by Baz Gar.Funk'el:
“Corporate Slave by Day, Hard Rocking ************ by Night” is the self-description on my fake Facebook page. I set up that account as a front to lure unwanted people away from my real page. (By "unwanted people," I am referring to my corporate colleagues and bosses here in Korea. It's not that I dislike them; I honestly feel fortunate to work with quite a few, and how many people can say that about their workplace, let alone for a native Korean working at a Korean conglomerate?)
My “real” Facebook page is maintained to keep in touch with my good friends abroad (such as Derek May, who coaxed me into writing this article for Flapper Press) and to communicate my music. The Clark Kent version of my Facebook became necessary to hide my true identities, including as guitarist/vocalist and main songwriter of Grand Soul Central (a Grand Funk Railroad tribute band turned modern/vintage hard rock band); co-songwriter and vocalist for SnZ.Collision (a collaboration that continued on with the guitarist of my now-defunct Guns N' Roses tribute band); the lead vocalist and lyricist of LA Galbi (which plays '80s L.A. Metal music); and last but definitely not least, the vocalist and co-songwriter of my main band CRUX, which happens to be Korea's first Power/Progressive Metal band . . . among others.
Your response may well be, "So you work at a company, and you’re a musician. Most musicians have full time jobs. What's the big deal?" I wish that were the case. We are talking about Korea here. To illustrate the mindset of most of the (hostile) people I work with, let's take you back a few years before Oldboy, “Gangnam Style,” BTS, or the little love affair between Kim Jeong Un and Trump was brought to attention, when no one in the rest of the world gave two hoots about this small Asian country. An example that pops up in my head are the only three words related to Korea that Billy Joel could come up with on “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (1989): “North Korea,” “South Korea,” and “Panmunjom,” which is the location where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, thirty six whole years before the song was written!
At the same time, Korea was building walls (*cough*) around itself in the form of censorship. Of course the intent was to “protect” the feeble minds of our youngsters from exotic foreign cultural influences. Japanese content was particularly censored and banned. While Korea was quite open to Western culture—being cold-war buddies with the US and all—Metal just didn’t make it onto that “open to” list. People who were keen on listening to Metal had to pay extra and purchase illegal copies on the black market.
Some of the albums that were finally licensed and officially released were missing critical tracks: Use Your Illusion I by Guns N’ Roses skipped the opening track “Right Next Door To Hell”; Skid Row’s Slave To The Grind came without “Riot Act” and “Get The F**k Out”; And although “More Than Words” was a huge hit in Korea, Extreme refused to release the album here with the title track “Pornograffitti” set to be deleted as well (much respect for the band’s decision). And how can we forget good ol’ Pantera? (RIP Abbot Bros.) The censorship board ended up cutting out so many songs from both of the band’s first two major releases that Cowboys from Hell and Vulgar Display of Power ended up being spliced into one hilarious compilation entitled Vulgar Display of Cowboys. (Now a rare collector’s item!) Amongst this entire ruckus, we did manage to get one metal band through the door to come play live in Korea during the ‘80’s. That was Stryper, since their lyrical content was mostly Christian in nature and considered “not-harmful.” They sure didn’t think the crowd would end up breaking down the barricade protecting the stage, albeit inadvertently. At least it was nothing like the tragic death of many during the New Kids on the Block concert. And they call Metal harmful?
Contrary to popular belief, fans and musicians of Metal are not just all about rebellion, non-conformity, or disrupting the system. They are surprisingly genuine and kind-hearted. Think about it: who in their right minds would pursue a style of music—such as Metal—that won’t sell unless it was for the pure love of it? I have to think very hard to point out a peer in the Rock and Metal community who isn’t a genuinely good person. (I can’t say the same for the pop scene unfortunately). In Korea especially, Metal fans happen to be among the most global-thinking and open-minded people that I know. Too bad the uninformed are not aware of any of this.
So secrecy comes as a prerequisite for me to balance my career with my music.
