Above all of the cities we played in China, Beijing proved to be the one place storming with music. Someone from the Canadian Consulate in Shanghai promised: “If you think Shanghai is like Los Angeles, then Beijing is Detroit.” It wasn’t hard to immediately find rock and roll and all of its vessels: record shops, instrument stores, clubs good and bad. After wandering the city on my first afternoon looking for a hit of strong coffee– this proved remarkably easy; in most busy sections of Beijing, new latte and espresso bars were plentiful– I took my friend Ron’s advice and headed to the hutong, Beijing’s ancient, narrow-alley way’ed quarter where the last of the city’s traditional courtyard homes could be found, at least for the time being. While two million Chinese had lived in the hutong as recently as ten years ago, acres of its venerable streets had been razed in anticipation of the swell of tourists expected for the Olympics. These days, it’s not uncommon to find walls or shop grilles slashed with a single Chinese character– chai— which is the sign of eviction, or, as the Chinese government like to call it, “relocation.”
While the hutong had become the latest hip pocket for new businesses, I was struck by its historic distinction before I noticed anything else. The hutong made the cobblestone villages of Western Europe look like towering Velodrome ramps for the way its small courtyard homes were open and laid bare to passersby. Because these homes were seperated not by doors nor fences, but by narrow passageways, you could peer into the building’s cavity before getting lost in a stone tangle further recessed into the settlement. I tried not to linger too long in front of these abodes, but it was hard to resist observing the character and dynamic of Chinese family life as it played out door to door, shop to shop. In one instance, a young child flirted with a limbless plastic doll on the floor of a small dry goods store as his mother worried over a pot simmering on a cooker in the corner. In another corner, a muddy-faced teenager sat pecking away at the controls of a primitive video game while his uncle crouched in the foreground smoking and cracking peanuts, their shells piling over the lip of his slippers. Above them, a child lay sleeping in a loft crowded with supplies, and, in the middle of all this, a young woman sat at a public school desk– the store’s counter and cashbox– occasionally rising to sell a bar of soap or bag of rice to a patron.
The streets of the hutong were also busy and alive: a phalanx of soldiers marching in formation out of a garrison crowbar’ed into the old city; a pack of uniformed girls skipping rope and laughing; a huddle of stooped mandarins throwing dice against the bottom of a stone wall. At one point, I paused to watch five or six animated Beijingers crowd around a motorbike and help Leggo a tower of pink, orange and red toilet paper rolls on the panier of the machine, balancing them carefully in a monolith of tissue before sending the rider scootering away.
Emerging from the old streets, I found myself walking along a shopping promenade with a handful of record and instrument shops. While the hutong celebrated age and resilience against the changing fabric of China, here the Westernization of Asian culture was in full bloom. Having visited Beijing in 1999, the closest I’d come to finding any contemporary Western rock and roll was a copy of “Born to Run” at the Friendship Store, which, prior to China’s economic about-face, was the only place where a Westerner could buy a withered copy of Time or a recent classical or pop recording. By these standards, the shopping promenade’s plethora of music stores represented an explosion of sorts. Over one stretch of road, my path threaded through at least a half-dozen instrument shops where young mushroom-haired kids dressed in black t-shirts shredded Metallica out of new Fender amps sitting below wall-sized posters of Ozzy, KISS, Aerosmith and other hard rock totems. In almost every instance, the player lifted his fingers from the fretboard as I entered the store, only to resume shredding once he realized– despite my jeans unmarked by headbangers’ blood and new corduroy jacket lacking in the appropriate death metal patches– that I was there to rock, too.
Turning a corner, I came upon a small record shop no bigger than a wardrobe trunk. I would have missed it entirely were it not for a hand-drawn sign outside that read FINE FOLK HANDICRAFTS AND RECORDS OF ALL CLASSES (I made a mental note to tell people who thereafter asked what kind of music I played: “Music of all classes.”). Ducking under a low-framed door, I found a stone bowl at floor-level with goldfish swimming in it, and, above that, a black Paiste crash cymbal studded to the wall. Further along was a shelf with Mao saddlebags, propaganda posters, Chinese lanterns and red star paraphenalia as well as framed posters of JP Basquiat and Glen Gould. On the other side of the store were racks with CDs by Steel Pulse, Collette, the Dubliners, The Eels and ZZ Top mixed with various Chinese rock recordings: a sophisticated and eclectic mix by any record shop standards. At the back of the store, a young man in a baseball cap trolling on his laptop stole a few disbelieving glances at the big pale goose who’d just walked into his shop and was curiously pawing local records by bands he’d never heard of. I held up one of the discs, then pointed to my ear. “Yes,” said the young fellow, matter-of-factly, before coming out from behind his computer and tearing the cellophane off a handful of discs, then playing bits of them in succession as I soaked in the low cool vibe of the store.
The young man’s name, as far as I could tell, was Ma. While I tried to convince myself, in that moment, that he’d told me his nickname (“Horse”), it was probably as much a case of traveller’s ear as anything. Fighting to understand his rough, halting English– he made a sound like “Ouch!” every time he stumbled over, or couldn’t quite find, the right words– I discovered that Ma was a drummer and that the wall cymbal was his. I also discovered that he’d opened the store with his brother, and that his parents had been pretty much against it from the beginning.
For about forty minutes, we played a game where Ma would crack a CD– playing them a little louder each time– and I’d nod my head in approval or, occasionally, sniff the air with disdain. After the song, and sometimes during, I’d shout out who I thought the group sounded like: “The Died Pretty!” “Talk, Talk,” “Emerson, Lake and Palmer!” “The Nils!” He’d repeat the band’s name out loud, and we’d continue.
Ma’s shop reminded me of Toronto’s nascent rock scene of the 70s– and other burgeoning rock scenes like it– where the people who run the city’s best record stores are musicians who understand that if they don’t sell their own records, and records like them, no one else will. A fellow named Matt (I can’t remember his last name), who operates a record label in Beijing with his wife Heiki, echoed something that our host, Andy, had told me when he explained to me, over coffee, that part of the reason why independent bands in China struggle is because it’s illegal to record and distribute your record without government approval. “Even though pretty much everything gets approved,” he said, “the process is very slow, and agonizingly bureacratic. And if a band isn’t properly signed to a label, then most record stores won’t take them.” I asked if he’d ever known, or worked with a band, who’d been denied approval based on political content, but he said he hadn’t. “One band- were denounced by some government agency for the controversial nature of their songs, but they weren’t dissauded. At last year’s festival, they started the set with one of these songs. It was a big step for rock and roll in Beijing.”
After shelling out nearly the last of my remaining yuan for albums by bands whose names I couldn’t possibly pronounce, I thanked Ma and told him that I’d drop off a Rheos record the following day (alas, when I returned, the shop was closed). Because I’d had such a good time listening to records in Ma’s store, I ended up leaving without ever knowing the store’s name. The depth of my musical trance was such that as soon as I returned to the shopping promenade, I thought I could hear a voice calling out to me from across the street. I continued on, but still, the voice persisted. Looking across the road to confirm my suspicion that I was now in a kind of waking rock and roll dream, I saw my band-mate, Dwayne Gale. He was walking with a small Chinese man, and waving.
The small Chinese man was dressed like an aging Rude Boy in a black fedora and gray blazer. I crossed the street and asked Dwayne how he’d made a friend despite speaking little or no Chinese. It was then that he started telling a typically Dwaynian story of misadventure, the kind that our group had grown used to after 14 days abroad.
Dwayne, above any of us, was prone to lighting out on his own. Being a Newfoundlander– that is, a person who is required to move around and travel great distances in order to see or do anything beyond their home, which happens to be rooted in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean– Dwayne was in his purest element while floating through his travels. Once, in Shanghai, he left the hotel looking for, in his words, “something Chinese and fishy to eat for breakfast.” He was drawn to a restaurant across from our hotel with a huge photograph of seafood stew on the outside. When he went in, he explained to the waitress in Chinese that even though he was a vegetarian, he ate fish, but she just stood there looking confused and uncomfortable. It was only later that Dwayne discovered that this phrase– which Andy had tried to teach him– also meant, “I am very sexually jealous,” which explains the waitress’s reaction. Ten minutes passed until another waitress brought him a bowl of stewed chicken. Dwayne remembers that, “I was sitting in the restaurant by myself trying to eat the little bits of green pepper that were in the bowl when an old man on a bike rode past. We caught each other’s eye– he waved, I waved back– and then the old man, whose name was Yu, came into the restaurant.” Yu spoke just enough broken English to communicate and when Dwayne told him that he was playing music in China, Yu became ecstatic because, for him, being a musician meant that Dwayne could understand the “stories of uplifting” that he’d written. Yu retrieved these stories from his bike– they’d been roughly translated into English– and they sat in the booth reading them together. Dwayne said that, “Most of the stories involved an ‘American boss’ going to Japan to set up a new business, but inevitably becoming so frustrated with the backwards and lazy Japanese workers that he packed up and went ‘back to his motherland’ just in time for Christmas.”
After awhile, Yu noticed that Dwayne wasn’t eating his chicken, so he suggested that they go to his friends’ restaurant. During their walk to the restaurant, Yu called Dwayne his ‘brother in the Lord Jesus Christ, our savior,’ as if they’d made a deep personal connection.
