This is the third and final entry in my short series on Michael J. Kramer’s Republic of Rock. In the first entry I reviewed Kramer’s Introduction, looking at his thesis, themes, and assumptions. The second entry took a long look at chapters 1-3, wherein Kramer applies his thesis to happenings and events San Francisco. Michael Kramer has commented on both posts, so I hope this one also proves engaging.
Part two of Republic of Rock moves the story to Vietnam. This is where Kramer’s story turns transnational, demonstrating that rock enabled the transfer of a certain critical and profane spirit of citizenship between Vietnam and San Francisco, the latter being “the reference point for making sense of the war” (p. 135). LD Burnett has already previewed this section for USIH blog readers in writing on its first chapter (four in the book). She had assigned the chapter to students in a survey course for its excellent prose and first-rate use of pictures.
I think the thesis for part two arises in chapter four: “In a war zone where, through music, the countercultural energies of San Francisco could suddenly erupt in the middle of Saigon, a churning, swirling, fragmented war culture emerged. …Rock became a means for feeling one’s way along the jagged edges of US imperial power. Within the jarring bricolage of the war, out of the new tactic of hip militarism, American GIs and others in Vietnam taped together their understandings of citizenship” (p. 141). This passage of argument encompasses everything in chapters four, five, and six. The dominant theme is hip militarism, the term Kramer gives to that strategy invoked by the US military that pushed discipline to the edge in order, paradoxically, to maintain some degree of morale and control within the war zone (pp. 135-36). As Kramer says, the military brought “home to the war” via rock, creating “a surreal collage of startling incongruities” in soldiers, entertainers, and even Vietnamese imitators of “Woodstock Nation”—who were actually fostering a “Woodstock Transnational” (pp. 137, 198, 211).
Chapter 4: A Soundtrack for the Entire Process
Despite a long personal history with rock music, I’m shockingly ignorant of the literature of criticism and analysis before, say, 1995. Since furthermore I’ve never loved, as a genre, the psychedelic music of the Vietnam era, my knowledge of its connections and implications is particularly deficient. Given my weaknesses, it’s no surprise that Kramer’s analysis of Jimi Hendrix—no matter the context—was new to me. So I’m going to dwell on it a bit longer than the other chapters in Part Two.
When Kramer claimed, in accordance with several veterans, that “Hendrix’s music…was the ‘melody of war'”—that it was “‘the fuckin’ soundtrack!”—and that Hendrix’s “All along Watchtower” was “‘the national anthem of America-in-Vietnam and Vietnam-in-America’,” I had no reason to dispute the argument, either before or after reading Kramer’s support (p. 144). Indeed, if rock music was “the soundtrack for the entire process” (the chapter’s title), then Hendrix was THE performer and musician, par excellance, for that album of despair, compromise, and dirty deeds.
Allow me to relay some of Kramer’s analytic narrative about Hendrix’s music—a particularly insightful portion where Paul Gilroy is brought into a passage that brings together several themes of the book:
“Machine Gun” took the sound and message of “All Along the Watchtower” to an extreme level: it was a kind of feeling-experiment, an uncertain inquiry into the meaning of war. It explored the power of an American GI and the terrible dehumanization of technological warfare. Because of this, musical and cultural theorists have often returned to both of these songs to make sense of Hendrix’s role as a kind of public intellectual for the counterculture: a rock star with a serious point and former GI who became a hippie. As cultural theorists Paul Gilroy argues, “we should always remember that Hendrix was a soldier and think of him as an ex-paratrooper who became a hippie in an act of profound and complete treason.” While this might not have been the case literally….Gilroy’s point is an important one: Hendrix drew upon militaristic references and sounds to evoke a psychedelically informed dream of peace. (p. 146)
And here’s another striking passage from Kramer’s analysis of Hendrix:
Hendrix’s music touched questions of democratic citizenship at another level as well: through the guitarist’s complex relationship to race. As a person of mixed ethnic background who was usually identified as African-American, Hendrix grappled with his relationship to the black nationalist turn in the civil rights movement during the late 1960s. At times, he identified with the turn away form an inclusive vision of American citizenship toward black separatism; in other moments, he developed a pluralistic theory of global social belonging in what he called the “electric sky church.” …To know about and like Jimi Hendrix was a means both of asserting blackness in Vietnam and connecting across racial affiliations. (p. 149)
And all of Hendrix’s music was approved on the official radio channels of the Armed Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN). The official network of hip militarism allowed Hendrix’s struggle with the war to permeate the soundscape of the soldiers themselves.
