The ‘godfather’ keeps on rockin’With his long, disheveled, permed hair and big, jet black sunglasses with a prominent Versace logo, Jun In-kwon does not have the typical look of a 50-something in Korea. But this rather rebellious image is one that Jun, called the “godfather of Korean rock,” has projected throughout his decades-long career.
No wonder his presence is pretty eye-catching anywhere, as was the case when he showed up at a cafe recently.
The only one who seems to remain carefree about the impression he makes is Mr. Jun. He introduces himself by saying, “Just call me ajeossi, cut that honorific ‘Mr.’ out.” He then abruptly stands up and disappears, shouting back at his embarrassed manager, “Bathroom!”
His long, ragged fingernails indicate a lack of attention to his appearance. Looking at his fingers, the “godfather” says, laughing, “Aren’t they cute? Just think, I’m a 50-year-old ajeossi, and I keep my nails like this. I think I’m pretty cute. Don’t you think so?”
He then begins banging on the table with his palm, saying, “I spend nights and nights practicing like this, which breaks my fingernails.”
No wonder he does not quite look like your average uncle. He is an eccentric figure, and he seems to be well aware of this: his most recent release, his fourth solo album, includes the track “I’m Strange.”
Whether you agree with his definition of cute or not, he has been this way since his debut in 1985 as a front man for the now legendary rock group Deulgukhwa, or Wild Chrysanthemum. And the Korean public has loved his straightforward attitude as well as his music.
During the 1980s, the band was quite a phenomenon, with songs like “Turning, Turning, Turning” and “Marching,” which still remain favorites. In the dark days of the Chun Doo Hwan military regime, the band’s songs were a source of light to the younger generation.
“It was a time when people like me were always under pressure. For one thing, I was beaten up so many times for many unreasonable reasons, like letting my hair grow. All of this boiled down to form anger in everyone’s heart and of course affected our music,” Mr. Jun recalls.
“There was no obvious politics in our songs on the surface,” Mr. Jun says. “But there was anger in our music and my way of singing, which was a key that connected us to the public. And we didn’t stop at just venting our anger. We tried to embrace the absurdity of society.”
Mr. Jun cites “Turning, Turning, Turning” as one such example. “I wanted to say that when this society and the world turn crazy as they did, why don’t we do the same and have some fun,” he says.
His love of music began in his teens, when he happened to turn on his radio to hear John Lennon singing “Oh My Love,” which he says sent a shiver down his spine. “I decided right then and there that music is what I should devote my whole self to,” Mr. Jun says. (In his latest album, he pays homage to Lennon by singing an adapted version of “Imagine,” given a new title, “People.”)
From that time on, he bought the records of his heroes like the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, Cat Stevens and Scott McKenzie, and became a self-taught musician. While dropping the names of these musicians, he hums songs like “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas and “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” by Scott McKenzie, the happiness evident on his face.
But the career path was thorny for Mr. Jun, who was arrested a number of times for smoking marijuana, which is illegal in Korea. Now, as his graying and thinning hair demonstrates, he is a senior rock musician.
Koreans say that when you reach your 50s, you finally know the will of heaven. For Mr. Jun, age has taught him the true meaning of rock music.
“All these years I’ve been learning, and only recently have I felt that I understand what rock is all about,” Mr. Jun says.
His recent pursuits have included grafting Korean traditional music onto rock. “Koreans traditionally love satire as seen in folk songs, which I find goes along well with the spirit of rock. So I’m working to establish Korean rock music, which I’ll achieve before I die,” Mr. Jun says.
Now with his own group, called “Jun In-kwon and People Who Don’t Fight,” he’s staging a concert today and tomorrow, where he’ll sing at the top of his lungs, to his heart’s content.
Despite the name of his band, Mr. Jun still thinks there are some things left in the world to fight against. And his weapon of course is his music, whose quintessence he describes as resistance and love of peace.
No wonder he does not understand why there has to be war, as he sings in “Wait, You!” from his latest album, “Jun In Kwon 4.” He sings, “You, beautiful country, who are you, what on earth are you doing?” referring to the United States, which Koreans designate by the Chinese characters for miguk, meaning “beautiful country.”
Describing U.S. President George W. Bush as “an odd fellow,” Mr. Jun says, “The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet keeps more than 40 percent of the wealth. And now they want more, again going to war. Isn’t that too much?”
Then he adds, “There’s nothing much we can do about it. We’re too good a people to win. All we can do is satirize through music.”
This spirit will emanate from his concerts and his next solo release, scheduled for August. After having a tough year, suffering from shingles, a skin condition that he describes as among the most painful diseases in the world, Mr. Jun says, “I feel comfortable only when I sing and perform on stage. That’s what I’ve been and will be doing. Now I want to give myself a pat on the shoulder for enduring all those years and continue to move on, marching toward the world on and on.”
He abruptly stands up, saying, “Got to go now to sing.”
by Chun Su-jin
For more information on the concert at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow at COEX, call the organizers at (02) 794-5801. COEX is best reached from Samseong station, subway line No. 2, exit No. 6.