Posted tagged ‘War songs’

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

War Songs: Mike Doughty

June 22, 2013

Happy 5th Anniversary of my redeployment from Afghanistan. I’m pinning this post back to the top because it’s the one I associate most with the day of my return, 8 November 2009.  Read on, and you’ll see why.

All soldiers go to war with an Ipod or smartphone full of music with which they while away the long hours of the movement into theater and into which they retreat to block out the boredom and misery of deployment.  Vulnerable to the shameless emotionalism of pop songs in a way they may not be in the States, deployed soldiers are seared by poignant expressions of longing and loss, and made exuberant by celebrations of love and life.  Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” overplayed to the point of banality on classic rock stations, brought me to my knees when played at a fallen soldier’s memorial service in Afghanistan.  But even the most trite song, experienced under the conditions of deployment, accrues intensity.  A good example is in the following video, which features Linkin Park’s “Waiting for the End,” a song by a rap-rock band I normally wouldn’t pay much attention to other than in conjunction with this video.  But the video features the cheerleaders of my beloved Washington Redskins visiting FOBs in Kuwait and Afghanistan, some of which I recognize.  The combination of those familiar landscapes, homely scenes of FOB life, and—what?—all that out-of-place feminine beauty?–jacks up my appreciation of the song, while the song makes my memories of deployment more vivid.

Washington Redskins Cheerleaders in Afghanistan/”Waiting for the End” by Linkin Park

The following video of Air Force personnel performing a stunning version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” does not make me nostalgic, however. Instead it recreates the power of music within the deployment experience.  The brown t-shirts, reflective safety belts, and plywood backdrop add the realistic touches that cinch within the heart the song’s expression of irrecoverable loss, which is a huge emotional component of deployment. The power of the performance is clearly related to the intensity of being so far from home.

Cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”

Turning to music that specifically addresses the war, the record is uneven and not very clear.  On opposite poles of the political spectrum are Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” and John Fogerty’s “I Can’t Take It No More.”  Both Keith and Fogerty are fine singers, and all props to Keith for his support of the troops and to Fogerty for being a US Army veteran and also for writing and singing the great Vietnam anti-war song “Fortunate Son.” But here, Fogerty’s lefty screed and Keith’s uber-patriotism are both unsubtle to the max and their sentiments are enveloped in formulaic song structures and sounds.  Much more interesting to me is Mike Doughty’s “Fort Hood,” named after an Army base that is not mentioned in a song that only obliquely refers to the war:

Mike Doughty’s “Fort Hood”

The lyrics go:

I’d rather watch movie stars get fat
I’d rather hang up the flag and be done with it
I’d rather keep the frenzy and the fire out of my mind

I’d rather take sides in an argument
I’d rather crank up the bass in a dark basement
I’d rather leave the mobs and the murder in a distant land

Let the sunshine in

My vote’s a bed and a football pool
Five on the red and six on the blue
Wake up, fool, this is no time for a shouting match

I smell blood and there’s no blood around
Blanked out eyes and the blanked out sound
See them coming back motionless in an airport lounge

Let the sunshine in

You should be getting stoned with a prom dress girl
You should still believe in an endless world
You should be blasting Young Jeezy in a parking lot

Let the sunshine in

In a blog post titled “So What’s Fort Hood About? Doughty explains:

I want to be really clear about this. I’ve gotten emails from soldiers who dig it, but I want to make it totally explicit what the song means.

The first verse is about guilt. That I can go about my daily life without thinking of the violence and the fear in Iraq, and the sacrifice people are making over there.

The first part of the second verse is about frustration with political pissing matches, instead of unity among our elected representatives to serve these guys. The second half is about how the war haunts me; how I see dudes in uniform in airports and wonder what’s going on in their heads, what they’ve witnessed.

The bridge is about lost innocence. Young guys that go over there and come back scarred–bodily, often, but also psychologically, that so many of them will have the burden of post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares, haunting images.

I wrote the song basically out of two experiences; I went to Walter Reed last year, met some guys who had lost limbs, and came out scared and grateful. And I grew up an Army brat in the 70s, when many of the adult males around me were in Vietnam, and there was lots of strange behavior that I now recognize as PTSD.

Fort Hood is the base in Texas that’s lost the most people in Iraq and Afghanistan.

OK, cool.  In November 2009, two or so years after the song came out, a U.S. Army medical service corps officer named Nidal Malik Hasan shot up the Soldier Readiness Center, or SRC, on Fort Hood and in so doing killed 13 soldiers.  SRCs are places where soldiers go through a series of medical and administrative checks just prior to and just after deployment.  At the time Hasan was rampaging through the Fort Hood SRC, I was snaking my way through the Fort Riley, Kansas, SRC, just a day after returning from Afghanistan.  I watched the news reports of the massacre filter in on TVs meant to amuse us while we were waiting in the SRC’s long lines. My first thought was that a soldier standing in line at Fort Hood had snapped under the tedium of the bureaucratic processing. Only later did I learn that Hasan was a disgruntled Muslim. That’s significant, but actually more interesting to me was that he was from Arlington, Virginia, as am I, and as is General Stanley McChrystal, who was then commander-in-chief in Afghanistan.  That confluence made me think about the Vietnamese-American singer Thao Nguyen, whom I saw in concert two days before flying to Afghanistan and whose music I listened to throughout my deployment. Nguyen is from Falls Church, Virginia, right next to Arlington, and in one of my favorite publicity shots she sports an Arlington Cubs soccer jersey. Man did I ever play on a lot of Arlington Cubs sports teams growing up. Maybe Hasan and McChrystal did, too, but I know for sure that McChrystal played, as did I, on a Mario’s Pizza baseball team, because he says so in his memoir.

Sometime later I discovered that Mike Doughty had grown up on West Point, home of the United States Military Academy, where I currently live and teach.  I don’t know exactly how, but the music that we listen to that is associated with the war knits together the personal with the national and international by imbuing them with meaning and making them felt deeply in the heart.  “Know Better, Learn Faster” sings Thao Nguyen in my favorite song by her, but only if it were that easy.

“Fort Hood,” written by Gerome Ragni, Galt MacDermot, James Rado, and Michael Doughty. Lyrics ©EMI Music Publishing, 2008.

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