Sunday, December 3, 2017

Music of the Vietnam War

At the urging of my friend Joe Daggett, I am reading a very interesting book; “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” by Doug Bradley and Craig Werner. Joe told me that I would find it interesting and that is an understatement of the first order.

The subtitle of the book is “The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War” and I have to tell you that my understanding of the impact of the music of our time on the soldiers has already been expanded significantly and I’m only half way through the book.

As a radio DJ on a stateside station during the late 60s, I was aware of a couple of Vietnam War Anthems.

The first was “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil initially for the Righteous Brothers for whom they had written the number one hit "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' “ but then Mann gained a recording contract for himself, and his label Red Bird Records wanted him to release it instead. However, before Barry could record it, record executive Allen Klein had heard it and gave the demo to Mickie Most, The Animals' producer. Most already had a call out to Brill Building songwriters for material for the group's next recording session (The Animals hits "It's My Life" and "Don't Bring Me Down" came from the same call). The “place” according to Mann and Weil that we needed to get out of was not the jungles of Vietnam but the industrial, working class inner city environment. Eric Burdon concurred that was the vision he had at the time of the song’s recording.

The authors of the book, two University of Wisconsin – Madison employees, one a Vietnam veteran, began an in-depth survey of hundreds of Vietnam veterans in 2006, and found that "We Gotta Get out of This Place" resonated the strongest among all the music popular then: They had absolute unanimity in that this song was the touchstone. This was the Vietnam anthem. Every bad band that ever played in an armed forces club had to play this song. Indeed in every chapter of the book that I have read, the soldiers’ first person stories were about troops, back in their hooches after patrol unwinding to the song often singing their own Vietnam related lyrics drowning out Eric Burdon’s voice with their own experiences. This song was the most requested song on my radio shows from two sets of GI’s who came by my broadcast booth at Doug Broome’s Drive in Restaurant. The first set was from the draftees who have just completed basic training and were nervously waiting for their first real assignment. The second group of GIs was much smaller and much sadder. They came by, one by one, and never stuck around to hear their request. They drove off into the night, alone, to deal with their memories. Try as I might, I never could get one of these vets to talk about it. It was too soon, too fresh.

I would have thought that “Let’s Live For Today” by the Grass Roots was the other big anthem, as it was stateside, but I discovered that “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival was much bigger “In Country.” “Fortunate Son” was not explicit in its criticism of that war in particular, rather, it "speaks more to the unfairness of class than war itself," according to its author, John Fogerty. “'Fortunate Son' wasn't really inspired by any one event. Julie Nixon was dating David Eisenhower. You'd hear about the son of this senator or that congressman who was given a deferment from the military or a choice position in the military. They seemed privileged and whether they liked it or not, these people were symbolic in the sense that they weren't being touched by what their parents were doing. They weren't being affected like the rest of us.” Reflecting on John’s words, I can see why this song spoke to the Vietnam Vet so strongly.

Serving all my military time in the Atlantic Fleet in the Navy from 1963 until 1969 there is no way I could have the perspective of the soldier or marine fighting their way through the rice paddies and jungles of South East Asia, the sailors who crewed the river patrol boats or the airmen who flew sorties in support of our ground troops. Even my friends who were DJs in the Armed Forces Radio Network (AFRN) had a somewhat detached view. Every single person I knew who came back from combat duty in Vietnam, came back a changed person. One thing noteworthy is that nearly all of them maintained a sense of humor, even if it was a different more gritty sense of humor, it still came out occasionally.

I was reminded of that this morning while talking to my brother this morning. My brother’s Navy experience was in the Vietnam Theater. His home was flooded out by Hurricane Irma in September. He was talking on his cell phone from the bare floor of his home, which despite being on 15 foot stilts was still flooded by 5 feet of swamp water from the Okefenokee Swamp. I had sent him a package and he had to laugh as he told me the story of that package’s delivery.

Earlier this year, one of the pine trees near the long winding driveway to his home was knocked over in a storm. One of his friends decided that the remaining 6 foot tall stump needed some decoration, so he nailed a hockey mask that my brother had lying around to the stump near the top. At night driving in, the headlights would flash across the hockey mask, which was pretty alarming to fans of Jason Voorhees and the “Friday the Thirteenth” movies. As if that wasn’t enough, my brother had an assortment of old broken chain saws in the carport section of the house that was flooded out. They were hung on the wall for anyone who wanted to borrow one and try to fix it or to get a needed part for their own saw.

The flood of course rendered all the chain saws useless so he and his friends decided that they needed to join the hockey mask out on the tree. This week, when the delivery service truck came up the driveway, it came to a screeching halt when the driver spotted the tree sporting the mask and chainsaws. The driver yelled at my brother that he was coming no farther; he had to walk out to the truck and get my package all the way out there. Of course, my brother thought that was hilarious, and you know what. I think so too. Oh MY!

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