If the Magic Flute bar at 11 o’clock in the evening was the start of the madness, then the barbecue stall 200 metres away from it could be regarded as the end of the day for part-time workers, full of a different kind of excitement and joy.
Xie Xuanming was holding a glass in his hand. The warm milk in it was incompatible with the wild barbecue stall scene where the smoke soared into the sky and metal skewers danced around. In front of him, the members of the Qingchu band were not as comfortable as they had been earlier. After getting off the stage, they returned to the abject poverty of the people huddling in a rental house and rehearsing on broken musical instruments. They haggled with the stall owner for a barbecue at a bargain price for half a day, grinding down the price by a third before they were satisfied.
The only bottle of beer left on the table was half full. Keyboardist Su Jing reached out surreptitiously to take it, but was intercepted on the spot by Ji Sheng who snatched it up first.
“Drink, Su Jing, what? You laughed at Xiao Xie just now, you’ve just come of age yourself!” Ji Sheng criticised from the height of his age as he intended to refill his own glass; but before he could succeed the bottle was taken away by another youth beside him.
Xie Xuan remembered that he played bass on the stage just now, and his name seemed to be…
“Sheng Kongzhi, don’t stop me, I can still drink!” Ji Sheng said, his face flushed. He didn’t drink often, a typical example of poor drinking and greed.
Sheng Kongzhi obviously was familiar with that peculiarity of his and took the bottle away without hesitation, making Su Jing laugh and gloat: “Drinking hurts your throat, you are now the lead singer. If your throat is broken, you can’t perform in the next performance.”
“Oh.” When the band was concerned, Ji Sheng was serious. He blinked in confusion and suddenly asked, “When will the next performance be, and is there a venue?”
“Next week.” At the other end of the table, guitarist Li Tan put down his glass. He looked the oldest, probably a decade older than the other teenagers at Qingchu and naturally took on the role of big brother, playing in the band and also acting as an agent, helping Qingchu with venue contacts and negotiating payment for gigs.
“Don’t worry, after tonight, all the bars will be rushing to get us. Just now, there were three people who handed out business cards backstage… We will rehearse and wait for someone to come and invite us.”
Li Tan’s words excited the rest of the youngsters.
Most bands rarely found work in bars, and since Qingchu was not well known before, no one was willing to hire them. So in order to make ends meet, the members had to separate and go to various places for odd jobs. Ji Sheng’s performed at the black bar before because the band there lacked a drummer, so he had temporary work there.
Su Jing slapped the table, raised his glass and said happily: “Yes! Finally on the right track. Before, when the lead singer left, I thought we were going to die. Who knew that Xiao Sheng was hiding his skill and would take on both drums and singing by himself? Baby Sheng is awesome!”
“It’s rare for you to say something human.” Ji Sheng stood up, “Come on, brothers, let’s have a drink.”
The others followed and stood up, too. Even Xie Xuanming was grabbed by Ji Sheng and forced to toast with milk.
After clinking the glasses, everyone sat down.
“Boast, boast, but we still need to recruit a lead singer.” Ji Sheng swallowed his beer and said, “Although I can hold my own, singing the main melody is a real struggle, I can’t maintain a steady pitch and drum rhythm at the same time. It’s too easy to slip up singing and playing at the same time, and the performance is no good.”
“The problem is that we can’t find a lead singer now.” Su Jing said, “In other bands guitar players are basically lead singers. There are very few pure singers. Most of them want to start a band by themselves and are not happy to join a ready-made…”
Guitarist Li Tan, who was inexplicably tagged, put down his glass: “Sorry, ah, my signing is really bad…”
“We didn’t mean to blame you, Brother Tan, but a lead singer is really hard to find,” Sheng Kongzhi turned to Ji Sheng, “Xiao Sheng, you may have to sing to hold the fort for a little while longer.”
“No problem, no problem.” Ji Sheng had no choice, “But after all, I debuted as a drummer, and I still want to focus on playing drums…”
“What about…” As they were talking, Xie Xuanming suddenly spoke.
