It’s raining and Seymour Stein has a cold.
It could be a lot worse, though. Charles, one of the local contacts, was able to secure him some kind of unpronouncable Chinese cough syrup with strange restorative powers. Seymour may be 69 years old and walk with a cane, but he’s not going to let a little cough get in the way of checking out some of the local talent.
That’s why we’re in a cab heading to some out-of-the-way rock club somewhere near the Fourth Ring Road of Beijing. If this city (and by extension, China in general) were to have its own CBGB, it would be this place.
Seymour, his friend Richard, Charles and I are headed to D-22, the centre of the alt-rock scene for about 1.4 billion people.
That’s a heavy burden to place on a tiny rock club. But the country has to start somewhere.
The transmitCHINA conference officially wrapped up earlier today and the entire delegation was bussed down to Beijing for a couple of nights of rock’n’roll Chinese style. Seymour–founder of Sire records and signer of the Ramones, Talking Heads and the Pretenders as well as the importer of the Smiths, Morrissey, the English Beat and dozens of other British bands–wants to check out the local talent.
Charles has convinced us to visit is club to see a couple of bands: Mr. Graceless and Birds Trikling. I’m there because I want to be able to say I’ve gone band hunting with Seymour Stein.
The club is smaller than CBGB and the bathrooms are shockingly clean. And you have been beaten up for ordering a Long Island ice tea back in the day. But the second floor balcony is a nice touch and the sound is clear without being too loud.
Mr. Graceless is on first. They start with a couple of instrumentals that could have been early Pavement jams. From there, they segue into a Beatlesque sort of power pop best described as lo-fi Sloan sung in a mixture of Mandarin and English. They need to work on their harmonies and stagecraft (most Chinese performers don’t look like they’re having much fun on stage), but there’s definitely potential.
Next is Birds Trikling (I have no idea what that name means) and they’re definitely channeling Sonic Youth. This isn’t much of a surprise since one of the member is the new bass player in Carsick Cars, perhaps the senior member of the D-22 scene and a group championed by Thurston Moore. There’s fuzz and screeching and power in what they do.
The entire time these bands are on–almost two hours–Seymour sat still in a chair about a dozen feet from the stage, cane by his side, listening to every note. Later he says “I love the Chinese scene. It’s new. It’s fresh. These kids have nothing to lose so they’re going for it. They don’t know what they’re doing–and that’s good. It’s like New York in the 70s.”
What’s missing is a spokesperson, someone that everyone can rally around and evangelize for, not just in Beijing but throughout China. But alt-rock is still too young for that kind of support. Music fans in this country worship the popular. There are about a dozen superstars for the entire nation. The alt-rock fans are usually Chinese returning from the West–and they tend to be in their late 20s.
Based on what I’ve heard and seen over the last year or so, he’s got a point. I’ve asked Charles to hook me up with some of the music from the D-22 crowd. Watch this space for more in the near future.