Thursday, January 30, 2014

"Goodnight Saigon"; Hello Tear-Jerking Cheese?

Per the official Yuppie Rock bylaws, Billy Joel had no choice but to try his hand at a Vietnam song. And when he did, boy, it was a doozy. "Walking On A Thin Line," eat your heart out.

Here's a question for you: can a person like a song and also ... not like it? Can you admire the artistry of a composition and also wonder if you really need it in your life? That's me and "Goodnight Saigon." I feel like "Goodnight Saigon" is touching, it's effective, it's dramatic, and it's so ... manipulative. Billy Joel wants me to feel sad about Vietnam. He wants me to feel very, very sad. And actually, when I listen to the song, I do feel pretty sad. I also feel like I'm being cajoled into feeling sad. OK, I got it, Vietnam was a nightmarish jungle of napalm-fueled pain. What do you want me to do about it? Geez Billy. Why didn't you write a funny song about Vietnam, like Country Joe & the Fish did?

Here's how he described his intentions in a 1982 interview with a British DJ:
There was a lot of, I think in the late '60s, early '70s, political songs, you know, anti-Vietnam songs. Then there was your pro-Vietnam song, which is "The Ballad of the Green Berets." There was never a song really written from the soldiers' point of view, who was the guy over there, getting his ass shot off. And just at this point of time in the States, people are just beginning to be able to deal with the whole Vietnam syndrome. And there's a lot of guys, especially my age, I'm 33 now, who went there, a lot of my friends went there, and I always wanted to write a sort of All Quiet on the Western Front, from their point of view. Not whether it was wrong or whether it was right, it was just, "How did you feel when you were over there?" You know, "'Cause you were the guys who were on the line."

When they came back, nobody waved any flags, nobody gave them a big parade. You know, they went over there and they fought, and they got kicked in the ass, coming back. As a matter of fact, I thought the fitting memorial for a Vietnam soldier would've been a statue of a guy carrying a gun with a screw going through his back. These guys have never had a chance or an outlet to really talk about it.
Well, why talk about it when Billy Joel can talk about it for you? Although the "official" video, a fairly strong live recording with tasteful Vietnam stills interspersed between the footage, is worth watching if you're curious, I wouldn't say it's a substitute for the studio version:

First there's a helicopter noise, and I feel like I'm lying in bed, half-drunk, staring at the ceiling fan in my hotel room, about to punch my fist through a mirror. I never said a word to my wife until I said "yes" to a divorce. Never get off the boat. Wait, where am I? Then the piano comes in, gradually joined by an acoustic guitar and a tambourine, and why do I get the impression that John Lennon is about to start singing "I read the news today oh boy"? The lyrics are simultaneously chilling and a bit overwrought:
We met as soul mates
On Parris Island
We left as inmates
From an asylum
And we were sharp
As sharp as knives
And we were so gung ho
To lay down our lives

We came in spastic
Like tameless horses
We left in plastic
As numbered corpses
And we learned fast
To travel light
Our arms were heavy
But our bellies were tight

We had no home front
We had no soft soap
They sent us Playboy
They gave us Bob Hope
We dug in deep
And shot on sight
And prayed to Jesus Christ
With all of our might
"We came in spastic/Like tameless horses/We left in plastic/As numbered corpses"? People died. I got it Billy, I got it. On the other hand, I like the sarcastic tinge to these details: as if Playboy and Bob Hope were going to help out anybody in a firefight against Charlie in the jungle, right? So far, so delicate, but then the drums come in, and Billy turns up the heat a notch:
We had no cameras
To shoot the landscape
We passed the hash pipe
And played our Doors tapes
And it was dark
So dark at night
And we held on to each other
Like brother to brother
We promised our mothers we'd write

And we would all go down together
We said we'd all go down together
Yes we would all go down together
Whoa, whoa. When did this turn into Kumbaya? It's freakin' "We are the World" time on The Nylon Curtain. And whose idea was that sustained echo on "night"? Was that supposed to be scary? Was Billy having another heart attack-ack-ack-ack? Phil Ramone should have nixed that idea the moment it was suggested.
Remember Charlie
Remember Baker
They left their childhood
On every acre
And who was wrong?
And who was right?
It didn't matter in the thick of the fight
OK, I know it's a figure of speech, but I just wanted to clarify that you can't actually leave your childhood on physical partitions of land. It's not like sunflower seeds. This last part is pretty good though:
We held the day
In the palm
Of our hand
They ruled the night
And the night
Seemed to last as long as six weeks
On Parris Island

We held the coastline
They held the highlands
And they were sharp
As sharp as knives
They heard the hum of our motors
They counted the rotors
And waited for us to arrive
Pretty much sums up why we lost. Maybe at times we felt like we were doing OK; as he sings, "We held the day in the palm of our hands." But eventually ... the night comes. And while we were complete strangers to the environment, they actually lived there. And when you're a stranger in the jungle at night, you're basically a sitting duck. Eventually you're going to find yourself sitting around a foul, corpse-ridden compound with a fat Marlon Brando rambling about failed innoculations and T.S. Eliot. But I digress. We could only dominate around the edges, but we couldn't become them. And that's probably true of Iraq, and Afghanistan, and every American war since.

See, it's a good song! But man does he lay it on thick. It might be that "Goodnight Saigon" is all of Billy Joel's brilliance and schmaltz rolled into one. Perhaps his audience felt the same way, as the song only peaked at #50 in the US, although amusingly enough, it was a #1 hit in the Netherlands (!). At least Garth Brooks likes it:

Honestly, when I actually sit down and listen to "Goodnight Saigon," I enjoy it, but most of the time, when I put on The Nylon Curtain, I tend to skip it. Which is probably what most Americans wish they could have done with the Vietnam War.

No comments: