Documenting nightlife can be a sensitive thing. A lot that goes on in the night stays hidden and buried in the night. Most nightlife researchers run into this issue at some point or other, and end up making all sorts of apologies at the beginning of their book, substituting real names with pseudonyms and the likes and making cheap innuendos and apologias. Sex, music, dancing, and drugs belong in the memoirs of ageing rock gods, not academics. 对吗?
8:48 pm on a Thursday night. I’m at Gate 25 in the Beijing airport, waiting for a plane to Shanghai. Burnt out from two late nights at ppg. Why, oh lord, why?
Midweek report. It’s been a busy week so far. Monday was a rest and recuperation, get work done day. Tuesday was class prep and teaching, followed by dinner with an old friend and colleague, Yomi Braester, who I hadn’t seen in years. Yomi’s out here from U Dub, teaching (running?) a film studies program, which sounds pretty amazing. They’re getting top directors, filmmakers, cinematographers to give guest lectures on film in China, historical and contemporary. Sign me up. If only I had the time and the money.
Tuesday night dinner with Yomi and his friends Ron and CC took place at 三个贵州人 in 建外 SOHO--a recently built cluster of futuristic skyscrapers. Which pretty much describes the entire 建外 district. One thing that stunned me was how much that district has changed in the past few years. It was simply unrecognizable. All the old icons were gone (well, maybe not all--but I do miss the old Silk Alley).
After a long dinner conversation about academia over some great Guizhou cuisine (the 煎豆腐 was one of the highlights) I bid them goodbye and cabbed it over to Dos Kolegas on 亮马桥路 for their independent music night. Lao Yang, the record shop owner I’d met on Saturday, had talked it up, so I decided to check it out and invited some of my students to join. Bob, Nate, Vero, and James to be exact. Arrived at the same time as them and we headed to the club. For those who haven’t been there it can be a bit tricky to find, as it is buried deep within a park devoted to a drive-in movie theater.
Inside the club, a scrawny, greasy haired Japanese dude was manipulating a computer onstage. Out of the speakers came a sonic tsunami with obvious references to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Godzilla, and Akira. Meanwhile, in an airport in Sao Paulo, an A320 aircraft was crashing into a building. Those inside the TAM building last night would have an idea of what this guy was playing. We weren’t digging it so we headed outside to...er, sip our sodas. Lao Yang was into it though, big time. I don’t think he ever left the building. He must have eardrums of steel.
Kang Mao out of SUBS showed up with a group of Norwegian musicians who are doing a tour of China. She helped organize it. (Earlier in the week she asked me to translate some song titles from English to Chinese. Apparently I impressed her--didn’t think I had it in me, but song titles are comparatively easy. One of the trickier ones was “opposites distract.” I came up with a solution but invite the reader to offer his/her own.)
We were hanging out in the grassy lawn in front of the club, drinking beers and talking in a combination of Chinese, English, Swedish and Norwegian. Some drunken fool found a steel-string guitar and started playing Beatles and Bowie. I don’t think I have to tell you who it was. The Norsemen sang along. Beatles and Bowie are universal. The students meanwhile were playing foosball and having a grand ole time.
Tim R came by with his roommate, and afterwards we ended up going to ppg, which is right across from his apt.
I’m trying to recall what happened there. Vague recollections. It was relatively uncrowded--apparently Tuesday is the deadest night there. SP ratio high. I ended up chilling upstairs with some fellow Yanks. We walked outside and were hanging by the doorway, where a somewhat pudgy Chinese fella with hair hanging over his eyes was talking up some local talent. “Andrew?” he looked at me. “Andrew Field?” It was Z, our fearless Dartmouth summer program DA. He’d gained a bit of weight and grown his hair out, so I hadn’t recognized him. We headed in a group over to Lush for some late night snacks and a blue drink called a Lush. I’m not sure what was else in it but Curacao was one of the main ingredients. Vodka probably.
Not much else to say about that night except that dawn was poking her rosy fingers over the Beijing skyline as I headed back to my pad.
One thing about Beijing is that you can only get three things done in a day. This is mainly because the time it takes to get from one place to another ends up squeezing most of your time. Fortunately as I’ve discovered, a cab is a great place to get some rest. Just get in the front passenger seat and recline it all the way back. Put some mellow music on your iPod, slip on your noise-reduction headphones, and snooze away as the cab slugs its way across one of the ring roads. A necessity for nightlife researchers.
My first stop was the Bookworm, a great bookstore/library/restaurant/internet cafe on 三里屯南街。I met David Spindler there for lunch and we caught up--hadn’t seen him much since arriving 3 weeks ago. We’re hoping to put the finishing touches on our film when he gets back from a trip to the States in late August.
I then cabbed it over to 798, where I hung out at the Sugar Jar 白糖罐 with Lao Yang and Liu Kai. Lao Yang and I talked for a while about the indie music scene in China. According to Lao Yang, the best bands are the ones “behind the scenes,” which rarely give concerts. I ended up buying 590 RMB worth of CDs on his recommendation, all bands that I hadn’t heard before except the SUBS, which Lao Yang likes as well. 左小组咒 is one of the singers he recommended. It’s the only album so far that I’ve had the chance to listen to, and I liked it on first listen. He has a folksy quality, somewhat reminiscent of the 催建 generation, and a Dylanesque storytelling style. He’s backed by some of the top musicians in China and he produced the album himself, which helps explain the high cost of 150 RMB as opposed to the usual 25-30 RMB cost for a Chinese indie CD. According to Lao Yang, he only performs once every few years, so it’s a big deal to hear him in concert.
At that point, the Japanese dude from the night before arrived and needed to buy a cheap plane ticket to Seoul. Lao Yang spent quite a while helping him, which wasn’t easy given that he was leaving in a couple days time, not to mention the fact that neither could speak the other’s language. It was a sign fest, but he got the job done, along with a translation or two by yours truly.
