September 20, 1986 was a very important date in my life. It was the day I saw my first live rock ‘n’ roll show.
The band was local punk icons, The Dayglo Abortions, supported by two other local bands, The Resistance and Mission of Christ. As far as gigs go, it wasn’t the greatest. The Dayglos went on very late and were almost too drunk to play.
What was special was the venue. The gig went down at a place called The Rat’s Nest. It was not a bar-if it had been, I wouldn’t have been able to go, since I was only 14. It was a house in an industrial neighbourhood where Resistance drummer Gary Brainless offered the use of his basement for low-cost all ages gigs a couple times a month.
Over the next couple years, The Rat’s Nest became a regular hangout for me. In addition to regularly featuring local groups like The Dayglo Abortions, NoMeansNo and Red Tide, punk bands from across North America played there on a regular basis. Some were quite well known, and others have faded into such obscurity that only the people who were there remember them.
Crossover originators D.R.I. (Texas) played there for the unbelievable cover charge of 2 dollars. There was Clown Alley (San Francisco), The Problem Children (Toronto), Euthanasia (Edmonton), Apple Maggot Quarantine Area (Seattle), The Spores (Vancouver)….and so many more.
My favourite Rat’s Nest memory is not actually of a gig. A friend of mine and I were in the neighbourhood on a Sunday afternoon when we heard the unmistakable sound of NoMeansNo playing. They were having a band practice at The Rat’s Nest, and we called to them through the back door and asked it we could come and watch. Gary told us the upstairs door was open and we were welcome to come inside.
We went in and found what must have been 50 grand in music gear lying unattended in the living room. That either showed a lot of good faith in the good nature of the people in the scene…or a lot of naivete.
The heyday of The Rat’s Nest ended one summer night in 1988 with a visit from the police during a gig by The Dayglo Abortions. I’m not sure what the exact reason for the visit was-but I’d hazard a guess that it might have had something to do with the fact that there were 150 drunk minors on the premises.
After that, gigs at The Rat’s Nest became affairs reserved for special occasions and advertised only by word of mouth. And as the years went on, the patrons reached legal drinking age and no longer needed an underground club to get our live music fix.
So when I heard that the house was being torn down next month, I was hit by a deep wave of nostalgia and sadness. I felt as though a part of me was born in that house.
I was, however, glad to hear that there would be a “mini-festival” to give the fans a chance to pay their respects. Throughout April and May there would be gigs every weekend.
And so it was that last weekend I walked through those doors for the first time since 1988. Naturally, the first thing I wanted was a beer. Back in the day, an informal bar that sold two dollar cans of Old Stock was set up by the stairwell in the basement.
“Sorry….you’ll have to hit a liquor store”, I was told.
It made sense, really. We were all grown up now and could buy our own damn beer.
And indeed, most of the same faces were there…just a lot older. The 14-24 crowd that used to patronize the place was now a 39-49 crowd.
Which is not to say that some younger faces weren’t there. Not young like I’d been young, but people in their early 20′s
And I found myself wagging my finger at them and saying, “Jeez…you really shouldn’t drink straight vodka out of a pint glass” and “You shouldn’t smoke so much dope when you’re drunk.”
Which is not to say that all my interactions with the younger crowd had that degree of disparity. One guy told me, “My Dad used to tell me stories about this place. He’s dead now…but he’d tell me that he would come here on a Friday, and then wake up on Sunday wearing nothing but a leopard skin thong…and the party would still be going strong!”
One friend of mine even brought his daughter. As beautiful as it was to see, it made me sad that The Rat’s Nest won’t be there for my son.
As it always has been, the evening was about music. It was all local bands, and as it always had been in the past, it was a better show than you would see in a bar.
Buzzard played a killer set of Melvin-ish hard rock. Orange Krush played a very pleasing set of progressive hardcore. And Gary’s current band band, Dangler, played a pretty nice set of nice, hardcore punk.