When they got to the restaurant, Dwayne remembers that “that the restaurant wasn’t really in a building, but a large awning with tables loosely secured into the dirt. Yu’s friend, who was the chef, led us past the kitchen– a series of tables in a courtyard with a wood-fired stove and a water hose– into a living room, and then, into a bedroom, where a teenage girl laid on the bed listening to headphones. Then, a woman came in and set up a table and two chairs a few feet from the girl’s bed. Yu and I sat down. The waitress brought us one of the most beautifully cooked fish I’d had ever seen. The whole time we were eating, people were coming in and out of the bedroom laughing and conducting business without ever acknowledging us. Later on in the meal, Yu said, ‘Brother in the Lord Jesus Christ, I have something very important to tell you.’ He produced a sheet of paper and handed it to me discreetly under the table. On it was written:
On April 19th, 1945, General MacArthur of the United States Army insulted the Japanese Emperor. A secret Japanese organization called the Mikado swore revenge, and on April 19th, 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the insult, the Mikado took revenge by bombing a landmark of the USA. The Japanese government are aware of the Mikado and support their efforts.
“He made me memorize what was written. He had me repeat the paragraph a few times, and when he was satisfied, he asked me to ‘contact American news programmes and share this information.’ Then he set about destroying the evidence: methodically ripping the sheet of paper into small pieces, which he distributed around various trash cans in the bedroom and outside. The cheque came and I tried to pay, but he wouldn’t let me. He told me that we were brothers in the Lord Jesus Christ, and the thought of someone telling his story about the Japanese in North American was payment enough.”
On our second last day in Beijing, Ron Skinner– aka Dirt Star– phoned to say that he’d booked us a show at the Sculpting in Time cafe in the northeastern part of Beijing– Xiang Shan, near the emperor’s Summer Palace, also known as “The Fragrant Hill.” Getting to the cafe proved to be an adventure all its own. Since Xiang Shan barely fit into the top left corner of the city map, we spent thirty minutes in the hotel’s parking lot as the concierge, a crew of bellboys and two bewildered taxi drivers tried to determine the whereabouts of the cafe. They gathered around a map unleafed across one of the taxi’s hoods, drew phantom routes with their forefingers and grunted. They phoned Steve Chui to confirm, first, that the club existed, then phoned him afterwards to confirm that a road to the club existed, too. The rest of us stood there while they argued and scratched their heads and argued some more before it was decided that even though no one really knew where we were going, we might as well go anyway, which is an obvious rule of travel, along with not licking poisonous toads and staying away from fried monkey brains and avoiding massage parlours that don’t have large rotating foots outside.
Divided between two cabs, we drove endlessly, into nowhere. Night had fallen, and suddenly, the outskirts of the city– which glittered with car dealerships and new factories; a hint of brazen commerce squeezed into the fringes of the old borough– gave way to surrounding villages like the kind we’d seen around Changsha: men playing snooker on weather-combed tables; families dining on little tables in a gas station’s parking lot; small children chasing a hog. It goes without saying that I would have appreciated the liveliness of this scene more if the driver hadn’t repeatedly arched his neck looking for township names and obscured road signs. Every now and then, he slowed to a crawl, then threw the car into reverse, only to travel down a lightless road that inevitably stopped at a gaunt field or rising concrete abuttment. It was a small blessing, I suppose, that at least he kept our car moving. Dwayne, who was travelling in the other cab– we’d long since lost them after exiting the city limits– told me that, at one point, his driver stopped the taxi on the narrow shoulder of a country road, got out, and smoked.
We drove, and drove some more. Eventually, even the villages faded away. The air turned fresh and crsip as the last streetlight disappeared. In the rear view mirror, our driver held up a single finger– “One more street,” said my band-mate, Alan Pigguns, translating the gesture– and blindly steered the taxi up another road. The road turned from the scrub of a country path into a proper boulevard, and, all of a sudden, there were streetlamps and the muted pulse of life. A few minutes later, we stopped directly in front of the Sculpting in Time cafe. Liberating myself from the taxi, I noticed the approaching headlights of another car. It rested bumper-to-bumper against ours: Dwayne’s cab.
Inside, the cafe served Italian food cooked by young Chinese– after two weeks of duck tongues and roasted pork marrow, it felt good to lay into an approximation of Western cuisine– but the backyard patio gave Sculpting in Time its real distinction. Open to the air, a low wooden stage faced the Fragrant Hill, which lay like a sleeping collosus beyond the patio’s deck. Above that, a treehouse that could have been built by the Swiss Family Robinson climbed to near eye level with the Hill, providing a striking view. Because the patio was lit only by candles and the soft light of the half-moon, you could almost smell the Hill better than you could see it: a perfume of fat blossoms pushing against the scent of deisel and cooking oil floating in from the city. On the stage itself, Dirt Star had taped a microphone to the nub of a broomstick handle, which he’d wedged into the end of an old table stand. There were two small amps at the back of the stage and, in the corner, a table with a blinking laptop. The patio itself had wooden tables, deck chairs, and crooked Chinese pines rising through the floor, where thirty or so eager listeners– mostly friends and followers of Dirt Star– sat drinking gin and waiting for the show to start.
