I SPENT ONE of my first nights in Nanjing with a Chinese girl with blonde-streaked cropped hair, who sported fishnet stockings, a short skirt, and a thorny red rose tattoo that snaked up her leg. She swore like a truck driver and went by the moniker Ruan Ruan; she wouldn’t tell me her real name. All throughout the summer of 2010, girls in the bar would stare at her and whisper her name; she was a citywide celebrity as the front woman of a Chinese punk band called Overdose. Their latest album, Die With Me, had taken its name from the title track, in which she wails about a girl getting an abortion.
Jonathan Campell’s Red Rock tries to unravel the mystery of seemingly impossible scenes like this one taking place in a country where, just a few decades ago, the vaguest hints of Western sympathies could make you politically suspect, even land you on the wrong side of a virulent political campaign. As Campbell aptly puts it, while every aspect of Chinese life has seen rapid development, rock music in particular has charged ahead to the point where if one looks too far back at its history, one ends up “staring at an empty patch of land.”
Still, Chinese rock music, or yaogun, remains under close government surveillance; touring Western acts are no exception. The Bjork Incident, as Campbell glibly names it, was just one small event in the history of the country’s relationship with rock. The book criticizes the various talking heads that have only skimmed the surface of what Chinese rock means, which Campbell, as an outsider on the inside (he spent a long stretch in Beijing, booking acts), feels compelled to illuminate.
His journalism is not that of “the enemy,” a distinction that becomes the crux of another kind of love letter to rock music, Almost Famous. It’s hard to resist the empowering narrative arc of the last 20 years of Chinese rock, and Campbell finds few faults in the music, only in “The Man,” as he refers to the Chinese government and Communist party. Campbell settles somewhere between expert and groupie (he describes yaogunners as being “drop kicked […] across time and space.”) His personal website hosts his own timelines from the 20th century; cutout photos of Chinese rockers, alongside parallel Western timelines that read, “Meanwhile…” have a zine-like, DIY quality.
Campbell views his subjects from a distance; there are no character studies or exploration of the personal question of why yaogunners did what they did. He catalogues nearly every major musician of each era like a true enthusiast, or a fan who can’t decide on which posters to hang up. While the accounts in the book about the birth of American rock build steadily toward the cataclysmic 60s, in China, it goes from zero to 60 — or it may just be indicative of the country’s rapid development in most sectors. Though the two-decade-long time frame seems like the right amount for this book, really, there is probably material for three volumes. Characters and songs whiz by with barely enough time to realize them fully. Even the monumental Cui Jian, a hero to many of participants in what Chinese tend to call the “June 4th Movement” (in honor of the date of the massacre that ended that 1989 struggle) seems elusive and sketchy, weaving in and out of the narrative much like the name Kurt Cobain traveled through China in the 90s.
But this kind of fandom seems seldom ...read more