Backstage in South Florida: George Zhen's Visionary Ambitions

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Music vet and
New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: He may have lost his sight, but one local musician refuses to be deterred from achieving his dreams. 

It may be hard to imagine while you're going through it, but sometimes, good things can come of the most miserable situations. 

Take George Zhen, for example. The three albums he recorded over the past decade would be reason enough to attract notice. An adept singer and songwriter, he crosses a variety of musical boundaries while still creating a sound that's literate, accessible, and expertly arranged. His talent is all the more impressive considering the fact that he plays the majority of the instruments himself. But Zhen's saga ups the ante due to the fact that he's had to overcome the kind of adversity that would cause most to give up entirely. 

Born and raised in Miami, Zhen's musical trajectory began in the usual way. He began playing keyboards in high school, formed local band Some People's Children in the late '80s, and went on to join local faves Black Janet a short time after. In addition, he worked with his side band, Son of Elektra, which garnered its own local following as well as a South Florida Rock Award and a Jammy nomination for Best Keyboardist in 1993. His musical endeavors continued with a stint as the keyboard player in the band Love Canal, which was tapped by Sony for a development deal. 

Family responsibilities, further compounded by the birth of his first son, convinced him that he needed to get a real job, and he opted to pursue a career in web design and internet technology. He stayed involved in music by working at the corporate offices of retailer Mars Music, which melded technology and music lessons through a flash-based application.

He continued to write music even though he wasn't performing. "That's when the story was supposed to end and fade into comfortable suburban bliss," Zhen mused.

Unfortunately, 2001 turned into a pretty miserable year for Zhen. Laid off from Mars, he worked as a freelance developer. Then the world seemed to cave in. "Dale Earnhardt died, Bush took office, my cat died, and the towers fell. The year couldn't get any shittier," he said. 

Except, then it did. 

"I woke up one December morning with spots before my left eye, the kind of spots and swirls you get when you get a head-rush. Only they didn't go away. This wouldn't have freaked me out too much except for the fact I was born with a condition called ambyopia [lazy eye] in my right eye. Gradually over the course of the next several days, the left eye worsened," Zhen recounted. 

"An eye exam revealed I was suffering from a central retinal vein occlusion, or a blockage in the vein that runs through the middle of my optic nerve. Blood was filling up the eye, and light could not reach the retina. I stopped driving. I couldn't finish the book I was reading. I couldn't work. I had a little savings in my 401k from Mars, a small amount. I decided to spend it on an acoustic guitar. I had to keep sane somehow." 

It was a task that wasn't easy. "I had three very experimental surgeries to no avail. I did get some tools from the Division of Blind Services that allowed me to use text-to-speech and magnification tools on my computer. I was playing a lot of music, and I decided I needed to start recording. I could play and program pretty well and recorded the first pieces that would be the framework for my first CD in my garage."  

Zhen continued, "I had a great friend, Eric Archuleta, who played some leads and such. The process I think saved my life because I not only got that music out of me; I also learned I could function technically. I could manipulate wav files and dial in reverbs. And my ears were getting better."
 
Fortunately, so were his chops. Zhen has recorded three exceptional CDs over the past decade, since his affliction first struck -- his eponymous debut in 2003, Dust of the American Pixel in 2009, and last year's masterwork, In Transit. His material has run the gamut from amiable pop-type fare to edgy introspective narratives that refer to his trauma without any evidence of pity or self-despair. 

"My musical background is across the spectrum," Zhen explains. "I've done everything from singer/songwriter stuff to industrial. My main concern is the song itself. I believe in the philosophy of a good song standing alone, independent of production. However, I do like big arrangements that grow dynamically and are layered with instruments." 

Surprisingly, being blind hasn't narrowed Zhen's parameters. If anything, it expanded them. "Being legally blind, or visually impaired, or whatever term fits, means that I am transportationally challenged," he explains. "So when I was recording, I had nobody I could rely on for things I couldn't necessarily play. I could program drums, but I like natural drums. So I learned to play. I could emulate bass guitar on keyboard, and I did that for a while, but I wanted a real bass. So I learned to play it.

"Don't get me wrong, I love playing with other musicians. But as well-intentioned as people are, not everyone shows up when they say they will. If I'm playing and programming the drums, I don't have to worry about the drummer not showing up because of the girlfriend or whatever." 

In fact, Zhen's become his own one-man musical arsenal. "I play everything myself," he maintains. "Guitar, pianos, keys, bass, drums, lead vocals, backing vocals, melodica, mandolin, dulcimer -- shit, just about everything. I also engineer everything myself from my home studio. I do have the occasional soloist come in to help play things I could never do, like a decent guitar solo, but I pretty much build, arrange, and write this material alone." 


It seems there are no limits to Zhen's ambitions. Whatever obstacles have been tossed his way, he still strives to make music for the ages. And given the superb quality of his albums thus far, he may well be on the way to achieving those goals. "I'm inspired by the idea of making music that stands up over time. I am not chasing trends, financial rewards, or fame. I do this because I love the form that accompanies making an album. If I can get a couple of hundred people to give a shit, I'm happy. I'll leave the rest to the alien anthropologists to discern." 

Not at 45, living in Coral Springs, and married to wife Lisa, who happens to be the owner of the landmark indie record store Uncle Sam's Music, he's the father to two teenaged boys. They both take after their dad and play music, specifically trumpet and trombone. He's currently actively involved in promoting the new album, In Transit, and considering ways to parlay the music into live performances. 

So what does he miss most, given his visual shortcomings.

"I do miss driving," he confessed in a recent blog entry. "Even more than reading. I would give anything to feel the exhilaration of downshifting at speed. Not to mention the independence of being mobile... My children have grown, and I've watched their baseball games through a monocular magnifier, heard their wonderful concerts through undistracted ears, and been blown away by the confidence and maturity they've displayed in the face of their dad's eye problems. I know it has been a hindrance from time to time, having to be my 'eyes' ('How much time is left on the clock? What down is it?'), but I know it has given them a perspective, a sense of empathy, that couldn't have been imparted by anecdote alone. They've lived it. And I think we've all been the better for it in some ways. 

"And then there's my wife. My marriage. In the middle of life, here we were trucking along, raising a family, and building a 'normal' life. It would have been predictably easy for a family, for a marriage, to crumple under the pressure of this sort of thing. But my wife is a rock. Solid. Loyal. Unwavering in commitment to family and to me. I couldn't have asked for anything better in life. I've made dumb decisions over the course of it all, but talking to the redhead was definitely not one of them. She is my light, my eyes. I am beyond lucky."

One might add that he's also beyond resilient. The guy's an inspiration. Check him out at georgezhen.com. You may just be moved.
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