The name of the place was "Nuts." My taxi driver, a real down-home salt-of-the-earth type, swerved the cab up onto the sidewalk and announced in his swampy river city drawl that we had arrived. We were parked in front of a joint called The Hurricane, the kind of glitzy dive where salarymen go to projectile vomit all over each other. The door swung open and a middle-aged man in a shiny suitcoat came tumbling out onto the street. He vomited emphatically. Then he brushed himself off and tumbled back into The Hurricane. Briefly, as the door swung shut behind him, I could hear someone murdering Celine Dion.
"I don't think this is the place," I said.
I searched my crummy cellphone dictionary for the word "nut" and showed the cabby a string of symbols that probably amounted to "testicle." He hawked a loogey and shook his head disgustedly. Then he rolled down the window to consult the roadside riffraff. They hobbled over to stare at me. And the riffraff, too, insisted that I had arrived at Nuts. I shrugged and paid the cabby, who charged me an additional riffraff consultation fee. Then he backhandedly complimented my Chinese while the roadside riffraff smacked their bamboo sticks against the pavement laughing at me. Welcome to China! the cabbby called out the window as he sped off into oncoming traffic.
I have learned over the years to do the exact opposite of what my sense of direction tells me to do, so the moment my sneakers hit the loogey-slick pavement, I turned away from the light and walked toward the darkness. I passed a China Construction Bank, an octopus tentacle vendor, a boarded-up porn shop, and then I came upon an oasis of black-shirted Chinese hipsters, smoking and drinking in the lamplight of an unmarked door. The door flew open and a James Brown B-side came bubbling out. This was no longer China. This, at last, was Nuts.
After I'd passed through customs and checked my backpack at the bar, I wandered right into the midst of a middle school sockhop: boys lined up along one wall, girls along the other. Straightening my collar, I coughed and looked around. Then I situated myself next to the foosball table and shuffled around until a pack of Chinese hipsters relegated me to the narrow slot between an overfull trashcan and a Samsung AC Unit.
Okay, I told myself, be cool. You are American. You are from Omaha. But a year had passed since my last indie rock show - St. Vincent at The Slowdown - and my pre-show shuffle was all out of whack. I found myself at a total loss for what to do during those tense moments before the stage lights came up. I gazed down at my Pumas and shuffled. I gazed up at the vacant stage and shuffled. I made eye contact with a spooky-looking foreigner. I gazed back down at my Pumas. Then I shuffled off to grab a beer.
"Shenme pijiu? Heineken, Hoegaarden, Duwel, Guinness - "
The bartendress made no mention of Tsingtao, or its more lethal counterpart, Snow. Clearly, I was not in Nanchong anymore. I ordered a Carlsberg.
"Oh, and do you sell cigarettes?"
"Zhong Nan Hai," she shrugged.
"Zhong Nan Hai."
She took a carton down from the shelf and held it up to my face.
"Zhooooong. Naaaaan," she said, underlining the characters as she read them. "Hai."
Aha! It clicked. Zhong Nan Hai: a brand of Chinese cigarettes, and incidentally, the name of the first track on the Carsick Cars' self-titled album. Of course! Why hadn't I noticed that before? I'd listened to Zhong Nan Hai hundreds of times and I'd smoked my share of Zhong Nan Hais in the meanwhile. Perhaps I'd even smoked a Zhong Nan Hai whilst listening to Zhong Nan Hai. And yet I'd never made the connection: Carsick Cars, the smartest rock band China has to offer, had written an ode to Zhong Nan Hais, the cheapest, most carcinogenic cigarette China has to offer.
I drifted back to my putrescent shuffling spot. I chatted with a Frenchman until his friends showed up. He bid me au revoir. Then a Dutchman chatted with me until my friends showed up. I bid him vaarwel. A heartwarming Peace Corps reunion ensued. Hugs all around.
"Nice beard. How long you been here?"
"Not long," I shrugged. "Five minutes."
