Gregory Elias finished his pitch, paused, and waited for the little beep-beep-beep in his ear that would signal that the party on the other end of the telephone —Jayne Smyth, the manager of the Rolling Stones —had hung up after realizing that he was a madman. At best, he thought, he might get a shouted answer that would reveal which part of his proposal was loonier — that the Stones do a concert in Cuba (where not so long ago, listening to rock and roll was a jailable offense) or that they do it for free.
Instead, there was a long pause. “Well, that’s certainly a unique proposal,” Smyth finally replied. “Let me get back to you.”
That seemingly inauspicious and slightly weird conversation last Nov. 13 turned out to the beginning of a complicated trans-Atlantic negotiation that would eventually bring the world’s most venerable (and wealthiest) rock band to communist-ruled Havana last week for a free concert that drew, by some estimates, half a million fans.
Elias, a wealthy corporate lawyer in Curaçao who funded the concert through his charitable trust, still can’t quite believe his call to the Stones worked. “I mean, who in heaven’s name am I?” he said Tuesday, recalling the conversation. “I didn’t expect her to call back. But 24 hours later, she did. And it was a go.” Attempts to reach Smyth for comment were unsuccessful.
Because the concert took place the same week as President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, the first by an American president since 1928, it’s been widely assumed that the timing and preparation were somehow linked. But Elias says it was all a coincidence triggered when he read the news that the Stones were launching a five-week tour of Latin American in early February.
His Baby Boomer love for big rock festivals like Woodstock, and his knowledge that Cuban officials were already searching for cultural exchanges to open the island up, gave Elias the idea to reach out to the Stones. And Elias had some connections through an annual Curaçao jazz festival that his foundation funds that has included acts like Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys.
But until Smyth called back, 24 hours after his first contact, to say the band wanted to do it, Elias had no idea just what a complex undertaking he had launched. “When the boys — that’s how Mrs. Smyth calls them —when the boys go on tour, what they put together is completely out of this world,” he said. “It is the best and it has to be better than anything else. The production team had to start thinking how to make this possible.”
Cuba’s blighted economy barely can turn out basic necessities, much less all the gadgetry and ephemera necessary to produce the technological circus that is a modern rock concert. Practically everything, from light towers to bottled water, had to be obtained elsewhere and flown in.
The Stones themselves agreed to do the show for free, but all those suppliers had to be paid. Rolling Stone magazine reported the concert cost $7 million to stage. Elias won’t talk about the financial details — “Please don’t ask me indecent questions,” he said in a stern voice before breaking into giggles — but agrees it “wasn’t cheap” for his Fundashon Bon Intenshon to pick up the tab. (Some of the bills may be paid from sales of a DVD recording of the concert, which will go on sale later this year.)
Compared to the financial side of the concert, Elias said, the political negotiations were simple, though time-consuming. Officials of the Curaçao government helped him iron out details with the Cuban ministers of culture, finance and economics. Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, a vice president of the Cuban council of ministers, the country’s cabinet, was also involved in the negotiations — but Raúl Castro was not, so far as Elias knows.
What problems came up, Elias said, were less ideological than generational. “I remember one elderly gentleman —I’m not going to give you his name —who, when we started the negotiations at the governmental level, said, ‘The rolling who?’” Elias said. “He had no idea what we were talking about or who we were referring to.”
It may not seem obvious why a Curaçao charitable foundation or its attorney benefactor would spend all that time money on a free concert for Cubans, but Elias says there were no hidden political or economic motives to the concert. “I’ve never done any business there,” he said. “Never. I visited there during the 1990s, but that’s all I did, visit.”
The only agenda he had, Elias said, was to do something nice for the Cuban people, who haven’t had an easy time of it for the past few decades.
“If we consider it from a Western point of view, from the outside looking in, the people of Cuba miss a lot,” he observed. “I thought it would be nice to approach them with music. Music doesn’t create envy or animosity, it just creates love and understanding.”
Though Elias did feel one teeny, tiny spark of animosity himself during the concert. The Stones didn’t play his favorite of their songs, Far Away Eyes. It seems that even when you’re picking up the tab, you can’t always get what you want.