May 1970, Pt. 1 – A Tragedy, a Timeless Protest Song, and The Beatles’ Swan Song

Occasionally I’ll scroll through my notes concerning albums and other topics I’d like to write about, and one constant throughout 1970 is that – my opinion only, of course – until about November it was an up and down year with the occasional great album or single release, plenty of o.k. but not quite up to par albums by very good artists, and too much bad news. Sure, this could probably be said about any year, but for me 1970 was very much a yin-yang grab bag – more so than I earlier thought it to be – and May might be the epitome of that sentiment.

Yin and yang - Wikipedia

The immediate lead-up to May set the tone with the U.S. invasion of neutral Cambodia at the end of April. Whether one is hawkish or dovish, it had negative repercussions. From a military standpoint, who knows what would have been the ultimate result if they’d been allowed to continue their pursuit of the roughly 40k VC and North Vietnamese regulars whom they had discovered massing across the border from Vietnam? For those opposed to the war, well, what were we doing in Vietnam, let alone her neutral neighbor, in the first place? We know how it all turned out so I’m not going to write a term paper on the conflict. But the immediate impact in the U.S. of the Cambodian incursion was felt on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, where four students were shot dead and nine others wounded by members of the Ohio National Guard. The tragedy spawned arguably the most powerful protest song ever composed, and it was written very fast by Neil Young and recorded on May 21st by CSNY. Of course I’m referring to the single Ohio, b/w the anguish of Find the Cost of Freedom. It was released the following month, and it feels relevant even today.

When Nixon Told Us Invading Cambodia Would Save Civilization | The ...

How Nixon's Invasion of Cambodia Triggered a Check on Presidential ...

The Beatles – Let It Be (album and film)

On May 8 the Beatles released their swan song album, Let It Be, followed by the release five (U.S.) and twelve (U.K.) days later of the documentary film of the same title. Both releases have been picked apart and analyzed to death over the years by critics, fans, and the band itself, mainly Paul McCartney. Personally, I’ve loved the album probably since before I could speak. This is true of almost all of their records. I grew up listening the weirdness of Dig a Pony and Maggie Mae, not thinking twice about the Spectorization of songs like The Long and Winding Road, I Me Mine and the title track. And as I’ve grown to love the music of George Harrison, his contributions to the album make it that much more enjoyable to me now as I near the half-century point in my own life. From a purely musical standpoint, this album is joy to me. It’s a visceral thing that I can’t really explain, but I know that to varying degrees there are many, many other fans who know what I mean. Let It Be has its own distinctive feel, but it’s just as “Beatles” as Meet the Beatles and Revolver. Perhaps that’s a positive acknowledgement of Phil Spector’s controversial contribution, I don’t know. I do know that the original gets played more often than Let It Be…Naked in my home.

Phil Spector

As for the movie, it is what it is. It’s a dreary and bleak document of the greatest band of all time in the process of breaking up, but with a great soundtrack. The first time I watched it as a kid was in the late 1970’s, and I remember thinking “This is gonna get better, right?” Fast-forward 50 years, and we’re about to be offered a new and improved Let It Be documentary, currently scheduled for release September 4, titled The Beatles: Get Back, directed by Peter Jackson and compiled from 55 hours of unused footage from the sessions. Prior to writing this post I revisited an earlier post on the 50th anniversary of the rooftop concert in which I expressed enthusiasm for the then-recently announced Jackson project. We’d been assured that, while it will show the group in a more positive light than the original film, it won’t be revisionist history. I still assume that will be the case, but I must say I’m getting a bit of a skeptical feeling after reading some recent quotes by Paul, Ringo, and others about how rosy and warm the new film is after they viewed it for themselves. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what restoration magic Jackson has done with the footage, most of which presumably most of us have never seen. And if it’s on film then whatever moments of love and brotherhood are shown really did happen. And that’s good to know. (I’ve deleted an additional paragraph on this topic. I’ll save it until I’ve actually seen the damn thing.)

50 Years Ago: 'Let It Be' Movie Captures the Beatles' Final Days

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambodian_campaign

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kent_State_shootings

Peter Jackson’s Beatles Documentary Gets a Release Date

How Peter Jackson’s new version of ‘Let It Be’ will shatter your view of The Beatles

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let_It_Be_(Beatles_album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let_It_Be_(1970_film)

 

 

 

January 30, Pt. 2 – Tet ’68

The Tet Offensive

On this day, a week and a half after the beginning of the siege of Khe Sahn, roughly 80,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers staged a shocking (to the U.S.) and deadly (to both sides, but mostly the communists) attack on over 100 cities and towns in the South in what was the largest military operation in the war to that point.  It occurred during the Tet holiday when both sides had agreed to a ceasefire.  One of the North’s main goals was to instigate an uprising against the government and the Americans among the population in the South, a plan which backfired.

The communists succeeded in breaching the compound walls of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon before being routed.  Fighting continued at Khe Sahn in the northern reaches of South Vietnam for a couple more months (see previous post).  General Westmoreland continued to believe for the first couple weeks of the Tet Offensive that it was just a tactic by the North to distract the Americans from what he believed was the real target:  Khe Sahn and the northern provinces near the DMZ.

But nowhere was the fighting more intense and the results more tragic than in the ancient Imperial City of Hue, where fighting continued for 25 days before the communists were driven out by U.S. and ARVN forces.  Initially, the government of the South prohibited the U.S. from using heavy artillery near the ancient walled Citadel within Hue, but eventually it couldn’t be avoided and most of the city was destroyed.   After Hue was recaptured, it was learned that the communists had massacred thousands of Vietnamese residents of the city that they deemed enemies of the North.  These included civil servants, teachers, police, and religious figures.  The last of the mass graves wasn’t uncovered until 1970, and to this day the communist government of Vietnam does not acknowledge the full extent of what happened.

For the U.S., Tet was a military victory, but one with disastrous results at home.  The military was unprepared for what seemed a preposterous move by the communists, and American citizens more than ever began to doubt U.S. military leadership as well as that in Washington, D.C.

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U.S. soldiers in battle near the walled Citadel, Hue.
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Damage to the outer wall of the Citadel from the Battle of Hue still evident during my visit in 2002.

The photo below is a view looking down into the entrance of the Imperial Citadel at Hue taken during my visit in 2002.  Months later, I was looking through an issue of National Geographic from February 1967 that my grandfather had given me in the mid-1980’s with a feature story on Hue.  I was astonished to come across a photo of two young women taken at the same exact spot one year before the Tet Offensive.  I can’t help but wonder if the two women survived the next year.

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While much of the Imperial Citadel at Hue has been either rebuilt or restored, some of it still appears as it did after the Tet Offensive.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tet_Offensive

-Stephen

 

January 21, Pt. 1 – The Siege of Khe Sanh

The Siege of Khe Sanh – January 21 – July 9

Significant events take place every day all over the planet, and sometimes it takes years to notice that multiple notable things happened on the same day, and that at least in some small way they are interconnected.  Some may be serious occurrences with major geopolitical significance, while others might be in the realm of the trivial.  In no way am I trying to compare events where lives were at stake with anything happening in pop culture, but it is fascinating to me to look at it as one big stew decades on.  I don’t know how else to put it.  January 21st – 22nd is the first snippet from 1968 that shows both the beauty and the madness that would play out for the rest of the year, at least as pertains to the theme of my posts.  First, the madness.

The U.S. Marines had landed at Da Nang, Vietnam almost three years earlier, and for that entire time Americans had been lied to by the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson – not about all the individual battles the Americans had won, because there’s no doubt the troops on the ground did their jobs regardless of what one may feel about the war – but about what the objective was (other than to stop the commie domino) and whether they were going about it in a realistic manner in the long run.  And when the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) began their siege on this Marine outpost near the DMZ on this date, it set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese civil war.

The Americans and South Vietnamese ultimately broke the siege of the base in April 1968, and it was subsequently evacuated and dismantled after thousands were killed and wounded with the U.S. claiming it was no longer of strategic importance.  Khe Sanh came to be seen as a symbol of the futility of the U.S. mission:  Hold a piece of ground at any cost for no rational reason other than to not lose it, maintain said ground, then abandon it once the battle was over.  In this case, LBJ did not want Khe Sanh to be his Dien Bien Phu.  The U.S. “won” the battle, yet something larger was looming just a few days later.

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The moment a shell exploded in an ammo dump in front of Marines defending their post at Khe Sanh.

I visited Vietnam in 2000 with my father, stepmother, and two brothers.  Within an hour I knew I would go back again some day, and I did two years later.  On that second trip I visited many places I didn’t see the first time around, including Khe Sanh.  I’ll never forget how quiet and still it was looking down onto that plateau from a nearby hilltop, with the lonesome clatter from the bell on a cow at the base of the hill being the only sound breaking the silence.

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Spoils of war left at Khe Sanh
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The Khe Sanh plateau in 2002
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A piece of sandbag I found at Camp Carroll, an artillery base and former site of the 3rd Marine Regiment just a short country drive down Hwy 9 from Khe Sanh.  It’s actually a common item to find to this day, along with live ordnance.

And speaking of the Sound of Silence…

-Stephen