China's Premier Punk Club, D-22=DOA
For nearly six years, Beijing underground club D-22 showcased punk, rock and the fringe sound of China's fledgling experimental music scene, thanks to an American investment broker turned music promoter. But Michael Pettis said it was time to bid farewell to the cool punk rock club and move on to new musical frontiers.
By Ron Gluckman/Beijing, China
ON STAGE, BIG HAIR BOUNCED WILDLY as bass, guitar and drums pumped out hot rock beats. Up front, heads banged, kids pogoed shirtless and much alcohol was consumed. The music was loud and frantic. It was just like any other night at D-22, Beijing's seminal punk nightclub. Except it was the last.
"We don't give a f—!" shouted Tsogt, lead singer of Mongolian band Mohanik, at the final show last Friday night. It was a fitting mantra for the amazing club that was, from the moment it burst upon the alternate scene in 2006, a supernova of musical energy and post-teenage angst.
D-22 wouldn't have seemed especially cutting edge in San Francisco or Berlin, which isn't surprising since so little in China at the time was. Still, night after beer-soaked night, musicians and fans packed inside to savor a kaleidoscope of sound. It could make you wince, or pain your ears, but in the People's Republic of Pop Conformity, D-22 was anything but more of the same.
Modeled on seminal New York punk hot spot CBGB, the club emerged at the perfect time, says Jonathan Campbell, former Beijing-based writer and musician, and author of "Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll." "It was pre-Olympics, when everything was really going into extra-super-high gear, and there was a general vibe of exciting times," he says, praising owner Michael Pettis and his partners for bringing international attention to Chinese music and musicians.
Everything about the hole-in-the-wall club in Wudaokou, on the northern edge of the city, was a delightful contradiction. A poster tacked to the front door advertised: "Welcome to Hell City." Inside, it was anything goes. Whether China tightened the screws on Internet censorship or jailed dissidents didn't matter here. Every night was raucous, crazy, amp-screeching and experimental sound.
From day one, D-22 was outrageous by design. It was the brainchild of Mr. Pettis, who ran the SIN (Safety in Numbers) club in New York City before launching a career as an investment banker. A widely quoted economist on China monetary matters and occasional contributor to this op-ed page, Mr. Pettis came to Beijing in 2002 to teach finance at Peking University. His passionate involvement in the local music scene—he also invested in music label Maybe Mars—could hardly be described as curriculum-suitable, since neither turned a profit nor were ever expected to.
Instead, returns accumulated in ways that former colleagues at Bear Stearns might struggle to understand. "Some of my friends have Ferraris," Mr. Pettis explains. "Well, this is my Ferrari."
Even so, he had no qualms about shutting the doors—it was time. "When we started D-22, the music scene was totally different in Beijing. It was a big city, but there really wasn't a music scene. The purpose of D-22 was to put the focus on local musicians and give them a place to play and interact."
That was a nightly occurrence at D-22, where sessions included such favorites as Zoomin', a weekly experimental music showcase. The entire pantheon of modern Chinese rock has passed across the stage, from stalwarts like Carsick Cars to proto-punk outfit Residence A. Actually, the big party was on Jan. 10, announced as the closing date. But Mohanik, a group of 23-year-old Mongolians making their first tour of China, inadvertently planned to come after D-22's shutdown. Rather than jilt the lads, another finale was added for Jan. 13. It was that kind of place.
"D-22 was at the epicenter of the alternative music scene in China," notes Matthew Niederhauser, an American photographer who documented the scene in his book "Sound Kapital: Beijing's Music Underground." A large portion of the photographs were shot at the club.
"It was simply an amazing venue, one of the best places for live shows that I've ever been in. I saw hundreds of kids get on stage. Anyone and everyone could play there. That's what is really amazing, to allow all those musicians to get on stage and take that creative leap," he says.
Perhaps the quirkiest act of D-22 was closing at its peak of popularity. That will only add to its legend. Initial reports blamed notorious rents, which double overnight in Beijing's hyper-heated property market, but Mr. Pettis maintains it was the plan all along. He wanted to highlight local talent at D-22. Now, he says, it is on to the next step, focusing on recording and promoting the Maybe Mars stable and other Chinese acts at home and overseas.
Local music fans await D-22's successor, a new club that "will focus more on experimental bands, on the avant-garde," as Mr. Pettis puts it. It should open within a few months, he confirms, with space for band rehearsal and recording. And it will be closer to the center of town, joining venues like Yugong Yishan and Mao Livehouse.
One knock on D-22 was its distance, a long cab ride to the outskirts of Beijing. But that made the shows all the more rewarding for the hard core. "The closing is still sad," reflects Mr. Niederhauser. "D-22 was an important launching pad for so many bands, but as they say, it's better to burn out than fade away."
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who has been living in and covering Asia since 199. Before relocating to Asia, he spent a decade and a half as a music writer and rock critic in the USA. This piece was published in the Wall Street Journal in January 2012, which also ran his coverage of Bob Dylan's first show in Beijing.
Words copyright Ron Gluckman; picture courtesy of Mark Leong
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