Monday, December 12, 2011
The Day John Fogerty Spoke to the Vietnam veterans
We call them by the generic and overused but righteous name of “hero” now. They fight for us, keeping us free and safe from evildoers. They put it all on the line, and sometimes, sadly, they lose it all. As a Veterans Memorial Park across the street from where I write this says, “All Gave Some, Some Gave All”. In 2011 , soldiers are somewhere on the pedestal next to Jesus and Mom and Pop. It wasn’t always that way though, not by a long shot. I’m talking about soldiers---the men and women who fight for this country and do not question their orders.
They used to be called “babykillers”, “thugs”, “murderers”, and more. They were spat upon in airports, attacked, and castigated, and after their particular war, the conflict in Viet Nam, often had a hard time returning to a society that treated them like outcasts. And many of them had been drafted into service, against their will, where they did honorable jobs doing very dishonorable acts. And some gave the title of soldier a bad name: witness the My Lai Massacre, and other atrocities. War itself is an atrocity, though, and it was a time where the divide between the young , anti-war and politically left leaning students and the older, pro-war factions fromtheir parents’ generation were at greater odds than ever before. The summer of love, Woodstock, and several political assassinations, along with the daily body counts from the war had rocked the world like never before.
And speaking of rock, it was rock and roll music that was the soundtrack for the era, and the war, and groups like the Doors, and Crosby, Stills and Nash provided the music that will forever be associated with that time and place. Certainly hindsight helps—Apocalypse Now, for instance—Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the Doors still resonates, as did Billy Joel’s Goodnight Saigon, with the line, “we passed the hash pipe, and played our Doors tapes…”
There was one act, though, whose songs really burned themselves into a nation’s soul, no matter which side you were on: Creedence Clearwater Revival. John Fogerty, he of the odd hair and flannel shirts---wrote songs as tuneful and smart as anyone, and the general appeal of his music meant that he had fans on both sides of the aisle, much as Bruce Springsteen would have a few years later. I’ve known many the diehard rich Republican who loves the song called Fortunate Son, even though it is directly and pointedly about his party, and not in a good way at all.
And so it came to be that more than a decade after the Vietnam war had ended, the soldiers, now veterans, were still being called baby-killers. Slowly, though, as information gradually came to light---information about some of the sinister misdeeds that the powers that lead had conjured up, information about the use of chemicals like Agent Orange and other health damaging substances, and conditions at home, the collective consciousness of the country began to change, and the plight of Vietnam vets, many of them homeless and unable to help themselves, became more and more clear to the general public. Someone came up with the idea of holding a concert, as a way to welcome home the Vietnam vets in rousing fashion, and as a way to say, “Mea culpa” and try to at least begin a healing process.
It was to take place in Landover, Maryland, on the perfect date: the 4th of July, 1987. The Vietnam War had been over for some 13 years, but the veterans who had fought in it, and who had been so publicly demonized for their part in a war that the United States had no right even being involved in, were still carrying a lot of baggage. Emotionally, it was still a very rough time. Physically it was even worse for many, with crutches, canes and wheelchairs all in abundance, as the vets walked, rolled and hobbled into the Capital Center for a benefit concert to honor them, and to raise to help homeless vets.
The lineup for the concert was impressive. Among those who were scheduled to perform were Lou Gossett Jr., Peter Fonda, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Linda Ronstadt, James Ingram, Anita Baker, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Richie Havens, , and John Fogerty.
Fogerty especially was a surprise because he had rarely played in public for many years, being held almost prisoner of a draconian contract that would not allow him to play any of his own songs, classics which he had recorded with Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR). He had recently released an album, Centerfield, containing all new material, his first in ten years, and he was just beginning to make public appearances in support of it. He even had early legal problems with the new album because of one song, called Zanz Kant Danz, a less than thinly veiled jab at record company honcho, and the source of Fogerty’s misery, Saul Zaentz. Zaentz, who owned Fantasy Records, CCR’s label, sued Fogerty for plagiarizing himself, a novel concept, claiming that The Old Man Down the Road, one of the new songs, shared a chorus with Run Through the Jungle, a classic CCR song that, while written by Fogerty, was copyrighted by Fantasy Records. Lawsuits went back and forth, with Fogerty winning reimbursement for his attorneys fees, and Zaentz getting a bit of redemption for his defamation of character suits due to Zanz Kant Danz (Zanz kant danz but he’ll steal your money,” the lyrics read) and another song called Mr. Greed.
The concert, called the Welcome Home Concert, was meant to be a feel good event. Veterans were admitted free. It was broadcast on HBO, who opened their signal to all for free. Various speakers like Lou Gossett Jr, who had played a Vietnam pilot in a film, and who came of age in the 60’s, addressed the crowd, as did many artists, writers, poets and others.