The rest of the chapter is not to be missed. Therein the so-called “bullshit band” is given attention. The bullshit band was not a rock act, but rather an unmonitored radio wavelength where wannabe soldier deejay’s spun a rock-laced version of their Vietnam—their longings, nightmares, and narrative opinions. Or, in Kramer’s words, it was “a sonic space for GIs to probe the war’s complex milieu of angst and pleasure, anxiety and camaraderie.” On the bullshit band soldiers “turned the technological infrastructure of the US war machine’s communications systems against the orderly waging of the war itself” (p. 152). The music of these bands was of course used for partying, but it also allowed for “a deepening consciousness of the war’s absurdities and fundamental injustices” (p. 154).
Near the end of the chapter Kramer takes a long look at a particular, short-lived underground radio program (it lasted only three weeks during January 1971) called “Radio First Termer.” Dave DeLay, Jr., working under the “Dave Rabbit” moniker, hosted the program that broadcast on “naughty frequency” of 69 FM (pp. 155-156). Large claims about listenership and effects are avoided. Rather, Kramer uses Dave Rabbit’s program as a kind of case study—albeit more sophisticated and technologically advanced—for the types of pirate broadcasts given on the bullshit band. With those pirate broadcasts, Radio First Termer undercut the official hip militarism of AFVN “with unauthorized messages and moods” (p. 157). The program was “raunchier” and “starker” than AFVN programs, often “using humor rather than sincerity” to relay Rabbit’s war mood (pp. 159, 161).
When you read this chapter, it’s easy to see why LD Burnett chose it for one of the few narratives she provided students in a syllabus filled with primary sources. The chapter is representative of a historian taking super “fun” material and amping its intellectuality—incorporating theory and historiographic trends to craft a narrative that captures the soldiers’ sensibility. I often screened Band of Brothers in my US survey courses for this purpose. But I might go this direction the next time I teach that course.
Chapter 5: Welcome to Entertainment Vietnam!
In this part of the book Kramer covers the hip militarism of the Command Military Touring Shows (CMTS). Those shows “organized GIs into music and theater groups and sent them out into the field on temporary duty to raise the spirits of fellow troops” (p. 167). As with the prior chapter, this one relays a great many representative images: pictures, posters, and other handbills from a CMTS scrapbook. The CMTS performances occurred in places where USO programs (the USO was a private, nonprofit organization) were denied access (p. 170). The CMTS was representatives of a countercultural ethos in that it “emphasized countercultural values of vernacular, do-it-yourself musical creation”—of “self-generated GI entertainment when it came to rock music” (p. 173-174).
Kramer’s argument in this chapter is that CMTS “was indicative of a larger turn in the military toward hip militarism at the end of the 1960s” (p. 174). “Hip militarism,” he continues, “marked the beginning of a story of highway salutes and flipped birds, an ethos of democratic anger and desperation rife with tensions and contradictions” (p. 176).
As with the prior chapter, the big point of this chapter—and this part of the book—is this: “Rock music was a kind of sonic measuring stick in Vietnam, a ruler by which Vietnam veterans calibrated their senses of the war zone and its relationship to the fast-changing culture of life ‘back in the world'” (p. 191). And, for the book generally, Kramer continues that “rock gave GIs access to the new kind of civilian life emerging in the domestic counterculture.” In a word, we’ve returned to citizenship (p. 192).
Chapter 6: A Little Peace Message, Like Straight From Saigon
Here Kramer gives us a biography of a band, CBC (short for Con Bà Cu, Vietnamese for “Mother’s Children”). They are a psychedelic rock cover band that began in the early sixties and, apparently, was still performing, in the United States, until the early 2000s. YouTube videos are available—even excerpts from a performance given just two years ago, embedded in a FOX newscast about a reunion with Vietnam veterans! Watching the videos made me feel like I was in a Quintin Tarantino film. (I don’t know what that says about me.)
The argument in this chapter is as follows:
The music…gave the members of CBC…access to what was becoming, by the end of the 1960s, a global counterculture. Performing [in Vietnam] for a mixed audience of Americans, nationals from other countries, and young Vietnamese, CBC reproduced rock’s aesthetics of hedonistic, individualistic personal expression. …The members of CBC combined Western culture with their own heritage to fashion something new and hybridized. …They were drawn to the countercultural ideals of togetherness and fellowship that they heard in rock. These values offered a way both to join the cosmopolitan modernity of the counterculture as individuals and, at the same time, to reaffirm the primary Vietnamese commitment to family as the building block of society. …It makes…sense to think of CBC as joining…the Woodstock Transnational. (pp. 195-198).
This passage gives you access to the major themes of the chapter: the global counterculture, reworking identity for Vietnamese youth (i.e. nhac tre), hybridized Western consumer culture, family, and the dream of peace. The passage above also shows that the importation of psychedelic sixties rock coincided with the importation of its paradoxes and contradictions—namely, the intense tension between personal expression and community.
Performing with Woodstock intensity, Kramer argues that CBC’s music helped “dull the pain and anxiety of living a war zone” while also providing “an atmosphere of connection in which the ‘one solid beat’ generated a proliferation of critical questions and ideas” (pp. 206-207). Every performance of CBC put on display the contradiction of those days: American imperialism was both the source of Vietnam’s misery and the homeland for a counterculture that inspired a dream of peace in Vietnamese youth—that inspired CBC’s “vision of a universal human family” (pp. 207, 210).
As noted above, CBC’s story eventually moved to America. As refugees the U.S. government assisted the family, in 1975, with resettlement that began in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Economic subsistence came from what they did best, performing music. The band toured until the mid 1980s, eventually settling permanently in Houston, where they remain today (pp. 215-218). Kramer’s knowledge of these events and the Vietnam period for the band, is first-hand. He interviewed CBC members by phone and in person from 2010 through 2011. As is the case in earlier chapters, the pictures of CBC put Kramer’s story on full display.
Final Reflections: The Epilogue and Beyond
In the Epilogue, Kramer briefly shows us a Woodstock Transnational that moved chronologically and geographically beyond Vietnam and San Francisco. He finds countercultural, pre-political CBC type bands in the former Czechoslavakia, Brazil, Mexico, Mali, and the former Soviet Union. In each instance, Kramer argues, “the logics of hip capitalism and militarism meant that even as rock brought civic energies of engagement to people around the world, it always did so in relation to the spread of American global hegemony” (p. 220). Soft power indeed.
Kramer does remind the reader of the downsides of this spread—of Thomas Frank’s “conquest of cool” as well as Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s “rebel sell,” both being the nefarious process in which “people purchased the feeling of not being sold a bill of goods and thus were sold a bill of goods.” As such “the puzzles of individual liberation and collective belonging…were never ultimately realized in this Woodstock Transnational” (p. 222). Even so, rock nevertheless resisted the “total domination” of Frank’s purported conquest. America’s “hegemonic control” was by no means perfected through psychedelic rock and the counterculture. So while rock could be a “compromised,” pre-packaged cultural form, the very human ability to refashion and remake could undermine other nefarious processes of capitalist consumption (p. 223).
It is here that Kramer delivers a poignant, optimistic observation to Frank and like-minded thinkers: “Consumer experiences that traded on heightened critical awareness could not be vacuum-sealed from actual critical awareness” (p. 223).
Although I offered certain critical observations of Kramer’s work in recounting part one of his story, I found it difficult, in part two, to make more of those criticisms or find new problems in the narrative. I see three reasons for this.
First, once the reader accepts Kramer’s powerful argument about the interplay of citizenship, the counterculture, and hip capitalism in part one, his extensions to Vietnam via hip militarism are almost irresistible. Kramer does not fail to note the contradictions and ironies of those connections, whether real or attempted. Because of this one’s confidence in his themes remains high despite the distance of Vietnam. Also, Kramer’s story in part two was new to me. My prior reading on the soldiers’ experience in Vietnam has been light. I didn’t feel that my multiple viewings of films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket qualified me to critique Kramer’s arguments about the deeper elements of the counterculture and consumer culture in Vietnam.
Second, my criticisms were also limited by the larger fact that I wanted to underscore Kramer’s story—to relay its richness here. I usually try to balance criticism and summary, which is why my reviews of books are long. But here I wanted to reword and therefore own Kramer’s story. I’m not teaching right now, but I plan on mimicking LD Burnett by incorporating parts of Republic of Rock in my future teaching endeavors. At the very least, this book will be on my “other readings” list for US survey book reviews.
Third, and I noted this at the outset, Michael Kramer is a friend. If I seriously had seen that I wouldn’t enjoy or appreciate his book, I most definitely would not have given it time here. I appreciate your indulgence on this point. In relation to Michael’s observation above, at USIH we trade on “heightened critical awareness,” so I’m sure this relatively positive review isn’t vacuum-sealed from the same. – TL
 LD needs to write a post for us on how that worked out!
 For instance, my seven-part reviewof Jennifer Ratner Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche.