The three-chord sound of home
Still rocking the casbah, punk music stirs up nostalgia, and controversy, in the Middle East
Last winter, the U.S. government approached a group of veterans with an important overseas mission. These vets had been around the world several times over and had seen all kinds of action, but nothing could prepare them for what was in store. Wasting no time, the group and its equipment were transported to Baghdad and then flown by helicopter into the heart of the conflict, where they delivered much-needed relief to troops on the front lines.
The Vandals, a punk-rock quartet from Southern California, have been inciting mosh pits the world over for nearly 20 years. Sent to Iraq in December 2004 by the United Service Organizations (USO) to boost soldiers’ morale, these veterans of America’s punk-music scene performed concerts in war zones for men and women fresh from battle.
As the Vandals’ bass player, Joe Escalante, later recalled in a telephone interview, “Each day, we would fly out in Black Hawk helicopters, with the band in one and the gear in the other, to these bases that were right in the middle of it, where people were dying and fighting. We provided a brief moment of recreation for [the troops] to distract them from the holiday blues they all get.”
“Punk rock is awesome for when you’re homesick,” said Pfc. Jon Wright in an e-mail interview. “It really does help get over the separation of friends and family.” Originally from Fair Oaks, Wright is now a Marine stationed on the USS Bonhomme Richard, and he recently was deployed to Baghdad.
It might seem strange that a clean-cut military man like Wright would identify with gritty music like punk rock, but the reason becomes clearer when you consider that both military service and the punk-rock scene tend to attract young people from working-class backgrounds. Both provide blue-collar kids, teens who may not have the most solid home life or the most promising future, a group to identify with and take pride in.
Wright is a fan of street punk, a punk-rock subgenre written for the common man by the common man. Street punk primarily focuses on working-class issues, from serious subjects like unions and workers’ rights to personal stories about struggling to make it to the next paycheck or even just drinking beer with friends. Songs about barbecuing in the backyard mean a lot to people thousands of miles from their own backyards. “I miss hanging out with my buddies and drinking a beer,” added Wright, “but the music lets me know they are all still there waiting for me to get back and pick up the good times as if I never left.”
“Music makes you feel normal, like you’re human again,” said Sgt. Jason Desautels. An Army infantryman assigned to the Sunni Triangle in Iraq, Desautels spoke with SN&R in Sacramento while on temporary leave. “You work so much,” he said. “You’re tired, and you just want time to yourself. When you get to listen to music and relax, it’s a luxury.”
“The street-punk bands I listen to generally talk about being from blue-collar backgrounds, drinking beers and hanging out with the boys,” Desautels pointed out. “You can relate a lot more to the stuff, especially being in the military. Even if you’ve got a working-class job, bussing tables or whatever, you can relate a lot closer to these bands than, say, some poppy punk band that just cries about their parents.”
“For me,” Desautels concluded, “it’s about being some downtrodden kid. You haven’t got anything else going on, so you join the military. You’re not college material. You join the military, fly across the world, get stuff done, come in and listen to the bands, and you feel better about yourself.”
Air Force Senior Airman Christopher Connelley, from Contra Costa County, agrees. “Punk music is the only thing that keeps me sane here,” he said via e-mail from his current station at Ali Base in Iraq. “Sometimes I surf the ’Net trying to stay up-to-date on what’s going on back home in the punk scene. I’ll go on The List [an online schedule of Northern California punk shows] and kick myself in the ass for missing out on all the shows and just pray that some of these bands will still be on tour when I’m back home.”
Desautels also stays connected with the scene at home via the Internet. “You get to talk to the guys in bands and see what the scene’s like back home. The music scene, for a lot of guys like us, was a main part of our life,” he pointed out. “Music and going out to shows and hanging out with the boys took up about three-quarters of your life, and to suddenly block that out is unacceptable. E-mail is a big part of bringing that back to your life.”
When Mike McColgan served in the Army during Operation Desert Storm, conditions were very different. “Back then,” he recalled, “there was no way for us to e-mail bands. When you got your phone-call time, you called your family.”
McColgan sings for the Boston-based punk band Street Dogs and also was one of the founding members of the Dropkick Murphys, one of the most successful street-punk bands to come out of the 1990s. In both bands, McColgan wrote songs from the point of view of a soldier on the battlefield, a working-class Joe who misses his family.
Upon returning home from Desert Storm, McColgan penned a song with the Dropkick Murphys titled “Far Away Coast.” Part of the lyrics read: “Sail away to a place that’s unknown / Taken away from my friends and my home / To a place they call sacred, a place I call hell / I long for that corner I once knew so well.” These words resonate with soldiers stationed overseas who miss everything they left behind in America.
The Street Dogs continue to address topics close to the hearts of men and women in uniform. As the band’s bass player, Johnny Rioux, explained in a phone interview, “The title track to our new record, Back to the World, was written about Mike’s experience in Desert Storm and how he just wanted to get ‘back to the world.’ That’s the phrase those guys would use, which basically meant eating at McDonald’s and going to the movies and hanging out with your girlfriend.
“Soldiers are writing us,” Rioux continued, “to say, ‘Thank you for writing this song. It gets us through the day, and it brings us strength.’”
In turn, the Street Dogs make clear their support for our servicemen and women. “‘Back to the World’ has a part that says, ‘I’m not a policymaker / I’m just a sworn order taker / doing my best just to stay alive,’” said McColgan. “We definitely dug into our feelings on the war, and we also dug into our feelings on how we support soldiers, regardless of our thoughts on the policies. We still support the soldiers and have a level of empathy and sympathy for them because I’ve walked the line, and I know what it’s like.”
This sentiment is echoed by many punk bands, regardless of politics or personal beliefs on the war. “I think most rational people have mixed feelings on the war,” observed Charles Gladwyn, singer for Sacramento street-punk band the Whiskey Rebels (for which this writer plays bass). “It is a mess over there, and a lot of it is because politicians got us into it. But I’m not going to put down people who are over there who are just like me, just trying to make it by. I give respect to those people.
“There are a bunch of real people over there,” added Gladwyn. “And I try to sing as much as I can about real things. Whether it’s something mundane like hanging out with your friends, or more serious subject matter like life and death, or having a family and not being well off, those people are coming from the same point of view as me.
“Because of that,” Gladwyn continued, “I think they can relate to what I write about. I think that a lot of people over there are in the lower echelon of society, class-wise, and that’s what I sing about because that’s what I am, too.”
Of course, not everyone in the street-punk scene supports the war. The Vandals encountered significant opposition in Europe after they performed for American troops in Iraq. A mob wielding chains, knives and bats surrounded a venue in Athens, Greece, and forced the Vandals to cancel their show. They also were boycotted in Vienna, Austria, for performing in front of “murderers and idiots,” as the protesters termed the soldiers. “In Europe,” said Escalante, “there is not one person that can separate [George W. Bush] from the troops.”
Rioux summed up the Street Dogs’ position on the war and the troops: “As a band, we all personally have some resentment toward what’s going on politically, but the difference is that we support our troops regardless. The troops are not the policymakers in this whole thing. They’re the order takers, and they’re serving our country. A lot of times, in a politically charged climate like what’s going on today, people lose sight of these soldiers. It becomes a political war, and the soldiers become scapegoats.”
“We were talking to soldiers constantly,” recalled Escalante of the Vandals’ time in Iraq. “And most of them had the same thing to say. It was nothing political, nothing about whether the war was right or wrong. They didn’t want to get into it. But they wanted to tell us how good a job they thought their division was doing. They wanted to make sure we went home knowing how many schools they opened up, how many water systems they repaired, how many hospitals they got operational, and they seemed really proud of what they are doing.
“[Playing for the soldiers] was one of the most exciting and fulfilling things we’ve ever done,” added Escalante. “Way more satisfying than playing some 20,000-person show at the Warped Tour, or in front of 40,000 people with Pearl Jam. Playing in front of 100 soldiers that might die the next day and are so grateful, we had no idea it would be like that, but it was. Any one of these guys might not get to see another band for the rest of his life, and for some reason the Army found us and put us in front of him, and he was stoked.”