The band’s manager was a stripper from Saigon who went by the stage-name of Geri Vay. Dave Gallaher was an Air Force intelligence specialist from Atlanta serving in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, and during his off-duty hours he played guitar in this stripper-managed band, named The Rotations because its lineup ebbed and flowed due to the servicemen in the group “rotating back home.” The group played the soul and R&B hits from artists of the day. King Curtis. Junior Walker. The Temptations.
“The band was originally to do a little bit of music before she did her strip show,” Gallaher, now 69, recalls. “And it got to where the band was as big a demand as her show was so she figured she would get another band or two going that way and that’s what she did.”
Since the mid-80s, Gallaher been known onstage as Microwave Dave, a blues singer/guitarist residing in Huntsville. Over the past 30 years he’s become one of the north Alabama city’s most iconic local musicians.
While serving in Vietnam, his duties included reading aerial photographs looking for clues as to where attacks or convergence of enemy forces might be happening, to protect U.S. and other allied troops.
Back home in Atlanta Gallaher had played drums and then trumpet in a band called the Majestics, who once shared a bill with a young Aretha Franklin. In Vietnam, the fact he already knew most of the material The Rotations, fronted by a saxophonist/singer Tony Atkins, got Gallaher the gig. Post-Vietnam Gallaher would become an accomplished guitarist, with chops ranging from Delta slide to psychedelic-rock solos. But he says, “I didn’t really settle on being a guitar player until I got to Vietnam and started playing it in earnest over there.”
Except for Gallaher, who is white, the rest of the musicians in The Rotations were mostly black.
“The experience was great,” Gallaher says. “I had some really good friends with those guys until the Martin Luther King (Jr.) assassination (April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis) and that changed everything. The people of the two races, it wasn’t like they became violent with each other, but there was a wall between them at that point. I did experience hostility in some of the places we’d go play. It would be an only black audience and if I’d go to the latrine during the break a couple guys from the band would go with me to keep from getting beat up. They were angry and deservedly so. They were over there in Vietnam and many of them not happy to be there at all and then they had this stuff going on at home that was inexplicable to them.”
The Rotations mostly performed on U.S. bases. At airmen’s clubs, Army enlisted men’s clubs, etc. On at least one occasion though the band traveled to perform at Long Binh Jail, a U.S. military stockade located in the Dong Nai Province, about 15 miles or so from Saigon. The trip back one night from a Long Binh Jail show became hairy when the band drove through an ambush, Gallaher says, “with all of us basically unarmed and had to sit out on the side of the road praying we wouldn’t get captured or shot and a small army patrol with a tank and a couple of APCs (armored personnel carriers) came along and got us out of that.”
Gallaher feels music had a similar impact on both the servicemen performing while serving in Vietnam and the audiences they performed for. “It removed your surroundings and let your mind and heart be momentarily in another space. Even the guys that were not in the field taking the daily risk they lived in such a huge ocean of fear. They had to manage the fear by ignoring the fear or overcoming it – I think that’s where a lot of the alcohol and drugs came into play. They had to try some way to not be involved in the fear to continue doing what they were doing. Otherwise life was an avoidable misery every single day.”
Gallaher was one of more than 200 veterans interviewed for the book “We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War,” written by Doug Bradley and Craig Werner over a period of about 10 years and published in October by the University of Massachusetts Press.” Werner interviewed Gallaher after being pointed toward him by British journalist James Maycock, who had interviewed the guitarist for an article about James Brown’s 1968 performances in Vietnam, which Gallaher attended.
“Dave was as smart as anybody I talked to about the complexity of the racial dynamics in Vietnam,” Werner says by phone. “And then in addition, his obvious profound love of soul music – he was really articulate about it.”
A Colorado Springs native, Wenrer was a member of a rock band that often played for GIs stationed at Fort Carson and his previous books include “Up Around the Bend: An Oral History of Creedence Clearwater Revival” and he’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominating Committee.
Gallaher in turn, pointed Bradley and Werner toward another musician now living in Huntsville who performed in Vietnam during the war. Guitarist Edgar Acosta had played in Filipino bands that gigged in Vietnam.
Bradley, who served in Vietnam during 1970 and 1971, says, “Some of the (Filipino) bands that would play in clubs and on bases in Vietnam really knew how to cover the Top 40 really well. That’s why Dave jokes there really wasn’t any need for G.I. bands like The Rotations to do any of that. He had a special affection for the band Edgar led called The Six Uglies. I never had the opportunity to see The Six Uglies when I saw other good Asian bands, if you look at their setlist they would play songs like ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ ‘Light My Fire,’ ‘Born to Be Wild’ and of course ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place,’ (by The Animals) the title of our book. That music sustained us. When we got a couple beers and got a little smoked up and you heard someone like Edgar and The Six Uglies kicking you felt like you were back home for a couple hours. It meant a lot to G.I.s. It meant a lot to Edgar. I think in a lot of ways Edgar had a Vietnam veteran experience, the danger they were in. One of the Six Uglies was killed during one of the tours of Vietnam.”
Acosta was 19 years old when he was performing in Vietnam, brandishing a Fender Jaguar electric guitar. “He said the best song he ever played (in Vietnam) was Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Third Stone from the Sun’ because it was mostly instrumental and said his guitar sounded like a machine guitar, mimicking Hendrix, which is what he hear from a lot of G.I.s about Hendrix,” Bradley says.
Acosta was living in Atlanta when Bradley interviewed him about five or so years ago. The Huntsville phone number the authors had for Acosta was not in service when called and Gallaher did not have contact info for Acosta either, so unfortunately AL.com was unable to interview him for this article.
