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The Troubled Genius of He Yong

Rock icon He Yong exploded to fame in 1994 - before dropping off the face of the earth. We look at what happened and why he still matters.

05·07·2012

The Troubled Genius of He Yong

Rock icon He Yong exploded to fame in 1994 - before dropping off the face of the earth. We look at what happened and why he still matters.

05·07·2012

Every art form has its tragic figures – the junkies, the depressives, the alcoholics, the narcissists – and Chinese rock is no exception. But in that vast and troubled family, there’s one figure who stands above the rest in terms of both talent and tragedy: He Yong.

If you’ve heard of He Yong  (何勇), it’s probably been either through some academic study of Chinese rock music, or from local friends, who remember the days when He Yong held court over Chinese rock, along with contemporaries like Cui Jian and Tang Dynasty. But there’s one big difference: while Cui Jian and Tang Dynasty have managed to maintain their esteem over the years, until they’ve arguably reached the status more of icon than influence, He Yong has fallen from grace. There’s a kind of shameful pall that seems to hang about his name like a cloud of stale smoke, the same way people get uncomfortable and a bit derisive when they seen an older and heavier Axl Rose trying to rock out on “Welcome to the Jungle.”

But it wasn’t always this way. A native Beijinger born in 1969, He Yong was one of China’s first rock musicians, joining his first band May Day (五月天) in 1987. In the late 80s, a nascent rock scene was just starting to form, and He came to know other musicians in the tiny community like Cui Jian and Dou Wei, joining the former in performances at Tiananmen in 1989.

The events of that time would have a profound effect on He, leading him to write some of the most poignant songs on what would be his first – and only – album, “Garbage Dump” (垃圾场), released in 1994. In the same year two other rock heavyweights, Dou Wei and Zhang Chu, also released albums, and the three became known as the “Three Moyan Heroes” (魔岩三杰) after their record company, Moyan Culture  (魔岩文化).

Though to Western ears, the record may sound someone lacking in cohesion, there’s no doubting its power. Most famous of the songs is the dour, apocalyptic “Garbage Yard” (垃圾场), which sounds like the soundtrack of one’s brain coming apart. The song is anchored by an atonal, gratingly repetitive bassline over which shriek cacophonous piano smashing and an electric guitar riff that sounds like it was lifted from the bad guy scenes of some 80s action show. What makes the song compelling rather than irritating or just ridiculous are the vocals of He Yong – echoey, caustic screams that decry a world with no moral compass: “The world we live in / is just a garbage yard / As long as you’re living / you can’t escape the fantasy / Some people try to lose weight, while others starve to death / Starve to death, starve to death” (我们生活的世界 / 就象一个垃圾场 / 只要你活着 / 你就不能停止幻想  / 有人减肥 有人饿死没粮 / 饿死没粮 饿死没粮).

Not all of the songs are this heavy. About as far away from “Garbage Yard” as you can get is a light but soulful island number called “African Dream” (非洲梦) in which, over African drums and a celebratory chorus, He imagines a faraway paradise living with a deaf-mute girl in thatched cottages and suits made of fresh flowers.Then there is the demented brass band waltz “Chatting” (聊天),  in which, over a nursery-rhyme like melody and piping clarinets, He Yong rasps of hackneyed phrases and local traditions until they are made warped and grotesque over the relentlessly cheery instrumentation. Other songs include the ebullient satirical disco jam “Girl, Pretty” (姑娘 漂亮), the loungey 80s soft-rock love song “At a Standstill” (踏步) and the folksy nostalgic ballad “Bell and Drum Tower” (钟鼓楼), an ode to the neighborhood that features such simple and heartbreaking lines as “The people here have so much time / They talk about whose household had an unexpected misfortune / And try to see what kind of cigarettes  you’ve taken out” (这里的人们有着那么多的时间 / 他们正在说着谁家的三长两短 / 他们正在看着你掏出什么牌子的烟).

While the range of styles might seem schizophrenic to modern listeners, each one appears carefully chosen to fit the razor sharp commentary and unblinking emotional appeal of He Yong’s songs. It’s these two elements – his caustic, sometimes pained social satire and naked emotional expression – that make “Garbage Yard” a prodigious and still-relevant artifact. While bands today may be more polished and cohesive than He Yong ever was, few can match the intensity, raw creativity and the moral intelligence of his one and only album.

Though He Yong broke out in 1994 with a landmark concert in Hong Kong with Tang Dynasty, he would never release music again: in 1995, the death of one of his best friends, Zhang Ju (张炬) of Tang Dynasty, sent He into an early tomb of depression and alcoholism, from which he has emerged only occasionally, as he did recently for a set at this year’s Midi Festival.

Despite his long absence, He Yong was a defining presence in Chinese rock, and retains thousands of fans. There are still new discussion topics every few months on his Douban fan page, including questions about why he hasn’t released anything in the last, almost 20, years. But most of the comments are as full of praise as they are sadness, nostalgia as they are disappointment. “I liked He Yong when I was 16,” writes one commenter a year ago. “Now I’m 22, and I don’t dare see another of his shows. Before my eyes, he was the thin He Yong, wearing blue and white sailor striped shirts holding his guitar up on the stage. Now, he can barely jump, and I just feel, it isn’t right. I can only remember the old times.”

Below is a low-budget and rather endearing video for He Yong’s ballad, “Bell and Drum Tower.”

 

For a blog on another (less tragic) Chinese music icon, XTX, walk this way