Nelson Jiménez: "If rock dies one day, I will not be able to attend his wake"
Nelson Jiménez is a casual and direct guy, a little irreverent, even. a soul of rock star available for research and knowledge of everything, or practically everything, related to rock. That was the impression he made on me the first time he received me in the living room of his apartment. After an extensive talk about rock, where he offered me the information and music I was looking for, I launched myself to ask him for an interview. Nelson pursed his lips, raised an eyebrow, and bobbed his head four times from side to side in a gesture expressing rejection of my offer. Obviously, I finally managed to convince him.
He wheeled his chair around and approached me, adjusted his salt-and-pepper hair that falls over his shoulders, stretched his t-shirt —making sure that the Molly Hatchet logo was visible— and resolutely told me: “Shoot”.
When did you start listening to rock and how did you fall in love with that music?
“There are three factors that guided me: my brother, an RCA Victor turntable and a German radio. At that time, I'm talking about the year 70, there was no FM frequency in Cuba and American radio was heard by AM. The stations that rockers chased the most were WQIM, QA 16, WCBS, which was a very popular station. mainstream, although the one my brother and I listened to the most was KAY GY That's where I started. The program we followed the most is called Bigger Street; is still broadcast. practically all Cuban rockers heard it ʽby law'. Back then, the program started at 12 at night and ended at two in the morning; I, like every child, did not reach the end, the dream won me. But that's where I first started hearing real rock: Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Emerson Lake & Palmer, etc.
“Also at that time some other album was smuggled in. I had the Sargent Pepper’s…, the Blood, Sweat & Tears 3, a Woodstock on record and we would meet secretly to listen to them. Magazines were also very important. I remember that the first one I had in my hands was a copy of Hair, an Argentine publication with a lot of information and spectacular graphics. Imagine, it was the year 78, I was in high school, and I was crazy because there I saw, for the first time, how the members of all those bands of which I was already a fan looked.
What was it like for you to be an ardent consumer of the genre, precisely at the stage when listening to that music was risky in Cuba?
“Yes, listening to rock was prohibited here in Cuba. If they caught you, they accused you of ideological diversionism and what fell on you was the mother of tomatoes. In fact, I was in prison. Jailed for putting names of rock bands on the school wall. But, despite the regrets, I remember that time with a certain charm, because the magazine, the record or the tape that fell into your hand you took care of more than your life, and put Play to the tape recorder or search for the 'damn' frequency with the radio volume very low, or whisper together with your partners those songs that really should be sung at the top of your lungs, were experiences that you wanted to keep forever, as if it were a precious jewel. That's why, perhaps, listening to rock in Cuba forced me to appreciate what I have. It also led me to take rock as an object of investigation. It was a bittersweet stage, more sour than sweet, but you have to try to see the positive side of things, right?
What moved you to write about music, besides your passion for rock?
“I started collaborating with a Spanish magazine called hush. Later, here in Cuba, I wrote for the first fanzines that came out: Dead Through your veins, Delusion, from Pinar del Rio, and The Ge Point, from Havana, where my friend Tony González, a great connoisseur of the genre, had a very important presence. I started writing for these publications because I felt the need to socialize, to pass on everything I discovered. All the information I found was invaluable to me and I felt that —at a time when everything was even more closed in this country—, it was worth sending those texts to others”.
You have met practically all the international rock personalities who have come to Cuba. Can you tell us a bit?
“In 1979 I had to go to school in the country and unfortunately I missed the concert that Billy Joel gave here. That was something practically behind the scenes; those who attended the concert had leverage, a hit, a contact or a lot of luck, like my brother who was able to enjoy it. That is one of the few experiences that I have missed and the one that hurts me the most. Then came Locomotiv GT and other bands from Hungary and Eastern Europe in general, who sounded really good. Those yes I had the opportunity to enjoy them. But it wasn't until 1999 that big-league guys came back. That year there was an event in Cuba called Music Bridge which was attended by Peter Frampton, Joan Osborne, Fleetwood Mac, Bonnie Raitt; in short, a lot of outstanding artists and I had the privilege of talking to all of them.
“On that occasion two amazing musicians came, of whom I have the most pleasant memories. In '89 a gang called Little Ceasar had come to the fore; which had a lot of impact, especially after their first album. However, at that time the Guns N' Roses phenomenon was booming and the comparison with those of San Francisco was inevitable, to the point that it ended up destroying them. But Little Ceasar had a vocalist that I loved: Ron Young. At Music Bridge, before one of the concerts started, a friend who was in the production got me a translator's ticket so I could get into the backstage, he commented to me: ʽCompadre, one of the sound engineers', and pointed to the booth, ʽthe one who looks more like a rock 'n' roll guy, the guy sang while the sound tests were being done. Hey, he's escaped. He sings better than a bunch of the singers who came'. Then a man with long hair and a lot of tattoos came out of the booth and the partner said to me: `Look, it's that one.' When I saw it, I couldn't believe it. I turned around and said to my friend, ʽAsere, that's Ron Young!' My partner didn't know who Ron Young was, and I didn't explain it to him either. I went and talked to my admired vocalist from Little Ceasar and the guy was super impressed that someone in Cuba knew him.
“From that occasion, the other musician I have fond memories of is Andy Summers, the guitarist for The Police. That yes, some had him crazy asking him about him power trio British, even when Andy had attended Music Bridge with another project. He didn't want to talk about the band he was known for, so I approached him to talk precisely about his side projects. So we discussed his work with Robert Fripp and with Juici Lucy, and the man was very nice to me and was positively impressed as well.
“After Music Bridge came Rick Wakeman and Audioslave in 2005. It was a beautiful experience talking to the members of these bands. Then The Dead Daisies, The Rolling, Billy Gibbons. I have spoken with all of them and have wonderful memories.”
Has being in a wheelchair ever been an obstacle to attending such energetic rock concerts?
“No obstacle. For example, I was without any problem in the concert of The Rolling Stones in March 2016 with my wheelchair. Also, I am not totally disabled, I can walk with crutches”.
Anyone who sees you can believe, a priori, that you only consume rock, but I know that your range is broader: jazz, blues, gospel, soul... Do you think that rock is the bridge par excellence to other musical genres?
“Well, a great friend of mine says that rock & roll is the football of music. Look, rock is heard pretty much anywhere in the world and it's done everywhere too. I consider it to be a bridge because it is an easy genre to merge with any other. In addition, it presents a wide variety of nuances, colors, styles, which sooner or later will lead you to the most unexpected musical genres. It also happens that rock is like a sponge: it absorbs various and diverse trends in music”.
What has been the most glorious era of rock, both nationally and internationally?
“In Cuba from 87 to 94, at that time rock here had an authentic air of rebellion. Imagine, there was also the El Patio de María rock and that, in part, led to the emergence of many bands with tremendous force. At an international level it is more difficult for me to define it”.
Could you do your top 5 bands?
"I do not have favorite band. Before yes, but after listening to so many it is impossible for me to choose one. What I can tell you is my top vocalists: King's X singer Doug Pinnick; Phil Mogg, former Deep Purple frontman David Coverdale, and Molly Hatchet's Danny Joe Brown. These are my four favorites. I don't give you a fifth because then there are many”.
Are you afraid that one day rock will die?
“I have never stopped to think about that. It is something unthinkable. At least for me. If rock dies one day, I won't be able to attend his wake."