Making It Real, Compared to What? — Part I

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that while I was in Vietnam (and, later, crossing Asia) I missed about two years’ worth of cultural referents.

Every once in a while, I’ll become aware of another song or singer or movie or TV show that everyone else knows all about and I’ve never heard of. It always turns out that it was popular while I was in Vietnam.

Mostly, I’m thinking about music. Oh – we had AFVN and “Good Morning, Vietnam” and all that back then and there. And the AFVN DJs played a lot of music, but they also filtered out a lot. There was only the one channel.

We had another source of music too, but that was entirely backward-looking. I’m talking about the bands that came through. Mostly they came from the Philippines. Sometimes from New Zealand or Australia. One memorable night, we had a Maori band.

Invariably, they all played the same songs:

  • We Gotta Get Out of This Place (“We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.”);
  • The Letter (“Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane; I ain’t got time to take a fast train; Lonely days are gone, I’m a-going home; My baby just wrote me a letter.”);and
  • San Francisco.

Those bands learned their music by listening to records. English was a challenge for many of them and they weren’t always clear about the lyrics: like the Phillipino devotees of James Brown, who sang to us on a steamy South Asian night about waking up “in a cold sheet;” or, the ones who left a good job in the city and kept Proud Mary “rollin’ on a reefer.”

Always the closing number was “San Francisco”:

  • When you go to San Francisco [that’s where all the planes flew home to]
  • Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
  • If you are going to San Francisco
  • You’re gonna meet some gentle people there

We’d be crowded into some hootch or under a shelter made from a parachute. Drunk … sweaty … jungle fatigues … swaying and singing about flowers in our hair. We were some gentle people.

So, we had our musical experiences, but we were not in the mainstream.

Anyway, a year or so ago, I learned for the first time about yet another song I missed. I was in the Philadelphia area for a Westtown School board meeting, driving over to the School from the airport and listening to one of the Philly FM jazz stations in the rental car. (Vietnam War veteran on a Quaker boarding school’s board of trustees: that’s agility, brother.)

The station was devoting the entire night’s program to a single album and telling its story. The album and its lead track are undoubtedly among the all-time great, feel-good, popular jazz records, but until that night I had never heard of it. I’m talking about Les McCann and Eddie Harris. The album was Swiss Movement (“one of the most talked about, exhilarating and fun live jazz performances ever captured on wax”). The song: Compared to What, which was written, I have learned, by Gene McDaniels (100 Pounds of Clay). (One reason I may not have heard it on AFVN is that it was a war protest song.)

Anyway, I am glad that I did not discover the album until 40 years later. It spoke unmistakably from back then, but it was absolutely fresh to me in 2011. I had stepped into some kind of time tunnel and was transported straight back to 1969.

It was a great ride out to Westtown that night.

Note: There will be those who do not immediately apprehend the relevance of Making It Real, Compared to What? Part One to the management of mid-sized law firms in the 21st Century. Such persons will want to keep an eye out for “Making It Real, Compared to What? Part II,” wherein much will be revealed.   And, maybe, Part III ….

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