Nothing better surmised what went down last night at Yunfeng Theatre than Dirty Three’s choice to play “Everything’s Fucked” right before the curtain fell on their show — more than an hour earlier than originally slated.
The band, scheduled to perform at 7:30 with an end time around 9:30, was bumped up to accommodate a double booking with a Chinese acrobat show intended to entertain “distinguished guests” both of the governmental, business and tourist variety, said the Yunfeng Theatre manager.
By the time I arrived at 7:25, the parking lot was full of Audis and buses and people wearing matching baseball caps.
“What is the show tonight?” I asked the security guard, thinking I had somehow bumbled my way to the wrong place. “Acrobatics,” he said. “What about music?” I asked. “Oh,” he said, “it’s almost over.”
I made my way backstage where Dirty’s tour manager, Taiwanese James Chen, told me that he had been told two days earlier that the band might have to play an earlier and shorter set. He never gave me a proper answer as to why he neither alerted the Chinese nor the expatriate media about this change. Later, when I spoke with the band, they told me that they likewise had no knowledge of the time change until just hours before the show was to begin.
At 8pm, the house lights were turned on in the middle of a song. By 8:15, they started closing the curtain. Filled with indignation and injustice, other people joined me onstage to pull back the curtain for the band. The crowd, estimated at 300-plus and mostly young Chinese, went wild. The band played louder.
We held back the curtain. The security guards came out and pulled us off. They started to close the curtain again, so we pulled it back again. I tied one end to a pole. But when they started to close it a third time, we gave up. The security guards were already asking for my name and chasing me around backstage. Mick, Jim and Warren quickly packed up their gear. They were flustered.
James Chen took the stage and told the audience to behave itself and not to cause trouble. The kids weren’t having it. A manager of the theatre told the kids that they were an embarrassment. In any case, why did they care so much about an Australian band when something like acrobatics, that belonged to their culture, was set to perform? They responded to her questions by throwing wadded up homework and plastic tea bottles on the stage.
Backstage, fine-boned boys in make-up were stretching and looking scared by the commotion.
The audience chanted Dirty Three for another 15 minutes, but the band was long gone. When the students finally milled out, they were angry and frustrated but too worked up to be dejected.
Outside I sat and spoke (in Mandarin) with a group of 20-plus students from Jiaotong, Ligong and Fudan University.
Here are some excerpts of that conversation:
– “I feel like we’ve been cheated and bullied.”
– “We’ve never encountered anything like this before, but this is China.”
– “We don’t blame the band but that Taiwanese guy was really out of line telling us to shut up and go home. ”
– “The tickets were so expensive (150-250 RMB) and then they played for less than an hour. I don’t blame the band, but it’s just crazy.”
– “My ticket cost more than an entire month’s food at university.”
– “I don’t know how the tour manager couldn’t have known this was going to happen. He should have given discounts or found another place for the band to play. He’s selfish.”
After speaking with the students, I took a walk to see if any of the band members were still around. I bumped into drummer Jim White and he wanted to speak with the students and tell them he was sorry about the ticket prices — he says he didn’t know how much they really were in terms of value to the students — and see if they could arrange a show elsewhere.
The kids were glad to see him, and Zhang Haisheng, one of Yuyintang’s managers was there and offered up the venue, which Jim and his mates decided was possible.
We took the caravan across town. Before Dirty went on, I sat down with Warren Ellis for 45 minutes to talk about his feelings about the evening. He couldn’t believe it had happened and was naturally concerned about whether the band would be allowed to perform in Beijing on Friday. I asked him what it felt like to know that he had shaken docile students into fighting for their music. “If it doesn’t get to people, then music doesn’t mean anything,” he said.
When they took the stage, Warren squinted into the lights and said, “Shanghai, you’ve given me one of the most exciting moments of my middle-aged life.”
We thought it was pretty fun too.
Photo of the band hastily packing up after the show courtesy of Megan Shank. More pics here.