Jake Ewald helped protect the Weeknd
1970’s South Korea: A military dictatorship, censorship in the press, live music forced underground. An album of psychedelic, folk-rock with a buoyant, mysterious voice, is released. The album: Now, a Kim Jung Mi joint produced, performed, and written by Korea’s godfather of rock, Shin Jung-hyeon. Orphaned young and spending lonely nights learning guitar from American radio, Shin rocketed to South Korea’s musical forefront after stints rocking American GI clubs in Seoul.
Beyond $1000 eBay bids or live bootlegs from tea-house sessions, Shin Jung-hyeon’s output is hard to come by. Now is a precious sample of Shin’s pop cultivation. Kim floats disembodied atop daisies on the cover of Now. Song titles make it clear that the dame loves spring. Opening with her strongest song, “Haenim” is wispy, gossamer, ascending. It’s about sitting in the sun. But, its wizardry is transportive — while listening to it, any problems are momentarily airlifted away. It comes down to her voice, rangy without cracking, seamlessly transitioning between highs and lows. It also has the least mark of Jung-hyeon’s hand – electric is replaced by acoustic, someone brought a violin as well.
From there on out, Jung-hyeon takes the reins. “Wind In The Trees” recalls Jefferson Airplane. Again, the vocals demand attention when Kim holds a note through a lengthy drum fill, her pitch shifting into a husky contralto and finishing with a whispered ‘wah’ like her own crash cymbal. “I Want To Enjoy The Warm Spring Breeze” is titled (or translated) like a Kim Jung Mi parody, but the contents aren’t far from Françoise Hardy or France Gall.
The music doesn’t sound like the life suggests it should. This is not music of solitude, loneliness, it is music of idle, soft-focus days, strolls in the wild, weather always permitting. It is impermanent, loose music made, perhaps, in the disinterest in wallowing in sorrows. Shin listened to the music played on American radio–Charlie Parker, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix–and converted it through his experiences. It doesn’t sound reactionary. It doesn’t sound like the kind of music that gets you trailed by government officers and ultimately arrested. But there’s a long tradition of artists out of their time getting their dues when the rest of the world catches up.
Here’s an example of a seemingly innocuous artist, making music in a country ruled by a military dictator. A president who insisted that a songwriter as talented as Shin must compose a Korean anthem, a tune celebrating the might of Korean government. Shin instead wrote a song about the country, the people of Korea, “The Beautiful Rivers And Mountains,” covered on Jung Mi’s album as “My Beautiful Land.” On Now, the song is tightened, losing a solo, but gaining a seductress. Jung Mi could be included in the pantheon of smoky mystics like Joan Baez or Stevie Nicks.
Music in South Korea in the late 60’s and 70’s was Shin’s, whether as bandleader, session guitarist, songwriter or producer. Now was the end of an era for Shin of crafting the sound of Korean rock out of American clay. He was a man bringing the hippie 70’s to South Korea, eventually left behind by the pop 80’s. Two years after Now, Shin was arrested for marijuana possession. His songs were censored, performances banned, and he ended up in a mental institution. After his release, Korean tastes had shifted to dance music. Little information is available on Jung Mi. She a young singer/student, he a producer looking for his next chanteuse. What they left is an album, quite a good one, a lost totem of psychedelia.