I had hoped to record something that I had performed for the Music section.
Unfortunately, I got a new laptop last week with Windows 10 and I haven't been able to make a video using it.
So, here is a musical memoir of my Vietnam experience.
A recent conversation with an old friend in which she didn’t know the meaning of, and had never heard the slang term, “Jonesing”, set me to thinking about how different our life experiences were. We knew her present husband long before they married and are friends with both. She wanted to meet at what can only be called a Roadhouse that is about halfway between their home and ours which makes it about a fifteen minute drive for each. It is a dive that is called "The Dive". They have really good pizza, burgers, wings and cold beer. When we arrived the jukebox was playing George Jones" "He Stopped Loving Her Today." Not the same Jones, but that gives you the flavor of "The Dive".
She and her now deceased husband were neighbors in the early ‘90s. He was several years older than I, and Em was five years younger. She went to Columbia College, danced to “beach music” and pretty much escaped the ‘60s unscathed by the music or the protests.
I went to Vietnam. Her brother may have been in the military, but no one went to Vietnam.
Her idea of a hard drug was a classic martini, I estimate that a quarter of our unit in Vietnam was using heroine daily. I've seen withdrawal and overdoses, some fatal.
Ken Burns did a good job in his series about the Vietnam war not only in retrieving video footage and finding veterans – American and Vietnamese from both sides – but matching the action to the music of the time.
Good Morning Vietnam in which Robin Williams played the part of a real D.J. on Armed Forces Radio who changed the format from classical interspersed with messages from the military, to a sort of soft rock, harmless rock format attended by actual commentary on the situation was a good depiction of the radio that we all listened to in 1970.
In the year that I was there – October 1970 to October 1971 – I had three separate musical experiences. Everywhere, in the background, coming from transistor radios that the various Vietnamese workers on our base played while they worked came music like this. This is actually much more western sounding than most of what we heard. The Vietnamese conversational and singing voice was about an octave higher than Americans, and singing through your nose seemed to be entirely acceptable in popular music.
Almost all, perhaps all, of the workers on the base were young women. My “hooch maid” “Fawn” (Fong) was a beautiful young woman who was married to a lieutenant in the ARVN (Army Republic of Vietnam). “Bea” whose real name was Be with a housetop over the e and actually pronounced something like “beh” kept our dispensary clean and neat. They showed up on time, worked hard, took a break at noon to cook their pot of rice over a sterno burner, and went home in the evening. They all dressed alike in black pants and white top, flip-flops, and the ever present cone shaped straw hat.
I grew to like their music. Its pentatonic scale and the warbling vocals necessary to give meaning to words in a tonal language came to sound normal.
Armed Forces Radio during that time played “soft rock” like the Carpenters, “We’ve Only Just Begun”, and Bread’s hit, “If”. They played it so much that much to my dismay I found myself singing along.
I’m not going to put the Carpenters up, but “If” had some meaning to a young man in his twenties with a wife and one year old child at home.
What we enjoyed more were the mainstream rock songs by bands like Three Dog Night. This one came to mind when I was thinking about Em and her “shagging on the strand” music.
And then there was the third category of music we listened to, in the evening in our hooches, on our cassette players. It was harder, more blues oriented, and varied with the person. One pilot gave me a Grateful Dead bootleg cassette. I thought it was awful and told the pilot that the band didn’t seem to be able to stay on tune or keep rhythm. He told me that I needed to be taking the right drugs to appreciate it.
Eric Clapton had moved on to Derek and the Dominoes, but we listened to albums by Cream from a couple of years earlier. I liked The Doors and their album with the side labeled Morrison Hotel was some of the best Doors music. This one seemed appropriate thinking about our meeting at The Dive.
And, I can’t leave Pearl out. Janis Joplin was spinning out of control, and some of my favorite songs were made before 1970, but she came out with “Me and Bobby McGee” at the time I was in Vietnam. It was a big hit and I really liked it, but I have to post one of her grittier pieces.
Everything felt more real, more intense in Vietnam. There was something ridiculously paradoxical about listening to music from back home, talking about what we wanted to do when we got back to “The World” in a setting where at any moment you might be shelled, or ambushed.
Perhaps the song that most clearly in my mind represented the disconnect in Vietnam was Credence Clearwater Revivals song, “Proud Mary”. Every Vietnamese cover band knew it and did a really good job copying all of the licks, but could not pull it off because they said “reeber” for “river”. “Big wheel keep on turnin’, Proud Mary keep on burnin’. Rollin’, rollin, rollin’ down the reeber.”
During the year I was in Vietnam things were changing rapidly at home. The combination of social protest, the war, and drugs had their effect. In the year that I was in Vietnam, Pearl, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix all died as a result of flying too close to the sun.