Can you imagine that you are a rock star for a day? What would it feel like? Who would you meet? How would they treat you? Well that’s what happened to me. I was a rock star for one day. I am not a rock star. Sometimes I think I am not even a very good musician. I don’t know honestly. Sometimes I think I am, and sometimes I’m sure I am not. But wherever the truth lies, and I’m sure it’s between those 2 points, I am still passionate about playing street music, especially when I am in the right mood. I like to play on the street, not in clubs, not in a recording studio, but on the street. It’s there that mistakes don’t matter much. It’s there that you can play games with the people, it’s there that people are surprised, confused, stopped in their tracks, completely mesmerized, or more likely than not, completely oblivious. Friday was a fun night. My partner Hye Young and I were alone that night playing as a duo in front of our favorite spot 7/11, in Hongdae, Seoul, South Korea. It was getting cold, November 20th; we were lucky it warm enough to play still. It was about 10 pm and a crowd of about 30 had gathered. We were eager to entertain. It could well be the last show for many months. We had come up with a nice little routine for the famous song Autumn Leaves. There was a cute little tree right in front of where we were playing, in fact, with 2/3rds of its leaves gone, it seemed like the tree was adorned with earrings, a perfect prop for our song. As HY sang the song, I walked over and unobtrusively started shaking the tree. It was small enough that with great effort I could move it a few centimeters in either direction. The audience, focused on the singing, little by little glanced in my direction, wondering what had gotten into me. Then as one or two leaves trickled down, the realization spread through the crowd like a dawn spreading over a meadow. Oh, I get it, autumn leaves! Then there was great hilarity and a big cheer would rise up each time one of the stubborn leaves let go. After my body and the joke were both exhausted I went and sat next to HY while she finished her song and solo. Now it was my turn. I took one solo, enjoying the crowd’s good mood. As I did I looked out at the audience. They were listening so well. I was playing so well. The feelings were coming out like little flashes of heat lightning and my fingers were finding the spots that were lit up. The audience was lighting up too. It was one of those magic moments; the moments we play for, that we live for, when we go beyond, into another place, where we scratch the surface of another world, a world beyond ME. I searched the audience for eyes that were feeling with me. There was one foreigner who was listening. He was scruffy, had on a lined flight cap with long flaps covering his ears. I usually avoided foreigners. I didn’t want to get into THE conversation. You know the conversation; How long you been here, where are you from etc etc etc etc. When I scanned his face though, his look stopped me. There was nothing there. He had no personality at all. His mind was totally on the music. He was like a vacuum cleaner sucking up every sound, every nuance, every feeling. There was no HIM at all, no judgement, nothing but empty space. I moved on to other faces, my melody, tried to feel the lightning again. When I looked back a little later, he was still there a vacuum of attention. I took 2 choruses. There were still 4 to go in the song if we wanted to do that. It was time to get silly. I held up one of the leaves in front of my face and treating like a puppet, I sang in its voice to the other leaves, ” oh my brothers, do not be afraid. You can do it. Let go. It’s not as bad as you think. You can do it. Jump my brothers, trust the unknown, carpe dime, let go, beyond the unknow there exists more than you can ever know. It’s another world. It’s a glorious flight down. Don’t resist the inevitable. Trust me, trust yourself.” I sang these words as an improvisation to the chords of autumn leaves. It was funny, it was melodic, it was theater, it was metaphoric, and it was so very silly all at the same time. The audience was captivated and I was just getting started. I stood up and waving my leaf at the crowd I directed them to chant with me. I sang, “those autumn leaves,”. I directed them to sing “jump, jump, jump”, in a silly syncopation, “Drift by my window”. “jump jump jump” “those autumn leaves” ” carpe dime” ” of red and gold” “carpe diem” My mind was reeling. I held the leaf up and tried to get people to dance with it, I scooped up leaves and threw them in the air, the audience was cheering, delighted, confused, frightened that I would pick on them. I signaled to HY and she sang the melody for the last time. We ended it perfectly and I threw another bunch of leaves on HY’s head.
