Cowboy Junkies : Renmin Park

In late 2008, my family and I were given an opportunity to spend three months in China. We were boarded at an elementary/middle school in the small town of Jingjiang, situated on the Yangtze River about two hours from Shanghai. My wife taught English at the school, my three young kids attended a few classes and I spent my days exploring. We also did as much travelling as my wife’s schedule would allow. On one massively intense trip, we journeyed to the birth villages of each of my daughters (two of my three children were adopted from China). But, mostly, we inserted ourselves into the day to day life of Jingjiang.

Jingjiang is a small town in relative terms. Its official population is 650,000, but its actual population is closer to 1,000,000, a mere speck on the Chinese demographic landscape. We were welcomed with open arms by anyone in the town who could put three English words together. Homes were opened to us, we were feted at every possible occasion and in every possible style, we created friendships that are only possible under such intense and foreign conditions and had adventures that have already become part of our family lore. It was a storybook experience, overwhelming to say the least, perhaps even life altering for my daughters.

Most of the music that I heard in Jingjiang was uninspired Taiwanese pop and Euro-pop, blaring from tinny speakers in every shop and out of every taxicab window. The most interesting music was found in the parks, where the traditional music was played. On most Sundays, I would head down to Renmin Park and sit in a tiny pavilion that was home to a music club performing music from the Beijing opera. Every city, town and village in China has a Renmin Park. Translated, it means People’s Park and it is in the park where the community’s social life is conducted.

Depending on the time of day, different musicians would be gathered with their erhus, pipas, shangxians and various percussion instruments. There was never any shortage of singers. Each would wait their turn and then stand up and belt out a song written long ago about love lost, stolen or betrayed. Most of the players were great, most of the singers were not so great, but they all approached the music with passion. I was always welcomed with much fanfare. No one in the “club” spoke any English and all I could master in mandarin was “happy new year”, so no words were exchanged, but none of that mattered. I recorded dozens of performances.

About half way through our stay I caught a lucky break. I was introduced to young man by the name of Eric Chen. He spoke excellent English (he learned it by watching American movies) and he was a music freak. He was also desperate to talk to someone about music, because, as he told me on our first meeting, he was “not only the only person in Jingjiang who had ever heard the music of Radiohead, but the only person who had ever even heard the name Radiohead.” We quickly became friends and we spent a lot of time together. One day there was a knock on the door and it was Chen carrying an almost portable stereo system and dozens of CDs. My introduction to the Chinese rock scene began in earnest. Chen introduced me to the ground-breaking, emotionally gut wrenching music of He Yong; the dour, introspective sounds of the brilliant Dou Wei; the prog-rock tinged musings of The Tang Dynasty; the melodic Cure-meets-Steve Earle pop of Xu Wei and the inspired innovative sounds of Zuoxiao Zuzhou (ZXZZ). He introduced me to dozens more artists who had sprung up on the Chinese rock scene since the ‘new openness’ of the mid -1980’s. He showed me videos of legendary concerts in which some of these artists had performed and cemented their reputations. It was a great awakening for me. Two of the artists that I really became attached to were Xu Wei (but only his first album, as all of us hipsters know full well) and ZXZZ. There was something about Xu Wei’s guttural voice and simple, haunting melodies that really attracted me and the breadth and unusualness of ZXZZ’s work still fascinates me today (sort of a Leonard Cohen meets Nick Cave by way of Tom Waits). We decided to cover a song by each of these artists on Renmin Park (ZXZZ’s “I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side” and Xu Wei’s “My Fall”). Chen translated the lyrics and then I turned those translations into song lyrics. We also asked ZXZZ to contribute an original lyric and vocal performance to “A Walk In The Park,” a track we had recorded.
When we first arrived in China, one of the things that struck me immediately, aside from the poor air quality, were the sounds. Not only was it loud and unrelenting, but there were so many textures to the sounds that were completely foreign to my Western ears. So I wrote back home and asked brother Pete (Timmins) to pick me up a high-end portable digital recorder and carried it along with my camera wherever I went. I’d spend hours in the park walking around and recording music and conversations, exercise classes and badminton games; in the streets I’d record the intense sound of the traffic; at the school I’d wander the halls and sit in on some classes and record the students chanting their lessons or capture them at their morning calisthenics. Even the calls of various hawkers, selling everything from vegetables to propane drifting by our apartment window – I recorded it all.

I knew that I wanted to incorporate these recordings into the album we were creating, but I really wasn’t sure how to go about it. Eventually I bundled them up and sent them to our friend Joby Baker in Victoria, BC, who along with Alan (Anton) proceeded to build musical structures with some of the field recordings as the foundation, after which Pete and I began to work on them in our studio, taking out elements that didn’t work for us and adding our own elements. And then I sat with them and wrote melodies and lyrics. Finally Margo (Timmins) came in and transformed them into Cowboy Junkies songs.

Renmin Park is a reflection of my family’s adventure in China. It’s a fictional love story about two people whose two worlds will forever keep them apart. It’s a thank-you letter to an obscure city and the people who opened up their lives to five very strange strangers. It’s a document about a bewilderingly complex culture that is, once again, experiencing a massive upheaval. It’s another chapter in a band’s ongoing twenty-five year journey.

Michael Timmins (March 2010)


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    Renmin Park

    DIV025LP
    180g Single LP
    15th November 2010

    1. Intro
    2. Renmin Park
    3. Sir Francis Bacon At The Net
    4. Stranger Here
    5. A Few Bags Of Grain
    6. I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side
    7. (You`ve Got to Get) A Good Heart
    8. Cicadas
    9. Interlude
    10. My Fall
    11. Little Dark Heart
    12. A Walk In The Park
    13. Renmin Park (revisited)
    14. Coda