Posted tagged ‘War songs’

Two Songs, Ten Years: Music, Memories, Going to War

October 6, 2018

A couple of nights before flying from Fort Riley, Kansas, to Afghanistan in August 2008, I saw the folk-rock artist Thao Nguyen and her band The Get Down Stay Down in a bar on Massachusetts Avenue in Lawrence, Kansas. I already knew Nguyen’s music a little, and a little about her biography, which interested me as much as her music. Raised in the Vietnamese immigrant neighborhoods that surrounded my parents’ house in northern Virginia, Nguyen in an early publicity shot appears wearing a jersey adorned with the logo of the “Arlington Cubs,” a sports club for whom my brothers and I played on countless baseball, basketball, and football teams in our youth. Later, Nguyen attended William and Mary college, which is a very good school but not one known for producing rock stars. By 2008, though, she had a couple of albums out and a hit—a girl-power anthem titled “Swimming Pools”—playing frequently on my local indie-alt station.

The pre-flight concert in Lawrence was just what the doctor ordered in terms of a night out before heading into the unknown. The Get Down Stay Down were tight-and-rocking, and all the songs, even the ones I didn’t know, were accessible and engaging. While singing, Nguyen appears possessed to the point of being spastic, and her voice sometimes hits atonal notes as if her Vietnamese were in contest with her English. It’s all good, though, and in-between songs, she charmed with funny anecdotes and quips delivered in the mid-Atlantic-coast tones and cadences I knew growing up. Before she went on, Nguyen ordered whiskey at the bar and watched the warm-up band play a couple of songs, and then wandered out to the sidewalk to hang with the smokers for a while. After the show, at the merch table, I don’t think I said anything to Nguyen about Afghanistan—I mean, I hope I didn’t, it would have been too obvious—but I do remember asking her where she went to high school. She told me she had attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology—a northern Virginia magnet-school for super-smarties. I thought about asking her if she had known the baseball coach, who was one of my best friends growing up, but that seemed kind of insipid. This inconsequential exchange brought our interaction to a close, save for my purchase of her second album, Like the Linen, which I listened to often on the long flight to Afghanistan and in the year that followed.

Like the Linen is good, but it was the album that Thao & The Get Down Stay Down released next that spoke to me personally. Called Know Better, Learn Faster, it’s the post-deployment record I’ve probably listened to more than any other, and certainly more often start-to-finish than any other. For me, it’s a unique swirl of appealing sound, beat, voice, and words, never more so than in the title song, whose chorus beguiles like a mantra reflecting something of my own sense of self-reproach, felt sharply in the two-to-three years just after deployment and only somewhat diminished now.

That first flight to Afghanistan was part of an Army-thing called a “Pre-Deployment Site Survey,” or, in words barely more comprehensible, a brief leaders’ reconnaissance of the area to which we would later bring our troops. In November 2008 I began the first leg of the journey that would take my advisor team and me to Afghanistan for a year. Catching a plane at LaGuardia in NYC back to Kansas I stood in the early-morning TSA line next to a scruffy dude whose mussed hair and road-worn attire proclaimed a rock-and-roll lifer. I don’t remember who started the conversation, but the guy was a gabby type who told me that he was the sound tech for a group called The Walkmen and he had come straight to the airport from a gig. I gulped, because The Walkmen, a band I already knew, play the kind of literate rock music that’s catnip to me—something like a combination of two other bands I like a lot, The Strokes and Interpol. Thanks to the slow-moving long line, we had plenty of time to talk and our conversation ranged wide-and-far. After I told him I was in the Army, he told me that he had grown up in Arlington, where his father had been a two-star Special Forces general at the Pentagon. Well damn, I thought then and now, and I suppose, since we exchanged emails and he still appears in my Facebook and LinkedIn feeds as a suggested contact, I could find out if he was pulling my leg or not. The Walkmen, I’ve since learned, are from DC, so maybe it checks out. Whatever, I like the story as is, especially since I enjoy The Walkmen’s music so much, and, like Thao Ngueyn and her band, they are bound to my memories of going to war. Below’s a good one by them. It’s my favorite kind of song, a fast-sad one, about friends, remembering, and fighting for things that are worth fighting for.

