Rock and Roll with the Little Sister

Posted by Pete DeMola on 13. Jun 2010

BEIJING, June 13 - We stood together and smirked as a group of college-aged white kids -- faces flushed, collars popped on their polo shirts, backward ballcaps (Duke!) and beers in hand ("Bro!") -- jostled each other as the band before them issued a sunny set of ska.

"It's not usually like this," I apologized. "This is doesn't happen very often."

"I fucking hate ska," said a scowling foreign man who was seated next to us at the bar. "It's just too fucking happy for me."

"I like ska," said a smiling Chinese man who was seated on the other side, "because it makes me feel happy."

We, the Little Sister and I, felt neutral as we leaned against the bar and watched as images raced by on a projection screen -- synchronized clips of old kung fu movies, propaganda films and psychedelic animations -- as Chengdu ska dudes the Trouble downshifted into a slowburning, sax-fueled groove and the foreigners adjusted their wobbly moves accordingly.

I directed her attention overhead at the portraits lining the walls, pointing out bands like Demerit, Guai Li, Ourself Beside Me, Carsick Cars, P.K. 14, Hedgehog and Joyside.

"These are some of the bands that often play here and are more indicative of Beijing's music scene," I said. "It would have been nice if these guys had shows this week."

"Not this," I apologized. "But maybe I'll interview one of these American Douchebags later for an article."

By "this" I meant ska, one street punk band, the Douchebags and a trio containing two foreign men who play Judas Priest and Black Sabbath covers on the weekends for just for kicks.

We had just left the Bad Mamasan gig at 13 Club.

"I really respect these guys because in Los Angeles, they would just get booed off the stage for not being cool," said the Little Sister.

She was explaining the singular word "scene," which she had written neatly in my notebook earlier as the trio ripped into their rendition of Deep Purple's "Highway Star."

The place was mostly-empty except for a gaggle of kids positioned at the front of the stage and a lone trio of foreign men in a booth -- one of whom sat solemnly with his arm outraised making devil horns for the entirely of their set: a pensive warrior paying homage at the Altar of Metal.

"People there use it as an adjective," she said. "And I'm so tired of the entire culture: everyone is trying to impress everyone else and people are so artificial, following whatever LA Weekly is dictating to them what they should and shouldn't like."

I thought about what she said for a moment but didn't really know what to say.

"I'm glad I don't live there," I responded, and then gave her a copy of Bad Mamasan's "Metal Doesn't Say Sorry" to take back to sunny southern California.

"Good thing you're moving in September."

The Present

There was not anything inherently wrong with any of the bands performing on this balmy Friday night -- it could have been worse.

Much worse.

While they were very good and their shows entertaining (excluding the K), they do not play very often (excluding the Flyx) and their presence alongside the dozen-or-so American Douchebags -- the most rowdy of whom I singled out for an interview later -- made for a perfect storm of Seinfeldian irony, which is an inherent DeMola trait.

The Little Sister and the Parental Units came all the way from Long Beach, California to become acquainted with Beijing, its homegrown culture and more importantly, to find out why one of their family members was slowly killing himself across the world with his 16-hour work days at a start-up company paired with frenetic dispatches from the soft pink underbelly of "underground" rock scene.

"I'll be living here for a while and would like you to have visual representations of my life," I wrote in an email shortly before the trio boarded their flight from Los Angeles to Beijing.

"Both past, present and possibly the future."

Alongside the usual sights, I wanted to take them inside the places where I spend the most time when I am not in my office -- the dark, smoky interiors of D-22, 13 Club and MAO Live House -- where the four of us could stand together and slowly inhale the vapors of sex, drugs and rock and roll alongside unhinged native youth energy, their passions and the squalls of ringing feedback.

It did not work out exactly as planned.

All three of the bands performing at D-22 that night -- the Flyx, the K and the Trouble -- were cranking out genres whose American roots are firmly planted in the Little Sister's very own California, a state where both street punk and ska eternally reverberate like the waves lapping against the Pacific shoreline.

I'd have rather exposed her to some of the bands that really represent this city's unique rock and roll culture, like Guai Li, a quintet who emit tightly-wound sets of visceral and intricate rock and roll that tear emotive holes through the city's sonic landscape.

While borrowing much from New York's mid-1970s proto-punk scene, their wrought, disorienting and cathartic sound simmers with sexy rage and is equally a reflection of contemporary life in Beijing's urban hellhole.

Or younger bands like 24 Hours and Rustic, both of whom have taken over Joyside's throne in cranking out bold, adrenaline-fueled performances of pure rock and roll that turn the Wudaokou venue into a booze-soaked sweathouse.

Those three really represent the Beijing experience: the exodus from the hinterland to the capital city by creative kids who feed dozens of genres, influences and life experiences through a sonic meat grinder, releasing a final product that you cannot find anywhere else in the world.

