talk delivered @ music and nations iii: music in postwar transitions (19th-21st centuries), université de montréal, 21 october 2018.
Thank you to the organizing committee for this conference, and to Judy-Ann Desrosiers for helping with logistics.
Today I speak to you about rock music after the Vietnam War, or more accurately as the Vietnam War transitioned toward its post-US end. From the height of US involvement in 1968/69 to the victory of the Communist North of Vietnam to the years after the war, we glimpse—and hear—something important, but often difficult to perceive: rock music generated a global form of cultural citizenship, a sense of belonging and affiliation that stretched across contexts and settings. Wherever the music went on the channels of US economic and military empire, it brought other, hidden energies. During the Cold War, particularly after it heated up in Southeast Asia, young people adopted rock not as an embrace of American geopolitical power so much as a kind of One World alternative. It was neither communist nor capitalist, but rather a kind of tie-dyed, pot-filled, Electric Ladyland—as Jimi Hendrix called it—a psychedelic swirl of the existing order into something else, an (imperfectly) gender-bent space, a Rococo filigree or overflowing possibility (to borrow from art critic Dave Hickey’s interpretation of psychedelic freak aesthetics), a vision of peace from the heart of war, not a Pax Americana so much as a Pax Countercultural.
The Fillmore, the iconic rock music hall from San Francisco, the city of the Summer of Love, sprang up everywhere. So, here we see a poster advertising a show by the CBC band, playing at a Saigon nightclub called, in 1971, the Fillmore Far East. How did rock circulate the Fillmore in San Francisco to the Fillmore East to the Fillmore Far East in Saigon in 1971? What did the music do? And why did it matter?
Another way to ask this question: to notice how transnational was the phenomenon of “Woodstock Nation,” as US political activist Abbie Hoffman named it after the infamous free festival in upstate New York in August 1969?
Woodstock Nation might more accurately be called the Woodstock Transnational. For it was far more than just an American or even a European-American phenomenon in the years of the slow transition of the US out of the Vietnam War, as Americans began to draw down troops yet continued to be deeply involved in the conflict in Southeast Asia.
In Mali, for instance, Manthia Diawara and friends organized a Woodstock-in-Bamako in 1971. “When I was in high school,” Diawara wrote in his book In Search of Africa, “I had a friend named Seydou Ly. We used to call him Sly, because of his Afro hairdo (which he still wears) and because of his love for the blues. When we were in high school, our group, which was called the Rockets [a social group club], often met at his house for tea, grilled meat, and music. Some members of the group played guitar, and there was a turntable with piles of rock and R&B records: James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Howlin’ Wolf, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Ike and Tina Turner, Sly and the Family Stone, BB King, Buddy Miles, and Albert King, as well as some white musicians such as The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, the Who, the Cream, Faces, the Grateful Dead, Joe Cocker, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad, Steppenwolf, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.” As Diawara’s list of rockers alongside R&B musicians suggests, rock music recordings—their sounds, their iconography—helped to spread a shared atmosphere of belonging, a kind of cultural citizenship, that one could partake of through style. Contrary to the portrayal of it in recent national US studies, while issues of race were present in it during this time of international black political activism, the counterculture was not a strictly segregated space at the global level.
So here we see that it is the Beatles’s iconic Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their 1967 album, that sits at the center of a photograph taken by Malick Sadibe in a Bamako youth club whose members called themselves The Beatles. All around the world, rock was the soundtrack for a youth counterculture that became an imagined territory one could join simply by spinning a record and pointing to the album sleeve’s images. “We wore peace signs and flowers on them,” Miantha Diawara explains, “we smoked marijuana; we were against the war in Vietnam….” To be part of the Woodstock Transnational was to use music to set out a space against the war, in part through the rock genre.
But what about in Vietnam itself?
It wasn’t just that rock played far from Vietnam, in the West—such as, say, where London met San Francisco at the Woodstock Festival—or in newly decolonized spaces such as Bamako, where it became a sign, Diawara explains, for the generation born just after independence to be at once anti-imperial and modern; rock was widely present in the Vietnam conflict itself.
Leading officials of the US military brought domestic consumer culture to Vietnam to try to boost the morale of their American personnel. Because they faced particularly low morale among young draftees and enlistees after 1968, they made a concerted effort to send in consumer culture aimed at youth—which by the late 1960s meant rock music. So, as historians such as Meredith Lair document, you could get rock records in PX stores on military bases, order them through the mail, family and friends sent recordings on the new cheap cassette tapes one could now purchase, you could hear acid rock on Armed Forces Radio, especially on a show called, of course, Sgt. Pepper’s.
