The 1960s was a peak era in the history of protest music. As American soldiers ran through the jungles of Southeast Asia, rock and roll took to the streets. Civil Rights and peace activists clashed with police officers and National Guardsmen to a psychedelic soundtrack.
So we naturally tend to think of rock stars and soldiers as two distinctly different breeds.
But during the Vietnam Era, being in a rock band and being in the army had more in common than you might think: substance abuse, communal showers, high casualty rates. In the 1960s, the militant protest movement and the militant..um…military, were simply two separate but intertwined strands representing a moment in history.
Just how intertwined, though?
Well, intertwined enough that some of the era’s most peace-loving, ganja-smoking, patchouli-smelling hippies actually spent time in the army.
Were they good soldiers?
Well I suppose that’s a question only their respective commanding officers could answer. But all evidence suggests these guys looked better in tie-dye than camouflage.
Perhaps the most famous Hippie veteran is one-time paratrooper James Marshall. Granted, the young Seattle native didn’t voluntary sign up to jump out of airplanes for his country. He simply decided it was the better of two options when he was arrested for riding in a stolen car. Given a choice between jail and the army, Marshall chose the latter.
During his short stint with Kentucky’s 101st Airborne Division, Marshall was a constant thorn in the side of his commanding officer. Reports indicate that he was habitually late for bed check, was a subpar marksman and that he lacked the ability “to carry on an intelligent conversation.”
His captain determined that Marshall was literally incapable of focusing on anything that wasn’t his guitar. The military resolved that this condition could not be cured by psychological counseling or hospitalization.
Fortunately, Marshall injured his ankle during a parachuting drill. Seizing the opportunity to be rid of him, the military granted James an “Honorable Discharge” in 1962. He served just one year.
Seven years later, the same man was waking up the crowd on Woodstock’s final morning with the subversively electrified squall of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
As poor a soldier as Hendrix was, Jerry Garcia was even worse. It should not surprise you to learn that Captain Trips didn’t take his military service very seriously. Much like Jimi, Jerry donned the uniform by judge’s decree, in his case for stealing his mother’s car in 1960.
Jerry didn’t even make it a year. He did basic training at Fort Ord, and subsequent training at Fort Winfield Scott. Both stations were relatively close to Southern California home.
This made it extremely easy for Jerry to skip out on his service responsibilities. He did so with great frequency.
Jerry routinely missed roll call, was frequently marked as AWOL, and appeared to have little interest in his duties. Garcia’s dedication was rewarded with a “general discharge” by Christmas of 1960.
Garcia met songwriting partner Robert Hunter four months later and became chief of a tribe around which the anti-war music scene would come to orbit in the late ‘60s.
Much like Jerry and Jimi before him, Fogerty’s service was involuntary. By contrast, his service would coincide with the intensification of the Vietnam War. In 1966, Fogerty played guitar in a garage combo called The Golliwogs, with brother Tom and high school friends Doug Clifford and Stu Cook. Signed to the small Fantasy label, the Golliwogs released a few singles with limited response.
Aware that his draft number was approaching, Fogerty preemptively enlisted in the Army Reserves. He served in Fort Bragg, Fort Knox and Fort Lee before being discharged at the height of the Summer of Love.
Though Fogerty would never see combat, his military experience would figure heavily into his songwriting, much of which stands today as emblematic of the Vietnam Era and the anti-war movement, most notably, of course, with “Fortunate Son.”
Bonus Playlist: Songs About Soldiers
Oh, and remind me to tell you the story of Sgt. Barry Sadler and “The Ballad of the Green Berets”. The song isn’t great, but the story is worse.