It was John Fogerty, though, who took things up a notch. After a slightly strange introduction by Peter Fonda, “Here is a guy who believes in his music…I believe in his music…and that belief has cost him over the years…but he’s refused to sell out…..so for some of the most KICKASS (nods head) ROCK AND ROLL ANYWHERE… here’s JOHN FOGERTY!”
Shortly after this, you could hear a sound man say loud and clear: “This is gonna blow your mind!”
Fogerty and band hit the stage, and broke into the opening notes to the new song Old Man Down the Road, playing them over and over until it almost seemed that he had forgotten the words. It was widely becoming known that he would not play any CCR songs due to his legal troubles with Fantasy, and Saul Zaentz. But then the band slowed down and gradually just stopped playing, leaving a feedback drone in the air which suddenly and skillfully turned into the introduction to Born on the Bayou, a Creedence standby. The audience, who had been sitting on their hands for the most part, went nuts. The song finished without a word, and was immediately followed by Down on the Corner, another instantly recognizable classic from the CCR oeuvre, and then, after huge applause, Fogerty spoke.
“I just want to tell you something real short…and sweet. I’m talking to the vets here….I myself have gone through about twenty years of pain…and I finally faced that pain. I looked it in the face and said well… You got a choice…you can do it for twenty more years or you can say, well, that’s what happened. You can’t change it that’s just what happened. So I’m telling you guys, it’s what happened…you got the shaft. You know it, we know it. It’s reality. So drop it. In fact, send me a letter…Berkeley, California…but you promise me something…you send the letter--- you drop it in the box and then you drop all that shit you been carrying around. Is that a deal? And get on with it buddy.
The applause that followed this impromptu little sermon wasn’t as vigorous or as loud as it had been for the music. I recall sitting and thinking that he was somewhat off base, comparing his legal contractual problems to those very real and very onerous issues that the vets were facing, and that it was not going to make him look like anything more than a spoiled musician who had lost touch with reality. But the music…the music that he played, both before and after his little speech was so profound in its power and beauty that all was forgotten and tacitly forgiven. As I listened to my recording of that day many times over the years, though, I still always felt a little embarrassed for Fogerty every time the speech part played. I wondered if anyone else ever thought about it, or felt the same way as had, or was everyone just caught up in the moment, and had disregarded it completely?
Then I discovered several posts on Youtube of the segment, and the commentary following them is divinded and telling. I was not alone in feeling both the power of the music and the doubt as to whther Fogerty shold have said what he said.
Samples: Richmullinax said: I was there for this, 7/4/87 and it was one of the best rock-n-roll experiences of my life. He had a strict policy of NOT playing CCR tunes, except for the induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame the previous year and one other guest appearance a few years previous. We had NO IDEA he was going to pull this stuff out! NO ONE expected CCR material! The sound guy in the back ground was right. it DID blow our minds!
A newspaper reviewer added the following in the days after the concert: That blunt advice (Fogerty telling the vets to drop it and to get on with life) marked the only time that the participants in the concert…didn't coddle the veterans, and it came as a bracing tonic amid the prevailing blandness.
From some veterans themselves came bitterness:
“I guess it’s easy for someone who was not even there to casually say ‘Hey, just forget it’ I doubt it is that simple John.” said one, using the name blackbeltpatriotism, as a comment to a blog entry in 2010.
Said another, treehot16: “I always liked CCR until I saw this clip. Still like the others in the group, but Fogerty has no idea what he is talking about. Been forty years, but the pain is still there. Thank God for the VA. I’m still alive.
Randymemphis said: Yes, I reckon he could have held back his thoughts on this one. Never tell someone how or what they should feel, If you have never walked in THEIR shoes.
So, opinions were divided. Some felt Fogerty, who had joined the reserves back in the 60’s as a way to avoid getting drafted, should have kept his mouth shut. Some people resent being told how to feel about an issue, especially when they are knee deep in it. Others feel, as I do, that once a certain amount of time has passed, that it is time to move on. We mourn our dead, adjust, and move on. That is exactly what I think John Fogerty was saying on that day almost 25 years ago. Then too, the Vietnam war was the most recent conflict. Now, in 2011, we have several wars of more recent vintage to ponder, and we have thousands more dead, and it still goes on and on. It may never stop.
But as long as wars are fought, and powerful music is made, I hope that common sense thinkers like John Fogerty will still be around to keep it real. And as long as soldiers continue to fight for the right to speak freely, the circle will remain unbroken.