But not only that. The US military went so far as to encourage their own personnel to play rock for each other. As the US drew down troops, the Entertainment Branch of the US Army in Vietnam organized the CMTS (Command Military Touring Shows), auditioning musically talented personnel, putting bands together, and sending them out on tours for 60-day temporary duty to perform for fellow Americans.
The bands could go where entertainment contracted for the US military could not.
They typically performed in uniform, but often military decorum started to break down at shows, according to after-action officer’s reports, as the bands played cover versions of rock songs by Jimi Hendrix or the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, or even songs that became anthems of discontent in Vietnam such as “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil as a Brill Building pop song about escaping working-class life and made most popular by the British Invasion group the Animals. Bands even performed songs such as Edwin Starr’s “War (What Is It Good For? Absolutely Nothing)” or Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” which were overtly antiwar anthems (although could also be sung and received by military personnel not to stop the war, but rather more as sonic embraces of the absurd, dark energies of the Vietnam conflict itself).
The US military itself began to embrace the psychedelic style of the Woodstock Transnational, as if the clubs on their bases were themselves new franchise outposts of the Fillmore. So here we see an ersatz psychedelic poster like the ones being made across the Pacific in San Francisco, this one for “Fixed Water, Psychedelic Band,” which went on not one but two tours of duty in 1969 and 1970.
So even early on in Vietnam’s long transition from the height of US involvement in its civil war (marked, let’s say, by the Tet Offensive in January 1968) to the long, yet extremely violent final years of the war, rock music was part of a mixing of war culture and counterculture—hippie scrawled graffiti-style on a GI’s helmet, as in this iconic photograph taken by the magnificent Tim Page in Saigon of a member of the 8th Regiment of the US Army in Vietnam during the mini-Tet Offensive in May 1968.
Or in another of Page’s iconic, striking photographs, we see a US Marine at the Khe Sanh battle of 1968, with both a peace medallions & bandolier slung around his neck. Symbols of the hippie counterculture mingled with the weapons of warfare—and rock music often was the soundtrack, the mediating cultural form, that accompanied the confusing combination. After all, one of the ubiquitous helicopters of the war could blast rock tunes from its radio system alongside the clatter of machine-gun fire and industrial whir of blades; tanks could play rock through their radio systems; American military personnel plugged in their record and cassette players to unused frequencies on military radio to play songs for each other, disc jockey, and talk on what became know as the “Bullshit Net”; and Air Force personnel recount conducting bombing missions over North Vietnam with Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” playing in their headsets. Which is to say rock music was part of a sort of wartime sublime for participants: a sound all at once distance oneself from the war (numbing oneself as with drugs to the violence one was committing); perhaps sometimes music to express protest against the war; and also, oddly, when rock itself incorporated warlike sonorities into the music, a way to feel one’s way into and through the affective power of participating in a disconcertingly technological mode of warfare (what James William Gibson calls “technowar”). Rock was, in other words, deeply and profoundly in the mix of Vietnam’s wartime transitions toward a postwar moment.
But not just Americans overseas waging war participated in rock music and the counterculture. Vietnamese youth themselves also appropriated and adopted Western-style rock, in complex ways that are important to grasp. To understand this, we might turn our attention to the CBC Band.
CBC – Con Bà Cu, “Mother’s Children.” They were encouraged by their mother to play music; their older brother was in the Republic of Vietnam’s Navy Marching Band; their family had fled from North Vietnam. Music became a means of trying to survive in the transition from the French colonial war of the 1950s to the US intervention of the 1960s.
The band’s brothers and sisters performed in Saigon’s streets, for a radio program and…
…eventually at nightclubs such as the ones on Plantation Road near the Tan Sa Nhut US airbase on the outskirts of Saigon.
…where Happiness was acid rock on Plantation Road.
And the CBC performed at the Fillmore Far East…the “only psychedelic club in town with psychedelic light show,” among other locations.
At these places, CBC began to be known as “the Beatles of Saigon,” performing the latest hits from “back in the World” as the Americans in the ‘Nam called it, learning songs by request, translating the English lyrics into phonetic Vietnamese at first before they even really understood fully what the words meant.
We can see them here, and the ironies of the Woodstock Transnational’s postcolonial hybrid begin to multiply. They are young Vietnamese, but wearing American flag t-shirts; yet they playing an anti-war song, “People Let’s Stop the War,” by Grand Funk Railroad. The sisters in the band (and one sister-in-law) don the countercultural Western clothing of free love, wearing slacks and t-shirts, but they do so to avoid the strip-show burlesque outfits most Vietnamese women had to wear in Saigon’s seedy red-light district. Most of all, they embrace the most hedonistic, individualistic, modernistic, rebel-against-your-parents countercultural music of rock to…keep their family together during wartime, both economically and quite literally (remember that the family, not the individual, is the basic unit of traditional Vietnamese society).
