The Not-So-Long March
“He [Campbell]’s a good guy. He’s smart and knows how to drive a car. He is able to bear hardship.”—Kang Mao, vocalist for garage-punk band, Subs
Jonathan Campbell earned a B.A. at Mount Allison, an arts M.A. at some school in the United States and then, having nothing better to do with his impressive but impractical academic qualifications, moved to Beijing, intending to learn Chinese. Because he is also a musician, he got involved in the music scene, playing drums with a few bands and then organizing gigs, concerts and festivals involving others. He became more and more interested in Chinese rock and its cultural significance in a country that was closed for generations to all outside influences. The result of his investigations, inevitably, is a book, Red Rock: The Long Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll (Earnshaw, $22.95).
Campbell’s presentation at the Toronto Reference Library yesterday was a bit scattered. He apparently had meant to organize his remarks around the handful of images and video clips clumped conveniently on his laptop. These audio-visual fragments, admittedly, were intriguing, even as the commentary wandered down hutong-like alleys. One clip showed a farmer’s field fenced off for a festival at which sheep outnumbered fans: an early failure. Another showed ten thousand ecstatic Chinese youths attending a more recent event. Music appreciation in the Hidden Kingdom has come a long way in a short time.
How short? Rock got its start in China on May 9, 1986, when singer Cui Jian shocked millions on state television by presenting them with their first rock’n’roll concert. Before that, there was nothing. The Chinese have no memory of Elvis on Ed Sullivan or of the Beatles’ first American tour. They missed the significance of Dylan going electric. They missed the Summer of Love and Woodstock and its violent antithesis at Altamont. They missed Disco entirely so, obviously, seclusion has its benefits. But if they never were exposed to the early, liberating excitement generated by rock music’s Western pioneers, they also missed its gradual absorption into the mainstream. They missed the cynicism engendered by corporate advertisers who used rock anthems as a sales tool. They missed rock music’s decline.
And so, according to Campbell, Chinese musicians are making rock music new again. Rock is revolutionary for its Chinese fans in a way that it hasn’t been, for Western audiences, since the 1960s. It has the capacity to change people’s lives.
Campbell is a low-key, thoughtful and enterprising man. His presentation was a bit unstructured, but so, perhaps, was his personal journey and look where that has taken him—long way from Mount A.