Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Backstreet Boys Report

I wouldn’t cross the street to see the Backstreet Boys back home. Yet there I was the other night crossing from one end of Beijing to the other, probably passing by about 8 million people in route to see the past-their-prime boy band perform at the Capital Gymnasium, which is on the Western edge of town, right by the zoo.

Why would I do such a thing? First off, I was curious to see a Chinese concert. I hadn’t been to any such large event and I really wanted to see what it was like. On the plane over here, I met susan Brazer, who works for the concert promoter here, an outfit named emma entertainment which seems to have been beaten the big boys to the punch and served them their lunch, including ticketmaster and Clear Channel. I thought I might meet the founder and president Jonathan Krane there. Very curious about that as well.

On the plane, susan told us that stones were playing shanghai on April 8 and more or less invited us. We have to go to that. As Danny the wolverine said, more or less, ”It will be landmark. someone can say ‘I saw the Stones at Altamont’ and you can go, ‘Whatever. I saw them in Shanghai.” Yes. I need to be there, even if my wife makes me pay for tickets, which I may or may not be allergic to actually doing, after 20 years of comps. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. So I wanted to solidify our relationship with these people for a whole bunch of reasons. Not least that I also think their business is a really good story for me to write about sooner or later.

Then the capper was a when I spoke to this dude Alan DeZon and he said he would be there. Alan is an old time concert promo guy from the states, booked the legendary Capitol Theatre in Passaic for years, working with everyone from Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield to the stones, Who, Dead, Allmans, etc. We were introduced by our mutual friend Bert Holman, Allman Brothers Band manager. We spoke a few times when I first arrived and I really liked him. He was heading back to the States for three weeks and we made plans to get together upon his return. Except he never returned. Clear Channel pulled up stakes here and packed it in, at least in concert promotion, at least for now.

Anyhow, Alan is back for a few weeks, exploring some other options and it turns out he is friends with the Backstreet Boys’ road manager and was heading out there. Don’t be surprised. The music biz is a bunch of old pros. It’s like the Klan leader and the Black Panther chit chatting in the Maury Povich green room. Everyone’s got a job to do and they do it.

I hired Mr Lui, our favorite black-car driver to take me over there because it’s a haul and I didn’t want to runt he risk of getting lost. So, of course, he went the wrong direction and took me to a nearby compound Called Capital Paradise instead of Capital Gymnasium. I realized something was off and was trying to explain when at that very moment, I got a phone call from my friend Colin Pine, Yao Ming’s former translator. He was supposed to meet me at the show and was calling to say he couldn’t make it. I didn’t really care and his timing was perfect. I handed the phone over to Mr. Lui, who talked for a while, then turned around and said, “sorry, sorry, sorry.”

He asked me what time the music started, I told him 7:30 and he said, ‘Maybe, maybe. Sorry, sorry.” It was about 6:40. He took off like a bat out of hell. I told him to slow down, it was okay. The last half of the trip was a long crawl through traffic. I called Alan DZ who was in the venue and told him I was on my way but a little late. I asked what it was like in there. “It’s a an arena. You’re a pro, right? You’ll find me.”

I wondered if there would be scalpers or what the scene would be like, questions quickly answered. Just as Mr. Lui said, “we here,” a big, hulking street tough looking dude approached waving around a few fanned tickets. He had the familiar, unmistakable look of a scalper. Mr. Lui asked if he should wait, I said, sure, be back in two hours.. that’s worth an extra 100 kuai (12 bucks) for sure. I got out and was immediately bumrushed by scalpers. I learned later that night that they are called ticket bulls and apparently they sell for below face value (though very curous, I don’t know what they cost the other night because my comps had 0.00 on them.) How do so many tickets exist for, apparently, every major event? Part of the cost of doing business here is providing upward of 1,000 tickets to party members and such. Needless to say, they don’t all attend and many of the tickets end up being sold by the bulls.

I pushed my way through all the ticket bulls as well the people hawking everything from posters and T shirts to blinoculars, glow sticks and various other light up objects. Actually, I stopped and bought two pairs of ‘nocs for Jacob and eli. They were only 10 kuai each. The lady turned down my offer of my extra ticket for both of them, which gives you some idea of their value. I pushed through a large crowd of people, entered a gate which was clearly meant for ticket owners only to enter though no one checked and walked unimpeded towards the steps up to the gym. A guy clearly looking for a ticket came by, thrust 10 kuai in my hands and took my ticket, which I would have given him. Last thing I wanted was to be seen selling a free ticket.

