Part 1 (here) Part 2 (here) Part 3 (here) A recent take on the live music scene in Hongdae (here)
Part 4– The Alpha and the Beta.
“Best of everything there was and everything there is to come is often undocumented.”–Patti Smith
Jet Boy Jet Girl meet Juju and Guju
In Sinchon on the weekends, hundreds of Korean lovers (campus couples) take over the streets and go spilling around each other and everyone else like they were on catnip. It’s melodrama, it’s a ritual and it usually begins with a male Juju barbaric scream at his girl,
“Where are you? You don’t care about me!”
The female Guju is close but caught in the nightlight and screaming like a banshee,
“Older brother I am here find me.”
She is within 12 feet of him and drops down in a perpendicular squat on the pavement with her soju pizza staring back at her. The male will often join her in a sympathy puke. Three feet away from her he’ll squat down parallel to her and wretch to make his puddle just a little bigger than hers. It’s an every Korean student looks at his and her Soju-pizza with a certain kind of affection moment. It’s drunken madness but it’s also an initiation into quasi- adulthood and at least there are rarely any fatalities. Next, there is great possibility that the night is not ending but just launching into romance. A few minutes stumble to the other side of Sinchon, Love Hotels are lined up all along the way and it’s like Richard Hell and the Voidoids sang, Love comes in Spurts.
Wednesday nights I play at Nori and have a Korean-company-man-wants-to-relieve-stress playlist ready: Van Halen’s Jump, Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Guns and Roses’ November Rain and for their female counter parts, Eric Clapton’s You Look Wonderful Tonight. It’s an anyway list of songs for the usual suspects, but it wasn’t a nostalgia wind-up; these are the rock songs that young Korean professionals who come to Nori really want to take the plunge with. But after that 7- 8:30 crowd comes and slams beer and moves on the atmosphere could be changed altogether. Korean student musicians and the first wave of foreigners would come in to listen if not at least put up with a punk set: Bad Brains, Minutemen, The Clash. This would act as a turnstile for the requests that would start coming. Besides having a clue about music the biggest part of a rock Dj’s skill set is to be able to observe the drinkers and know what kind of music will get them off. To clock people after they had a glass or two and anticipate what to play next. You can listen for their accents, check their poses for affectation or their desire to slam into Dionysian revelry, it’s telepathy, it’s forecasting a mood, it’s giving them something to listen to that they didn’t realize they wanted to hear. It’s playing rock ‘n’ roll that melts everyone’s part of the iceberg that no one else sees.
Wednesday night was also night out at Nori for the international students studying Korean and living in Sinchon. They had the essence and substance more of a blonde and attractive flash mob. Too much purchased confidence. Too much rapture at the duty free airport shop. It was obvious they never took Lou Reed to heart and so instead were in the throes of planning some sort of Uzbekistan putsch. They wanted to hear speed metal or Abba. They settled in and shook their hips for a triple play of Little Richard. They most likely heard this kind of music before, but couldn’t really place it but knew it was still cool. After playing regularly for a couple of months the only feedback I got from the manager ‘April’ was,
“Don’t get so fucked up so the night goes fucked up.”
There’s no money in this kind of rock bar Dj-ing, just drinking, reading people, the music, and more music. I could drop into the basement at Nori any night of the week I wanted and not to have worry about dropping my paycheck. It was carte blanch. I was given a skronky key to the universe, at the stormy helm of immortal mid week cymbal crashes and energized intoxication:
Spirit desire spirit desire.
Soju Puddles Bless the night.
I Predict a Riot so Bless the night.
The KKK took my Baby Away so Bless the night.
Shoplifters of the World Bless the night.
Bon Iver Skinny Love Bless the night.
Wolf Parade, Hungry Wolf and Howlin’ Wolf Bless the night
Rip it Up Little Richard and Bless the night.
Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t of fallen in love with Bless the night.
Oh here comes Pallas Athena in a Pink Cadillac Bless the night.
But it’s not at all Pallas Athena, but a different sylph to bless the night,
“She whispered to me she told me her name and her name is G-l-o-r-i-a, G-l-o-r-i-a Gloria G-l-o-r-i-a- Gloria.”
In the 4 a.m. taxi ride home from Sinchon rock city, I would have sworn to the driver that I was injected with Absinthe and it shot from my fingers and into the populated song list.
Of course not every night at Nori was a knockout. As anyone who has ever worked in a bar or restaurant will tell, you learn to appreciate the occasional quiet night. Those nights you can learn more about who is around you. And it was on the quiet Wednesday nights that “Bobbie the drag queen” would come in purring. She was thin as a rail but not gaunt. Very angular thin with a dahlia noir persona. She wore black and dressed for androgyny by covering all of her skin. On busy weekend nights, more than once I saw her go up the Nori stairs with a man and neither of them came back down in the same night. On the late, late Wednesday night when everyone’s eyes were at half-mast, she’d come in and sit at the end of the bar in such a singular way that at first I suspected she might reach over and try for a Jane’s Addiction or a Janis Joplin CD. I never had to get drinks for anyone but myself at Nori so usually it was “Bar boy Chen” who would serve her a glass of red wine. If there was an equally singular man around she would demurely approach him then just softly purr to herself. By this time I’d have a maybe a dozen drinks and a pack of smokes in me. It’d be close to last call, the night almost played out and I would just shuffle around putting away the stacked up vinyl and stray CD’s first into their cases and then back on the shelves.
For some reason I began my own sort of purring around Bobbie. In a smoke clogged voice just audible, “Red shoes, the angels want to wear my red shoes,” or “Beware all you evil doers in the world.” She would smile and pretend to understand or maybe she did because we never really conversed. At ease with no other men around. She seemed indifferent to the music. Just into her mellow drunk. She became the last good customer and I sometimes joked with Chen,
“If Bobbie comes in this late we know the party is over.”
It was on such a night when the heavy wooden door swung open and in came another Nori regular. It’s “Johnny Depp.” The guy who drives the dog meat truck. He was with a small crowd that he started to seat at a table but then saw me and shot for the bar.
“Hey man be careful! That’s not a woman man. That’s a man.”
I pretended not to hear him by greeting him, but he continued,
“I know he looks like a pretty boy, like you man, but he is man, she is not a woman! I can’t be fooled maybe because you are a foreigner it’s easy to fool you man.”
Chen knew Johnny Depp well enough to suggest to him to drink somewhere else as we were closing. Johnny tried to get me to come along but I gestured it was time to put the music away; so Johnny just called out to his crew that they were going somewhere else and that’s what happened. I still hadn’t looked at Bobbie when I went to the vinyl for the night’s last song. Always a slow one in case someone wandered in they would feel the adagio mood and hopefully turn around. Also, always vinyl for the last song played at a regularly loud level. It’s about celebrating the emptiness of a consecrated place that a few hours ago was buzzing so strong the gods were weeping down on us all. A good soft song at the end of the night makes it all sacrosanct. Elton John’s Someone Saved my Life Tonight off the underrated Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. The night’s catharsis complete I stumbled upstairs to the bathroom and that reminded how I hadn’t eaten anything substantial the whole day. I made sure twice that my pants were zipped up and got back behind the stained bar without banging into too many heavy wooden chairs. Bobbie was still there and the song was at:
It’s four o’clock in the morning damn it listen to me good
I’m sleeping with myself tonight, Saved in time thank God
My music’s still alive. And someone saved my life tonight sugar
Bear. You almost had your hooks in me didn’t you dear.
Chen was whistling the chorus of the song and I looked over to Bobbie. Wine glass empty. Her posture intact, her appearance flawless, her face glacial but melting a little bit on both sides from two streams of tears falling. I looked away again and when the song was over I could hear her clicking heels making their way up the stairs and out of Nori. Chen kept whistling the chorus and looked at me, “What’s wrong?” He turned back and re-cued the same song and asked me again, “What’s wrong?” I didn’t realize it for awhile but I had tears in my eyes too. Someone Saved my Life Tonight became my closing song at Nori, and I never saw Bobbie again.
