The Songs of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

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Most of these longitudes essays relate to whatever’s on my mind at a given moment (“Random Musings…”). Right now, I’m into the Vietnam War. I’m reading “Vietnam: A History” by Stanley Karnow, and I just finished watching the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick multi-part documentary “The Vietnam War.”

I’ve seen eight of the ten episodes of the series. After a second run-through, I’ll probably offer my usual two cents. Other people’s critiques on the documentary appear to be as polarized as the actual war, and I’m learning as much about the war (or, at least, how it affects people) by reading their reviews as by the documentary itself. Folks seem to either love “The Vietnam War,” or hate it.

As with so many things these days, there’s no demilitarized zone.

But, although I’m not ready to comment on the merits of the Burns-Novick documentary, I’m always ready to squeeze the trigger on music, and music plays a major role in “The Vietnam War.” So I’ll offer my assessments now. Having been born in 1958, I grew up listening to a lot of the film’s 120 songs, and I still listen to them regularly, so now’s a good opportunity to share my enthusiasm, or lack thereof.

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The Vietnam War was the first (and perhaps only) conflict to have a soundtrack. For maybe the first time, song lyrics were being written directly about a war. Other songs weren’t necessarily about the war, but they elicit such a strong emotional response amongst veterans of both the war and peace movement, they’re forever linked with Vietnam in people’s minds.

I’ve divided the music of “The Vietnam War” into four categories: the original score; songs that directly deal with war (lyrics related to Vietnam, or war in general); songs indirectly about war (songs with universal themes that could be associated with war); and songs of the time period that have little or nothing to do with war.

The original score: Good background music should bolster and reflect the mood of the film. Though I’m not a fan, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and his collaborator Atticus Ross created a brooding mix of industrial noise, eerie sound effects, and minimalist piano that convey the weirdness and horror of what happened over there. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble borrowed themes inspired by Vietnamese music for the scenes in Asia. I applaud the producers for their good sense in choosing these artists.

Songs about war: We’re talking 1960s and ‘70s, so “songs about war” means protest songs, but I was somewhat disappointed in these choices. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” was one of the first such written, and it’s perfect. Also great is Country Joe McDonald’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” (“Well it’s one, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?”), and Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” effectively sets the tone for what’s to come, and his “With God on Our Side” is more than appropriate, a savage statement about promoting war through a lens of false piety (sing it, Zimmy).

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Country Joe McDonald, at Woodstock Festival (photographer unknown)

In fact, there are no less than nine Dylan songs here, and “With God on Our Side” is featured twice. Dylan’s a dazzling songwriter, the poet of the counter-culture, and he wrote some searing anti-war songs. But nine songs are overkill. Joan Baez and Phil Ochs, contemporaries of Dylan, only got one song apiece (Baez’s cover of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and Ochs’ classic “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”). I can think of at least a half-dozen Ochs songs directly about ‘Nam, such as “We Seek No Wider War,” “Cops of the World,” and “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land.”

Dylan eventually cloaked his songs in obliqueness, whereas Ochs and Baez never wavered from blunt social protest. They deserve more than one song apiece.

Songs indirectly about war: A big thumbs up for the Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which Seeger adapted from a Bible verse. Also, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which he wrote partially about the Vietnam War, but also about inner-city militancy and police brutality, and a song where Gaye courageously broke from traditional Motown song formulas.

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Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, England, 1965

Songs of the time period: This is, by far, the largest category of songs in the documentary. For a lot of these songs, I was scratching my head. “It’s My Life” by the Animals was blasted on top of an interview with the mother of a fallen soldier, and is jarringly out of place. The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” is a Lou Reed short story set to music, about a lovesick sap who mails himself to his girlfriend. “The Vietnam War” uses the music only, since the lyrics have nothing to do with war. But even the music is obscure, since it was never played on the radio, and the album from which it was taken (WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT) sold only a few copies when it was released in December, 1967.

Jimi Hendrix, a former army paratrooper, has three songs featured: “Are You Experienced?,” “Voodoo Chile,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” the last-named written by guess who. Hendrix’s muscular, metallic guitar is a good choice for a war documentary, but more pertinent would have been the live version of “Machine Gun,” one of his most intense songs, propelled by combat sound effects, or his searing interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the Woodstock Festival.

And since it’s the Sixties, and drugs were everywhere, including the killing fields of ‘Nam, we have to have a drug song, correct? But “White Rabbit” must be the dumbest song ever written about drugs. Weren’t any of the producers aware of Sainte-Marie’s “Codine,” or Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death,” or the Velvets’ “Heroin,” or Joni Mitchell’s “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”? I guess not.

(If they’d have contacted me, I’d have gladly advised them about drug songs).

Another blunder: Barry McGuire’s overcooked “Eve of Destruction” (written by P.F. Sloan) is just as embarrassing now as when it was released. Big mistake.

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Jimi Hendrix (photo Rolling Stone magazine)

There are lots of good R&B songs, though. A couple Booker T. and the M.G.’s songs, a couple Otis Redding numbers, including “Respect” (and I’m glad they chose Redding’s version instead of Aretha Franklin’s). The Temptations are represented with “Psychedelic Shack,” although “Ball of Confusion” might have been more appropriate.

My big revelation was the Staple Singers covering Dylan’s “Masters of War” (the arrangement of which Dylan borrowed from the traditional English folk song “Nottamun Town”). Dylan’s version is stark and unmerciful, a knife into the gut of those who play with the lives of young people like “it’s (their) little toy.” The Staples version is as spooky as it is angry. “Pops” Staples sings like Delta bluesman Bukka White, his ghostly guitar notes ringing like tolling bells, and the moaning background voices sound like they’re conjuring the grim reaper. I’d never heard this version before, but for me it’s a highlight of the film score.

Neil Young’s “Ohio,” which he wrote the day after the Kent State murders: he never allows this song to be licensed for use, but he made an exception here. Choosing this song to close Episode 8 was a no-brainer.

(Note: in an interview with Esquire, Burns revealed that one of his editors had no idea that “Ohio” is about the Kent State killings. This is mind-boggling. But it’s proof that popular music has become so cheesy and mass-marketed, people today are numb to even the most overt lyrical statement. Either that, or they’re dumb to American history. Numb or dumb, it’s profoundly disturbing).

Appropriately, there are several Beatles songs. But John Lennon’s “Revolution” is the only one that makes sense. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is excellent for LSD tripping, but not for a Vietnam War discussion. And the producers evidently are patting themselves on the back for choosing “Let it Be” as their closer.

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Musically, yes, this song is grandiose, and a heart-tugger. There were undoubtedly tears shed by some viewers. By choosing “Let it Be,” I think Burns is suggesting it’s time for Americans to heal by making peace with each other.

Maybe this documentary will be a partial healing. But the topic will always be contentious, and relevant to the future, and the various op-eds I’ve read on “The Vietnam War” bear this out. Burns is smart and talented (and sports a nifty Beatle haircut), but reminding the audience of his “whispered words of wisdom,” and hoping his documentary will be a “vaccine” seems a bit arrogant to me, and as pointless as the post-war cacklings of Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford. He shouldn’t be allowed the last word.

Here’s my suggestion for a musical closeout: the acoustic demo of Phil Ochs’ “Cross My Heart.” Ochs was an American street soldier who – until his suicide in 1976 – never gave up the fight:

I don’t know

But I see that everything is free

When you’re young the treasures you can take

But the bridge is bound to break

And you reach the end

Screaming it’s all been a mistake

 

But I’m gonna give all that I’ve got to give

Cross my heart

And I hope to live.

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Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”

50 years

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Yippee, you can’t see me

But I can you

Not long ago I wrote about a dinner party I hosted (“The Craziest Meal I Never Had”). While I thought it was a good party, there were also some tense moments. After I bade goodbye to Herman Melville, Billy the Kid, and Crazy Horse, I retired to the den to reflect on the evening. I thought about how ill-mannered Billy was, and how distracted Herman seemed. My Indian friend, understandably, appeared very uncomfortable.

Then I thought about the fourth guest I invited: the one who never showed up. In fact, I didn’t even get an RSVP. But it’s probably good he didn’t attend. He would have been as uncomfortable as Crazy.

When finished reflecting, I decided to honour this reticent invitee the only way I knew. So I dragged myself upstairs, lit a stick of patchouli incense, dimmed the lights, and put on one of his records.

***

Most people have heard of the rock band Pink Floyd, even if they may not be fans. Casual fans might have a hazy recollection of a mysterious chap who led the band in its earliest days… before Floyd was “welcomed to the machine,” when it was still a cult psychedelic group known mainly in England. Only the most devoted fans know the full details of the tragic and poignant Syd Barrett, a brilliant artist who briefly burned like a supernova, then divorced himself from society and, for 35 years, took refuge in the garden behind his mother’s house.

Since I’m reviewing a record album here, I won’t discuss Barrett’s odyssey through music and life. There are plenty of places out there that deal with that stuff, myths and all.

Anyway, discussing his music is the best way to properly honour this artist. And I do mean “artist.” Pink Floyd guitarist and childhood friend David Gilmour, who knew Barrett as much as anyone other than his family (and despite taking his place in the band) called him one of only a few musical geniuses, along with Bob Dylan. He also maintains that Barrett’s collapse wasn’t all that unusual: many people in the late 1960s also fell by the wayside. But 99 percent of them we don’t hear about. Barrett stands out because he was so gifted, and because the band he fronted so long ago achieved phenomenal international success…without him.