The cultural misunderstanding that hinders bands also extends to the family. One of my old bandmates once came to a weekend band practice in a suit and tie; I initially assumed that he had attended a wedding before coming, but he told us that the suit was to create an alibi as he’d told his wife he’d been summoned to work, and that he had secretly moved his guitar from the house to his car the night before. Needless to say, he isn’t playing in any bands these days.
Having a dark sense of humor (I do write and play Metal after all), I still find myself laughing at the ridiculousness of these incidents (plural; it’s happened more than once). But a sad part of this is that most of these cases stem from gender inequality. Whether there is actual truth to it or not, it is somehow insinuated that homemakers are denied their passions. Therefore seeing their spouses pursuing theirs becomes unacceptable, while their slaving for a company is.
Besides the somewhat conservative nature of our country, another practical culprit that kills off so many bands in Korea is our compulsory military service. In the case of CRUX (before I joined), the original guitarist was drafted on the day before their fateful recording took place in 1990. The band had been selected among eight winners in a nationwide battle-of-the-bands to record an original song on the third and final Friday Afternoon compilation album (Korea’s answer to Metal Massacre if you will). This was a significant milestone for CRUX, as well as Korean Metal history. The band’s song “Time Travel,” a seven-minute-plus epic, is what gave CRUX the title of being Korea’s first band to write and release a Power/Progressive Metal track. Being the pre-Nirvana years, there were many good guitarists back then, so a replacement was found rather quickly and recording went on as scheduled. The band wasn’t so lucky when it was the keyboardist’s time to go. It was just impossible to track down keyboardists who played or even listened to Metal. If they did, they lacked the chops to pull the songs off. Without a keyboardist, the band was forced to fold. By the time everyone returned from fulfilling their respective military duties, all momentum in the band was long gone, and everyone was busy trying to make a living.
On a brighter note, over the past several years, a resurgence in Metal has been observed, albeit on a small “underground” scale. Around the year 2000, approximately ten years after its break-up, the members of CRUX decided to reunite. The original vocalist had already formed another band, and I got selected to join as vocalist and carry on the heritage. After over ten years of performing at bars and clubs, CRUX decided to change its direction, start writing originals again, and shoot to perform at proper venues near the Hongik University area. It was around 2013 that we were putting the finishing touches on our Elapse With the Relapse album. We had a reunion (though first time for me) with the producer of Friday Afternoon. In addition to newer bands hitting the scene, a number of first-generation Metal bands, including alumni from the three Friday Afternoon series, had also been making a comeback around that time. Still being the pioneer that he was back in the mid-eighties, the producer offered to support us, and underground music as a whole, by helping bands perform at the venue he was managing, even though it meant it would make less money for the venue. It was a life-lesson in itself when he told us, “Do you know why these bands are returning to music? You guys (referring to me and our then-new guitarist) may not fully understand because you’re not in your forties yet, but it’s because after all these years of struggling to support themselves and their families, once they were able to get on their feet, had their children all grown up, and found stability in their lives, they realized that there really isn’t much in life besides what we are passionate about.” To this statement, the rest of my bandmates—who are six, seven year older than I am and over forty-years-old at the time—all nodded profusely in agreement.
Another couple of years down the line, CRUX put together a special show in tribute to one of the band’s long-time heroes, Deep Purple. As a special event, our drummer brought his thirteen-year-old daughter to come onstage with her Haegeum, a traditional Korean string instrument, to perform an instrumental version of “Soldier of Fortune.” There wasn’t a person in attendance without a tear in their eye, and that moment meant more to many of us as a collective community than having “made it” in the business. This led to a string of our peers performing a song or two with their children. These kids were all so sufficiently adept at their respective instruments that none of these moments felt gimmicky in any way. Some have even gone on to major in music. These kids have first-hand experience with the struggles and fundamental limitations of underground musicians. Yet, they opt to pursue this path.
We are devoted to music, not only by choice, but more so because it’s in our blood. To survive and make a living, some form of restriction may follow, be it of the corporate variety or otherwise. No matter how frustrating this predicament may seem, within the boundaries of our reality, we do not see this as a hindrance, but as a perfect balance.