We tend to think of war and rock music as having been two diametrically opposed forces in the 1960s. And they were. The Vietnam Era was the height of protest music, both at its most visceral and its most naïve.
But during the Vietnam Era, soldiers and rock musicians had more in common than you might think: substance abuse, communal showers, high casualty rates. The militant protest movement and the militant…um…military are simply two separate but intertwined strands representing a moment in history.
Just how intertwined, though?
Well, enough that some of the most peace-loving, ganja-smoking, patchouli-smelling hippies you ever heard of served in the army. Were they good soldiers? Well I suppose that’s a question only their respective commanding officers could answer for sure but all evidence suggests these guys looked better in tie-dye than camouflage.
In honor of Memorial Day and all those who truly have served and sacrificed for their country, we commemorate these tours of duty by some of history’s least likely soldiers.
Perhaps most famous among Hippie veterans is one-time paratrooper James Marshall. Granted, the young Seattle native didn’t exactly volunteer to jump out of airplanes for his country. This just struck him as the better of two options when he was arrested for riding in a stolen car and given a choice between jail and the army.
Marshall was, during his decidedly short stint in the army, a constant thorn in the side of his commanding officer and fellow members of Kentucky’s 101st Airborne Division. Reports indicate that Marshall was habitually late for bed check, was a subpar marksman and lacked the ability “to carry on an intelligent conversation.”
His presiding captain surmised that Marshall was incapable of focusing on anything that wasn’t his guitar, a condition which the military judged could not be remedied by psychological counseling or hospitalization. Fortunately for Jimi, his captain and us, Marshall injured his ankle during a parachuting drill in 1962. After one year of service, Jimi was granted a rather generous “Honorable Discharge.”
Seven years later, the same man was rousing the crowd on Woodstock’s final morning with his subversively electrified “Star Spangled Banner.”
As crappy 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. His basic training at Fort Ord and his subsequent training at Fort Winfield Scott both kept him close to his Southern California home, a scenario which made it rather easy for him to skip out on his service responsibilities. He 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 the hippie tribe around which the anti-war music scene would orbit in the late ‘60s.
Much like Jerry and Jimi before him, Fogerty’s service was involuntary. By contrast, his would come just as the Vietnam War was heating up. In 1966, Fogerty played guitar in The Golliwogs with brother Tom and high school friends Doug Clifford and Stu Cook. With Tom on vocals, the band signed to the small Fantasy label and released a few singles to limited response.
Aware that his draft number was approaching, Fogerty preemptively enlisted in the Army Reserve, ultimately serving at Fort Bragg, Fort Knox and Fort Lee before being discharged at the height of the Summer of Love. He left the army to rejoin his bandmates, taking over lead vocals and rechristening the band Creedence Clearwater Revival.
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. “Fortunate Son” is his most notable contribution to the movement but “Run Through the Jungle” and “Someday Never Comes” are perhaps even more evocative of their time and place.