Saturday Night– Sinchon without thumbs.
Wednesday nights were good but I had a change in my teaching schedule and being there just wasn’t possible. Saturday night’s at Nori were something different but I still wanted in. Weekends there became like any outsized rock show. Men with swollen up monkey glands and crazed Maenads making their way to front of the altar— but in this case the bar. I struck the deal to play part 1 of the night from 7 p.m. till about midnight. As a courtesy I got the standards of Hooberstank, Queen and “Hotel California”—always the Spanish version- mostly out of the way and after, Ben and sometimes Daniello would come in for the headline shift midnight till sun up. Ben is a real pro and I don’t mean that with the plunge of a dagger. He told me he was the one who convinced “Eumach Synim” to let foreigner Dj’s play at Nori. Until he got there Nori kind of had a time warped playlist going. You could always ask for something and if it was available you’d hear it. But the songs were sort of held captive to the vinyl and Cd’s behind the bar. A solid but not expansive collection meaning lots of 60’s, a little less 70’s, even less 80’s and a shrinking continuum to what’s current. Ben started bringing in his Cd portfolio and a little later Nori was on the way to getting a computer and having its musical universe blow wide open. He also had a matter of fact strategy of not having to play Jamiroquai every fourth song. When the weekend revelers came up to him with a master of the obvious request that just wouldn’t work, or would work too well meaning it’s fucking common, and Nori was never going to be a top-40 bar, he would just tell the people,
“Oh, I just played that,”
He would also slip all the chits of request around and by such making sure not to play only the lowest fruit on the vine.
For the early weekend shift I stacked up CDs that both Koreans foreigners in Seoul were sure to ask for. West coast bands seemed to be preferred over east coast sounds: Stone Temple Pilots- plush, Soundgarden- Black Hole Sound, Red Hot Chili Peppers Californication. It sounded like a canticle of mediocrity. A blowing bubblegum contest held at the record store inside a giant suburban mall. I would throw a Queens of the Stone Age in when I could. And Black Rebel Motorcycle Club—Spread your love, would shake the fortress of sound a little more loose, and as if with some sort of kinetics on the dance floor, the stronger the sounds got, the wavelengths evened up and spreading heat through the room. Any one on their second drink and listening to their third song became braver, untethered and ready to approach the altar and make their requests. Certainly it was more of a going out crowd and less of a music one on Saturday night, yet, it was Saturday night in Sinchon and almost impossible to have a bad night out. On my forth Saturday by 9 p.m. the place was already crowded and in a good groove when a legion of 3 Korean sky angels with pure white gossamer wings fluttered over to the front of the bar. Their scent wasn’t of heaven but Hermes perfume yet it was such a vision. The angel with the best English asked for a Green Day song. She didn’t mind writing it down on the chit,
“Make me up when September ends.”
I asked them again before it made sense, “Wake Me up when September Ends.” We all laughed, yet they were a little disappointed that the song we listened to didn’t have their title. Actually, in a word, it was cute and at the least really expressive of Nori bar on a Saturday night.
This is going to sound preposterous but when rock ‘n roll in Sinchon was really peaking it had nothing to do with the four words, God Save the Queen, but the dealmaker was four words: Sex in the City. In around 2005 that show started to show on Korean cable channels and its effect was tumultuous. You could hear hot Korean girls talking about it in the subways all around Seoul. That show had let loose a certain sexual anima in the city and for awhile in Sinchon everything and everyone seemed to me urban, hip and open. It was a love supreme moment for young media in-tuned women here and the traditional boys, with good Korean family values, who might want to play conservative and fight it had no active power to do so. During my opening Dj shift that Saturday night I heard the show mentioned about five times. I only wished I had the opening theme song of it to play.
