A feature story of Cui Jian and his talk at CCC.
|A photo taken during the
interview arranged by CCC
for City Weekend with Cui Jian.
In the Name of the Father
By Jo Lusby, May 23, 2002
What is it like to be credited with introducing rock music to an entire country? China' s biggest rock star, Cui Jian, says a few words (quite literally) to City Weekend
Cui Jian is late. Not very late, and if you' re waiting for China' s biggest pop star, it' s not a big deal. But still, he' s not here yet, we' ve been waiting 30 minutes, and we' re all beginning to get a little nervous that he' s not going to show.
When he finally breezes into the room muttering "hellos¡¯, sporting the white baseball cap that he¡¯s never seen without nowadays (convenient for hiding alarmingly thinning hair), the fuwuyuan stir, glance at each other, and giggle. Cui Jian has entered the building.
When the interview begins, however, it is apparent that the questions bore him, and trying to gain any kind of meaningful response is like pulling teeth, albeit from a very amenable patient. Does he feel shackled to the title of China¡¯s first pop star? I'm tired of talking about the past,¡± he shrugs. I want to concentrate on the future.¡± He stops. So what of the future? I'm making another album, he says, stops again, and waits patiently for the next question. What kind of music will it be? I don't know yet ? it's not finished."
But, face it, does he really need any of this, when China' s public looks set to adore him for eternity regardless of what else he does musically from now on? After all, Cui Jian, China loves you.
¡°Is it possible to write Cui Jian¡¯s name without following it with ¡®the father of Chinese rock?¡¯¡± a Shanghai music journalist once complained. Well, yes ? you can substitute it for China¡¯s Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, or the name of pretty much any other groundbreaking Western musician.
Cui Jian¡¯s biography is probably as well known in China as The Beatles¡¯ rise to fame is in the U.K. He was born in Beijing in 1961 to an ethnically Korean family of musicians ? a father who was a professional trumpeter and a mother who was a Korean-style dancer. His musical debut followed in the footsteps of his father, playing classical trumpet in the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra from 1981-87.
Shortly into his time with the Beijing Philharmonic, he began playing Western pop and rock in restaurants and hotels around the city with his first band, Seven-Ply Board. By 1985, he had reached the attention of a public outside of hotel dining rooms, performing original song lyrics discussing issues of sexuality and individualism to talent shows usually preoccupied with the songs debating affairs of the heart. As Cui¡¯s website breathlessly writes, ¡°To a generation numbed by the deadening propaganda of the Cultural Revolution, the honesty of Cui Jian¡¯s lyrics [was] like a clarion call.¡±
Cui started to gather a cult following on China¡¯s university campuses, and when he released his first real album, Rock and Roll On The New Long March in 1988 in collaboration with Beijing band ADO, his position as China¡¯s rock celebrity of the moment ? and the first of the new era ? was swiftly established.
Although his popularity remained undiminished throughout the 1990s, however, live performances in China dwindled, and his reputation was built largely through subsequent CD releases and his role in the independent movie Beijing Bastards, which Cui co-produced with Zhang Yuan. Movie soundtracks followed, for Jiang Wen¡¯s controversial Devils At The Doorstep (2000) and Roots and Branches (2001), as well as international and domestic concert dates.
Cui cringes at the mention of Roots and Branches, and whatever may come next for the star, it¡¯s unlikely he¡¯ll continue with movie cameos. ¡°I¡¯ve only seen the movie a couple of times,¡± he shudders, visibly embarrassed at the memory of the family saga. ¡°It¡¯s a horrible film, and I was really dissatisfied with my performance in it. Anyway, I don¡¯t have time for acting.¡±
Time for Cui is still spent devoted to music, and it¡¯s still the only thing ultimately that gets him excited. ¡°Live music is the only way there¡¯ll be a real future for Chinese rock music,¡± he says. ¡°At the moment, Chinese music only exists in the media, and in piracy.¡±
In terms of class acts in China today, Cui praises groups like the indi rock band Second Hand Roses (see interview, EG Cover), but generally categorizes the rock scene as being in something of a terminal decline. ¡°Live vocal performances by Chinese singers may well completely die out over the next few years,¡± he shrugs. ¡°Chinese bands are categorized by self-promotion and mutual flattery, not real live concerts like you have in the West.¡±
¡°There are few managers or producers who are willing to invest in live performances,¡± he continues. ¡°They won¡¯t spend enough time preparing for concerts, they constantly try to cut corners on things like the costs of lighting and stage facilities. It¡¯ll only change when live bands come from overseas, and when foreign producers and agents enter the market.¡±
Although he got his start doing cover songs of popular Western songs, Cui reserves a special part of musical hell for karaoke. ¡°It¡¯s replaced proper musical education in China,¡± he rants, becoming animated for the first time in the interview. ¡±To me, karaoke completely destroys musical sense and ability. It forces people to follow a uniform tune, and it¡¯s devoid of rhyme and personal feeling.¡±
"You shouldn't compromise, or give in to any kind of temptation in your music, he warns. So does life for a pop star really begin at 40? Certainly, the suggestion that his heyday was in the mid-1980s silences the singer once more. While his initial audience has grown up, and it¡¯s their children who are beginning to drive China¡¯s popular tastes, he maintains that the new generation will be interested in hearing from 21st century Cui Jian, with new music that mixes electronic elements in with more traditional rock guitar sounds. ¡°People over 30 like my old songs,¡± he says. ¡°But youngsters around 20 tend to listen to my new songs. I won¡¯t just repeat my previous works ? it would be a blasphemy against my music creation.¡± And anyway, the people love you, Cui Jian.
Cui Jian is giving a free talk on popular music in China (and will probably be playing a few songs too) in Beijing, at the CD Cafe on May 30, 7-9pm. For more information, call 6432-9341, or email email@example.com