Vietnam and Rock & Roll

By Michael W. Rodriguez

In the Fall of 1967 the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines had just come off an absolutely disastrous operation called Medina. Hotel Company had had beaucoup people hurt and killed, so we regrouped on our mountain, licking our wounds, receiving new people, drawing fresh ammo, and here comes my man Parker. Parker was just back from R&R in Hong Kong (where he came down with malaria - in Hong Kong!). He's got this portable record player under his arm, the 10 D-cell kind, and a red plastic album, the kind you bought overseas in those days.

So we say, "What you got, man?," and he says, "It's a new album by the Beatles, called 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.'"


Now, just a day or two before, we had welcomed a couple of FNG's (-New Guys) into the Company, and we'd naturally asked them what was "hot" back in The World, besides mini-skirts (we had already seen pictures of those!), and this one kid says, "A song by The Boxtops called 'The Letter'." Not too long after that, but before Parker came diddy-bopping back to the Bush, we heard 'The Letter' on AFRVN, the radio station down in Saigon. We thought, "Yeah - There it is!" Get me a ticket for an airplane. I heard that!

How many times, over there, did we go Rock'N'Roll in a firefight, and not mean the Rolling Stones, or The Who, or The 4 Tops? Many, many times. Rock'N'Roll meant fully automatic fire, get some adrenaline running through the body like a runaway train.

We were not warfare's first generation to go to war to the sound of music (sorry, bad pun; couldn't help it), but we were certainly the first of America's fighting men to go off to war listening to musical groups with names such as The Beatles, The Boxtops, Thee Midnighters, The Dell-Kings, the 4 Tops, Sam & Dave, etc, etc. Loud music, raucous music, music meant to get the body moving, music that totally hacked our folks off! In short, it was music that said, "Yo! This is ours. This is us!"

We went off to war, having grown up to Jerry Lee Lewis (remember his 13 year old bride?), Fats Domino, Elvis, the Stones (they didn't want to hold your hand, they wanted to spend the night together), The Kinks (some say "Louie, Louie" was the dirtiest song ever written), Doug Sahm and those that sang of young love: the Flamingos, the Shirelles ("Soldier Boy" anticipated Jody by only a few years), The Byrds (8 Miles High? Right!) and the 5 Satins' anthem to Junior High's First Love, "In the Still of the Night."

We fought the war listening to The Animals, The Doors ("Light My Fire" is a classic), Bob Dylan (You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows), Janis and Credence Clearwater Revival (you better "Run Through The Jungle"). Country Joe's "I'm Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" became, for many of us, the song for Vietnam. Bitter, sarcastic, angry at a government some of us felt we didn't understand, the "Rag" became the battle standard for too many Grunts in the Bush.

And we also had Gracie Slick, the Grateful Dead, Iron Butterfly and the ubiquitous Four Seasons ("Walk Like a Man," but sing like a girl) and for Gary Reinhardt (wherever you are), the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl." We got drunk to Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" (I left on the eve of TET; I didn't miss a thing, not a thing) and we thought about our loves back in The World while listening to Aaron Neville's "Tell It Like It Is."

Hey, hey, my, my. Rock and Roll will never die.

My buddy Parker, along with his 10 D-Cell record player and Beatles album, introduced us to an entirely new genre of music, album rock, and with it, an entirely new form of warfare (for Americans, anyway): concept war. Maybe that's why Vietnam and Rock'N'Roll seem to go so well together.

Remember the television series, "Tour Of Duty"? It opened, for example, with "Paint It Black" by the Rolling Stones and producer Zev Braun could not have picked a better song, nee anthem, to define his vision of the Vietnam War.

Hey, hey, my, my. Yo, Parker. This one's for you.

To paraphrase Kevin Kline's character in "The Big Chill," there is no other music in my house.

"My baby she wrote me a letter."

copyright © 1990, 1995 by Michael W. Rodriguez, all rights reserved