It’s a little before midnight at Nori and I am waiting for Daniello to show up, but he has just called and is trapped in a satellite city outside of Seoul and won’t be in for two more hours. OK by me, Nori is wall to wall revelry and I’m having a good time even though I left my specs at home and have to stand about 3 feet away from everything to really see anything. And not to forget that at some point the real tangible in weekend Dj-ing is the girls. A half sensible and bulbous American women in a tight Italian blue sweater wants to come behind the bar promising, “I’ll be very very grateful to you if you let me back there with you and choose the songs.” She’s doing shots of tequila with her spiked hair friend next to her who is relaying to all the guys at the bar, “Think of me as a wetsuit and you have to find the holes.”
The blood flow in the vigorous room is increasing and without my glasses I am basically going from song to song one at a time. I refuse to recycle anything from earlier in the night and it takes too long to stack up a playlist; so I’m letting the place build up to a pressure pop that I experienced at Nori a dozen times and now am playing to. Another shot of tequila white lightning with the girls and I’m on the real upside of buzzed. It’s time to try something. With my back to the throng I let about seven seconds of dead time in and fight the tendency to turn around for some reaction during the next three minutes and eight seconds of Iggy Pop’s, I Wanna be your Dog, but I threw in the wrong Cd so it’s three minutes and five seconds of The Stooges’ Shake Appeal. When you’re playing rock ‘n’ roll to a crowd never let them see you sweat but always let them see you dance, especially to a song that believes in sexual martial lawlessness. The worm in the tequila bit me and my blindness so I turned for the last slithering and rapacious chord romp of the song and swung the hanging bar lights to their limits and let them rock back and forth. They revealed that Nori was half unglued. I couldn’t see the whole room but the half closest to the bar was bumper cars at a local carnival. That Italian light blue sweater was coming up for air and only three feet away… I need to concentrate, concentrate, look at the Pioneer fidelity speaker poster in the corner of the room and keep breathing, breathing. Whatever is cued up on vinyl will take its turn and shit… he is here. Hyung-gyu, Eumach Synim, the Music Monk and owner of Nori is here. Earlier in the night I heard it was his birthday and he might come down but that was hours ago. The last birthday he had here in the underbelly we were all doing shots till the sun came up. AC/DC’s, Have a Drink on Me got it all going that night and it’s easy to find being in the “A” section. I moved away to find that vinyl and cue it up and could spy that people made whatever room there was for the Music Monk. He sat down on the corner of the bar closest to the door. He has to be happy so far; he looks half-cocked and his bar is packed and unmercifully rocking. The Doors Peace Frog is playing and working. There are three or four shit chits of AC/DC lying on the bar and Have a Drink on Me was ready to go.
I guess this was another night at Nori where I didn’t eat anything solid during the day and my motor skills were suffering and then just completely blew up and flew out the door. There are five sources to play music from behind the bar at Nori and one of the buttons on the pentagram will start the hard rock drinking anthem. Time to throw the switch. Unknowingly and not to be stopped Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to have Fun was playing out loud for everybody. I bit my lip for a couple of seconds before I had to face the carnival and then Bar boy Chen came behind the bar elbowed into me and threw his own switch. It was the light effects switch blade that set off spinning light waves via Studio 54. This all happened in about seven seconds and Nori was now completely unglued with all the girls (both foreign and Korean) along the back wall at the tables standing on their seats and dancing with the boy’s faces looking upwards into the blushing planetarium that is the ceiling of Nori. They are worshipping all that Venus has just dropped down for them and everyone makes the chorus of the pop anthem their own and howls,
“They just wanna, they just wanna, girls just wanna have fun.”
Eumach Synim just watches the floor and smiles. I feel like a pinhead, yet it’s a funny thing about the unpredictability of rock ‘n roll and pop culture in general. Happy birthday music monk and Thank You! Sex in the City, thank you.
