Saturday, November 17, 2007

Nobody was really sure if he was from the house of lords...Dick Van Dyke at the bowling alley dance.

Maybe I have mentioned this – before the mid-term examinations, which were last week, I taught the students the Beatles' 'A Day in the Life'. I brought my guitar, the Sgt. Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band CD and a CD player to class. I tried to explain the importance of this song - and of Sgt. Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band in general. Maybe that is my purpose in China, to explain the cultural significance of the Beatles and of Sgt. Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band - and of rock and roll.

Sure, everyone here knows 'Hey Jude' because there was a cover version that was a hit here, but beyond that, the Chinese do not know how important the Beatles were / are in the West. They know of them but really do not know anything beyond a few assorted tidbits. The Chinese have heard some songs in passing but the cultural revolution shielded them from everything Beatles – and just most things cool in general. Mariah Carey, Backstreet Boys, Kenny G, Michael Bolten, Westlife are the culture icons here, so sad. I want it that way.

Nevertheless, the Beatles always come up in conversation. Over the weekend, I went to another teacher's flat – a teacher who taught in Vermont for a year - to meet her husband and daughter. Her husband is a English professor at a university here. However, he loves music. At one point, he showed me a violin that he built when he was 16 (which would have been during the cultural revolution which is a time, as many know, when anything related to the arts was looked upon as bourgeois and was destroyed, a time when homes were ransacked, books burned. Many cultural artifacts were destroyed during the cultural revolution. The Gang of Four with Madame Mao at the helm shut tea houses, cinemas, music halls, libraries - anything deemed as counter revolutionary. Intelligence and academia were deemed counter revotionary.)

Nevertheless, this man loved music; he wanted to be a musician. His father told him he would never be good enough to be a musician and pushed him into academia.

Still, this man loves music. He has a studio set up in the spare bedroom of his apartment. He pulled out a Hawaiian guitar because his wife told him I play. I sang Loneliest China Place. On his computer, he recorded as I sang. His daughter played two songs impeccably on the piano and sang beautifully as she played, one of the songs being Home on the Range. Later, he told me she is in second grade.

At one point, this man asked me about my songs. I told him when I made records I had to write songs for the records. He asked me about my voice and if I sang in the church choir as a youngster. I told him I started as a drummer. My parents did not know I could sing. I was shy about my singing as a youngster. This , of course, makes me sounds like I was / am some character in a Steinbeck novel; I sang in the fields of Oklahoma. Out on the open range is where I developed my voice. I listened to a lot of rock and roll I told him At the end of Loneliest China Place, I pushed my voice. He asked me if I did that on purpose. I told him yes.

“How do you do that?”he asked
“I don't know,” I replied.
“That is like Beijing Opera,” he informed me and smiled. Then he asked, “Is Hey Jude rock and roll?”
“Uh, no,” I said as I thought about it. “Hey Jude is a ballad by a rock and roll band.”

In class, I tried to explain how Sgt Peppers revolutionized pop music. Sure, revisionists will say that it was Pet Sounds that revolutionized pop. But then did Jimi Hendrix open his London show with 'Wouldn't it be nice' the week Pet Sounds came out? Anyway, that is an argument that we can argue and argue. There are of course many albums around that time that were really important in those years. 1966 and 1967 were very important years of course.

I tried to explain to the students that this was a time when the kids in the West started thinking for themselves and demanding change. How could I explain this to the Chinese students who study math and science until midnight every night? The students are dependent completely. They crave that freedom that the students in the West have.

When I played the song on the CD player, the students did not seriously pay attention until the cacophonous orchestra build before Paul sings “Woke up....” This orchestra build got their attention mainly because it goes on for so long. The students with heads buried in books looked up a measure into the build and then after a few measures thought it would end but , of course, it keeps on going. When the alarm clock rings as Paul is singing many students chuckled.

What I love about this is that I get to witness the students hearing these songs for the first time ever. These songs that are embedded in our psyche. These songs that we take for granted because they have become so much a part of us.

After I played the song for them on CD, I pulled out the guitar and asked them if they were ready to try to sing it. Most classes told me that it sounded like it would be very difficult to learn.

“True,” I responded, “but if we learn it one line at a time, I think you can learn it with little effort.”

Thus I would sing the first line and then have them sing the first line. Then I would sing the second line and then have them sing the second line. I told them once they had the first verse most of the song was similar. Nevertheless, when we came to the part - Nobody was really sure if he was from the house of lords... Invariably, they would start laughing because, needless to say, this is a lot of words for a Chinese to try to spit out in one breath. This line I had them practice a few times which they loved practicing especially hitting the high 'Lords' at the end of the line. By the end of each class, most of the students had mastered the song which is surprising because it is really a long song and somewhat difficult but hearing 40 Chinese student voices sing it is like nothing else. And, to them this song is as current as in pop song out there.

That is part of why this is like living on another planet. Jumping Jack Flash is a gas gas gas. Ramble on sing my song. And as we wind on down the road; our shadows taller than our souls. None of this computes with the students. It is all unfamiliar territory, strange unfamiliar melodic territory.

After I taught the students A Day in the Life, I continued the pop culture lesson. Qi Min last week told me that she had an English professor who played her college classes songs and made the class fill in the blanks. She told me this professor was from Britain. He loved the Beatles. Really, you cannot go wrong with the Beatles but for the fill in the blank lesson I decided to expand the students' musical knowledge, their musical horizons. Thus I picked Pink Floyd and Led Zep.

Armed with Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Led Zeppelin IV(or ZOSO or as Jimmy Page and Robert Plant refer to it - Four Symbols); I was ready to explain what these albums meant to us in the West. Dark Side of the Moon, I held up first as I started the CD and talked a bit as the album started. Then it sinks into the dream 'Breathe'. I told them this is the perfect album to listen to with headphones before you nod off to sleep. The introductory screams mystified the students.

Always, there are problems. The Dark Side of the Moon disc does not want to play properly. 'Brain Damage' kept stopping and skipping. This happened in the early morning class. The other CDs, however played fine. After class, I ran home and brought my own boom box back. Sadly, my boom box was barely audible. The students had to strain to hear. I told them that the Led Zep song should be much louder; it should rattle their ears. I did not ask them if any of them remember laughter. That is because I am playing Misty Mountain Hop, not Stairway to Heaven. Naturally, if I was playing Stairway to Heaven I would ask – Does anybody remember laughter? But seriously, does anybody remember laughter?

After class, I tried to decide what I should do for the other classes. Maybe I should bring my own stereo speakers. This would mean splurging for a taxi. If I brought my own speakers, then it would be too loud in the classroom. I asked one of the other teachers what I should do. Could I just move to one of the empty classrooms of which there are several because we have taken - commandeered, as it were - the middle school across the street. It moved to another location. Now, we have all sorts of empty classes on campus.

Qi Min went to the phone and called someone in charge. She tolds me I could use a classroom on the first floor. There are no other classrooms around I am told. I went down to check it out. It is perfect. The classroom is flanked by the entrance is on one side and a custodial office on the other side. Visions of Chinese custodians dancing in the office to 'Misty Mountain Hop' filled my head. What do you think, what do you think I saw?

On Wednesdays, my first class is at 1 pm. I had lunch. After lunch, I had a quick cup of coffee with Markus, the other foreign teacher. At 12:45, I teold him I wanted to go to the classroom and set up the system. I tested it by playing the first of Dark Side of the Moon. For cheap Hyundai's, the speakers actually sound okay. I was ready for the students. A few minutes before class started, I went up to the classroom and tell them that we are having class on the first floor. They asked me why. I told them "We are going to rock and roll" as I howled and did my best Dick Van Dyke at the bowling alley dance (circa 1965). "Should we go now?" - I asked. "Yes," they said in unison.

We tromped down the stairs to the classroom. Actually, I tromped; the students ran, jumped, kicked and collided. They were excited, talking, chattering, giggling, laughing. To them, leaving the classroom is always cause for excitement, an interstellar field trip.

I put on Dark Side of the Moon. They were not sure what to make of the industrial sounds at the beginning. When the 3 screams come, the girls in front – I know – were ready for the worst but instead, of course, the music plunges into the mellow breathy floating 'Breathe.' I let it play a few measures and I then skipped to 'Brain Damage.'

The lunatic is on the ___________.

"Grass" I heard quite a few of them say as they wrote the word in the blank.

The ____________ is on the grass.

As the song progressed, I heard the students say the missing words aloud. At the chorus, they nodded their heads in time. Yes, they like Pink Floyd.

The ____________ is in my head.

The nutty man's laughter made them look up at me. They think that I am the one laughing. They started to laugh as well but then they realized it was a sonic scam, an aural con; the laughter is on the CD. This unnerved them. This is like no other music they have heard.

After they filled in the blanks, I told them that the leader of Pink Floyd went crazy and he had to be put in an institution. Another member of the band took his place as the leader when this happened. Quite a few of their songs are about or for that crazy leader. A student asked me if this is true. I said yes

Does anybody remember laughter?

Nevertheless, at the end of one of the classes, one of the most rambunctious classes, we had time left. One of the students requested I play more music. Never, would I play this particular song in the West but for the students, I felt I owed them 'Stairway to Heaven.' Yes, yes, we have heard this song so much in our lives and certain radio station play Zep everyday at a certain time. Before I moved to China, I was sure I could never hear - and would never want to hear -this song again and be peachy. However, these students have never ever heard Led Zeppelin. Would a song such as 'Stairway to Heaven' register with them? Would it be a magical experience? Or, is it a song that has become so mythical that we do not realize it is just an ordinary powerless song.

I pressed play. The song began. The girls in front who had plugged their ears during 'Misty Mountain Hop' suddenly looked up, looked up in awe. What was this? - they seemed to ask with their eyes. Something magical happened. The din of the room was quieted. Students shushed each other. The bell rang, the students sat and listened; they did not move. Stairway to Heaven captivated them, yes.

Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

As they pulled you out of the oxygen tent...

Lou Reed waits for his man. I wait for my maid. His man brings him the good stuff and asks that white boy what he's doing uptown. My maid brings me herself and like Lou Reed's man, my maid is late. I'm waiting. She was to arrive at 8 am. It is now 8:15, and then 8:44. Often she arrives early. Sometimes she arrives at 7:30 am. She is late. I will wait. I am not sure how long I should wait before I go out for breakfast, maybe for donuts or maybe I will suck it up and have pancakes at McDonald's', sadly, no maid, only hotcakes but not with Carly Simon. Anticipation is making me wait.

While I wait, I read the Guardian. Like most people, I go for the sensationalist news first. Nikki Sixx has a new book. Oh, goody! This looks like quite the juicy read, shooting drugs, cocaine paranoia, shooting alcohol...because you forget that you can drink it. Okay, I get it. I get it. I get it. You led the rock and roll lifestyle to its utmost.

Now, you can sit beside your swimming pool in L.A. (that place that people love to hate but still live there and talk about how they are not one of the plastic ones, the Ivy crowd, part of the Hollywood mongers, the vapid reality television reality). As you sit by your pool, you can write about it with the help of an ace journalist, a writer who once wrote for the now defunct Melody Maker. I get it. I get it. You pick him because he interviewed you the day you died. I get it. When he interviewed you, you were so out of it and then later that evening, after said interview, you shot up and died - Nikki Six, employer of rocket science at its most rocking.

But then, that is what rock stars are supposed to do die young and then, perchance, come back to life, or, maybe, just die young. Many of the dead ones, I guess, must forget that part about coming back to life. Rock and Roll Resurrection. Spinal Tap after the fact. As a matter of fact, Slash didn't realize what all the fuss was about with Nikki's whole death ordeal. Slash used to die and come back to life all of the time. Oh the beauty and decadence of these modern day Lord Byrons, these rock and roll Draculas.

After I read through the article, I realize that perhaps it is not that interesting to me after all. Sure, all of what I read is shocking but beyond that, there is nothing. Nothing, much like the music of that whole scene, empty with angst, empty angst. Are you in fact the Future Legend that Bowie wrote of at the beginning of Diamond Dogs? No, I think not. This has the corporate schlock of Molly Hatchet 's 'Flirting with Disaster' written all over it. This is not a scenario from Rock Dreams. Yes, we have no dangerous Jagger/Bowie sexuality. The most daring part is women in bondage, HBO circa 1982 starring Lindsay Wagner as a prostitute.She got the looks that kill, a shocking video, uh, not really.

From there I peruse the scientific, maybe I do this out of the guilt that I spent 15 minutes reading the rock dredge. In the scientific article, I learn more about this whole greenhouse conundrum that might not be a conundrum. If I walk to work or take the bus instead of drive, maybe I can make a difference, help solve this problem. Oh, guess what? I do walk the 25 minutes to work. Okay, I lied; I have taken a taxi twice to work. And, if I have to travel several kilometers, I do take the metro or a bus. Yes, okay another small fib, sometimes I do take a taxi but, actually, I do not like to splurge the $1 or $2 on a taxi because basically I am a miser. This runs in my family. Thanks Dad!

If I turn off all of my appliances, if I do not leave them on standby, that helps states the article. Oh, again, I do not have many appliances, the fridge, which I do not think I should turn off because the milk will spoil but other than that, I have no appliances really. I have a soap-less dishwasher which I used a couple of times when I first moved into the flat but I have not used it in several months.

Oh, the last point, if I can, I am told I should adjust my thermostat by 1 degree to save on heating and cooling. Again, at the moment, I am not being heated or cooled. I would say nearly half of the year I am not heated or cooled in my flat. Again, I pass the anti-greenhouse examination. Yay, for me. Oh, but, we are all going to die anyway so I'm off to McDonald's!

At 9 am, there is a knock on the door. The maid is here. Lou would shoot up. Actually, maybe he would not shoot up at this point. He would eat a scone. OR maybe, he and Laurie (Anderson) would debate who is more counterculture and artsy between the two of them. They might do this over tofu hotdogs at 11th St and 2nd Ave in the East Village. Or no, they would send out for them, have them delivered; this cost just a little extra.

They might discuss which album they will perform in its entirety next and who will open for whom at the show. Laurie tells Lou she is crazy about Mistrial. She wants Lou to bomb. He asks her if she has ever had a hit? She tells him she never did drugs. He tells her not that sort of hit.

I watch as the maid puts on slippers. She apologizes to me in Chinese and bits of English; I tell her it's okay. Really, being an hour late to clean my place is not that big of a deal. She starts her routine. I sneak off to Mcdonald's while she starts cleaning out in the garden.

At the corner a bum with bags and bags of rags sits in the sun. Later, the DVD man will wheel his cart into this position and sell his 5 rmb DVDs. Last night, I bought The Woods with Patricia Clarkson from this DVD man which after viewing it I would deem its value at 2 rmb. Scary mean trees do not scare me. Dark remote cemeteries in the night, Michael Myers, Freddie, or any ax wielding maniac scare me. Purcell, Oklahoma scares me. Scary trees do not scare me.

Unfortunately, most of the time, I feel as if I am one step away from getting hit by a taxi, scooter, slow moving police car, or a careless speeding housewife in a Peugeot. Cars shoot out of alleys, onto sidewalks, from behind noodle stands, off of pedestrian parkways, from behind bushes and trees. If the car fits, the cart darts. The car darts from behind dumpsters or out of alleyways or wherever a car fits.

On the way to school a few days ago, after I greeted the scooter boys, I was nearly mowed down and made into Tyson pulp, a Tyson sidewalk noodle sandwich. I did not look in the direction of the alleyway. As I was stepping across, a mini-van shot out of the alley. I jumped out of the way just in time. Here, the motorists do not look for pedestrians. They only have their eyes set on other motorists. A few dead pedestrians is not a big deal to the Chinese. They have suffered for many years before the culture revolution and through the culture revolution. Dead pedestrians are nothing.

Yesterday, I ate noodles with Henry. He had sent me a message the previous night asking me to go to lunch. He met me at the teachers' office. Usually, on Friday, I do not go to Xiang Ming but since the other school for some wonderful reason had no classes I was able to meet Henry. When he walked into the teachers' office, I could tell his hair had been freshly cropped . I told him that he looks very handsome. His hair is short but not super short. He looks a bit like a Chinese mafioso. He told me that he wanted it shorter but his mother told him he would look like a convict.

Henry has a mustache of which he is quite proud. He is the only student in the whole school who actually has enough hair to grow one, except of course for some of the girls, an oddity.

We went to a noodle shop that is much like an American diner. This noodle shop is tucked into a residential enclave off of the main street that is near the school. Walking there is like walking through a maze but once there, the noodles are completely down home. At lunchtime, it is always packed with people waiting for a table. The tables are small square tables that would fit 4 in America almost comfortably. Here 7 or 8 people crowd around to slurp up their noodles.

When Henry and I walked in, we spotted Kain and some other students. We stood biding our time by their table. After a few minutes, two of the students finished and left. Henry and I quickly grabbed their seats. Henry ordered for us. He ordered noodles with chopped pork and asked me if I wanted the same. I told him yes. He then ordered extra noodles for himself. I told him I did not need extra noodles, a regular order was fine for me.

While we waited for our noodles to arrive, Henry showed me an essay on which he received a poor mark. I read over the essay and told him that it was not that bad which is true. His class teacher, English name Jane, does not give out passing marks easily. I told him she is really a good teacher. She is just tough but that is good. She wants them to work hard to improve. They are lucky to have her for a teacher.

He told me that he wants to take the college entrance examination early. He would rather not take it when everyone is taking it in a mad rush for next year. I told him I thought this a good idea.

Other students, mostly current students of mine, were spread around the restaurant. As they left, they called to me. Some of them looked at me with surprise, as if stunned that I exist outside of class. I am human and I want to be loved. I told them goodbye as they filed out. I recognized them all but did not know any of their names. Once Henry and I got our orders of noodles we slurped them up quickly. Kain waited for us. He had already finished his noodles.

They told me they had to be back at school by 12:30 for an extra class. We walked and talked. About a half a block away from school, they both realized they might be late. They told me goodbye and ran the rest of the way to class. I walked leisurely back to school and enjoyed the day. Little did I know that later I would buy the best of Thin Lizzy (Dedication) at the 3 story flea market that sells DVDs, CDs and dying appliances. Seriously, I have to kick my Boston habit.

Kim wrote to tell me that I am listening to Boston too much. I know I am; she is right. Quite often, More than a Feeling starts my day. Kim thinks maybe I need a change. I do need a change.

I see my Maryanne walking away. I do. I dream that Maryanne is walking away taking my heart that she has ripped out of my ribcage, she is walking with Carrie, through a small New England town with power-lines crackling, exploding, falling. She is laughing. They are having a telekinetic shindig. Maybe I should move to Korea. As I think about this, I put on Boston. I cannot help myself. I really can't. I am hooked.

But then...There is always Thin Lizzy.
The Boys are Back in Town shouldn't bring tears to my eyes, but somehow, sometimes it does.