Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Music to Die For

Late ’67, the Army finally let Jeff Sharlet go after three years active service plus three years inactive reserve – at last the coveted Honorable Discharge. He was fortunate to have completed his military obligation when he did.  Others were not so lucky.  The Vietnam War was in full bore, the draft calling up previously deferred classes of men, both undergraduate and graduate students, married or not, with or without children, their prospects for avoiding war dimming daily as the “green machine” gobbled them up.  Many chose flight from the US or conscientious objection (CO); for some others already in the ranks, desertion was an option, but those paths didn’t prove successful for all.

Heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali, a convert to Islam, was one of those, and he paid dearly for standing up for his antiwar principles.  Despite having failed a key psychological test in ‘64 (the Army had lowered its standards by ’67) and meeting all the requirements for CO status, Ali refused induction. He was convicted for draft evasion, sentenced to 5 years in prison, fined $10,000, stripped of his title and passport, and banned from fighting in the United States. 

Not until ’71 did Ali’s appeal finally reach the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that he had indeed met the three standards for CO status: he opposed war in any form, his beliefs were based on religious teaching, and his objection was sincere.

It's a natural situation for a man to be free
Oh, what a feelin's just come over me
Enough to move a mountain, make a blind man see
Everybody's dancin', come on, let's go see
Peace in the valley, now they want to be free

Muhammad Ali, the Champ

While finishing his education at Indiana University (IU), Jeff  developed some ideas about how to reach out to GIs fighting the war.  He had gone to New York for an antiwar demonstration during summer ’67, and while there joined the newly formed Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), headed up by Jan Barry Crumb and a few other like-minded veterans.
Moving on to the University of Chicago for graduate work that fall, Jeff was torn between his academic aspirations and a near term desire to pursue anti-war work. Resolving his ambivalence, he left grad school and used the funds remaining from his Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to found Vietnam GI (VGI), an underground newspaper designed to give voice to serving GI’s who opposed the war. Arguably the first such newspaper, VGI eventually inspired hundreds of others. 

Times were a-changing as the great Human Be-In took place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park earlier that same year. The Be-In drew national attention to the Haight-Ashbury scene with its hippie drug culture and Flower Power peace movement. It was there that Timothy Leary proclaimed "Turn on, Tune in, Drop out." 

The following year young people adopted the song San Francisco as an anthem for freedom during the ‘Prague Spring’, the reform movement for ‘Socialism with a human face’ in Communist Czechoslovakia. The psychedelic pop song was an instant hit in the States and Western Europe. As psychedelia became a commercial and mainstream success, hippie counterculture, art, fashion, and music grew wildly popular:

All across the nation such a strange vibration
People in motion
There's a whole generation with a new explanation...

….For those who come to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there

Psychedelic art poster

The explosion of psychedelic music can be traced to the Beatles. The group had become interested in Eastern music and religion, and wove it – along with other innovative styles, instruments, and methods – into their music.  Their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club was voted the #1 all-time album by Rolling Stone, the bible of the new music. Critical reception was extraordinary, with one influential critic writing that it was a work of “bold ambition” and “startling originality,” eclipsing the earlier Elvis and Beatlemania phenomena.

Though the Beatles’ pop love ballad Michelle was the Grammy Song of the Year, the more memorable Sgt. Pepper with its ground-breaking music, lyrics, and album cover, along with the hit single Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, was released just in time for summer ’67. Dubbed the ‘Summer of Love’, it was the sequel to the earlier Be-In,  drawing over 100,000 to the Haight, the epicenter of hippie counterculture, and spawning copies Sgt. Pepper all over the world:

Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

Lucy in the sky with diamonds….

File:Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.jpg

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover

The psychedelic drug culture may have exhorted peace, love, and flower power, but the grim end game for many was addiction and often death by overdose (OD).  Musicians were not exempt—superstars Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison were among others who OD’d in ’70 and ’71.  Each of them had a unique, immensely popular  style.

