Ro Campbell is an accomplished professional stand-up comedian from Australia, and over the last decade he has performed in more than 40 countries.
A former rock and roll roadie who has worked with some very big names – like Kylie, Kiss and The Rolling Stones. Living a self-confessed crazy life; he’s in possession of a bunch of incredible stories to prove it.
In the first of his exclusive monthly columns for Music Republic Magazine, Ro tells the outrageous tale of his recent tour of Korea: “The DMZ on LSD”. Brace yourselves….
I did my fair share of mad shit on drugs when I was younger but peering through a tiny window at an underground ‘axis-of-evil’ military post, five minutes after a panic attack while on acid, is definitely up there with the maddest.
I stopped taking acid after 11th September 2001. I was on a difficult come-down when the planes hit the building and I never shook the narcissistic notion that I’d caused 9/11 with my mind.
That changed recently when I ate a trip and went to the Demilitarized Zone (aka DMZ) between North and South Korea. Did I end the Korean War with my mind? That’s not for me to say. But yes, I did. One thing is for certain, you won’t find “taking LSD at the DMZ” in the Lonely Planet guide to Korea and there’s a very good reason for that. It’s a fucking dumb idea.
In April, I was invited to do a stand-up comedy tour of Korea, a country where hundreds of thousands of Westerners live and work as English teachers. What I soon learned, is that very few countries speak English as badly as Koreans, so apparently Korea is where you go if you suck at teaching English.
As this is a music publication, it should also be noted that South Korea has been guilty of the musical equivalent of war crimes. Inflicting K-Pop tripe upon the world like chemical weapons on the mind. A genre so annoying, it is played repetitively in Guantanamo Bay to extract confessions from suspected terrorists.
As it turned out, my tour happened to be in the same week that the leaders of Good Korea and Bad Korea met at the border. I only said yes to the gigs because I thought the much-vaunted meeting was a trap and Kim Jong Un was going to rain Nukes on the South, which would have spared my family the shame of my suicide. As a middle-aged road comic with no pension plan, World War Three is an increasingly attractive exit strategy.
The historic summit happened on the last Friday in April, and I was doing a gig in Changwon, the Korean city you’ve almost definitely never heard of. And yes, you do have to burn a lot of bridges to end up playing in Changwon on a Friday.
But you know what I’ve learned about burning bridges? It forces you to explore the other side of the river. And I’m an’ other-side-of-the-river’ expert.
The show was a lot of fun with a very international crowd and afterwards a gregarious Aussie bloke buys everyone shots. Then flying on Jaegerbombs we followed some hot Korean girls through the neon-lit streets to a bunch of clubs, where we danced the night away and cheered as young Korean men slapped each other in pathetic displays of jealousy.
These things happen to me
The next morning, my head feels like it’s been the target of a missile strike from the North and I have a flashback of being in a noodle shack at dawn, chatting with a young American who’d been at my comedy show earlier. Wait, had he offered me an acid trip? Surely not?
Not in notoriously drug-free Korea. But there in my shirt pocket was a tiny square of coloured blotting paper wrapped in cling film. These things happen to me.
It was the morning after the leaders of the two Koreas had been all over the world’s news, in what was being described as a monumental step towards peace, by everyone but the Korean people themselves.
In a moment of hungover inspiration, I looked at the trip in my hand and said: “I have to go to the DMZ and take acid”. And that’s what I did.
The tour departed Seoul at 730am and as I drank coffee in my hotel, I contemplated the worst scenarios that might occur if I took the substance in my hand, briefly picturing myself being shot by a sniper as I danced Gangnam Style into North Korea, with my underwear on my head.
Deciding this was a not a completely dishonourable way to die, I used my Leatherman scissors (once a roadie always a roadie) to cut the trip in half (the specific task Leatherman scissors were designed for) because I might be mad, but I’m not completely crazy.
I popped the tiny triangle in my mouth and felt a surge of adrenaline as I chewed it, the spectre of today’s unknown looming in my mouth, as I made my way to the pickup point, where a couple of very obvious tourists were also waiting.
Who the fuck wears sandals to a war zone?
