Fish festival in a cement tiled plaza downtown Taidong. I hadn’t seen Biung for two years, but when I got there at 7:30 to hear his gig canned music blared beneath pink neon lights and a sashimi contest was underway, skinny men with fat ties wolfing raw meat, embarrassing their wives and delighting their children. I wandered away and drank a cup of coffee at a shop where sullen counter girls spent 15 minutes trying to make the espresso machine spurt until finally a middle-management humpty-dumpty rolled in wearing a sweat-stained undershirt and navy blue trousers. He handled the nozzle like a pro. I wondered what there is to do in Taidong on a Friday night and the answer was nothing, so I wandered back to the show.
It was a variety show of sad and broken flesh, a love bath of naked meat drawn and quartered by neon lights, old matrons in bumblebee corsets danced the fandango, little girls with microphones strapped to their teeth recited speeches, someone played a song on a kazoo, the em-cee made tired jokes about farting and his own corpulence. The jokes tried to limp away unnoticed but the crowd ran them down and beat them to a bloody pulp with their dull, distracted cachinnation.
I saw a brass-haired singer from Biung’s band sitting on a concrete wall drinking beer, wearing a rugby shirt, about as wide as a steer, steel teeth stained red with betelnut. What’re you doing here, I asked him. Nothing, he said, just whacking the bongos with Biung. He gave me a bean, pinch of fiber ‘tween my cheek and gum, and I spat the juice in the soil of a potted palm. Biung called on the phone, “My friend, my friend,” he said, “yes yes yes”.
I played blues harp on Biung’s second album, but I hadn’t seen him in two years. He showed up in Taipei a skinny kid trying to get attention with a new CD, playing the pubs and festivals. He and I played consecutively at the Ho-Hi-Yan festival in 2000, and he did the longest sound check I’ve ever seen, checking and rechecking the levels of four backup vocalists and his guitar, all decked out in bright abo threads. (Bunong “eight-step” harmony is unique in the music of Taiwan’s tribes.) Biung had a jittery enthusiasm when he talked to people that made some shy away — I once saw him jump up and hug guitarist Dong Yun-chang, who pushed him away and ran — it may have been the first time Dong had ever been hugged — but on stage that came across as passion, openness, reaching out to bring the audience into his songs. His first album did well, his shows grew more popular, and by the time his second album came out he had a following, though his band still always called around to borrow guitars every time they had a gig. His second album was produced with studio players, some midi computer music, and professionally arranged, but it listed only vaguely into mainstream pop. That album won a golden melody award and sealed his career, but I hadn’t seen him in the two years since I moved from Taipei to Taidong.
I sat waiting at the back edge of the crowd on a plastic stool, lurid purple light show spiraling the stage. A washed up Liberace in a checkered beret and fuzzy pink stole with a belly like a cord of firewood falling crooned Spanish madrigals and pranced about the stage. He was a relic from an age of sumptuous cabaret saturnalia, and put on one hell of a show — which I would have appreciated even more if I was 63 and gay in Rio de Janeiro.
Worn raw from the strident rictus of the stage I had given up hope of seeing my old friend when the MC announced the “song king” was ready to play. Biung walked out with his guitar and the crowd let out a squeal of collective orgasm. He walked slow, hunched over a little, like his spine was tired, but he still managed a bit of strut, wearing a knit cap and the plain t-shirt of fashion disregard that only stars and bums can afford. You’re too far away, he cooed, his hips shivering like a hair-trigger assignation, fluttering like the iridescent wings of some insect-god of love. They ran to press themselves against the stage.
I once asked the wood sculptor E-ki if it was hard to come home again after he’d worked in Taipei for years. What’s hard about it, he said looking out across the sea, I always know this is home, that can never change, I know I was born here and I know I’ll die here, who cares where you wander in between.
Biung is from Hong-ye, half an hour north of Taidong City along the valley road, and his albums are everywhere in villages along the coast and up the central rift valley. Aboriginal dance groups from all tribes practice and perform to his songs. He’s got a TV show, all the kids can play his songs on the guitar and when they talk about him they shake their heads and grin and say the words idol, star.
He hunch-strutted to the center of the stage and the girls all hollered hello, and he plugged in his guitar. Here’s a new song from my new album, he said, what’s the matter you all didn’t bring your hands, put ‘em together for me so I feel like I’ve come home will you? They didn’t clap but screamed, and a scratchy beat started up from some canned music he’d brought, a music bed without the vocals, a flock of very hip slashing guitars cut in, and Biung strummed his acoustic over them — I remembered his sidekick guitarist as shy and bashful kid, but now he had a mop of pink hair and grinned and strummed the cultivated aloofness of a guitar hero — the sound system was terrible, Biung’s voice too low in the mix but it still came through, and the rugby shirted walrus whaled away, the bongos thwacking like the sound of wooden dildoes slapping the hull of a ship — Biung shook his ass like an epileptic love letter electro-pulsed over telegraph wires, and raised his hands above his head to lead the crowd in clapping. He played a couple of songs from his second album, and invited members of the audience up on stage to sing, they knew all the words, and the crowd stood up and danced. I got a new TV show and a new album all coming out, he said, come on babies, give it up a little for a neighbor, you all know it’s not easy for a local boy to make good up in Taipei town, give it up for me, where are your hands!
Biung is signed with a big label now, and the songs he played from his new album sounded like hip hop with acoustic guitar an afterthought, a long way from the earnest innocence of his first CD with its heavy tribal chants. The new songs were pop music, not Biung’s music, not music derived from a place or tribe, as I heard him describe his first album on a radio interview. Not music of culture, but music of marketing.
But he twitched that ass, and he stood tall even though he stooped a bit, and he sang to the people, and the sound got better as the show went on, the voice emerging from the mud of the mix, surer and clearer, and when the audience shouted for an old song, one from his first album, he sort of looked lost for a moment and scratched his head, saying, I don’t know, I haven’t played that song for a long, long time, don’t know if I can remember, you may have to help — but he played it, with no karaoke bed, and the crowd helped, singing with him, buoying, and then at the front of the stage they started the traditional dance, hands linked, dancing in a line that spirals into a circle, and they danced right up onto the stage and circled around, slowly stepping to the rhythm of the song, wreathing Biung in bodies until he was small, lost among the revolving ring of fans, barely visible with his guitar, cut off from his pink-grinned guitarist, only the thwapping drummer ensconced there with him — this is what the people love and what they came for and what they got, I don’t know if they watch his TV show or if they’ll like the music of his new album, but I don’t think it matters, I don’t think they care, they will never accuse him of selling out because he never will, he can’t, his voice cuts through all the bullshit, whatever city style is stuck to him will ultimately fall away, they know that he belongs to them and he always will, he is of this place and would be nothing without it, nothing without them, he is always coming home.