In both his art and his activism, Bruce Springsteen has long maintained a stance of opposing war while simultaneously supporting and sympathizing with those who are forced to fight wars. Springsteen’s stance, which will be evident once more with his presence at tonight’s Stand Up For Heroes event, can be traced directly to the Vietnam War, an event that had a deep, lasting impact on his life. Bruce lost several friends to the war and, but for an injury sustained in his late teens, most likely would have been drafted himself.
From his first album’s “Lost in the Flood,” which opens with a young Vietnam veteran returning home to a nightmarish society riddled with violence and repression, to his most recent album’s “The Wall,” inspired by the wartime deaths of friends and fellow musicians Walter Cichon and Bart Haynes, the Vietnam War and its aftermath remain major themes in Bruce’s music. They continue to hold a heavy influence over his social activism, as well.
Doug Bradley and Craig Werner’s new book, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, explores in depth how and why U.S. troops used music to cope with the complexities of the U.S.-Vietnam War both during their time of service and after returning home. Bradley is a Vietnam veteran, journalist and educator. Werner is a writer and educator whose book A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America was named 1999 Book of the Year by UNCUTMagazine. The authors also collaborate in teaching a course on music, media and the Vietnam War at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The book’s narrative strength is derived from Bradley and Werner’s gathering of personal reflections contributed by a diverse array of Vietnam veterans: black and white, Latino and Native American, men and women, conservative and liberal, officers and “grunts.” The vets talk about the records that helped them to process and survive their experiences, and Bradley and Werner supplement the vets’ reflections with commentary from many of the musicians who created those records.
Not surprisingly, the book includes material on Bruce Springsteen’s music and activism centered around Vietnam veterans. Bobby Muller, who co-founded Vietnam Veterans of America, recounts Springsteen’s now-famous “A Night For The Vietnam Veteran”concert towards the end of The River Tour. (Muller not only was there; he was introduced to the audience by Bruce and given the opportunity to deliver a brief, moving speech just before the concert began.) “When he did that [concert],” Muller recalls, “no joke, he took us out of the shadows and put us in the light of day, made us okay publicly — gave us [Vietnam Veterans Of America] one hundred thousand dollars, a staggering sum of money…. If it wasn’t for Bruce coming forward, there would not have been a coherent, national movement on behalf of Vietnam vets.”
Bradley and Werner’s book has its roots in “The Vietnam Vets’ Top 20,” a list of the records most frequently mentioned by vets during the authors’ initial set of interviews, including Springsteen’s most famous Vietnam War-themed song: “Born in the U.S.A.” In the spring of 2010, Craig and Doug presented and discussed each record on their initial list at the LZ Lambeau “Welcoming Home Wisconsin’s Vietnam Veterans” weekend gathering, which was held inside Lambeau Field, the Green Bay Packers’ football stadium. (“LZ” stands for “landing zone,” a term that became all too familiar to soldiers in Vietnam with the proliferation of helicopter warfare.) The event, Bradley tells Backstreets, “brought together nearly 70,000 Vietnam veterans and their families…. During our presentation, many heads nodded and many lips moved in sync as we played a bit of ‘Born in the U.S.A.'”
Werner adds, “The vets we’ve talked to have consistently expressed their appreciation and understanding of what Bruce was doing with ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ No one mistook it for flag-waving jingoism. They understood the struggles and the fight against going under all too clearly; several talked about their own versions of the ‘little hometown jam.’ But above all, they knew what it meant to be ten or twenty or thirty years down the road, and they knew that way too many guys hadn’t found their way home. At LZ Lambeau, the playing field was filled with empty chairs, one for each vet killed in Vietnam. But one of the most moving moments came when Native American vet Jim Northrup, who gave what to my mind was the most powerful speech of the event, reflected on the fact that at least as many vets had died of suicide, one-car accidents, drug, alcohol or Agent-Orange-related health problems since they came back. I think that’s what they hear in ‘Born in the U.S.A.:’ an acknowledgment that they haven’t been forgotten and their story didn’t end with the fall of Saigon.”
Review By: Shawn Poole