Janis Joplin's electrifying stage presence and raspy, hoarse voice well-seasoned by booze, drugs, and fags earned her the title of the best white blues singer of her generation – if not of all time – and the Queen of Rock.  Her #1 hit, Me and My Bobby McGee, resounded with the spirit of the time.

Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose
Nothin', don't mean nothin' hon' if it ain't free, no no
And, feelin' good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues
You know, feelin' good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my Bobby Mcgee

Jimi Hendrix, widely regarded as the best electric guitarist of all time, shared a common fate of many young men with no particular direction who’d run afoul of the law one time too many:  Prison or the Army, said the judge.  Jimi took the Army.  He summed up his distinctive style in a note attached to demo tapes he submitted to a studio:  Distortion intentional, do not correct.  One of Hendrix's best known renditions was of Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower, which was widely associated with the futility of the Vietnam War and viewed as implying an impending cataclyism that would upend established society:

‘There must be some kind of way out of here’, Said the joker to the thief,
‘There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessman they drink my wine, Plowmen dig my earth
None will level on the line, nobody offered his word, hey’

Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors, shared some of Jeff Sharlet’s characteristics:  iconic, charismatic, and dead at 27.  He was a product of a strict military upbringing and made his feelings about the Vietnam War known in his psychedelic rock song, The Unknown Soldier”:
Unborn living, living, dead
Bullet strikes the helmet's head
And it's all over
For the unknown soldier

Although psychedelic music captured many of the top popularity slots, it smoothly co-existed with other genres, notably the ‘Motown Sound’ out of Detroit, then still in its creative heyday, with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and other well-known groups. 
The Supremes were the premier Motown girl group whose popularity rivaled the Beatles’.  Their eleventh #1, the dramatic ghetto protest-lament – Love Child – is a tale of shame and desperation as a woman, born out of wedlock herself, explains to her man why she holds herself back from him:

Love child, never meant to be
Love child, born in poverty
Love child, never meant to be
Love child, take a look at me

Country music also had a following, and now and then a crossover hit would make it to the top of the charts.  Perhaps no one better exemplifies this than “The Man in Black,” Johnny Cash, who scored big with his A Boy Named Sue, the story of a boy whose father named him Sue, then abandoned him and his Ma.  Sue grows up “mean and hard” and determined to get revenge by finding and killing the “son of bitch,” but has a change of heart upon hearing his father’s side of the story:

I got all choked up and I threw down my gun
And I called him my pa, and he called me his son,
And I came away with a different point of view.
And I think about him, now and then,
Every time I try and every time I win,
And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him
Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!

Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan teamed up for Dylan’s breakthrough country rock album Nashville Skyline, which included Dylan’s major hit Lay Lady Lay. It was later sung by the Byrds, the oft-recognized originators of the country rock genre with their ’68 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo,† which aimed at making country music appealing to the younger generation.  However, it didn’t sit well with traditional country musicians who saw the rock spin-off as a hippie ploy to subvert their beloved country music.

The folk rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young was known for political activism as well as music, and often the two went hand in hand.  One number was Teach Your Children, which appeared in ‘70, but is as meaningful and relevant today as it was then. The inspiration was a photo of an angry-looking child holding a toy grenade as he pondered what it meant for children about war and other societal issues:

You, who are on the road must have a code that you can live by.
And so, become yourself because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well, their father's hell did slowly go by,
And feed, them on your dreams, the one they picked, the one you're known by.
Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh, and know they love you.

One of Jeff’s favorite groups was the folk rock group Stone Poneys featuring the lovely and very talented Linda Ronstadt who would go on to become known as the First Lady of Rock.  Her hit single in ’67, Different Drum, originally written from a man’s point of view, reflected the new feminism as she sang it from the woman’s perspective:

♫You and I, travel to the beat of a different drum.
Oh, can't you tell by the way I run,
Every time you make eyes at me... Wo-oh.