I’d promised to bring an E string over for Liu Kai's guitar, and kept my word. We spent a while jamming on the steps outside the store. The dust and noise of a renovation in process competed with our renditions of “Wonderwall” and other Oasis tunes. It was sunny and hot, and for the first time since arriving in Greyjing, I saw blue sky. Dusty shafts of sunlight hitting the brick walls of the little alley way. Sweaty peasant workers shoveling dirt and laying bricks as we strummed away.
One of my great regrets in life is that I did not keep up with guitar lessons that I started in junior high. Another is that I didn’t join or start a band in high school. I did take piano lessons for a few years, which gave me a great musical base, but didn’t pick up guitar again until grad school. By that time I could play Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin passingly well, but I chose to stop playing piano and pick up a more mobile and participatory instrument. Fifteen years down the road, I can strum a few songs and pick a few others, but my guitar skills are still second rate. Liu Kai, who has his chops down, gave me a few pointers, but it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Especially a dog with a wife and a kid, a job, books and articles to write, and things to research.
I played a couple of the songs I’d come up with over the past couple weeks. Liu Kai chided me on my guitar playing, said it was too much chord strumming, not enough invention, and that my strumming was too loose. He also thought it was pretty folksy stuff. Admittedly the songs that bubble up in my brain have more in common with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and the likes than Radiohead (one of Liu Kai's faves) or any more contemporary band. After all I’m just a lone strummer who’s still mostly stuck in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Yet I don’t think it’s possible to truly understand music without playing it. Same with songwriting. Tom M is right--you have to jump in the water to learn to swim. Writing your own music makes you appreciate how ingenious some musicians are and how mediocre and cliche most music and songs are out there in the world of pop.
Earlier this year I picked up a copy of Dylan’s bio--his early years. Now there was a mad genius. Then again, the man whose name he ripped is levels above all the songwriters out there. Last night while in a long cab ride from the Pudong Airport to Zhabei I was listening to Dylan Thomas recite his "Ballad of the Long Legged Bait", and I’m sorry to say this, Mr. Zimmerman, but as much as I love your songs, you ain’t got a leg up on old DT.
I think one of the emerging themes of Project Dementia is the everlasting tension between music as an art form and its relentless and ruthless commercialization and clicheification. This tension now is driving the indie music scene here in China as it attempts to survive the onslaught of slick westerners and Chinese who want to take these indie bands and turn them into commercial successes (and siphon off most of the profits in the process). The best study I’ve seen of this tension is the film _Dig_, which has become a mainstay for me, but more on that later.
I would have loved to hang out more at 白糖罐 but I’d arranged to meet up with Ed Lanfranco, an old mate who I hadn’t had a chance to see since I got here. Ed’s been awfully busy covering the Six Party Talks among other things. At around 5 I got into a cab and headed down to 建外. Ed was just getting out of a post-talks press conference, finding out whether or not North Korea was planning to denuclearize. He had to do a writeup and finish another article but we hung for a little while before I pressed on back to the West side.
That night was another session of 不插电 acoustic guitar playing at D22, this time featuring the local band Casino Demon. I’d arranged to meet Tom M there at around 10. Had to drop by my apt. to drop off some stuff, including all the CDs I’d bought as well as some books, including Greg Girard’s _Phantom Shanghai_--I can’t get over how good this book is and promise to write more about it, maybe even get Greg to give an online interview about his work.
When I got there, Tom was already there with several mates, including a couple of visitors from the States whom he knows from his college years. We hung out at the table closest to the stage, wondering when the show would start. Turns out Casino Demon weren’t able to make it at the last minute, but Bian Yuan out of Joyside was there in full regalia and performed a great set of tunes with a friend whose name I didn’t catch. More “classic rock” type stuff in English, including a few songs that sounded familiar but which I didn’t really know. That impresses me, since I consider myself quite knowledgeable in classic rock, but then again, I’m probably only scratching the surface.
Afterwards we all headed to--you can guess where. It was absolute mayhem as usual. Wed "free drinks" night. I was sucked into the maelstrom of student excess, and wasn’t spit out until dawn. Two days and nights were enough to challenge the nervous system of the sturdiest Olympic athlete, and I’m not in the greatest shape these days, so needless to say Thursday was a quiet day of contemplation, maturation (despite a youthful appearance I'm suffering from accelerated decrepitude), and recovery. I think I gave my students the best impromptu lecture on Shanghai that I’ve ever given, including a show-and-tell about Greg G’s book in preparation for their weekend trip to Shanghai. I showed them some original photos of colonial life, the war of '32 and '37, and the Nakayama incident of '35. These days I'm like a jazz musician when it comes to performing Old Shanghai. Thousands of photos, maps, diagrams and stories are buried in my laptop. Just set me up with a data projector and I'm ready to roll.
Now I’m at Sasha’s on Hengshan Road finishing up this blog. Got in late last night from Pudong airport, which really sucked as it’s over an hour ride to the city. Should’ve come in at Hongqiao, but the ticket was arranged by CET and I don’t look gift anythings in the mouth. After a sweet reunion with wife, daughter, and their family (to whom I gave a box of 怀柔甘栗 purchased at the Beijing airport for 150 RMB--a local treat and the classic travel gift) we went out today to do some business. I’m putting the finishing touches on our Dartmouth fall travel plan to Shanghai and environs and checked in with our agent at CYTS.
Now I’m heading over to visit 吴峻 at his recording studio 13D. This evening it’s a birthday dinner for Mency with some mates, then tomorrow and Sunday I’ll be taking my CET students on a mega-walking tour of the city.
That’s plenty enough for now, will write again next week with the highlights of our weekend trip to Shanghai.