Weekends are for rock shows at Get Lucky, Beijing’s best-known live music venue. There’s always some kind of show at Get Lucky, but most other nights it’s a Filipino cover band, a flamenco-meets-Central-Asian-Gypsy-Kings-wannabe act, or a couple of guys singing very bad pop songs along with karaoke CDs. Get Lucky isn’t exactly in a rock ‘n’ roll neighbourhood: To get there, you have to walk through a strip mall of high-end restaurants and cookie-cutter lounge bars. There are two doors to Get Lucky, both at the front: You’ll go in the one on the right. The door on the left leads upstairs to a neon-lit corridor of baroque-meets-Roarin’-‘20s private karaoke rooms, and the only people who use that door are the da kuan—the big spenders, the managerial class. They’re not looking for the latest punk or nü-metal band. These dudes, with their pleather clutch-purses, buzzcuts and lack of fashion sense, are here to sip tea, XO and wine—the latter two on the rocks, maybe with a bit of Sprite—while they sing their hearts out with the help of the short-skirted ‘hostesses’ that come with the room.
At the door, you’ll see locals and foreigners alike haggling with the ticket-taker (who is actually the brewmeister, responsible for the in-house brewing operation that rock fans tend to turn down in favour of sneaked-in 25-cent 640-ml bottles of local beer). They’re trying to bargain down the cost of admission. “Fifty kuai?!” you’ll hear the punters ask, shocked at the cover. It’s the equivalent of US$6. “Isn’t there a student price?” They’re probably not students. “But the guitarist told me to come!” Not likely. Then there are the other folk who are so above paying cover that they breeze right past the man at the door, in what is either blissful ignorance of the simplest of club-land procedures, or, with their noses skyward and gaze focused straight down its bridge, well-practised attitude.
As you pay the cover you catch site of a flat-screen TV in the club’s entranceway that alternates between clips of Russian slapstick films and items off of the bar’s menu: One moment you’re watching a family of clowns repeatedly running themselves into and bouncing off a tree; a moment later, you’re watching a slide show of ‘Beef Stroganoff’, ‘American Hamburger’ and other ‘Western’ dishes. In front of the TV, two guys are standing behind a table of local, mostly self-produced CDs running the gamut from black metal to pop to experimental laptop-driven noise.
In you go. The US $600,000 in renovations hits you almost as quickly as the out-of-place music on the stereo. You’ll wonder if you’re in the right place: There shouldn’t be techno-pop music on the stereo. Maybe if they were trying to be ironic they could get away with that, or with the pop videos and NASCAR racing on the television sets throughout the bar (except over the urinals, as you might later discover, which are hooked up to the same system as the one in the doorway). But they’re not being ironic. Not clueless, either; more like lazy and disinterested.
Five million yuan buys an awful lot of neon, kitch and slickness. There are Jim Beam overalls for the waitstaff, a large display of cognac and whisky, random wall hangings (cuckoo clocks, booze sinage, knickknacks) and a stage and sound system more than up to the task of hosting local bands. There’s even a mosh pit of sorts, right there where it should be, in front of the stage. But the crowd, you realise, is strange. Dudes that should be upstairs are drinking tea and playing what you can only describe as psychotic Yahtzee, the object seemingly to shake your dice and slam the shaker down louder than your opponent - and the ‘state-of-the-art’ sound system.
The first band you see will probably be a nü-metal band. ‘Beijing rock’ used to mean mohawks, studded leather and Doc Martens. These days, to most local musicians, it means hip-hop clothing, a rapper, and a DJ. The band will finish, and as they make way for the next band, three guys step onstage. “Thanks for coming out to the show,” says one of them, but it will be obvious to you that he’s not the MC for the evening. Before you realise what’s happening, a scroll is being unrolled and auctioned off. “This horse was painted by a very famous man from Shandong. Who will start the bidding at 50 yuan?” Live metal music couldn’t distract the dice-throwers, but an ink painting of a horse has them completely captivated. Meanwhile, the music fans in the house are giggling, and, like the last time they came to watch a show, are wondering aloud how the bar could possibly continue to do this night after night. Some of the more observant among them will note that the horse hasn’t sold for weeks.
