Archive for August, 2010
Tuesday, August 31st, 2010
I can’t really give a definitive idea on what this song is “about” when I was developing the melody for it I came up with the line “you’ve got to get a good heart” I had always intended to replace the line with something else, but after a while the line just felt right. My instincts told me to leave it in and the song began to develop around that line. The song essentially revolves around the violent nature of Chinese society and its inherent contradictions; on the one hand there is enormous admiration for the dynasties that held art and beauty as their central pillar and on the other hand there is this desire to return to a time when to be a revolutionary was to be a killer. And then there are the people who are just like people everywhere who have been buffeted and bashed around by the winds of change for decades upon decades. The only way to survive is to get a good heart and it all starts with the children who are so central to Chinese life (another contradiction…see A Few Bags Of Grain/Little Dark Heart). The chanting that you hear in the song is a teacher counting at the beginning of a class, while the students sit at their desks and go through a series of facial massages that help them to relax and settle in. The crucial verse in this song is “Take me back to another time/when the birds brought forth the sun/Take me back to that golden year/when the pain brought forth the gun”. The first two lines of the verse are taken from a Chinese poem about nostalgic desires for a bygone era. The last two lines are a sentiment that I often heard from the older generation, nostalgia for the days of Mao, when their lives had a direction, no matter how misguided that direction ultimately was.
This video is taken by me walking outside (among the waiting parents) of the school where we were boarded and then through the school compound. I was using a pocket camera to film it, which I held hidden in my coat. So the children’s reaction is to me and not to the camera. This is the type of unbridled joy and enthusiasm with which we were greeted by children whenever we left our apartment….a good heart, indeed.
Tuesday, August 24th, 2010
Some songs aren’t really “about” any one thing. Sometimes a song will start off heading in one direction, come to a fork in the path, take the unexpected turn, double back on itself, and then head off through the brush and blaze a completely new trail. Sometimes you write a song or start to write a song thinking that you know what you are writing about and then your life unfolds and you look back on the song and think, “so that’s what it’s about”. Stranger Here is such a song. It was started a few months before we even went to China, the central premise of alienation was more a reflection on a song that I had written almost two decades ago, Black Eyed Man. The title and the repetitive refrain were already set as the cornerstone to build the song around. But I abandoned the song, which at the time was nearly finished, because I didn’t know where it was suppose to go or what it was “about”. The Southern Gothic images of the body floating in the river, the character getting drunk and passing out by the well and the scene on the gallows are all reflections and an update on the story told in Black Eyed Man of an innocent man, a scapegoat, framed, unjustly accused, and executed. But in this updated version of the story the accused doesn’t seem as virtuous or, necessarily, innocent. His declaration that he is “the righteous man”, his insistence that he is the “one we are looking for” make him suspect and the fact is, he is guilty of being a “stranger”. I had all of this before we went off to China. When we returned I revisited the song and I, of course, had a whole new perspective on being a “stranger”. Not only had a I spent three months being a complete outsider, experienced in ways which I had never before been so intensely exposed, but my idea of what makes one an outsider had also changed. Many of the people who we met and who had befriended us had often expressed their sense of alienation in their rapidly changing country. The rules were constantly changing and most of them were being left outside by these rule changes. The older generation in particular was completely baffled and alienated by a society that had abandoned so many of the principles that they had struggled and suffered for. And, of course, the “righteous man”, his sayings, his teaching, his little red book, no matter how quaint it now all seemed, floated above them all, a long ago abandoned promise.
