Posts Tagged ‘stranger here’
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.
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:
Sunday, March 14th, 2010
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….