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Zheng Jun's Rock&Roll Trip

Zheng Jun has had his hair cut since most of his fans last saw him. Gone are the distinctive tresses that were once essential for any rocker worth the name. It seems just too many non-rockers also started growing their hair. "You see men with long hair all the time on the streets, nowadays," grumbles Zheng. "I felt like I was just the same as everyone else - and my personality just won't allow that. So I had my hair cut."


The problem, though, is that he just isn't as shuai (handsome) as he was in his heyday eight years ago. That straight-out-of-college look that drove the fans wild, the longhaired strummer of tunes like With Nothing (Chi Luoluo) is long gone. In the good old days, Zheng was enough of a rocker to fill the front rows of the concerts with screaming girls, but a sufficiently good boy to not scare them away. Indeed, as we settle into the interview in a park in central Beijing, little does he know that his humble interviewer once made a grab for him from the front row of a concert in Tianjin. But that was way back in 1995, when his first CD just came out. So what's up with the heart-throb of the 90s?


Long-Haired Lover


Born at the end of the 1960s in Xi'an, Zheng is vague about his beginnings. Brought up by his mother (his father died when Zheng was seven), he drifted through life until he found himself enrolled as a foreign trade major at Hangzhou Electronic Engineering Institute. Finding his course of study less than thrilling, he started spending increasing amounts of time listening to Western music of the 60s and 70s, playing the tunes in bars around town.


Rather than seeing those days as the golden carefree days of youth, Zheng says he was forced instead to constantly fret about the people around him. "Straight from childhood," he says, "I lived for other people and not for myself. When I was a kid, I lived for my mother. When I was at university, I found myself studying a major chosen by other people... I never considered things carefully, for myself."


He dropped out of college in Hangzhou, and studied for a brief period overseas, but fate stepped in on a trip back to China, when he met Guo Chuanlin, manager of rock outfit Black Panther (Heibao), who recommended Zhang ditch the studies in favor of a music career. 


Zheng agreed, and the result was his first hit album With Nothing.


When the album was released -in 1994, one year before I made my grab from the audience - it was still the era of Heibao and Tang Dynasty. Their dominance gave Zheng the opportunity to present a new face for Chinese rock, however: even a bookish young man can be a rocker. While he tarried briefly with the underground music scene, however, most of his music was more mainstream in its feel. His decriers in the media categorized him as a singer whose songs came second to a pretty face.


His subsequent hit Back to Lhasa (Hui Dao Lasa), filled with swirling Tibetan influences, rapidly took on the status of a classic, and was swiftly followed by a second album, The Third Eye (Di San Zhi Yan).


Now with four albums on the streets (his latest album ZJ, or Zheng Jun has just been released), Zheng is a veteran on the market, but he admits that this output is far from prodigious. "For a person living on music, four albums is a ridiculously small number," he says. "But I don't really care. Over the last eight years, I've learned to respect my own will, and I'll just do what makes me happy."


Like most artists who have moved on to bigger and better things, he's nostalgic for the good old days. "Good bands in bars are getting fewer and fewer nowadays," he laments. When he first arrived on the scene, he says, "the music was real rock and roll, and the musicians were chasing what music actually meant. The feelings were true... Today? Some of them are just thinking about how to please audiences, or look more stylish."


Strange that someone frequently dismissed as a mainstream pin-up should find modern bands superficial, but he holds on to the idea that he is on the cutting edge of that mainstream, and likes to find parallels with US band Nirvana in their later years. "At first Nirvana were underground," he says. "But finally, they were successful enough to integrate into the mainstream. In China, only Black Panther and Tang Dynasty managed to play such an important role in rock history."


He hopes to continue the work they began, "leading bands out from underground to the point of winning national awards," he says, "because this is the best way for rock to develop."


So is he really helping rock develop, or just trying to promote his albums to sell more seats at his stadium gigs? "I sometimes appear on TV," he says, animatedly. "I have won some awards... But they're just mere bottles and jars. I consciously try and limit my television appearances, otherwise people will think I've departed from true rock 'n' roll."


Mountain Rocker


Getting back to rock 'n' roll meant the silence of Zhongnan Shan, in Xi'an, where he vanished to pen his latest album. Lacking telephones, TVs, and modern conveniences, he started out thinking that he wouldn't last as long as it would take to write a new album. "But then I began to think about things that I hadn't thought about in years," he recalls. "There have been a lot of problems in my life, that I deliberately didn't consider. But in the mountains, thinking about them inspired my music."


Inspirations and memories include the Tibetan trinkets he wears (a reminder of the time writing his first album) and the crucifix around his neck (a reminder of his Christian mother). Ultimately, though, he says his greatest solace is found within himself, and himself only. "I'd agree that I'm a loner in many ways," he admits. "I don't like to live with many people, and that includes my family. It would probably make them happy, but I'd feel robbed of my freedom."


Does this mean the sex god won't be settling down, then? "I'd try marriage," he says with a sly smile. "Otherwise, I wouldn't know how bad it really is."


Awards await, with the upcoming MTV award ceremony and the usual string of plaudits that accompanies a new album release, but Zheng spurns them as mere "bottles and jars." It's the promotional tour he's looking forward to now - like the rapturous reception he received at a recent Shanghai gig. "It was pouring with rain," he recalls. "But the atmosphere was great." And that's all a true (mainstream, on the fringe) rocker could ever want.


(cityweekend.com.cn December 26, 2003)

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