If you've lived in Kunming at any point over the past decade, you've probably met them. They are pillars of the city's live music community, a gregarious and fun-loving couple susceptible to hanging out with people half their age and having a blast while doing it. They are Cas and John. And after a glorious 12-year run of Spring City madness, they are leaving. And that sucks.
Cas first came to China in 2001 from Australia, where she had worked as a catering manager at a hospital in Perth. Once in China, she settled as a teacher in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan. Two years later John — known to many these days as Nevada — showed up in the same city after nearly 30 years as a school teacher in the United States.
The two met at a Christmas party in 2003. It was not, according to both, love at first sight. But over time the Aussie and the American cowboy got together and hatched a plan to leave Zhengzhou and its lovely combination of blazing summers, frigid winters and smoggy skies. They sought out and found good job opportunities in Kunming, drawn by the weather and tales of China's wild west, and moved to Yunnan in 2005.
It was shortly after arriving that John announced one evening he was going to play a gig. What gig? Cas wanted to know. Only then, after more than two years together, did John reveal he was a musician. What kind, and how good, Cas would have to wait and find out. That night they ended up at a place called I Am Living on Wenlin Jie, a divey bar with cheap beer, copious amounts of cigarette smoke and an appreciative and enthusiastic audience. To a packed house, John strummed his acoustic guitar and belted out Blues songs into the otherwise hushed Kunming night.
The rest, as they say, is history. Cas and John fell in with a group of musicians, sharing their love of live music by night and teaching during the day. They were married in Dali in 2007, surrounded by an ever-growing, eclectic and sometimes wild family of Yunnan miscreants and foreign castoffs. Life was good. Until...
Oh wait. There is no tragic hook to this story, no monstrous and bedeviling hurdles to overcome. This ain't no elegy. John has been the frontman or guitarist for six bands during his Kunming tenure — Nevada and the Amigos, The Tribal Moons, War Horse, War Whores, Nevada and Ian Blues Duo, and Nevada and the Yucca Nukes. He has always favored Blues and country and western tunes, but through the years has been afforded by the bands and the copious amount of talent around him to dabble in punk, funk, metal, glam and traditional Chinese music.
Through hundreds of shows, a national tour of China and stints in Guizhou, Henan and random little towns across Yunnan, Cas has been with John. She is quick to point out she is no groupie. Instead, imagine her as an agent, muse, manager, counselor, interpreter, roadie, provocateur, bouncer and therapist all rolled into one. Cas also provided the motivation — along with Mark Corry and Jan Hassmann — for John to record an album. The three dragged him, kicking and screaming, to the studio for months on end, Herculean efforts that eventually led to the 2015 release of the album Rocket Chair.
Cas has also been an incredibly important part of every foreigner-organized fundraiser over the past ten years. There have been well more than a dozen of these occasions. They started out small and have grown larger and larger. But through all the craziness of booking bands, finding venues, the sound checks and the passed-out performers in need of a nudge, Cas has been there in the middle. Those events have raised in excess of 750,000 yuan combined, and she is a major reason why.
We asked Cas and John to relate an anecdote from their time here in Kunming, one that would sum up best what it was all about, how it felt and how the city and their experiences in China have changed them. They mulled it over, explaining that the shows with the Quebec Redneck Bluegrass Project were some of the most memorable, if only anyone could see through the haze of time and booze to recall any of them. Instead, they both agreed on this one story:
Several years ago in Lijiang, at the conclusion of a month of contracted shows, the Tribal Moons Country Trio had just finished up their last set. They — John, Matu and JP —gathered around the bar to celebrate a job well done. A line of tequila shots appeared. John interjects at this point in the tale, "Now, I don't really do shots, and anyone who knows me knows not to give me too many." Everyone gathered around and dutifully downed their drinks. John immediately felt sick, bolted for the door and "right in front of the bar, by one of those nice little canals, I let fly," he says.
In the violence of his retching, along with the tequila and god knows what else, John's false teeth were launched into the winter sky. Like "it was in slow motion", John lunged forward and with his right arm outstretched, managing to catch his dentures before they landed in the stream. It was, John says, "miraculous". He ran back inside to relay the story, and while re-enacting it his teeth once again went airborne. The miracle catch was repeated as well, this time to applause.
So there you have an encapsulation of the past 12 years with Cas and John. History, tragedy and comedy all wrapped into one, just as Shakespeare would have liked it. Cas and John are moving on to retirement now, to the north of Thailand where they have a lovely apartment with a pool. There they can sip cocktails to their hearts' content and Cas can keep John from drowning. They've earned it and we wish them all the best. If you see them over the next few days, you should too.
Top image: Kris Ariel
Other images: Patrick Scally