When everyone looked at him, he put down his glass of milk and said hesitantly: “If you are really short of people… I can make up the numbers for now.”
Xie Xuanming applied for admission to the band at the barbecue stall and Qingchu officially considered whether to include the newcomer in the afternoon of the next day, after the band members had woken up and had a good rest.
Qingchu was indeed short of people, but they wouldn’t accept just anyone to the team.
For the self-recommended young lead singer, at least his pitch and singing ability needed to be tested, and it was better if he had some creative ability.
Li Tan and Sheng Kongzhi went out, busy with other things, so Ji Sheng and Su Jing were given the task of testing the new candidate.
Xie Xuanming looked at the two musicians with their hair in disarray and their pale faces with a “I just woke up from a hangover” look, and thought he might as well go back, get a rope and hang himself in the toilet.
The good thing was that even though the two of them were dizzy, they were still not at all confused about what they needed to do.
Ji Sheng rubbed his throbbing forehead and squeezed out a kind smile at the vigilant boy in front of him. He learned Sheng Kongzhi’s usual tone and asked pleasantly: “Xiao Xie, what songs can you sing?”
He learned it in an unorthodox way, like a weird uncle who kidnaps children with candy on the street.
Xie Xuanming didn’t know when he became “Xiao Xie”, but he wasn’t comfortable dwelling on the issue and simply replied, “School hymn”.
“What is that?”
“The songs sung during worship to praise God.”
The patriarch of the Xie family was a Christian, and the son he gave birth to was also a Christian. Xie Xuanming’s mother was diligent and pressed Xie Xuanming to worship since he was a child. Before junior middle school, he had to go to church every Sunday to join the choir.
Ji Sheng and Su Jing looked at each other, and Su Jing said, “Good fellow, I thought it was outrageous enough for you to bring me in from e-sports, and now you are pulling Christians to rock and roll. Why don’t you just get the archangels waltz with Satan?”
“What’s the matter, what’s the matter?” Ji Sheng slapped the table and stood up, saying, “Wasn’t Stalin studying theology? Didn’t Hitler dream of becoming an artist? Art has no religious limits!”
“But an artist has.” Su Jing said coolly, “We’ll play carol rock in future and see if the church comes to kill the apostates.”
Ji Sheng raised his eyebrows and opened his mouth to fight back.
Seeing that they were about to quarrel again, Xie Xuanming hurriedly interrupted: “Pop, rock… I can also sing other types of songs.”
“Oh.” Ji Sheng’s attention was indeed transferred. He sat back in his place and tentatively said, “Then, Xiao Xie, can you sing a song now?”
Su Jing also turned his attention back to him. The two of them had bright eyes, and Xie Xuanming felt a little embarrassed.
He hadn’t listened to many pop songs; those fast and easy melodies belonged to what his mother called “waste of time”, “inelegant” and “no style”. Xie Xuanming’s knowledge of pop songs only came from the songs ordered on the school radio station. Now that he was asked to sing, he really couldn’t sing any of them.
After hesitating, Xie Xuanming said, “I’ll sing the song you performed yesterday.”
Ji Sheng and Su Jing glanced at each other, seeing a trace of doubt in each other’s eyes.
It was not easy to sing, let alone sing well, a tune you had only heard once, and in a noisy environment.
But Xie Xuanming really sang it, and he sang a complete song from start to finish.
He only memorised the lyrics roughly and replaced them with humming if he couldn’t remember them, but the melody was reproduced without a single mistake. Even in the part that Ji Sheng messed up because of the wrong breathing during the performance, he made up for the omissions according to his own understanding and improved the audibility of the track as much as possible.
Ji Sheng’s vocal was husky, with the anger and struggle of an unwilling outcast dog at the bottom of life, while Xie Xuanming’s voice was clean and clear, like a supernatural peace above the reality, and the mindless humming brought a bit of holiness to the song that should not be there, ironically contrasting with the lyrics.