An unkempt American wearing yoga pants and sandals tried to spark up a chat with me, but I shut him down because I knew our relationship had no future once the chemicals kicked in. Plus, who the fuck wears sandals to a war zone? Other than the Taliban?
As we began the coach journey out of the city, I felt the subtle early effects of the LSD coming on as I noticed the ubiquitous hills of Korea beginning to shimmer brightly in the warm spring sunshine; as did the pink cherry blossoms by the side of the road.
I felt my smile grow increasingly wider despite the constant droning of the tour guide, who sounded like he was reading a script at knife point in front of an ISIS death squad.
I was shocked to learn that almost five million people died in the Korean War and more surprised that the border with North Korea is only 27 miles drive from Seoul. There are Palestinian children who can throw a rock that far, which makes South Korea’s capital an astonishingly easy target if Kim Jong Un has a few too many Scotches during a Twitter spat with Trump.
I’d never realized how devastating the Korean War was, but I’ll be honest, the acid was seriously interfering with my desire for facts and my internal dialogue had turned into Will Ferrell yelling: “YOU’RE STEPPIN ON MY BUZZ MAN!! DO SOME JOKES!!”.
My involuntary giggles were attracting disapproving looks from the more serious war fans. The tour got surreal very fast and I can safely say that you don’t actually need to be on hallucinogens for the DMZ experience to be weird. It’s pretty fucking strange anyway.
Half an hour into the drive, the suburban sprawl of Seoul gives way to countryside in which watchtowers, razor wire fencing and convoys of army trucks full of young conscripts, lend a twitchiness to the otherwise pleasant scenery. For a demilitarized zone, there seems to be an awful lot of militarization.
The first stop on the tour was a place called Imjingak – which sounds like a drug discovered by Shaun Ryder. But it is actually a large memorial built to the thousands of families separated by the war.
A place of such sombre reflection that they decided to put a miniature amusement park right next to it, because nothing inspires respect for the fallen like the wafting screams of children on a roller coaster.
After Imjungak we enter the DMZ proper and pass through a series of heavily fortified military checkpoints. At the last one, a soldier boards the bus and checks all of our passports.
Having drugs in your system is a criminal offence with a mandatory prison sentence in Korea, so I’m pretty relieved that I don’t succumb to the urge to scream: “I’M ON ACID!!” as he hands back my documents.
The next stop was a viewpoint situated on top of a hill looking straight over the river that divides North and South Korea. Bearing in mind the region was currently the biggest news story in the world, there was a definite exhilaration at being this close to the country considered most likely to start World War Three.
There it was, just several hundred yards away; only a mere several thousand landmines, soldiers and machine guns between us and the world’s most oppressive, most mysterious, and most trending military dictatorship. I’ve never wanted to be inside one so badly in all my life.
Our guide pointed out a small modern looking town in the distance on the other side of the river, marked by an enormous Red and Blue flag flying in the breeze. I put my hand up and asked in an American accent if that was Mexico over there, which was juvenile but elicited a laugh and a wink from a cute Spanish girl I’d spotted on the coach.
Dennis Rodman shooting hoops with the severed heads of traitors…
Ignoring my joke, he informed us somewhat smugly that the town was in fact little more than a film set, a literal façade to fool the enemy into believing North Korea was capable of building towns with buildings several stories high.
The acid was making it difficult to tell what was real and who to believe at this point, and the cardboard cut-out soldiers stationed around us weren’t helping. I had to go up to one and touch it to make sure it really was two-dimensional. Cardboard soldiers seem like the kind of cost cutting security strategy the Tories would come up with in the UK.
I put a 100 Won into the coin operated binoculars, in the hope that I’d see Dennis Rodman shooting hoops with the severed heads of traitors, while President Kim cheered him on in his Chicago Bulls kit.
All I could actually see were empty fields, but the acid made the occasional bush or boulder turn into a mad man with a gun, which kept me glued to the eye piece as I fed more coins in. The Spanish girl came up to me and asked if I could see anything, so I bellowed in my American voice: “I SEE HAPPY PEOPLE!! THEY’RE SO HAPPY, THEY’RE SINGING !!”
She giggled and lightly punched my arm, and I momentarily pondered my chances of successfully chatting up a woman at the DMZ, while tripping on acid. Not good, but I would try anyway.