When we returned from China I added the second verse and it gave the song a personal grounding that made it all make sense to me. “Smoke in my eyes/ Strange taste on my tongue” is a pretty obvious reference to anyone that has traveled outside of their own culture. The line, “the legend will be told / about the boy never hungry never cold”, is my little aside to our family adventure. While in China, my son, who is tall and pale and blonde, was a true sensation wherever we went. People wanted their picture taken with him, old ladies would wander up and touch his hair and other kids would follow him around just to gawk. At the best of times, he is a picky eater and even in a Canadian winter he will more often than not abandon his coat on a playground and wander around in just a shirt when the rest of the city is bundled up in scarves and parkas. In China, we were invited to share in many meals, and my son never ate a bite at these feasts. There was constant fussing, chattering and concern and those that had shared a meal with us in the past would explain to the newbies that he just doesn’t eat. When the weather turned slightly colder (we were in a southern climate, similar to Virginia) all of the children would be bundled in layers of clothing that would have seen them through a Montreal winter, but my son would continue to wander around in his shorts and sandals. This caused as much consternation among the adults as did his lack of eating, and among the kids, well, he might as well have been naked. So by the end of the trip we figured that the most lasting impression that we would leave on the community was the legend of the boy “never hungry, never cold”.
If you want to read an impressive discussion about this song check out this CFLP thread on the Message Board (the CFLP always humbles me with how they are able to dissect my lyrics, I am always honoured by their attention). Here are the only two drafts of the song, through which you can get a sense of how quickly the song evolved and here is my demo for the song.
Monday, August 23rd, 2010
We will be guest editing Magnet on-line this week. To check out our posts as the week progresses you can got to: http://www.magnetmagazine.com/category/guest-editor/
In the meantime there is currently a Q&A with Margo posted at: http://www.magnetmagazine.com/2010/08/23/qa-with-cowboy-junkies-margo-timmins/
Wednesday, August 18th, 2010
The absolutely best part about the three months that we spent in China was the friends that we made. We were greeted with such open arms, invited into people’s homes and shared many meals. The great majority of these people spoke very little English, but that seemed to be of little consequence when it came to trying to connect with us and making us feel welcome. One of the most fascinating people that we became very close to was Mr. Liu: an octogenarian who had more spirit, energy and verve than most of the 40 year olds that I know.
Mr Liu had a remarkable life story: a life that would have crushed most people and turned them in to bitter, brooding senior citizens. His story is a long and convoluted and one which kind of mirrors modern China’s turbulent 20th century. I was only able to get bits and pieces of it, he was very hesitant at times to unveil it and at other times he would sit for an hour or so and, in his broken English, tell me his story. He and I would meet at 7am every Tuesday and Thursday in Renmin Park and play badminton. Afterwards we would go back to his extremely humble apartment where he would make us breakfast and we would hang out and talk. He was born in the countryside of Shanghai in 1930 and so his childhood was spent under a very repressive Japanese occupation (our Eurocentric North American culture has largely ignored the Japanese occupation and terrorizing of China throughout the early and mid-1900s. It’s a terrifying history and one that is not forgotten by the Chinese. In Nanjing there is an extremely disturbing and graphic memorial to The Rape of Nanjing, which is almost a pilgrimage site for Chinese school children). Mr Liu joined Mao’s PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) in 1948 and was sent to the Northern Heilongjiang province to learn how to fly and so became part of the fledgling PLA Air Force. He talked a lot about the year or so that he spent in Heilongjiang and about the conditions which were a notch above sub-human. He recalled in vivid detail of how, after several months of not being able to change out of his clothes because of the lack of clothing, the lack of water for bathing and the lack of heat in the barracks, he finally undressed and counted fifty-three bugs crawling around in his clothes, he was very adamant about the number and about how that figure and memory had stuck with him. While in the Air Force he flew in a transport squadron and saw action in Korea and Tibet. He had an old photo stuck to his wall of his squadron surrounding a young Mao who they flew on a couple of occasions. In the 60`s he landed a cushy job teaching at the Air Force academy which came to an abrupt end when he innocently challenged the official story of how an American ace had been shot down by a Chinese fighter pilot in the Korean war (he was there and he knew the true story which wasn`t quite as heroic as the official story). He was summarily dismissed and after a few months of