One of Dirt Star’s friends was named Airbag, who, along with his friend, Ka Kong– his name sounded like the first two hits of a tom roll– had come up from Beijing for the show. Dirt Star had played with Airbag’s Radiohead cover band in 2002 (a lot of Chinese concerts feature the headliner at 9:30, followed by a cover band). Airbag had been musically educated in his bedroom, studying whatever records he could get his hands on, downloading music software, and recording through digital trial and error. A few years ago, he joined one of China’s most successful cover bands, earning up to 50 dollars an hour, an unprecented wage for any young Chinese musician playing anything close to rock and roll.
The cover band scene in China was the polar opposite of what it is in North America. In a place like Toronto, where there are so many opportunities to play original music, it’s hard not to see the cover band racket as an admission of artistic defeat. But in China, cover bands serve a necessary function considering how few Western bands tour there. One evening, Al and I found ourselves walking along the Sanlitun, Beijing’s cover bar district and home to a row of popular clubs: BOYS AND GIRLS, THE RED MOON, SWING and SKYLINE. We were immediately hounded by greeters asking if we liked girls and sexy kissing and sexy kissing girls, so we ducked into a club to avoid further harassment. Our plan was to stay for a quick beer, then leave without having our feet masturbated, but the band was so lively and good that we stayed for two sets. Typically, bars on the Sanlitun strip feature Phillipino singing trios and pop quartets fronted by beautiful women in low-cut evening gowns, but our band featured two singers– a young fellow who sang Canto Pop power ballads with his fist frozen in the air, and a Joan Jett apprentice with stringy hair and torn jeans who thrashed her way through a few otherwise dubious Bon Jovi standards. People were into it, and the band played loud. During the show, tablefuls of fans waved green glow sticks, laughed at the band’s between-song jokes, and seemed to know the words to every chorus.
In Airbag’s case, he could only manage playing other people’s music for so long, despite the relative comfort and success of being in a top Chinese cover band. Eventually, he forfeited his salary and went to Changsha, where he rented a farmhouse and spent three months writing original material. Afterwards, he took his act on the road, but because the country’s rock and roll culture was slow to grow, Airbag played no more than a dozen shows a year, and radio stations stonewalled him. His parents were deeply concerned for their son’s future, and it was all he could do not to pack it until, one day, the producers of SUPERGIRLS– the national, Changsha-based, pop star competition–contracted him to produce a series of CDs featuring the show’s contestants. The show became China’s highest rated television program– no less than 500 million viewers, weekly– and Airbag’s CDs sold well. He’d survived where most other rock/pop musicians were struggling to piece together a life.
In the presence of Airbag, and a huddle of others, Al, Dwayne, (drummer) Jay and I took the stage at around 10 o’clock under a long velvet sky and ceiling of stars. After two weeks of high sounds and wild colour, it felt strange to be in such a deep pocket of quiet– especially after the madness of Changsha– but it served our music well, and we had a great set. We sat on fold-out chairs so that we could all fit on stage, and Jay played brushes on the top of one of our guitar cases. Al and I took turns singing into the broomstick microphone. Because the first few tables were occupied by pretty young Chinese girls– student friends’ of Dirt Star’s– I felt larger, hairier and louder than I had all tour. Whenever we segued from one of Al’s racuous touring songs into another– “Tonight in Edmonton” into “Drunk in America”– we were like yargling Yetis playing to a family of timid rabbits.
At one point during the instrumental break to “The Land is Wild,” I invited Airbag to the stage– the laptop, it turned out, was his– and asked if he’d create a digital rhythm to our song, on the spot. Dressed slackerishly like any twentysomething back home, he shuffled to the stage, strapped on his headphones, arched over his computer, and pushed around his mouse before revealing a tight, itchy groove married perfectly to what we were doing on our guitars, bass and drums.
It was hard for us to supress our joy and surprise. Not only were we delighted that, despite our hardfolk hoserisms, we were jamming to post-modern laptop beats– this was a first in Al’s musical life, and the first time in a long while for me– but because we were doing it within a flinging distance of the Summer Palace, the moment felt heavy with cross-cultural and quasi-historic weight. The show became stamped even deeper in our memory when, after our set, Airbag and Ka Kong borrowed our acoustic guitars, then played two Radiohead songs from “The Bends” (“High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees”). They sang beautifully and quietly, their hair falling across their eyes as their voices curved phoenetically around the lyrics. Radiohead gave way to one of Kong’s original compositions– a cool, riffy instrumental that sounded like bits of Gentle Giant and My Morning Jacket– and then Dirt Star asked the ‘Bag to play one of his songs. The young musician obliged, strumming and singing with brooding intensity. Like any fine musical moment, I understood none of it and all of it at the same time.
Coming off stage, I told Airbag and Kong how much I liked their singing, but they were embarassed by the praise, which they deflected by effusing at length about our performance. Searching for the right words, Airbag swung his head back and forth while looking at the ground and saying, “Great, great, great,” before adding, “Very good,” as if worried that he hadn’t gone far enough.
Of course, we were flattered. Still, without sounding too self-deprecating, I thought that if Airbag and Kong had found the Rheos-Not-Rheos’ set three times great, and very good, I wondered what they would have thought were they suddenly tsunami’ed with all of the great music they’d never heard: the amphetamine snare shots of “Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire” or two riders were approaching or the kick drum in “Highway to Hell” or “Layla’s” weeping outro or “Rocket to Russia” or John Lennon’s headcold vocal in “Twist and Shout,” which he sang shirtless after sucking back quarts of milk, or Paul Westerberg’s “Can’t Hardly Wait,” which he sang while pasted on his back lying across the studio floor, or Nazareth’s “Love Hurts,” which Dan McCafferty howled while sitting wasted in a rolling office chair; or “School” by Supertramp, The Muffs, Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” XTC, GBV, TMBG, BEP or NRBQ, or Sly and the Family Stone at Woodstock or the gypsy tag of “Baba O’ Reilly” or “Jesus: The Missing Years” or Neil Young’s “Alabama” solo or Aretha or James Brown’s good foot or the Bonzos or Pavement or “Mama Let Him Play” or “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” or “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” or “Pretty Vacant” or “Pretty in Pink” or “All Her Favourite Fruit” or Dave Edmunds or Wreckless Eric or I can’t take another heartache or “Arthur” or The Slits or No Means No or discovering Loudon Wainwright III on cassette in a church in Edinburgh in 1994 or “Night at the Opera’s” highway of sound or goingtoapartymeetmeonafterschool or Lambchop or “Cherry Blossom Clinic” (or ya, even ELO) or The Wilburys or Fairport Convention or The Jam or The Dishes or The Poles or Max Webster or “Tom Sawyer” (for Jay) or the classic New Wave era bass lines of “Every Breath You Take,” “Cities,” “Ugly Underneath,” and “Peaches,” or Mick Waller, Clem Burke, Bernard Purdy, Sly Dunbar, Lonnie James, Shiela E and Richie Hayward drumming, or the cold pooling intro to “Bad” by U2 or how the American government killed Kurt Cobain because he was the last dangerous rock and roll star or Tonio K or Plastic Bertrand or Vic Chestnut or the time Yoko crawled out of a bag at Varsity Stadium or “Warm Leatherette” or The Dickies or “Life On Mars” sung in English and Portugese or “Beer Cans on the Moon” or The Specials, Madness, Fishbone and The Selector or Cecilia singing Josh Rouse or the polaroids of Billy Bragg in his underwear that Martin took from our English road manager’s home in Chiswick and harboured until our last day in the UK or watching Jon King get knocked unconscious by a ceiling pipe after jumping five feet off the ground at the Palais Royale during “Anthrax” in 1980 or Rick Danko’s bass strings which were given to me after he died or the wonder in Peter Buck’s face as I stared up at him from the crowd in Croke Park after he’d struck the opening harmonic to “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” looking shaken and overwhelmed by the way it chimed through the stadium’s old iron grandstand or The Super Furries or Eno or The Undertones or The Decemberists or 1910 Fruitgum Company or The Modern Lovers or Jimmy Page’s “Hotdog” solo or how, during our last night in Compass Point Studios in Nassau after recording “Introducing Happiness,” we went into town and tried to get drunk but couldn’t so we headed back to our oceanside apartment but not before drummer Dave Clark pointed to an old stone pub and said, “Let’s try there,” so we did, and the first thing that happened was a young woman spun around on a bar stool and asked “Hey, aren’t you guys the Rheostatics?” and, because we were, we stayed and got drunk and Karoake’d deep into the night before somebody drove us home at which point I decided to sleep on the beach in my suit only to wake up hot and sweating at 10 in the morning hungover realizing that we’d missed our plane so I phoned the airport and they said, we’re sorry, sir, the plane is taxiing down the runway, which gave me the chance to say something that I’d always wanted to say:
“Hold that plane!”
The woman hung up. Dave Clark zombie’d out of bed and asked what was wrong. I told him that we’d missed our plane, and then he puked. Then I puked. I’d be a fool not to admit that rock and roll, in my life, has meant everything to me.
As we packed up our guitars, I heard giggling coming from one of the tables, and the sound of Dirt Star imploring a young woman to sing in Chinese. When I asked what was going on, he told me that “Mai is a singer on SUPERGIRLS. She’s made it to the final two contestants, and she’ll be singing next week to 500 million viewers. I’m trying to get her to sing for you.”
I told Mai that the Rheos-Not-Rheos would not leave the Fragrant Hill until she sang. She threw her hands to her face, as if trying to make herself disappear, but eventually we coaxed her to the stage. By now, the stars had become lost in the clouds and the candles extinguished by the cafe’s staff. The lights of the dining area had dimmed, too, so as the young singer stood in the middle of the stage, only her pale face and hands were visible when she sang. Before starting her song, she steadied her legs, cocked a hip, pointed out and down with her forefinger, and said, in close-jawed English with a hard Beijingers’ accent: “This song is called ‘What’s up?” Other than these words and the song’s lyrics, it would be the only English Mai would speak all night.
