Authors explore the music and sound of the Vietnam era
By SEAN MOORES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 8, 2016
Like many great conversations about music, it started at a party.
Doug Bradley, a Vietnam veteran, and Craig Werner, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, met at a Christmas party at the Madison Vet Center in 2003. They struck up a conversation about ’60s music that soon took on a life of its own as several veterans joined in and shared their stories and experiences. As the Thunderclap Newman song says, there was something in the air.
“It was really amazing to watch. And then, even though we had just met, we sort of said, ‘There’s something going on here,’ ” said Bradley, 69. “And a couple of months later we grabbed a beer on the terrace there at the university and sat out on the lake and said, ‘Let’s write a book.’”
Their 2015 book, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War,” explores the music of the era, how troops used music to cope with life in a war zone and how veterans turned to music as a means of survival and reintegration upon coming home.
As they wrote, they found a niche.
“This is telling part of the story that we didn’t hear (in) other places,” said Werner, 64. “When we started out we thought we were going to organize it around a Vietnam vets’ Top 20 — choose 20 songs and use those to tell the story. And then we started interviewing people and it became a Top 200 or a Top 2,000 or something like that very, very rapidly. Ten years later, we decided it was just time to finish writing the book, and part of that was way too many of the guys who we talked to were starting to die. We wanted to get it out while as many as possible were still with us.”
Bradley and Werner also ended up co-teaching a class called “The Vietnam Era: Music, Media and Mayhem” at Wisconsin. They dug into the soundtrack of Vietnam for a decade, conducting hundreds of interviews that centered on a common question: What was your song?
“I think, frankly, it was a way for some of these people to get back home from the war.”
- Doug Bradley, Vietnam veteran
“We learned very early on to start our interviews with, ‘Did you have a song that you connect with Vietnam?’,” Werner said. “Because, this is no secret, if you go to a Vietnam vet and say, ‘Hey, man, what was it like?’ Good damn luck. You’re not getting anywhere. But the music opened that up.”
The authors had a good handle on the material. Bradley, a music lover from Philadelphia, was drafted into the Army in March 1970 and soaked up the soundtrack of Vietnam while serving as an information specialist at Long Binh from November ’70 to November ’71.
Werner played organ in a band named Armageddon, gigging in front of GIs and hippies alike around Fort Carson, Colo., during the war. He’s written other music books and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s nominating committee. Despite their musical bona fides, Bradley and Werner still found themselves surprised at times.
“I sort of expected a little more edgy things, maybe a little politics,” Bradley said. “Not the black and white politics we had in America at the time, but what stunned me was there’s ‘My Girl’ and (Otis Redding’s) ‘(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay’ and there’s (Peter, Paul and Mary’s) ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ and (The Beach Boys’) ‘Sloop John B’ — ‘Detroit City’ by Bobby Bare. So many songs about longing and wanting to be somewhere else and wanting to be home or missing the person you loved. And I didn’t expect that in those conversations.”
They also found that songs held different meanings for different people. The track from which their book takes its title is a prime example. “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” written by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, was pitched to the Righteous Brothers as the follow-up to their 1965 No. 1 hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”
“Cynthia Weil sent us the demo copy and, man, it would have been a No. 1 hit, without any question, by the Righteous Brothers,” Werner said. Instead, the get-out-of-the-ghetto song was recorded by the Animals, who were making a move from working-class Newcastle upon Tyne, England, to London.
Released in July 1965 in the U.K. and September ’65 in the United States, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and its bubbling bass line rose to No. 2 and No. 13 on the charts in those countries, respectively. Meanwhile, the song took on a life of its own in Vietnam. It resonated more strongly as the war dragged on and fell out of public favor.
Bradley recalls hearing the song for the first time after arriving in country. Two soldiers from his new office at Long Binh were preparing to leave Vietnam, which was cause for celebration.
“We’re coming in, two guys are going out, so they had a DEROS (Date Eligible For Return From Overseas) party,” Bradley said. “And it was one of the best parties I’ve ever been to. I’m in country two weeks, and they played ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place.’ And we all joined arms and sang and we changed the words. When they go, ‘(girl there’s a) better life for you and me,’ we said, ‘in the U.S.A.’ That was our closing line.”
“We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War” presents a thorough history of how technology — transistor radios, access to inexpensive reel-to-reel and cassette decks and the establishment of Armed Forces Vietnam Network radio — and cultural factors turned Vietnam into the so-called Rock and Roll War. There are USO shows, Filipino cover bands and minstrels in the hooch. You can read about the four most popular acts among troops (James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and Creedence Clearwater Revival).
Bradley and Warner delve into the patriotism that pushed Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” to No. 1 in 1966 — and the parade of parodies that followed. They collected this chronology through conventional research, reporting and writing, but also by putting voices of the veterans front and center by letting them write about their experiences.
These “solos,” by a diverse group that includes white, black, Hispanic and Native American veterans, provide the beating heart in the book’s narrative. The passages, and many of the behind-the-scenes interviews, served another important purpose.
“I think, frankly, it was a way for some of these people to get back home from the war, Bradley said. “There were many, many moments, almost universal, when a person would start to tell us a story they’d never told before . . . Sometimes we’d go to sit down with them and they’d have their kids in the room and they’d talk — that was when they finally got home.”
“We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War” was well received critically, earning praise from Rolling Stone as Best Music Book of 2015. Bradley and Werner hope that getting troops home, a return so many were denied, can be part of their book’s legacy.
“I think the legacy of the book is that — maybe 40 years too late — we found a way to have a dialogue with the men and women who fought in Vietnam, and that music was essential to enabling them to heal,” said Bradley, who named “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” when asked for “his song” from Vietnam. “I think the book’s about healing. I want the legacy to be that two or three hundred people that we talked to were able to get back home and to heal.”
Added Werner, who cited CCR’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” as the song he associates with Vietnam: “We usually close our class with it, and usually — the last few times I’ve listened to it, it really hit me. . . . I’m looking at our TAs (teaching assistants), these younger (Iraq and Afghanistan) vets, (and) I’m just thinking … let’s not do this again … can we please learn something?”