Several more bands will take to the stage, and they will not all be nü-metal bands - they may not even be bands that should ever inhabit the same universe, let alone share a stage. Auctions will follow each act, and some paintings will actually be bought. And you’ll know when the last band has finished, because as they clear their gear away, a DJ table will rise from a trap door in the stage as smoke machines pump fog in massive quantities, and the soundtrack changes to hard-thumping techno. Once again, dice games stop, as businessmen and their escorts take to the dance floor that you thought was a mosh pit. And you’ll probably follow the rock fans out the door.
It’s experimental music night at Club 13, a new club in the university district. Unlike Get Lucky, this club is pure rock and roll, from the minimal decorations that are sprayed across the walls graffiti-style to the minimal offerings behind the bar and the fact that the bathrooms are outside the door in a crumbling cement structure housing little more than holes.
On this Thursday night at just past nine pm, there are very few people at the club. Nobody had yet taken to the stage a half-hour past the show’s advertised start time (the term ‘advertised’ is used loosely: it was the subject of an email sent around to a hundreds-strong list plus a few SMS’s; word of mouth, the promotional method that seems to work best in this town, was also employed), but there are some international phenomena that not even the bamboo curtain can keep out. The five performers have arrived, as have a few of their buddies, and even one of their moms.
While busy with a bowl of his own, Yan Jun, China’s only real music critic and one of the event’s organisers, promoters and participants, is given a bowl of beef jerky by the manager of the club. Yan Jun thanks him even though he’s a vegetarian, and goes back to the task of packing his pipe with hash and tobacco. He turns down an offer of a lighter: the match, he says, is better for his health and well being. As he pulls from the pipe, he tells us that he’ll be heading off to Labrang Monastery, in Qinghai Province to study throat singing. He’ll likely incorporate it into his performances which already employ Tibetan prayer bells and bowls, an iPod, a laptop, and, often, his poetry.
When it’s evident that the 20-odd spectators/friends/musicians in the room are the only people coming to the show, the evening begins. Artist after artist sits cross-legged on the stage floor, staring meditatively (nonplussed?) at his equipment and producing generally good sets to an audience that is appreciative, but talkative. While the first performer takes to the stage, another artist is trying to convince his mom to spark the joint that will be passed around. She eventually submits, and is passed out cold as her son takes to the stage an hour later.
Nobody—save, perhaps, the bar management—sees the show as a failure. Not even Yan Jun, whose Subjam label held the show to celebrate the release of a half-dozen CDs and DVDs, all self-financed and produced. He may have sold a couple discs, but he certainly gave a bunch away (his friends are loyal, but not with their wallets), and he will have to pound the pavement to get them distributed to friendly local CD shops around town. The crowd was not big, but it was tight: There are upwards of a dozen performers and friends—directors, musicians, writers, artists—who hang out well past the show’s end, and the streets are deserted when we wander out of the bar into the frigid wee hours of the morning.
I was sitting at a table with the five members of Toronto-based rock band By Divine Right, their sound-man, their local promoters and one of the highest ranking military officials in the province of Hebei. We were in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, three hours by train southwest of Beijing. By Divine Right was supposed be on a seven-city tour of China, partly sponsored by the Canadian embassy. For a variety of reasons, the seven cities were reduced to four, but by that time, the band was already in Shijiazhuang, the town in which the promoters were based.
We were at Jin Shui An—the International Holiday Club—a brand-spanking-new club with all the trimmings: Computerized disco lights, a cabaret worthy of Las Vegas, tables full of da kuan and a phalanx of tight-skirted waitresses. Mr. Xu—‘the General’ as we came to know him - had been sitting nearby and was so taken by the presence of so many foreigners—as well as his fair share of sauce—that he had to come over every few minutes and share with us his feelings toward Canadians (he thinks of us every time the leaves change colors) and offer us his fancy cigarettes.
