A rock n’ roller who changed the lives of millions of young people, only to lose his own. Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Sam Cooke, Ian Curtis, and other stars who changed the face of popular music before dying young are a well-known pantheon. Less known outside China is Chang Yu Sheng. His story reflects the universal constant of musical talent, right down to the eerie details.
In China, your name can reflect the weather on the day of your birth. “Born in the Rain” was born in Taiwan in 1966, but spent a childhood that mainland youth readily identified with. A sensitive kid given to doodling and listening to music, Yu Sheng struggled more than most with the rigors of Chinese formal schooling. In fact, as a teenager, before writing any songs he penned a novel about students cracking under the pressure of delusional parents and the humiliations of sadistic teachers.
The rebel antics of disaffected western Teens wasn’t an option in 1980s Taiwan, so Yu Sheng took to the more accessible outlet of music. But not until college was he transformed by music. Blues, soul, and rock possessed his imagination, and he neglected his studies to make an obsessed fan’s study of these genres.
Within a few years he had his band together, Metal Kids, who quickly established themselves by winning a local battle of the bands in 1987. The victory got them onstage at a larger concert, where a larger slice of Taiwan got an earful of Metal Kids’ most astounding feature, the woman-pitched pipes of Chang Yu Sheng.
The annals of rock abound with singers known for their high range, but Yu Sheng took it to a stratospheric level. Whereas the haunting screech of Barry Gibb might be attributed to a series of cycling accidents, and Michael Jackson’s to deferred adulthood, Yu Sheng’s voice seldom fails to surprise, especially when the unschooled learn it’s a man’s.
No Tiny Tim act, Yu Sheng sang from his depths, with a superstar’s blend of feeling and polish. Yet there is virtually nothing masculine in that blend. Such androgyny did little to alienate Chinese listeners, however. After all, he wasn’t putting on any Ziggy Stardust in-your-face drag show. His tunes were as sincere as his John Denver-ish looks. “My Future is not a Dream”, used on the soundtrack of the movie Six Friends, became his first hit.
I’ll never care what others say,
I’ll never forget my promise to life,
Never drop my commitment to love,
I believe my future isn’t a dream,
I take every minute seriously,
My heart beats with the rhythm of hope
Painfully straightforward enough for canned corn on the other side of the Pacific, the song nonetheless resonated with huge audiences of young people needing reasons to stay optimistic and resolute.
He followed the hit up with a full-length album in 1988, “Miss You Every Day”. The title track put him right atop the heap of Mando-pop glory, where he stayed for the next eleven years. But it was his next album, “Ocean”, that established him in mainland China, selling over six million copies, and offering lyrics a tad more original than those of “Miss You Every Day”.
Your image recedes from the sea’s horizon
While your face becomes more clear
If the ocean can renew our love
I’ll wait my whole life there for you
The ocean can take away my sorrow
As it takes away every river
All my pain, all my tears, all my love, please take them away
Yu Sheng stayed sea-bound for his next album, “The Fish that Swims All Day Long”. By now he was much in demand as a composer and producer, a Jay Z minus the obscenity and intelligent countenance. He discovered another Chang, Hui Mei, an aboriginal Taiwan girl whose voice could shake the mountain she was born on. He produced her debut song “Sisters”, which made her a star. Their following duet “My Most Beloved Hurts Me Most” ensured a legacy, still remembered as the most soul-stirring of the 1990s.
His 1997 album “Mouthing Yes but Meaning No”revealed an artist at the height of his powers. Yu Sheng had crossed the boundaries into the realm of the truly poetic.
Your love gets dimmer and dimmer
Gone with the west wind, a madman’s illusion
My devotion withers and shrivels
A sapless flower, a dying prairie spark
November of that year saw him driving home late at night in his Saab convertible. The head-on collision that put him in a coma is popularly attributed to fatigue from musical exertion, despite the hospital report of alcohol in his bloodstream. He died a few weeks later without regaining consciousness, aged 31.
The many tribute concerts and benefits that followed his death cemented his legendary status. But more importantly, generation after generation of new fans prove his music passes the test of time. It goes far in explaining how a special voice can touch millions of people, but not why such voices are so often untimely silenced.