The vibrant folk music scene at IU dwindled around ‘68, one theory being that the antiwar frenzy had drained energy away from it.  So it was around the world, with protestors takin’ it to the streets in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, London, Rome, and elsewhere.  It was the year protest turned deadly serious; every week, and sometimes more frequently, a new shocker made headlines.  Among the worst:

  • North Vietnam and the VC launched the countrywide Tet Offensive in the South, with over 7,000 Americans killed in action. CBS’s Walter Cronkite reported to the nation on return from Viet Nam, “We are mired in stalemate.”
  • Our shame, the My Lai Massacre, with over 500 civilians slaughtered took place, though the Pentagon covered it up for a year and a half before we learned of it.
  • Reverend King (MLK) assassinated in Memphis TN, 46 dead in ensuing riots in over a hundred American cities; Senator Robert Kennedy (RFK) eulogized him eloquently in Indianapolis IN, pleaded for a gentler nation, and averted a riot in that city.
  • In France ‘Bloody Monday’ was one of the most violent days of the Parisian student revolt against both the American war in Vietnam and the French government.
  • RFK assassinated in Los Angeles just two months after MLK.
  • The Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, putting an end to the ‘Prague Spring’; bloody clashes between antiwar protestors and police at the Democratic Presidential Convention in Chicago.
  • Police and military troops murdered hundreds of student demonstrators in Mexico City.
The year that rocked the world, 1968, ended on a note of musical tribute to leaders felled by assassins’ bullets – Abe Lincoln, JFK, MLK, and RFK.   Abraham, Martin, and John, a plaintive folk rock lament, was balm for troubled, despairing spirits and the pain of America’s collective loss:

Didn't you love the things that they stood for?
Didn't they try to find some good for you and me?
And we'll be free
Some day soon, and it's a-gonna be one day ...

Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
I thought I saw him walkin' up over the hill,
With Abraham, Martin and John.

The following March of ’69 the cover was blown on the My Lai Massacre, and the country learned the horrifying details of the most shocking event to date of the Vietnam War that had been  perpetrated a year earlier. It was beyond comprehension that US troops could commit such brutal acts against hundreds of defenseless people —wanton mass killing, rape, mutilation, and destruction. Adding to the shock of the massacre, the public learned that military authorities had issued an internal report shortly afterward stating that the attack was: “well planned, well executed, and successful. Friendly casualties were light and the enemy suffered heavily.”

The only saving grace that terrible day was Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson and his helicopter crew who intervened to stop the killing.  Singer/songwriter Thom Parrott memorialized their selfless actions in Pinkville* Helicopter:

The pilot looked down at the lieutenant’s gun
It was smoky and hot from the killing.
Said, “If I have to give my life for this child,
Then, by God, you know that I’m willing.”

Then the gunner who stood in the helicopter door
Called out to the lieutenant,
Said, “We’re calling your bluff.  There’s been killing enough.
If your gun starts more, mine will end it.”
So they flew the kids out to the medics who said,
“War is hell.  Even babies get wounded.”
The pilot just looked at his gunner and shook.
Said, “To kill them was what was intended.”

Civilians slaughtered at My Lai and environs, March ‘68

The full story of the massacre, emerging slowly over time, was published in the June ’70 issue of Vietnam GI almost a year to the day of Jeff Sharlet’s death on June 16, 1969 – the day the music died.  Jeff would have approved VGI’s verdict that the ‘authors’ of the war should stand trial:

             When you come right down to it, the wrong people
             are on trial for atrocities.  Nixon, Westmoreland,
             Abrams and Mendel Rivers, the very bullshitters
             who are most eager to see Charlie Co. brought to
             justice, are finally the men most responsible for
            My Lai. … They are the ones who taught us to kill,
            who put us over here in this mind-fucking shit hole
            and told us to go to it. In short, they started the war
            and they know you never have a war without atrocities.


*Pinkville was military jargon for a Viet Cong stronghold.
†Links to music videos:
Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds:

Me and My Bobby McGee:

All Along the Watchtower:

The Unknown Soldier:

Love Child:

A Boy Named Sue:

Sweetheart of the Rodeo:

Teach Your Children:

Different Drum:

Abraham, Martin, and John:

Pinkville Helicopter:

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