Renmin Park, Volume 1

Track Listing
  1. Intro
  2. Renmin Park
  3. Sir Francis Bacon At The Net
  4. Stranger Here
  5. A Few Bags Of Grain
  6. I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side
  7. (You've Got to Get) A Good Heart
  8. Cicadas
  9. Interlude
  10. My Fall
  11. Little Dark Heart
  12. A Walk In The Park
  13. Renmin Park (revisited)
  14. Coda

Cowboy Junkies Are:
Margo Timmins (vocals); Michael Timmins (guitar and vocals); Peter Timmins (drums and percussion); Alan Anton (bass)

Musical Guests:
Joby Baker (keyboards, piano, bowed bass, loops, collages, drums on Cicadas, My Fall, A Few Grains of Sand; Josh Finlayson (bass on I Cannot Sit Sadly by Your Side); Andy Maize (bg vocals on Renmin Park and A Good Heart); Jesse O'Brien (keyboards on Little Dark Heart); Aaron Goldstein (pedal steel); George Gao (erhu); Guo Xue Ying (pipa); Zuoxiao Zuzhou (vocals on A Walk In the Park); Henry Kucharzyk (string arrangement on My Fall); Anna Redekop, Amber Ghent, Rebecca van der Post, Sandra Baron (string quartet on My Fall)

Produced by Michael Timmins; Engineered by Michael Timmins and Joby Baker; Mixed by Joby Baker Mastered by Peter J Moore. Street recordings recorded by Michael Timmins in Jingjiang, China.

Graphic Design by Alice Phieu (alicephieu.com) assisted by Peter Timmins; Cover images by Enrique Martinez Celaya (whaleandstar.com)

Stranger Here, Little Dark Heart, Renmin Park written by Michael Timmins; Cicadas, Sir Francis Bacon at the Net, A Good Heart, A Few Grains of Sand written by Michael Timmins, Joby Baker and Alan Anton; A Walk in the Park written by Zuoxiao Zuzhou, Joby Baker and Alan Anton; I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side written by Zuoxiao Zuzhou; My Fall written by Xu Wie. I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side and My Fall translated from Chinese to English by Eric Chen.

SOCAN. Published by by Paz Junk Music in North America and Carthage Music in ROW.

Catalogue #: LatexCD28

Renmin Park, volume 1 (an intro)

In late 2008, my family and I were given an opportunity to spend three months in China. We were boarded at an elementary/middle school in the small town of Jingjiang situated on the Yangtze River, about two hours from Shanghai. My wife taught English at the school, my three young kids attended a few classes and I spent my days exploring. We also did as much travelling as my wife’s schedule would allow. On one massively intense trip we journeyed to the birth villages of each of my daughters (two of my three children were adopted from China). But, mostly, we inserted ourselves into the day to day life of Jingjiang.

When I say that Jingjiang is a small town I mean that in relative terms. Its official population is 650,000, but its real population is closer to 1,000,000: a mere speck on the Chinese demographic landscape. We were welcomed with open arms by anyone in the town who could put three English words together. Homes were open to us, we were feted at every possible occasion and in every possible style, we created friendships that are only possible under such intense and foreign conditions and had adventures that have already become part of our family lore. It was a storybook experience, overwhelming to say the least, perhaps even life altering for my daughters.

Renmin Park is a reflection of that adventure. It’s a fictional love story about two people whose two worlds will forever keep them apart. It’s a thank-you letter to an obscure city and the people who opened up their lives to five very strange strangers. It’s a personal document about a bewilderingly complex culture that is, once again, experiencing a massive upheaval. It’s another chapter in a band’s ongoing twenty-five year journey.

Here is a rough mix of the albums title track:

Renmin Park, volume 1 (the place)

Every city, town and village in China has a Renmin Park. Translated it means People’s Park and it is in the park where the community’s social life is conducted, it is where the rumours start and where the lovers meet, it is from the heart of the park where all things real and human and important exist and grow. We spent a lot of time in Renmin Park in Jingjiang. There was a rusted out old playground that was probably built in the 50’s and had some of the most rickety and dangerous looking slides and rides that I’ve ever seen. Our kids loved it, I was thankful that they had all had tetanus shots. Every Tuesday and Thursday I would wake up at 6am and head down to the park to play some badminton with my 80 year old friend Mr Liu and all of his friends. He would kick my ass every time (I once tried to play ping-pong against him and was completely humiliated). Mr Liu had flown for the People’ Liberation Army airforce in the 1950s. His squadron had transported Mao on occasion and he had flown missions in Tibet and Korea. He had spent 16 years in a labour camp in the 60’s and 70’s for speaking the truth to a class of cadets: an amazing man who I feel privileged to have met. After our badminton game we would go back to his apartment and he would serve me a breakfast of eggs, rice, ginger and hot fresh milk.

