When I first looked in through the dark and gloomy window of the closed Tony’s Aussie Bar in the Itaewon district of Seoul last night my heart dropped down a few beats. It looked really small and dark, and it was at the top of a dreary hill in a great neighborhood – which lay just a minute’s walk down the hill, and not up here at this location. Add to that the sudden freezing weather, and I thought, “Oh man, I’ve got friends who said they would be coming tonight to hear me play at Tony’s and what the hell am I getting them into?”
The only thing that gave me hope was the sight of a drum set in the corner, with a microphone stand perched high above the drums. Yes, Monday was advertised as being open mic night at Tony’s Aussie Bar, and clearly there was a mic – and there a drum set that indicated music was really part of the deal.
But I still had visions of having my friends show up – a couple of F1 journalists, and from another part of Seoul, Suki and her friend, as well as possibly a journalist from the Korea Times – and say, “Gee, thanks for dragging us all out here…for nothing, Brad.”
Another thing I started worrying about was, “Where do I eat?” I had looked at the menu for Tony’s on the Internet and thought it looked passable. But seeing the place from the outside, I thought, no. It seems to seat no more than 20 people, I thought, and the menu looks…less than acceptable. Worse, the whole Itaewon area was full of Italian restaurants, a French restaurant, bakeries, pubs, Korean and other restaurants, a real delight for the palate. And I’d eat at Tony’s?
Itaewon, was, on the other hand, a real contrast to the area Suki took me to on my first day in Seoul last week. There in that university area I saw barely a single foreign face. Here, I seemed to see barely a single Korean face. (Suki would later tell me her friend was a little worried about coming to Itaewon since it was reputed to have so many foreigners!)
In the end, I opted to eat at Tony’s. I had so many people potentially showing up, that I thought it would not be good form to show up last after gorging myself on some Italian meal and wine down the road. Thank goodness I made this decision! Thank goodness I chose Tony’s! The world changed when the lights went on and the bar opened, and above all, Tony and his gang showed up for the open mic.
When I arrived there was only one person present, an American expat woman who acts as an editor and writer in a local expat magazine about life in Seoul. I thought the place would be empty to the end. Wrong.
I ordered my meal. Mostly hamburgers, fish, and other publike fare, I went for the so called lamb steak with French fries. It said it was pure Australian lamb, so I thought that maybe with a name like Aussie bar, it might be true. It was. And when Tony arrived, he told me that he prepared all the food in the place, and that it was all authentic stuff. The lamb turned out to be fabulous, and was in fact part of the shoulder of lamb.
“We have a corral out back and I supervise the chopping up of the meat,” Tony said, joking. Tony, by the way, is from Sydney, and he has run his bar for about 4 and a half years, and lived in Korea for nine years.
He had a pea soup with a kind of pie or dumpling in it that the woman ordered. And with my meat I was served mint sauce in a bottle, which Tony said he made as well.
I finished with an apple pie and ice cream. The presentation of this was a complete, circular, apple pie, but miniature – a single portion. Good ice cream too.
And one of my favourite parts of the meal was the best bottle of wine I had since arriving in Korea nearly a week before. A Hardy’s Shiraz of 2008, bought for 33,000 won.
In short, I was in culinary bliss… ok, not quite – the meat was a little too cooked – but I did not regret this choice at all! I thought of how horrible it would have been to miss it, in fact.
It was nearing 9:30 when I pulled out my guitar to tune it, and the bar began to fill up with musicians and spectators, including my F1 journalist friends, and before them Suki and her friend.
The open mic evening at Tony’s Aussie Bar turned out to be a cross between an open mic and a jam session. Tony manned the drums throughout, and a friend of his, Freddie, played a very cool six-string bass. That was a nice instrument to have since it provided a replacement for lead guitar occasionally too.
Tony wears a baseball cap, has long hair in a ponytail, and a beard. He likes to make quips throughout the evening, and as the open mic began the atmosphere had developed from a slightly cold thing when I first entered the black interior with the painting of the ocean as backdrop to the playing area, into a warm room of music and joy.
First up was a guy of 50 years old – he told us his age at one point through some kind of a story he wanted us to hear in introduction to a song – who looked like he was some kind of business executive who played music on the side. (Hmm, I’m thinking of that song in the French musical, Starmania, “Le Blues du Businessman” – “j’aurais voulu etre un artiste……”
This man played Tony’s cream-colored Stratocaster that Tony said he dug up somewhere in two or three pieces and had repaired. All four of this man’s songs sounded to me as if they had been minted in the style and influence of the Talking Heads.
It was a nice warm up, and got everyone into the swing of things. Tony offered that I go up next. So I started out by playing my usual “Crazy Love,” in order to warm up my voice, my guitar playing, and the group effort. Then I did my new song, “Borderline,” the first time I have ever played it in a group situation like that – aside from playing with the kids out in the street in Mokpo, but that was just another rhythm guitar, not a bass and drums. In any case, it went well. I felt Tony’s drums really adding a dimension, and the song is very rhythmic and pretty fast.
Next I did, “Since You Left Me,” another of my songs, and also pretty strong rhythmically. Here at the beginning because I could barely hear my guitar or voice, I also made a little mess of the chords and rhythm at first. But I eventually got it all together.
Since the first guy had played four songs, I thought I should just do four. So I finished with Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son.” I messed up the transition after each chorus, since there’s a bit of a rhythmic change with that fingerpicking stuff, and I even made a huge stop all together, but in the end, it worked out fine too.
Soon Tony was joined on a bongo drum by Josh, who was born in Dallas, but lived in Korea most of his life, from what I could figure. He looked like the lead singer for REM and had a wicked and warped sense of humor.
The next singer, guitar player was a Canadian musician named Yvon Malenfant. That name may sound French, but Yvon comes from Moncton, New Brunswick. His guitar was custom built for him, and he said the design was a cross between two Martins. I tried it out after the show and it was very nice, indeed.
I most enjoyed his song called “Cry.” His voice sounded very Neil Young on that, and his guitar playing was very agreeable. Again, these guys had their act together. Yvon is another regular at Tony’s Aussie Bar, so they had played together frequently. Yvon teaches English and a couple of other things – including counselling – at a university in Seoul, and he is married to a Korean jazz pianist.
That was the end of it. They played several songs, and with “Cry,” Tony said he wanted to dedicate that song to a friend, a woman, who had just committed suicide the week before. It was a woman who frequently showed up at the bar. It was a touching tribute, but I kept thinking to myself, evenings like that are examples, or reasons, why it is important to hold on, go the distance, and not back down.
P.S. On my last night in Mokpo I again met with my friends in the street of the Roses and we busked for a couple of hours, earned a lot of money this time as we had grown used to playing together and had a few songs down pat and we had a fabulous last night.
P.P.S. At the airport I saw more evidence this was a music-loving country with a space set aside for Korean culture and music. I made a little video of the beautiful and great musician playing her harp-like instrument, below.