Music Lovin' in the 21st Century's U.S. Navy in Four Parts
Country Red, deployment 2012 on USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 27), in the Media Department studio
by Wade T Oberlin
Blogging on Shore Duty
Yakima Valley, Washington state, in a roach motel on the outskirts of the city. My friend Scott and I wanted to stride into the centralized Mariott hotel and grab a room without reservation, but Elton John was apparently in town and it was all booked up. About five blocks or so from the Marriot but a cab-ride away from the sketchy motel, history can be captured in a snap-shot; a renovated train station with a museum, many furnished wooden buildings housed wine shops that showed off local tastes infused by the apples of the local orchards. Yakima is distinct from its vast surrounding crag-rock landscape by these nearby orchards, the train tracks and the great river that runs through the valley.
"Elton John bumped us to a roach motel," my friend said in his typical deadpan, with humor. We drove about four hours to get to Yakima for a weekend trip to check out the orchards and wines. The idea that Washington had a "desert" struck both of us as odd too. Like most drives throughout the state, this summer trip was gorgeous, with landscapes of every kind. First the coast and peninsula of Kitsap, the ferry ride crossing to the pleasant urban sprawl of Seattle, the water and the pines leading us to the mountain paths that summarize the iconic Northwest aesthetic. We began our trip in my blue Ford Taurus, leaving the lot of my apartment in Silverdale, a quaint town set between a number of Navy bases.
Scott is a Navy cook, at the time stationed aboard the USS Michigan, an SSGN-class submarine that carries a payload of tomahawk missiles. He specializes in desserts, and enlisted out of passion for his work and for the steady paycheck he wasn't receiving in Atlanta. For this trip and nearly every day for that matter, he was wearing a thick Misfits hoodie, despite the heat, and shorts.
The afternoon was turning into the evening, and we were about to call a cab to check out the main drag. Scott lit a cigarette inside our smoking room, then exited through the front door into the desert breeze. I never liked smoking inside, and instead fed another habit from my hotel bed. I was eagerly watching the download bars of my laptop as I lifted another album from A Certain Ratio called Force and a Joy Division bootleg from their Warsaw days. I was deep into my Factory Records phase circa this time in 2009, and whenever I had time and a connection, I found myself in the world of some excellent blogs. I had only realized how open and accessible this world of music was in another great world, that of Washington coffee shops. Up till now, this was the first time I had gorged on mp3s from a hotel room.
For about half of the trip, cruising past all the beauty, we were listening to the Factory Records Communications "box set" through a cassette adapter and an iPod. Scott commented it was good driving music, especially some of the later electro and Madchester tracks. For about half the trip, I had already determined that I was going to plug in and download more albums, real quick, before we saw the sights.
The bars offered were interesting, the tastings fun. We had picked up some Rieslings to serve with desserts, and the next day, head feeling slightly tight, we checked out the orchards. The drive back had a few obstacles; we started heading home on a Sunday (listening to Force), and an elderly couple in a large truck was speeding fast and smashed into my Taurus as I overtook their lane. I presume they were on their route home after the church service they attended. The old man had a raised voice that was accusing once he was sure everyone was safe, while the old woman had a look on her face knowing that fault lied with her husband. The crash aroused the attention of folks in the neighborhood, which was more of a ghetto that would represent Yakima as the meth capital of the state as opposed to the more ideal, weekender side of the city.
The crash didn't put a scratch on the old timers truck, but my Sable, already a bit beat up from me being rough with it, I'll admit, now had metal from the overlapped fender crushed and digging into the side of my left-rear tire. We exchanged insurance information and assured locals that we would leave and a call to police wasn't necessary. A tatted men in wife-beaters approached and asked us if we had cigarettes, which felt like a pretty odd thing to ask someone who just had a wreck.
We rushed back to the car and it started back up, thankfully, but putting it into drive and sending it forward gave off a terrible scraping noise of rubber being abraded by the fender. With a long trip ahead of us, no desire to go to a body shop, sweaty and hung-over, we decided to find a local hardware shop and buff it out ourselves.
We found one perfectly suited for us, close to the highway home, only a few blocks away according to Google maps. We drove there at a snail's pace, listening to the grind (not Force), and parked out back in a bare lot. We entered the hardware and first bought a rubber mallet, thinking it would do the trick. My hands were bloody from trying unsuccessfully to pull the metal away from the tire. The shopkeeper saw and smelt me, who knows what she thought. I mentioned that I was going to try and buff out my car after a wreck and she could only offer a weak smile.
Car on a jack in full view of onlookers joining the highway, I took only a few rising strikes with the mallet but it soon snapped the wooden handle. The crowbar in my trunk being too unwieldy, I had a fuck-it-all moment, returned to the store, and bought a giant sledge with a fiberglass handle. With delight, we alternated powerful upward swings to the busted fender, crushing it higher and higher into my car's body, laughing about how it was working, how much cheaper it was that going to some shit body shop, and that we'd soon be on the road heading home.
It did work, but my car definitely wasn't going to win any beauty contests. The metal still rose high above the tire, allowing it to turn freely after lowering the jack. Crisis averted, we put our new tools into the trunk, started the engine up and headed home, playing Force for a bit of the way and feeling high on our D.I.Y. We would make it back to duty on time.
I'd later listen to Force very loudly in my car and associate it with the desert, the wreck, the energy. Especially the album track "Mickey Way" and "Nostromo A Go Go," which was an extra included on the CD reissue. As an album, it's one of my favorites by A Certain Ratio. They were the group I found on YouTube, not iTunes, and it was around that time I realized that not everything is or should be offered for 99 cents from Apple. I ordered their CD Early from Soul Jazz and it was excellent. Probably the first bit of music I really went out of my way to order. Blogs became important to find and track other Factory acts I ended up wanting.
As a music consumer, it was a very interesting time. In many ways it was like working my way backwards, starting with the ether of the Net, discovering little niches in music history that people held in high regard or gave re-evaluation. No specialty stores, no real environment to associate the music with but what's around you, which is typically your room, or the comforting environment of a shop that sells lattes. That really just leaves one thing for the listener with no direct historical knowledge to judge, and that is simply the music. The sonics.
Something tells me (apart from reviews) that A Certain Ratio's Force was a disappointment for a number of people, an album that felt out of place at the time of its release. But now I can only assemble the history of the situation in my mind and think that it's just album number blank out of blank in a row. Now it's just something easily consumable, and when you put it on, it's listenable. It's just a mostly-white-all-Brit-funk record.
I knew some of the history though; the film 24 Hour Party People gives ACR a few cameos, with performances miming great tracks "Flight" and "Skipscada." It represents ACR probably at their most future-defining, meshing Velvet-noise makers with Latin-indulging percussion, funk drumming and horns. Past their Sextet album, ACR seem to walk the line of mediocrity for most folks. I think that Force is one of their best; if you remove it from historical context, it's even better. It's funky and danceable but distinct in a way that's true to their style, although there is some commercial gloss that appears in the sound. But once you get past that element, you get a unique, strong, funk-dominant record from leftfield.
At Sea and On Shore
Once again, a rented bed, but this one was far from the freeing, natural environment of Washington's locales. Our room was on the sixth or seventh floor of a popular Dubai hotel, and we had decided to stay in for the night, enjoy the AC, and order room service for the first time in a long while. It's ritzy, but that's about normal in Dubai. It's been a while since we had been this close to a normal place of rest for that matter; we have been living on the Aircraft Carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) for nearly half a year, with port calls in Bahrain and Thailand months apart. The ship had been cutting circles in the gulf and making its rounds through the Strait of Hormuz before settling in Dubai for four days of liberty. Eden, my girlfriend since we met halfway through our first deployment to the gulf, has ordered pizza and chocolate milk to be sent to our room. She's lying on the bed watching TV, flipping between satellite channels and religious programming that's offered. We had already seen Dubai on our previous deployment, taking a historical tour of the city and visiting its bazaars. Holing up on the hotel bed, she knows the routine.
I have a strong Wi-Fi connection but the United Arab Emirates (UAE) internet service blocks many file-sharing sites. I have a print-off of two sheets of paper filled with artists and albums that I have researched heavily during my downtime on the ship. Aboard the Lincoln, beginning between deployments, I had started compulsively ordering and reading books like Our Band Could Be Your Life, Rip It Up And Start Again, Krautrocksampler, Generation Ecstasy, Japrocksampler, Retromania, Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung, The Peel Sessions, No Wave Post Punk Underground New York and No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. I would read voraciously any chance I had when I wasn't working, or when I probably could have worked harder.
These were all physical books I had ordered to the ship that arrived through our Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) planes or through Replenishment At Sea (RAS) evolutions every few weeks, when a Merchant Marine vessel would trade our underway garbage and hazardous materials for fuel, food, toiletries and mail. I had volunteered to be a mail petty officer just so I could have my hands on the packages first and make sure my (very precious) valuables weren't lost in the hustle of all the ship's orderlies sorting through packages.
Some of these readings had great affect on my travels. For example, on a visit to California for LA Navy Week, I had read a segment about the Minutemen in Our Band Could Be Your Life. Our ship moored into San Pedro, California, where the band had been based, much to my delight. Mike Watt's father had even been a Navy man in Pedro. Excited to see where history happened, I immediately went to the first record shop I could find in Long Beach while on my liberty and bought Double Nickels On The Dime.
I wasn't the only music lover on the ship either, although I think I was the one of the only Sailors who had made such "research" on shore leave a priority. Within my own media department, young Seaman Buckett (real name and rank) ended up being a good friend with a love for Pavement, Elliot Smith, Replacements and Neutral Milk Hotel. My First Class and shop leader was a California native who preferred a great amount of jazz and the punk rock of The Fall. My Leading Chief Petty Officer didn't lead on much but he seemed stoked on Fugazi. Our Deputy Public Affairs Officer had hardcore tattoos and told me I should listen to more fIREHOSE.
It didn't stop there. The ship, when carrying the various squadrons to support plane and helo ops, had more than 5000 people to make up its crew. Our intranet SharePoint page had a great little message board developed by our first Public Affairs Officer called Post-Its, which acted as a meet-up where Sailors could swap items, create groups and in my case, ask if anyone had any music I was looking for while underway. Out of those 5000 people or so, five or six ended up being digital goldmines that I greedily download from in bulk. A few out-there metal heads, a funk and synth pop lover, a man from Olympia Washington who ended up telling me I needed to read the Wire. They were all great resources, and many became great friends that led me to worlds I would have never know if we hadn't been forced to bunk together on that ship.
Well, I had read a bit of the Wire online prior to the Dubai liberty and started making my rounds on the Net from the inviting hotel bed halfway around the world. I had read the end-of-year-best-of lists and downloaded their number one pick for 2011, James Ferraro's Far Side Virtual, which ended up being an absolutely awesome soundtrack to the city of Dubai, if not a bit chilling. The fact that one of the tracks was called "Dubai Dream Tone" gave me a good laugh.
Starting The Cross Over
On the ship, about halfway through second deployment, I joined a band for the first time. The seeds of the free-outfit it was destined to be were sewn out of the boredom and the mundane routines of life at sea, our access to my media departments sound-proofed studio and the itch we all shared to just DO something.
Obe, the other Obe, Oberndorfer, worked in Shop 8 Avionics in the forward part of the ship, attached to the Aviation Intermediate Maintenance Department. On earlier voyages, he gave me a steady slew of music ranging from complete New Order and Ultravox discographies to Lee Scratch Perry and R. Stevie Moore. At that point, I tried getting him into noise I had been enjoying, like DNA. I don't know if it took, but he was very tolerant of my enthusiasm. He owned a bass, and could play it confidently too. He also owned a drum machine and a Moog keyboard that he purchased from someone else on the boat who worked in Hazmat, which was surprising to everyone in our circle.
Buckett played guitar expertly and had played in bands before his enlistment. Reiher was recently married, worked in Damage Control and was typically on drum machine or keyboards. She was a bit of a metal-head but also had a liking for Oingo Boingo. Halsey worked with Obe and was usually on keyboard or drum machine in the beginning, though he'd have a guitar eventually sent to the ship. I had brought a trumpet on this deployment with me, inspired by ACR years prior. Of course, hearing electric Miles Davis on this deployment only made me want to play the horn more.
The band had begun when Obe said that he had bought his keyboard, chatted with Reiher about playing something, and heard that I had purchased a Theremin online to be delivered to the ship. Turns out they had been thinking about getting one of those. It all seemed like a great coincidence.
The first few practices were amazing jams that made us forget we were on a warship in the gulf. Apart from Obe and Buckett, who were proficient with their instruments, we were just bored sailors with gear. We ended up with more equipment after yet another trip to Dubai; we had pulled into the UAE once again and made plans to visit one of its many music shops. Live music entertainment is a big part of Dubai, considering how many lounge acts are needed to fill the city's several luxurious hotels.
It didn't take long to find a music emporium in Dubai and we stocked up on pedals, cables, batteries and other materials. I found that my amateur Theremin playing became much better when a delay pedal was thrown into the mix, and other combinations of pedals and amps made for interesting jams and sketches that we recorded at sea on my eight track.
As a band, we didn't just play together but we lived together, ate together, and once we were through with our 12-hour work days we found other ways to take our minds off the ship we lived on. The media department studio space was a real haven from the daily grind, at least for the non-media folk. It was already outfitted for multimedia work; the studio was used for Cruisebook photography, video production for our Boat Show product, a briefing and staging area for distinguished visitors and it worked as a storage space for my division. It was used frequently, but at night it was typically up for grabs. If we weren't playing music, we were usually watching movies or just hanging out, enjoying the AC that separated up from the heat of the gulf outside the watertight doors.
Playing wasn't as difficult as the main problem I imagine most bands have with moving gear. For Buckett and I, it was easy because we kept our instruments and equipment in-studio, but Obe kept his gear in his work center near the front of the boat and more than half the band played with his stuff. I don't know what it's like to load a P.A. and a drum kit into the back of a van, but I do know what it's like to carry drum machines, keyboards and bass amps through a stifling hangar bay filled with helicopters and jet aircraft. Navy ships are also known for their narrow, steep ladder wells, and all this cumbersome stuff was moved while we were dressed in coveralls and combat boots.
The band played a few times a week in the studio when our schedules aligned, over the course of maybe half of our deployment. We eventually called ourselves "Country Red" after the name of the imagined enemy used during the ship's weekly General Quarters drill. A number of other "players" would rotate in and out of the group, mostly from my own Media Department, but the original line-up lasted until deployment's end. Our playing together was enough to get us through much of our extended time at sea.
But knowing that our time together as a group was coming to an end, Obe had voiced that we needed to play live with an audience. He pulled strings with a neighboring shop that owned a lucrative space of the ship; a balcony of sorts. Our first and final show was a guerilla show held above the Lincoln's massive hangar bay on that mezzanine, or the Mezz. It was a two-hour free-jam on the eve of our return to the States after eight months of sea time. It was recorded, filmed and documented, and it remains one of the best moments of my life.
My time on the Lincoln was oppressive but invaluable. I saw a lot of the world twice-over, started my most fulfilling relationship that still goes on today and made many long lasting friendships with people from all over the states and overseas. It also expanded my views on the world of music past my post-punk heavy mining days in Washington, which I had thought were pretty far-reaching to begin with. I didn't even realize a post-punk revival had come and gone already by the time I had hopped onboard. But maybe that's for the better. I have yet to find the real musical defining moment of my generation, in a book or otherwise, but I probably don't need one. Maybe there is a creative plateau that we as a music-loving collective have reached, and maybe there won't be any more major movements and there will only really be bridges and webs and a steady acknowledgement of influences to fall into when music lovers become music players.
And books. Lots of books, and plenty of documentation, up-to-the-minute. That white-hot creativity we find in our favorite artists, it's not something you strive for when you decide to pick something up, with the critical past in the back of your mind. It's just a chance you take, to do something.
Heroes On Parade, "Heroes" Under Duress
When I left the ship, it was at the end of my five-year contract with the Navy. I joined at 19 and had seen a lot in that time. I could have gotten out and moved back to Washington State, my plan for the longest time, but I decided to take a good set of orders to Japan for a few reasons: one, my girlfriend's squadron was moving there and we had a great relationship going. Two, the orders offered in Japan was to work as a DJ at the Armed Forces Network in Tokyo. And three, it was only a two-year contract, and living in Japan sounded like a great way to spend those two years. On an Air Force base, at that.
I have issues with the military, as most people who serve do. Having started work on submarines and sub bases and continuing to work on an Aircraft Carrier and a base overseas, I have seen and heard and taken part in discussions about nuclear power, projecting presence, our occupation in other countries and our mission in the gulf. I've also lived it. I'm no lifer, but I feel that I am a better person than that kid from Ohio with no plans or vision on how the world works. I like to think (hope) that most people who join have only worldliness to gain, but that's a whole other discussion.
Arriving in Japan, I finally had a job working directly with music as a Radio DJ at Yokota Air Base. I still work there now as the radio manager. Its perks include working with the latest equipment and getting training as a professional DJ. The drawback is that AFN radio is modeled off of Top 40 radio, and when we run a live show, that's what is played. I know now much more about pop in its purest, most modern forms than I ever would have cared to, but I can think of worse jobs in the military that I've worked.
At a new command, it's always difficult to make new friends. Every few years, you are a different person than you were before. Most folks I work with get on with me okay, but we have little to talk about as far as interests go. Like my time on the ship, I had to find like-minded folks, and I found them in the form of another Navy person and Japanese Nationals outside the gate. Since our relations are still fresh, I won't mention names, but on base in Japan my one Navy friend and I always discuss our supposed self-exile and alienation from most other military members. He has played in numerous bands and has toured the East Coast, which I find fascinating. His music tastes vary from mine but we both enjoy the eclectic.
Our mutual friends are what make living in Japan while serving in the military all worth it; they are musicians, they speak better English than we Japanese, and they all play in different bands around the fringe of Tokyo. We practice the language and find ourselves communicating about such diverse topics as the military and individualism to the simpler conversations about tastes of music and food. We play together. The nature of being a small band in Japan is difficult for these guys: the homes are very close together, space is hard to come by, and most gigs require you to pay n' play unless you have a good following. Practicing typically requires renting out a studio, and breaking out as an alternative group in this country usually means leaving for the States, which is a something of a contradiction.
We had all met when the U.S. Military/Japan relations were at their most friendly, then, maybe a month later, the disappointing and unfortunate Okinawa rape case of 2012 involving two Navy Reservists occurred. What happened next would be a cloud over my mostly positive Japan experiences; a curfew keeping most enlisted personnel on-base, in their place, for the first time in years. The curfew is still in effect, and there is no sign of it ending for the rest of my time here. Military personnel can't be by themselves past nine off base, and with a "liberty buddy," only until midnight. Like Cinderella.
The Japanese have a long convoluted history with the U.S. and it's occupation here since World War II. While the U.S. military strives to appease and build friendships with the country, moments of shock like rape and public drunkenness acted out by service members and the business-as-usual attitude of bringing in new equipment like the Osprey aircraft always cause stirs and exclamations. Nuclear powered Navy vessels moored in-country also strikes a nerve with our neighbors regularly.
With curfew in place, the simple act of going out became difficult. However, I was able to see many great shows in the past year. Thurston Moore came to Tokyo with his new group, Chelsea Light Moving, as did the reformed PiL. Thurston had a signing and I walked away with his John Hancock on the No Wave book he had written. John Lydon didn't have a signing, but I brought No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs with me anyway, just in case. I saw Boredoms play with 96 drummers in a circle in Chiba, and new Japanese bands and music are being introduced to me each week by my local friends.
Keiji Haino was one such example, a Japanoise veteran, and I also saw him at the Chiba gig. After about 15 to 20 minutes of feeling like an insect in a jet-engine, the old-timer finally leaned back from the awful noise and played almost-songs, conceptual songs, but only after clearing out half the audience. I'm going to have to dig up more on this guy.
Being the military guy at the show isn't too obvious. In the States, local bars and gigs I saw were in military towns, and the jazz lofts and punk holes are pretty welcoming to the men and women in uniform (but you know, in civilian clothes). I've met folks at festivals in and around Seattle and when I say I'm military (my haircut doesn't give it away), it's never taken anyone aback. I'm at the show right? I can't be a totally bad guy by working for The Man.
The last concert I saw was in Chiba, but prior to that I had one interesting night worth noting. A friend of mine had flown in for a week from Korea, and we spent a night at the New Sanno Hotel, in the heart of Tokyo. A quick peek at the popular Time Out Tokyo showed me that an avant-garde music space near the Mori Art Museum called SuperDeluxe was close by. Without checking who was on the bill, I dragged my friend along shortly after checking into our room.
Inside, a big-band free jazz ensemble was playing. We came in halfway through the performance, everyone standing still with glasses of beer or wine. The group played maybe three compositions, the first being a string and drum freakout, the next a sloshing horn fest, and the last a more comprehensible number with many moods and color lead by alto saxophonist Akira Sakata. The star of this controlled mess had to be the white expatriate though, a bearded man controlling tapes in the center of the floor.
When the show had ended everyone clapped politely and the lights I didn't realize were off were switched back on. I made my way to the bartender and asked in English if he knew the names of the performers or had a pamphlet. He gestured to the only other white people in the room, a longhair and a tall man in glasses.
The man in glasses revealed that we had stumbled in on Jim O'Rourke, and that before playing in Japan with jazz bands, he was a prior member of Sonic Youth. I asked if he was the past member that had been in Ferris Bueller's Day Off and we had a laugh. Turns out he wasn't. I also said that I caught Thurston Moore earlier in the year, and seeing two members of Sonic Youth in that amount of time ain't bad.
I asked where he was from, he said Koenji, which is a pretty hip burg close by. I got excited to have a potential new friend and when I said that I live here too, I'm from Yokota Air Base, the response I got was a sinking, "Oh, I've heard of that place."
My friend got my attention and broke the conversation. He needed a break from all the free-jazz caterwauling, as he didn't enjoy the show as much as I did. I said ‘let's have a drink and hang out for a while,' but by the time I turned around to talk to glasses, he had already made his way back to the longhair, away from me.
My use of social media turned out to be up-to-par. In the cab back, speeding back to the hotel with an Akira Sakata record in one hand and my phone in the other, I searched my twitter feed for SuperDeluxe, and lo-and-behold, the longhair came up and he was a writer for Time Out Tokyo. I follow him now. We had no interaction. I've read his stuff and he's good, articulate.
It probably had to do with the rape, I'm thinking. That's why his friend walked off. It had to be, right? Big military crossing the host nation of the rising sun, that's always something you can count on in the press. Many Japanese can look past it and know that for the most part American military forces that tread off base just want to explore, learn or get away for a while in an interesting land. Supporting the troops and not the war is something most American folks would probably say without thinking, but when the evils committed here can be summed up in the face of two young, white, male enlisted members...
Man, if I had just said I was a Top 40 Radio DJ and that I loved "Call Me Maybe," maybe it would have smoothed everything out...
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