I’ve been to shows at Logan’s and The Cambie in the past year that had the SAME bands AND the same people. But it just didn’t feel as good. This was a special thing we had….this underground scene. I’m proud to have been a part of it.
One thing I DID notice that has changed a lot…somehow the ceilings in the basement have gotten a lot lower! Either that, or I’ve gotten taller in the last 25 years!
It struck me as both an odd case of scheduling and testament to our status as a respectable music town when I learned that both Leonard Cohen and B.B. King would be playing here on the same day. But perhaps it shouldn’t have. Both men are constantly on tour and have been here many times before. And with Cohen in his 77th year and King in his 87th, they certainly have an audience that will identify with them here in Victoria. Victoria is home to more octogenarians than any other city in the country.
All things being equal, I was more inclined to see the old man. I’ve been a huge King fan for years and don’t expect many more such opportunities. Not that I expect many more from Cohen, but I am mostly a fan of Cohen’s Various Positions and I’m Your Man albums. His early folk stuff is good, but it really can’t compare with the rush I get from grooving to any number of B.B. King albums.
Sadly, the King show was at UVIC and sold out in the blink of an eye. Tickets for Cohen’s show at the 7000 seat Save On Foods Center were available up until a few days before the show, and I figured going to see the “other” living legend in town that night wouldn’t be a bad night.
I noticed something off as soon as I entered the building. Knowing that the Save On Foods Center has strict policies against bringing tobacco products and lighters into the building, I stashed mine in the crotch of my underwear, just as I had done for the Slayer show a year and a half ago. After stopping off at the box office to pick up a Motley Crue ticket for next month, I headed for the entrance-and was waved in without so much as a light frisking.
Looking at the crowd it was no wonder. It was a safe bet that I was the only spectator buying Motley Crue tickets while Was there. I wouldn’t say the others were OLD….but many of them appeared to have come to see this sassy Cohen “kid”.
I could have got three ounces of weed, a case of beer and three handguns past security. And I was hiding my lighter?!
After finding the merchandise stand devoid of t-shirts emblazoned with bloody goat’s heads, I took my seat in the upper decks opposite the stage. My neighbours were kind of like those great aunts and uncles you only see at family reunions. Friendly, but condescending and grumpy.
“Nice to see a young fella like you here! How do you know Cohen?”
“Oh…I’m a music fan. I figure at 77 he doesn’t have many years left, so I’m pretty excited about this.”
Awkward silence followed. I clearly don’t spend enough time around the elderly or I’d know that mortality is a rather taboo subject.
Still, the oldsters were much more fun than the 32 year old hippy douche seated on my left. After 15 minutes of listening to her enthrall people with stories of how she was such a rock ‘n’ roll rebel because she worked her way up to the front at a Bob Dylan concert with an open floor in 2001, I was ready to choke her to death with organic granola and soy milk.
Still, the show was grand. And it WAS first and foremost a show. Anyone who has heard Cohen’s new album, Old Ideas can tell he’s losing his voice. He’s still got that haunting baritone that makes the ladies all wet, but it’s gotten a bit gravelly. Much of that was disguised by the bright lights and magic of what was really a first class production.
Beneath the glow of lights that perfectly evoked the right feeling for every song , and backed by a world class band that included his longtime songwriting collaborator Sharon Robinson, Leonard played the part of a dapper, self-deprecating elder gentleman in a suit and hat over the course of two sets.
“I stumble…to the mirror, sometimes”, he dryly remarked. “And I look at my dour expression in the mirror, and say Jesus Christ, Cohen! Lighten up, you morose bastard!’”
The hippy chick next to me cried through the entire show. It was part of the ambiance.
All the classics were there, but I was particularly pleased that no less than five songs from I’m Your Man (one of those rare classic albums where every song is perfect) got played. “Everybody Knows”, “Ain’t No Cure For Love”, “Tower of Song”, “I’m Your Man” and “First We Take Manhattan.”