no work and of lodging official complaints to his local party boss, he was one night, while having dinner with his mother in a restaurant in Shanghai, picked up by plain clothes police and without any recourse, thrown in jail. A few days later he was shipped inland where he spent the next 16 years in a labour camp. He wouldn`t tell me much about the camp, he said that the memories were too painful, he only said that his military conditioning helped him to survive and that he saw many lawyers, teachers, artists and other intelligentsia, people who were not prepared for the conditions, die while he was there. His most painful memory about the labour camp, and the only time I ever saw him choke up, was when he talked about the wife he had to leave behind. He figured that he was never going to be set free, so after a few years he told his wife that she should divorce him and get on with her life, which she did. Remarkably they both survived and, although they are both remarried, they still see each other regularly. After sixteen years of hard labour Mr Liu was one day, unexpectantly released into a China that he barely recognised. While in prison he had made a point of smuggling in English magazines and books and had taught himself English. Upon his release he set out to become an English teacher a job that he undertook with the same indefatigable spirit that had allowed him to thrive, in such unforgiving circumstances, through the first half of his life
Mr Liu makes an appearance throughout the album in many songs. He is one of the many strangers in Stranger Here; in A Few Bags of Grain there is a direct reference to his story (After 16 years hard labour/He bumped into a neighbour/who told him about a world gone insane); the sound sample used in Sir Francis Bacon At The Net is of him and a friend of his playing badminton. But most importantly it is his real life love story that sets the stage for the fictional love story that sets up the album in the title song Renmin Park. Our adventure in China would not have been the same without Mr Liu, I feel very privileged to have met him and to have spent time with him.
If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link:
Monday, August 16th, 2010
We recently had a review and an interesting piece about Renmin Park published in the Southern Weekly, which is a Chinese language newspaper that comes out of Beijing. The journalist, Timothy Hathaway, has a very interesting take on the album. He is coming at it with a much more informed perspective on Chinese culture, so his insights are valuable. Tim also interviewed ZXZZ for his blog, China Beat, in which Zuzhou talks a bit about our collaboration and other projects that he is working on. I think that both article are worth the time.
Wednesday, August 11th, 2010
A Walk In The Park is probably one of the songs on Renmin Park that make most people reach for the skip button. But it’s a very important song for the album, probably its most ambitious and, from a producer’s point of view, it’s one of my proudest achievements.
The singer and the lyricist of the song is Zuoxiao Zuzhou (ZXZZ), an extremely respected artist and a cultural jewel of the Chinese underground art scene. You won’t hear his music playing at the roller rink, but it’s bound to be in the collection of any self respecting Mandarin hipster. I was introduced to his music by my friend Eric Chen and I was blown away by the breadth of his recorded work and most specifically the intensity of his voice. In his work I hear strong influences of Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Sonic Youth, Einstürzende Neubauten and other artists who like to occasionally push boundaries. He is also a very political voice in a scene where being political actually has meaning. When Joby and Al presented me with the first musical draft of A Walk In The Park I knew that the ideal person to add to it was Zuoxiao Zuzhou. But it was quite a journey getting to that point.
The starting point for the track was me and my Zoom recorder in China. There are about a half-dozen field recordings incorporated in to this song including: a Peking Opera recital in Renmin Park; a class of my wife’s students singing the Chinese National Anthem; a bell tolling from the Bell Tower in Xian; a PA blaring morning excercise exhortations in the school yard where we lived; the song of the propane seller; and the din of human activity blended with the chirping of cicadas in Renmin Park. When I returned to Toronto I then sent these recordings to our friend Joby Baker in Victoria who assembled them in to a structure over which a musical template could be created. Alan then laid down his best Jah Wobble dub bass line that defined the overall feel of the song and Joby layered that with keyboards to suggest the harmonic direction. This was then sent back to me in Toronto where Pete laid down a drum part and I added the frenetic guitar outro. I then emailed that to my friend Eric Chen in Jingjiang who had tracked down Zuoxiao Zuzhou and had interested him in the project. Eric sent the track to Zuzhou who then wrote lyrics for the track and laid down his vocal. That track was then emailed back to me in Toronto where a few minor touches were made and then it was forwarded back to Joby who added a few more field recordings and finally mixed the song. Chalk one up for globalization.