The audience applauded heartily. The strange man was still there and HY went over to him. She wanted a picture. His companion, a beautiful Korean woman asked her not to take his picture. Why not? He’s Damien Rice, the rather famous singer songwriter. HY was amazed. She loved him. She couldn’t believe it. Immediately she asked, ” Can I hug you?” he shrugged and agreed. As she hugged him fully, I commented to him, “You will never be cold in Korea”. He laughed, “yeah, I guess not”. Again he refused any photos, it was a thing with him. He really didn’t like the worship thing at all and didn’t want to fan the flames of fanatic fantasy any more than he had to. No autographs and no pictures; he was famous for that. Luckily our kookie artist friend Kay was there. She was a fast drawing artist. Within 30 seconds she had drawn a portrait of Damien The woman murmured to him, “let’s go.”. And Damien called to us, “we’ll see you later”. HY was awestruck and star struck. I was amused, not so impressed with stardom, but I was impressed with the way he listened. I played a few songs alone while HY settled down. It was about 1030 now, our usual stopping time. But then the fantasies started. “I think he really liked us. Don’t you think he will come back? Maybe we can get free tickets to the concert. Wouldn’t that be great?” The fantasies went on and on. It was getting cold, but we were afraid to move. What if he comes back. We played on and on. 11 pm, 6 degrees C. And just a few people. We decided to play until 1130. It was cold, no one was stopping but what if he comes by? Finally it was 11:30, and no him. Somewhat disappointed we packed up. We tried to justify it in our minds, “oh well we got to meet him anyway. Yeah it was great” As we packed up, I thought, maybe he is a Tulkigul. Tulkigul was a nice little bar right around the corner. It meant Rabbit hole. It had lots of nice features. A long wooden bar, where people could sit around and be sociable with strangers, and also tables if you wanted to be private. But most importantly, it had a piano, bass,drums, guitar, and microphones. We walked around the corner over there. HY ran up the steps and looked in the windows. She came down disappointed, no he’s not there. It was a little hard to see in the windows and for some reason I didn’t believe her. I ran up and peeked in the windows too. There at the long bar, I saw the back of a scruffy head. I came down and gave my report. I think he’s there. HY was so excited I thought she was going to pee in her pants. “No, really? he’s there? he’s really there?” We all went up and entered the bar, HY, Kay, and I. As we entered Damien turned and flashed a charismatic smile. What took you so long? We were waiting for you. “ We unpacked and sat for awhile. DAMIEN RICE’s producers were friendly and used to dealing with foreigners. There were about 5 of them, 3 who spoke English well and 2 others who did not. 2 of the 3 were very beautiful and charming Korean woman, and an older nice looking man. I sat at the bar next to the older man and he didn’t mind me asking about his business. He was a big time music producer, handled a lot of foreign acts as they came through. He answered all my questions, stadium capacity, problems he encountered. He was very calm but spoke with power. While I spoke to him, HY spoke with the women about who knows what. Later I found out that they offered us some free tickets to the concert on Tuesday in Pusan. The Sunday Seoul concert was sold out.
When things started slowing down, I knew it was time to play. I asked Damien if he knew the song Ariang. He didn’t. Ariang is the most important song in Korea. It’s not the national anthem, that’s more militaristic sounding, but everyone knows that Ariang is most important. It’s a song that Koreans never get tired of. Never. And it can bring them to tears. The funny thing about it are the words. It talks about an old man who wants to leave his old wife. As he is walking away up the mountain path, she yells at him that his feet will hurt before he’s gone 3 kilometers. That somehow sums up the Korean character and experience. Maybe you have to be Korean to get it. After we played that, we played another Korean song. The 30 or so people in the club applauded generously. I then turned to DAMIEN RICE and said, your turn. He was a very down to earth and humble guy and he shrugged his shoulders and said ok.
Everyone was very excited. What a treat to see DAMIEN RICE in such an intimate setting. Luckily everything was there he needed. It may not have been the best quality but good enough. HY had complained about the mic and DAMIEN RICE said the guitar needed work, but within a few minutes he was playing one of his songs. He voice was rich with character and feeling. There was nothing wrong with the mic. His lyrics were deep and emotional. He had a way of repeating a phrase that really got you. I played some background on the chorus, hoping that I wouldn’t get in the way. It seemed to add something. He played his song through and I wondered if he would give me a sax solo. He didn’t. I guess if you are that big, you don’t have to share the stage at all.