The band had only been in China a few days, but already they’d lost three cities’ worth of shows, and their first gig was postponed: The International Holiday Club lacked amplifiers and the drum kit they had prepared was an electronic drum pad. The show would go on, on the following night, so on this evening, the band were spectators. We took in a dinner of fruit pizza, pig ears and other cross-cultural delights, and then, the show. A solo saxophonist performed (‘sax-synched’?) Kenny G tunes; round after round of dancing girls in frilly neon outfits paraded to techno remixes of pop music local and foreign; a stream of beautiful women played traditional Chinese instruments. This is any given night at the International Holiday Club. And the next night, By Divine Right was simply added to the bill.
Shows at the International Holiday Club are always a good time; By Divine Right’s was no exception, though it was certainly against the odds: Happy-go-lucky sludge rock doesn’t always go seamlessly with elevator jazz, traditional Chinese instrument versions of songs like ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ and showgirl-style techno dance troupes. And maybe it shouldn’t. But as businessmen, foreign students and teachers and a few dancing girls danced both onstage and off to head-bopping rock and roll, it was obvious that a fun night out in Shijiazhuang can go very different ways. The club was gone not one year later.
The Midi School of Modern Music, which teaches more than MIDI, hosts a music festival every year. Most of the school’s students stay far away from computer software; most are metal fans, though jazz and Latin classes are mandatory. The Midi Music Festival used to be a showcase for the school’s bands, but it is now generally composed of bands whose members never attended the school. Over the course of what has now been extended to four days (from the original two), the stage hosts dozens of local bands, most of whom are based in Beijing, but some from further afield—from other parts of the mainland as well as from Norway and Japan (the crowd nearly killed “imperialist bastards” Brahman in 2003, pummeling the stage with bottles and curses thanks to a deep-seeded national pastime of a hatred of the country: to Chinese, the Japanese are far more foreign devil than I could ever be). Audiences have ballooned to at least 10,000 per day. Motorcycle clubs from far-flung provinces organize trips to the festival; rock fans from around the country make the pilgrimage every year.
For the past five years, the festival has been scheduled for the first few days of the May Day holiday, one of the country’s three ‘Golden Weeks’ of vacation. For the past two years, the festival has been postponed to October 1-3, during the ‘Golden Week’ of China’s national day: In 2003, the concern was Sars, which had brought the country to a standstill, and was generally an acceptable excuse to postpone the festival. Last year, the festival was postponed—at t-minus two days to showtime—due to vague concerns over ‘safety’: China had suffered a string of large-scale accidents ranging from a bridge collapse-stampeded to fireworks factory accidents and gas leaks, and as a result, large-scale events around the country had been caught up in the crackdown on the idea of safety.
Last October’s event was moved from the campus of the school to an enormous and more accessible park, but it was almost cancelled after its second day. Authorities had no choice but to respond to the complaints of local residents whose apartment buildings stood just outside of the park’s gates. (It’s worth noting where people draw their lines: Large-scale condominium construction next door at all hours—in the name of the New Beijing, of course—is alright. Live music until ten pm in a public park is more than one should have to bear). Fierce negotiations went late into the night, and by the next day, word had started to spread that all parties had agreed to the idea of starting and finishing earlier: This messed up the schedule, but schedules are messed up as a rule in Beijing.
A couple of friends and I brought hand drums and percussion with the hopes of jamming between acts. We set up shop a fair ways back from the stage, and slowly attracted an audience that would make their way to our space as it became obvious that the bands onstage were wrapping up. We tried to get people clapping along; some did, but they did so reluctantly, and only for short spurts of time. But something changed on the second day, and it had to have been thanks to a few foreigners positioned around the circle. We had started to work up past the simple clapping along, and on to hootin’ and hollerin’. Then, a few souls began singing a call-and-answer type of melody. It began with foreigners singing to foreigners, and it would be over-generalizing to paint local kids—even rock fans—as unexpressive and lacking in initiative, though there is some truth in it. But the spectacle reached a point at which it became obvious to people that they didn’t have to simply be spectators—that they, too, could participate. Suddenly, the dozens of local kids surrounding us were singing along—and even coming up with their own melodies, out-singing the original singers.
And it ended as quickly as it had begun: With the opening chords of the metal band onstage, it was over.