In the winter of 1990, I found myself in Tongduchon, Korea, a smallish military town about 15 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, the long stretch of no-man’s land that separates South Korea from the Communist North. I had been in the Army for about two years at this point, spending my first 24 months in the relative comfort of Fort Ord, California, home of the 7th Infantry Division (Light). I had a fun job in the Army – 46R, or Broadcast Journalist. Yes, it was as cushy as it sounds. Basically, I was getting mad college money for playing my favorite songs on limited access cable stations on base that nobody listened to. That all changed with the first Gulf War…you know, the one George Senior screwed up, paving the way for his son’s future similar successes.
You may all remember the first Gulf War as a fun little three-day jaunt in the desert, as our vastly superior military rolled into Kuwait, crushing the Iraqi Army with little to no effort. This is primarily true. However, you also must remember the months-long military buildup along the Saudi/Kuwaiti border leading up to that three-day weekend fun. It was during this buildup that Uncle Sam’s military branches got stretched to their limits, as we had forces in Germany, Japan, the Philippines and Korea, among many others. The solution was to pull troops out of those countries and replace them with soldiers currently stationed stateside. Johnny was Korea bound.
The week before I was to arrive in Korea, I went home to Cleveland, Ohio, to spend time with the family. The morning I was due to leave, I was stung by a bee at the breakfast table (don’t ask, I have no clue). I was, and still am, allergic to bee stings. On the 18-hour flight to Seoul, my hand swelled to about twice its normal size and upon landing, I vomited for about 20 minutes, nonstop. My scheduled 12-month stretch in Korea was off to a rip-roarin’ start.
Korea was strange and familiar. Strange in the sense that it was a country where the rules of traffic were applied at whim, and familiar in the sense that Korea was in roughly the same climatic area as Ohio, just on the opposite end of the globe. Therefore, it had weather I was used to – sweltering, humid summers and bitterly cold and snowy winters. Heaven.
Luckily, my job was still cake. I was responsible for hosting the afternoon drive on Tongduchon’s Armed Forces Radio affiliate, and for producing three to five weekly “news segments” (rah-rah propaganda) for the network TV headquarters in Seoul. The radio job was my favorite for a few reasons, primarily that I now had real-life, actual breathing listeners, since we were the only English-speaking radio station, and secondly, I could play whatever the hell I wanted (within decency’s sake, of course). I promptly began assaulting the Korean airwaves with a bizarre mix of then-hot pop songs from Wilson Phillips, Jesus Jones and the like, peppered with bizarre interludes by EBN-OZN
(they had “Feeling Cavalier” on vinyl!), New Order and Devo (who, strangely enough, were a personal favorite of the station manager, a huge, bodybuilding, Airborne Ranger Staff Sergeant – the last person you’d expect to embrace his inner Spud). Things were cool, but I was a little homesick and needed some friends.
I think the station manager noticed this, so he decided to take me and the rest of the station staff for a night of “wimmen and drinkin’” in Tongduchon. Now, if you’re imagining a sleazy, red-light district with filthy streets, dark alleys and sordid bars, you’re absolutely right. It certainly was. But, knowing my superior taste in music, SSG Bigarms (not his real name, but close!) smartly took us to the “alternative” bar in Tongduchon…The Dragon Club.
In these pre-Nirvana days, “alternative” was still a loaded word. It meant something and that something scared a lot of jocks and “straights”. To them, alternative meant “weird”, “strange”, and, most frighteningly…”gay”.
This was years before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. Back in 1990, the Army was not tolerant. It was “Don’t Be.” Period. The Criminal Investigative Division (CID) was tasked with filtering out undesirable elements from the Army. This involved recruiting soldiers and training them to mix in with different units, befriending other soldiers in order to get the goods on them, whether it was for drugs, gang affiliation or sucking dick. You never knew who was CID…we heard story after story of soldiers whose best friends turned out to be CID agents, turned them in and were now serving nice, long jail sentences. No one was to be trusted.
It was under this oppressive atmosphere that we entered the Dragon Club.
The Dragon Club was a Korean-owned and operated club with a small dance floor, two bars and a crude DJ booth. The dance floor used to have lights underneath at one point, but years of disrepair had dimmed all of them, some of them even cracked and showing gaping holes, hungry for a twisted ankle. The DJ was a Korean man named Soon who played very mainstreamish alternative club hits…your Depeche Modes, Erasures, and so on.
Somehow, through the years, the Dragon Club had become the hangout for all the Goths, alterna-freaks and nerdish outcasts who through some strange circumstance found themselves serving in the Army. SSG Bigarms knew this and brought me there for that very reason. I felt instantly at home. Only one problem. Soon the DJ sucked. SUCKED.
Songs collided with no rhyme nor reason, often in the middle of verses or choruses. Since Soon barely spoke English, he had no idea where the songs began or ended, trusting only his eyes on the dark vinyl in the poorly lit booth. He was also incredibly lazy, forgetting to fade the last song out while the new song began playing. Looking back, I think he may have been responsible for the very first mash-ups. Unintentionally, of course.
Something had to be done, and SSG Bigarms was gonna handle it. He grabbed me by the arm, practically dragging me to see “Mama-san” the owner of the club.
“Mama-san,” he boomed, commanding her immediate attention. “This is John. He’s your new DJ. He works Friday and Saturday nights, for $60 a night. He brings his own music. He has lots and lots. He’s a DJ for AFKN (Armed Forces Korea Network). He’ll bring you lots of business. Okay?”
I never saw a Korean woman smile so widely. I started the next night.
Coming up: I become the toast of Tongduchon’s alternative set, have sex with a real live woman and get hit on by Sonny Spoon.