The final stop on the tour was the jewel in the crown of the DMZ ‘S war theme-park experience, the so called Third Tunnel of Aggression. With a name like that it, it doesn’t sound like a place you want to go stone-cold sober, let alone on hallucinogenic drugs. I wondered if the aggression was numbered in degrees of severity, and if so did three indicate mild or severe aggression?
I didn’t have time to ponder this for long as we were quickly herded into a cinema to watch an eight-minute “educational” film about the history of the Korean conflict. Which explains that the Third Tunnel was discovered in the 70’s and thwarted a planned surprise attack on Seoul (it was the third such tunnel discovered).
The film is fucking intense and coincides with the acid fully kicking in, about the worst type of film I can imagine watching, in such a frame of mind. The Cinemax level of audio and projection blasts us with horrific images from the war, accompanied with a booming commentary that is so sternly authoritarian in its tone, it actually makes me laugh. Which is completely inappropriate, but no one notices because they’re too engrossed in the two-dimensional terror.
The danger of ill-timed mirth looms larger as the film inexplicably deviates in an instant, from horror flick to nature documentary; as black and white images of death and destruction suddenly give way to colourful scenes of natural serenity.
Cranes flying across pristine lakes, moose grazing in virgin woodlands and butterflies flitting between meadow flowers; a transition so absurd that even the tourists who are not tripping, are stifling laughter and going “WTF is this?”
As the now up-beat voice over-informs us that six decades of war have been fabulous for the ecology of the region. It turns out wild life really prospers in no-man’s land, which makes sense really.
My hands tremble slightly, and my ears are ringing as I emerge from the propaganda suite, the acid fully flowing now and for the first time I’m starting to feel a bit anxious about being at the DMZ in this state. But it’s a bit late now and there’s no option to back out. The burning bridge forces you to explore the other side of the river.
We’re shepherded over to the Third Tunnel entrance and are instructed to hand over our phones, wallets and hand bags. The Spanish girl shoots me a look and says: “Some rules were meant to be broken, no?”, and I resolve to try and buddy up with her on the descent into the unknown.
A metal detector and pat-down ensure that no one is sneaking anything in and as we are handed hard hats at the entrance, I watch in dismay as a tall, dark, stranger intercepts the Spanish girl with some smooth chat in their native tongue, and I realize I am probably not going to fulfil my fantasy of joining the “Mile Below” club.
Christian fear of hell
I really need some company, as I don’t like confined spaces even when I’m not on mind bending substances. But because I am, I’m pretty fussy about the candidate. I’d rather die of claustrophobic shock than be a mile underground with a man wearing sandals and yoga pants.
The tunnel starts off with a steep ramp several hundred feet long, with a diameter similar to a train tunnel, but it narrows significantly at the bottom of the ramp. At this point, we are 240 feet below the surface of the earth.
I feel a latent Christian fear of hell rising rapidly in my tightening chest, as somewhere in the distance, I’m sure I hear Jimmy Savile laugh and Margaret Thatcher squeal. At this point, I begin to really regret taking the acid. I hadn’t been paying attention when they explained that we’d be going nearly 300 feet below the earth in a mile-long tunnel, and I’m pretty sure they never mentioned it would be dripping what appeared to be radioactive ooze onto our heads.
Half a mile down, The Fear kicked me straight in the knackers. I was fully locked in by people ahead of me, behind me and squeezing past in the other direction heading back to the entrance.
I was literally trapped in a tube with a hundred other people and it was not a good feeling, as the drug accentuated every aspect of the situation. The claustrophobia, the dripping slime, the suffocating atmosphere, and the sensation that Beelzebub himself was awaiting my arrival in Hell.
I wanted to be anywhere else in the world at that moment and it was a horrible feeling.
I hesitantly tapped the girl in front of me on the arm with my trembling hand. We hadn’t spoken up to this point. She was French, about 18 and radiated an aura of immaculate innocence. I swear, in the moment that she turned to help me, I actually believed she was an angel.