Barrett was a butterfly that broke through the netting, his wings permanently damaged. But this is important: try as they might, they were never able to pin him to Styrofoam.

***

THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN (released August 5, 1967) is a surreal, slightly ominous title for a rock album.  Surprisingly, Syd Barrett didn’t conceive it. He borrowed it from his favourite chapter in his favourite book, Kenneth Grahame’s fantasy classic The Wind in the Willows. But the title expertly sums up the mixture of science fiction and children’s fantasy that inform the words and music on the record.

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Paul Bransom illustration from “The Wind in the Willows”

Within these grooves we share English tea with all varieties of the phantasmagoric. Hallucinating gnomes. Existential scarecrows. Sinister, mind-reading cats. Outer (inner?) space denizens. “The doll’s house, darkness, old perfume…”

Ok, I hear you snicker. “This is the kind of airy fairy shite that gave hippies a bad name.” You may be right. A lot of this stuff was done by hack musicians/writers eager to hitch a ride on the magic bus. But…

Long before the Summer of Love became an innocuous cliché and marketing tool, there existed a few imaginative, English art students bent on taking music, words, and art to undiscovered areas. The blueprint for the new music was created by the band Pink Floyd, helmed by the youngest member, Roger Keith (Syd) Barrett of Cambridge, who named his band after two of his beloved cats (who were named after two obscure American bluesmen).

According to his sister, Barrett had a rare condition called “synesthesia.”  Most of us only hear sounds and see colours.  But some “synesthetes” can evidently see sounds, and hear colours.  Barrett, a talented painter as well as musician, apparently exhibited this condition as a child and budding artist… years before he ever touched a hallucinogen.

In early 1967, Barrett penned two eye-opening singles that titillated the London youth underground: “Arnold Layne,” a true story about a Cambridge transvestite who stole women’s underwear from washing lines; and “See Emily Play,” a slice of English whimsy that teeters on insanity.

Based on these singles, EMI Columbia financed Pink Floyd’s first full-length LP. It was recorded in Abbey Road Studios, right when the Beatles were putting the finishing touches on SGT. PEPPER. Legend has it that the Floyd members occasionally peeked in on Lennon and McCartney to absorb the brilliance. I propose it was the other way around.

If so, what might John and Paul have heard? There are two faces to this record: an unsettling and ragged trip into space (I’ll call it the Gates of Dawn) and a pleasant and pastoral trip back to childhood (The Piper… this would be all Syd). I’ll save The Piper songs for later.

“Astronomy Domine” “Pow R. Toc H.,” and “Interstellar Overdrive” come close to the later Floyd sound and were staples of the band’s blinding, liquid-light-fantastic live shows. All soar into space on the static-y strings of Barrett’s guitar. “Astronomy” is bolstered by Nick Mason’s tribal drumming, and the 10-minute “Interstellar” by Richard (Rick) Wright’s cosmic organ. “Pow R. Toc H.,” one of the album’s lesser songs, is an instrumental crammed with vocal and instrumental sound effects, but it has a characteristic spacey Floydian closeout.

Let me interject that Barrett on guitar was no Eric Clapton. But he made up for technical inadequacy by bravely exploring the instrument’s electric and aural capabilities (using a silver Telecaster adorned with 15 circular mirrors). He pioneered a technique of channeling bottleneck slide through an echo device, and it gave the Floyd a distinctive eerie sound.

Back to the songs: “Take Up thy Stethoscope and Walk” is Roger Waters’ very first composition. Nothing notable here except the paranoid vocals by Barrett.

Hutton Archive, Getty Images

Waters, Mason, Barrett, Wright (Hutton Archive, Getty Images)

“Lucifer Sam” is a sleek nugget about a third feline owned by Barrett, a mysterious Siamese named Sam. The descending chords and twangy guitar lines have been described as “psychedelic Duane Eddy,”  and recall the Sloan-Barri hit sung by Johnny Rivers, “Secret Agent Man.” In my garage-band days, I used to love playing this song (Sean Connery always popped into my head). It’s the closest song to a single on PIPER, in the same vein as “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play.”

Now for The Piper part of the record: these songs were written exclusively by Barrett.

“The Gnome” and “The Scarecrow” might as well be solo Barrett – I’m not sure if anyone else even plays on them, except perhaps Mason offering soft percussion help. Both are pastoral evocations that capture children’s fascination with the unreal possibly being real. “The Scarecrow,” also, has a rolling melody that may have made Paul McCartney blush while eavesdropping on the proceedings.

