“No One Can Play Guitar” read the graffiti smeared along a third ring road overpass. It was a reference to Youdai’s program ‘Anyone Can Play Guitar’ which he broadcast over the 97.4 FM airwaves every Wednesday in Beijing and across China back then.
In fact, that was a sign of his popularity, not a knock on him. Some were expressing angst over the idea you could welcome a subversive western-instrument tutorial to the airwaves and not be punished by the police. Still, he kept at it pretty much tirelessly and always made sure to keep it about music and the power of self-expression rather than about politics or thumbing your nose at authority. My article, however, gave him an outlet to discuss the challenges of being the only progressive radio DJ in Beijing.
“Well, once I played on my Midnight Blues show ‘Weird Nightmare’ by Charles Mingus. It was late at night, kind of spooky music. I didn’t think anyone would really be listening. But the next day they called me in.”
Was he in constant fear of losing his job or worse? “Well, they just didn’t understand the music. They asked me to explain it to them. I told them about free jazz, atmospheric soundtracks. It’s just that they have never had much exposure to such things before. They said to me they were afraid that someone listening would be so scared as to have a heart-attack.”
In some ways he was counstantly tip-toeing around, but in some ways he made it out as if the authorities who owned the station were actually pretty nice, and wanted to be open minded, but they just needed him to get them over the hump sometimes. And maybe that was true for all of China… once Youdai gave them a bump they would get it quick enough, Communism or not.
So, despite the occasional hiccup, Youdai’s mellow like-molasses delivery could be heard three times a week across the country. On Monday’s he hosted New Rock Magazine which offered alternative rock like Nirvana and Sonic Youth. Tuesday nights at midnight he had Midnight Blues, where he dabbled in jazz and darker challenging music.
One thing that made him such a pioneer was his reach. These programs were syndicated across the entire nation as well, including in his hometown of Shang Hai. “Something people may like in Beijing might not be welcomed in Guangzhou,” he said.
“Music does speak to people. Now, Hendrix, that is music! It stirs the emotions. But I like all kinds of music, electronic stuff that brings people together to dance. I like jazz, Miles Davis. It’s just that I have to be aware of all my listeners, and some of them are older and haven’t heard such things before.”
Did he feel that rock and roll in Beijing was part of a project to bring China into the western way of seeing the media and free-speech. “It’s definitely revolutionary,” he said. “It can inspire people. Someone can pick up a guitar and express themselves. That is a revolution in China. I think it is very healthy.”
In order to make sure that he wasn’t misquoted, I promised him that I would give a copy of the article to him to proof and correct anything he wanted to before it went to press.
A week before publication, he did in fact call me up. He said, “I think a better way of putting it, instead of using the word revolution, which people are sometimes touchy about, it would be better to use the word evolution.”
I sent his notes over to the editor of the paper, Scott Savitt, and looked forward to seeing it in print. Later, however, before the article I wrote went to press, I did not double-check with Scott. It was to my surprise that Scott decided not to edit it (or just omitted the correction) and the word revolution appeared in print anyway!
I was afraid I might have cost Youdai his job. Surely the Party monitored the local expats, and when they read of a celebrated a media figure with unprecedented freedom and reach saying in the paper that the music he played was a tool of revolution, they would be understandably nervous.
But somehow he survived it, and now he owns and runs several clubs as well as his own record label. Without Youdai would China’s music scene have evolved so fast? Its doubtful, and so we have to be grateful I didn’t lose him his job in the process of giving him some exposure.
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(NOTE: this chapter –part of the soon to be published non-fiction book by Kevin J. Salveson– is unavailable on the web except by password. The printed first edition (Extab Media 2015) features chapters and photos un-available on any digital platform. Check the Extablisment website and store: www.extablisment.com as well as other fine book retailers such as Amazon.com for a release date.
Also, look for the Fa Zi story / Rock and Roll in China Film Script called Bend Your Ear in development right now. Or, if you are a producer who has the chops, you can purchase the rights to co-produce on the Extab website store for a mere $10,000 (plus the terms of a negotiable contract). Act fast, only a few in stock!