In the air, she sang a pop song from 1992 by the Four Non-Blondes. It was a very Strawbsesque moment: the defunct, all-dyke band from San Francisco having mollusked on to the Chinese pop scene while so much other music had not. As Mai performed for us– her hands butterflying the air, legs rooted to the stage, chest heaving, and eyes squeezed in melodic rapture– I wondered if, once the canon of modern music finds its way into this great and hungry land, it’ll be The Baha Boys and Sting, Tony Basil and Gwen Stefani who’ll survive beyond the rest. Perhaps, in twenty years, Airbag will still be singing songs from “The Bends” to thirty seven people in a cafe, while Mai’s sold-out European tour will be sponsored by a billion-dollar noodle company. After all, revolution in rock and roll can never be taken for granted.
On our last night in Beijing, I was scheduled to do a reading and acoustic performance at the Beijing Bookworm, an English-language library, bookstore, cafe and salon. Steve Chui, who’d helped organize the event, told me that a few Canadian ex-pats had expressed interest in jamming with me. This seemed like a grand idea, but after calling the bookstore, the store’s owner, Alex Pearson, told me that a guitar and banjo player, trombonist, mandolin player, accordianist, and bassist were all coming to play. I became nervous and anxious about the show’s consequences, and since it was our final night in China, the last thing I wanted to do was spend my time grinding out memories of the West with Canadians desperate to hear stories of home. Making the situation even more difficult was the fact that our hosts, Andy and Yu Fei, had planned an end-of-tour banquet for the Canadian bands, giving us a chance to reconnect with them, drink buckets of rice wine and trade stories.
I phoned the Bookworm and told Alex that I had to finish my performance by 9 pm, but she was worried about disappointing the musical guests. I decided that this would be too much for me to handle, so I phoned Al in his room. Steve Clarkson said that Al was asleep, but that he’d get him to call me when he woke up. Five minutes before leaving for the gig, Al phoned and said that he’d come to the gig. I collected him from his room and we were whisked by taxi through the early evening traffic to the bookstore.
As it turned out, only two musicians– an American with a double bass, and a Canadian guitar player– showed up to jam, which allayed my fears of a sonic trainwreck. I read for about twenty minutes, and then Al and I traded songs, teaching our guests the chords at the beginning of each number. The room was full and everybody seemed to be having a pretty good time.
During the performance, a small, white-haired woman sitting near the front of the room engaged us in lively patter. While some musicians want their crowd to be button-lipped between songs, I’ve always enjoyed the banter between musician and audience, provided, of course, it enlivens, rather than sabatoges, the show. In Thunder Bay, Ontario, there was a club called Crocks and Rolls, and whenever we played there, a beefy, square-headed man named Fred would sit at the back of the bar and shout “DIE!” whenever we finished a song. It’s all he ever shouted. He never once elaborated on his command– “DIE YOU HOSER MORONS FROM ETOBICOKE!” or “DIE SO THAT TROOPER AND BRYAN ADAMS MAY LIVE!” Needless to say, Fred’s shouting eventually got to us, and we started shouting back, which was the worst thing we could have done. Finally, there was a post-gig confrontation, which saw the large scowling man– who’d sat through every three-hour show we’d ever performed– shout “DIE!” as we loaded our gear into our van in the horrible winter. A few years later, a friend told me that Fred had suffered a serious heart attack, and was convalescing in the hospital. He asked if I’d sign a card for him, which struck me as a preposterous thing to do considering that Fred had made it his life’s work to see that we were miserable every time we played Thunder Bay. But my friend said that Fred, in fact, owned all of our recordings and was a big fan; he just had an awkward way of showing his appreciation.
The white-haired woman was the anti-Fred. Her comments tickled the room and cut through the tension that exists at the beginning of any performance. That she was an older person made her presence all the more memorable since very few sixtogenarians ever attended Rheos’ shows. Once we finished our set, I went over to thank her, but Al had got to her first. As I drew closer, I could see that the old woman was in tears.
Yvonne, it turned out, had been Al’s father’s girlfriend at the time of his death, six years ago. She’d left her husband and family to live with Mr. Piggins, but he’d died soon after, and now she’d escaped to Beijing to forget her sad Canadian life. A few days before our performance, she’d read in a local magazine that a hockey-playing/musician from Toronto was coming to the Bookworm. She thought to herself: “Maybe this person knows Alun. Maybe I can ask him some questions about him.” When Al told Yvonne that he had a newborn son– Deklan– she was unable to contain her emotions. That Al possessed his father’s mannerisms made it even harder for her to keep it together.