Grade: 牛B.

And the people tonight -- in an usual departure from the friends, scene fixtures and other creative industry types who make up the crowd on an average night at D-22 -- consisted primarily of the aforementioned American Douchebags: walking, belching and high-fiving stereotypes with their yellow Live Strong bracelets and inconsiderate attitudes.

While a complete list of their bad behavior is not warranted here, the highlight reel would include going behind the bar (Where the fuck were you, Adam?), smuggling in bottles of Tsingdao (Yu Xin?), blocking the aisles with their arm-crossing-beer-swilling-tricks (Okay, my fault: I should have punched one of them in the face) and, well, generally acting like the average American college students that they were: bumbling collectively around the country on a two-week vision quest before settling down to study Chinese somewhere, probably BLCU.

Or at least that is what one of them told me.

After embracing me in a sweaty, beer-scented bearhug ("Bro!") I listened patiently as The One Who Called Himself Kyle tried to find the words to explain himself.

"This is like, the first place we found with American stuff," he said, speech slurred and with the dimmed and vacant eyes of one who isn't entirely all there. "We've been drinking for five days straight, all day, and we've been to five hu tongs."

"Cool!" I said as he swayed back and forth and stared at a fixed point in the distance.

We chatted for awhile -- I gave him some advice about traveling in Bro-Talk -- before he retreated back to his den of fellow Bros to do more Bro-Stuff.

"I feel bad," I told the Little Sister. "He's not really a douchebag. He seems like a genuinely nice guy."

"Well, maybe he isn't usually a douchebag," she suggested after a thoughtful pause. "But in this context, he is definately a douchebag."

The Past

I stationed the three of them in my former neighborhood in Gulou, where we would walk down the ancient streets where couples strolled hand in hand under the parasol trees, and I pointed out my old haunts where I spent many hard-boiled days that transformed themselves into long and sleepless nights.

They went inside shops and looked at vintage toys, imported Japanese sneakers and Gibson guitars. They watched as children learned how to play traditional musical instruments and stopped for espressos and to get crash courses in streetside malatang.

My father was content to peek inside the gaping holes in walls to imagine who the new tenants would be and what they would be selling.

"You can't make this shit up," he'd say to himself, swimming in his own personal sea of amazement, as crowds neatly bisected themselves around us while we stood immersed in the summertime clamor in the both the literal and figurative heart of the capital city.

"Unexplainable to people back home," my mother added. "Just amazing."

We made our way past Underground Kidz -- Joyside co-founders' Liu Hao and Bian Yuan's vintage clothing shop -- enough times for the former and the rest of the D-22 crew to probably burn the Parental Units into their collective consciousness.

And later during their week-long stay, they discovered Ghost Street, where we sat among the hundreds eating hotpot, shuizhuyu and laughing as they drank beer under the canopies of red lanterns while black sedans drove down the sidewalk and Pekingese dogs pissed in the alleyways.

But they never made it to CBD -- which was just a straight-shot eastwards from Ghost Street -- where the streets gradually became wider, the buildings larger and increasingly-modern and the ancient sector of the city was behind us and the gleaming future lay ahead.

The Future

For many months -- perhaps years -- I was haunted by the ghost of my former lover, who had imprinted herself on all facets of my life here in Beijing during our two-year relationship.

I would catch glimpses of her -- a tattoo, a hairstyle, intimately-familiar clothing patterns -- in underground subway tunnels, through frosted restaurant windows, in the SOHO New Town plaza and, yes, in Gulou.

But as time passed and continues to do so, she now only exists in the digitized traces that she left behind, compiled, zipped and downloaded into neat files, to be stored externally forever, as the memories themselves are slowly erased and wiped clean from my internal hard drive and stripped from the strands of my DNA.

The writer Katherine Mansfield acutely observed how hard it is to escape from places.

"However carefully one goes, they hold you -- you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences like rags and shreds of your very life."

And now, barely a week after the family has retreated back to the other side of the Pacific, I am now starting to see the bits of themselves that they left fluttering in Beijing's early-summer breeze -- in the subway, along the Wudaokou Student & Vendor Circus; in a Xidan shopping mall, where the Little Sister and I dryly purchased the above matching T-shirts ("I Can't Stop Loving You") and on those Gulou streets -- and now wonder if they, too, will become ghosts, spectres of the past, which for me has always been a landlord's luxury.

Life-affirming or chasing ghosts?

I am still trying to figure it all out. The only unintroduced character in this story -- the Twin Brother -- had already faded from memory but has since faintly resurfaced in the form of digitized sonic shreds of himself on an iPod that he gave to the little sister who then passed it on to me as we said goodbye.

But while the future remains, as always, elusive, I sent back with them pieces of myself alongside the heart and soul of Beijing -- records of the bands they had missed, images... writing. 

And that will just have to do for now.




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