He finished and then said, your turn and we played another one. Then it was his turn and asked us what song we could both play together. We played Summertime and HY and DAMIEN RICE sang together. It was great. HY was extremely excited. Afterall, DAMIEN RICE was an old favorite of hers. Kay was busy sketching at 100 miles an hour. We took a break and DAMIEN RICE came over and chatted. I think he appreciated that we weren’t coming on to him as fans. After all he had watched us before we even knew who he was. Maybe he was our fan! We talked about playing street music, because DAMIEN RICE was also a busker. In fact he was famous for going out after the concert and playing on the street or outside the venue.
He said the most important thing was to please yourself; delight yourself, with the music. When people would just walk by and not notice he would close his eyes and go inside. If he could find that space where he would be delighted, when he opened his eyes again, often there would be a crowd. It made a lot of sense to me. I would try it next time. He was very philosophical. Very deep. And playful, funny. I could have talked to him all night. He said he didn’t want to go to bed early because of jet lag. His goal was to stay up until 4 am that night. It was already 330 so there wasn’t much time. Where had the time gone? Kay shyly took the opportunity to present him with some of her sketches, a big thrill for her. Soon it was time to say goodbye. HY who was on cloud 9 walked up to say goodbye, “Where are you staying?” He looked a little taken aback. “Uh…a hotel” It wasn’t the way she meant it, or maybe she did. I think she just wanted to know how far he had to go, but he was staying close-by. “Hey Damien, we are going to play some street music tomorrow, you are welcome to join us. “ In fact it might be the last time to play at Deoksugung, our favorite spot in the world, for a long time. I tried to sell him on the idea. “There you can see the Unhang or money tree, appreciate the beautiful bright yellow leaves, you can smell the disgustingly sweet smell of the tree’s fruit that would mingle with the amazingly sweet smell of the traditional candy made of sugar and baking soda made by the old woman who is my friend. You can see families and couples walking in front of Breakup Wall. “ He said he just had to buy some shoes and that he would try to come. We said our goodbyes and walked out. It had been a great evening. Little did we know that our adventure with DAMIEN RICE wasn’t over.
He didn’t come on Saturday.
However, we had a good time and stayed as long as we could hoping that he would. We left around 5.
The next day we talked it over and found that it was technically possible for us to go to the Pusan concert without missing work as HY was off on Tuesdays and I got out of work at 1. Pusan was 2 ½ hours away by fast train and tickets were about $110 round trip , about the same as the cost of the free tickets, so that was a negative. Plus the time. I told HY it was too much trouble but that I would go with her if she wanted. She wanted. Very much, so we planned to go. It turned out that it was actually cheaper to fly down. The flight left at 330 and got in at 415. I ran to the subway after my class. I wanted to get there as early as possible because I had never flown from Gimbo Airport. It turned out to be pretty easy. The big question was whether or not to bring our stuff, the sax, the amps etc. It was heavy and who knows what problems it could cause on the plane. In the end we decided to take everything. Better to be prepared. Maybe we could find a place to busque during our trip. That was what we were about anyway, that was what I was about anyway, playing wherever. It’s a good thing that we did.
As we arrived at the gate at the Seoul airport, HY got a message on her phone. Would we be willing to open the concert, play for 20 minutes before DAMIEN RICE came on? I have never seen HY so excited. It was like she was a tuning fork and someone had struck her full force. Her vital force was vibrating pure and full force. It was an amazing moment. We were going to open for DAMIEN RICE!!! We were going to OPEN for DAMIEN RICE!!! We were jumping up and down. It was amazing. We had no idea how many people there would be, but the producer had told me the auditorium held 2,500 seats. Of course we knew it wasn’t sold out, but we guessed there would be a lot of people.
The planes’ take-off was superfluous. We were already mile high. In about 40 minutes we were in Pusan, on our way to the Bexco Convention Center, . The subway ride from the Gimbo Airport to took longer than the flight. By the time we got there it was drizzling rain. It didn’t matter. As we walked into the Bexco convention center, we called the producer. She came out to get us. As we walked into the backstage door, the scary security guards stood in front of me, menacing. The Producer just looked back and waved to us, “come on” the guards obediently step aside, still menacing. We went right to the stage. There wasn’t much time. It was 6:45, we would go on in 45 minutes. There was just time for a sound check. The Producer asked if we wanted to eat. I did, desperately, but there was no time. Save us some I called out. The sound check went smoothly. These were top professionals. Everybody was all business. No smiles all work. At the top, no one is going to risk ever making a mistake. Things went perfectly. We decided on our set, just 3 songs, a Korean song, a funny Jazz song, and Ariang. We were done by 7:05. Great, there was time to eat.
We went down the dressing room. The Damien dressing room! I had always Damien Riceeamed of seeing a real Damien Riceessing room of a real rock star. Now I was here. The room was large size. About 15 meters by 10 meters. A large table took up a large part of the room. It was splendidly laid out. Salmon, white fish, salad, fruit, beautiful tofu with soy sauce, different kinds of bread and croissant, lots of desserts. Damn, and only 20 minutes. My acting teacher, the one that advised me to Damien Riceop the class, used to say, you should be thirsty, hunger, and horny when you go onstage. Oh well, 2 out of 3 isn’t bad.
We made our way up to the stage, surrounded by the producer and 3 scary security guys. The security guys walked in front and behind us. I guess that must be what the president feels like. They held flashlights in front of us so we could make our way out onto the darkened stage. We peeked out and there were a lot of people. Then suddenly people were clapping and we were walking out on stage. Once out there HY introduced us and the audience clapped warmly. We started out with a beautiful old Korean song called “Sadness about Love” Hye young , always fearless in front of an audience, sang beautifully. The feeling from the 1000 people in the audience was palpable. HY made an announcement that basically told how we met DAMIEN RICE and how he was a busker at heart just like we were. It was my turn to make the announcement in English. I looked out at the audience, but I could only see Koreans. Not one foreigner. I leaned down to the Mic. “Anyone want to hear that in English?” There was no response, so I just said “ok, never mind” and we went on. The next song ,”Take the a Train” was one of our funny songs. We change the words and get the audience to interact. As you may know, the A Train in A Train refers to the subway in New York City. The A train goes to Harlem (where all the good music was back then) . HY announced that we weren’t in NYC so we would change it to ilhosan (the 2 line) which goes to Bexco, and that everytime we said that they should go “WOO WOO” and image that with their hands that they were pulling the whistle. They were pretty good. Korean audiences are good at things like that. Collectively in groups they are about 8 years old and they are always happy to join in, no matter what ridiculous thing you ask them to do. Our last song was Ariang. HY’s singing was inspired. My playing was good enough. Then it was over. It happened so fast. I hadn’t been that nervous but I hadn’t been that focused either. It was amazing to hear the applause at the end though. I’ve played in front of larger audiences before, but I never felt such warmth and love. But there was a bigger thrill awaiting.
As we walked off stage into the darkness of backstage, HE was there. DAMIEN RICE had come up to listen to our entire set. Amazing! Usually I image that stars stay in the dressing room, relaxing, getting a massage, meditating, doing drugs, getting sex, or whatever, but he came up and listened to us. We went down and put our stuff in our private dressing room which locked (we had the code). Then we hurried out to our seats. They were good seats too. In the 5 th row and a little off center. The concert started about 20 minutes late. Maybe he was relaxing now, but we were sky hi. People sitting nearby were amazed that we were next to them . They wanted pictures and to talk to us. It was fun to be a rock star for a day.
I won’t describe the concert except to say that DAMIEN RICE’s voice was amazing, rich, supple and feeling. He sang a few songs and then he thanked everyone for being there, his staff, the staff at Bexco. I was thinking, “Mention us. Mention us” Finally he did. I really want to thank the street musicians who came down from Seoul. What’s their name? Scatag, Scatpeole.” He looked backstage to the producer. She didn’t know our name either. She just said Hyeyoung. I sat there frozen. I knew what to do but my mouth stayed closed. Then I heard HY open up, “Scatengers” she yelled out with a strong voice. Wow. My hero. “Yeah Scatengers, that’s it. Thank you Scatengers”
Then he went on to sing a great concert. It ended at 1030 with a drinking spree onstage, but that’s another story. After the concert, we had to get our stuff. We waited until the crowd dispersed. We went to the backstage door and showed the scary security our badges. They grudgingly stepped aside. We went to the dressing room. The door was opened.
It was ok though. The producers were in there talking. We sat with them for a while. We wondered what would happen now. Would we see him again or would he just ignore us? We waited around awkwardly for about 15 minutes. Then we decided we should just say goodbye to him and leave. We didn’t want to appear pitiful or bother him. We told one of the producers we wanted to say goodbye to DAMIEN RICE. That seemed reasonable. We waited longer. Suddenly there was a big stir. Something was going on. Suddenly DAMIEN RICE was there. “Hey man, Im going to play some street music, want to join me with your sax.” Yes DAMIEN RICE was kind of famous for playing street music after the concert. But it was raining. I didn’t hesitate though. I hurriedly took out my sax and followed him.
Outside there were about 100 people hoping for just this. They mobbed him. “Everybody sit down,” he ordered. We were under an awning and not getting wet. Amazingly all the fashion conscious Koreans did just that though, they sat on the ground. He sat near the front and he sat on his heels, meditation style, a way that I like to sit too. Then he sang 2 or three songs. I played along with little fills. I don’t think anyone noticed my playing, which was ok. At least I didn’t get in the way. I think maybe I added something to it. But , hey, still no solo. Ok . Whatever. After the 3rd song again there was stir. DAMIEN RICE was whisked off. They were going to a bar to relax. The producer said we could come but by the time I got my sax packed up, they were all piled into 2 limos. As they started to pull away, we pitifully tapped on the rain streaked window of the slowly moving limo. They didn’t stop. We felt so stupid. Standing there in the rain as they slowly pulled away.
We turned to one another, like 2 soaked street kittens. What now? As we were talking it over, HY got a message from the promoter. We are at this bar. She gave us the name, address and a picture. Do you want to go? Of course. Let’s see where it leads. Just then a taxi came, and with just a little effort we found the bar. It was a music bar, with all the instruments, not unlike the Rabbit Hole, but they weren’t there. There were some concert goers though. They recognized us. We were still enjoying our 15 minutes. We wondered, was it a cruel joke? We waited. Finally 30 minutes later, they came. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
It was about 12:30 am. Our morning train left at 5 am, and we needed to leave about 345 am. So for the next 3 hours we hung out with the entourage, the sound man, the lighting man, the two concert managers and DAMIEN RICE himself. It was very relaxed and fun. The concert managers and lighting and sound man were quite stand-offish at first. They were wary of fan mania. The concert manager was steely eyed and intense. When I tried to question him about other artist he had managed, he resisted, “oh a lot. Everyone.” He held my gaze. He would resist as long as I was there. I tried to ask him about how he got into the field in the first place. He opened up a little.
His assistant, a red headed woman was easier to talk to. But we didn’t talk about music, but traveling and the joys of Japanese toilets. The lighting man was the nicest. He just wanted travel tips about what to see in Pusan the next day, their day off. I told him about the art museum and the ancient Korean temple nearby. All the while DAMIEN RICE flited around from group to group. He was in the zone, a little drunk but oh so charming. When he joined our group I just sat and listened as he talked about his influences with the crew. They saw me listening but didn’t mind. It was fascinating hearing him talk about other musicians that I had admired. Ok I was a bit of a fanatical fan. Finally it was time to leave. We each hugged DAMIEN RICE goodbye. “You are not only a great musician, you are a great person,” I said. “Ah, that’s just projection Frank. Everything is projection.” And with that we left.
The bartender told us it was a 30 minute taxi ride to the train station, but our driver made it in 20 taking a route that perhaps only he knew. It included some back streets, some alleys that unexpectedly let only main highways in improbable twists. I enjoyed the ride immensely. We got to the station and hour early. HY laid down with the homeless people on a platform for that. I stood guard over her and woke her up when it was time. It was a 2 ½ hour ride back to Seoul and I was up for most of it. When we got to my station, I ran to my house, threw off my clothes and pulled on my teaching clothes like some kind of Superman. I started the class 5 minutes late, and despite having only 1 hour sleep had a pretty good class. No one noticed and no one suspected that I was a secret rock star that day. It was a perfect day, except that, we never got paid. Not in money anyway. In memories and experience, we were rewarded with great treasures.