Thursday, August 4, 2016
No need to just 'Imagine' statue of Lennon in Cuba

It took me at least 10 years to finally find my way to “John Lennon Park,” formerly “Parque Menocal,” in Havana, but I’m glad I did. Before each trip, a Cuba “to-shoot” list is created, but trip after trip, locating the bronze statue of the famed former Beatle seemed to fall to the wayside. While I don’t remember the year, I absolutely remember how exciting it was to finally see this amazing work of art.

Anyone who has been to Cuba knows they’re big on statues and monuments. And if I had to guess, I’d say there are at least 10,000 busts in honor of Jose Marti across the island. That’s what I thought I’d find, a simple bust of John Lennon. Arriving at 17th and 6th streets in the classic, leafy neighborhood of Vedado, I scanned the landscape: Jose Marti bust, check, little kids playing soccer, check, full-size statue of John Lennon sitting on a park bench, check?

Looking back, I guess I wasn’t the “Googler” I am today because I had no idea what I was looking for. An image search these days produces tons of photos from every angle. And just as the search engines will tell you, there he sits, his signature spectacles long gone, stolen for souvenirs, time and time again. Thankfully, there’s usually a little old man nearby with a pair of glasses he will loan you for a buck or so to complete the photo. Apparently the guy had taken the day off when I made this particular shot.

Unveiled, ironically, by Fidel Castro himself on the 20th anniversary of Lennon’s death, the bronzed Lennon was an instant hit among Habaneros and tourists alike and proved the Cuban leader had changed his opinions of the rebellious Brit. On that day, back in December of 2000, Castro said he respected Lennon for his uphill battles against the American government. Long gone was the ban of Beatles music from the 1960s and 1970s. Of course, according to mi amigos, they still listened to everything from the Fab Four, to Abba, to Zeppelin, but only with black market cassette tapes and behind closed doors.

Created by Cuban artist José Villa Soberón, the statue sits atop a marble tile base that reads: “Dirás que soy un soñador pero no soy el único” which is the Spanish version of “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” from the song “Imagine.”

While it’s not officially documented, the choice of the statue’s location could easily be traced back to 1990 when a young Cuban musician named Jorge Dalton and his friends wanted to commemorate the 10-year anniversary by doing a rooftop tribute concert at the Habana Libre Hotel’s second-floor deck. Their idea was to mirror the Beatles’ 1969 gig in London. Despite much planning and initial support from the government, the musicians were denied permission to play at the high-profile hotel. Ultimately, by using power from nearby homes and street light poles, Dalton and a handful of friends packed the park, big time. Said Dalton of that day, “The park was also surrounded by a long cordon of police officers, who ended up singing ‘Yesterday,’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ ‘Come Together’ and ‘Let It Be’ along with us.” Near the end of the show, which packed the huge park, musician Carlos Varela baptized the park “John Lennon Park.”

Perhaps the most incredible revelation, personally, was reading about the accompanying concert in front of the U.S. Interests Section offices (now the American embassy) the same day Castro unveiled the Lennon statue. It just so happens that David Sloan and I were sipping mojitos at the Hotel Nacional, overlooking the Malecon on Dec. 8, 2000, and I absolutely remember the waiter saying it was a John Lennon tribute concert. It’s hard to believe we were so close to two cool events, but enjoying mojitos with one of your favorite people in your favorite place on Earth is pretty unbelievable, too.