Memorial Day – From a Veteran, Advocate and Songwriter
I was pleased that Bill Hurley, the editor from The Alternate Root magazine suggested I write a story about how I came about writing some of the songs I do that are about coming home from war. The article appeared this last Memorial Day with the title: Memorial Day – From a Veteran, Advocate and Songwriter. I’ve revised the original draft to clean up the typos and error and wish to place it here in it’s entirety.
I’d never really thought until recently about writing a story on how some of my songs came about from what I perceived as the disenfranchised and alienated veterans who returned home from war and never truly got their lives back on track. The 60 Minutes story on May 12th 2013 describes the high suicide rates which in truth is not really “new” news though it prompted me to write this.
The complexities of the psychological traumas of war on the human brain can be profound. There are far better writers than I who have written on that subject. My own problems were severe enough, with anxiety and depression being the two major hallmarks of Post Traumatic Stress (I’m personally against the use of the term disorder for a number of reasons) which anyone who has lived with it can attest.
I became more interested in writing songs, both as a therapeutic device and later as a veteran advocate through personalized songs written in the folk storytelling style in my late forties. I had reached a point where I could indulge myself and not be concerned about trying to make a living at it since I wasn’t capable of performing anyway. There are of course lots of songs extolling patriotism and the sacrifice of our men and women who have gone to war. A time and place for everything I guess but being both anti-war and a veteran advocate, I just don’t have those types of songs in my bones. My love and respect for my fellow veterans is profound but my “flag waving” fervor for America got pretty much washed out of me after Vietnam.
My focus in writing became about how living alone and isolated were the more dominant themes of the reality of life after coming home. Years later, after talking with younger veterans , I realized our experiences were all the same, different wars with the same emotionally traumatized outcomes.
A younger friend, Zander Schloss who I met on the set of the cult film: Repo Man in 1984 is an an actor and musician currently working with Sean Wheeler as: Sean & Zander. Zander sublet the studio apartment over the garage of a home my wife and I were renting in Los Angeles in 1999.
I was excited to work with Zander who was on hiatus as a working musician, having unfortunately just been culled from Interscope Records. I was in good company since he had written with both Scott Weiland and Joe Strummer. A great opportunity and learning experience for me.
We began dabbling with an 8 track reel to reel and analog soundboard in the basement of this old Spanish style home and as we accumulated recording equipment, the process of writing melodies and lyrics became of serious interest on both our parts. The songs began to evolve with the contributions of many of his fellow musicians who helped fill out the work we were producing in a folk, punk, Americana and traditional country style. Eventually it was released in 2005 as “The Gousters.” “The Gousters” was a term I learned growing up in Chicago based on black slang having to do with dressing unconventionally. The CD remained for 60 weeks on the Roots Music Report Folk Chart with a 5 star review which has given me the kind of validation I needed to continue writing.
A key song from this album was: “Only Eighteen.” This was my first song as a memoir of Vietnam. It is a story based on a compilation of tales I knew from guys I met in Vietnam and my own thrown in. It has been described as raw and emotionally charged with haunting background vocals and harmonies.
Although I’ve written poetry and a few songs when I was younger, I never had the mental strength and will to pursue it more professionally. I was wholly focused on just surviving and making a living through any number of jobs I’ve had through-out my life. I finally approached the dream that I could barely acknowledge to myself, of being a serious songwriter in my late 40’s.
My latest CD release last January is called: Walt Cronin & Martin Beal – Gone So Long. Martin has been not only a good friend but is a multi talented arranger, producer, musician and computer whiz who has been instrumental in helping me create my last 3 CDs working from his studio: The Racket Room in Santa Ana, CA.
The previous CD: California I Gotta’ Run (2010) peaked at #2 on Roots Music Chart – Roots / Americana Country Internet Airplay Chart in October of that year.
I have over the years done a few radio interviews and submitted my anti-war songs to many websites and organizations too numerous to remember. A song on California I Gotta’ Run is called No Shame In Cryin’. This is what I believe to be a particularly poignant song about an older vet talking to the younger generation of veterans about coming in to seek help at the V.A.
This is also inspired by the fact that the Vietnam era guys never received much acknowledgment even from our father’s World War II generation. The “estranged generation,” I think of as ourselves and we’ve had too many of us afraid of the stigma of being labled with a psychological diagnosis or the fear that we will appear weak if we need to ask for help. Until not too recently I thought, well, the Vietnam era guys have either by now asked for the help or didn’t feel they needed it.
It turns out that we older veterans are actually discovering that the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress are becoming much more of a problem as retirement approaches and the effects of aging make us more prone to not being able to stuff those experiences down as well as we did when we were younger.
What is truly tragic for both generations is how many commit suicide each day. They do have a a hot line set up now but it is critical that much more needs to be done both at the point when we are released from active duty and given full information on what symptoms may begin to occur later, which may be months or years. I myself have received excellent care at the V.A. but I had to struggle for years prior to fight for my compensation benefits. They did not make it easy to grant them then. I really can’t say what it is like now except that they are backlogged with extreme numbers of submissions for disability compensations of vets from our involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another song which has importance to me is “Flowers In Her Hand,” 2008. It starts out with a funereal organ like dirge and is inspired by a photo taken during the Iraq war showing a young woman lying on the grave of her soldier/ boyfriend/ husband. I recently edited a music video for this song that I posted on you tube and my Facebook music page for Memorial Day 2013.
It points out once again the futility and stupidity of the wholesale carnage of our loved ones. The conventional wisdom states that World War II was the last good war if such a thing can be. The psychology of violence in the origin of our species would argue for the necessity of war but I believe that if we do not evolve a higher consciousness, we will go on killing each other until we end up in oblivion.
Until then we must live up to what our 16th president proclaimed at his 2nd Inaugural Address as long as we continue to sacrifice our loved ones in war.
“To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan” Abraham Lincoln.
I might add a quote from a lesser known cleric born in the 1850’s:
“A war less world will come as men develop war less hearts. ~Charles Wesley Burns
Originally published in Alternate Root Magazine