Wang Xiao Long looked the part of a rock star. Trendy t-shirt, tight designer jeans, Converse sneakers, a wild afro, a cigarette dangling from this lips. He walked onto the stage with his other band mates -- his drummer and bassist -- and picked up his blue Fender Stratocaster, casually slipping the guitar over his shoulder.
From his first guitar chord that reverberated from the speakers to his last riff, Wang played the part of a rock star. A dizzying light show illuminated his band, the Fire Ballroom. For a brief moment, as a white light silhouetted his afro, he brought to mind the ultimate guitar hero, Jimi Hendrix.
I decided to head over to the Mao Livehouse on Thursday night, considered one of the best live music venues in Beijing, to check out the local music scene. The first band, Oliver, promptly took the stage at 9:30. You've got to hand it to the Chinese during these Olympics, everything is always on time, even if it's a rock show.
There was nary an athlete in sight. The crowd, sparse but enthusiastic, was comprised mostly of locals who were choosing rock and roll over the packed nightclubs in the main party districts. Mao Livehouse, near the ancient Drum and Bell Tower and on the edge of trendy Nanluogu Xiang, an alleyway lined with boutique shops and bars, is a haven for lovers of rock, punk and metal.
If Wang looked the part, so did the Mao Livehouse and the crowd. Beer was kept cheap -- 20 RMB ($3) for a bottle of Tsingtao (unfortunately they didn't have PBR). The walls were marked with graffiti and messages in English and Chinese. One scrawl declared in large white letters "Punk Not Dead." And an asthmatic should probably think twice before stepping into the club. Everyone was chain smoking, the smell of cigarettes clinging onto the walls and everyone's clothes. The hipsters wore fedoras and many of the guys sported long coiffures. Everyone would have fit right in at CBGB, the famous (now shuttered) rock venue in lower Manhattan.
At the heart of the local music are people like Wang and his friend, A-Zhong, the front man for Oliver. They are 20-somethings (A-Zhong is a sophomore in college) who love rock music.
"The Stroke, the Killers, the Eels" Wang said when he started to list the bands he admired. He had certainly adopted their styles, in dress and on the stage. His command of the fretboard was as impressive as any musician throwing his passion into his instrument. He even sang in English even though his command of the language was limited.
"Because it's easier to write and sing songs in English," explained A-Zhong, who was dressed in all black a la the Kinks.
I told A-Zhong and Wang that I was from Seattle. Wang's eyes widened and he muttered something I couldn't hear at first. I leaned closer and he said it again. "Grunge," he said with a smile. He was not only a performer, he was a rock historian as well. Their dream was to go on tour in the U.S., their mecca of rock and roll.
So this question is unavoidable: What would Mao, the Great Helmsman who's visage is ubiquitous in Beijing, think of a rock club being named after him? As A-Zhong sipped on his beer, he didn't care. For him, it was all about the music. Mao was dead, long live rock 'n' roll.
The night ended early -- midnight -- as the bands finished their sets. Thursday was just a teaser for the weekend, when the club was expecting a full crowd. Band members and their friends decided to head to the after party -- a cubbyhole of a restaurant across the street.
The owner brought out three cratefuls of beer, dozens of meat skewers and popular dishes from Xinjiang province as smoke enveloped the room.
Wang and A-Zhong were still on a high after playing to an appreciative crowd and watching their friends' performances. I asked Wang how he felt.
"F-ing amazing, man." Wang said.
Rock on, brother.