The 1960s was a peak historical era for protest music. As American soldiers ran through the jungles of Southeast Asia, rock and roll took to the streets. Civil Rights activists clashed with the police. Peace marchers faced down National Guardsmen. And a psychedelic soundtrack blared in the background.
So naturally, we 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 enlisted.
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 him home in Southern California.
This made it extremely easy for Jerry to skip out on his service responsibilities. He did so constantly.
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 way worse…
Still here? Ok. In that case, I’m gonna tell you about Sgt. Barry Sadler. But I have to say, this one is pretty freakin’ rough. You’ve been warned.
Here goes. Barry Sadler was born in Carlsbad, New Mexico in 1940. His family moved around a bunch, he dropped out of high school at 17, and enlisted in the Air Force in 1958. After discharge from the USAF in 1961, Sadler immediately enlisted in the army. He subsequently completed medic training before shipping out to Vietnam. There, he served as a Green Beret between 1964 and 1965.
Sadler was critically wounded when his knee was punctured by a jagged, feces-covered stick. The resulting infection ended his military career but Sadler made a full recovery. Sadler was honorably discharged as a highly decorated veteran at a time before public sentiment had turned against the war.
He turned his war hero status into overnight success.
In 1966, he launched his singing career with a full-length album of military-themed songs for RCA Victor. The title tune, “Ballad of the Green Beret” shot like a cannon to the top of the charts, holding the #1 spot for five weeks in 1966.
Sadler appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, produced an autobiography, and lent his chart-topper to a John Wayne movie called The Green Berets in 1968.
Sadler did briefly return to the charts with a song called “The ‘A’ Team”. (Don’t get too excited. It’s not that “A-Team”…I checked.)
That was pretty much the end of Sadler’s charting days. As public support for the war eroded, Sadler’s patriotic pablum fell out of favor as well. Sadler moved to Arizona and attempted a brief career in acting. He appeared in a few minor Western roles but that was about it.
Relocating to Nashville in the late ’60s, he began an unlikely and fairly successful career as a pulp novelist. He would go on to produce 22 books about a cursed Roman soldier named Casca Rufio Longinius.
But in a case of life imitating art, Sadler may himself have been a cursed soldier. In 1978, Sadler found himself embroiled in a love triangle. He was in a relationship with the former paramour of country songwriter Lee Emerson Bellamy.
Bellamy did not take it well. The songwriter subjected the new couple to a constant barrage of phone calls, harassment, and threats. These events ultimately led to a confrontation outside of Sadler’s home. Believing Bellamy to be armed, Sadler fired a single shot at the man as he fled in his pickup truck.
Striking Bellamy between the eyes and instantly killing him, Sadler then planted a gun in the unarmed man’s truck. Though initially sentenced to five years in prison for involuntary manslaughter, he ultimately received a reduced sentence, serving just 28 days.
In 1984, Sadler moved to Guatemala City, where continued his work on the Casca series. In 1988, Sadler was struck in the head by a bullet while sitting in a cab in what is believed to have been a robbery.
The attack left him paralyzed. A year later, Sadler died of complications from his injuries at the age of 49.
I know. That was brutal. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.