Vijay and I got ourselves mutually drunk on cheap tequila. The opening act - a riotgrrly punk trio named 24 Hours - took the stage. They launched into a jam called "Walrus" and the Chinese hipsters trickled down to the floor. The set did not last 24 hours, though it did include a twelve-minute rendition of Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang." Then the lights came up. The Chinese hipsters reassumed their positions - boys on one side, girls on the other - while the motley foreigners pooled in the middle.
Another James Brown B-side. I shuffled and looked around. Where was everybody? In China, you'll be hard-pressed to find a square foot of space that isn't occupied by another human being, and yet here it was: Friday night, a rock show, and Nuts was more half-empty than half-full. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings: Carsick Cars, a band that has toured with Sonic Youth, has appeared in NME, has rubbed elbows with David Byrne - arguably the only Chinese rock band in China, performing for the first time in Chongqing, arguably the largest city in the world. And yet a mere 75 people had turned out for the show, many of them the sort of foreigners you wouldn't want to bump into in a dark alley. Or a well-lit one, for that matter.
So much the better, I figured. All the more permanent ear damage for me. I shuffled around, Carlsberg in hand, almost childishly stoked. In a sense, I'd been looking forward to the Carsick Cars show since the very moment I arrived in China. Not long after I'd adjusted to life in a country whose thesis is harmony through uniformity, I began to long for its antithesis. Diversity. Dissonance. Dissent. And though for eight months I went without knowing the name "Carsick Cars," I knew all along that something like Carsick Cars just had to exist in China, just as I knew that Chengdu, a city of twelve million, simply had to have a Mexican restaurant (if only one of them) ((and not a very good one, at that)).
Carsick Cars were something of an epiphany for me. I became an instant admirer. I listened to their eponymous album for months on end. Naturally, the next step was to see them live and in concert. But Carsick Cars had just embarked on a world tour and, last I'd checked, were playing a house party with David Byrne in Marfa, Texas - so I figured lowly Chongqing with its legions of loogey-hawking cab drivers couldn't be very high on their list. Until sometime last week, when a friend of mine handed me a crumpled-up flier and mumbled, "You heard of these guys?"
"Carsick Cars," I read. "24 Hours. Nuts."
I was going. That's all there was to it. I went to work. I smoked pack after pack of Zhong Nan Hais. Meanwhile, my expectations ballooned beyond all reasonable proportion. This was huge. Hendrix at Woodstock. Elvis Costello on Saturday Night Live. Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall. Carsick Cars at Nuts. I Febreezed my beard and hung my Radiohead t-shirt up to dry. I practiced my pre-show shuffle alone in my room. The week Febreezed by and at no point did it enter my mind that the long-awaited Carsick Cars show might not prove to be one of those epic rock 'n roll fuck-you gestures of lore. At no point did I consider that it might just turn out to be a pretty good indie rock show.
When Carsick Cars took the stage, nobody seemed to know who they were. While the band tuned up, the pit remained empty. Boys on one side, girls on the other. A line at the bar.
"Is that them?" I asked Vijay.
"Naw, I think there's a chick in the band," he said, "or at least a dude who looks like a chick."
"These dudes all look like dudes," I said, and checked the flier. "Maybe there's another opener. Maybe they're up nex - "
The lead singer leaned into the microphone: Women shi Carsick Cars. I shrugged. Vijay shrugged. And together we waltzed across the pit until we were right up against the stage.
In China, there is a code of rock 'n roll etiquette which dictates that rock stars must first politely greet their audience, then thank a litany of sponsors and salarymen, then chit-chat with the audience before introducing each and every song by name. In that respect, Carsick Cars were not very Chinese. They opened with feedback. They closed with feedback. One song screeched into the next. There was no stage banter, no smiles. Carsick Cars were at work. In a country that appreciates rock-as-novelty, makeup and leather jackets, girlish dudes with funky hair riffing on Pachelbel's Canon - here was a band of unattractive nerds whose palette was precisely sculpted noise. All and all, it was pretty good.