It’s almost 2 a.m. and no sign of Daniello. I have played for six hours; I’m drunk and rudderless with half vision and the basement bar is peaking. I knew that when Nori was about to explode that it was better to be on the other side of the detonation. In the crowd and not trying to control it was where I should be. I did survive the first explosion yet I could sense the night was about to get unsavory. The music request molesters were possessed and those little white chits of paper were piling up in front of me and all of the songs sucked. Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talking at Me is not available. I fantasize about having a hammer I bought in Sears and cracking their envious white knuckles. The other end of the bar is a grope fest, and the bartenders are only keeping up with it all by giving away cheap free party shots. Eumach Synim has the broad in the Italian blue sweater pinned up against him so no calling him over for a bailout. A stack of coats is getting in the way of my grabbing a Stone Roses Cd and when I moved towards them they just piled down to the floor further blocking access to the music. I grabbed at the top one and held it up. It was obviously made in China. The words, “Remember the Revolutionaries” were stitched bold across the collar and staring back at me. And, that would do it; The Beatles Cd would be easy to access; I knew right where to go, “B.” The song “Revolution” is next come what may on the floor. I hit the right button and at the beginning of those tortured guitars comes a hard tapping on my back,
“Hey man Hyunggyu keeps trying to get you to calm down the floor.”
Thank fucking Buddha its Daniello. He takes one look at me and the big pile of fallen jackets and,
“I got it man. You gotta mellow the place out. It’s crazy in here.”
I got out from under the anvil and started drinking water as Eumach Synim motions me over and keeps repeating,
“Calm down the floor, calm down the floor.”
It’s close to panic in here. Too many people not enough space. There was as much snark in the air as there was drunken camaraderie. People were still dancing on the floor of Nori but the front part seemed partly an artist’s rendition of people wreathing in a mid-level circle of Dante’s Inferno. For a second there was a space at the bar for me to gain some perspective but in a moment an Irish guy who was spewing for the Pogues all night (I played Fairytale of New York for him before and he screamed the words to the whole fucking song) jumped half way up the bar screaming “Cunt” this and “Cunt” that. He’s got the short buzz cut and a soccer jersey tied around his waist. No putting up with any more of his phlegm. I have to get past and to the door… upstairs to the street for fresh air and to bless the soju puddles. But right then he shoves back the crowd with an empty bar stool and drops down on the floor to do pushups. Or so it seems that’s his plan but then I notice his bare ass. He’s dropped his pants and is pushing up and down grinding his cock on the floor. Gyrating his hips for effect and for real trying to fuck the cement floor! The banshees surrounding him are pouring beer on his bare ass before they decide to start spanking it. The vixen with the black spiky hair, dressed like a British police officer in a stab-proof vest and telling all of the men they should try to, “Find the holes in her wetsuit” is now playing dominatrix. The bulbous American women in a tight Italian blue sweater is joining in, and I get past their curling and grabbing hands before we all join in. Just seconds into Van Morrison’s, Moondance , and outside up top to the free world and away from carnival Nori. I woke up Sunday night minus a jacket and the notebook that I write down songs in but that’s just the price to pay for being part of the Saturday night funhouse in Sinchon. I’m sure I can score a left behind jacket next weekend back at Nori. And I can hardly wait.
Dj Lee and Hongdae Sucks
In Sinchon, you probably thought you were running into a pretty good scene and damn straight it was, but that’s when Hongdae started overrunning Sinchon. And yet that was also around the time when another regular Nori Dj, “Lee,” started to run into serious mental problems that would leave him on the street eventually to be picked up by the police and incarcerated into a national insane asylum. It was incidental then, that I realized that if I was ever to make any money over here I better have the good financial sense to invest in psychotropic, act big, talk-big, feel-big, mood medicine.