They talked for about an hour, and then I hinted to Al that we should probably leave for the banquet, even though I knew that hanging out in the Bookworm’s library room throwing back pints would be ok, too. Still, it would have been wrong slight our hosts. I called Andy at the restaurant and told him that we were leaving shortly. He said that they were waiting for us and could we, please, get there soon.
Overwhelmed by the events at the bookstore, we taxied to the restaurant to find the members and crews of six Canadian bands crowded into two small banquet rooms, making cellphone movies, toasting each other with rice wine, and singing “Oh Canada” at the top of their lungs like thirteen year olds on a bus trip to Buffalo. There was lots of drinking and the kind of sloppy hugging that only twenty-seven men distanced from their homeland could produce.
Forever told us that their best gig had been– as ours had– in Changsha, even though the keyboard player had bled through his nose over his synthesizer after suffering heat stroke. Pete, the one-eyed bass player, told me that he’d made contact with a record company person in Shanghai who wanted to buy the rights to one of the band’s songs– a wedding song, it turned out– with the purpose of getting a local Canto Pop star to record it. Negotiations, he said, were already underway to bring the band back in a year’s time, which proved one thing, if it proved anything at all: at least we knew which one of us were the Strawbs.
After drinking giant beers and destroying an enormous sea bass candied red with sweet and sour sauce, Andy shepperded us to a nearby KTV disco, where we gathered, regretfully, in a narrow room with blinking lights and a Karoake rig reefed to its limit. Once inside, Jordan Cook glued himself to the microphone. I’d arrived at KTV feeling nicely tippled from the rice wine’s boozy assault, but once I realized that I was about to spend my final moments in Beijing watching a bunch of musicians I’d probably never see again eviscerate the worst of The Eagles, I knew that our tour deserved a better send-off. I slapped Al on the knee and suggested that we escape while we could.
We pushed ourselves to our feet and left the room, only to find Andy standing against a wall outside. I thanked our host for our trip and told him how much I appreciated what he’d done. I told him how grateful I was that Life Fashion had taken care of our meals, hotels and transport, and that, in the end, only a few Tsing Taos and the occasional panda toy had dented our wallets. Andy waved his hands in front of us face and said, “No, I should be thanking you!” I was about to tell him that our trip would have been perfect had we not been imprisoned listening to the handsome singer from Stradio mangle the collected works of U2, but I bit my tongue. I wanted Andy to follow us into the city, but because he was the festival’s host, he was responsible for his charges, and forced to hang at the disco. I excused myself to the bathroom before slinking past him to the street. It wasn’t the goodbye that he deserved, but it’s what happened.
We were dropped off by taxi at the top of the hutong in an area known as Huo Hai, an old enclave where green water canals give Beijing the look of Venice among the dragons. As we made our way along the riverside past great shaggy trees, their branches earring’ed with red lanterns, I peered across the canal looking for the No Name Bar, having visited it a few days earlier with Dwayne. I stopped to ask directions from a vendor selling glassware from a wagon, but before he could answer, I’d dug 50 yuan from my pocket and bought a plastic bag filled with coloured porcelain tea cups, proving that, while it’s fine for revellers to boast of wild evenings bellyflopping in city fountains, you’re not actually drunk until you’ve convinced yourself that buying precious glassware in the middle of the night in the hutong is a good idea. Nonetheless, the pottery clacked happily against my hip as we crossed a bridge over the water, where, a few streets later, we found the No Name shouldered against the winding canal like an old houseboat that had been hauled up on the shore.
The No Name was as much like a Hunanese cottage as a tavern: narrow, dark and wooden. If you stuffed forty people inside, you’d be flouting fire safety regulations, provided such regulations existed. Walking in, I noticed a table busy with Chinese patrons, but otherwise, the place was empty. Along with the Shuffle Demons, Steve Chiu, and a few other stragglers from KTV, we sat down and toasted the ascent of Sino-Canadian rock and roll, and other booze-fuelled platitudes. At one point, I leaned over to say something to Al, only to find that he’d caught the attention of the bar’s other patrons, and was now standing at their table, where a few laughing women were pointing at his nose.
The girls, it turned out, were singers. They were twentyish, with radiant faces. One of their friends– a publicist who spoke a kind of fitful English– told us that their party was from Lhasa, and that the girls were a pop group, considered to be The Spice Girls of Tibet. Dressed in cool evening wear with jewels prettying their hair, they were like four elegant birds next to our yowling Yeti crew, who were grateful to have happened upon a scene that, at this point, seemed far too fine and good for the likes of us.
There was one smallish fellow among the Tibetans, with eyes to match the twinkling skies. His face was as round and perfect as a saucer, and he had a shaved head, with a dark moustache crawling across his top lip. He was the table’s clown prince, telling stories and waving his arms and making everyone laugh, which, I learned, he did every week while hosting Tibet’s most popular music video program. As I moved around to meet him, he rose to greet me– he was only as tall as my armpits– at which point I drew my black fedora from my head and placed it on his perfectly round skull. He threw his hands to the brim of the hat, which looked as if it were meant to live there.