He kept things interesting with poetry readings, banter, guitar solos and a stirring rendition of “Alexandra Leaving” by Robinson.
It was a great night of music from a genuine legend. I hope my fellow concert goers felt the same way, but it is highly unlikely many of them will be around next time Cohen comes to town.
If one record could be said to have changed my entire musical perspective, it was “Never Mind the Bullocks” by The Sex Pistols. Prior to that, I had just been a metal-head. The Sex Pistols opened me up to world of punk rock, and once I made that leap I found I was open to just about anything.
The person who introduced me to The Sex Pistols (and who remains my best friend to this day) later introduced me to a lot of other punk ( and other) artists as well, including The Dayglo Abortions, The Ramones…and The Dead Kennedys.
The Dead Kennedys didn’t just change my musical outlook…they changed my world outlook. I started listening to punk because it was funny and I liked the attitude. But DK really made you think. The Sex Pistols sang about anarchy…but DK actively endorsed it in both song and action.
And they were great musicians in a genre that valued attitude over musicianship.. Jello Biafra (a former San Francisco mayoral candidate) sang with a lispy combination of rage and the only person getting a really funny joke. East Bay Ray almost singlehandedly invented the “surf punk” guitar sound. Bassist Klaus Flouride was so good that when I asked my bass teacher (a serious jazz musician) to teach to play like him…he had trouble with it. And Darrin Peligro set a beat that few other drummers on the planet could match.
So you would think when I heard The Dead Kennedys were coming to town this month I would have creamed my shorts.
Jello Biafra hasn’t worked with the Kennedys for years, as the two parties are estranged over disputes regarding song writing credits and record royalties…both of which are the responsibility of Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles record label. And frankly, Jello’s physical condition is so bad these days he’d likely have a heart attack 20 minutes into a set.
And without Jello, there is no Dead Kennedys. At least not the way I remember them.
But as the day of the show approached, I found it would be on a Monday and I would likely be off work anyway.
I had to ask myself…did I have anything better to do?
Seeing The Dead Kennedys without Jello Biafra is like seeing The New York Dolls without Johnny Thunders. But I DID see The New York Dolls without Johnny Thunders…and it was good. If nothing else, it was a chance to hear some great songs performed by some of the musicians who originally recorded them.
And so I put myself on a two week diet of Dead Kennedys and and found myself genuinely looking forward to the show.
Then came the news…on the very day of the show, The Dead Kennedys could not cross the border.
I’ve had a lot of musical disapointments these days. Getting kicked out of Soprano’s, not being able to get into a Rifflandia night show…this seemed fitting.
The Dead Kennedys made it…except for Ron “Skip” Greer, the singer who replaced Jello Biafra. Why? He forgot his passport.
My thoughts were, “Oh well. I’m paying to see the other three. I don’t give a shit who is singing”.
The band wound up drafting Willy Jak, the bassist for The Dayglo Abortions (who were also playing that night) to take over vocal duties.
I first met Willy in 1989 at my my very first job. We shed some sweat in some of Victoria’s most infamous kitchens, and long after those days we’d still cross paths at punk gigs and parties.
As far as Victoria goes, Willy is probably my oldest friend. I can’t think of too many people I’ve known for 23 years who both still live in Victoria AND speak to me on a semi-regular basis.
At first, I was really happy for him. I imagined it must be a dream come true, and lord knows he has spent enough time listening to The Dead Kennedys to know all the words to their songs.
But then I thought., “Actually…this would be terrifying. If you fuck it up, your idols are going to think you’re a douche.”
And contrary to what everyone thinks, not everyone can be a punk singer. I’m not a bad punk singer myself, but in NO way could I hang on stage with The Dead Kennedys. It’s not just knowing the words and giving an appropriate voice to the songs…it’s being able to keep up with the band. Most people can’t keep up with a karaoke machine for 90 seconds.
