Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I showed up at The Jack Bar around ten. Lisa snapped her fingers and some teenager in a cowboy hat appeared with two bottles of Kingway, already opened. Another young buckaroo handed me a pack of cigarettes.

"Please wait," said Lisa. "I go and get your new guitar."

I sat at the bar while she rummaged around in a storage closet.

"Nice hat," I said to one of the buckaroos. "You like working here?"
He nodded, chuckled nervously, and resumed staring out into nowhere.

Lisa slid a guitar case across the bar and opened it.
"It cost 2,500 yuan," she said. I whistled: 400 dollars. I took the guitar out of its case and cradled it in my arms like a newborn.
"What will you play for us tonight?" she asked.
"I was thinking that each week I'd play one of my favorite albums," I said in bad Chinese. "Tonight I am going to play Mutations by Beck."
She smiled politely. Then the lights dimmed and a spotlight flashed on a metal pole in the middle of the room, where a nice-looking college girl stood in a black miniskirt and torn fishnet stockings. My opening act was a pole dancer.

One week earlier, on my birthday, I had swaggered into The Jack Bar, seized the communal guitar and strummed a series of woebegone ballads that, apparently, made the owner cry. She approached me later that evening and offered me money to play at her bar. I declined the cash, explaining that I was a volunteer and was thus bound by an American oath of poverty, but that I wouldn't turn my nose up at free beer.

"How much beer?" she asked.
I shrugged. "Enough?"

Those were the terms of our contract: you show up three nights a week and play songs that no one will like, and we will provide a guitar and all the formaldehyde lager your renal system can handle. The only part I objected to was Lisa's insistence that I wear a misshapen felt cowboy hat during my set, but I figured if the teenaged wait staff had to wear them, why shouldn't I? It was, after all, a cowboy bar.

The spotlight veered away from the pole dancer and wandered like a lazy eye towards the stage, where I sat in my misshapen felt cowboy hat, strumming a sleeping guitar. The show was delayed by some technical difficulties. For about ten minutes, I subjected the crowd to glorious blasts of feedback and flatulent bursts of static. They covered their ears and groaned while a flurry of teenagers in cowboy hats scurried about the stage with mic cables and rolls of electrical tape. I was enjoying myself. In a land where everything is dissonant except the music, I was happy to be leveling some Western distortion upon my already dismayed audience.

Finally, one of the buckaroos gave me a thumbs up. I strummed a D chord.
"Alright," I said. "My name's Pan Da. I will be your entertainment this evening."
Some puzzled Sichuanese squawks: Pan Daaa?! Pan ... Daaaaaaaa?!
"That's right. Pan/Da. First tone/second tone," I said. "This one's called 'Cold Brains.'"

The guitar sounded delicious. I have spent the whole of my puberty and young adulthood tinkering with thrift store junkers, so playing a 2,500 kuai acoustic/electric over a KTV PA system was almost too hi-fi for my lo-fi nerves to handle. And wonderfully, the guitar was turned up high enough that the chords crackled ever so slightly against the back wall. Dissonance, American delinquentism, my toes curled with delight. And then the buckaroos came galloping back on stage. "No! No! No!"

I stopped playing. One of the buckaroos turned the guitar down, cranked my microphone way up into the red, and added some greasy karaoke reverb for good measure. I thanked him dubiously and took Mutations again from the top.

I play guitar the way Woody Allen might, with lots of musical stutters, a consistently nauseous look upon my face, and occasional breakdowns of the nervous, non-musical sort. It took me two weeks just to get where I could play a single one of Mutations' eleven tracks straight through without collapsing in a fit of profanities, or giggles. So when I slammed the last chord of Cold Brains, it was as though I'd just nailed a triple lutz: I looked around the bar for a Béla Károlyi to hug. But all was silent - just the rattling of dice and the clinking of glasses. Nobody even seemed to be looking at me anymore. I shrugged and set about detuning the guitar for Nobody's Fault But My Own.

"Alright," I said, playing to my profoundly male, profoundly Chinese audience, "this is the kind of song you might listen to if you just broke up with your girlfriend."
Small amount of feedback.
"You know, break up. Girlfriend," I said. "I know some of you guys have done that, right?"
I translated everything into Chinese for good measure: girlfriend, break up, nü pengyou, fen shou le. Dead silence, murmuring. So I played the second song of the set, without many hitches. And the third. Not a clap to be found. After Tropicalia, my index finger started gushing blood. I held it up to the spotlight and the crowd withered disgustedly. I asked Lisa for a band-aid, a guitar pick, and another bottle of Kingway.

I began to wonder what exactly I was doing wrong. During my short time in this country, I've seen the Chinese masses applaud juggling midgets, prerecorded TV shows, and unsuccessful magic tricks. My students have been known to give me a standing O for coming to class in a clean shirt. And now I'd even seen a bar full of Chinese men applaud a pole dancer. So surely the spectacle of a somewhat bearded foreigner strumming his native instrument, albeit sloppily, deserved some form of recognition, didn't it? The fact that I was playing the entirety of a fairly inaccessible concept album about matrons and gigolos and robots vibrating with pleasure - well, what did that matter? Nobody could understand me in the first place, right? So what was the problem? Not for the first time, it struck me as a particularly cruel irony that as foreigners, we are only invisible precisely in the two places we don't want to be: in the classroom, and on stage.

But the crowd loved me, in a way. They wanted me to drink with them. Throughout the second half of my set, one by one, tubby men in polo shirts and windbreakers and weird glam-ass sunglasses would stumble up to the microphone with a bottle of Kingway and demand that I sit at their table. They would fiddle with my microphone, strum my guitar for me, remove my hat and wear it themselves. I gave them my best harried westerner look: wait a minute, I'm busy right now! Between songs, I tried to quell the onslaught of sexually frustrated fortysomethings by explaining that I would be right with them in three songs. It didn't work. During Dead Melodies, my favorite of all psycho-morbid Beck ballads, tables of men were barking, "COME HERE! COME HERE!"

And so, as inclined as I was to torment those rowdy Jack Bar scenesters with the bonus noise track from Mutations, I closed out my set with a wispy little A chord and ran off to sit with a couple of Inner Mongolians. There are many social situations in China that you cannot escape from, and I could tell this was one of them. I knew I would remain with the Inner Mongolians until the sun came up.

One of the Inner Mongolians was lithe and athletic, the other ogreish and missing a few teeth. We spoke Chinese for the most part, but the ogreish Inner Mongolian, after a few too many Kingways, began to resort to English. The only word he possessed full command over was "FRIEND." So he would point at himself, point at me, and in his thunderous baritone he would intone the word, "FRIEND. FRIEND!" I would nod and say, yes. Friend! "FRIEND. FRIEND!" Yes. Friend! It went on like that for hours.

The Inner Mongolians threw me in the back of a cab. They wanted to get something to eat. It was 2:30 AM. This wouldn't end well for anyone. They took me to a seafood place in some dark corner of Nanchong that I couldn't find again if I tried. We ate clams, shrimp, squid, all of it basted in a retina-melting wasabi sauce. After we'd eaten a few pounds of the stuff, the ogreish Inner Mongolian circled our dishes with his finger and said, in Chinese, "The sea is very far away from Sichuan. All of this food has been frozen for a very long time."

There was no ominous intent in his statement. And of course, I'd known what I was getting into all along. But already, I could feel a sinking sensation in my stomach, and over the next several days that sensation would blossom and expand until there was nothing left of my body but stomach. And let this be the segue into my next post, a post about intestinal parasites and the joys thereof.

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