In retrospect, I do wonder how I made a rock and roll record in China in such adverse conditions.
I had lived in China off and on for about seven years. Although I wasn’t exactly conversant in the language, I had learned how to navigate the country without a lot of difficulty. I had over 25 years of recording experience, and I just funded a new album through Kickstarter. And I had the added advantage of having my own makeshift mobile studio. What could go wrong?
I was at Shanghai Brisbane Education Training Centre (my employer of seven years that launched international schools around Shanghai), agreeing to work as a teacher and consultant under Edgar Qien, who ran the school, when an older Australian woman hobbled in. I had met her a few years earlier, before I left China, but I heard she had been fired for being drunk on the job, so I was surprised to see her. I will refer her to as Old Lady Uriah because she did resemble Uriah Heep, the sniveling wormy character from David Copperfield, but also because the way she drunkenly prattled on reminded me of some wretched Uriah Heep song — you know, one of those really long, boring, meandering, just-put-a-nail-in-my-head-now songs; the title track from The Magician’s Birthday immediately comes to mind.
“Oh, who do we have here?” She looked at me with the eyes of someone who has not had her first drink of the day but seriously needed it.
I learned that Old Lady Uriah was to be the principal of the school — a last-minute decision. The woman who had begrudgingly worked for the company for years had bailed. The woman who bailed had always questioned Edgar’s ethics because, well, Edgar’s ethics are questionable. He has a very distant relationship with the truth.
Edgar had just returned from Australia. He knew Mrs. Heep from his dealings there. Later, I learned she worked in the government and that he had brought her back with him on his last trip. My conjecture was that he came and rescued her in the nick of time from a job downsize, or even jail — from what she hinted during our first weeks together.
I agreed to work for Edgar, and in return I received a nice raise, a housing allowance, and assurance that I would only have to work three days a week. This was going to be awesome. I would have four days a week to work solely on the album.
Edgar’s new school was on the Fudan University campus (which is much like Stanford in its level of prestige), and Gezhi High School was downtown, which was about a 45-minute commute on the Metro. The logistics of the campuses meant that I could teach at Gezhi on one of my days off.
This truly afforded me to make the album I wanted to make. I had envisioned this record with tons of Chinese students all over it. Gezhi High School had an acclaimed Western orchestra and an expansive traditional Chinese orchestra. Some of the students played in the youth philharmonic at the extremely modern Chinese Opera House and had traveled abroad to play classical music festivals.
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When Mrs. Uriah was not comatose or drunk, we would talk about our projects. She was writing some sort of fantasy novel that never seemed to move much past the initial stages. However, when she heard about my project, she became completely fixated on it.
Then a problem developed. Not only did she become fixated on my project, she became fixated on me. She invited me to anything and everything, most of which involved drinking. Since I am a non-drinker (eight years sober), I was always able to decline most events. Then it got weirder. While we were out with students, she asked me more than once if I thought people thought the two of us were married. Not really thinking about it, I would reply: “Most people probably think you’re my mom.”
She would shrug this off like she didn’t hear me or like I was joking. I wasn’t. She was old and looked old and walked slower than anyone I have ever seen. I tried to be patient and nice. How would you treat Uriah Heep?
At times, when I was teaching, she would wander into the classroom like she was disoriented. This was in the afternoon. When this happened, I assumed she had hit the drink or was a touch senile. Once, when I was teaching The Great Gatsby, she marched into the room and started grabbing the books from the students and tossing them on the ground. Then she declared: “We have had enough of this! Teach something else!” And with that, she stumbled out of the room and back to her office.
Somehow, my project was now her calling card. She was like a dog that brings its master a dead squirrel for approval. This was unnerving in that she was drunk most of the time; I did not want to be associated with some drunken crazy old lady.
Several start up international schools were housed on the Fudan Campus because, though the schools were mostly fly-by-night type propositions, they were given credence because they were on a well respected campus. Mrs. Uriah told me she had talked to a headmaster at another school on campus and he had some interested students. This happened a few times. Each time when I was introduced to the student in question, I was given a recital, a do-re-mi-type variety recital, that was not virtuous in the least and usually bordered on pathetic. Finding students to play on the record proved to be nothing short of impossible.
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The real reason that I had decided to make the record in China was because of a young man who goes by the name of Haffijy. He was my recording ace in the hole, as it were. I had met Haffijy a few years earlier when I was running the boarding school at Gezhi. His teacher told me that he was a talented violinist. I heard him play one day. I would categorize him as a virtuoso.
From then on, I brought my cheap acoustic Chinese guitar to school and we started playing in the school garden. We played ballads of mine that I had written back when I was performing. I wrote a new song, and we recorded it on my Mac. I knew it was good, but when I sent it out to people, people were amazed. This was the seed that made me decide I needed to get Haffijy noticed. He must be heard. He has a talent that only comes along once in awhile. And after hearing the students that Old Lady Uriah brought forth, I appreciated Haffijy even more.
The real reason that I had decided to make the record in China was because of a young man who goes by the name of Haffijy.
“Chinese Space Station Worker (Ramona’s Song)” was the first song that I readied for Haffijy to record. He came into my apartment with his violin and a backpack. From the backpack he pulled out sheet music he had written, four parts, and I hit record. Everything was a first take; he played through each part once and it was perfect. We didn’t have to do anything again. However, China is noisy — scooters, dogs, chickens, and mahjong players can be heard in the background. I told myself that added to the authenticity of the recording.
After this first song was recorded, I busily wrote more. I buried myself in songwriting because school had become such an explosive, strange place. Old Lady Uriah was combative to everyone, but at the same time very protective of me, which was just plain bizarre. She was like the Creature from the Black Lagoon protecting the one she loved.
Her behavior became more erratic as time went on. She accused Edgar, who had treated her well, and his sister of embezzling money — not to their face, but to me, as if she and I were conspirators. This made me uneasy. She also implied that one of Edgar’s young assistants was his boytoy. Not that it matters, but Edgar is straight. And she insisted that Fairry, the manager of the Shanghai Brisbane Education Training Centre, had been locked up in a mental institution at one point. She threatened to have people thrown in jail regularly — for what, I was never able to ascertain. Most of this, I attribute to her relationship with alcohol.
China is noisy — scooters, dogs, chickens, and mahjong players can be heard in the background. I told myself that added to the authenticity of the recording.
She was a bigot, too. She hated Chinese people. Why she was in China, I do not know. We would be eating at a restaurant and she would loudly proclaim what thieves and crooks and liars the Chinese are. This is one of the most embarrassing predicaments I have ever been in. Thus, I tried to avoid being in public with her.
As a person who had spent several years in China, I was insulted by how callous and parochially imperialistic she was. In my time in China, I had always been treated graciously, and even when people could not communicate with language, they would try to communicate with me in other ways.
Perhaps, China is a mirror and you get what you give, but then maybe that is the case anywhere. As time passed, it got harder and harder to be around her.
Naturally, after she repeatedly slammed the company, I wrestled with what I should do. Should I let Fairry know what had been said? Really, at this point, Old Lady Uriah had done nothing to me. I had vowed to say neutral.
Then it happened. A guest lecturer came to speak to the students. The somewhat brilliant guest lecturer was a young man, just out of college. He attended Fudan University when he was of high school age. He was a bit of an adventurer. He had rode to Pakistan on a motorbike — on a shitty Chinese motorbike that could not have been more than a 250cc.
He showed slides. The students loved him. I loved him. Old Lady Uriah hated him.
“You know the students like him more than you,” she told me in the teacher’s office as he was lecturing in the classroom in Chinese. The students loved me because I always put their interests before anyone’s. It was common knowledge that I was their favorite teacher.
“Of course they like him more than me,” I responded. “I am like a cool uncle. He is like a cool older brother that they never had. Naturally they would like him more.”
I really liked him. I will refer to him as Kerouac because he and I would talk about the Beats. Before he entered into our orbit, I had tried to explain the Beat Generation to the students, but I think it was too complex of an idea. You had to be there — or at least be American. Kerouac loved the Beats. He rode around China on a motorbike because of them.
Kerouac had read some things about me and was interested by my past as a performer. “You are a person,” he started — his English good so I had no trouble following him — “who must always do something new.”
Kerouac came to lecture a few more times, and then he proposed a camping trip with the students, which excited them to no end. None of them had ever done anything like this. Arrangements were made, which Old Lady Uriah tried to impede. She deemed it too dangerous; the danger was that the students would get even closer to Kerouac and further from her. But it was too late. A bus was to take us several hours away, and then on a hiking trip the next day.
The students were having the times of their lives. Kerouac had brought a couple of guides from his liberal-thinking social circle to help. The students, even the ones who never had any sort of physical activity, embraced the occasion. It made me happy to see them so happy. I’m not a parent, but I play one in the classroom I guess.
None of this sat well with Old Lady Uriah. She was like the classic villain from a cartoon. She started squawking like a goose about how the students were being put in danger and that she was going to have Kerouac and the guides arrested. Meanwhile, she and the bus driver drank bottles and bottles of rocket fuel rice wine. Again, I was not sure what my role was. Should I complain to Edgar? What if there had been an emergency? She was drunk and so was the bus driver.
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It was shortly after the camping trip that everything started to unravel in a strange and beautiful way. No, nothing happened to her. And, yes, I did get kicked out of China, but it happened in the best, most opportune way possible. It was stuff of literature.
Old Lady Uriah finally realized there was nothing between us and decided I needed to go, especially since I had become such a great pal with Kerouac. Edgar realized that he was paying me a lot of money to do not much of anything, with which I totally agreed. I had previous commitments: I was making this record. I had told him this several times.
And, despite all the weirdness, there had been these really beautiful moments while I was making the record in Shanghai.
I buried myself in songwriting because school had become such an explosive, strange place.
For example, one night when I was recording while the students had a study session, Tracy (English name) came in and sat while I recorded my guitar. Every so often, I would let her hear the playback in the headphones. I told her it might not be that exciting because when I was recording she would only hear the guitar. She didn’t mind. She just sat and listened and seemed to love being in the room.
“So cool,” she would say after listening, which was a phrase I said a lot, so naturally most of the students began to say it as well.
Another time, I played “Chinese Space Station Worker (Ramona’s Song)” for Jerry (English name), who was one of my favorite students.
“I feel like I float,” he told me after he listened to it, and he pantomimed floating.
But, I digress. At this point, Edgar realized I was costing him quite a sum of money. I had really never been more than a security blanket for him at this school. By this I mean Edgar felt he needed to surround himself with people he knew to make his ventures successful. Although the school would be fine without me, Edgar thought that I was needed for the school to survive. There were a few points during the term when I had told him as much. He needed someone who really had the time to devote to the program. That someone was not me.
Not to mention, I was on a visitor visa and every time I was sent to Hong Kong to get a work visa — because someone at the company had failed to provide all of the proper documents — it cost somewhere around $1,000 for plane tickets and hotels and visa stamps.
“You’re costing me a lot of money,” he told me once when we were trying to work out the work visa.
I was to have a physical in order to get the visa. One had been scheduled, but then at the last minute the company canceled. Edgar was done spending money. I was on my own.
After going to the visa office in Shanghai to get an extension, I had 24 hours to vacate China. This was like out of some adventure flick. I had to book an air ticket, pick up the silver suit I had tailored, and pack my apartment.
So, I packed my apartment; Kerouac came and got everything and took it to his place. I knew I was going to return the next term and teach exclusively for Mr. Mao, who I knew from when I was running an international boarding school. But before I did that, I picked up my silver suit from my tailor. I then booked a ticket to New York City. While I was in China, my friends in NYC were always on the ready in case I had to leave within 24 hours.
And, yes, I did have to leave within 24 hours. But then, if everything had gone smoothly, there would really be no story, would there?
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 13, July 1, 2014.