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June 24, 2009

Book Notes - Zachary Mexico ("China Underground")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

China Underground isn't your average book about modern China. True to its title, the book paints impressive, personal portraits of the country's underground denizens, from punk rockers to gangsters to its gay community, and as a whole gives a unique perspective of 21st century China.

Music if featured throughout the book, which is not surprising, since Mexico is a musician and member of both indie rockers The Octagon and the electronic duo Gates of Heaven.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Collected through intimate encounters over an impressive range of travels, Mexico's menagerie of voices tell the unique story of contemporary China's seismic social shifts from the point of view of the marginalized and disaffected. A musician and writer, Mexico is a remarkably eloquent and perceptive participant-observer. Focusing on and dissecting broader cultural, political and economic issues in episodic chapters, he puts faces and names to the staggering statistics."

In his own words, here is Zachary Mexico' Book Notes music playlist for his book, China Underground:

I did all of the research and interviews for China Underground over a four-month period in the summer of 2006. I brought two iPods with me on the trip - one was a newer model that I used in conjunction with Belkin's iTalk to record all the interviews, and one was a clunky iPod Photo that I bought from a guy on Craigslist. I filled the iPod Photo with a bunch of music.

There was a lot of traveling involved, and many hours spent on buses, trains, and airplanes, so I had a lot of downtime to listen to tunes. 

"Learning to Fly" -- Tom Petty

When I bought the iPod on Craigslist, I didn't erase the music that the previous owner had on there. He was a huge Tom Petty fan. As a teenager, I was super into Petty, but I hadn't really listened to his stuff in years - except when it came on in a bar or a restaurant or whatever. So I took advantage of these Tom Petty records being on this iPod to really revisit his music. 

"Learning to Fly" is a great track. I love Jeff Lynne's production -- that snare drum sound is one of the best I've ever heard. I also like how the chords are the same for the entire song. Also the guitar solo really rips. Great traveling music that really gives you a sense of optimism and the potential for discovery. 

"Gabrielle" -- Ween

For some reason a lot of my friends in China are huge Ween fans. Now they can just download the records like everyone else -- but I used to bring every new Ween album when it came out to my friends at the Bird Bar in Dali, this great little town in Yunnan. Back then the band had just put out this odds-and-ends collection Shinola -- it was the first release on Chocodog Records, their own little label. 

"Gabrielle" is the standout track to me. I remember blasting the song in this weird yacht club in the town of Qingdao, on a hot summer afternoon, drinking a cold beer and looking out at the ocean. We were hanging out with this Chinese businessman named Sunny, who was wearing a Sergio Tacchini-style jumpsuit. I guess that’s what he thought you were supposed to wear to the yacht club. He slipped on his shades when the song came on and bobbed his head up and down to the beat.

"Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar" (and the entire album Yes Boss) -- Graham Smith (Kleenex Girl Wonder)

Graham and I are good friends -- in fact, we play in a band together, this electronic group called Gates of Heaven. (Check it out at gatesof.info

Back in ‘06 I had known Graham for a few years -- his record Ponyoak was a life-changer when I was in high school, in the mid nineties. He moved to New York and we started hanging out a bunch, and he had just finished the demos for what would become Yes, Boss and gave them to me to check out on my trip. I think I listened to the record at least once a day that whole summer. 

The entire album is unreal, both the melodies and the lyrical content -- if I made the rules, Graham would be running the biggest operation in the galaxy. He’s one of the best lyricists alive.

There's a line in "Dil Pe" that I really love, and I remember bellowing it out, walking alone down a Shanghai street: 

"Bullshit is an art...the truth is an allegory/So don't take it to heart, if you get a stab at glory" 

Yes Boss is available for free download at kgw.me, and I highly recommend that everyone listen to this masterpiece.  (I kind of like the demos better than the actual record, but that's just because I stewed on them for so long before hearing the final product.)


SMZB – “Scream for Life”

One of the chapters in China Underground is a profile of the punk rock scene in Wuhan. SMZB are kind of the leaders of the scene, the band that kind of started the whole Wuhan punk thing. Wu Wei, the bandleader, is a really cool guy and super-dedicated to his music – it’s inspirational.

I attended the release party for their record “Scream For Life” in summer 2006. For some reason – maybe they heard a Dropkick Murphys record? – they added a flute player to the band prior to the show. I guess they’re the only Celtic punk band in China.

The title track has a sweet flute line, and awesome lyrics:

“Don't stop! when you start screaming for the life is keeping on; 

Don't stop! when you start screaming for the silent masses! 

Scream for the life, scream for the right ,scream for the truth and faith,
We never stop what we are fighting for,we never stop singing!”

The Minutemen – “History Lesson Part II”

The punk scene in Wuhan kind of reminds me of the San Pedro mythologized in the Minutemen songs. It’s isolated from Beijing, as the Minutemen were isolated from the “cool scene” in Hollywood.

Double Nickels on the Dime has always been a big inspirational record. There’s something about this track that makes my heart swell up, from the very first note. Mike Watt’s narration, and D.Boon’s beautiful guitar riff: youthful hope and energy distilled into two minutes.

Zachary Mexico and China Underground links:

the author's website
The Octagon, the author's band
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Beyond Race review
The China Beat review
Chinayouren review
Columbia Spectator review
KQED review
Philadelphia City Paper review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Time Out Hong Kong review

China Calling profile of the author
ChinaTravel.net interview with the author
Jacket Copy interview with the author
Shanghaiist interview with the author
Urbanatomy interview with the author
zaiShanghai profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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