When in China, I like to get out on the streets of the city. It's the best way to discover interesting places and get a glimpse of daily life. Today, I had no particular destination, but stumbled across something I'd been seeking for some time - musical instrument stores, or more specifically, a guitar store.
Entering, I found a group of young men sitting on low stools in a circle smoking cigarettes, while one of them hunched over an acoustic guitar playing and singing.
They all turned at the curious sight of a Westerner in search of a guitar. The guitarist, absorbed in his music, was accurately picking "Norwegian Wood."
One man spoke good English. I found later that he does international marketing for a plastics company. He introduced himself as Adam, and explained that it was from the Bible, asking if I'd heard of the name before.
Adam translated my request, the salesman handed me a guitar, and I was invited to join their circle as they all shifted over to give me space. I tuned the guitar and began playing a few "test riffs."
They watched curiously, and suddenly the guitarist, Chan, recognized one of the tunes.
"Hotel California" he said in clear English, and launched into the acoustic intro from Hell Freezes Over. Against their better judgment, they encouraged me to sing, delighted at the prospect of someone who really knew English lyrics. I had laryngitis, and our two guitars and a husky voice made for an interesting rendition.
Adam asked about the lyrics.
"It's about life in California for people with too much money and too much time" I said, simplifying the English and hence the interpretation. There was something truly ironic about singing this social commentary in a place that's in the throes of explosive economic growth, where there is no perceived downside to excessive consumption.
"Do you know this one?" Chan asked, as he picked out the introduction to Coldplay's "Clocks." His knowledge of English music was proving to be relatively recent, and it was a song I'd never taken the time to work out. (China measures time over a 5000-year span, so recent is relative.)
They didn't know U2, and I reciprocated by teaching Chan "One."
Then Chan pulled a CD off a nearby shelf.
"Do you know his music?"
"He's considered by many to be the best American songwriter ever."
"Let's play this song" suggested my host, having opened a songbook to one of the artist's songs. We played a few of his songs, and I explained a little about his career from anointed protest singer to electric guitarist outcast by the folk singing purists. They were surprised to hear that he was still making music.
We shifted to other songwriters, and "Sounds of Silence" followed. Dusk had turned to night, and the lyrics somehow fit perfectly with the cold Chinese evening. This chance encounter was developing its own soundtrack and the choice of songs seemed perfect.
Then Chan started to play a new song which capped off the evening of ironic lyrics perfectly. Most of the group knew the song, and it became the grand finale:
"Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you" "Imagine there's no countries, it's easy if you try" "Imagine no possessions, it's easy if you try" "Imagine all the people, sharing all the world"
Here I am, in a country hot with economic growth, a population just discovering materialism, where yuppies were streaking ahead of farmers and the elderly, a country competing for natural resources with every developed nation, and we were singing John Lennon's prayer for a utopian, egalitarian world. China has thrown out Lenin, but Lennon sure didn't replace him.
I bought the guitar and exchanged business cards with the others so we could jam on my next visit. I strapped the guitar to my back and made my way back to my hotel. I'm leaving it in China, so I'll have it to play when I'm there in the future.
How many roads must a man walk down before he gets to play Dylan in China?
It's amazing where life takes you when all you're trying to do is make a better stethoscope.