By Jim Jerome
Updated March 19, 1979 12:00 PM

In Billy Joel’s explosive past year, the scene could have been anywhere: thousands of shrieking fans as he pounded into his now-signature ballad, Just the Way You Are. They pressed in, crowding, sweating, lunging, waving. Joel stalked the stage with an almost manic fervor, slapping hands that reached like a frieze over the apron. Yet this was not the Hollywood Bowl or even Madison Square Garden. It was, incongruously, the 4,800-seat Karl Marx Theatre just west of downtown Havana, Cuba. Over the past 20 years the only other living person who has moved an audience with such charismatic intensity in this same venue (to use the rock term) has been Fidel Castro.

That was the emotional end of a historic “Havana Jam ’79,” which, in its way, might do the same thing for Cuban relations with the U.S. that Ping-Pong diplomacy did for the Chinese. Not even the New York Yankees, after all, were able to get away with the international coup that Columbia Records wrought: three concerts over four days in Havana, the first such Cuban-American collaboration since Castro’s 1959 revolution. In addition to Joel, the lineup included Kris Kristofferson and his wife, Rita Coolidge, folk-rocker Stephen Stills, the jazz group Weather Report, the Columbia Jazz All-Stars (e.g., Stan Getz, John McLaughlin, Hubert Laws, Jimmy and Percy Heath), salsa’s Fania All-Stars and native Cuban bands like the thundering 11-member group Irakere.

The label’s motive, to be sure, was as much to foster a better bottom line as international goodwill. CBS pumped some $300,000 into the project and plans to release three LPs from the three shows and syndicate a nationwide radio special. In addition, TV crews filmed 45 hours for a hoped-for special and a short on CBS’ Sunday Morning News.

The invasion began last month when two DC-6s and a C-46 jounced into Havana’s José Martí Airport with more than 40 tons of musical materiel. Then on March 1 a chartered TWA 707 roared in, depositing 134 Americans under a bright Cuban sun. One wiseacre christened the maneuver the “Bay of Gigs.”

Some of the musicians present may have felt less prepared than even the 1961 invaders. To ensure that the jam went more like Midnight Special than Midnight Express, the rockers were warned to leave their drug stashes at home. Other sacrifices were even more drastic. There was—Lord forbid—no TV or room service in the beachfront Marazul Hotel. Taxis—much less limos—were nearly impossible to find for the 20-minute trip into Havana. Phone service was all but nonexistent. Said Kristofferson of the spartan accommodations: “They must have thought we’d destroy all their rooms. They might have heard of Keith Moon. That’s probably why the rooms didn’t have rugs.”

Worse, aside from Elizabeth Joel, Billy’s wife and manager, and Rita Coolidge (who performed), almost no “old ladies” were allowed along. (Watching two stunning dancers in body suits during the fabled Tropicana Club’s floor show, a member of Joel’s entourage yelled to his comrades: “Hey, is it horny in here or is it me?”)

Given the logistical complexities of a multi-act rock-jazz show, not to mention dealing with Cuba’s Leninist-Latin bureaucracy, the shows were a triumph of cooperation, goodwill and superb sound quality. There were, however, some odd twists. The crew’s request for a CB-type hookup between the theater site and the hotel was denied. Why? Cuban military officials feared their own communications could be intercepted. Not that Cubans were the only maestros of the monkey wrench. Joel, currently CBS’ most potent commercial artist (his The Stranger and 52nd Street albums have sold more than eight million in two years), refused to cooperate with the LP or film projects: “I’m not down here on some capitalist venture,” he said. “I’m here to play music for these people.”

Between concerts the American musicians rubbernecked. Richie Cannata, Joel’s sax and keyboard player, was “freaked out by the time warp” of the endless parade of 20- to 30-year-old Detroit cars rolling through town with bald tires. Two native-born Cuban members of one visiting group, Fania, tearfully rendezvoused with members of their families for the first time in 20 years.

Everyone took guided bus tours to the deposed President Fulgencio Batista’s former palace, which is now the Museum of the Revolution. Joel, the Kristoffersons and many others were struck by the slim souvenir pickings in a city once aswarm with tourists. Rita bought T-shirts and several posters. Joel almost bought a Cuban baseball uniform. Everybody shopped for Havana cigars and rum. Joel and some friends were turned away from an old Ernest Hemingway haunt, he reported, “because they said we looked like hippies.”

If the Americans had trouble coming away with any tangible trophies from the austere socialist capital, the Cubans who made contact with the Americans savored the most trifling gifts from their guests. After hitting a baseball around with some kids in town, Cannata passed around cigarettes, Gl-style. Joel handed out glossy PR photos and autographed them. “Havana Jam” T-shirts, blue jeans and dollars were all coveted. One American reporter was offered a date with an attractive Cuban in exchange for his $35 running shoes. A musician, as a memento of their evening together, gave a woman he met a bar of American hotel soap. “She held it up to her nose,” he said, “closed her eyes and said, ‘Ahhh, gracias, gracias. The shelves in the stores here are all empty.’ ”

The others spent their days soaking up the blistering sun and swimming in clear green salty surf. Joe Zawinul, Weather Report’s Austrian-born keyboardist, read Schopenhauer on the beach. Guitarist John McLaughlin practiced in his room and played Frisbee with Weather Report’s bassist Jaco Pastorius (who brought Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra to read). Joel read Harrison Salisbury’s tome on Russia, Black Night, White Snow. One group of Cuban students told Joel on the beach that they listened nightly to American music from Miami and as far away as Little Rock, Ark. Joel’s own tape deck was playing McCartney’s Hands Across the Water. Then they switched on a radio. The Miami station was playing Le Freak.

What little contact the Americans had with Cubans left indelible, if differing, impressions. Zawinul felt an “integrated, beautiful friendliness.” McLaughlin noted, “There is no street life like there is in other Latin American capitals. This is like a Warsaw Pact country that happens to be in the Caribbean.” Kristofferson, who speaks Spanish, disagreed. “There’s no way you can suppress the Cuban spirit.” At least one musician revealed a less lofty perspective: “I can’t wait to get back to New York, so I can snort some cocaine and smoke a J.”

The Yanquis’ leisurely daytime pace picked up during evening rides to the theater in buses stocked with rum and beer. Backstage at the Karl Marx was dubbed Mojita City for the rum-mint-lime juice drink that kept spirits afloat through the five-hour concerts.

On the third night of the festival, as on previous days, rumors that the Maximum Leader would be on hand stirred the hall. But once again Fidel never showed. Still, for the younger, nipper-looking crowd that night, there was the sheer excitement of the history-making jam. Screaming “Bee-lee Yo-el,” some fans surged forward to the stage when he opened. As he often does, Joel popped a bass piano string. He threw it, writhing, out to the crowd. A fan yelled reassuringly, “Don’t care.” All the barriers had fallen. He ended his set, and the Cubans brazenly shouted a dozen grim-faced guards off the stage with calls for an encore. A moist-eyed male fan said over the din, “We listen to him on radio and when the weather is clear we can see Soul Train on television. But now here’s Billy. This is the most important thing to happen in 20 years.”

For the American performers, some of that thrill wore off at least briefly the next day during their departure when the entourage was stalled for four hours at the airport. The wrong boarding passes were distributed. The luggage conveyers broke. Kris Kristofferson scanned the scene and cracked, “Looks like the fall of Saigon to me.” Said one exhausted CBS staffer, “I learned a new Spanish phrase this trip: ‘Más nunca.’ It means ‘never again.’ ”

The native Cubans hope that is not the case. As they spilled out into the deserted Havana streets after the finale, one young Cuban turned to an American friend and asked: “They maybe come back next year this time?”