Eric translated the song for me but, as I have said, there is always something lost in the translation. Zuoxiao Zuzhou told Eric to tell me that the lyric is a metaphor comparing a leisurely walk in the park with the cultural “walk” that is needed to successfully and honestly express oneself in Modern China.
Here is Eric’s translation of Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s lyrics as well as a couple of ZXZZ related videos. The first is of a live performance by ZXZZ (not for the unadventurous) and the second is a beautifully animated short, set to an amazing live recording by ZXZZ of his interpretation of the traditional Mongolian folk song Ulan Bator Nights.
Friday, August 6th, 2010
About half way through our three month stay in Jingjiang I stumbled upon the only person in the entire city who was a fan of modern music and who also happened to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the modern Chinese rock scene. My wife and I were often dragged to these very uncomfortable “meet-the-English-speaking-freaks” gatherings, in which a handful of locals who were interested in practicing their limited English would show up and stare at us. On this one particular night a young man came up and introduced himself and upon hearing that my wife’s name was Patty, he said, “like Patti Smith?”. My wife and I were both a little taken aback and weren’t quite sure what we had just heard, so I replied,”…you mean Patti Smith…the musician Patti Smith?!?” He said, “yes, yes..Patti Smith, CBGBs, Horses…”. This was Eric Chen, we became fast friends. Eric learnt all of his English by watching American movies. He is a music fanatic, caught inside of a country that relatively little interest in the music underground, caught inside a city that is about as backwater as it gets when it comes to modern culture. Eric took me around Jingjiang and introduced me to the handful of musicians that lived in the town, but more importantly he schooled me in the modern Chinese rock scene. He brought me a stereo and stacks of cds by modern Chinese rock bands. I was floored by the intensity of the music. Here was a status-quo that an angry young man could really kick against. No Future, indeed. There was also something about Mandarin that lent itself to rock music. It’s all those hard consonants and those guttural sounds; it just makes for some good gut-wrenching belting.
Near the end of my stay I asked Eric to translate a handful of songs that I was, for whatever reason, attracted to. I quickly learnt that Mandarin may be a great rock language, but trying to bridge the gap between Mandarin and English was not going to be an easy task. I’ve come to the conclusion that Mandarin and English are like two software platforms that just won’t communicate with each other. Eric did a great job translating and then I had to take his translations and turn them into songs that could be expressed in English. Here are Erics translations of My Fall and I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side (written by two great Chinese musicians Xu Wei and Zuoxiao Zuzhou) with my hand written notes on the borders, followed by my further adaptations of the lyrics.
If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link:
Monday, August 2nd, 2010
When we adopted my youngest daughter, when she was placed in our arms for the very first time, she stared at us in complete silence for about 30 seconds and then huge tears, enormous sorrow, welled from deep inside her. It was from that specific moment that the phrase little dark heart sprung. I held on to it for six years because I didn’t understand how it applied, how can a one-year-old child have a dark heart? It was after our visits to the orphanages (and after working with Mary Gauthier on The Foundling) that I realized that this darkness is a shadow, a shadow cast on my daughters’ hearts by their birth mothers, always present never seen, and that, this darkness, will never go away. Being abandoned as a baby by one’s mother, no matter what the circumstance, is not an easy reality to face up to.
When you adopt a child from China they give you a dossier of very official looking paperwork with very little information about your child. One piece that is in every dossier is the “police report” which outlines where your child was found. According to the police reports our eldest daughter was found beneath the tax bureau gate and our youngest was found in a ditch by the side of the road. These are not images that are easily shook…and then you begin to think about the twisted meanderings of Fate, of all the convoluted circumstances that took them from that lost dark night, into your home, into your heart:
One is left in a ditch by the highway / the other by the tax bureau gate/Wherever you come from/that’s where you go/They lie staring at the stars and they wait/They lie staring at the stars and they wait.
If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link: