The political polarization of the past decade-plus is hardly unprecedented, but today does seem more fraught with tension and dissension than any time since the 1960s. The difference is that the ’10s lacks a cultural gap as wide as the one 50 years ago. Every generation seems to think that the youngsters coming up behind them are sliding hard and fast into perdition—what with their vulgar music, dirty books, wanton dances, and reality television. But the battle lines were especially well-drawn and the skirmishes fiercely fought in the ’60s. Fashions and values changed rapidly and dramatically, as the music got louder and the movies smuttier. Young people felt like they were using the entertainment industry to stave off an establishment that wanted to oppress minorities and send boys off to kill and die over nothing. Older people felt like they were being overrun by smelly, long-haired sex maniacs who’d taken control of the media and were pumping out corrosive propaganda. These differences weren’t just the stuff of cartoons and Laugh-In sketches. The stakes were real.
Last week, Real Gone Music re-released two albums from the heart of a turbulent era: SSgt. Barry Sadler’s 1966 LP Ballads Of The Green Berets, and David Peel & The Lower East Side’s 1968 LP Have A Marijuana. At the time, the Sadler record was meant to capitalize on his massive hit single “The Ballad Of The Green Berets,” packaging it alongside still more stirring, martial-themed, country-tinged story-songs. The Peel album, meanwhile, documented a rowdy New York street-folk band in an approximation of its element, making it sound as though its members were shouting their jokey songs about pot, politics, and police to an small but enthusiastic crowd of onlookers. Both are essentially novelty records, meant to be played a few times with friends—in a “You gotta hear this!” way—and then forgotten.
As such, Have A Marijuana is in some ways the more fascinating album now, because it more or less has been forgotten. Peel has remained a marginal but persistent part of the popular culture, buoyed by his association with John Lennon, who signed Peel to Apple and helped keep his career afloat in the early ’70s. (At the end of the decade, Peel capitalized on the relationship by recording two albums about The Beatles: one an homage/pastiche called Bring Back The Beatles; the other a comedy record called John Lennon For President.) Have A Marijuana, though, was Peel’s debut, and the first of two albums he recorded for the adventurous, youth-oriented major label Elektra.
Even given the expanded freedoms of its age, Have A Marijuana is shockingly coarse for 1968, opening with an anti-war song that includes the word “bullshit,” before moving on to “I Like Marijuana,” which consists of a series of political speeches by representatives of “The Pot Party.” (One promises to “make The Clap a childhood disease,” while another says that if he becomes president, he promises not to tell anyone that he’s Jewish.) It’s an odd cultural artifact, this record, bearing traces of the “sick humor” of Lenny Bruce and the wisenheimer comedy of The Firesign Theatre, while presaging the folk-rock primitivism of Jonathan Richman, Eugene Chadbourne, and Mojo Nixon. Have A Marijuana doesn’t have much replay value, but as a document of the New York counterculture of the late ’60s—which was always crasser than its flowery West Coast counterpart—it’s more valuable now than ever.
Ballads Of The Green Berets is more listenable, by design. It was slickly produced, and even though it relies heavily on a form that’s no longer popular—the half-spoken Western narrative song, used often in the early ’60s by the likes of Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins—it’s a nice album, full of songs about courage and camaraderie. Even when Sadler sings about death, he’s aiming to inspire and reassure.
Yet it’s that very niceness that makes Ballads Of The Green Berets so remarkable in retrospect. Whether Sadler’s trying to move listeners to tears or charm them with anecdotes about military life, he’s painting a picture that’s much more like the gung-ho Hollywood version of the Army, where everyone’s clean-cut and true-blue, and the worst sin is being a “goldbricker.” Though Sadler was stationed in Vietnam immediately prior to recording Ballads Of The Green Berets, the album never acknowledges the murkier side of fighting in Vietnam, the stories of atrocities and derangement that were starting to filter out and change public opinion about the war in the mid-’60s. That’s partly why the military quickly seized on Sadler’s popularity, sending him Stateside after he suffered a combat wound so that he could serve as the public face of the Army and encourage young people to enlist.
Sadler made sure this was a mutually beneficial arrangement. He wrote a bestselling autobiography, I’m A Lucky One, with an introduction by his “Ballad Of The Green Berets” co-author Robin Moore, who also wrote the novel The Green Berets, later adapted into the John Wayne movie of the same name. (Moore went on to write the non-fiction novel The French Connection and to co-write Xaviera Hollander’s memoir The Happy Hooker). Sadler then tried to make a go of it as an actor, and a straight-up country singer, with little luck. He had his greatest post-“Green Berets” success in the ’80s, with a series of historical fantasy/adventure novels about “Casca, the eternal mercenary,” an immortal soldier cursed by Jesus Christ to fight in wars for countless millennia.
Sadler’s own life and service didn’t exactly resemble the clean, old-fashioned war that he sold on behalf of the Army. He did honor his service by giving away most of his “Ballad Of The Green Berets” royalties to help wounded soldiers, as a way of thanking the people who took care of him when he was hurt. Sadler didn’t catch a bullet on a battlefield, though; he suffered a very Vietnam-specific injury, falling into a trap and having his leg punctured by a sharpened, shit-covered stick. And Sadler was no saint. He was known to carouse with the best of them, and during his stint as a struggling country singer in the ’70s, he was convicted for manslaughter for shooting and killing a fellow songwriter with whom he’d been feuding over a woman. Even the circumstances of Sadler’s death in 1989 (at age 49) are strange and sordid. He was shot in the head in Guatemala, perhaps while being robbed, perhaps in an attempted suicide, perhaps by accident, or perhaps as retaliation for what some reported to be his secret mission in Central America: to train the Contras.
So in terms of which album is more honest and true-to-life, Have A Marijuana bests Ballads Of The Green Berets, if only because Peel and his bandmates probably really were smoking dope, screwing around, and bitching about the pigs in exactly the way they describe in their songs. But that’s not to say that Have A Marijuana isn’t a fantasy in its own way—or that Peel’s late-’70s Beatles riffs are any different, really, from Sadler’s Casca novels. The most popular output of both Sadler and Peel were statements of cultural identity, embraced by people looking to assert their will in defining a world very much in flux. These fans were “values voters” in the cultural marketplace, with one side backing an idealized form of patriotic duty and the other supporting carefree libertinism. Both were supporting “freedom,” but with different, often paradoxically exclusionary meanings of the word.
These pop divides still exist, though they emerge most often today whenever an evangelical film or right-wing documentary becomes a surprise success. The left has far fewer of those kinds of grassroots hits now, though not because the hippies ultimately “won” pop culture. It’s more that market fragmentation and narrowcasting has allowed consumers to pursue their particular interests—political and otherwise—without having to be in conflict with some monolithic “other.” Which means that nowadays, the massively popular entertainment tends to be more broadly accepting: embracing God, country, and alternative lifestyles in ways that hit as many quadrants as possible without overly offending anyone. In 2012, in pop as in politics, the way to win support is to swing the middle.