Dj Lee was heading for a pile of problems that no one saw coming and he eventually ended here. I think when Lee left Nori his ‘brand’ took a hit and to whose wouldn’t it? Sinchon’s brand was becoming a no-more-student-heaving neon splintered ghost town. Lee was even part of a converging scheme to pick up Nori again by trying a lady’s drink free on Wednesday night. Nothing doing. The Velvet Underground bar across the way was shuttered. If I have the timeline right, The Judas Vs. Sabbath bar closed after that, and long, long before that, The Voodoo Bar, a third story Sinchon snug full of creative schizophrenia, was abandoned.
The migration of cool launched and landed one neighborhood over: Hongdae. The Korean perspective was a nouveau hip one. The students of Seoul needed a fresh place to spend money and feel trendy. To them Sinchon was played out as noisy drinking and smoking while Hongdae was becoming a rising crescent scene for Juju and Guju posing and hooking up. When the monthly pay one price to get in everywhere Club Day got bumping , it was in the cards for Hongdae to become the center of the universe for the Seoul partying scene, and the foreigner’s followed. Rock ‘n’ roll trolls took out their guitars and strolled around looking for their scene, looking for a place to play, and, if they could play then there would be, well of course, GROUPIES, and even better, a constant reservoir-source to update the Face book page. Reckon it to like: why listen to someone else’s yawps when you could take the stage and play out your own? It’s a vexing sign of the times. Even people who suck and have no soul, nevertheless talent, are very very needy to create. Riding the culture vulture wave from Sinchon to Hongdae anyone could be a creator: not just a follower. Just make sure that Xanex prescription is filled and never waste your time to take the world humbly and to meet the other: a “Johnny Depp” or “Bobbie” or “Lee.”
And when you are building up your own brand as a rock ‘n’ roller, there’s no time to be chastised by Jim Morrison’s Back Door Man. His primordial yelp setting free inside of you something you don’t have but know that you should. Who wants Sonic Youth’s Teenage Riot with the not so subtle suggestion that we missed out in our own teenage years and they finished, over, as soon as we decided that we were cooler than the bands who taught cool. And the triumphant chaos sounds of The Mars Volta, or the racial and sexual charge of a musical generation that produced Little Richard?
Forget about it (there are hundreds more to be counted in). How would anyone decide on what their vanity album should sound like? Whoever is on the self-branding-self mission won’t be able to easily recover from listening to all that. Fuck Sinchon and the spermaceti floor at Nori! Follow the cock roach parade to trendy Hongdae; everybody who wants to be somebody will be there. And nobody will even notice that nobody is listening to the music.
Below is a letter I received from Lee
A letter from Dj Lee:
I remember there was a point — before I started DJing — when I would come into Seoul from Incheon and not have enough money for taxi fare. I would spend all night at Nori waiting for the subway to open and have a great time. These were some of the best times of my life…
Todd was obsessed with the Rolling Stones, so it got to the point that he would come in at 4 a.m., go to the bathroom and I would have a Stones song waiting for him when he got back. Then there was the time when one of the CD players broke and the owner Hyungyu (You called him ‘Music Monk’ ) and I had to cooperate a great deal even though he and I didn’t really get along very well. We eventually got it fixed and everyone had a blast, more so than usual even. It was magical. I never quite knew why he didn’t like me, but he saw Ben as a son and me as just some jerkoff who came in twice a week even though I get the feeling Nori stayed pretty popular on Friday nights specifically because of what I spun… even though ‘Danielo’ was a pretty good DJ before me.
Certain songs made people go crazy once they got drunk enough. Whenever we played Smack My Bitch Up a good time was had by all. We had light effects that went with it, and everything. That was so much fun! The bar itself seemed to vibrate.
It was out of desperation that Wednesday’s became Lady’s Night. The only reason why I even did it one Wednesday is because I loved the place. I feel a little sad for Nori. The last time I went there it was empty, and they wouldn’t let me stay because I was alone of all things. I was banned from the bar for a while after I got fired. I Played just about every form of Rock that existed. “Rock around the Clock,” was my signature song.
Part 5 —Those aren’t stars that’s your nervous system — is coming in time from 3WM
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