Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hendrix and 'Nam

I've seen a number of references to the soundtrack to The Watchmen, usually noting that it failed, with the possible exception being in the "The Ride of the Valkyries" in the Vietnam sequence and "All Along the Watchtower". (Thanks Eric)

I'm not a fan of Moore, naked allegory or comic books in general, so I'll probably give The Watchmen a miss. One thing I did notice is that everyone was referring to the Wagner, and some people were referring to the Hendrix song as an homage to Apocalypse Now. I'm sure both are homages to the movie, as I don't expect Moore to have any original insights into the actual war. But the use of "All Along the Watchtower" in Apocalypse Now was motivated first by the stories of the vets themselves.

When I was a kid, my adult world was filled with Vietnam Vets, and to a man they responded to Hendrix in a special way. I never understood why.

Then, years later, I stumbled across this, by Sgt. Mike McCombs.

It is, hands down, the best Vietnam memoir I've ever seen, especially regarding the Special Forces.

And it has a wonderful tribute to Hendrix that bares the soul of the 'Nam Vet like a prayer to Mars:

It's always Jimi I think. His music is pulsing in my head. The headphones vibrate like an arclight and the guitar screams like the Phantoms used to. PurpleHaze, Voodoo Child, The Wind Cries Mary.... They beat on my mind. They twist in corridors long empty of the companionship of the brothers who always knew. The brothers who shared it with me.

And the past lives again. MP gyrates to All Along The Watchtower. Willie's foot taps to Gypsy Eyes. Weet sits and downs shum, body moving to Foxy Lady. It's like Jimi invented this kinda friendship, this kinda thing for all of us. It's the key to remembrance. The key to old friendships, somehow not quite dead. Though they all are. 'Cept when Jimi plays.

We were all musical conservatives, really. Well..., mostly. But Jimi picked up a guitar and strummed our souls with sounds like we'd never heard. The heart and the mind throbbed with the bass, the nerves trying to keep up with the rip. The music was not our style, but we lived by it; we loved it. Highway Chile, Long Hot Summer Night. Life blood. You were more likely to hear Bach there than Rock 'n Roll. But Jimi was there - in every hootch, in every meal, in every breath we took, in every waking hour. In many of the sleeping one.

Maybe it was 'cause he was dead, like so many we knew. Maybe it was 'cause he was different, like we thought we were. Or maybe he just found what really counted to all of us. Crazy fookin' music for a crazy fookin' war. Dunno. Just was. Just is. The spokesman of an age, the poet laureate of the Viet Nam War.

According to the SF rumor mill, Sgt. McCombs requested "Purple Haze" be played at his funeral.

When you get time, go immerse yourself in the words of the good sergeant. He died in 1997, but someone ought to remember him by making a movie out of his recollections. I'd watch it.


mattw said...

He writes very well. I'm skimming through the stuff on the newsletter link and it's pretty interesting.

Eric said...

The main musical homage to Apocalypse Now is the use of Wagner's "Flight Of The Valkyres." I don't actually recall whether Zack Snyder uses "All Along The Watchtower" during the Vietnam sequence (I don't remember him using it there, but my memory may be tricking me), but one reason Snyder uses it is that the original graphic novel references the Dylan song several times, including a chapter titled "Two Riders" in reference to the song:

Outside in the cold distance
A wild cat did growl
Two riders were approaching--
The wind began to howl

The Hendrix version of the Dylan song is of course the one most people consider "definitive," but it's been covered several times, and I strongly recommend checking out Michael Hedges' live acoustic version if you can find it.

And thank you for educating me about Sgt. McCombs.

John the Scientist said...

Hmmm. since I didn't see the movie, I may have been tricked by false memories of others.

I'll do some more research.

Michael Taylor said...

Vietnam was my generation's war, but I missed it thanks to a high number in the first draft lottery. The only lottery I've ever won, and maybe the only one that really counted.

Thus, my own memories of Hendrix are not tied into the war, but when I finally did plug in to his music -- after he was dead, of course -- I was completely floored. Hendrix was, and remains, the musical genius of our age, and one for all the ages. Nobody else of our era comes close. For my money, you have to go back to Mozart and Beethoven to find his equal.

Great post. I'm looking forward to reading that book.