On Monday night in Havana, Fidel Castro reportedly lay in a hospital bed, recovering from abdominal surgery and carrying the weight of the revolution on his shoulders as his nation held its breath. Twelve hundred miles away, in Brooklyn, his ideological battles were fiercely being waged.
On the Prospect Park Bandshell stage that evening, a French-Spanish globetrotter musician standing beneath a Zapatista flag chanted “Cuba! Cuba! Cuba! Cuba!” into a microphone, to the roaring approval of the crowd before him. Just 200 yards away, a pack of capitalists sold tickets for many multiples of their original price, pocketing the surplus value at the expense of the proletariat.
In the stifling evening humidity, it was suddenly becoming clear that if progressive America has an underlying crisis, it is this: not enough Manu Chao tickets to go around.
I first heard Jose-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao five years ago, while living in Mexico City, where, like most of Latin America, he is a hero to an astounding swath of young people of differing social status. His Afro-Latin-ska-reggae sound is massively popular, and if headlining Lollapalooza in Chicago last week is any indication, he’s getting big in the U.S., too. Thanks to his vocal politics (“Say no to the White House terrorist!” is a typical quip), Mr. Chao also stands for the downtrodden’s anger at a world that, as he is fond of saying, “go crazy.”
Just how crazy went the world leading up to Monday night’s sold-out show? Craigslist gave an early indication. Manhattan’s Elan Akerman, a self-described “music-industry guy,” successfully traded an extra ticket for a date with a girl he had never met before, based on the criteria that she be “fun, cute and must love Manu Chao” and that she provide a photograph for review. Mr. Akerman received three valid responses, pics and all, without a hitch, from which he culled one lucky girl. (A few days earlier, an unknown young woman offered “head for Manu Chao ticket,” also on Craigslist, although there has been no word on whether she had a taker.)
But even more go-crazy was the familiar dialectic of ticket-for-cash exchanges. Priced at $25—$33 including Ticketmaster’s rather capitalistic fees—tix for Manu Chao’s first New York show in five years were selling briskly at $100 and even $150 on Craigslist. Attention caught, I skipped across the cyberscape to a different means of production, eBay, where I discovered that one ticket had sold for $177.50.
This is a critical moment, I thought; such prices are exactly the sort of something Manu’s fans will not put up with. Revolution seemed kind of nigh.
I was right. “You people scalping tickets to the Manu Chao shows for more than face value SUCK,” one post read, tacking on “ Viva Castro! Viva Chavez! Viva Evo Morales! Viva Lula! Viva la Gente!” to hammer the point home. Fact is, another post explained, “Manu Chao is against GREED.” Scalping tickets might be O.K. in some situations, a third outraged prole wrote, but “this is Manu Chao, not Madonna or the Rolling Stones for God’s sake.”
Any worthwhile revolution has its counterrevolution. Giddily, I watched Adam Smith’s foot soldiers surge back. “Put on your Che Guevara T-shirts and listen to Chao in your iPod on the way to your job at Starbucks,” suggested one bourgeois, the otherwise anonymous Mr. or Ms. firstname.lastname@example.org. “Your internet connection and your computer may actually have been sold to you by capitalists as well,” added another, explaining that Manu Chao concerts are actually just one big “capitalist extravaganza.”
This, comrades, smelled a lot like what Uncle Karl would call an originary moment. So after work on Monday night, I raced on my bike as fast as I could across the Manhattan Bridge, up Flatbush and down Prospect Park West, arriving just in time for a snoutful of the pungent odor of praxis. The scene was like a drunken holiday mixer for the children of delegates to the United Nations, or maybe a mock World Cup qualifying round: Germans, Ecuadorians, Brits, Spaniards, Trinidadians—all the planet, presente!
I chatted with a Mexican, Juan Carlos Moreno, as we watched an older Mexican scalp tickets for $80 apiece to a group of three younger Mexicans, who protested weakly, then paid. “Manu Chao is Manu Chao, sure, but that’s just too expensive,” Mr. Moreno said, adding that he’d seen the six-man band play Mexico City in March, just days before he illegally crossed the Rio Grande to work delivering food for a Brooklyn restaurant. “That show was better. It was free.”
Standing below the monument to Lafayette (hero of two revolutions), an Italian couple dressed in black on black, slim and pale and looking wan, held up tired fingers, hoping for what Deadheads would have called a “miracle.” Near them, some women from Brazil struck similar, somewhat more hopeful-looking poses before they were pounced on by a scalper demanding $100 per. An attractive French girl, who lives in Chelsea and had matching silver sandals and bag, pulled me aside. “I have to continue telling myself I don’t hate the American race,” she said. “But this? This is disgusting. I prefer to be with the real underground on the grass.”
I turned to look at the grass in question. And there they were. By the hundreds, the thousands, spread on the park’s grass and staring at the wrong side of a 10-foot-tall wall separating them from the bandshell: the poor and downtrodden. What a fantastic image! In this corner, the huddled masses. In that corner, an impassible wall. The only thing missing was an 8-year-old chimney sweep or two, Charles Dickens, and the symbolism would be complete.
This particular segment of the proletariat stretched back about 50 yards from the wall, on the far side of the asphalt bike path. The people seemed ill-equipped for revolt, armed only with blankets and organic snacks bought at the Park Slope Food Co-op, but a security guard in a yellow nylon slicker, leaning up against the imposing cyclone fence, looked particularly uneasy. “If they bum-rush, there’s going to be a lot of shooting,” he said, eyes darting from side to side. “There are a lot of cops on the other side of the fence.”
Christy Hayner, a painter living in Windsor Terrace, was among a portion of the masses squeezed into a spot of high ground where, if they huddled at just the right angle, the corner of the stage could almost, barely, be seen over the wall. She craned her neck with admirable grit. “They don’t usually have this wall for shows here,” she said mournfully. “But if you can still hear the music, then I guess it’s not that bad.” Grim words—very Newcastle coal miner—but the kind of thing that brings out the solidarity in a man.
At that moment, an unmistakable French-Spanish voice rung out from within. The concert had started, and everyone rose to their feet. Plucking my carefully guarded ticket from my wallet, I left my brothers to their hammers and sickles, dashing toward Manu Chao.
“No war!” shouted Manu.
“No war!” I shouted back, and went in.
Ken Bensinger is a writer in New York.