A life lived in music

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A life lived in music

I wake up in the morning, I got this big headache
I’m ready to sleep at night, I’ve got this diarrhea
That’s killing me, oh lord, can’t even hold a coffee mug ’cause
My hands are shaking and can’t drink no beer cause I’ve got this ulcers
Not even my favorite watermelon ’cause
There’s too much sugar in it, I’ve got diabetes

My body needs some spare parts ’cause I’m a dying machine

― from “Spare Parts,” by Hahn Dae-soo


The art of life means a lot to Hahn Dae-soo. He wakes up every day at 5 a.m. to work on a book about the chronology of Western rock. He watches world news on CNN. He picks up any bar-girl leaflets that have been left under his door and posts them on his refrigerator. He reads, cooks, goes for walks, drinks beer and, the next day, repeats this until a moment comes when he is seized with something new to say. Music, for Hahn, is the ability to sublimate life into art.
One of this musician’s more famous comments about the creative process was “art is fart.” By this remark, he meant that creativity was only one part of the artist’s experience, and that it happens in a moment and quickly fades. It was also a way of mocking the idea that artists are sacred.
But even if artists aren’t sacred to Hahn, maybe art is. On a recent Friday afternoon in his cramped Sinchon apartment, Hahn grumbles about how technology has ruined music, how it’s responsible for a dearth of creative songwriting.
“Technology gives you all the answers without the process,” he says, drawing on the last of his cigarette. “It is like instant noodles, giving you instant answers. If you eat ramyeon everyday, how do you ever learn to cook?”
There might be an element of self-justification to what he’s saying. Hahn is staging a show titled “Guitar & Harmonica” Saturday in Daehangno in northern Seoul, and plans to rely heavily on acoustic instruments.
Hahn, who’s just turned 56, has spent the last 30 years of his life as one of Korea’s most recognized avant-garde rock musicians. He was also one of the most oppressed songwriters of his time; the government censored his music for political reasons.
He started out in the early 1970s as a classic folk musician, not unlike Bob Dylan early in his career, playing and singing songs in praise of youthful freedom, mostly on acoustic guitar. But his style gradually evolved into folk rock and beyond, with more complicated rhythms and more serious lyrics.
In his 10 original albums, Hahn has used guitars to deconstruct traditional pop songcraft. “Ho Chi Minh,” from his 2002 album “Source of Trouble,” told the story of the late Vietnamese revolutionary with spoken-word narration, death-metal music and an electric guitar imitating the sounds of falling bombs. He’s collaborated with jazz musicians, classical guitarists and alternative rock bands, taking folk rock beyond its borders.
“I didn’t intend to become a musician,” he says, recalling the early days of his career. “I wrote for my own comfort. It was entirely circumstantial. Until the Beatles, I didn’t even know you could be a musician without going to music school.”

He has seen personal turmoil. Hahn has a dramatic family history, having grown up with an unusually wealthy background for a rock musician. His grandfather was a chancellor at Yonsei University, and one of the first Koreans to receive a Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary; he remained close to the Underwood family, who helped establish Yonsei. His mother was a pianist; his father was a young academic, who left his wife and 3-month-old son to study nuclear chemistry in the United States.
A few years after leaving Korea, his father vanished without a trace. This incident remains a family mystery, he says, and it left “a big void” in the musician’s adolescence. When Hahn was 17, the FBI found his father; the man had apparently forgotten his entire past, and no longer spoke a word of Korean. Nobody knew what had happened to him during those years. His mother, who was 18 when her husband left Korea, remarried; he moved to the United States, where he later met his father.
Hahn started playing guitar shortly after moving to New York with his grandparents. He studied veterinary medicine at the University of New Hampshire, dropped out of the program after a few years, then went on to the New York Institute of Photography. For a while, he lived in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he sometimes played guitar for slices of pizza.
He came back to Korea in 1968. In 1974, he released his first solo album, “Long, Long Road,” which is still considered a milestone in Korean folk rock. Half of the songs on the album were banned under Park Chung Hee’s dictatorial rule; the album wasn’t released in its entirety until 15 years later.
“Give Me Water” was banned because the government’s media screening board interpreted it as a reference to the state’s use of water torture on students in the democratic protest movement. “Land of Happiness,” a song that reflected the musician’s utopian vision, was banned for conveying dissatisfaction with the country’s political system. That song later became a campus anthem among militant student activists; it was recently remade as a campaign song for the Democratic Labor Party.
In 1977, after years of enduring the government’s censorship, Hahn returned to New York. Koreans jeered that “Land of Happiness” must have been about America (in fact, it was about a sense of nostalgia and longing for home).
“I’ve never cared much about people’s reaction to my music while I’m alive,” Hahn says. “You have to be dead for people to really appreciate your music. I’ll do my performance. If it happens, that’s great. If it doesn’t, fine. But things will change once I am dead. Look at Kurt Cobain!”

Hahn wrote more than half of the songs he’s ever written when he was between the ages of 17 and 25. He attributes that in part to the sense of “impossibility” he felt about the world when he was a young man. To this day, sources of his past ― the Vietnam War, his crisis of cultural identity, the deaths of friends ― are “a fertilizer to my bed of creativity.” These elements in his songs, Hahn believes, parallel what many younger Koreans are experiencing now: political upheaval; the specter of the Iraq war; identity crises borne of their own migrations between cultures. He thinks this is one reason his songs are more popular among younger Koreans than among people his own age.
He says “Hurt,” his 10th album, is a response to wars, the current global order and other “seeds of evil.” Much of it reflects his political pessimism. “No Control” is fraught with anxiety. A melancholy track called “Black is the Color” features an Irish vocalist, Lynda Cullen, singing to Hahn’s acoustic guitar. (About half of his songs nowadays are written in English.) The album includes remakes of some of his songs that were banned in the 1970s, including “Land of Happiness.”
Hahn lives in New York with his Russian wife, Oxanna. He comes to Korea when he’s got an album out or a concert to perform, spending a few months at a time here. Last year he published a collection of photo essays from his travels, titled “Small Peace.”
Earlier this year, he wrote a New Year’s greeting to fans on his Web site. In the letter, he said he’d declined jury duty for a murder trial in New York, mostly because he couldn’t afford to give up three months for it. He said he stood up in a court and told a judge, “I believe all crimes, except for crimes of passion, are directly or indirectly connected with money. So, your honor, I will be an unfair juror.” He said the judge dismissed him the next day.
Time has become more precious to him, he says. He says he feels more and more vulnerable about his creative production since reaching 50, the age of being “emotionally neutralized,” as he puts it. He hints that he may be through making albums. He also says he feels his body deteriorating. He broke his knee last year when he tripped during a concert. He’s at that point in life, he says.
“It seems as though there are no longer empty spaces to fill,” he says. “I would rather walk, take photos and do other things than repeat the same old musical formulas I’ve done for years without offering new ideas for sounds.”
But for now, he has a concert to give.
In his Sinchon apartment, Hahn sends his 22-year-old guitarist “Pat” out for lunch, slipping him a 10,000-won bill. Hahn gave “Pat” his name when the young guitarist said his favorite musician was Pat Metheny. Hahn has another nickname, “bunnies,” for a female chorus.
“Can’t remember people’s names too well,” Hahn says, smiling.
He comes back to the age thing. “The composition just gets impossible,” he says.
Moments later, he clears his throat and says, “Well, almost impossible.”
But Hahn knows there are always things left to say.

by Park Soo-mee

Hahn Dae-soo will perform at Polimedia Theater in Daehangno, northern Seoul, Saturday at 7 p.m. The ticket price is 50,000 won ($43). For more information call (02) 3272-2334.
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