Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Best Vietnam Song

What is the best musical expression to fit the Vietnam Conflict? ...I know what I'm getting into here. Nostalgia. Stepping on the memories of vets. Rolling Stones bashing.

The war happened between 1963 and 1972: Military overconfidence, civilian casualties, strung-out draftees. Even in the wake of the aftermath, artists still wrote about the conflict. But which has the perfect vibe?

A few songs come to mind:
  • "Blowin' in the Wind" (1963)
  • "The Times They Are a-Changin'" (1964)
  • "I Can't Get No (Satisfaction)"  (1965)
  • "The End" (1967)
  • "White Rabbit" (1967)
  • "Give Peace a Chance" (1969)
  • "Fortunate Son" (1969)
  • "War Pigs" (1970)
  • "Born in the USA" (1984)
Now Bob Dylan was mega in that era. A poetic and a reluctant leader. He would deny the Sixties and probably say he was above the war and politics. I'm going to throw him out, yes I am.

"Satisfaction" by the Stones seems almost perfect. Not for the content, but the attitude. Who can forget the water skiing scene in Apocalypse Now? But, it's not there yet. In that same film, "The End" destroys a treeline (and a man) with atonal cacophony. And that's what Vietnam encapsulated: Western cacophony. But, the Doors are a little too hipster for the demographic of Army grunts, aren't they?.

"White Rabbit" seems ideal with the whole drug culture thing. But, not everyone did dope. And, the crescendo ending is almost triumphant. Vietnam wasn't about triumph. Creedence Clearwater Revival is the face of Southern rock. And, I must have looped "Fortunate Son" once for a straight hour. But, I feel that this is a song for all the people who didn't get drafted. It wasn't an anthem for soldiers, was it?

Black Sabbath doesn't bring Saigon or Mekong to mind. I feel it was a tad too heavy for the time, an eclectic track. Now, a classic; then, an outsider metal song.

I doubt most veterans realize "Born in the U.S.A." is anti-Vietnam. It came out in the 80s, and had every American flag-waver singing the chorus (but ignoring the verses). Ironic, and probably frustrating for Springsteen. Really good songwriting... not depressing enough.

....There is one song, unlisted and relatively unknown to pop culture. And, to be honest, it--above all others--captures the essence of Vietnam. The essence that Capt. Benjamin Willard shows in the Kurtz compound. The paranoia, the distress... raw insanity. Synthesizers. Fucking 'Nam.

The Frogs are a weird band, no getting around that. So obscure, yet so respected by the rock community. Kind of like the Shaggs, even down to the family connection. But not really.

They have a song, not on any of their albums, which succinctly describes this War. Napster brought this song to my ears. My best guess for recording year is 1995.

"'Nam" starts with a warm synthesizer, and like any good epic, resonates with an opening: "I wish to God/I'd never gone/to Vietnam". And, from there, the descent into madness. It's more of a soliloquy than a song.

God, did they nail it. The nature of modern warfare is there. It's almost soothing. Free form droning with barely a rhyme (just like Vietnam). Sound effects like helicopter propellers and gunfire--real horror gunfire--issue from the left speaker. And, the wails of women are heard.

Their song is a soldier's recollection of Vietnam in a sequence of random imagery and inner dialogue. I can imagine a veteran smoking on his couch. M16 in-hand, eyes glazed over, recanting his successes and failures through military service. Spouting lines like he's flipping through TV stations. One minute he's talking about being a hero, the next he's torturing a Vietcong. Fantasizing about girls he left back home; then Comin' Home in a Body Bag rants. It's all violent, even the crying.

The synth pulses sound like a funeral dirge... a predecessor to Radiohead's piano experiments. Dennis Flemion's voice sounds sneering, fragile, whiny, angry, real. The final couplet summarizes the war like a sportscaster: USA, zero. Vietnam, one.

It clocks in at over eight minutes and there's nothing I can find about it online. So, I'm posting the file and the lyrics for posterity's sake.

Edit: forgot to name-drop Alice in Chains "Rooster"!

The MP3 is available here.

Further reading:

'Nam Lyrics
There were years
There were years
Those were years,
I'd like to forget.
I wish to God
I'd never gone
to Vietnam

Fuckin' 'Nam!
Fuckin' 'Nam!
Viet Nam!

There were times
Had to shoot
Fucking had to shoot
my gun

There were times
when the pain
got so bad
in 'Nam

Maybe took
Gook by the hair
Did some damage
in Vietnam

apologies came later
Said I was sorry
Said I was sorry
for the My Lai Massacre

Havin' kicks
Havin' my kicks
with a broad.

People think it was a joke:
Listen to rock n' roll music
and drive around in cars.

Well, I fought
for our freedom
in Vietnam

Fuckin' Vietnam.
It wasn't fun.

What was it like in.....

Did I say it sucked?
Rice paddy nights
No light
The light was gone

we had some fun
Maybe pull out a gun
Re-slant the Gook's eyes
I said I was sorry
for the shit in 'Nam
Yeah, I came back a hero
from Vietnam.

Still trying to get over
the good times
Good times I had
Everything was fun,

Oh, I cried a lot of tears
Charlie don't surf no more
He got, he got
fucked up behind the ears

Excuse me, I have to fight again.
(Sorry about that.
It's just, just part of
the way things are in Vietnam.)

Did you get my letter?
Did you get my letter?
I know you'll still love me
when I get back home.

After all, it's part of
my reward
for the good I've done.

It's going to be nice
decorated with medals.
Gonna be good times.

Everyone will cheer.
Throw up their arms
and climb
to the highest sphere.

I'm a hero now.
The War days are done.
They're behind me now.

They shouldn't have let me
Shouldn't have let me
bring home my gun.

Everyone once in awhile
I get the fuckin' memories,

You'll maybe see
a Gook's head
A baby head
Floating in a river.
Da Nang.

Sorry Charlie,
you don't fucking
surf no more.

Charlie don't fucking
live no more.
He don't.
He don't live no more
in Vietnam.

Others shipped him home
In a bag.
It was his bag
to be shipped home
from Vietnam.

Job well done!

USA, zero.
Vietnam, one.

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