Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: March 2016

Rob Ford and me

I can’t claim to have been friends with Rob Ford, the infamous former mayor of Toronto. But I did spend a little time with him back in the mid-1990s, while volunteering on a minor by-election in his family’s home turf of Etobicoke. He was always incredibly friendly and helpful and full of energy, always ready to go the extra mile to help.

For instance, a couple of times I worked late on the campaign and missed my ride, and Rob would drive me all the way to the Yorkdale bus station, cheerfully and without reservations. The drive would take a while, so we’d shoot the breeze: sometimes talking sports, sometimes family and life, sometimes politics. I remember once trying to make a conservative case for gay rights (it was the mid-1990s—pre-Friends—and such things were much less accepted then), and I said something like “Gay people don’t want ‘special rights.’ The biggest thing gay people want is not to be beaten up for being who they are.”

Rob’s response was emphatic: “I would never beat up a gay guy!”

Followed by: “You’d get blood all over your hands and get AIDS.”

So … yeah. Rob Ford. An incredibly giving, energetic guy. An incredible asshole.

Even back then he was already pretty much the same guy who became infamous as a politician. Minus the crack. His father was the patriarch, and his older brother Doug seemed to be the one heading for big-time politics. If you had told me back then that Doug would one day be mayor of Toronto, I would have believed it. If you said that Rob would one day be caught on video smoking crack, I probably would have believed that. But Rob as mayor? Not so much.

And now he has died. I won’t pretend he was anything that he wasn’t. I know he hurt a lot of people. But he was very nice to me and was fun when I spent time with him. And I suspect he may have been bipolar or had some other similar issues going on, given his substance abuse issues, wild energy swings and related problems. That doesn’t excuse the bad things he did, but I do think he deserved some understanding.

Music history keeps moving on

A couple of events recently have made me all too aware of how everything is constantly changing in Korea, including the music scene. The biggest news of late (imho) is that the best music store in Korea, Hyang Music, is finally shutting down, closing its doors on March 12.

The cosy interior of Hyang Music (this photo blatantly taken from the Time Out article... Happy to take it down if anyone is upset).

The cosy interior of Hyang Music (this photo blatantly taken from the Time Out article… Happy to take it down if anyone is upset).

Hyang opened in 1991 and was going strong when I first arrived in Seoul back in the late 1990s. Back then, Korea was full of music stores (around 5,000 is the most common number I’ve seen), with several huge Tower Records around Seoul, a huge Hot Trax at Kyobo Books, and countless small shops seemingly on every corner. But most of them died out when the music market collapsed in Korea more than a decade ago. Even Hongdae’s great Purple Records closed last year, and now Hyang has fallen, too.

Even in the heyday of the music industry, Hyang was still the shop to go to, especially for local indie music. Back then, it felt like you could keep up with most of the CDs being released by the local indie scene, and if I could find a release, I usually bought a copy. Hyang was a tiny store, but it was in such a convenient location for me, on the road connecting the Shinchon Subway Station and the Yonsei main gate (being around the corner from Voodoo Bar, my favorite hangout way back then, helped, too). I couldn’t begin to guess all the CDs I bought there.

Clubs, too, are always opening and closing in Korea. Ruail Rock recently shut its doors, for instance. One of the first clubs in Seoul that I used to go to was Master Plan, which was located in Nogosan-dong, about halfway between Shinchon and Donggyo-dong. I used to go for the indie rock music, but soon after it turned into a hiphop club, and for quite a while it was at the heart of the Korean indie hiphop scene.

Now the fine young music writer Emma Kalka has published a fine history of Master Plan in the latest Groove Magazine. It’s an excellent and informative read, totally worth your time.

I’m old and boring now, so don’t go out very music. But I don’t want to be one of those boring old fossils who complains about how much better things used to be. I’m sad to be losing Hyang Music, just as I’m sad to have lost the other music stores and clubs. But change isn’t all negative, and the music scene today is probably bigger and more interesting than it’s been since I’ve been in Korea. So cheers to Hyang and Master Plan and everyone else who has gone before. And I’m looking forward to hearing all the music that comes next.

(Cross-posted to the Korea Gig Guide).

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