“We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” which gets a lot of depth out of its 272 pages, places popular music at the center of American experience in Vietnam. For some vets, folk group County Joe & The Fish’s song “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die” was pivotal. For others it was Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.” Or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s scathing “Fortunate Son.” Or Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”
The text includes stirring, oral history “solos” from vets riffing on their music of the time, and how it helped them connect withother vets and life back home, as well as coping with the harsh realities of Vietnam.
Bradley and Werner reside in Madison, Wisc. and teach an “integrated liberal studies course” together at the University of Wisconsin called “The U.S. in Vietnam: Music, Media and Mayhem.”
Bradley says servicemen and women getting their music in Vietnam through radio – particularly AFVN (American Forces Vietnam Network), which featured music 24 hours a day and seven days a week and deejays such as Adrian Cronauer, who was depicted in the 1987 Robin Williams comedy film “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Vinyl, cassettes, Filipino and G.I. bands, and the occasional USO (United Service Organizations) tour also were part of the Vietnam music mix.
“The more the war went on the less likely it was we were to win but the more people we were sending over there,” Bradley says. “You had between 2.7 million and three million that served in Vietnam and less than half of that were in combat. There were more people like me, soldiers in the rear, that were supporting troops in the field. So the rest of us were writing stories about them, we’re giving them their orders, we’re making their food or flying their planes or helicopters in a support capacity. And all of us, they wanted to keep our morale up, they wanted to keep us in engaged. The Army went out of their way to make us comfortable and music was one of the best ways to do that.”
For the authors the biggest challenge in writing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” was earning credibility with the Vietnam vets they found through organizations and websites and getting those vets to open up about a period of their lives many are understandably reticent to revisit. And once the authors gained trust, it was important to let vets’ interviews unfold, Bradley says.
“You become very close intimate friends for a couple hours. We found that we couldn’t rush this. We started out thinking we would do a series of essays based on the top 20 G.I.s would listen to. Turned out it was going to be a top 200 or 2,000 because of the personal connection with individual songs. I think the fact we wanted to take the time to let the veterans take their time and as they told their stories they connected us with a friend, with a buddy, with a cousin. And then we wanted to make sure weren’t just talking to Wisconsin vets or Colorado vets and it was great because of the networks we were able to extend this to make sure we got enough black voices and Latino voices and women’s voices. Part of the really sad legacy of that war is that for every person that opened up to us there was somebody who just couldn’t do it.”
Werner adds, “Music defined the generation the veterans came out of in a very different way than it ever had before. There were a lot of factors went into that. Part of it was the economy was different and the music industry spent a lot of time marketing to youth than they ever had before. And part of it was this was a particularly dynamic moment in American music, which I think has a lot to do with Civil Rights and the back and forth between black music and white music was more intense than ever before.”
For people born or coming of age after the Vietnam War, the soundtracks of post-Vietnam movies like Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic “Apocalypse Now,” which prominently featured The Doors’ doomy ‘The End,” provide much of their perception of music’s connection to the war. However, Bradley criticizes those soundtracks as “way too simple.” And songs that echoed home life in America, like the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” and Temptation’s “My Girl,” were just as important as hard-edged rock. “What we try to show is there’s not one Vietnam,” Bradley adds. “There’s not just Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam or Stanley Kubrick’s. There’s about three million different Vietnams because of the number of men and women who served there.”
While serving in Vietnam, Gallaher purchased a small stereo and vinyl jazz, soul and rock albums from the PX. Gallaher obtained a guitar and amp for his work in The Rotations from a shop in Cholon, where a man named Lam Hao made knockoffs, of Fenders primarily, Gallaher says.
“You would walk in and look up on the wall and see a neck you like and then walk over to another wall and see a body you like and he’d pull them down and put them together real quick, string it up and let you play it. I had a Strat copy and a copy of a Fender Bandmaster amp. It looked exactly like a Fender, same knobs, everything about it except it had ‘Lam Hao Musical Instruments’ on the printing.”
In July, 1968, Gallaher received word from the Red Cross is father had suffered a stroke and was asked if he wanted to take emergency leave. Gallaher returned to Atlanta. After his father passed away, Gallaher waited for orders to return and when he received orders they reassigned him to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia “because I’d completed 270 days of the tour and that apparently was the cutoff for giving you the credit for the whole tour.” Gallaher had left his Lam Hao guitar and amp in Vietnam thinking he would be back to play them.
He never saw the instruments again. He believes the gear was probably passed on to whoever was brought in to take his place on guitar in The Rotations. While Gallaher says race relations remained tense following the MLK assassination, he says James Brown’s Vietnam performances had a positive impact. “I remember going to that show with some of the guys that I played with and James Brown had a white bass player in his band, Tim Drummond. When everyone saw that Soul Brother Number One was here with a white guy in his band … It didn’t change everything but it did ease up some of the tension. That was an amazing display of how what you do onstage in a band, and who’s in that band, what affect it can have on people that’s not even intended.”
Brown’s impact aside, Gallaher sensed his own future lay outside soul music. After hearing the tie-dyed blues-rocker “Sunshine of Your Love” on the radio in Vietnam he had a good idea where to head next and asked a fellow serviceman to pick up a 45 of that Cream hit for him while on leave.
After serving in Vietnam, Gallaher lived in Boston, studied at the Berklee College of Music and joined a rock band called Cameron, which later relocated to Florida. Following a Nashville stint, during which he performed with gospel group The Thrasher Brothers, he moved to Huntsville.
In many ways, every note Gallaher has played since returning from Vietnam can be traced to his time there: “I had this fulcrum experience being in Vietnam where I suddenly realized I might not get out of here and if I do get out of here I’m going to play music the rest of my life. And I want to make people feel better.”
Review By: Matt Wake | firstname.lastname@example.org