Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Listless Hello

Bob Marley Night at the Jack Bar. Around 10:30, the cowboys saw me come swaggering in through the saloon doors. One of them set out my two bottles of Bud Ice while the other plugged in my guitar. I sat down and donned a plastic cowboy hat, murmured a listless hello into the microphone. I spread my notebook open on the music stand and flipped past all the songs I love, to the Bob Marley jams that I could only hope my audience might perhaps enjoy.

Over the course of two months, I have watched my lofty musical ambitions crumble to the sea. The first week, I played Beck's Mutations front-to-back. The week after that, I played Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in its entirety. But now I dredge up all the happy-go-lucky pop songs I can find, anything that will keep me on stage longer than ten minutes. I no longer perform in the hope of inspiring my audience, or even in the hope of entertaining them. These days, I play for purely selfish reasons: because I enjoy playing, because I love the cool, clean, crisp taste of Bud Ice, and because - well, when else am I going to get a chance to tool around with a thousand-dollar Epiphone acoustic?

I tossed off a couple Marley songs, the ones with "love" in the title. No applause, but already the drunks were yelling at me to come drink with them. As usual, I said thank you, thank you, you're too much, just a moment and I'll be right with you. Then, midway through my cringeworthy rendition of Jammin', a pudgy fortysomething salaryman stumbled up on stage, grabbed my guitar by the neck and shouted in my ear.

" – what?"
Ah, yes. "Yesterday Once More." A request. Nay, a demand.
"I'm sorry," I said, "but I don't know The Carpenters."
"Takemehome Cuntroad!"
"Takemehome Cuntroad!"
Oh. "Take Me Home Country Road."
"I'm sorry," I said, "but I don't know John Denver."

I took Jammin' again from the top. A shudder passed through my soul.

Ooh, yeah. We're jammi -

Then the man thrust a cigarette in my face. I recoiled, so he forcibly stuffed it in my mouth and lit it. He laughed. The audience laughed. Then he stumbled back offstage to harass me from a distance.

My fourth song – "Stir It Up" – would prove to be my last. I strummed a chord.

Stiiiiiiiir it u –

Another dude had pounced up on stage. He shouted something in my ear, then he pushed a beer in my face, pried my mouth open and dumped it down my gullet. Laughter, applause. I stopped playing and stared at the man. Then I cleared my throat and strummed a chord.

Stiii –

"Hey! My Heart Will Go On!"
I ignored him, so he grabbed the neck of my guitar and squeezed.
"Hey! My Heart Will Go On!"
"Hey. I'm sorry," I said, "but I don't know Celine Dion."

Ahem. Stiii -

"Play a Chinese song!"
"I'm sorry," I said, "but I don't know any Chinese songs."
"Do you know Mo Li Hua?"
"Do you know Kang Ding Qing Ge?"
"Play a Chinese song!"
I stood up and offered him my guitar.
"Okay, how about you play one?"
Then the cowboys unplugged me.
"Pan Da, no more songs!"

One of the cowboys took my guitar away, put it back in its case, and stashed the case under the bar. The lights came up and I stood there bewildered. The peanut gallery came running up on stage to claim me.

"Do you know any Chinese songs?"
"You should play Chinese songs!"
"You need to learn Chinese songs!"
"Well," I said, "I was hoping I could introduce you to some good Western music. That's why I'm here."
"Oh, Western music," a girl nodded. "Yesterday Once More!"
"Take Me Home Country Road!"
"Hotel California!"
"Tears in Heaven!"
"You Are Not Alone!"
"My Heart Will Go On!"
"I mean," I said, "I was hoping I could introduce you to some new Western music. Songs you haven't heard before. Something new."
"Oh, new Western music," a girl nodded. "Black Eyed Peas!"
"Lady Gaga!"
"Backstreet Boys!"

I was speechless at that point. I had been summoned down to the Jack Bar on a Saturday night to perform seven minutes and thirty seconds of music. It was clear to me then: these people didn't want to be exposed to new music, nor did my own musical taste figure anywhere into the equation. They wanted what they wanted, and they wanted Chinese songs they knew by heart, or the five Western pop songs they knew by name.

A girl tugged at my arm hair.
"You Westerners are so hairy!"
A wave of laughter swept through the crowd.
"Yes," I said, "we foreign devils are so hairy."

Usually, the pejorative "foreign devil" makes people uncomfortable, but not so with this crowd. They seemed proud of me for knowing my place.

"Foreign devil!" said the girl admiringly. "You are so open-minded!"
"Yes," I said, "I am so open-minded."

No comments: