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War Songs, Pt. 1: Shut Up & Sing!

31 August, 2010 Leave a comment
Cover of "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing (F...

Cover via Amazon

It seems much longer, but it was less than a decade ago that I found myself in Camp Arifjan with a little time to waste before moving on up to Camp Fox and beyond as part of the British contingent roped into Operation Iraqi Freedom (OP TELIC to us)…

As usual our Colonial cousins had established an operational footing far beyond the scope of any that a deployed British force would ever be capable of. Among the Baskin Robbins, Subway, Pizza Hut and Korean takeaway there was a PX store which made every EFI store I have ever come across look like the tuck shops run out of the 4 tonners to boost Sqn funds!

Needless to say I made the most of the situation and purchased DVDs and CDs galore. These were the days before ‘global’ releases so the Americans had films and music we hadn’t been able to get our hands on yet.

As far as I can recall I bought Garfield for the little ones, another DVD for ‘Cole and a CD for Rose, all of which were posted home as we didn’t know when we’d be getting home from this tour. This all sounds somewhat un-memorable however the CD I bought for Rose was one which would widen my musical tastes/awareness and cause more than a little bit of a stir back home!

I’d always related the genre of Country Music with the likes of Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and all those famous crooners which we all know. I’d never heard the terms bluegrass, alt country or the like, or if I had I’d dismissed them off-hand. All that was about to change.

What was the CD I bought? It was ‘Home’ by the Dixie Chicks and remains, to this day, one of my most played albums. At the time I was blissfully unaware of the controversy they had caused (or were about to) and didn’t even listen to the album before I sent it home.

Several months later, once we’d ‘won the war’, and I returned home I was greeted by a tirade of abuse when I asked Rose if she liked the album! Among the gems included on the album was a track called ‘Travelin’ Soldier‘, a song about a young girl who had fallen for a soldier bound for Vietnam and the waited for his return only to hear his name read out in a list of the fallen at a local football game.

All this sounds a little ‘twee’ but unless you’ve been in the situation of a wife, husband, partner, parent or child waiting for news from your loved one who is, as far as your mind is concerned, in mortal danger 24 hours of every day they are deployed you will not feel the emotion the lyrics of this song can stir.

One Friday night at a football game, the Lord’s prayer said and the anthem sang
A man said “Folks, would you bow your heads for a list of local Vietnam dead”
Cryin’ all alone under the stands was a piccolo player in the marchin’ band
And one name read and nobody really cared
But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair

The song still makes my hairs stand on end, as do several others on the album. I have since become a huge fan of Martie Maguire, Emilie Robison and Natalie Maines, the Dixie Chicks, all the more so because of their stand (albeit unintended) as spokespersons against the Iraq conflict, and their fight to re-establish their position after being ostracised by most of redneck America.

I cannot recommend their music highly enough. Tracks such as ‘Top of the World‘, ‘Godspeed‘, ‘Taking The Long Way‘, ‘Not Ready To Make Nice‘ and ‘Easy Silence‘ are highlights of an amazingly strong back catalogue.

Don’t trust me, check them out for yourself, and if you want to hear the song Travelin’ Soldier in all its glory check out the documentary Shut Up & Sing or the concert DVD An Evening with the Dixie Chicks, you won’t regret it.

And from one of those songs I’d like to send this to my youngest, my son Wilson, who has just suffered his first major loss in life:

The Rocket Racer’s all tuckered out
Superman’s in pyjamas on the couch
Goodnight moon will find the mouse
And I love you
Godspeed little man
Sweet dreams little man
Oh my love will fly to you each night on angel’s wings
Godspeed
Sweet Dreams

It never ceases to amaze me how someone elses words can have such a profound effect on me. It is a gift I admire and one I hope someday to attain in my own work.

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Wake up, and smell the eucalyptus!

27 August, 2010 1 comment

I’ve been away for a couple of days. Nowhere too exciting, but somewhere which has allowed me to gather my thoughts.

It’s amazing how quickly groundhog day sets in out here, and how little you notice the jaded attitude taking over. It’s only as a result of these little ‘breaks’ in the monotony that you regain a little perspective on things and hold on to some semblance of what we know as sanity.

The last couple of days have helped to do just that.  I’ve read through my last few entries on here and noticed the darkness looming, and for that I can only apologise. Maybe I shouldn’t, or maybe I should? This blog seems to have taken on many roles for me out here, journal, conscience, sounding board, notebook and lyrical sketch pad… As such it is bound to reflect my moods to an extent and, of late, that hasn’t been too bright.

All that has changed (for now) thanks to some plants, a few flowers, a gazebo and the chirruping of crickets.

I kid you not!

Okay, perhaps some helicopter rides, a road move and a (very short) walk helped, and actually feeling as if I was contributing something more than suggestions for changes to policy, but God it felt good to get up and get outside the perimeter even for an hour or two!

But back to the garden… It’s amazing how, in this dry and dusty land, there can be swathes of vibrant colour and smells which lift the spirit. Even walking round a corner and being overwhelmed by the smell of a eucalyptus was an uplifting experience.

The laughter which resulted in meals taken with old friends may also have had something to do with it. Good, honest, laughter, sometimes for a reason and sometimes just because it felt right.

Perhaps it happened in answer to my heretic post earlier this week, perhaps it was just a break from the norm. I don’t really know and, to be honest, I don’t care. I’m just glad it happened.

And now, back to the coal front… bring it on!

(Oh! And by the way, the gazebo was a real pleasure, not least due to the fact that I helped build it in 2007!)

Faith Healer

25 August, 2010 Leave a comment

Politics and Religion. Two subjects never to be raised in polite conversation… Just as well we’re anything but polite isn’t it?!

There are subtle differences to life in Afghanistan in 2010 when compared to 2007. The workplace is now a portacabin rather than a tent, as is the accommodation, but the locations are the same as is the food… And that’s not all, there is much more going on ‘out there’ with everyday seeing some level of contact with insurgents and PEDROs or MIRTs having to carry out their unenviable role. Perhaps I’m more aware of it this time as our guys are further forward and so they’re directly involved in some of the incidents.

Whichever it is it is somehow less profound than last time, perhaps due to the regularity, and I find myself considering different aspects of the whole process.

On my last tour we attended ‘ramp’ ceremonies to salute those who had passed as they were carried onto the aircraft which would transport them home. It was a humbling experience and one which left its mark on my psyche for all time. Those ceremonies still take place but the number of people involved tends to be smaller and consist of those directly involved or from the same unit. What we do instead now is stand ‘vigil’ en masse prior to the ramp ceremony. There is a parade where eulogies are read by the chain of command of the departed and, in most cases, also by their friends.

These ‘vigils’ are best likened to miniature Remembrance Services. They are led by a member of the Clergy and include the Last Post, 2 minutes silence and cannon fire by way of salute. And here’s my problem… I don’t believe any of those who have given their lives have done so for their Sovereign or God. I know of no soldier who has come here due to a sense of duty to their Nation. We’re here because we’ve been ordered to come and, if we didn’t, someone else would have to take our place and that would be ‘jack’! We’re also here because our friends are here, and who’s going to watch their backs if we don’t?

I’m a strong believer in a ‘higher power’, not necessarily the Church as an institution, but I do have faith. And yet I find the overtly religious ceremony of these services somehow offensive.

Did anyone ask the fallen if they wanted a religious service? Or is it something which is done simply to appease the consciences of those who may feel responsible? I for one find it odd that we should be thanking anyone, let alone God, for the fact that despite their death in a far off distant land the individual died doing what he loved and his family and friends still love him. I bet he didn’t. I challenge you to find anyone who relishes the thought of dying thousands of miles from home from a gun shot wound inflicted by someone they’ll never understand for a reason no-one can explain.

They’ll never see that this fight sets you free
Won’t understand what it takes to be a man
As you struggle to reconcile just who you are
With what you believe, the cause you hold in your hand

I understand that some people find solace and strength in their faith, as do I, but I also find it hypocritical and sanctimonious to preach that those who have laid down their lives have down so in the name of God. I believe that Orson Scott Card had the right idea in his Ender Saga. When we remember the fallen we should do so truthfully, warts and all…

We should speak for the dead, not of them.

A Dark Concept…

23 August, 2010 Leave a comment

Things have gotten away from me since the last entry… It’s been three weeks since we got here and I don’t think my feet have touched the floor since we did. Well, having said that there are more than enough occasions where you come down to Earth with a bang.

I cannot fathom how much pain and suffering is being dealt out here in the name of whatever we’re meant to be fighting for. The constant stream of flights coming in past the PHF and on into the heart of camp defy belief. An incessant flow of amputees, gun shot wounds, IED victims and the various other injuries and conditions which result in the launch of what has, unfortunately, become a perfectly coordinated process involving the men on the ground, pilots, nurses, surgeons, firemen and God only knows how may others.

On a positive note it seems that, over the last week or so at least, most of those efforts have not been in vain and the number of those who have passed away is significantly lower than those who have been flown in. Small blessing, I assume, for those who must live with their injuries.

