmosphere, to enjoy that Salsa beat and to follow the Hemingway trail. What the hell would I know about life after dark in a tenement block in old Havana?
Hemingway clearly knew a lot
about life after dark in Havana for he lived on Cuba for 20 years and
wrote most of his famous novels there. When he learned, in 1954, that he
had been awarded the Nobel prize for literature, he said ‘This prize
belongs to Cuba, since my works were created and conceived in
Cuba…..’. In preparation for our trip to Havana, and indeed during
our stay, I re-read a lot of Hemingway and one passage from his novel
‘To Have and Have Not’ seemed particularly pertinent having regard to
the starling news from home of a major player in the Iraq dossier
debacle having taking his own life following unbearable pressure being
wreaked upon him. The particular passage, written in typical Hemingway
journalese style, concerned a capitalist yacht owner who:
Then, the following passage which deals with suicide and is set out here, not only to demonstrate Hemingway’s genius but also as a reminder to those who know his work or a starter to those who don’t:
‘Some made the long drop from the apartment or the office window; some took it quietly in two-car garages with the motor running; some used the native tradition of the Colt or the Smith and Wesson; those well constructed implements that end insomnia, terminate remorse, cure cancer, avoid bankruptcy, and blast an exit from intolerable positions by the pressure of a finger; those admiral instruments so easily carried, so sure of effect, so well designed to end the American dream when it becomes a nightmare, their only drawback the mess they leave for relatives to clean up’.
The passage also has its irony attached because, like his father before him, Hemingway took his own life. After three unsuccessful suicide attempts, Hemingway blasted an exit from intolerable positions by the pressure of his own finger on the trigger. He died in 1961 aged 62 years.
We were not in Havana however to mourn Hemingway’s demise but rather to celebrate his work and take a brief glimpse into his chaotic life. This we did, firstly by visiting the Ambos Mundos hotel on Obispo street in the old part of the city where Hemingway had rented a small room on the 5th floor. Our visit to room 511 was made special because no one else was there! The hotel has turned the room into a mini-museum and the attendant told us that, in high season, about one thousand visitors a week paid their two dollars each to enter the room. Now that the hurricane season had arrived, tourist numbers had dropped and so we were able to unhurriedly ponder the artefacts (including the author’s old Royal typewriter) and take a long and leisurely look across the same Havana skyline towards which Hemingway had no doubt peered for inspiration on occasions.
And then of course there were the bars: the La Bodeguita del Medio and the Floridita, both made famous by the author’s visits and infamous by his drinking sprees. On our visit, both places were packed out with punters ready to try a ‘daiquiri’, the tropical cocktail which Hemingway helped to invent, and although we stuck to local beers in the Floridita, it was many a daiquiri that passed our lips before our time in Cuba had ended.
Hemingway entertained extensively in Cuba and one snippet of gossip that
caught my interest concerned a visit by Ava Gardner to Hemingway on the
island in the 1940’s. Ava Gardner was of course the former wife of Frank
Sinatra and Sinatra had also wined and dined the special lady of his
life in Havana, when they stayed at the very grand ‘Hotel Nacional’. The
Nacional is like something out of Palm Springs and is famous for its
links with the Mafia before Castro dispelled the thieves from his Temple
and banished the great and the ungood from his doorstep. Now that things
have changed and certain lucky tourists have been let back in, we
decided to tread in Frank and Ava’s footsteps and so we booked a meal at
the Nacional followed by a cabaret in the hotel’s show room. At dinner I
realised though that I was totally out of my depth in this aristocratic
social scene when the wine waiter refused to serve me the Cuban red that
I had ordered at 14 dollars a bottle.
The Pope eventually returned with his crisp white apron, his black
leather belt with all manner of bright fancy gadgets hanging from it,
and his trolley.
I mentioned that Ava Gardner had visited Hemingway on Cuba. The reason I became interested in this piece of tittle tattle was that one of the books that I had taken on holiday with me was ‘Mr.S. – The Last Word on Frank Sinatra’, a tabloid style ‘kiss ‘n’ tell’ book co-written by George Jacobs, Big Frank’s valet and confidant for the 15 years between 1953 and 1968. The book was rampant with stories of Frank and Ava and indeed became the best book to read when we arrived at the beach resort of Varadero, which took up the second part of our holiday on Cuba. Gone were the hustle and bustle days of Havana, all we had to do now was choose the right factor of sun cream to ease the pain of our idleness, and read.
Whilst the ‘Frank’ book was an easy going read on the beach, another
book that I had with me got me into some difficulty. I had promised my
travelling companion that this was going to be a ‘Bob–free’ holiday but,
part way through the break, on Thursday 10th July to be
exact, I received a text message from our daughter as follows:
The ‘weird’ reference was that, previously knowing of the connection between ‘Love and Theft’ and ‘Confessions of a Yakuza’, I had persuaded my daughter to buy this little book for me as a birthday present, as the first day of my holiday just happened to fall on my birthday. I had accordingly smuggled this ‘Bob-item’ into the luggage and was a good way through reading it when I received my daughters text. Weird eh?
The connection between ‘Love and Theft’ and ‘Confessions of a Yakuza’,
was first spotted by a guy called Chris Johnson who is an English
teacher living in Japan. Following the recognition of similarities in
certain lines of the songs on the album and the book, Chris made the
following posting on the internet:
Textual sources to the "Love
and Theft" songs
Here are some phrases that Dylan apparently lifted from the English translation of Junichi Saga's Confessions of a Yakuza (translated by John Bester) and used on Love and Theft:
Cheers! Chris Johnson Kitakyushu, Japan’
I was intrigued sufficiently to request a copy of the book and, sure enough, I found the textual references pointed out by Chris. True to her word, my daughter videod the C4 news item which lasted for less than a minute and in which the rock critic Charles Shaar Murray made the following observation: ‘I don’t think you really can call what Dylan’s done here with the song ‘Floater’ plagiarism. It’s quite a long song, it tells a story. There are a few lines in it in which paraphrases of the lines from the Yakuza novel have been embedded but it’s not as if the song could not have existed without those lines.’
So, what’s it all about Bobby? Well, as you may have guessed, I have my own theory but that will have to wait until the conclusion of my ‘Visions of Johanna’ exploration, the penultimate episode of which will appear in the next Freewheelin'. Did I really say ‘penultimate’?
In the meantime, it’s back to Cuba. At the end of our fantastic holiday CNN reported that another tropical storm, (perhaps hurricane) was heading our way. It was called ‘Erica’. Now this time it didn’t take me too long to remember the Dylan line with the name ‘Erica’ in it….although I may have got the surname……wrong!
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