Kansas City's Musical Summer Of 1970 Reverberates In New Vietnam Book
A new book about music and the Vietnam War is striking a deep chord, one reverberating from a long-ago Kansas City connection that shows up between the lines of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack to the Vietnam War.
Rolling Stone just named We Gotta Get Out of This Place the best music book of 2015. It’s been getting plenty of other press as well, including a meaty interview with authors Craig Werner and Doug Bradley on the public radio program Hear & Now.
Werner and Bradley knew Vietnam vets’ relationship with music was a powerful untold story.
For a decade, Bradley, Werner and a squadron of helpers (many of them Werner’s students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) interviewed more than 200 veterans and mined oral histories for anecdotes about what music meant to them during their service. Their book puts the Vietnam War in a new context, one in which music isn’t just an accompaniment or a distraction but a means of comradery and survival.
The stories move quickly from one vet to another, reinforcing the idea of music as lifeblood. A combat engineer from Kansas City named Steve Plath gets just a paragraph to describe the E-5 sergeant who ran a tape club in the First Special Forces headquarters in Da Trang.
“His total job was to make these tapes for the officers and the sergeants with Special Forces,” Plath remembers. “I’d knock on his door, and we’d smoke some dope. I remember listening to that second album by Led Zeppelin. They’d go over to see him, he’d ask what they wanted, and he’d cut the music for them. These guys would come in from recon teams, wherever they’d been, Laos, Cambodia. They’d be flush and they’d have ice cream and he’d make the tapes for them.” (Plath would settle in Northern California after the war.)
A “Donut Dolly” from Missouri named Jennifer Young (the nickname referred to women in the American Red Cross’s Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas program) whose tour began in November 1968 tells her interviewers “there are certain songs that I will hear that will put me right back to a particular assignment unit that I had. ‘My Girl’ by the temptations will put me in Cam Ranh, ‘Wichita Lineman' by Glen Campbell will put me in Tuy Hoa.”
A writer in training
Though Bradley doesn't write about it in We Gotta Get Outta This Place, one factor influencing his treatment of the veterans' stories is the summer of 1970, which he spent in Kansas City.
From May to October of that year, Bradley was among the soldiers who rotated through an office on Troost Avenue, working as military journalists at the U.S. Army Hometown News Center.
Their job was to make sure good-news press releases – promotions, Purple Hearts, exceptional engagements – got sent to papers in soldiers’ home towns.
“We never shared bad information. If your son or relative was killed, that was not what we wrote about,” Bradley says.
He made the most of this “special duty,” where there was no military establishment, no guard duty, no KP.
“I lived in an apartment with two other guys on what was called the black side of town, which had the kind of rent we could afford as lowly privates. It was diverse, friendly and fun,” Bradley remembers. “I could take my uniform off at the end of the day. I had money, music and women to date.”
Summer in the city
Though he can’t remember specific venues, Bradley seems to have been here during a momentous summer for music.
“I saw Janis Joplin not too long before she died. She was drunk.” (This must have been on June 14 at Memorial Hall).
“That summer was the hottest in my life, and Kansas City was breaking records left and right. She sang ‘Summertime’ and absolutely nailed it, but the concert was cut short," Bradley says. "I didn’t know she was doing other drugs, but she had her Jack or Jim Beam or whatever it was, and she was stumbling, dropped the bottle, dropped the mic, dropped a couple of f-bombs. It was sad because I’d really gotten to like her. I thought, ‘This woman’s not going to live another year,’ and she lived a couple months.”
Right before he left, Bradley saw an “amazing” Led Zeppelin show (August 19, 1970 at Municipal Auditorium).
“What was going on in civilian society with drugs, music, and protest was getting amplified in the military,” Bradley says (his book elaborates on this in revealing ways). “You could just feel a whole different kind of energy than any other concert that summer. When they did ‘Good Times Bad Times,’ the place just exploded. Watching these guys as they were gaining momentum, it felt like greatness being established.”
Bradley also remembers seeing War. He couldn't have known that “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” recorded by War singer Eric Burdon with his previous band The Animals, would come to be known as the Vietnam veterans’ national anthem. He just remembers “Spill the Wine.”
“He got down on stage had this woman who looked like she was from India come over, he gave her some wine and did a twenty-minute version of that song,” says Bradley.
He realized: “This was new for what music could look like. War was polyethnic. It had Hispanics, blacks, the Indian woman, Eric Burdon was a Brit. This was a new America I was watching. I thought, ‘How lucky I am to be in Kansas City the summer when they’re doing all this great stuff.’”
It was bound to end. Bradley got his orders.
Good morning, Vietnam
“I got a month leave, left in early October and by November I was in South Vietnam. That was not as much fun.”
Bradley spent a year in-country. When he came home he “banged around a little” before going to grad school on the GI Bill, earning a master’s degree in English at Washington State University. Studying everything that had been written about Vietnam, he says, “helped me to settle down and get home.”
Ultimately Bradley ended up in Madison, Wisconsin, where he ran writing groups for Vietnam Vets, helped produce a magazine called the Deadly Writers Patrol, published a collection of short stories and went to work with Werner on We Gotta Get Outta This Place.
Despite what followed his time in Kansas City, Bradley has a deep appreciation for those formative months.
“I had the luckiest assignment anybody could get. I don’t think a guy in the Army’s going to have a better summer, ever.”
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.