 

War Songs: Khost, Afghanistan in the Western Musical Imagination

July 10, 2016
Khost City, Afghanistan

The Great Mosque, Khost City, Afghanistan, 2009

The seven months I served in Khost province were certainly the most interesting and intense part of my year in Afghanistan. A small place, as Afghan provinces go, about the size of a fair-sized American county, ringed by peaks ranging up to 12,000 feet high, Khost (sometimes spelled “Khowst”) is tucked up against the Pakistan border about four hours from Kabul, accessible by road only through a treacherous mountain pass. Though not as well-known as storied battleground provinces such as Kunar, Helmand, or Paktika, Khost has been the site of many important episodes relevant to the Global War on Terror and Operation Enduring Freedom. Osama Bin Laden, for example, is said to have first fought Russian infidel occupiers in Khost and later to have been in Khost when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. In 2004, Pat Tillman was killed in Khost and in 2009 FOB Chapman, located just outside of Khost city, was infiltrated by an Al Qaeda operative who detonated a suicide vest in the presence of CIA agents, killing seven of them—an event portrayed in the movie Zero Dark Thirty.

My job in Khost, as an advisor to the Afghan Army, took me throughout the province and brought me in constant contact with Khost residents of every station, experiences that preoccupied me then and now in terms as much sociological as military. Overall, there were some successes, some defeats, a lot of wonderment, and a great deal of ambiguity about what it all amounted to. Through it all, the very name Khost, whose etymology I do not know, struck me with an almost mystical power of suggestiveness, and still today it conjures up memories and emotions that, try as I might to contain them within the realm of the factual and rational, remain infused with the aura of dream, nightmare, romance, epic, and odyssey.

Apparently, I’ve learned in the last week, Khost has also generated evocative associations in the minds of musically-minded young men in places as far afoot as Vancouver, Canada; Birmingham, England; and Austin, Texas, places where Khost or derivations of Khost are being used as band names. As far as I can tell, no one in any of the groups has served in Khost or is Afghan, but each of the far-flung musical Khosts is making distinctive, idiosyncratic music, not for the masses, perhaps, but informed by a unique artistic vision that we can assume they hope their band name helps transmit.

First up is Khøst, a Vancouver, Canada, DJ duo who specialize in Electronic Dance Music remakes of popular songs such as Coldplay’s “Yellow.” I’m not sure where the “slashed-o” comes from, but band member Tyler Mead describes how his partner Grayson Repp chose their name:

The name was a spontaneous idea really… After having already tried to build to different aliases, this one seemed to stand out. Originally, Grayson had seen the word in a movie [Zero Dark Thirty?] and liked the sound of it. It wasn’t until about a month later that we realized the potential, having the sound “khost” be representative of the west coast where our sound had originated.

Khost Yellow

Over in Birmingham, England, Khost has also been appropriated by Andy Swan and Damian Bennett, a duo whose musical genre is metal industrial noise. This Khost musical enterprise’s sonic landscape is brutal to the extreme, as described in the following review:

The end result is akin to an apocalyptic machine devouring all traces of humankind from the face of the earth before setting its sights on the planet itself. The tracks grind, rumble, strain and teeter on the brink of collapse to create an all-out sense of stifling claustrophobia.

Khost UK

I’m fine with music that’s both weird and tries to be dangerous, but I couldn’t find an explanation for why Swan and Bennett chose “Khost” as the name of their band. For all I know it’s also some Scandinavian or German word for “land of the underground where people wear helmets with horns, drink blood, and play detuned electric guitars.” One review I read, however, posits that the sound of the band’s name is as harsh as the music the duo make, with connotations of “cost” and “ghost.” That take was interesting to me, because I never thought the word “Khost” sounded ugly, even given a few horrific experiences I endured in the province. In fact, contra to both the Canadian and English bands’ usage, Khost as far as I know is pronounced with a very soft emphasis on the “k,” so that it is pronounced more like “host,” but with a small hitch in the throat at the beginning of the word and a larger push of air on the “h” that doesn’t come naturally to English speakers, an effect that softens the word’s clipped terseness as it is written.

Be that as it may, the third appropriators of Khost, a band in Texas who call themselves The Khost, would also probably be surprised at the English reviewer’s opinion.  A post-rock band in the mode of their fellow Texans Explosions in the Sky, but with vocals, The Khost’s aural impact is as mellow and gentle as the industrial Khost’s is abrasive, though not without its own sense of drama. I texted back-and-forth with a member of The Khost, who informed me they were inspired by stories of military service in Khost province told by a friend of the band’s. I asked if any of their songs addressed militaristic subjects, and The Khost member replied, “All the songs are pretty much about more inner psych and personal revelations so nothing directly about war. Does our music remind you of Khost?”

Good question….

The Khost Stella MarisKhost Waking Indigo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EDM doesn’t do a lot for me, though I salute its impulse toward ecstatic celebrations of collective dance. I’m more intrigued by the heavy duty sounds of industrial, and I thoroughly enjoy post-rock. I listened to a ton of Explosions in the Sky while in Afghanistan, have composed many Time Now posts with their music playing in the background, and I was glad to see the band’s music featured prominently in the movie version of Lone Survivor. So, in answer to The Khost’s question, well, yeah.

All told, here’s to the Canadian EDM Khøst, the English industrial Khost, and the Texan post-rock The Khost. None of their songs, as far as I know, reference Afghanistan or things military, nor do they channel the Pashtun spirit or musical signatures of the real Khost, but that’s OK. An academic argument could be made that their use of Khost is somehow inappropriate in an Orientalism kind-of-way, but that’s an argument I wouldn’t support. If the name of an exotic dot-on-the-map halfway around the world has somehow inspired Western musicians to be more imaginative and adventurous, that’s the greater good. That a word important in their artistic dreamworld is also huge in my personal lexicon of suggestive terms is so much the better.

Map of downtown Khost that I made in 2009

Map of downtown Khost that I made in 2009

Where Have All The War Songs Gone?

February 7, 2015

Literary historians tell us that during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II odes, ballads, and other popular and folk forms of expression related to the wars often appeared in newspapers, magazines, and other venues of wide-spread public dissemination. Though the offerings did not shy from describing battlefield death and destruction, they also paid homage to fallen heroes and attempted to galvanize patriotism and a spirit of sacrifice on the part of the nation’s citizenry. It was against such popular effusions, the historians claim, that more complex and brooding artists, such as Walt Whitman and Wilfred Owen, wrought artful takes on war that eventually made the popular war literature of their time appear simplistic, naïve, and old-fashioned.

By Vietnam, so goes this line of historical retrospective, the elevated literary tone and anti-war politics had practically driven popular styles and themes out of existence. Today, even a Hollywood commercial blockbuster such as American Sniper gussies itself up in the mannerisms of critique, rather than celebration, even if celebrating American war prowess is its (unstated) intent. One exception could be the realm of music, because music unabashedly makes plays on the hearts of listeners and thus might seek to channel the intense emotions generated by war in search of popularity. But even there the record is scant. As far as I can tell, popular hit radio has left the wars untouched. So too have modern or contemporary rock and the club, urban, and dance scene. Metal and punk I don’t know too much about, but country has more to show for itself, though flag-wavers such as Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” seem to be isolated cases that prove the rule rather than common fare.

All of which is funny, because music remains vitally important in the lived lives of soldiers at war. Every soldier since 2001 I’m thinking has gone to war with a playback device full of songs and their heads full of many more. I’ll bet there’s few, for example, who haven’t sung along to the Killers as they chant “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” and not thought about the implications for their own identities as fighting men and women. But as much as music shapes their actual lives, men and women in the military might listen long and hard for representations of war and soldiers.

And yet I have come today to praise war music, not bury it. Below is a sampler of songs from the popular idiom that illustrate that at least once-in-a-while our nation’s musicians have referenced Iraq and Afghanistan in ways old and sometimes new.

1.  Old Crow Medicine Show, “Levi.” Written in honor of Lieutenant Leevi Barnard, US Army, KIA in Iraq in 2009. OCMS can do no wrong, in my opinion, and the sight of these young Virginia men singing and playing their hearts out live makes me go mushy inside.

2.  Jason Isbell, “Dress Blues.” Written in honor of Corporal Matthew Conley, USMC, KIA in Iraq in 2006. Country-rock megastars Zac Brown Band have taken to covering this song, which is cool.

3.  The Offspring, “Hammerhead.” Nothing subtle about this, but if you think songs about post-war rage should be as aggressively loud as post-war rage itself, or if you just love punk-rock power-chording like I do, then the Offspring have you covered.

4.  Josh Ritter, “Girl in the War.” The lyrics are enigmatic and might be interpreted as other than a commentary on women on the battlefield, but why make it hard? The title alone suggests how the times-have-a-changed.

I’m sure there’s more out there, so if I’ve overlooked one of your favorites, send it to me, and if we ever meet, let’s listen to it together. Who knows how any of this works in the minds of impressionable young men and women? I’m old enough to have listened to both Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and Barry Sandler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” in the 1960s. I love Dylan way more than I do Sandler, but later I joined the Army and though I wasn’t Special Forces, I served alongside Green Berets in Afghanistan, so which artist ultimately had the most influence on me?

War Songs: Newsted’s Heavy Metal Tribute to Pat Tillman

January 3, 2014

Here’s ex-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted’s new band performing a song called “Soldierhead” from their 2013 album Heavy Metal Music:

Here is Newsted’s explanation of the lyrics from the Songfacts website:

And the lyrical content is based upon the Pat Tillman story, the NFL football player that went to be a hero and died of friendly fire in Afghanistan. So it was about standing up for yourself and being a hero. He was a gifted person; always could jump higher and run faster than everybody and wanted to use those abilities to protect what he believed in. The song is about standing up for what you believe in, and being willing to give your life for what you believe in. So even when you have it really good, you’ll still stand up for something you believe in, even though you wouldn’t have to. So that’s the subject matter in that one.

Here are the lyrics:

Bombs go off around me
Bullets chase my head
Demonscene hellscape
Try to not get dead

From the cradle I was in
Straight for the firing line
By the teeth of my skin
Dragon and the serpent versus swine

Never quite ready
It just becomes your turn
Evertight steady
No more light to burn

A lie has no feet
Cannot stand alone
A cry in the street
Who cast the first stone

With dirt between my teeth
I made the devil sell his soul
I know that he can bleed
Moon goes dark sun grows cold

Where my mind would take me
Never coming near
Scared my heart would break me
Why am I here 

Pat Tillman interests me, too, and I wrote about him on my old blog here.  My impression is that Tillman had a contemplative sereneness about him, while Newsted suggests he was full of anger and darkness.  Who knows? That’s what art allows us to do, explore possibilities.  I am very sure there will be more musical tributes and film and literary adaptations of Tillman’s life story in the years to come.

“Soldierhead” music and lyrics by Jason Newsted, lyrics © Imagem U.S. LLC.

A War Music Sampler: Country, Folk, Hip-Hop

July 11, 2013

Marine Corps Iraq vet Jimmie Rose tore it up on America’s Got Talent the other night.  Pure country from the coalfields of Kentucky–“Four days after high school graduation, I went underground” he puts it–Rose sang a song that didn’t mention the war, but in the accompanying interview he related that he joined the Marines because it couldn’t possibly be more dangerous than work in the mines.  Here’s to him, for he’s got a charming “aw shucks” demeanor and a voice to die for.  His song, “Coal Keeps the Lights On,” won’t win any kudos from eco-warriors, but amply illustrates the perspective of a demographic that doesn’t have the luxury of picking-and-choosing its means of making a living.

Country is the music of choice for huge swaths of the American military and acoustic guitars by the thousands manage to survive the rigors of travel to help country-loving soldiers while away their deployments.  A good example is the following video by Zac Charles, filmed live from a FOB in Paktika Province, Afghanistan.  It’s called “Until I Get Home.”

Neither Rose’s nor Charles’ politics are confrontational, but other vets use their music to channel their misgivings about the war, express the pain of their service, and plea for the cause of wounded and damaged fellow soldiers.  A good example is Jason Moon’s “Trying to Find My Way Home”:

Some ex-soldiers put their military experience as far in the rear-view mirror as they possibly can.  The music they make betrays few traces of their past lives in the military and overseas.  Emily Yates, for example, after six years in the Army and two tours in Iraq, moved to San Francisco, hippy-fied herself, and now has filled up YouTube with music videos extolling the greatness of marijuana.  We’ll pass on those and post one that actually does have her looking back:  her rendition of the 3rd Infantry Division’s great fight song “Dogface Soldier,” done here in an anti-war mode:

After a lifetime of music listening, I can probably name five songs combined by Tupac, Biggie, Jay-Z, and Kanye.  That’s nothing to be proud of, but I don’t feel like I’m actually all that unknowing about hip-hop music and culture.  That’s because on all my deployments, I’ve been witness to many amazing freestyle spoken-word battles among young (mostly) black soldiers and played plenty of basketball in makeshift gyms with the throbbing beats and ominous lyrical flow of the inner city musical idiom blasting over the sound system.  An example of how hip-hop permeates the everyday life of deployed soldiers can be found in the video below.  Hip-hop artist Chamillionaire on a tour of Iraq invites Specialist “Rap” Myers to join him in an impromptu performance in a FOB gym or morale, welfare, and recreation center:

The ex-soldier I know of making the most determined effort to turn his deployment experience into a hip-hop career is Soldier Hard.  Here’s his most watched video on YouTube, “Combat Veteran.”

To all the soldiers who are also music-makers:  Don’t stop.

War Songs: Jason Everman

July 4, 2013

In the midst of my series on Iraq and Afghanistan war-related music comes this great New York Times article  about Jason Everman, who had short stints in Nirvana and Soundgarden before joining the Army as an infantryman. Both Ranger and Special Forces-qualified, Everman got out in 2006 after combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He then enrolled at Columbia and recently graduated with a BA in philosophy.

So, while I was looking for music performed in theater or upon a veteran’s return, I learn of a veteran-musician who did his serious music-making before he joined and deployed. Everman wasn’t with Nirvana and Soundgarden at their peak, but he certainly contributed to those magnificent bands’ on-stage crunch in their early years and more than brushed shoulders with the creative talents who were his bandmates. Like millions, I was tremendously impressed by the great Seattle grunge groups. They shaped the taste and consciousness of many of us who later went to war, for better or worse, and of many of those who didn’t go to war but now wonder about what it all meant. And so it’s cool that one of them bridged the gap between the music-makers and we who took the music forward with us in life.

The part of the Times story that got me most recounted Everman’s mounting resolution to join the Army while living in San Francisco in 1994. As his bandmates slept, Everman was rising early to work out and get ready. Boy, did that trigger memories of living in the East Bay town of Albany after finishing grad school. I used to knock out pushups and pull-ups by myself in a local park while preparing for my own infantry odyssey. I was 26 when I first started thinking about joining, and actually signed up a year or two later. Everman was 26 when he joined, as was Colby Buzzell, whom I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, and who was also from the Bay Area and who also dreamed of being a grunt.

So what is it about the infantry that entices not-so-young-anymore men into giving it all up in the name of adventure and service to the nation?

And what is it about Northern California? Brian Turner’s from Fresno, not so far away from San Francisco, and he too joined the infantry at a late age. Thinking about it further, Matt Gallagher, not an infantryman but a cav scout, which is close enough, is from Sacramento, just up I-80 from the Bay. Something in the air there just must easily get in the bones of dreamy young men craving challenge and purpose. Maybe it’s as Ishmael in Moby-Dick says: “Here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost.”

And then these dreamy young men who go off to war want to write about their experiences. Or, in the case of Jason Everman, hopefully, will write about them. But if he doesn’t, no problem, because he has already had a chance to say his say and he used it well. Something tells me that soldier-authors such as Turner, Buzzell, and Gallagher probably know just about every song Nirvana and Soundgarden ever recorded. That includes those from the early years when Everman was helping them become, as the Army slogan puts it, “all that they could be.” We are, to a large degree, the music that is important to us, so thanks, Jason Everman, just thanks.

Happy 4th of July everybody.

War Songs: Daniel Somers

June 29, 2013

While researching music made by service members in Iraq and Afghanistan and veterans upon their return, I learned of the death by suicide two weeks ago of Daniel Somers. Somers was an Army intelligence analyst who after two tours in Iraq settled in Phoenix and began making music as part of an arty post-rock outfit named Lisa Savidge. On the band’s Facebook page, Somers is given credit for “vocals, rhythm guitar, studio mastermind.” Lisa Savidge never broke out of the Arizona indie music scene, but exploring their music on YouTube and elsewhere on the web reveals a band with a distinctive vision and sound. Think, maybe, The National overlaid with Explosions in the Sky-like guitars. So, pretty esoteric stuff, not for the masses, but I like it, and the band is tight and the recording immaculate. Two examples will illustrate:

Appalachachas lyrics are obscure, but some band literature reports they are about the drudgery of touring. The video, which makes use of the Cold War documentary “The Challenge of Ideas,” suggests that the song’s interest is nationalist ideology and militarism. Either way, it is gorgeous.

Fire Exiting, according to Lisa Savidge’s Facebook page, is about the “aftermath of war.”

Which brings us to the long suicide note left by Somers, large portions of which can be found in this Phoenix New Times obituary written by Melissa Fossum. The note castigates the military for first taking him to war and then abandoning him afterwards as he slid into abject physical and mental pain. Fossum writes sympathetically, in part based on her understanding of Lisa Savidge’s interest and importance. In another Phoenix New Times article published two years ago, Fossum and Somers together advanced a claim for how contemporary indie rock informed and defined the Iraq conflict:

Musically, the Vietnam War era is remembered through “All Along the Watch Tower,” “American Woman,” “War Pigs,” and Hot Rocks-era Rolling Stones — the sort of heavily bluesified rock songs you’ll hear in Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Odd as it may seem, future generations may think Operation Iraqi Freedom sounds like Franz Ferdinand, The White Stripes, and Modest Mouse.

 At least to Dan Somers, lead singer and guitarist for Phoenix indie band Lisa Savidge, who did two tours of duty in Iraq.

“We were literally rolling around lacing people up with a machine gun blasting The Killers’ Hot Fuss,” he says.

Yes, “Mr. Brightside” and all. The irony of fighting a war while indie rock songs like “All These Things That I’ve Done” (“I’ve gooot soul but I’m nooot a sooooldier”) play in the background is not lost on Somers.

“I admit that that’s a little bizarre, but that’s what it was. I hadn’t really gotten introduced to indie rock before that, so suddenly it became this part of my life in the most bizarre circumstances imaginable.”

Indie rock, to include a healthy helping of The Killers, was the soundtrack to my deployment, too, and I’m interested in how and why such music and the war connect.  But Somers’ taste and mine weren’t everyone’s, and in future posts, I’ll describe an Iraq and Afghanistan war musical landscape that also includes country, hip-hop, metal, and whatever else I can find. I also won’t miss a chance to explore the music about the war made by Iraqis and Afghans. But for now let’s pay tribute to a soldier-musician for whom the propulsive beats, edgy vocals, and chiming guitars of modern rock were the best way to make sense of what he had seen, who he had become, and where he wanted to go.

RIP Daniel Somers, survived by his wife Angeline. I wish things had been better for you and thank you for your service and music.

UPDATE: A 23 August 2013 Washington Post article on Daniel Somers

Daniel Somers

Daniel Somers


%d bloggers like this: