Tomorrow Never Knows: The New Face of Chinese Rock Music
Xinxiang, Henan Province, China
And if you go carryin’ pictures of Chairman Mao
Don’t you know that you can count me out
“‘Hey Jude!’ The Beatles!” Zhang Yun, my new friend, suddenly cried out.
We were sitting, listening to a local Chinese garage band playing outside, so the topic of music had been broached.
“The Beatles,” I echoed.
“The Beatles?” he seemed to ask. This was beginning to sound like voice inflection exercise. But then, Zhang Yun threw his head back in laughter and crooned out, “Hey Juuuude, don’t make it baaaaaad!” to refresh my memory.
“Yes, yes, I know. The Beatles.”
“Can you play guitar?” he asked, strumming an air guitar.
“Yes, I can play.”
I watched his eyes light up from behind his round glasses. I did the addition and knew what was coming next.
“You can play ‘Hey Jude’ with us?”
Pausing a moment, I answered in Chinese, “Sure. No problem.”
Grinning and satisfied with my narrow language abilities, he stood up from the concrete step where we sat and returned to his group of friends, thirty feet away. His friends, perhaps six or seven other college-aged guys, I later learned, were all loosely associated with the local Chinese garage band Lei Niao.
Thirty minutes prior, I had stumbled upon Lei Niao while taking a walk south of the college campus where I’m living and teaching English in Central China. I had heard some kind of noise ricocheting off the blocky buildings nearby. When I made it to the source, I found a spot to sit, listen and sip Fanta from a glass bottle.
It was a mild October evening and I often liked sitting along this dust-blown street in front of the new strip of mobile phone stores and snack shops, watching people prepare for supper. It was pleasant learning the evening rhythms of the place, despite the fact that my presence always syncopated things a bit. Tonight, though, Lei Niao was dictating the street rhythms.
The band was gloriously awful. The drummer pounded his kit on the top step: choppy, uneven drum smacks, shrapnel cymbals and thudding toms. There was a suitcase-sized chunk of concrete on the step below the bass drum to keep it from tumbling down the five stairs. The acoustic guitar was violently out-of-tune, but full of distortion to compensate. The electric guitar player did some acrobatic heavy metal shredding that, with the eerie flange/echo, sounded like it came from a cave. The vocal amplifier had the bass turned up so high that any singing sounded like a garbled drive-thru intercom. All of this was played, to be sure, over the constant drone of feedback.
Inexplicably to me, there was a crowd listening, standing in a semi-circle a few feet from the performers. They were friends of the band, passing school girls holding hands, children with balloons, mothers, old men squatting. Shoppers shuffled around the band and into the flower-bedecked stationary store behind the group (Lei Niao was christening its grand opening).
The band covered Chinese pop songs as best I could tell and all the songs ended by simply falling apart. No one clapped. The audience looked bewildered or transfixed or most likely, like they had nothing better to do.
Another song petered out and this time three more members of Lei Niao emerged from the crowd and everyone switched. The original trio sat to the side and took smoke breaks.
Over time, I learned that the band kept its lineup flexible. The first night I met them on the concrete steps, I sat and listened to Lei Niao the heavy power trio: guitar, guitar and drums. Later that weekend, I watched the boys perform as a five-piece, adding a bass guitar and keys. At another point, a female backup singer joined them on stage. At yet another, I sat in on a stripped down rehearsal of one guitar and drums. These were all, I was assured, equally known as Lei Niao, which means “The White Partridges”.
After consulting with the other band members, Zhang Yun stomped back over to me in his tan work boots. He was beaming.
“We don’t know ‘Hey Jude’,” he said. He didn’t look disappointed; he was still smiling.
I parroted, “Okay, no problem,” my stock phrase, unsure of what was supposed to happen next.
Not missing a beat, he walked me over to the group and announced to everyone that I could play guitar. The music stopped and all eyes were trained on the foreigner. The next second, smiles rained down on me, from the band and the crowd. And before I had processed the details, someone had thrust a guitar toward me and the audience started clapping. Like so many occasions during a life abroad, this would not be what it first seemed.