I am not a hit monger. I didn't clamor for "Creep" when I saw Radiohead at Wuhlheide, nor did I wet myself when Beck unexpectedly played "Loser" at the Columbiahalle in Berlin. I once saw a guy named Dan Wilson play at The Waiting Room in Omaha, and though his voice sounded awfully familiar, it wasn't until some buffoon shouted "Closing Time!" that I recognized him as the lead singer of Semisonic. And to his credit, Dan Wilson played fifteen songs nobody knew or cared about, then slipped quietly out the back door when no one was looking. So I respect musicians who do their own thing, and at shows, I try to stifle the Free Bird impulse. Nevertheless, I grew increasingly anxious as Carsick Cars plowed through one song after another - were they going to play it? You know, the song about ... the thing? With each opening riff, Erin and I glanced at each other and perked our ears. This is it! The song about ... the thing! But it turned out to be another song about some other thing. When Carsick Cars left the stage and waited in the wings for the encore fervor to mount, I found myself within earshot of the lead singer, and I had to fight the urge to put in a humble request: excuse me, sir, but would you please play the song about, you know ... the thing?
After much whistling and hooting, Carsick Cars returned to the stage. They dove into Zhong Nan Hai and I held my pack of cigs in the air and waved it around until one of Chongqing's many creepy-ass foreigners swiped it from me. I had to rassle him to get my cigs back. Then there was a familiar burst of feedback, a cymbal crash, a forlorn bass riff. Erin elbowed me in the gut. This was it - the song about, you know ... the thing. The Chinese hipster kids started jumping around, colliding with each other like so many atoms. I wondered whether they knew the song was about ... the thing, or if it was just music to them. The crowd jostled me around but I stood in one place, watching and listening. And I grew a bit misty-eyed. I thought about all the heavy books I'd read about China. I thought about China's thousands of years of circuitous history and the horrific struggle that had led however improbably to this moment in time. And though Carsick Cars were one band playing one song that was so lyrically ambiguous as to make you wonder whether it was really about ... the thing in the first place, still: this country has come a long way in a very short time. Zhe shi yi ge meiyou xiwang de guang chang they sang: this is a hopeless square. But they were not arrested for saying so. At least fifty Chinese hipster kids moshed to those words. So perhaps this may not be such a hopeless square after all.
But hopeless or not, I grew a bit homesick. Homesick for Omaha, where such balls, such nuts do not go unnoticed. Where dissent is as inescapable as Taco Bell. Carsick Cars, homesick homes. Almost a year into my Chinese adventure, dissent is what I miss most about America. Dissent, dissonance, diversity. Dissent, I suppose, is what makes America the ugliest, most beautiful nation on earth.
The lights came up. Another James Brown B-side. It was a short set - just under 45 minutes - and Carsick Cars didn't linger. They dissolved. Perhaps they hid out at the bar, or maybe they slipped quietly out the back door. A couple more Peace Corps kids came swaggering in. Hugs all around.
"Aw, shit - we missed it! How was the show?"
"Good," I said. "It was pretty good."
And it was. Yes, Carsick Cars were pretty good. No more, no less. They weren't Hendrix at Woodstock, or Costello on SNL, or Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall. China, perhaps, is not ready for that kind of dissent - and maybe it never will be. In the long run, the Chinese may not want anything to do with our Western modes of expression, our beautiful ugliness. It may be the case that China will never spawn a thriving indie rock scene any more than it will adopt English as its official language. Good for China, I suppose. Why should China do anything the Western way? We have our narrative and the Chinese have theirs. The Eastern and Western worlds may grow intertwined over time, or they may veer off in different directions completely. I have no say in the matter. Why should China westernize? Why should Radiohead play Creep? Why should Beck play Loser? I have learned over time not to pin China down to my expectations. I try to stifle the Free Bird impulse.