It wasn’t too far into writing Red Rock when I realized that yaogun was something more than just a Chinese translation of rock and roll. On that tip, I offer a piece that I wrote for the Chinese magazine Outlook‘s March issue.
Yaogun’s Long March
What writing about yaogun taught me about rock and roll
There’s a moment in the documentary Rock Heart Beijing, in which Kang Mao, frontwoman for Subs, the band at the heart of the film, is faced with a gorgeous Nordic scene: A flowing river running alongside a magically green field and a tree-lined hillside; in the distance, mountains and clear blue skies that make you want to dive into the water and head toward the horizon; that special kind of silence you only get from being far from civilization. She asks, with an obviously genuine curiousity, how someone living in such a beautiful place could possibly play rock and roll. Her life may revolve around it, but it didn’t make sense that somewhere so beautiful could produce it. “If I lived here,” she says, “I wouldn’t need [rock ‘n roll].” It didn’t occur to me until some time later just how much that says about the tradition, and place, from which she comes, and what it says about the music that she and her peers perform.
What it says is something I learned over the course of writing Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll, and it put my years in the Beijing rock scene in a new light. It was only after I wrote a book about yaogun that I realized how much I’d learned about rock and roll.
Rock and roll and yaogun are not the same. I thought that the latter was simply a version of the former. I was wrong. Yaogun picked up where rock and roll left off, creating a new form far beyond, yet deeply influenced by, its progenitor. What makes yaogun so special, I’ve come to see, is how it can reinvigorate, and inspire, rock and roll.
The first generation played rock because they knew of its power, that it was the only thing that could help them through the Nothing-ness about which Cui Jian first sang, and in which his nation lived. Of course, when I first heard “Nothing to my Name” and read about its importance, I couldn’t see it because I couldn’t appreciate the context from whence it came. Once I realized the backdrop, though, I – and Red Rock along with me – was transformed. Suddenly, I had a Mission: To help shed light on the context that birthed yaogun. Yaogun’s story, alongside its best music, is inspiring in a way that rock and roll is supposed to be.
Great Music is supposed to transcend context, but it’s hard to see through the haze that surrounds an outsider’s understanding of China. I wanted to help people cut through that fog and share the story of the foundations upon which yaogun was built. These foundations weren’t erected because some dudes thought it’d be cool to play rock music: They were built because it was the only way to avoid sinking into the swamp. Yan Jun introduced me to the idiom about a drowning man that holds on to a blade of grass for dear life. For the first yaogunners, rock was that blade of grass. Grabbing on to the blades, they not only started to climb out of the mire, they strung a bunch together to create a rope called yaogun, and sent it back into the swamp to rescue others who realized they were sinking.
The problem is that average folks were literally unable to process the existence of anything outside of the mainstream, so if you didn’t want to swim along, you had to leave the water and learn to breathe. Often kids were alone in this monumental journey, which created a population that dove into rock music with the energy matched only by the hunger that drove them to it. That hunger developed over the course of a period of time defined by the Nothing about which Cui sang, and it is a hunger impossible for a resident of the present day to imagine.
The first generation of yaogunners found themselves simultaneously imprisoned and enlightened: On the one hand, a bunch of new and exciting music; on the other, a soundtrack with no liner notes. Somehow, liner notes were pieced together and rock and roll’s essence was discovered: “Rock is a door,” a young writer told me. “After you open it, you look at things differently.” Many of the first rockers were highly-trained musicians, raised in a society that, thanks to the legacy of the Maoist belief in the power of art, valued its artists. Thus a great irony, pointed out by producer and musician Brian Eno, referring to the former Soviet sphere, but equally applicable to China: Unlike those of us in the West, he said, “they believed in the power of art . . . They believed, that it could make a difference.” In the West, I was told, common people listen to rock; in China, rock was for the intellectuals. Our intellectuals used to have faith in rock.
Yaogun changed you and me
China changed ROCK AND ROLL
SMZB “GO! CHINA! GO!”
I was there, in the summer of 2006 (read my blog from the tour documented in the film here), as Kang Mao told the camera about how Norway was too nice for rock. At that point, we’d been on the road together for almost two months, having covered much of the 8000 kilometres that the band’s three-month tour of Nordic Europe would clock. We’d been through Finland, Sweden, and much of Norway, up, even, to the Arctic Circle. We’d been to Norway the previous year together, on a much smaller-scale tour that was the band’s first out-of-country experience. So Kang Mao knew more about Norway than what it looked like, and it was more than just the landscape that caused her to think that life there was too good for rock and roll.
She knew something of the nation’s socialist system, its wealth and its ability to spread it around: She knew about the money the country put into its rock scene because she’d personally received a portion of it: It was, after all, the source of our ability to tour the region. But more importantly, she knew about the communities that exist around Norway providing a support system to a wide range of folks just like her, and that blew her mind.
Kang Mao, like so many yaogunners of her generation, and others that preceded her, grew up in a country that wasn’t just undergoing wholesale societal reinvention, but was doing so at the speed of light, and leaving kids like her in the dark. One day, she’s a flower in the garden, flourishing under the nation’s sun; suddenly, the garden’s been sold off to the highest bidder, leaving the flowers in the dark. When kids like Kang Mao found rock and roll music, it saved them. It opened their eyes to what was out there, and what was possible. But most had made the discovery alone. So when Subs first set their eyes on Blitz, the house in the middle of downtown Oslo that the local punk community – literally – took over in 1981 and in which sat a stage, café, radio station, community centre, residence and more, the band was in awe. Kids from across Norway came to Blitz to find and unite with others just like them. The piece of graffiti that all of the band gravitated toward read “My mom told me to fuck off so I came to Blitz.”
There was no Blitz for kids like Kang Mao. But she, and others, found the music, and then, each other. When they created yaogun, it was with a major responsibility in mind: They knew there were others like them, and they knew that this music could help others like it had helped them.
Over the course of my decade living in Beijing – and particularly over the course of writing Red Rock – I met many folks like Kang Mao, who saw in rock and roll not just a kind of music. It was something that could literally lift them out of the dark. They will tell you, without an iota of irony or disingenuousness, that rock and roll saved their lives.
So when Kang Mao, standing along the banks of a Nordic river, asked how Norwegians could possibly need rock music, her query came from an understanding of rock and roll that I had never known; she knew, from experience, what it could do for a lost soul.
As I talked to yaogunners across the spectrum, I heard similar sentiments, and it excited me. It also depressed me. I come from rock and roll’s birthplace and it never really occurred to me that rock is more than a type of music you listen to, because by the time it came to me, it had lost much of its spirit. Those of us from rock and roll’s birthplace, it seemed to me, had pretty much blown our birthright. We’d forgotten what the music was all about, and what it could do. But yaogun can help us remember. That’s why writing and researching my book was so exciting.
Yaogun taught me that rock wasn’t just something you played, or listened to. Rock was something you lived. It isn’t a cheesy sentiment to believe that rock and roll can change the world; we made it cheesy when we gave up on rock’s promise.
I don’t know who’ll pay the bills of my youth
Too many people also have nothing to their names
If you’re drunk, don’t apologize
Just don’t waste this music
“Youth is the party” Subs
It was discomfiting as a Westerner to be re-introduced to my own music by yaogun, but it was also inspiring. We in the West may have wasted this music, but yaogun can help us pay back the debts we owe.
That Subs tour showed me how yaogun can re-energize rock and roll. Rarely did the band play a gig where any number of juiced-up Vikings didn’t tell me, unprompted, that they remembered when punk rock used to have the energy, feeling and power that they saw in Subs. They had all come to the show for the same reason: They’re from China! Do they even have rock there? This I gotta’ see! If they came out of curiosity, they left energized in a way they hadn’t been for years, because Subs’ yaogun showed them punk rock’s potential.
Twenty-five years ago, yaogun changed China, and, like the rock that inspired it, it’s come a long way since. Like rock, yaogun is in danger of forgetting, ignoring and forsaking its roots. Rock and roll may preach the overthrow of the elders, but there’s nothing less rock and roll than choosing to live in a vacuum, where nothing came before. The last time yaogunners lived in a vacuum, they did so because there was no choice, and they created something that could lift them, and their nation, out of it. The best yaogun remembers and embodies that. What I’ve learned is that what’s at risk here is not just yaogun. What’s at risk is rock and roll: The torch was passed from West to East, with yaogun.
China, like SMZB said, changed rock and roll. Yaogun changed China. Now it’s up to yaogun to save rock and roll – and change the world.