“Chapter 24” is a collection of observations lifted from the I Ching and set to music: “Change returns success/Going and coming without error/Action brings good fortune/Sunset, sunrise.” This song may have been inspired by Barrett’s interest in Eastern philosophies. Like other young people seeking new ways of thinking, he’d attempted to join a Sant Mat sect, but was rejected for being too young.

The oddest song here is probably “Bike:” “I’ve got a bike/You can ride it if you like/It’s got a basket/A bell that rings/And things to make it look good… I’d give it to you if I could/But I borrowed it.” Note the rhyming, alliteration, and syncopation. Also, the little lyric twist at the end. On surface, the lyrics seem like nonsense.  But Barrett was a skilled writer, and like all great writers, he understood the power of letters and words.

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Teenaged Roger Barrett in the family garden with guitar and tiger cat (Floyd? Pink?). Lucifer Sam is by his side in the foliage shadows (John Steele Collection)

Now for the pièce de résistance, the two songs that may be the cream of all English psychedelia. Musically and lyrically, they’re a joy to listen to: “Matilda Mother” and “Flaming.”

“Matilda Mother” is a bittersweet memory of Barrett’s about fairy stories read by his mother, with lyrics partly inspired by Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc, especially his 1907 parody Cautionary Tales for Children. The best psychedelic music was less about hallucinating through drugs than about transcending the mundane, and in “Matilda Mother,” Barrett yearns to throw off the rigidness of adulthood and return to the comforting calm of his mother, and the “scribbly black” lines she recited, where the phantasmagoric was tangible, colours pulsate with life, and “everything shines.” Rick Wright, the low-key, underrated keyboardist in Floyd, who later also wrote several evocative songs about childhood, sings the verse, while Barrett sings the slightly bitter chorus (“Oh, oh mother/Tell me more…”).

“Flaming” is my favourite song on the album. Originally entitled “Snowing,” it’s a tune that requires little effort to listen to, just opened ears, an open mind, and a willingness to float on “eiderdown” through fields of buttercups and dandelions. Listen to this with a good set of headphones and let Wright’s deep organ fills wash over you, and Barrett’s stirring multi-tracked vocals warm your insides. You may giggle at the sudden entrance of a cuckoo… but, then, you’re supposed to. On surface, this song is about playing hide-and-seek. We were all children, once, so who cannot relate to that? But, as Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, and Syd Barrett all knew, words have different meanings.  This song is just as much about the exhilaration of being invisible, floating like a fetus, gazing at the hustle and bustle of a world gone cuckoo.

“Flaming” clocks in at a mere two minutes and forty-two seconds, but it’s more imaginative than all four sides of THE WALL.  And it has one of the most beautiful musical closeouts ever devised.  John and Paul certainly walked away shaking their heads in astonishment.  It’s obvious where they got the final notes for “She’s Leaving Home.”

Many have tried over the years, but nobody writes songs like this anymore. Very few back then could, either.

To its credit, U.S. subsidiary Tower Records actually released “Flaming” as Pink Floyd’s third U.S. single. But the song is too good, so it never charted.

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The short-lived five-piece Pink Floyd, and one of the last photos from the Barrett era. Gilmour is front center. Syd is second from left (Pink Floyd Music LTD Archive)

***

The Pink Floyd sound and image changed noticeably after PIPER was released and Barrett left the band. Rick Wright’s keyboards replaced Barrett’s guitar as the dominant instrument. The songs became less lyrical and more thematic, more like soundscapes. When there were words, Roger Waters adhered to Barrett’s philosophy of “keep it simple,” although Waters being Waters, more than a little social and political commentary crept into things. And since the band had no distinct leader anymore, the members’ identities were mysterious, even to many fans.

With the release of the epic DARK SIDE OF THE MOON in 1973, however, the Pink Floyd capsule finally broke the sound barrier of fame. Although the musicians still retained an air of mystery, their days as a curious cult attraction were forever gone. They could now enjoy the fruits of the capitalism which Roger Waters criticizes (and fight over possession of the band’s name, whilst the man who bestowed that name puttered in his flower garden, without regard for such matters).

But the Piper never totally disappeared: his spirit hovered over the band and its songs until the end.

Psychedelic rock, or acid rock, only lasted a few years, from 1967 to ’69 or ’70.   Much of it was juvenile and derivative. But the best psychedelic rock is extremely interesting, in my view, and a few records could be termed classics. One of them is THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN, Pink Floyd’s one and only album with a colourful, talented, and enigmatic butterfly named Roger “Syd” Barrett.

***

Longitudes has now profiled four groundbreaking albums this year (three of them debuts). In December, I’ll discuss one more rock masterpiece in honour of its 50th anniversary, closing out what I consider the penultimate year for rock albums: 1967. But, in the playful spirit of Syd, I’ll keep you guessing as to what it is.

(Have you got it yet?).

The Wind in the Willows Shepard