I played the Beatles’ “Get Back”, hearing my own voice now swampy and my own chords now drenched in the shimmering, cave-like guitar tone. One of the boys crashed around, mistimed and awkward on the drums. No one seemed to mind the discord. Young, stringy hipsters with jean jackets and asymmetrical hairstyles shouted out Nirvana and AC/DC tunes. I played the ones I knew and made up a few ridiculous lyrics to flesh out the verses. What did it matter?
I was about twenty seconds into “Back in Black” when someone tapped me on my back and said, politely, that the gig was over. The owner (and mostly likely the surrounding neighborhood) only wanted music until eight o’clock. It was eight o’clock.
As they packed up their gear, the boys clasped me around the shoulders and eagerly told me about their ‘big’ show the following day, almost all of them making huge hand gestures with lit up faces. It was a talent show at another university in the downtown area of our (relatively) small town, Xinxiang. Did I have anything to do tomorrow? Could I meet them beforehand? Could I come and have a listen?
Thus began my weekend as a glorified roadie for the Chinese band The White Partridges.
I write ‘glorified’ because I, in fact, performed at each of the weekend’s events. So, in one sense, I was a solo artist for the next two nights. I was also their honored guest, which, they insisted, meant I couldn’t chip in for taxi rides or pay my share for post-performance dumplings. I was their PR rep: attracting envious stares from the other bands. I was their photographer too.
But I write ‘roadie’ because I traveled with the band and helped set up their equipment. Frankly, most of my time with the band was spent doing what I imagine roadies doing: sitting with them, listening, chatting, tuning their guitars, complimenting their gelled hairstyles, asking them to introduce pretty girls to me backstage.
On Friday, twenty-three hours after first meeting Lei Niao, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the gig was a big performance. The university auditorium must have contained a few hundred people, filling up the rows, packing the house. The seven of us sat in a cluster, in the first few rows directly in front of a looming, 15-foot P.A. speaker. To my right, I listened as Ma Jun, a small, squirrelly, excitable friend of the band chattered to me in Chinese. I’d return a helpless smile and ask him to write down the words in my pocket notebook. Then, he’d scribble a couple characters, grin contently and fire away another few rounds.
Lei Niao was slated to play about midway through the variety show, so I sat back, jotting down notes and explaining them to Ma Jun as he craned his neck, studying them over my shoulder.
Just about every act the crowd endured that night was marred by technical difficulties: mics going out…in…out, deafening feedback, faulty wiring, bad mixing. But the same amateur and bizarre charm I’d seen the last night kept me in high spirits throughout.
The first act was a 10-year-old boy dressed in all black playing a drum set solo. Circus music was piped though the P.A. The lilting carousal polka began and the crowd clapped in time. Then the canned music suddenly stopped and the drummer, looking nervously off stage, kept drumming. When the boy eventually paused, the music jumped to life and it took him a few bars to find his place. This continued. After several minutes of this intermittent game of tag, the frustrated boy sat obstinately on his throne, sticks crossed and glared at a man sitting behind a mixing board. When the routine was finished (abandoned?), another identical boy in black walked on stage and performed the exact same song, the music stopping and starting in new and surprising places.
Next up, a jazz quintet took the stage, led by an alto sax player who honked and growled, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” like a T.V. commercial. The band couldn’t stop or start together and in the middle of their second song, a flaming light bulb fell from the ceiling and landed between the keys player and the guitarist. The mechanical-looking bass player shrugged and retreated to the opposite side of the stage.
One of the night’s emcees in a lime green zip-up sweater sang karaoke with nervous breaths. Confused punk rockers ambled across the stage; I could hear their wallet chains jangling from the third row. During a later band’s set, everyone simply stopped playing, mid-song, and huddled around a malfunctioning amp to twist knobs or look impressively disgusted. Next, the house lights quit and a break-dancer whipped the crowd into a frenzy. At another point, a young, rail-thin man in sneakers sat finger picking and singing what was surely a tragic love ballad and the sound emanating from the stage was so incredibly out of tune and horribly awful, the crowd collectively tinkered with their mobile phones. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Lei Niao was about on par with the previous night.
