While Vietnam inspired a host of antiwar songs, few musical profiles of the soldiers who actually fought there have been drawn. Despite the serious consideration given in recent years to the problems and anxieties of the Vietnam veteran, the first song to deal with a veteran has just surfaced on the airwaves.
It's called "Still in Saigon," written by Dan Daley and performed by the Charlie Daniels Band. In a number of school systems around the country, the song has already been the subject of assigned essays. It has received enough air play to push it into the Top 40, where it continues its climb this week with a "superbulleted" 33 in the Billboard charts.
"Still in Saigon" is not the traditional stuff of hits: It's serious, at times bleak, and it offers neither solutions nor sermons, simply an emotional portrait of what's going on inside one vet's mind. Neither Daley nor Daniels is a vet; in fact, neither has ever served in the armed forces. Which doesn't seem to make much difference to the veterans themselves.
"We think it's great," says Robert Muller, executive director of the Vietnam Veterans of America, which has endorsed the song. "It calls attention to the issues of the Vietnam vet. It hopefully will reach a lot of people who've got to be reminded that we fought a war over there. 'Still In Saigon' is our story. What's been amazing for us is when some of the stations playing it have gone to the phones for a poll about what people think about the song; in some places, 25 percent have said 'Why bring that up again, let sleeping dogs lie, let it be history . . . ' which is the very struggle that's our biggest obstacle. To do it in a pop manner, in a way that reaches a younger audience as well as the Vietnam vets themselves, well, that's a verification of the experience for some of these guys."
Daley, a New York singer-songwriter and producer, says he "didn't sit down with the idea of writing a song about Vietnam veterans or about Vietnam. I was trying to write a song that would convey the feel of combat without making any sort of judgments. I'm neither a pacifist nor a pro-war person. I sat down to get the Civil War in there but I realized Poco had done something similar, so I moved along through several wars."
An early version was titled "Mig Alley" and dealt with Korea; several drafts later, Daley had moved down the Asian coastline. "Writing is a creative process and the results are not always what I intend at the start. Vietnam became the setting for the song because that war shaped me and my generation to an incredibly large degree. The viewpoint of the song is that of a veteran because in a way that's my viewpoint, too. These people are my age and many of them are my friends. As I said, these weren't my intentions but I don't see how I could have written anything else."
After recording his own version Daley sent it to Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen's manager, and to Charlie Daniels. "Those were the two people with a wide enough audience and with the prior commitment to the veterans' cause," Daley says. "Landau liked it but said Bruce was not recording outside material."
Enter Charlie Daniels, who had a major hit with the super-patriotic "In America" two years before. Did he have any second thoughts about tackling such a sensitive subject? "I might have had some second thoughts, but no third thoughts," he insists. "My main concern was that I didn't want the guys that had been over there and suffered and come back to think 'Who's this fat cowboy trying to put himself in our place?' That was my main concern, that the veterans, the people who had actually been there, would not think that I was trying to capitalize on their misery."
While on the crew bus between gigs, Daniels ran the song by his security guards and road crew, many of whom were Vietnam vets. They were so moved that Daniels rushed to include the song on his new album; the last song on, "Still in Saigon," was also the first song pulled off as a single.
Charlie Daniels has continued to perform benefit concerts for Vietnam Veterans of America, while Daley has given over a portion of his royalties to the same organization. Last week, Daniels was made an honorary Vietnam vet in Pennsylvania. He will appear at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in late August, and the song will be a centerpiece of his show. "It's become one of the best-received songs that I do," he says."