He had already finished singing but Su Jing and Ji Sheng hadn’t recovered yet.
Su Jing was full of astonishment at “fuck, this kid is Sweeper Monk(1)”, while Ji Sheng was full of ecstasy at “picking up a treasure”.
After ten seconds of silence, Su Jing coughed: “Xie… Xuanming, do you, do you have perfect pitch?”
Perfect pitch was the ability to be extremely sensitive to sound and to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of a reference tone. It was a talent beyond the reach of many musicians.
Xie Xuanming said: “My piano teacher said that I have.”
What a high-class vocabulary.
Su Jing choked as he peeked at Ji Sheng and wondered where he’d got this princess from and what he’d done to make the kid who looked like he’d be better suited to be a conductor of a symphony orchestra willingly join their little shitty band.
Compared with Su Jing’s mixed emotions, Ji Sheng’s feelings were much simpler. He slapped his thigh and said excitedly: “Baby Jing, we must accept this guy, perfect pitch!! With him, we finally won’t have to stay up late picking up scores!”
Su Jing thought, even if you plan to abuse child labor, don’t say it out loud in front of the others. But when he glanced at Xie Xuanming, the child looked calm and didn’t immediately realise that he was going to be tricked into working in a black brick kiln.
Okay, another one was kidnapped by Ji Sheng.
Su Jing accepted his fate and, stubbornly trying to save the last face of the Qingchu band, got up to pull back Ji Sheng who couldn’t wait to rush up to pick up the new treasure member and spin him around in a circle.
“Welcome to Qingchu,” he said.
Xie Xuanming might really be Qingchu’s lucky star. On the first day he joined the band, Qingchu, who hadn’t had a scheduled performance for a long time, got a job at a bar as a resident band.
In the evening, when the Qingchu band happily gathered in the lousy rental house, the topic of discussion changed from “What odd jobs to do tomorrow” to “How to rehearse and where to find musical instruments.”
When you had a proper gig, you couldn’t just practice with a pile of crap like you used to, you had to have proper practice conditions at any rate.
Qingchu had a guitar and bass, but lacked a keyboard and drums.
Su Jing and Ji Sheng preferred to rent second-hand musical instruments, while Li Tan objected that long-term rent even of second-hand musical instruments was too expensive and they currently could not afford it.
He proposed to rent a fully equipped practice room, the kind that could be used day-to-day. Although the price was high, they could use it just a few times before the performance and it would be much more cost-effective than renting musical instruments directly.
But the problem with this kind of practice room was that it was not guaranteed to be available every time. If it was unluckily rented by another band first, Qingchu was likely to face the misfortune of having to perform tomorrow and having no place to rehearse today.
So Qingchu divided into two factions. Su Jing and Ji Sheng supported the long-term rent of second-hand musical instruments, Li Tan supported the rent of a practice room, and Sheng Kongzhi was neutral.
The two sides argued for a long time, eventually stopping the fire and making a depressing truce before they were close to getting into a fight.
Ji Sheng scratched his head irritably: “In the end, we are still poor. If we had some money, we could be practising by now instead of fighting about it here.”
“Then what if…” Xie Xuanming raised his hand and calmly made his first remark tonight, “I may be able to solve this problem.”
The members of Qingchu looked at him. Xie Xuanming told them about his situation, omitting his family history and saying in general terms that he had run away from home because he did not agree with his family’s philosophy.
“Where did you get the money, aren’t you only sixteen??” Ji Sheng said in amazement.
“Seventeen.” Xie Xuanming corrected, “I have a card with savings with me.”
“Awesome, brother, you ran away from home and brought your card. Planning ahead is very important.” Su Jing sighed.
Li Tan rubbed his hands: “So, how much money do you have?”
Xie Xuanming paused: “I don’t know the specific amount… Maybe, six digits?”
- (fig.) person whose remarkable talents are not well known