The pages of Red Rock, the book chronicling Chinese rock and roll’s path, were limited; the stories of the characters introduced therein were very much unlimited. Guo Chuanlin is one of the book’s characters that deserves more attention.
Guo Chuanlin looks nothing like he ought to. Or maybe he just doesn’t look like I wanted him to. He struck me as middle-management, the kind of dime-a-dozen guy that carries a man-purse made of some synthetic leather-ish material and barks demands at waitresses from across the room in a drunken slur.
Regardless of one’s feelings about the cheese-laden hair-rock band that Guo brought into the limelight, Black Panther is certainly an important band in the yaogun context, and its rise to fame, like Guo’s own career, is a study in the roller-coaster-ride of yaogun, and of the music’s – and its practioners’ – potential to confound expectations. It just takes a while to see it.
Sometime around 1980 Guo bought the first electric guitar in Beijing – for a then-ridiculous RMB80 (about US$12 today, or half of a government workers’ monthly salary then). He is credited as one of the founders of Black Panther, but his role was not, from almost the get-go, onstage. He’d been inspired by reading a magazine article (like so many kids before and since) about an American manager (like just about no kids ever) that had taken a band (which band, Guo can’t recall) from the depths of unknowndom to the heights of superstardom. So he gave up the guitar for, well, whatever one takes up to become a manager. Which is, one must recall, shocking in the context of his world, where there was hardly a space for performers, let alone for anything resembling an industry. But Guo proved that an industry, or at least, rock workers, were necessary.
Guo Chuanlin was unabashed in his retelling of how the vision for Black Panther was culled from equal parts Bon Jovi and Wham!. Even though I knew that Wham!’s gig was a big deal for a lot of people, it really hit home when Guo spoke of Black Panther’s founding (as did the irony: Wham! wanted nothing to do with China; their legacy was huge nonetheless). His vision for the band also included success on a level then known only in foreign magazine articles; the guys in Black Panther thought he was crazy with his visions of rock stardom, and told him it was impossible.
Guo soldiered on. When Guo and his crew were filmed in a rockers-in-the-capital story on Beijing TV, thanks to a buddy that worked for the news, they caught the eye of a potential sugar daddy so eager to help the kids on the news that he sought them out and offered up top-of-the-line gear. Meanwhile, Guo had found a sympathetic middle school principal who offered up rehearsal space in his school, and a music shop owner to lend them temporary gear. The sugar daddy, meanwhile, withheld the promised gear, believing he’d been sold a bill of goods: This wasn’t the song-and-dance troupe he’d thought he’d been investing in.
The type of troupe the sugar daddy likely had in mind
He told Guo that if he didn’t find himself a guarantor, they’d never get the gear. Thus did Guo make the biggest mistake and greatest move in a career of thin lines therebetween: With a persistence and sense of mission of the sort only possible in the young and insane, he walked into a company office based on what he’d seen on a sign. “The word ‘times’ in your company name,” he told the manager he demanded to see, “that, to me, represents modernity.” And the ultimate in modernity was the thing he was offering: A rock and roll band. Which took some explaining. “But this type of thing doesn’t exist,” Guo was told in response to his description of the rock band concept – one begins to see how the sugar daddy felt mislead. Guo convinced the manager that not only did it exist, but that he could get involved. Guo got his guarantor, and the band got its gear.
Black Panther’s big break did not come, like their fellow rockers of the time, at the Modern Music Concert, a two-day six-band concert held in February 1990 at Beijing’s Capital Stadium. Guo’s gear, but not his band, were featured. He took Black Panther and a handful of others to the southern city of Shenzhen, which was celebrating its tenth year as a Special Economic Zone: The former no-man’s-land in the southeastern tip of the country a stone’s throw from Hong Kong, like a select few other SEZ’s, was awarded a license to develop as an experiment.Guo recalled with relish the sight of a planeload of longhairs coming through both Beijing and Shenzhen airports, but the tone changed when recalling the lyrical malfeasance of blues/pop rock band Baby Brother, who mocked the elder leaders in his tune “Cynicism” despite pleas not to play the song. Guo, being personally responsible for anything ‘unhealthy’ that may have gone down, was on the hook, and he almost didn’t make it out of Shenzhen.
Once back in Beijing, Black Panther quickly saw their status grow. A contract with Rock Records, the Taiwanese record label that invested heavily in the Mainland’s rock scene through the nineties, followed, and album sales peaked upon the Mainland release of their debut in 1992.
It was time for a solo concert for Black Panther. Wary of the difficulties of simply booking a concert hall, Guo decided to make the show a not-for-profit event, choosing to donate the proceeds to a senior citizens’ charity. Thus did he receive help from that charity’s most intense supporter, and thus did the Long March, that epic, if possibly exaggerated but seminal 1934-1935 Communist event whereby the Party’s members hiked across the country to escape their enemy and gather the strength that would see them liberate the nation, once again factored into yaogun’s development. First, Cui Jian referenced it in his debut album (Rock and Roll on the New Long March); now, a Long Marcher would join in yaogun’s fight.
Wang Dingguo was born in 1913, and by the time she joined up with the Red Army, when they marched through her Sichuanese village in 1933, she’d already unbound her feet and shorn her hair, two things that women tended, at the time, not to do. Wang left the marriage she was forced into at age fifteen and married Xie Juezai, who held high government office from 1949 until his death in 1971. As of the spring of 2011, Wang was one of the very few surviving Long Marchers; in 1993, as Guo prepared for his band’s biggest concert to date, there may have been other Long March survivors, but there were few still up for a fight like Wang Dingguo.
Wang was a major player in the Beijing Senior Citizens’ Committee, comprised of other former officials and dignitaries. Guo Chuanlin pledged to donate RMB30,000 to the charity in exchange for their help getting things set up. Guo seemed to be purposefully vague on the details of how a twenty-four year-old rock band manager becomes inspired to donate the proceeds of a concert to a senior citizens’ hospital, but he had picked his cause and went with it.
Moved by Guo’s idea, Wang Dingguo got involved. Initially, city officials faced with Wang were polite in their fuck-offery, but it quickly became obvious that this was not your average little old lady. When she believed the city government was dragging its heels on concert permits, instead of going home like she’d been told to do, she pledged to set up camp in their offices until permits were issued. “‘These nice young men are trying to do something positive for their elders!'” Guo remembers the old lady chiding. “‘Why is it so difficult?’” It ceased to be difficult, and permits were issued. The cultural bureau was not as easily swayed, unable to abide what they perceived as Guo’s abuse of connections aimed at circumventing their own authority. Eventually, however, the show went on. Despite the overwhelming police presence, Guo recalled, with the aid of over fifteen years of reflection, “It was a pretty successful show.”
Black Panther grew more successful over the course of the nineties, and continues to perform twenty-plus years later. The band name is known far and wide, while Guo Chuanlin, who, today, produces large-scale festivals and events, remains their best-kept secret.
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