Writing about music is like dancing about architecture *
TWO SONGS – TWO STORIES
Songs evoke memories of times long past, each bearing a story to be told. This is mine. It’s a tale of two singles; we called them 45s back then. Both were favorites. Both were songs about war. Two soundtracks postmarked in my mind––songs that evoke a time and age.
I played them on a cheap record player in my childhood bedroom. Neither mentioned Vietnam, but everyone knew what they were about. The singles were separated by two years. In the lifespan of a boy, that’s an eternity.
When young I was fascinated with soldiers. Growing up in the fifties and sixties most men of my parent’s generation served in WW II or Korea. Mom gave me a book, “Stories of Great Battles” about the soldiers who fought famous wars throughout history. I must have been eight or nine. I read it time and again.
JANUARY 1966: “BALLAD OF THE GREEN BERET” RELEASED
A few years later a song embodied the spirit and courage of the brave men featured in “Great Battles.” Sgt. Barry Sadler released “Ballad of the Green Beret” in January 1966. It rocketed to the top of the charts remaining at No. 1 for five straight weeks and finished as the year’s top song. Mom bought me the record. I hummed the tune and memorized its lyrics. They told the bittersweet story of a father, son, and a shared military culture. I loved everything about that song. I was 12 years old.
During the 1960s, Vietnam was inescapable––there in newspapers, magazines, television, and endlessly debated. Even its spelling and pronunciation were disputed: Vietnam or Viet Nam? Did the second syllable rhyme with mom or ma’am?
We wrote reports about the war and by 9th grade, it was the debate prompt in Mrs. Gallagher’s speech class: “Resolved that the U.S. should withdraw its troops from Vietnam?” In the style of classic debate, we were expected to successfully argue both sides of the proposition. My debate partner was Jim Clem and together we clipped articles, copied quotes, researched facts, and assembled 3” x 5” index cards supporting and opposing the prompt. In real debates against fellow students staged before the entire room, we demolished our competitors. It was the fall of 1967.
JANUARY 1968: “SKY PILOT” RELEASED
Several months later another war song was released, this time by a blues-rock singer from Newcastle, England who’d moved his reformed band to flowery San Francisco during the Summer of Love. Eric Burdon and the Animals recorded a song quite different than any of their previous offerings – “Sky Pilot.”
How do you explain the feelings of a 14-year-old upon hearing Burdon’s spoken word introduction? “He blesses the boys, as they stand in line. The smell of gun grease and the bayonets they shine.” Or describe the power of bagpipes during the long instrumental interlude preceding the powerful final verse: “A soldier so ill looks at the sky pilot. Remembers the words, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ ”
On January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong launched their Tet Offensive, a military campaign that resulted in a sea change of American attitudes about the war. Four days prior Eric Burdon released “Sky Pilot,” all 7:27 minutes of it.
I purchased the 45 at Stan Boreson’s Music Center on Cole Street in Enumclaw. Side A is the 2:55 single, while Side B concludes the epic by showcasing the glorious sound of Scottish bagpipes. You had to flip the record to hear the entire song. Upstairs in that same bedroom once filled with notes from “The Ballad of the Green Beret,” I played “Sky Pilot” again and again. Two years prior Sadler’s ballad was the No. 1 song and the toast of a grateful country.
Zeitgeist is a German word that literally translates as ‘time-ghost’ but more generally renders it as ‘the spirit of an age.’ Those two records captured the spirit of my age. A 12-year-old smitten with soldiers and the romance of battle versus the 14-year-old touched to his soul by a verse adapted from the sixth Biblical commandment. Inside me two songs played, each battling for a hold of my conscience.
1971: COLLEGE AND THE DRAFT
Throughout high school, ad hoc debates erupted the few times we weren’t talking about ourselves. At family gatherings, U.S. involvement in the war often ended in arguments. When I arrived at college, students marched shutting down the freeway near campus. Eighteen-year-olds, including this one, registered for selective service while others spoke of fleeing to Canada. The Vietnam War would straggle for another three years.
That year’s draft lottery fell on Groundhog Day, 1972. We each saw the shadow of uncertain futures. It was an anxious time. What birth dates would be drawn? Mine drew a safe 139, with official expectations that only the top 50 numbers might be conscripted.
I was never called to serve and never joined the protests. I remained an observer to the events that unfolded around me. I generally held nuanced views on the war. Yet, two songs were buried deep in my heart––pulsating fragments of youth––imprisoned feelings of good and bad, right and wrong, Barry Sadler and Eric Burdon.
More than 30 years later, I assembled a music CD comprised of songs about the Vietnam War. I titled the collection, “Postmarked Vietnam.” It’s a refrain from another Barry Sadler song, “Letters from Vietnam.” The CD included both “Letters” and “Sky Pilot,” plus 20 others. The music therein still echoes through my inconclusive thoughts about a war that changed so many live.
DECEMBER 31, 2017: KARAOKE AND CLOSURE
In late December 2017, our family traveled to Japan to visit my son, Oliver who was teaching English in the small town of Hofu. It’s a small city about 60 miles southwest of Hiroshima. On New Year’s Eve, we booked our party of six into a Karaoke box, a private room in a building with dozens of similar sized rooms. Karaoke is very popular in Japan.
Each of our party selected several songs during an hour of entertaining each other. I chose “Sky Pilot” and Spencer joined me on vocals. Singing Eric Burdon’s masterpiece with my son was another piece in the jigsaw puzzle for processing feelings you can’t otherwise explain.
And maybe that’s why writing about music goes round and round like a record on a turntable. Always creeping closer to the center, but with no clear idea as to why and what we hear is mostly in the ear of the beholder.
* This quote has been attributed to many, including Martin Mull, Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa, Steve Martin, and others.
Postmarked Vietnam – May 2005 – WJK Studios
1. Nineteen (intro) – Paul Hardcastle 0:40
2. Summer of ’68 – Charlie Daniels Band 4:31
3. The War Correspondent – Eric Bogle 3:54
4. King of the Trail – Chip Dockery 1:42
5. Letter from Vietnam – Barry Sadler 2:29
6. White Boots Marching – Phil Ochs 3:31
7. Tchepone – Toby Hughes 4:14
8. I-feel-like-I’m-fixin’-to-die-rag – Country Joe 3:03
9. Cobra Seven – Toby Hughes 3:31
10. I Gotta Go to Vietnam – John Lee Hooker 4:23
11. Bring the Boys Home – Freeda Payne 3:31
12. P.O.W. – Merle Haggard 2:50
13. Talkin’ Vietnam Blues – Johnny Cash 2:58
14. Still in Saigon – Charlie Daniels Band 3:57
15. Vietnam – Jimmy Cliff 4:51
16. Khe San – Cold Chisel 4:09
17. Welcome Home – Eric Bogle 4:32
18. Drive On – Johnny Cash 2:23
19. My Vietnam – Pink 5:19
20. Sky Pilot – Eric Burdon 7:27
21. Will There Be a Tomorrow – Dick Jonas 3:37
22. Return to Vietnam – Kitaro 2:02