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Alice Kahn

'Nam on TV: A Hit or a Miss?

June 22, 1988|Alice Kahn

Hey, Mr. TV man, play a different song for me. Because of you, I have a 20-year-old Nancy Sinatra song called "Sugar Town" stuck in my head.

I made the mistake of watching "China Beach," a show about American women in Vietnam. The show opened with Nancy in her infamous boots and minidress at an outdoor USO show singing this insipidly sweet tune, "I was in Shu-shu-shu, Shu-shu-shu-shu-shu-shu Sugar Town. . . ." Funny that they should choose a B-minus hit from rock's finest era.

When not showing Ol' Blue Thighs singing and dancing, the camera cut back and forth to the innocent faces of the boys in the audience hooting for her and the mangled bodies of their wounded comrades being airlifted onto Red Cross choppers.

I didn't want to remember any of it--the bad songs, the young soldiers, the wounded bodies. That's why I have avoided all the critically acclaimed Vietnam movies. My attitude has been: Why pay to see reruns of a war that drove my generation crazy?

Then I watched another great TV show, "Tour of Duty," which showed U.S. forces evacuating a Vietnam village to the tune of "People Get Ready (There's a Train a-Comin')." I realized, it's not the war people are watching. It's the music.

The Vietnam War shows are basically '60s Oldies MTV. Everybody's sick of pastel pink, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, diners, doo-wop, Bill Haley and Chuck Berry. So bring on Day-Glo pink, love beads, long hair, Jim Morrison, Joni Mitchell, the Byrds, Lovin' Spoonful and mangled bodies.

This is not a case of "those who forget history are doomed to repeat it." It's more a matter of those who forget Nancy Sinatra songs ought to be forced to listen to them again.

Sure, on shows like "China Beach" you get a little war-is-hell along with your Supremes impersonators. But mostly the people on the show look cool. The women are alluring in those olive drab T-shirts. And the men are hunks. You are transported back to the drink-fornicate-and-be-merry wartime spirit. War may be unhealthy for children and other living things, but it's great for love scenes.

I had never quite understood why old-timers got so blear-eyed over "I'll Be Seeing You" or "As Time Goes By" or "Till Then." I thought they were recalling battle victories--Omaha Beach, "Iwo"--but maybe it was bedroom conquests all along.

The great thing about '60s music is that it has nostalgia appeal for the soldiers abroad and those who fought the war at home. Who can listen to "Proud Mary" or "Street-Fighting Man" without recalling someone he picked up at a demo? Back then, we never considered the absurdity of Mick Jagger singing all the way to the bank, "Hey! The time is right for violent revo-loo-shun. . . ."

For me, certain songs can bring back the late '60s even better than the smell of incense and patchouli. At the time, I was a young high school English teacher. I was trying to get my students to question what was going on, asking the musical question, "How many roads must a man walk down?"

I made my students write essays on Bob Dylan's "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." I insisted they learn the works of poets like Simon and Garfunkel. I was using the music to reach them.

One day my favorite student got up in front of the class and, in a clear attempt to pander to my prejudices, sang for his class project a heart-rending version of "The Times They Are a-Changin'." I gave him an A. Fifteen years later he was arrested as a cocaine dealer.

Another time I let the students play their favorite songs while they were studying. No. 1 favorite was a song called "Itchycoo Park." The kids even had a park they went to before school where they took reds (sleeping pills) and drank booze. Just as they did in the park in the song. One boy fell asleep right in my class and almost didn't wake up.

So, yes, let's remember the good old days--the '60s, the Vietnam War--as a Nancy Sinatra song. It sounds kind of sweet now, but at the time we knew it was lousy.

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