A master of rock steps off stage for the last timeIn 1972, the guitarist and singer-songwriter Shin Jung-hyun received a strange call from a man who identified himself as an official at the Blue House. The man asked Mr. Shin to compose a “song to mark Park Chung Hee’s new term as president.”
Mr. Shin said he refused, explaining that it was not his “musical style” to make propaganda songs for politicians.
If he had agreed, however, he could have probably won a friend in power and saved himself and his musical career a lot of trouble. Shortly after the incident, Park rammed through a new constitution that effectively allowed him to extend his presidential term.
Three years later, Shin was sentenced to a year in prison, with three years of probation, for smoking marijuana. It left an indelible stain on his musical career. Not that many of his fans care; over 30 years later, nearly 5,000 of them were willing to sit in the pouring rain on a Saturday afternoon in suburban Seoul to bid him farewell. Shin announced that it would be his last concert, ending his three decades as a professional musician. Most of the people in the crowd were middle-aged fans who had viewed Shin as an idol during their teenage years.
After his band’s second album was released in 1975, Korean broadcasters banned its 11 songs, including his popular song “Miin” (Beautiful Lady), a progressive rock song about a young man’s adoration of a beautiful woman. The broadcast ban on his music continued until 1987, when Korea’s long period of military dictatorship ended.
Nearly four decades after that call from the Blue House, Mr. Shin, 67, whom some Korean music critics have dubbed “the father of Korean rock,” is still a symbol of decadence and defiance in the Korean music scene.
“It was a time of mental chaos for all of us,” Mr. Shin said of the days of dictatorship, on a break during a recent rehearsal for his retirement concert. “I never felt at ease, not for a single day.”
In the late 1950s, he started playing the U.S. Eighth Army circuit, performing for U.S. soldiers at bases around Korea. Mr. Shin recalls fondly his “heydays” on the bases, where he found enormous popularity as a guitarist performing standard pop, jazz and rock music.
He first played guitar as a guest musician at the Civilian Club, a live-music club for high-ranking American military officials. He was 22. Shortly after that, he formed Korea’s first rock band, “Add 4,” whose guest female vocalists quickly rocketed to stardom and whose major hit songs, such as “A Woman in the Rain” and “A Cup of Coffee,” came to define Korean rock.
“On a good month, I performed more than 20 days, two gigs a day,” he says. “I split the money with the agency. We didn’t earn that much, but we were up to world standards for musicians. We had the best equipment, shipped from Las Vegas, for major floor shows. Strictly speaking, we were putting up consolation shows for American soldiers, but we had a sense of pride. When the phase was over, our Korean musicians all left for the United States.”
Though his music was very popular with U.S. soldiers, it was distinctly not so with the Korean government. Much of his music was blacklisted, even his love songs.
“After all, [my music] was all about stories of love,” he says. “They were stories of unattainable love. That was my position as a young man. I was always drawn to songs that were sad. I could always understand that sentiment. I made those songs, because my heart had to cry to make people cry. That’s how you move people through music. I never meant to be political.”
Yet he became a sensation in the Korean music scene, and his band practically started the culture of psychedelic rock in Korea; some of its members appeared on television with their heads shaved (other members, in the same performance, were much shaggier).
In 1972, as a form of musical protest, his band ― “The Man” ― appeared on a TV show dressed in wild outfits, performing “Our Beautiful Mountains and Rivers,” a song that praises the beauty of the Korean landscape. Mr. Shin was mocking the stuffy patriotism of Korea’s leaders.
By the mid-’70s, entertainers in Korea faced a police crackdown on marijuana, while the streets of Seoul were filled with cops dragging random adult men with long hair ― a style largely popularized by Mr. Shin’s band ― to police stations for impromptu trims. His music seemed to inspire younger generations of Korean musicians. Several tribute albums were organized by modern rock bands in recent years, remaking Mr. Shin’s songs with contemporary beats. Several of his song have been used in soundtracks for major Korean films, such as Bong Jun-ho’s “Memories of Murder.”
In a recent interview, Yun Do-hyun, whose patriotic rock song made him famous in the 2002 World Cup, dubbed Mr. Shin “the musician who founded the school of Korean rock.” Bae Cheol-su, the host of a KBS music show, invited him as a guest singer last month, saying, “We were happy in the presence of his music. The younger generation of Korean musicians are indebted to him.” On the back of a tribute album to the veteran guitarist by younger musicians, recorded in 1997, it reads, “We dedicate this album to Sir Shin Jung-hyun, who so far has led popular music in this land.”
Yet he seems rather hesitant to admit his position within the local music scene ― as if decades of practiced humility had made it automatic. “I don’t feel obligated to live up to their expectations,” he says. “What I do is what I do. I am getting old, and it’s time for me to close my musical career quietly. I am over the past. I am beyond social obligations, philosophy and all that.”
On a recent Friday evening, he was dressed in a loose pair of jeans and a T-shirt that read “Friend or Foe.”
He looks out on stage, the one that will be his last. It was still under construction.
“Honestly, I was never completely happy about my music,” he says, cheerfully. “I always wanted to make songs for myself. But I couldn’t, because popular music is all about forcing stimulation, gathering all strategies and purposes. When you go deeper, though, it inevitably moves away from the audience. Now, I’ll pursue that music, a sound that’s uncalculated, just for me and my music.”
by Park Soo-mee