“‘Ello? Can I ‘elp you?”, she asked in sweet but unconfident English, her big brown eyes full of genuine concern. “Excusez moi” I said, struggling with the urge to hyperventilate into unconsciousness, and remember school-boy French at the same. “Puissez vous aidez moi?”, which I think means “can you help me?”. But possibly means, “Can I give you AIDS?”
She seemed to be confused by this request for help, which was understandable if I’d mistakenly offered to give her AIDS. I felt like it would only confuse matters more if I tried the French translation for, “I’m tripping off my fucking nut”, so I ended up shouting: “JE N’AIME PAS LE TOUNNEL. C’EST NE BIEN CA!!”.
She looked me directly in the eye and said in her sweet soft voice, “You will be ok. Yes. You must to keep going. You must to be strong.” I was momentarily embarrassed for being a 40-year-old man needing the emotional support of a teenage girl in a time of crisis, but then the chemicals took her words and made them resonate deep within me.
I felt my fear stabilize, as I accepted that the alternative to being strong was letting the fear take control and completely losing it in a subterranean death tube, a few hundred feet from the most dangerous country on earth; and that would be a really, really bad trip.
…furious Glaswegian women booing me…
I took a long, slow breath as my mind fought to steady itself. My inner monologue urged me to harness the mental strength developed over many years in the trenches of the British comedy circuit.
The memory of furious Glaswegian women booing me helped The Fear dissipate, and before long, I was marching confidently to the dead end of the tunnel, where we briefly queued to peek through a tiny window at the underground North Korean observation post, a mere 100 yards or so away.
I squinted through the metallic rectangle feeling like someone in a bullet proof burka, a thought that made me laugh as I attempted to stick my hand through the slit, so I could offer a perfunctory “up yours” to Kim Jong Un’s soldiers. But it wouldn’t fit, thus my dream of starting World War Three was thwarted.
I paused for one last moment to take in this strange place I’d come to. A dollop of cave slime landed on my face and that was enough for me.
I’ve never been so eager to get out of a place in my whole life, and when I got to the bottom of the ramp heading back to the outside world, I had a proper moment of elation as I could literally see the light at the end of the tunnel.
As the light got bigger and brighter, I was practically running towards it and even if it had been a train coming, I would have been happy. I’d just survived a narrow brush with insanity, and I was kissing the ground like the Pope when I got outside. I made my way over to the beautifully landscaped garden and sat for a while. Appreciating the colours glistening in the sunshine and the fresh air, I resolved to never again enter a tunnel on anything stronger than a Pepsi.
On the bus ride back to Seoul, I befriended the Spanish girl who turned out to be a really cool air hostess who lived in Berlin. I told her I was a comedian and she told me she knew an American comedian called Dave.
“I know Dave”, I said excitedly; but clearly joking, because there are a lot of American comedians called Dave. “He lives in Berlin” she added. I suddenly realized I might actually know Dave.
“Wait a second. You don’t mean Dave Hailey, do you?” It turned out she did, which added the spooky coincidence requisite of any acid trip. At this point, I decided to confess to her that I’d been tripping all day and she thought this was absolutely hilarious. Typical Berliner. Cool as fuck.
I decided to invite her to come to my show in Seoul and asked if she would chaperone the young French girl who I felt massively indebted to, and who was an 18-year-old non-drinking Muslim. So, I felt obliged to make sure she had a more suitable guardian than me.
They both came to the show the following night in a bar in Itaewon, which turned out to be a really great one, and it was a lovely end to my time in Korea (for the record the biggest and best gig was in Busan.)
My trip to the DMZ and down North Korea’s Third Tunnel of Aggression, was a memorable if unpleasant reminder, of how damp and claustrophobic the cold war could be, and what insane lengths humans can go to try and dominate and destroy each other.
Heavy shit really. The very embodiment of bad vibes and true evil, and in hindsight; the exact opposite environment you want to take LSD.
I guess I did it so that you never have to. You’re welcome……….
- Catch Ro Campbell’s brand new one-hour show: “Punching Sideways” at Edinburgh Fringe Festival. August 4th to 26th. 9.45pm. Banshee Labyrinth Chamber Room.
Korea Photographs: Kelly Brassbridge, Maria Dolores and Ro Campbell
Portrait photo: Simon Redley