Well, come on mothers throughout the land,
Pack your boys off to Vietnam.
Come on fathers, don't hesitate,
Send 'em off before it's too late.
Be the first one on your block
To have your boy come home in a box.There may be some who question the propriety of singing the "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" within hearing of the 58,229 names inscribed on that haunting black marble at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
One of those questioners, at least some of the time, is the man who wrote it: Country Joe McDonald of Berkeley, Calif.
"I agonize over that question almost every time I sing it," he said yesterday. Nearby, musicians tweaked amplifiers on the windswept bandstand in front of the Lincoln Memorial for a nine-hour concert marking the 20th anniversary of the Wall. Country Joe was due to appear near the climax of the show. "Fixin'-to-Die Rag" was to be the finale.
"The truth is that song has made my career and that song screwed up my career," he sighed from beneath his blue denim ball cap. True, the Rag with its "One, two, three, what are we fighting for?" chorus (Whoopee! We're all gonna die!) was a global anthem of the antiwar '60s, sung both with dope-stocked merriment at campus demonstrations and with surreal ferocity by enlisted men under siege at Khe Sanh.
Yesterday afternoon, as 400 prepped-up young delegates to the National Young Leaders Conference strolled hurriedly past them under a lowering sky, 67 ragged figures from that other time huddled in the wind to hear an earnest, bundled-up young woman named Kimberly Newkirk sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." They were the entire audience.
Others would come and go during the afternoon as a 20-knot northwesterly whipped the mud-puddled surface of the mostly drained Reflecting Pool and 18 little-known individuals and groups from around the country mounted the stage to sing or play their individual tributes.
McDonald's rag may be one of the best-remembered songs of an era.
But it's not exactly an elegiac hymn to the fallen, particularly when McDonald yells to the audience, "Gimme an F! Gimme a U! . . ."
Which, McDonald says, is just the point: Vietnam vets never got an elegiac hymn. This is the song the living veterans ask for, he says. It best reflects the unreality not just of Vietnam, but of all war: The dead would surely understand.
Come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He's got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam. If there's a museum-piece quality to those words today, it was no less so than that cloaking yesterday's wistful musical tribute -- the opening shot, if one can say that, of the pre-Veterans Day observance at the Wall.
Alan Greilsamer, communications director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, said most had contacted the fund over the years hoping for a chance to sing their songs at the Wall.
One of those was Benny Villa of Topsail, N.C., who said he's written some 30 songs since his years in Vietnam, and recorded "about 18."
"I'm not really a full-time songwriter but I'd like to be," he said. "I write 'Mama' songs and drinking songs. I wrote a song about my wife, Irene, over there. But this song I'm gonna sing is called 'Left Behind.' It's about POWs."
He volunteered a CD as the rest of the afternoon's singers assembled: Charles Cottingham and Ray Vinup Jr., who would do "The Price We Paid"; Elvis Carden, who would sing "We Cry Together at the Wall"; Howard Stansell, who would perform "Just as Much a Hero."
Paul Revere and the Raiders stocked the bandstand with what appeared to be enough electronic equipment to power Cam Ranh Bay. It included Revere's famous electric keyboard fashioned in part from the front end of a 1965 Ford Mustang. It started out yesterday sporting a disembodied human arm and leg sticking out from under the wheels, but Revere removed them before the performance as perhaps being not entirely in the best of taste for a tribute to the battle-torn.
Revere, a graying, mustachioed figure in a black suit, black T-shirt and suede boots, claims still to perform some 200 dates a year, though he's 40 years past his rock-and-roll heyday.
With him was Scott McKenzie, whose 1967 hit told us we'd meet a lot of gentle people in San Francisco with flowers in their hair. It didn't turn out quite that way and, according to his official Web site (maintained by a retired policeman in Perth, Australia), McKenzie ended up living in the desert, where "he went around barefoot talking to cactuses."
"I can't imagine anyone having the slightest interest in me," he says on the Web site.
Yesterday, beatific in a gray ponytail, McKenzie said he showed up for last night's concert to perform with Revere, with whom he apparently spent a memorable ouzo-filled New Year's Eve last year in Athens in the employ of some rock-and-rolling Greek shipping magnate. The details were not entirely clear.
The one hit of his career, McKenzie said, is still requested by Vietnam veterans who get teary when it's played and hug him when he finishes.
"They're trying to thank me," he said with innocent wonder. "But hell, I'm trying to thank them."
So, in his way, is Country Joe McDonald. Sure, his parents were communists and he played at every antiwar rally and joined Jane Fonda's FTA ([expletive] the Army) tour in the '60s and '70s and "I knew all the lefties." But he'd been an enlisted man in the Navy before Vietnam, he said, almost pleading that you'll understand him, and "I never was against the guys who were fighting."
Has any veteran ever objected to his song?
"Well," he said, "the closest is one guy who told me when he came back from Vietnam and heard the 'Rag,' he grabbed the record and broke it over his knee. But two years later, he told me, he went out and bought a copy of his own."
Whoopee! We're all gonna die!
By the time Country Joe finally sang his song, the audience had dwindled along with the temperature and there were rarely more than 40 people on hand to hear him, including the TV sound crews. But his "Gimme an F" and the rest of the "Rag" brought a thin cheer of appreciation from those on hand.
Overlooking his performance through the floodlit columns behind him was the solemn seated statue of Abraham Lincoln, who at any given moment had a bigger audience of tourists on hand to think about his words.
There in the Lincoln Memorial, behind the National Park Service signs that say "Quiet. Respect, Please," visitors with their cameras could read these words among those engraved on an earlier wall.
"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."
And: "We cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."