After playing a scorching set with The Dayglo Abortions (who played some fantastic new songs), Willy took the stage with Ray, Klaus and Darrin.
And you know what?
It was good.
It wasn’t perfect, but given the circumstances that would have been nothing short of a miracle. The fact was Willy saved the show and let those of us who wanted to see DK do their thing not be disappointed.
As for Willy, he belted out some pretty nice renditions of DK classics (sometimes while holding lyric sheets). My favourite was “Police Truck”, which was delivered as close to flawlessly as any song in the set.
The Dead Kennedys themselves played a satisfying set. All the standards (“Nazi Punks”, Califoria Uber Alles”, “Too Drunk to Fuck”, “Holiday in Cambodia”) where there…although noticeably absent were any songs from the “Bedtime For Democracy” album, which was basically Biafra’s “Fuck you, I quit” album.
And after the show I unexpectedly ran into Darrin Peligro. As I always do when I meet musicians I like, I just wanted to thank him for all the good music. Surprisingly, he was quite chatty, as he had a lot of hostility against Candian border officials to vent.
Besisdes telling a story about Victoria, I guess I am writing this to tell anyone who has a problem with The Dead Kennedys touring without Jello…I get it. I felt the same way. And you’re right…it isn’t the same.
But does it have to be? If you want to see The Dead Kennedys, this is the best you’re going to get.
And you know what?
It’s not bad. In fact…it’s pretty fucking awesome.
I tend to judge festivals by 4 criteria.
1.Quality of music. They are after all “music festivals”. I don’t need to see the biggest and best bands in the world, I just want to see something good. If I discover some new bands (to me, anyway) all the better.
2.Atmosphere. This has a lot to do with the venue, the crowd, the weather and the staff. These are intangibles that are largely subjective but can make or break your enjoyment of a festival.
3.Amenities. The importance of cold beer and plenty of it can not be understated. A good selection of food is crucial, too. What’s the bathroom situation like? And a good selection of merchandise is always a bonus.
4.Value. This doesn’t just apply to the ticket prices (which can in some cases wipe out six months of savings) but also the cost of food, beverages and merchandise.
In 2007 I relocated from Handan to Beijing and no longer had to commute to Beijing for festivals. I saw three festivals in Beijing that year.
Date:October 2007 Location:Haidian Park, Beijing
The biggest knock on Midi is that they always feature the same bands. However, in my 2 days at the 2007 edition I would see a number of bands I’d never seen before, and a few I would never see again.
There was Su Yang, a folk-rock singer from Ningxia whose melodic, bluesy harmonies conjured to mind a cross between Native North American folk music and a Saturday night Halifax ho-down.
A large contingent from Denmark was one hand, and I caught a scorching set by the pride of Oss, Rock Hard Power Spray. It would take me more than 5 years to track down their 2008 CD Trigger Nation, but it was worth the wait.
Taiwanese thrash metal band Neo Shark put on an incredibly high-octane set as well.
It was the first time I saw Brain Failure, who were widely regarded as the first punk band in China. At the time of this show, they had already logged 2000 international dates in their 15 year history, and their set of Clash-inspired ska-punk was very well received.
Sadly, it was the last time I would see Hang on the Box. They put on one of the best sets of the entire festival, but disbanded less than 4 months later.
The 2007 Beijing Pop Festival
Date:September 2007 Location:Chaoyang Park, Beijing
Despite the name “pop” festival, this was indeed a rock festival-and a heavyweight one at that. The headliners for day one were Public Enemy, while Nine Inch Nails was headlining day two.
What would you expect to pay for a show like that? You would be hard pressed to see either band for less than 60 dollars, let alone both. Would you believe a two day pass for this event was a mere 300 kuai (50 Canadian dollars)? THAT’S value!
The truth is, I’m not a big fan of either act, but there was something for everyone there. For me, the standout performance of the show was actually by “The Godfather” of Chinese rock, Cui Jian, who was giving his first outdoor show in over a decade. Widely considered to be the first rock musician in Chinese history, Cui put on an incredibly powerful and versatile set that crossed an array of genres that included blues, soul, funk, reggae and jazz. Honestly, I felt he blew the headliners away.
Other domestic standout included Xie Tian Xiao, a Hendrix-inspired grunge guitarist who was among the more well-known rock musicians in the country, and Joyside, who were no longer a punk band, but had evolved into a 70′s-style glam rock band, ala The New York Dolls, T-Rex and Exile on Main Street-era Stones.
Speaking of the Dolls, they were there, too. The recently re-united lineup (sans Johnny Thunders, obviously) was on the bill along with a Ramones tribute band backed by ex-Ramones drummer Marky Ramone. Both shows may not have been exactly like seeing the real day, but it was a chance to hear some classic songs performed by at least some of the original musicians who recorded them.
Sadly, this was the final Beijing Pop festival.
2007 Modern Sky Festival
Date:October 2007 Location:Haidian Park
By this time I was living a short drive (or a really long walk) from Haidian Park. I was expecting the first music festival promoted by the Modern Sky record label to be something like Midi, if for no other reason than they were using the same venue. However, it wasn’t much like Midi at all.
I went to the third of three days, and the story of the day was rain. It wasn’t a monsoon or anything, it was coming down steadily all day. I brought my son along, and out of concern for his health, spent most of the festival taking shelter in a CD tent.
Modern Sky would set the tone for their future festivals by managing to screw up the basic layout of the festival grounds. There were 3 stages in total, and all three had been placed so close together you couldn’t really hear anything clearly.
It was the first time I saw up-and-coming indie rock darlings Carsick Cars. I also saw Joyside for the second time in as many months and caught a good set by Raging Mob, a thrash metal band consisting of members from China, America and Germany.
But the day was to close with a pretty big double bill-the Japanese metal band Metal Safari, and American alternative/electronica outfit The Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs. It promised to be worth suffering through the rain for.
Unfortunately, the rain became too much to risk my son’s health, and I wound up taking him home before either band played. All I got out of that festival was a bad cold that lasted over a week. I vowed I would never to another Modern Sky event.
There are few things I’d rather be doing on any given day than enjoying sunshine, fresh air, cold beer, live music and the sight of scantily clad booty at an open air rock festival. Growing up in Victoria, B.C., opportunities to do so very rarely presented themselves. The closest thing in the area is Seattle’s Bambershoot Festival and visits to Washington State form the traveling Lollapalooza and Ozzfest festivals, and I never did make it to any of those.
Fortunately, my time in Asia afforded me the chance to take in a dozen festivals, which provided me with some of the happiest moments of my 6 years in the far east.
It’s been sorely missed. And so, when I had the chance to see Victoria’s home-grown open air festival, Rifflandia (version 5.0) I didn’t really hesitate to check it out.
It would be easy to snidely point out all the flaws of this event…but besides the fact that it would be stating the obvious, it would be implying that no festival is better than a poorly organized, minor league one…and if you are on Vancouver Island…that just isn’t the case. Sometimes just being outdoors and having some inoffensive live background music is enough.
So, rather than dwell on the many shortcomings of Rifflandia, I am simply going to take a down memory lane revisit festivals of years gone by, concluding with an obective assessment of my latest.
Date:October 2005 Location:Haidian Park Beijing
This was not only my first live music experience in China, but also my first open-air festival-ever.
I’d already been in China for 5 months, so I was already well aware that the country’s reputation as a strict, authoritarian regime with limited freedom was grossly exaggerated. But at the same time, it hardly struck me as bohemian. It struck me that most Chinese people didn’t have a clue when it came to either music or having fun.
The 2005 Midi festival totally changed this perception. There were headbangers, punks, hippies, goths and beatniks in attendance, which opened my eyes to demographics in China that I was previously unaware existed. But perhaps more surprising was the fact that most of the crowd (well over 10,000 people) was made up of normal, working-class people. My Chinese colleagues had told me that most Chinese people didn’t like rock music because it was “too noisy”…but what I was seeing here contradicted that considerably.
Haidian Park was a great place for a festival. Off in the distance you could see The Summer Palace (one of Beijing’s most famous cultural landmarks)looking down on the park, providing a stark contrast to the goings-on on the festival grounds.
It was here that I discovered 4 bands who I would not only come to consider some of my favourite bands in China, but also some of my favourites of the 21rst century.
I went to 2 days of the 4 day event, and the second day was headlined by the nu-metal act Twisted Machine. I was fortunate enough to be able to pick up a copy of their 2003 self-titled album, which remains a favourite of mine.
Then there was Suffocated, a furious thrash metal band who incited the first (but far from last) mosh pit I participated in China. I knew there was metal in China, but I didn’t realize how bloody awesome some of it was.
It was also the first time I saw SUBS, a gritty garage punk band fronted by female vocalist Kang Mao, whose on-stage antics frequently seemed to be putting her life at risk.
But the discovery of the day was Joyside, a brash 1970′s style punk band who brazenly swaggered through their set as the singer, Bian Yuan guzzled from a bottle of baijiu (a toxic grain alcohol distilled from millet). Attempts to relieve him of the bottle by the staff caused a bit of a ruckus, and Joyside would not grace a Midi stage again.
But it would not be the last I saw of Joyside…nor would it be the last I saw of Midi.
Date:May 2006 Location:Haidian Park
Midi is put on by the Midi School of Music, an elite music academy Since it’s inception in 1997, it had traditionally been held during the May (Labour Day) holiday. However, in 2005 SARS and the anti-Japanese protests caused it to be pushed to October, which afforded me the chance to see it twice in an eight month span.
Once again I went to two of 4 days…for the great low price of 40 kuai (less than 6 dollars Canadian). And that really was one of my favourite things about Midi…the incredible value. Inside the park, you could buy big cups of ice-cold draft beer for 5 kuai (less than a dollar) and tasty snacks like lamb kebabs and spicy squid on a stick were available around the park for similar prices. Even official festival t-shirts were going for what amounted to 5 dollars in Canadian currency.
And sometimes the company you keep really adds to your enjoyment of a festival. Virtually every friend I had in the country was present, including my Chinese co-workers, none of whom had ever seen live music in their lives. It was a very eye-opening experience for three young women who had lived incredibly sheltered lives.
My discovery of the festival was AK-47, an aggressive military themed nu-metal band that whipped the crowd into a frenzy. I also saw SUBS for the second of what would ultimately be 20 times. And I had the good fortune to catch Suffocated playing on the secondary stage, which was sponsored by Gibson guitar.
The stars of the show were Thin Man, elder statesmen of Chinese rock who at the time had 20 years under their belt. While rock music didn’t receive much mainstream media attention in China, Thin Man was one of the few Chinese rock bands to break through to the mainstream, and they received bona-fide rock star treatment from the crowd.
2006 Beijing Rock and Beer Festival
Date:October 2006 Location:The Sculpture Garden Beijing
The lone edition of the Beijing Rock and Beer Festival lasted the full 7 days of the October National Day holiday and featured an average of 8 bands per day, making it one of the largest festivals in China’s history up to that point.
The Sculpture Garden had previously been the venue for Midi, and it’s easy to see why they moved it. In addition to the fact that it lay on the western fringes of the city, there was no grass and limited seating, creating the feeling of being at a giant parking lot.
Festival bathrooms are never pleasant, but the ones here deserve special mention. Apparently anticipating that the porta-potties would start to smell pretty unpleasant over the coming week, the organizers thoughtfully saturated them with ammonia, creating a tear-inducing cloud of noxious gas within the confines of the plastic shitters.
The beer portion of the festival left a lot to be desired. Instead of draft, 600 mil bottles of Tsing Tao and Yanjing were supplied for the great low price of 4 kuai. However, because many Chinese tend to frown at drinking cold beverages after summer (regardless of what the actual weather is like) the beer was lukewarm and difficult to choke down.
Musically, there was something for everyone. Thin Man and AK-47 headlined the two days I attended, marking the second I’d seen the latter in 24 hours (I’d caught them the previous night at the Beijing live music venue 13 Club). I also saw the raucous all-girl punk trio Hang on the Box, whose 2002 album Yellow Banana has gone on to become one of my favourite albums of the last 12 years or so. Thrash metal band Shentou (also known as Filter in English) provided metal heads with a much appreciated fix of headbanging as well.
Unfortunately, the most memorable performance I saw was memorable for how bad it was. Xiao He, a folk singer from Handan (the Chinese city I was living in at the time, coincidentally) horrified concert goers with a bizarre set comprised of what could only be described as chicken noises. If you’d told me at the time that 4 years later he would be playing at the SXSW Festival in Texas, I’d have said you were completely daft. To this day I’ve never heard anything so awful.
It’s not hard to see why The Rock and Beer festival only lasted one year, but I was nevertheless glad I got to check it out.
To be continued….
D-22 was not my first choice of places to hang out at when I first moved to Beijing. Her neghbour, 13 Club, was the first Beijing rock bar I ever went to, and one of only two that I knew of (the other being the high-end showroom, Star Live). The fact that I would be living within walking distance of 13 Club was one my main reasons for taking my job at a prominent aviation and aeronautics university in the first place.
But actually, during my first year in Beijing I didn’t really ever go anywhere. My son was 4 months shy of his first birthday when we arrived in Beijing, and he was a freaking handful. My life was my family and my job.
I went to D-22 just twice during my first year in Beijing. The first was to see a highly recommended band called Hedgehog. Hedgehog never showed, and instead the main band was perennial openers Casino Demon. I thought little of the show or the bar. It was too small. The stage was less than awe-inspiring. The sound wasn’t great, either. And the headliners cancelled.
I went back some 4 months later. That was to a show by an Australian band called Les Fancy Boys. I had met them in Nanjing the previous month, where they told me that friends of theirs living in China (D-22′s booking manager and the guitarist for Joyside) had arranged a Chinese tour for them. They weren’t making any money, but they were getting a working vacation in Chin,a, and they liked that.
The night I met them the south of China was hit by a freak blizzard that marked the heaviest snowfall the region had seen in over 50 years.
Naturally, I wanted to catch up with them and find out what it had been like touring under such conditions.
Amazingly, they had made all their trains, but their tour did indeed have it’s fair share of problems. Their venue in Chagnsha suffered a power outage and they had to relocate to a karaoke bar, where 11 drunken businessmen where mighty pissed about a foreign punk band ruining their joyous night of KTV.
It was a good night, but I didn’t give D-22 any thought for a long time after that.
In mid-2008 my baby-mamma and son went to Canada (I can’t say “back to Canada”…as Owen had never been there). Besides the obvious emotional problems this caused me….it presented another completely different problem. My entire life had been family and work. with my family gone and school out for the summer, my life was completely without structure.
And so it was that I decided to focus on the local music scene in order to give myself a reason to get out of bed. By this time all the best shows in Beijing were at D-22…and I lived a 30 min. walk away.
My third time at D-22 was one of those rare, life-altering moments. The headliners were Joyside, the first Chinese band I had ever seen (at the 2005 Midi Festival). In the years since, they had become one of my favourite bands on the planet-period. They were a down and dirty punk/blues/glam rock band that tossed pretension to the wind and sang angry, tortured songs about getting shitfaced because the girl you love doesn’t love you back.
It was a glorious night. Temperatures were damn 40 degrees and 300 bodies were pressed together in a space meant for 200. They guys stripped of their shirts and the girls grinded the guys as Joyside presided over something just short of a drunken orgy like a bunch of rock ‘n roll shamen..
I met a rather interesting girl that night (a 20 year old university student from Baotou). I didn’t ask for her number….she just gave it to me. I couldn’t believe that all it took me was getting out of the house and going to see a kick-ass band to get a girl to give me her number.
And that is how I became a regular at D-22. The girl was more-or-less gone from my life in a few months and even Joyside was gone in a short time. But my time at D-22 was just beginning….
The following is a summary of the 32 page document “Beijing Spring”, which was primarily based on the 700 page report “The Tiananmen Papers” by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link. It was written as part of the research for my manuscript on China.
For the longest time, my understanding of the events of Spring of 1989 had been disseminated from the limited information coming out of the country as the events unfolded. I, like most people, believed that a group of heroic, idealisitc university students had staged something of a Haight-Ashbury-esque love-in that called for an end to the tyranny of the CCP and the ushering in of a Western-style democracy. Playing their role of diabolical oppressors to the hilt, the party responded with brutal violence on par with that exhibited by the most sinister of Hollywood heavies, indiscrimitley mowing down helpless, peace-loving urchins for daring to challenge their authority.
In time I would come to discover that this take was far from the reality. While the movement was labeled a “democracy” movement, it was nothing so cohesive or coordinated. The word “democracy” was thrown around a lot by the protesters, but the demands they made ranged from the reasonable (even to the CCP) to the outrageous (turning Zhongnan Hai into a park, for example), giving the impression that few of the protesters really even knew what they wanted. Furthermore, the leadership of the movement (which was far from unified) was in itself a dictatorship, evoking comparisons to The Cultural Revolution.
Even the term “student protests” is somewhat misleading. While it’s true that the movement originated in Wudaokou and was spearheaded by university students, as it gained momentum the ranks of the protesters swelled with rubberneckers and gawkers, many of whom it can be assumed had only the vaguest idea of what was actually going on. This theory gained some validation in my eyes over the course of a conversation with a participant in the demonstrations who told me, “For us, it wasn’t political at all. It was just something to do!”
I personally had a hard time believing that the students acted on their own, simply because in my time working with Chinese university students I found they rarely initiated anything on their own, let alone political action. This was a theory shared by many higher-ups in the CCP. If they did act alone, it says a lot about how much has changed since then, precisely because of the events of the spring of 1989.
But the biggest myth was that of the PLA callously and intolerantly massacring peaceful, unarmed democracy protesters at the order of the CCP. I personally felt that the CCP did not get enough credit for the sheer level of tolerance and restraint they showed, especially in the face on increasingly unreasonable demands from the protesters. From the time of the intial assembly (April 15th) to the declaration of martial law (May 21rst) more than a month passed. Even then, it was two more weeks before the PLA resorted to violence. All the way, the party tried to negotiate a settlement with the protesters and remained resolved to bring a peaceful conclusion to the situation.
That it did end in bloodshed was largely the fault of the protesters, who were not the peaceful flower children they were being portrayed as by the Western media. Many were armed with everything from clubs to cleavers to Molotov cocktails and yes, in some cases, guns. Violence against the soldiers escalated to the point where it was reasonable to perceive the actions of the protesters as nothing less than a full-scale riot. |Gas proved ineffective and the soldiers were not equipped with rubber bullets or any other non-lethal means to effectively defend themselves and restore order.
On the whole, the entire catastrophe was entirely preventable, but the dynamics necessary for that just weren’t in place. The leaderships of both the party and the protesters were too fractured to take any cohesive action that would have diffused the situation, so instead it just continued to inevitably escalate towards a boiling point. It’s fair to say that under the circumstances, no other outcome was possible.
The real legacy of Tiananmen Square can still be felt, even though the event itself is rarely discussed among the people. The CCP’s policy of inflexible heavy-handedness when it comes to any perceived challenge of their authority, as well as the general acceptance by the public of this fact, are direct results of the events of the Spring of 1989.