I went up the steps and through the front door, passing through a metal detector and past a bunch of security guards as well as college-student-looking ushers. (Peking U is right around the bend,.) Outside, beyond the gate it was alike a circus. Inside the hallway it was like a high school play. You had the 50s era instituional hallway with the worn linoleum and tired paint, and bored looking vendors selling popcorn, hot dogs and Coke as well as binoculars and other doo dads.

I called Alan DZ and Susan answered his phone and said, “I’m with your buddy. Come find us. Go to the floor and stay right.” Uh Ok. I walked into the arena and was greeted not by ushers but by uniformed police. In fact, I think they were soldiers. I flashed a ticket and hung a right, walking across the top of the lower section to he edge of occupied seats (the back of the arena, behind the stage, was empty.) a large digital clock in the back of the arena directly in the sight line of the stage counted down the minutes they were on stage, maybe to make sure they got their guaranteed 90-minutes of entertainment.

I was standing in a straight line up from the edge of the stage. It took me a minute to realize that it was the Backstreet Boys on stage. It felt so low energy and talent show-y. This wasn’t really a reflection of the band, who w re professional and proficient, with a solid five-piece backing band composed solely of young black men. It was just the whole vibe of the place. The crowd was so well behaved. Everyone was seated, many waving glow sticks as they swayed to the music. The floor was really wild. It had maybe 25 percent as many seats as it would at home. The back half was empty and there huge aisles down the middle and around the side. But the real trip was the front, where a good 40-50 feet of empty gym floor extended out from the stage to the first row of seats. About halfway down that distance there was a red rope running all the way across and squaring off around the stages, giving a solid 25-foot cushion around the stage no matter what else happened. Ushers and police were at each corner of each of the four or six seating sections. Really weird scene.

I took this all in for a bit, then started walking around checking out the crowd and searching for a way to get to the floor. I didn’t see any. The entrance seemed to be a large doorway at the very back. But how do I get there? I walk back tot the hallway and circled as far to the back as I could go, then entered. The more I walked around out there, the more apparent it became that I was in a 50s Red Chinese gym. Anyhow, I went back in but was still in the seated area. I scooted through rows, angling to the right.

I was now just a few feet off the floor, but still behind a railing. I saw that it wasn’t going to open up so I walked up and just hopped over the railing. An usher (not uniformed cop or soldier, thank god) came up a nd said something. I jabbered meaninglessly and waved my phone around, hoping to indicate I was an important person trying to reach someone on the phone. He was a little puzzled and just sort of did nothing. I actually tried to call Alan, no luck, then just held the phone there for a moment and he lost interest in me and went back to his seat in front of me. I circled around the back, cut through the center aisle and headed right over to the little backstage area, which was actually front stage, walking right by the guy who was supposed to be checking passes.

As soon as I walked in Susan and her fur coat saw me and ran over to say hi. She introduced me to a few people, then I set off in search of Alan. I found him in a back hallway and we sat down on some road crates and began chatting. He explained a lot to me about the concert business in china, which was really interesting and I will go into at length somewhere down the road, hopefully in a more, ahem, professional setting. Jonathan krane came over and sat down and someone fetched a couple of Tsingtaos from somewhere and we had a nice chat. Again, I hope to speak to him soon or a story for someone, so I’ll save the details for then.

After a while, we walked back out to actually check out the band for a while. They are really bad. I mean, they’re very good at what they do, but what they do is really bad. I mean, I know it’s not the right thing to say in the Brokeback Mountain era, but they’re just so gay. Even when they were at their peak six years ago or whatever, I couldn’t quite get their teeny bop idol ness. I mean, they had facial hair and looked sort of creepy and… old. They were no Leif Garrets. And now, there can be no doubt that these are the backstreet men. I kept thinking of Krusty the Clown sitting in his dressing room smoking a cigarette and unhooking his girdle. I should say that Susan said she went out to Peking Duck House with them the night before and they were all really nice. And friendly and down to earth. So give them that.

Be that as it may, it was pretty painful when they came out for their encore and id some sort of pseudo rap thing, evengoing into the old “Put Your Arms in the air and wave them like you just don’t care” schtick. That was exciting when I saw Kurtis Blow do it at the Stanley theatre in 1983, but now it only plays in Asia. Which is why the BB’s career is DOA in the States but they are out here humping it through Shanghai, Singapore, Bangkok…

When they came out for that encore, a huge group of people in the second floor section suddenly got up out of their seat and ran forward to the red rope. I don’t know what prompted it. Did the ushers or cops say they could? Did one person go and everyone follow? Is it common practice in china that you can run closer for the last song? No one else moved that I noticed.

Concert over, people filed out in a nice, orderly manner. Back on the street, it was pandemonium again outside the gate, with many aggressive vendors selling T shirts and posters. I called Mr Lui and found him quickly. The ride home only took about 25 minutes in the traffic less night.