The fedora had been given to me by my step-mother, Joanne, after her father, Bill Chahley, had passed away a few months before I’d left for China. Bill was from Smokey Lake, Alberta, and had served for years in the RCMP before settling in Rothsay, New Brunswick. Hanging around him was to hang around the kind of person that you used to find in the taverns, ball fields and social halls of Canada in the 40s, 50s, and 60s: strong-willed, genuine, wise, and tough; a larger-than-life figure who, for me, helped sew together the Canada that I’d left behind as a teenager and the new one that I’d wanted to help create as an artist, musician and writer. Bill had hated Trudeau– and probably the French, too– and called homo milk “Hatfield,” after the former New Brunswick premier. He wasn’t what you or I would call politically enlightened, yet he was enlightened, I think, when it came to understanding human nature. He could size you up fast, and even if he didn’t like what he saw, he was formal and respectful until you proved otherwise. Because I’d worn a fedora, as he had, all of my adult life, I was given his black Biltmore in memorium. I was honoured to wear it, which I did while guesting on an election night panel live from Calgary, Alberta, where I paid tribute to Bill and told the story of the hat. And now that hat had left my head.
I asked the publicist to tell my new friend: “This is my grandfather’s hat. He died a few months ago, but I think he should have it.” The friend leaned in and told the smiling man what I’d said, at which point he opened his arms and came towards me. The next day, Jay, remembering the evening’s events, said: “Man, after you gave him your hat, you guys couldn’t stop hugging each other.”
Word of my hat transfer passed around the room, and, to be certain I’d done the right thing, I canvassed my fellow Canadians, who assured me that it was a good call. The tv host and his friend turned their backs for a moment and struggled to free a totem from around the tv host’s neck. Finally slipping out of the necklace, he pressed the small tin icon into my hand, telling me, through his friend, “This is a Tibetan symbol of good luck, an om. I’ve worn it since I was a child, but I want you to have it.” With this exchange, my first thought was that we were both tempting fate, but I nonetheless accepted the gift. We hugged some more, then my new friend held up the flat of his hands. The room grew quiet. “Your friend here,” said the publicist, “he wants very much to sing you a song.”
The tv host put one hand to his chest, let the brim of Bill Chahley’s fedora fall across his brow, and, in a sonorous tenor, sang a Tibetan anthem of friendship in the low light of the bar. With each verse, he was joined by the other Lhashans, and finally, the Spice Girls, whose voices cruised sweet and high above the small, fedora’ed man’s lead. This song gave way to another, then another, and, for forty minutes, the Tibetans stood and sang to us, their voices swimming out of the bar and down the ancient streets until proudly– and maybe a little foolishly– Mike Hiltz of the Sons of Maxwell climbed a chair and led us in a version of “Barret’s Privateers”. It was the least we could do.
At around 4:30 am, the singing stopped and the barkeep corked the whiskey. We said goodbye to the Tibetans while acknowledging that a greater force had soul-glued in musical perpetuity two sets of musicians from the world’s distant shores, or for at least as long as the tv host wore Bill Chahley’s hat. At the end of the night, me, Al, Dwayne, and Steve Chui stumbled out of the No Name and walked through the old city looking for a taxi stand. Navigating our way down a dark alleyway, we noticed a bright light shining about twenty feet in front of us. At first, I thought it might be coming from a haircutting salon or internet depot– two nocturnal Beijing staples– but as we got closer, I saw that it was a record store, open, at 4:30 in the morning in the hutong.
Passing our heads underneath the doorframe, there first thing we saw was a fully-stocked beer fridge, which is the hosers’ equivalent of a Bedouin coming across a water cooler and date trees in the middle of the desert. At the back of the store, three young Beijingers sat reclining with their legs and arms slung over two small couches, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and listening to music. As we approached them, they showed little or no reaction, which is exactly how I wouldn’t have responded had four pelted Norsemen walked into my place in the middle of the night.
A modest rack of CDs stood behind them, and I walked straight towards it. I passed a finger along a row of spines, before stopping, impossibly, at a record by The Diodes, an obscure Toronto New Wave band from the late 1970s. I might have spent a moment trying to figure out how an album from a minor Canadian band– whose reputation had only spread so far as two hit songs on a local Toronto radio station– had landed here, but, really, I wasn’t surprised at this discovery, not considering the kind of night we were having. “You guys have to hear this,” I exhorted to the young Chinese, who smiled and nodded their heads like lazing cats. Steve Chui pulled four cold beers out of the fridge as I Yeti’d whatever music they were listening to out of their stereo, pushed in the disc, punched “Tired of Waking Up Tired” and air-guitare’d and sang for three-minutes and ten seconds as if The Diodes were the greatest and most important band in the world. Because in that moment, in that little record store in the hutong, they were.
*Adapted from ‘Around the World in 57.5 Gigs” McClelland and Stewart, 2008