From China Girl to China

…or how my first band inspired me to move halfway around the world

This morning I realised that my very first band had played an unlikely role in my becoming (so far) a permanent expat. I was listening to Bowie’s China Girl and remembering a blistering (if sloppy) version done by the very first band I played in in about 1984 in Birmingham Alabama. I was still in college and realized that Birmingham had a pretty cool music scene at the time with bands playing some really cool music influenced by the artists I loved. I wanted to be part of it so I answered an ad for a drummer in a local zine, even though I hadn’t ever played in a band before.

I drove down to the local hipster area, Southside, to a cool old apartment building to meet a John Lennon doppelgänger born with a rock star’s name – Perry Leopard, and his songwriting partner guitarist David Langston. I remember it being the kind of beautiful spring day that makes you want to be in a rock band, and they put on some vinyl Stones, Bowie and Lou Reed. I was stoked at the prospect of playing with these guys. I borrowed Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask LP from Perry – and, hyperbole alert, I think it changed my life. I went out and bought Berlin soon after from Charlemagne Records.

Them Thievin’ Crows

We had a dumpy but awesome little practice pad on 20th Street near the 1st Ave railroad tracks. I had a crappy kit that I had never learned to play properly. There must have been a dearth of drummers at the time… … Those guys came up with a name – Them Thievin’ Crows – and we scraped together a little set of some wicked originals by Perry and David that I guess might be called alt country art rock – and a bunch of covers by the same bands we listened to on that first meeting. I still have some of the shows we did and jam sessions captured on cassette tapes in storage in Northern California. I need to digitise those before they go up in flames.

We had some high energy shows where I would swear we must have been channeling Velvet Underground. I felt like I really was waiting on my man. And I can honestly say that I felt like I loved that music so much at the time and felt jilted by fate at not having been part of either that NYC scene or maybe the Doors L.A. scene that I think I started acting out like I was part of those scenes. Mainly just in terms of drinking my face off. But it was a wild and fun time for an Alabama kid.

Anyway – one of my favorite songs that we covered was China Girl. That was my first time to hear someone freak out so hard with guitar pedals when David played a smoking hot extended solo with tons of ‘verb and echo and I-don’t-know-what-else. It sound nothing like China Girl on Let’s Dance! (I didn’t know that day about the Iggy Pop version, which was what were aiming for I later figured out.) So after hearing the live Bowie version this morning (incl. great story about the song told by Bowie) I remembered that Perry had had a blog about Them Thievin’ Crows from way back so I looked to see if our China Girl was on it. Alas it wasn’t but there are links to a bunch of other TTC recordings. Check it out here with a click of the link:

Blog post about 1980's Birmingham, Alabama rock band Them Thievin' Crows, a band that may inspired my expat life
Blog post about Birmingham, Alabama rock band Them Thievin’ Crows

From China Girl to China – and a few stops along the way

What does this have to do with Rootabaga? Two things came to mind: First, I just never dreamed while in that scrappy little band in Birmingham, Alabama in 1984 or 85 that I’d go from playing drums to a Bowie song called China Girl, to 20 years later playing drums in Korea, in a band that would go on to get a record deal in Canada (episodes on that coming soon) – and 30 years later living and working in China. Is there a China Girl in my life? No, but there was. She just wasn’t Chinese. She still qualified but that’s another story. So anyway, I still think it’s fun to find those threads that connect my point A to my point C, and D and beyond and the threads that connect me to everyone else. 6 degrees. Astrality.

More importantly, Rootabaga is about lives lived as expats and I know for sure that my then band mate Perry Leopard is one of those people who inspired me and taught me very early in my adult life that the world was indeed my oyster and there was nothing keeping me tied to one place. This was because Perry was always talking about moving to Paris and it just blew me away. Paris?! Why the fuck does a kid from Alabama think Paris needs him for anything other than a few tourist dollars. But it still sounded cool as fuck. And Perry was serious and did move to Paris not long after.

I know it must have made an impact on my decision to move abroad several years later. (Side note: Perry writes in his blog below about our gig at Birmingham’s legendary dive bar The Nick (“Friends of the drummer, Brandon, made a lot of noise and brought him beers“). I saw Jane’s Addiction at the Nick later on the Nothing’s Shocking tour and Perry Farrell told the audience after a very very short set “Do yourselves a favor and get the fuck out of this shit hole” before walking off stage and leaving for good. I like to think Perry Leopard was more of influence on me than Perry Farrell.

And speaking of “astrality”:  Perry started his career in Paris an editor of a French publication I believe – I would go on to become a financial editor in Hong Kong for almost four years. (I have not been in touch with Perry for years but a quick Google search tells me that he is a “writer, editor, musician and wannabe theatre impresario… and performs regularly in Paris with his band, Los Caballeros Simpàticos.”  Wow.. that’s how you do “expat”! 

I never really picked his brain about what motivated him to move to France. Looks like a trip to Paris is in order?

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