Yet, somewhere toward the middle of this twenty-act line-up, out walked Xing Cun Zhe (“Survivor”), the most polished act of the night. This band had a look: the bass player swung his dread-locks and sported an F-1 racing jersey with “Marlboro” emblazoned on the back. The singer/guitarist and lead guitarist had matching bouffant, acid-frizzed hair and hip, matching red jogging suits.
“They are the best band in Xinxiang,” someone said admiringly.
The band played a few vaguely familiar tunes in Chinese and the crowd laughed at the singer’s jokes between songs. Then, I sat astonished as they ripped through not one, but three Beatles covers in a row.
I howled along with “Don’t Let Me Down” from my seat, much to the amusement of my companions, and tried to do the same with “Come Together,” but the words sounded muddy. I stopped singing and listened:
He got hair down to he knee
Got to be a joka he do what do he plea Approaching the lyrics to “Come Together” in a foreign language would be a mighty task. Xing Cun Zhe’s performance had this kind of half-gibberish quality, which I first thought endearing and amusing until I recalled the original lyrics: “toe-jam football,” “wonky finger”, “walrus gumboot,” “ono sideboard,” “spinal cracker,” “mojo filter.” Half-gibberish? That’s the song already.
At the time of the song’s conception, John Lennon said he was tired of his lyrics being over-analyzed and misinterpreted by fawning (read: possibly demented) fans. So, he essentially improvised the nonsensical, drug-inspired words off the cuff. He’d approve of this rendition, I decided.
But pronunciation aside, as the night wore on, it struck me that what the Xinxiang bands did have going for them was a crucial thing the Beatles had in the early days as well: a sense of musical community. I watched bands finish their numbers and hand off their instruments to new performers. A single drummer with short-cropped hair and sleeves rolled to his elbows played with every other group. I heard at least four separate renditions of the same inane but catchy Chinese pop song over the course of the weekend. In fact, I began to see the same kind of community of musicians (none prolific, but all hungry) that I’d fantasized Liverpool being around 1960.
Contrary to popular belief, the Beatles didn’t “make” the Liverpool rock scene, the opposite was true. From a distance, the city, a gray, industrial port, looks about as likely to produce the Beatles as Gary, Indiana looks to produce Michael Jackson. But, in the late 50s and early 60s, there were probably over 300 bands in the Merseyside area at any one time and the same number of venues: ballrooms and dancehalls (called “jive-hives”). To be sure, bands like ‘The Shimmy Shimmy Queens’ and ‘Ogi and the Flintstones’ don’t ring too many bells forty-odd years later, but they were still setting up their amps on Friday nights. And frenzied kids showed up at these town-cum-dance halls for their weekly dose of rock ‘n’ roll medicine. They came in droves too, dancing, screaming and sipping soft drinks.
As I listened to the Beatles’ songs, I thought about them and tried to imagine Xing Cun Zhe or Lei Niao rising to international superstardom as the Fab Four did. I tried, as best I could, to give them the benefit of the doubt. I reminded myself that the Beatles I love and listen to today weren’t always innovative songwriters and awe-inspiring melody machines. They weren’t even “The Beatles.” They were The Quarrymen, The Silver Beetles and, for a thankfully brief time, Johnny and the Moondogs.
What hammered the Beatles into “The Beatles” was what I thought every band in Xinxiang needed as well: a baptism by fire. The lads had this in Hamburg, Germany, when they played places like the Indra Club and the Kaiserkeller Club for eight-hours at a stretch every night. They learned to play together. They honed a stage presence. They got their guitars in tune and their tempos straightened out. They shared cramped, crumbling hotel rooms and covered themselves at night with the Union Jack. They paid their dues and emerged a tight, seasoned rock ‘n’ roll band.
So, with intense practice and a lot of luck, why not Xinxiang? The city seems about as likely to produce The Next Big Thing as, well, Liverpool or Duluth, Minnesota or Asbury Park, New Jersey was for that matter. Why not? Perhaps one day twenty years from now the members of Lei Niao, sunglass-clad, and (still) hair-gelled will sit down in an ultra-posh Shanghai hotel and with just a hint of wistfulness say, “Yes, I remember Xinxiang. We were awful in those days.”
As for now though, it’s going to be a long and winding road.