If they were, the Viet Cong sure did not think so. One club CBC played at, the CBC My Phung club, was bombed in 1971, most likely by the Viet Cong, in an attack, supposedly while the band was playing Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”
The explosion killed a GI and a Vietnamese woman. CBC survived.
But these sorts of experiences created a kind of ghostly, “we’re already dead” sensibility within the Vietnam War’s plodding, bloody transition to a postwar state during the early 1970s. The American intervention was drawing down through Richard Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization,” yet the war dragged on. In the thick of this transitory situation, CBC and their audiences were oddly conscious of the transition out of it. In this way, rock music played an odd role: it was music of the now, but also of the future looking back at the past, a sound recorded in the midst of war for posterity in the postwar transition after the war was over. In the “‘Nam” and “back in the world”—this temporal liminal zone of a wartime transition to postwar period manifested geosnatially as well. Give a listen to how lead singer Bich Loan introduced their recording of cover songs on what amounted to a 1971 bootleg album made for GIs to remember their time in Vietnam, a sort of souvenir alongside the kinds of trinkets and momentos that American fighters would take home with them (from customized Zippo lighters to “dog tags” to even enemy teeth and bones).
Eventually, in 1974, CBC’s members were tipped off by friends (probably in the CIA) that the Republic of Vietnam’s US-backed government in the south was about to fall to the Communist forces from the north of Vietnam, and fled. They made their way to Thailand and then to Bali and then to a Buddhist monastery. Now they were truly in a postwar transition, wandering stateless around Southeast Asia. It was in the monastery in New Delhi where a ABC television crew filmed CBC in 1975, this time performing a song they had written themselves about their own story.
…this time the latest disco hits of the 1970s, as a contract band for Ramada Inns located around the Midwest.
Eventually CBC settled in Houston, where they continue to perform both for the large Vietnamese expatriate community there as well as for…Vietnam veteran reunions, including this one for the GIs who were in the My Phong club in 1971 the night the Viet Cong supposedly bombed it.
Here we might notice how long the postwar transition from Vietnam continues, and how much rock music carries its ghosts forward on memories, unfinished songs, and strong senses of international affiliation—the Woodstock Transnational lives on. Here’s the news report.
Purple haze, after all, was named by Jimi Hendrix partly after the color given off by the M18 smoke grenade. But this story always took on hybrid forms in specific situatons even as it linked together a global sense of affiliation.
It did so in Bamako, as we’ve seen.
It did so in Mexico, at the Avándaro Festival, Mexico’s Woodstock-like event in 1971.
And it did so in Brazil through the Tropicalia movement, in which samba-inspired musicians such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil teamed up with a rock band, Os Mutantes (The Mutants) to develop a musical hybrid that offended both left and right, communists offended by the interest in Western commercialism and wanting music to portray only “traditional” peasant and worker’s culture in Brazil and conservatives threatened by Tropicalia’s embrace of rebellious, individualistic freedom. It was enough to get Veloso and Gil imprisoned in 1968 and sent into exile in London in 1969.
So too, we see the Woodstock Transnational turn up in Czechoslovakia, where the Primitives, soon to have members join the Plastic People of the Universe, embraced American and British psychedelic rock by the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa, eventually getting arrested by the Communist authorities simply for playing weird music. This became an affront to dissidents such as future Czech Republic President Václav Havel, who wrote a foundational document, the Charter 77 Manifesto about cultural and political freedom in support of them.
The Woodstock Transnational tended to feed, in either nascent, oddly subterranean ways or, sometimes, as in Havel’s case with the Plastic People, in explicit ways, the effort to expand global civil society as a space of expressive freedom for individuals as well as a kind of moving atmosphere of opportunity for more authentic collective and communal association among strangers than offered by existing modes of either state-sponsored or mass consumer culture.
The Woodstock Transnational even spread to the Soviet Union itself, where “hippi,” as they were known, wandered the countryside into the 1980s, listening to samizdat recordings of the Jefferson Airplane and other 1960s rock groups, seeking out neither Soviet communism nor American mass consumer culture, but rather some other place of freedom and worldwide countercultural affiliation: a republic of rock whose territory was made of sound but whose spirit cut deep, right across political and cultural boundaries, right through the transitions of post-Vietnam War global life.
In all these places, the Woodstock Transnational came to life to the tunes of rock. The road to the “Filmore” was worth hitchhiking on in search of answers to the question that CBC, borrowing the lyrics and melody from Grand Funk Railroad, asked: “Hey all you people, for goodness sake / Let’s get together, what does it take?”
Today, decades later, still trying to transition from the traumas of the Vietnam War, we continue to ask this urgent question.