I laughed when I first heard Hyunsu had prostate cancer. But once I found out that it was a pretty serious disease, I took it as a sign to begin taking a long hard look down the path we’d taken in life. I don’t think either of us was prepared for any crises we might get thrown into. We didn’t even have the proper insurance. Really thinking about our situation made me see that our lives were so fragile they would fly apart at the first thing that hit the fan. Hyunsu’s marriage hadn’t lasted a year before his divorce, and I’d had a girlfriend here and there but wouldn’t go so far as to call these relationships meaningful. It hit me that we didn’t even have a lot of close friends as we got older, aside from each other. We just had a lot of acquaintances that we happened to be friendly with. And I couldn’t help my surprise at realizing that we’d been making music for nearly twenty years. Which also meant we were approaching forty. Time sure flies by like fuck-all else.
Around the time we first met, almost twenty years ago when I turned eighteen, I dreamed of becoming a rock star. I started learning guitar after watching Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, but it was really a video of Jimi Hendrix performing “Hey Joe” in front of a Woodstock crowd the size of an ocean—it was incredible, the horizon was made of people—that made me realize that this was what I truly wanted. Hyunsu and I passed these formative years swapping music. We learned rebellion from the Sex Pistols who performed “Anarchy in the UK” in front of the Houses of Parliament, toughness from the Clash who smashed their guitars on stage, emotion from the Smiths, passion from Prince, mania from Patti Smith, and rage from Rage Against the Machine. Our path in life became clear. We had no choice but to become rock stars, not lawyers or geographers or novelists. And the path to becoming a rock star was simple. You just had to follow these steps:
- Learn guitar.
- Form a band.
- Write a killer song.
- Put on killer performances.
- Become famous.
- Become rock stars.
So we learned how to play the guitar, and in about a year mastered the basic chords and all the riffs of legend that you had to have down, not to mention a whole lot of difficult techniques like the pentatonic scale, the blues note scale, and the Mixolydian scale. Hyunsu and I put a band together and strutted around in our vintage Levi’s and glossy Doc Martens and drank Jack Daniels and smoked Marlboro Reds. Like so many other rock stars of yore. But sitting around in the cigarette haze of a practice room while downing shots and twanging away at other people’s songs does not a rock star make. We had nailed steps one and two, and it was high time to take on step three. Writing songs wasn’t so hard. You set the chords, make riffs, put words to a melody, insert a guitar solo in the appropriate spot, and voilà. We did end up writing a sizable number of songs but the depressing fact of the matter was, they didn’t qualify as killer. To be even more honest, they weren’t even passable, much less killer. Hyunsu and I got more and more depressed, and while being depressed was a basic mode that we needed to have down as “artistes” anyway, we still failed to come up with a killer song. With the change in fashions, we traded in our vintage 501’s and beat-up Docs for skinny jeans and sneakers. But a killer song continued to elude us.
How to Write a Killer Song
Listen to lots of songs (and rip them off):
Noel Gallagher, the lead singer and guitarist for yet-another-world-famous-British-rock-band Oasis, explained how they managed to write so many killer songs when asked by a journalist: they copied the chords and melodies of famous Beatles songs, tweaked them a little bit, upon which their albums sprouted wings and flew out of the stores. This method skips the middle stage of the “old music–new inspiration–new music” process under a brilliant theory that old music becomes new again through mutation. The method has been proven effective time and again by some of the greatest rock-and-roll stars who manage rip off not only other people’s songs but their own as well.
Produce lots of songs:
If just listening a lot was enough to produce good songs, our nation’s greatest songwriter would’ve been Im Jinmo (b. 1959, music critic). Thom Yorke of Radiohead became a rock star by writing hundreds of songs and choosing to release just a handful that he really liked. Each Sex Pistols album had over more than twenty songs each, but it was the success of just a couple that gave them rock-star status. Quantity matters, in other words. Robert Caputo, who took countless breathtaking photographs during his tenure at National Geographic spanning over three decades, summed up his method of taking good pictures as thus: Just take a whole bunch of photos. You’ll end up with at least a few that are good.
Fix stuff a lot (make them over):
John Lennon was bored by the intro to “Michelle” that Paul McCartney wrote and played for him. On the spot, Lennon came up with the song’s famous repeating chorus of I love you’s, but Ringo Starr and George Harrison thought it clashed with the intro and that they’d never finish the song. But McCartney ended up fixing the bridge section and saved the day, whereupon “Michelle” became a killer song. Although come to think of it, the Beatles were already rock stars before they came up with that one . . . Anyway, my point is, making stuff over is important. Beethoven, that venerable god of music, also slogged through hundreds of rewrites. It’s impossible to not improve something after fixing it and fixing it and fixing it.
Kick the Trash Can
Hyunsu told me this story. Not long after Greenday sold ten million copies of their debut album Dookie and the world was swept up in the Neo-Punk movement, a Rolling Stone reporter asked lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong what exactly was punk. Armstrong kicked over a trash can standing next to him and said, That’s punk. The reporter kicked the same can and asked, That’s punk? Armstrong replied, No, you’re just being trendy. “Do you think we might just be aiming kicks at a fallen trash can—and missing it over and over again?” asked Hyunsu mournfully.
The Speed of Time
We failed to reach step three for ten years, despite our early hopes. So we couldn’t put on killer performances (4) or get famous (5) and couldn’t become rock stars (6). We put out a couple of so-so EPs and did a few so-so performances (mostly in underground clubs that smelled of dust), and before we knew it, twenty years had gone by. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: time flies by like fuck-all else.
The Dangers of Prostate Cancer
I’ve since learned that prostate cancer is no joke. Hyunsu didn’t last a year after his diagnosis. He was in adult diapers by the time we were talking about our bygone years, that era now forever in the past. Never would I have imagined that I’d be so wrapped up in reminiscing about the past at this age. I had no idea that that kind of cancer even existed before Hyunsu got it. And ever since his death, I keep feeling like I haven’t finished peeing every time I go to the toilet. Even after I go, I keep wanting to go again. I might be imagining things, but then again, I might be getting prostate cancer like Hyunsu. Except now, I know exactly how dangerous it is.
What We Discovered
Sometimes I think we would’ve been better off if we’d actually discovered something. I mean, once we realized we were never going to be spectacularly lucky or talented enough at skillfully copying other people’s songs, maybe that was when we should’ve discovered something—anything. Like the secret to life, some realization. Surely most people end up discovering at least one thing about life . . . so I wonder. Maybe we could’ve discovered the trick of giving up, if nothing else. Or what if we’d discovered some sort of joy in music? Maybe we did find a shard of something like it when we wrote songs or performed them. I do vaguely recall certain moments of pure happiness. And in the flow of time that’s as fast as fuck-all else, that’s all but forgotten. If we’d clung on to that shard, who knows? We could’ve moved past step three. But in the end, the only thing we discovered was the dangers of prostate cancer.
Jung Young Su was born in Seoul, Korea, and obtained an M.F.A. from the Department of Playwriting at the Korea National University of Arts School of Drama. In 2014 his short story “Nights in Lebanon” won him the New Writers Award in Fiction from Changbi Quarterly, where it was first published in Korean. He won both the 9th and the 10th Young Writers Award from Munhakdongne Publishing. Anton Hur was born in Stockholm, Sweden, and translated The Court Dancer by Man Literary Asia Prize-winner Kyung-Sook Shin (Pegasus, 2018). He won a PEN Translates award for his translation of Kang Kyeong-ae's The Underground Village (Honford Star, 2018) and is an inaugural Translator in Residence for the National Centre for Writing in the UK. Image: Guitar and Music Paper, Juan Gris, 1927