Popular music held people together during Vietnam era of the ’60s and ’70s, both at home and on the battleground. But as veteran Doug Bradley knows, love songs and rock anthems were more than a backdrop to the war for soldiers on the front lines — they brought comfort and a sense of belonging to a diverse group of enlistees thrown together in the jungle. Bradley teamed up with music writer Craig Werner to relay the personal stories of veterans and the music that got them through Vietnam in We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War.
Now on the road promoting the book, they’re finding new stories wherever they stop: “What’s made this whole journey so rewarding is when, during these sessions, we invite vets in the audience to share their stories about their own music-based memory,” notes Bradley. “Time and again, it's incredibly moving.”
In advance of a Front Range blitz, we checked in with Werner about the how and why of WGGOTP.
Westword: How and why did this book and collaboration come to be?
Craig Werner: We met at a Christmas party at the Madison Vet Center. Doug's son and daughter had both taken my music-related classes, so Doug knew me second-hand. We started talking about our shared love of music and pretty soon a bunch of the guys were gathering round, sharing their stories about music in Vietnam. A couple of weeks later, we got together for a pitcher or two of beer at the UW student union and said, "You know, there might be a book in this.” Eleven years later, here we are.
How does the relationship between music and fighting a war in the Vietnam era differ from similar correlations in other eras?
Some of it's similar. There are always songs of longing, missing family. But Vietnam was different because music was so central to the soldiers' generation. As Doug says, "Radio was our Internet." It was truly shared musical mix. Guys didn't necessarily love every kind of music — country, soul, different kinds of rock all had their fans — but they heard it all. Everyone knew Dylan, Creedence, James Brown, Aretha, Motown, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash. Iraq and Afghanistan are different in part because everyone has their iTunes, so they can choose their own soundtrack. One thing we've found is that vets of the more recent wars frequently gravitate to the music of Vietnam as much as that of their own generation.
Name some songs of the Vietnam era that best demonstrate how music brought people together. Why these?
First and foremost, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” the Vietnam Vets' national anthem; the title says it all. But there were others, like “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which captures the sadness of guys leaving their girlfriends and families; “Chain of Fools,” which expresses some of the anger against the way the war was being fought (especially for black vets); “I Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die,” which catches the military humor, laughing to keep from crying. Hendrix, not so much one song as the sound of his guitar.
What do you hope readers will take away from We Gotta Get Out of This Place?
The human cost of war, the pain and suffering, but also the fact that music can play, has played, a crucial role in the story of survival and healing.
Do you have any favorite quotes from interviewees?
For me, it's Art Flowers, who wrote a beautiful solo about how Marvin Gaye's “What's Going On” helped shake him out of substance abuse and depression and commit himself to the cause of human freedom, for black people and all humanity. He closes it out with "You do your part, Ima do mine."
Craig Werner and Doug Bradley will discuss and sign copies of We Gotta Get Out of This Place ($26.95, University of Massachusetts Press) at these free book events across the Front Range:
Tattered Cover Colfax Avenue
7 p.m. Thursday, March 24
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Poudre Valley Library, Fort Collins
7 p.m. Friday, March 25
VFW Post 101
702 South Tejon Street, Colorado Springs
5 p.m. Saturday, March 26
Research Center and Center for the Study of the American West
Benson Earth Sciences, Room 180, CU Boulder campus.
6:30 p.m. Monday, March 28