Monday, October 20, 2014

Cuba Si, Nixon No

The only version of this song available in full is on an S&G concert album titled Back to College, a recording of a performance in November of 1969. The college in question was Miami University of Ohio. As I learned when visiting that school, it was named for the Miami tribe of Native Americans, whose territory ranged from that area, in what is now Cincinnati, to the current city in Florida.

The song itself, as the title indicates, is one of Simon's most overtly political, and therefore one of his most dated, tracks. Only his songs "He Was My Brother," which mentions the Freedom Riders, and "Desultory Phillipic,"  which name-checks then-current newsmakers, come close in that regard.

The song seems to be about a US airplane hijacked and flown to Havana, Cuba, instead of its intended destination, New Orleans. There was a huge string of US planes hijacked to, or from, Cuba, starting in the 1950s and running through to 2007. They peaked between 1968-1970... with more than 30 such hijackings in 1969 alone! Many of the planes originated in the Southern US, naturally, but some from as far away as New York.

Still, I did not see any specifically bound for New Orleans but forcibly rerouted to Cuba. The nearest approximation was a Boeing 727 flight from New Orleans to Cuba hijacked in November 1968 by one Raymond Johnson. (One from Dallas was landed in New Orleans, and another from New Orleans was bound for Atlanta... but that one did not occur until 1980.)

The passengers numbering "120," as the song indicates, does match the idea of a smaller plane; the 727 generally carries 150-190 people (a 747 can carry more than 400).

But even the Johnson case is not a decent match. That particular case came a full year before the song was performed, for one. Also, the song describes the following scenario: "You know he's sitting in the cockpit, feels like he's in a dream/ Because he's heading to Havana, he should be goin' to New Orleans/ Pistol-cockin' senor, talking very slow and mean."

So it's seemingly not a "Raymond Johnson" doing the dirty deed. To drive the point home, the narrator points out: "The Spanish-speaking people have a different way of running the show."

Also, the idea that the person in the cockpit is the armed, Spanish-speaking one does not follow, as the second verse makes it clear that these are two different people: "He's got 120 passengers he'd like to get them back alive/ [unclear but sounds like] Pistol man is talkin'; he don't believe the man is jive."

Lastly, this hijacking took place in late 1968, while Nixon did not assume the presidency until January 1969. Now, he might have been president-elect at the time; elections are held in mid-November, and the Johnson hijacking was also that month. Unfortunately, I don't have the exact date of the crime. But it may not matter; "Nixon no" might be in protest of a potential Nixon presidency.

The only logical conclusion is that this was not intended to refer to a specific incident, but was a scenario cobbled from pieces of the many such incidents that had occurred.

Even though a planeload of US citizens is being hijacked, Simon seems to side with the desperado doing the hijacking: "Cuba si, Nixon no." (This may sound like language-switching, but the Spanish word for "no" is also "no.") It may seem odd that an American would side against an American president and in favor of a Communist regime run by Fidel Castro, and one that had aimed nukes at the US (back in 1962, in the Cuban Missile Crisis) at that.

But by then, people had a good idea of who Nixon was, too. If more people had said "no" at that point-- even without also saying "si" to Cuba-- US history would be very different indeed.

It's only 90 miles from a US coast to Cuba. The hijacker has "dysentery," says the song, "but there's not need to worry/ there's Havana on the radio." By plane, it's a very short journey indeed.

Musically, the song is raucous. It's a gut-bucket blues heavily influenced by Chuck Berry, along the lines of "Johnny B. Goode," but lyrically it is snidely political, like a Dylan or even a Phil Ochs number.


Musical Note:
It seems Garfunkel was against performing it. Given that there is only one recording of it altogether, it also seems that Simon agreed to retire it almost immediately. It is also reported that the song was written for the Bridge album but left off of the final version. It remains a curious... curiosity in Simon's catalog.

Next Song: Carlos Dominguez













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