When I would arrive at the park at 6:30am the place would be hopping. There would be multiple games of badminton going on; the roller rink would be full of people dancing on their roller-skates; there would be large and small groups going though their tai-chi and exercise routines; hundreds of people walking around the man-made lake in the middle of the park, taking their morning constitutional, the place would be packed. We were always out of place in the park. We always felt welcomed but we were always strangers. The staring and gawking never stopped. As unusual as it felt, it just became part of our existence and Renmin Park slowly became our park too.

Here is my demo of another song off of the album, Stranger Here….

Renmin Park, volume 1 (the sounds)

When we first got to China one of the first things that struck me, aside from the poor air quality, were the sounds. Not only was it loud and unrelenting, but there were so many textures to the sounds that were completely foreign to these Western ears. So I wrote back home and asked brother Pete to pick me up a high end portable digital recorder. I had it, along with my camera, wherever I went. I’d spend hours in the park walking around and recording music and conversations, exercise classes and badminton games; in the streets I’d record the intense sound of the traffic; at the school I’d wander the halls and sit in on some classes and record the students chanting their lessons, or capture them at their morning exercise where the entire school of three thousand students would do their calisthenics. Even drifting by our apartment window were the calls of various hawkers, selling everything from vegetables to propane. I recorded it all.

When I got home I knew I had a treasure trove of really interesting and unusual “field recordings” and I knew that I wanted to somehow use them in the making of music, but I really wasn’t sure how to go about it. Eventually I bundled them up and sent them West to our friend Joby Baker in Victoria. I gave pretty vague instructions; create loops out of these sounds, let them spur your imagination. Alan, who lives on Vancouver Island, also got involved and the two of them proceeded to build musical structures with some of the field recordings as the foundations. They then sent them back East, Pete and I set to work on them in our studio, taking out elements that didn’t work for us and adding our own elements. And then I sat with them and wrote melodies and lyrics. Finally Margo came in and transformed them into Cowboy Junkies songs.

Five of these songs will appear on Renmin Park. Here is a taste of how two of them sounded about half way through the process:

Renmin Park, volume 1 (the music)

Most of the music that I heard in Jingjiang was uninspired Taiwanese pop and Euro-pop, blaring from tinny speakers in every shop and out of every taxicab window. The most interesting music was found in the parks, where the traditional music was played. On most Sunday’s I would head down to Renmin Park and sit in this tiny pavilion that was home to a music club that performed music from the Beijing opera. Depending on the time of day, different musicians would be there with their erhus, pipas, shangxians and various percussion instruments. There was never any shortage of singers. Each would wait their turn and then stand up and belt out some song written long ago about love lost, stolen or betrayed. Most of the players were great, most of the singers were not so great, but they all approached the music with such passion. There were a few singers that seemed head and shoulders above the others, at least to these untrained ears. I was always welcomed with much fanfare. A seat was made available (after a few visits they knew that I preferred to sit in the back) and tea was poured and someone always made sure that my cup was full. No one in the “club” spoke any English and all I could master in mandarin was “happy new year”, so no words were exchanged, but none of that mattered. I recorded dozens of performances.

About half way through our stay I caught a lucky break. I was introduced to young man by the name of Eric Chen. He spoke excellent English (he learnt it by watching American movies) and he was a music freak. He was also desperate to talk to someone about music, because, as he told me on our first meeting, he was “not only the only person in Jingjiang who had ever heard the music of Radiohead, but the only person who had ever even heard the name Radiohead”. We quickly became friends and we spent a lot of time together. One day there was a knock on the door and it was Chen carrying an, almost portable, stereo system. He also had dozens of CDs with him. My introduction to the Chinese rock scene began in earnest. Chen introduced me to the ground-breaking, emotionally gut wrenching music of He Yong; the dour, introspective sounds of the brilliant Dou Wei; the prog-rock tinged musings of The Tang Dynasty; the melodic Cure-meets-Steve-Earle pop of Xu Wei and the inspired innovative sounds of Zuoxiao Zuzhou (ZXZZ). He introduced me to dozens of more artists that had sprung up on the Chinese rock scene since the ”new openness” of the late 1980’s. He showed me videos of legendary concerts in which some of these artists had performed and cemented their reputations. It was a great awakening for me. Two of the artists that I really became attached to were Xu Wei (but only his first album, as all of us hipsters know full well) and Zuoxiao Zuzhou. There was something about Xu Wei’s guttural voice and simple, haunting melodies that really attracted me and the breadth and unusualness of  Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s work still fascinates me today (sort of a Leonard Cohen meets Nick Cave by way of Tom Waits; Zuoxiao Zuzhou contributes a lyric and lead vocal to one of the songs on Renmin Park). We decided to cover a song by each of these artists on Renmin Park (ZXZZ’s “I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side” and Xu Wei’s “My Fall”). Chen translated the lyrics and then I turned those translations into song lyrics. Here are the original songs as recorded by Xu Wei and ZXZZ:

