When Leonard Cohen died in November 2016, Cuba’s national newspaper, the Communist Party’s Granma, published a heartfelt tribute to the singer and poet. The article recalled a moving rendition of “Hallelujah” that Rufus Wainwright had performed at a Havana club some months earlier. But there was no mention of Cohen’s own adventures in Cuba as a young man, which included being arrested by soldiers in the early days of the Revolution and almost missing one of the last commercial flights off the island when he was again detained at the airport. (According to Cohen biographer, Sylvie Simmons, the Canadian artist had been mistaken for both an American envoy and a Cuban deserter, leading to the detainment.)
“I was in Havana in 1961 during the Bay of Pigs invasion fighting on both sides,” Cohen told the audience before a 1965 reading of “The Last Tourist in Havana” — the title of a barbed poem about Canadian politics he wrote during his stay. (See the video below.)
Members of Cohen’s tribe of fans may already be familiar with the story, but it’s now charmingly brought to life by the animated series Drawn & Recorded. The episode, which takes the name of the Cohen song “Field Commander Cohen,” premieres Friday as part of the fourth season of the T Bone Burnett-narrated series of shorts illustrating “modern myths of music.”
Befitting the barbudos’ then-recent triumph on the island under Fidel Castro, Cohen grew a beard for his trip to Havana in 1961. He walked about in Army khakis and a beret. In the song “Field Commander Cohen,” the bard described himself as “our most important spy … parachuting into diplomatic cocktail parties.” According to Simmons, author of the biography I’m Your Man, Cohen called the trip to Revolutionary Cuba “a kind of test, and hoping for some kind of contradiction about your own deepest conviction.”
“I thought maybe this was my Spanish Civil War,” he told biographer Ira Nadel. “But it was a shabby kind of support; it was really, mostly, curiosity and a sense of adventure.”
During his evenings, Cohen spent time at La Bodeguita del Medio, the cradle of mojitos made famous by patron Ernest Hemingway (Nat King Cole also hung out at the bar). Cohen likely listened to Cuban musician Nico Saquito and his band performing “Maria Cristina.” He even took in the show at the Tropicana, according to conversations with his biographer Nadel, who wrote that Cohen found Cuban women irresistible.
After the Havana airport became the site of a bomb attack at the height of U.S.-Cuba tensions, Cohen was summoned to the Canadian embassy: He was informed that his mother was worried and wanted him to come home.
Still, he took a day trip to the beach resort Varadero (which Burnett pronounces “Verada” in the Drawn and Recorded episode). There he was detained by young soldiers on suspicions of being an American operative.
“After finally persuading them of his Canadian-ness, his Socialist credentials and his support for Cuban independence, he posed smiling with two of his captors for a photograph which they gave him as a souvenir,” Simmons wrote.
After arguing with a group of American Communists who comprised Havana’s new cafe society, a sobered Cohen shaved the beard and put on a seersucker suit, as recounted by Nadel. He decided to leave in the wake of the Bay of Pigs invasion, on April 17, and went to the airport, which was mobbed with would-be exiles desperate to get out on the last planes leaving the country. After finally getting a reservation for April 26, he was told by airport security that he could not leave the country: They had found the photo of him posing with the soldiers in his backpack and assumed he was a deserting Cuban. When a young soldier guarding him at the airport became distracted by a disturbance on the runway, Cohen slipped out and was able to board the plane undetected.
Afterward, in a letter to his brother-in-law documented by Nadel, “A politicized Cohen emphatically declared that he opposed all forms of censorship, collectivism and control, and that he rejected all hospitality offered by the Cuban government to visiting writers during his stay. Furthermore, he wanted his brother-in-law to understand that he went to Cuba “to see the socialist revolution, not to wave a flag or prove a point.”
The new season of Drawn & Recorded, available on DirecTV, DirecTV Now and AT&T U-verse starting Friday, will also feature anecdotes from the lives of David Bowie, The Beatles, Sister Rosetta, MF Doom and Grimes.
Watch a preview of the Leonard Cohen episode below: