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.