Renmin Park, volume 1 (the lyrics)

It’s always hard to say what a song or group of songs are about. It’s no different for those on Renmin Park, but I’ll give it a shot;….abandoned children, abandoned mothers….governments and their fetish for leather and steel…alienation…sights seen, voices heard, friendships formed….personal histories, myths, stories told…the incalculable advantage of the alternate perspective…the great divide, romance, the addictive rush of the broken heart…the benefit of early morning exercise….discovery….giraffes and small dogs….the capacity of the human mind for great harm…the capacity of the human heart for great good….diesel fumes….beauty and fear…scapegoats, heroes, and villains and the fine line that divides them all… inevitability…cultural appropriation, perhaps…human nature, mother nature…mercilessness….English philosophers…people.

Here are a couple of final mixes:

Renmin Park, volume 1 – A Few Bags Of Grain

One of the main reasons for my family going to China for three months was to bring my two daughters back to the land of their birth; a chance for them to experience it firsthand. The latest trend in international adoptions is “homeland visits.”  Parents are encouraged to take their adopted daughters on a two week tour of China, culminating in a trip to the child’s orphanage. It’s definitely a worthy idea (and a smart way for the adoption industry to make a bit more cash), but my wife and I have always felt that to take your kid from the suburban splendours of North America head-first into the urban sprawl that is modern China would be a little too mind-blowing for even the most prepared and sophisticated child. So when we were offered an opportunity to spend three months living in a small city in China, which would give this homeland visit a bit of context, we jumped at it. We thought that the experience of walking into an orphanage and seeing a room full of squalling babies laid out in their cribs on wooden boards wouldn’t be as traumatic for our daughters if they had a better sense of the difference between living conditions in China and those in the West. We were wrong, of course.

A Few Bags of Grain comes specifically out of that experience – of returning to the girl’s orphanages. We always talk about the birth-mother in the adoption stories that we are told to tell our kids, but I don’t think we are capable of truly representing her. We usually portray her as a stereotype – a tragic, romantic figure. We also talk about abandonment in these stories, but what do most of us truly know and understand about abandonment? Returning to the birth towns and the orphanages was an awakening for us as parents and a life-altering experience for, at least, my eldest daughter (who had just turned eleven). When we began the journey, my wife and I had no idea what were heading in to. My daughter, on the other hand, seemed to have a much deeper understanding of what lay ahead. As we were, literally, stepping out of our apartment to head off on this journey, she pulled us aside and out-of-the-blue said,  “OK…I’ll go to the orphanage, but I don’t want to go to the place where I was found…”. She already knew what this trip was really about and what it was that she was going to have to face.

The song is about the “worthlessness of girl,” an attitude that exists not just in China, but all around the globe and shows itself in different ways. And, it’s about, that worn old saw, the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

Here is a video taken inside one of my daughter’s orphanages. Don’t watch this if you are in a public place, unless, of course, you don’t mind bawling in public.

If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link:

Renmin Park – Introduction

Renmin Park – The Place

Renmin Park – The Sounds

Renmin Park – The Music

Renmin Park – The Lyrics

Renmin Park, volume 1 – Little Dark Heart

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.


Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link:

Renmin Park – Introduction

Renmin Park – The Place

Renmin Park – The Sounds

Renmin Park – The Music

Renmin Park – The Lyrics

Renmin Park – A Few Bags Of Grain

Renmin Park, volume 1 – My Fall and I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side

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.


Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link:

Renmin Park – Introduction

Renmin Park – The Place

Renmin Park – The Sounds

Renmin Park – The Music

Renmin Park – The Lyrics

Renmin Park – A Few Bags of Grain

Renmin Park – Little Dark Heart

Renmin Park, volume 1 – A Walk In The Park

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.


Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

Renmin Park, Volume 1 – Mr Liu (Stranger Here, A Few Bags Of Grain, Renmin Park)

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.


Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link:

Renmin Park – Introduction

Renmin Park – The Place

Renmin Park – The Sounds

Renmin Park – The Music

Renmin Park – The Lyrics

Renmin Park – A Few Bags of Grain

Renmin Park – Little Dark Heart

Renmin Park – My Fall and I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side

Renmin Park – A Walk In The Park

Renmin Park, volume 1 – Stranger Here

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.


Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

Renmin Park, volume 1 – You’ve Got To Get A Good Heart

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.

Renmin Park, volume 1 – Cicadas

On June 4th 1989 we were touring the west coast of the United States, when word escaped from China about the massacre in Tiananmen Square. The world had been watching, there had been this sparkle of hope shining from a country that had been dark to us for so many years. And then it ended in such a brutal and final fashion. For the rest of that tour we dedicated Powderfinger to those who had been out on the square: ultimately, a futile gesture. Despite the futility, we performed the song each night because it felt right to try and mark this moment in history, it felt right to take pause.

The history of The June 4th Movement has all but been officially wiped out from China’s collective memory. It’s not a subject that is lightly raised among the older generation and yet in certain company mentioning it would draw honest blank expressions: for most people under the age of thirty it is like it never took place. Tiananmen Square is a massive public square in the heart of Beijing. The only thing rising from its stone is Mao’s mausoleum: when you stand in the middle of the square it’s hard not to imagine that night and the thousands of people gathered and the coming of the tanks and the panic and the fear and the terror. This was the last lyric that I wrote for the album.

Hear them buzzing in the trees

A lot like us a dying breed.

One voice now is all we need.

Hear them buzzing in the trees.

Nothing left but empty shells.

No memory now of where we fell.

No one left to truely tell

the tale of how we truley fell.

Once again the simple truth

is crushed beneath the leather boot.

A lot like us a dying breed.

No trees here to hide behind

those big red wheels they slowly grind.

Hear them buzzing in the trees.

Tiananmen Square and The Forbiden City



Renmin Park, volume 1 – Renmin Park

One of the most important songs on the album is Renmin Park: it is the title track as well as the song that opens and closes the album. The song sets up the metaphorical love story that is the album. Initially my idea was to actually write a song cycle that dealt with the two lovers who are the protagonists in this song. As I began to explore this idea, I soon realized that I wouldn’t be able to sustain such a narrative and that it wouldn’t allow me to explore the many different aspects of our visit to China. I also began to see that the song wasn’t as narrow-cast as I initially envisioned. When I started writing the song I imagined two characters, one Chinese the other a foreigner, and their relationship was an illicit one. The narrative of the song is a simple one about them trying to arrange their clandestine meetings at landmarks around their town (Jingjiang). These landmarks are actual places in Jingjiang; the town is located on the Yangtze and its primary industry is shipbuilding and the shipyards dominate the river front; Gu Xian Temple is an actual Buddhist temple set on top of the only hill in Jingjiang; the song of the propane seller is something that greeted us every morning as the man in charge of refilling the communities propane tanks would travel through the neighbourhood at 6am calling out to let people know that he was there (you can hear the “song” in quite a few of the sound collages throughout the album); and the stone bridge and the pond is something that is common to pretty much every Renmin Park throughout China. The song took on more and more layers as the album developed. I began to realise that it wasn’t just a fictional love story, but also, partly, my friend Mr Liu’s love story; it was also a metaphor for my families love affair with this quirky town and the people who had embraced us; it was also a comment on the very odd and sometimes clandestine love affair that the people of China have with their past and their present and their very uncertain future. The Chinese adore their country, they are exceptionally proud of it, not in a jingoistic way, but more in the way that a mother adores her extremely troubled son. It has brought them lots of pain, and they know that they are destined to experience that pain time and time again, but they have also seen it sparkle and soar. And, after all, it is their creation, and only they can truly understand it and truly, deeply appreciate it.

Here are some of photos taken in some of the places that inspired the images in the song. It’s now time to move on to Volume 2….Demons….and to welcome you all to the world of Vic Chesnutt…stay tuned…


Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link:

Renmin Park – Introduction

Renmin Park – The Place

Renmin Park – The Sounds

Renmin Park – The Music

Renmin Park – The Lyrics

Renmin Park – A Few Bags of Grain

Renmin Park – Little Dark Heart

Renmin Park – My Fall and I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side

Renmin Park – A Walk In The Park

Renmin Park – Mr Liu

Renmin Park – Stranger Here

Renmin Park – You’ve Got To Get A Good Heart

Renmin Park – Ciccadas