A Fireside Chat with Billy Bang
BB: I would like to think it did because the people that didn't get it and they were still sent to Vietnam, maybe they could have used some of it. I don't know. Every situation varies and it was different, but they must have known that my orders were 11 Bravo and 11 Charlie, and that is infantry. So I think they sent me through all the regiments of Vietnam as an infantry soldier. In other words, they didn't give me training on typewriters when they knew I would be shooting.
FJ: The vast majority of musicians I have spoken with served in the military, but most were in the band.
BB: Yeah, a lot of guys were in the band and a lot of guys were in what they called special forces, not the fighting kind, but doing different things. Frank Lowe, my good buddy, was an MP. Butch Morris was a medic. The guys had different jobs. I think I am one of the few guys that actually humped the boonies and lived in the jungle.
FJ: How many tours did you do?
BB: I did one. One too many. I did one year, the required time. Most people have ideas about Vietnam from watching these silly movies and things, but basically, it was a very lonely time. Although I was involved with the unit, it seemed like you were always thinking to yourself. I was with a great bunch of guys, guys that were just as down as me. That is important because when you hump and anybody panics or freaks out, it can be detrimental to your safety. I was fortunate to be with some strong willed guys, guys that wanted to fight and come back home. We weren't really fighting for any nationalistic cause. We were fighting to get the hell out of there, at least I was.
FJ: When you are in the midst of a war, how far away was music?
BB: Oh, music wasn't even near me. The only thing I heard of music was once in a while, I heard a Vietnamese song in the background. I just heard the music of automatic weapon fire and the syncopation of mortars being hit and things like that.
FJ: Upon your return from Nam, how did your perspective on this country and the world change?
BB: Well, I was extremely disappointed with myself and with civilization. I didn't think I could cope and I didn't feel like I fit in anymore. There was so much anti-Vietnam fervor around that I didn't talk much about it, except to close people that knew me. And although I am a gregarious type person and like to speak, I was fairly quiet for a few years. I was withdrawn and just maybe scared in not knowing how to deal with life. I went back to my job and my original job was not there. They told me to come back in a few weeks and I never went back. Theoretically, my job was guaranteed through the army, but I didn't make a stink. I just left it alone. As a matter of fact, I thought they did me a favor just to walk away. I was kind of a misfit. Also, the two years I was away, it seemed like things had changed.
FJ: How so?
BB: Well, physically, they definitely changed up in the Bronx. When I left the Bronx, the Bronx was a livable, community-oriented place. When I came back, it was the war zone. There were a lot of burnt out buildings, a lot of my friends had turned into junkies, cats I played basketball with a couple of years ago. In two years, it seemed like there was a radical change up in the Bronx. I didn't recognize it. I thought it was very strange how things had changed. For the most part, I thought I was in a very safe place in Vietnam because a lot of my friends that did not go to Vietnam, they seemed to be worse off then I was with the drugs.
FJ: When did you interest in the music begin to return?