Frontier Psychiatrist

Posts Tagged ‘China

[The second in a series of travel essays from China, New York, and Israel]

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While it was raining when my plane landed in Beijing, it was in the 70s and sunny most of the next two weeks. I was staying on the 24th floor of an apartment building and could see the surrounding mountains nearly every day. The haze that the city has become known for wasn’t completely absent, but was generally never an issue. But with good weather combined with the National Day and Golden Week that followed, areas of the city grew to even more phenomenally crowded than what is normal.  I had initially contemplated trying to travel outside of Beijing, but after hearing horror stories from travelers about overbooked trains, no hostel availability, and sleeping in a karaoke room for the night — I decided to stay put.

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[The first in a series of travel essays from China, New York, and Israel]

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The Airport Express elevated train flies past the stagnant Tuesday evening traffic and I’m welcomed to the city by the corporate offices of Mercedes, Caterpillar, and Microsoft. Through the haze and rain shine the bright yellow lights of an Ikea. Did I take the wrong plane? Nope. I’m in Beijing, back in China for the first time since I studied for a semester in Shanghai over three years ago.

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The Old Ceremony (Django Haskins second from right)

At the tender age of 18, I saw Django Haskins sing and play guitar with his college band in a beer-soaked frat house basement. We became friends later that year outside the East Asian Studies building where I studied Japanese and he studied Chinese. Since then, Django has moved from New Haven to Hangzhou to Brooklyn to Chapel Hill, performed hundreds of shows nationwide, and recorded eight albums, most recently with The Old Ceremony, whose new record came out last week.

The Old Ceremony takes its name from a Leonard Cohen album; the band’s noir vibe reflects Cohen’s plaintive pop and dark and stormy mood. Tender Age, their fourth album in five years, features an eclectic mix of styles: from indie rock to alt-country, from blues to bossa nova. As Django has done throughout his career as a solo artist and bandleader, these 14 songs deal with love and loss across generations: from the naivete of youth to the blurriness and regret of old age.

The Old Ceremony, Tender Age

While Django sings, plays guitar, and writes the songs, The Old Ceremony is a quintet that functions as an ensemble. On Tender Age, organ, piano, vibraphone, banjo, violin, and cello (plus Beatles-based backing vocals) add warmth and texture to the standard rock instrumentation of bass, drums, and guitar. While Django was named for Gypsy legend Django Reinhardt and has been known to shred on his crimson Gibson SG, his instrument plays a supporting role on the new album. He takes only brief, melodic solos and shares acoustic guitar duty with vibes player Mark Simonsen.

The Old Ceremony, Wasted Chemistry

The vocal style varies from song to song: Django’s voice can sound rich and resonant, or raspy and nasal. He sings both from his chest and in falsetto, and at times chants in a voice dirty with distortion. He channels the talkiness of Tom Waits, the twang of Tom Petty, and the torturedness of Thom Yorke. A Florida native who has lived in North Carolina since 2002, Django drawls his way through “Never Felt Better,” an apocalyptic, old-timey love song that sounds like a lost Avett Brothers track.

Just as George Harrison incorporated Indian classical ragas into his music, Django adds Asian accents to his arrangements. On the title track, the minor-key melody and guitar riff have an ‘Eastern’ feel, as does Gabriel Pelli’s violin break on “All at Once” and his rubato introduction to “Guo Qu.” In the latter, Django sings in Mandarin, as he did on “Bao Qian” back in 2007. The multicultural move reflects his language study at Yale and post-graduation stint as an English teacher at Zhejiang University.

The Old Ceremony, Guo Qu

Lyrically, Tender Age sticks to a classic theme: life is short, baby, seize the day. The title track begins: “If you want to love me/Go ahead and love me/Don’t just stand there looking like a rag doll.” Later, Django sings: “There is nothing worse than wasted chemistry/So why not just give in/And dance with me again?” Longtime fans may recognize such sentiments from a song with the chorus: “Let’s get to love/What’s stopping you?” Elsewhere, irony and wit undercut the earnestness. In “Ruined My Plans,” a guy laments that a girl has spoiled his commitment to solitude. In “Never Felt Better,” a guy doesn’t care if “the sky is falling/the earth’s gonna die.” He’s happy as long as he’s in love.

The Old Ceremony, Never Felt Better

By the end of the album, the tone shifts to melancholy and existential dread. The penultimate song, “World’s Too Much,” is a lament that recalls the melody of “The Rainbow Connection” and employs the 6/8 time signature favored in achy blues ballads. The last song of the record begins: “Is there somebody listening? Do you ever get that feeling that you’re talking to yourself?” The theme echoes an earlier line about “a song I sing when nobody’s around/I forget the words.” Indeed, Django makes good on that promise: on an album where lyrics take center stage, the final chorus dissolves into la-las reminscent of the epic ending of “Hey Jude.” The result is a meditation on the ephemeral nature of both music and human lives, the sonic equivalent of Buddhist monks who write poems on the sand and let the surf wash away their words.

The Old Ceremony, Gone Go The Memories

On Sunday, I stopped for lunch in New Haven. I hadn’t visited the Elm City in three years, but the nostalgic pit stop seemed like serendipity: I was headed back to New York after visiting my former college roommate in Providence and had been listening to Tender Age on repeat in the car.  After lunch at Claire’s Corner Copia, I passed a classroom building and overheard a college a capella group rehearsing “Golden Slumbers,” from the Abbey Road medley that marked the apex of creativity for The Beatles and their last recording as a band. But the lineage goes deeper than the non-novelty of teenagers singing a song that was a hit before their mothers were born. Paul McCartney based “Golden Slumbers” on a 17th century Elizabethan song. And few bands have equaled the Beatles’ influence on generations of pop musicians, including Django Haskins. [A popular Old Ceremony song, “Reservations” is a minor blues that re-imagines “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” which also appears Abbey Road. The song gets a makeover on Tender Age in the form of “Gone Go the Memories.”]

The Old Ceremony, Reservations (from Our One Mistake)

As it turns out, I was standing on the spot where Django Haskins had performed every year with his college band at Spring Fling, only blocks away from the building on Temple Street where he studied Mandarin. (Back then, my favorite song of his had the  chorus: “It’s Eleven O’Clock/and I don’t care.” Years later, a song on Tender Age declares: “It’s 23 o’Clock/In Paris”). All this seemed to speak to the notion of ceremonies: rituals that hew to a tradition, but leave room for surprise and individual interpretation. Django may no longer be at a tender age, but he still makes music in the same spirit of tenderness.

The Old Ceremony is on tour, with shows on October 28 and 29 at Rock Shop in Brooklyn and Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. An excerpt from The First Class Passenger, Django Haskins’ memoir about his great-grandfather who survived the Titanic, appeared this summer in Frontier Psychiatrist.


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Sons of Dionysus


A Transmedia Novel of Myth, Mirth, and the Magical Excess of Youth.

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