It’s overhe this tableau that I’m currently trying to form lyrical concepts for what will be part of the next Morpheus Rising album. Needless to say that, at this point, much of the flow is dark and introverted with the prose concentrating on those thoughts I dare not air in decent company…

Pete and I had discussed at length what we might get out of this process, especially when you consider that many of our original songs were the result of a previous trip over here, or at least the aftermath of that period and we feel that there is plenty of opportunity for us to produce a unique product from this experience.  As the next few months go by you’ll find more information becoming available on the band’s site and the blog… In the meantime I’ll try to keep to my word and (from now on at least) update this one weekly. Until next time, here’s a taste of the dark side:

Buzzsaws and night lights force unwanted into dreams
Cause Nightingales to sing no more of distant lands of green
As dust storms clear and sirens sing to herald the return
Of Kings unsung, though not alone, to start their journey home

Needless to say it’s going to be a journey into the realms of epic gothic prog metal concepts the likes of which you’ve never seen, or heard, before :o)

And so it begins…

12 August, 2010 Leave a comment

Things have gone fairly well, and in our favour, over the last few days. The flight was delayed 24 hours which meant an extra day with my wife and children, the transfer in Cyprus was delayed an hour so there was ample time to start the browning process before the final leg, and the induction days were significantly shorter than we were led to believe they were going to be. Which can never be a bad thing, can it?

Actually, in this case it did not bode well… Finishing early today did not result in the hour’s roasting session followed by an upper body blast as hoped. Instead it meant I was available to start work 18 hours early! Yup, as ever, the best laid plans fail to survive first contact with the enemy!

The only annoying thing so far has been the lack of contact with the ‘real world’ (henceforth to be called RW) and the inability of the bloody system to recognise my WiFi login 48 hours after I registered it. This hasn’t been the only reason I couldn’t get online, but it has been the most palatable.

I was here in 2007 and I wrote a journal/diary at that time which made very clear how hard it could be dealing with incoming Chinooks… 3 years on and it has not become any easier. There were 3 flew into that HLS in the middle of camp yesterday and the flags were again flying at half mast last night. It didn’t take long for the reality to hit home when I heard the first ‘wocka, wocka’ this morning…

To top it all off I haven’t even listened to any music since I arrived! I meant to chill a little last night but having been on the go for 36 hours by the time we actually finished the day’s work I lay down at 19:00 and didn’t surface again until 04:45 when we started today’s sessions.

Hopefully I’ll get to post this tomorrow and, having started the normal working routine I’ll manage to get some time to start the ‘real’ work at hand! I can but live in hope!

09/08/2010

I know this was meant to be published on Sunday, but I do have a much better excuse for not handing in my homework than the proverbial dog!

12/08/2010

Hmmm… 3 days on and I’m only just managing to get back online… Ah well, at least the time’s passing quickly!  I’ve met friends from across the years already and have settled in to what looks like being a very challenging few months.

Op Minimise has been on more than off since we arrived in Theatre and today we’ve heard of a Mercian who died from his injuries back in the UK. It’s hard to justify this, to anyone, let alone the families and comrades of the fallen.

I finally managed to get in touch with home yesterday, that was an emotional experience… Some quiet time was called for.  I’ve taken every opportunity to listen to music over the last day or two, some of the lyrics seem particularly pertinent.

A Few Words For The Dead:

Somewhere in history you were wronged
Teach your children to bang the drum
Tell all your family, tell all your friends
Teach your brothers to avenge

Steve Hogarth, Marillion.

Expect a full update on Sunday ;o)

So long… And thanks for all the Fish!

2 August, 2010 1 comment

I intended to write a lengthy blog yesterday about the acoustic Fish show I attended a fortnight ago and the Peter Green/Mostly Autumn gig I was meant to attend at the weekend.

Unfortunately Mr Green is very ill and all future shows have been cancelled/rescheduled so I didn’t get to attend that one, a shame as I was looking forward to the opportunity to say goodbye to Liv, Bryan and everyone else before I go, and thank them for their support earlier in the year during our tour.

I did, however, attend an excellent show by Fish with some good friends. It was great to see the big man so relaxed on stage, comfortable as ever, and stretching the vocal chords a little after his recent scares. He is as self-deprecating as ever and was on good form for the entire night… Highlights for me? Pilgrim’s Address and my wife forgetting the lyrics to the 3rd verse of Just Good Friends (our wedding song!) as soon as Fish handed her the mic to sing along! A brilliant show and we topped the night off with a few drinks with the Judge and Fish in Stone Roses. Good times.

I had intended to see so many people before heading off later this week but, as usual, time has caught up with me and I find myself chasing my tail as is often the case after so much time has been spent planning for the unexpected.

If I haven’t been in touch to say goodbye, and you think I should have, then I apologise. On the other hand I’m sure you’ll appreciate that my focus these last few weeks has been my wife and children.

It may seem strange but, after all the training and planning, I’m actually looking forward to getting out there and getting on with the job at hand. I’m sure time will fly and I’ll be back with those  I need and love in what will seem like no time at all… In the mean time I intend to take every spare moment to read (for inspiration) and write material for the album which the guys will be recording in my absence.

We’ve already begun 3 tracks with two completed to guide vocal stage and one at the concept stage, I have several additional ‘streams’ I’m following and Pete and I have discussed what direction we’re aiming for. All in all it should be an interesting time.

I’ll be in touch…