A Night for the Vietnam Veterans is an absolute land mark show in Springsteen's career. Somewhere around the recording of the River album Springsteen's political awakening started, coached by Jon Landau. One subject that hit close to home for Springsteen at the time was the Vietnam war. Springsteen had been drafted for the war but got out of it by claiming he was gay, amongst other things. He got 4-F on account of a motorcycle accident in which he had badly injured his leg and acting as crazy as he could. Others around Springsteen weren't so lucky. The drummer of the Castiles went and came back in a body bag. That experience and Ron Kovic's book "Born On The Fourth Of July" about Kovic's life as a Vietnam veteran, are well known to have had a major effect on Springsteen. Initially Vietnam didn't have a political meaning for Springsteen. He admits in Marsh's book "Two Hearts" that it was a pure street thing, he simply didn't want to go, "We didn't even know where Vietnam was when I was eighteen". His awareness on what the war symbolized or said about America, how it opposed what he felt were important American values, didn't come until much later. When it did Springsteen asked Landau to explore the possibility of doing something for the Vietnam veterans. Landau eventually got in touch with Vietnam Veterans of America president Bobby Muller. Through the VVA Muller, himself a paraplegic veteran, fought for the rights of the Veterans, whom governmental agencies seemed to have forgotten. Although Muller was able to get considerable media attention and access to key political figures, the VVA was lacking in funds. Muller couldn't even afford to hold an office. The R&R establishment at the time was highly affiliated with the anti-war movement, who basically equaled the Veterans with the corrupt politicians who initiated the war. It was not uncommon for Veterans to referred to as baby killers. Springsteen's commitment to the VVA can arguably be seen as one of the key events that slowly changed that perception of the Veterans.
In the days before the show Springsteen had visited a local veterans center, an experience that kept him awake through the night. He made sure the veterans were able to attend the show, addressing them at the evening of the show he later admitted, had been one of the hardest things he ever did. Springsteen's opening speech lacks the customary boasting of his song introductions, he sounds nervous, earnest, struggling to find the right words. "Vietnam turned this whole country in a dark street", reading that speech now Springsteen's constant rallying against the Iraq war, or his endorsement of Obama, hardly seems surprising. To Springsteen Iraq is a repetition of the Vietnam tragedy. Clinton from that perspective, is tainted. In 2002 she voted to authorized the invasion. Obama wasn't in the Senate at the time, so we are unsure how he would have voted. But not carrying the burden of having voted in favor, probably is one of the reasons why he is such a attractive candidate for Springsteen. After the invasion in Iraq "Who'll Stop The Rain" suddenly reappeared in his Rising tour sets. That Creedence Clearwater Revival song had been adopted by the Vietnam veterans as their anthem and was the first song Springsteen played on this highly emotional show. It was one of three carefully picked covers. He also used Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land". Guthrie always intended that song as an answer to Irvin Berlin's "God Blessed America". Woody's version came out more inclusive, as an anthem for the disenfranchised as well. On A Night for the Vietnam Veterans Springsteen gave that song renewed meaning. Third was "Ballad Of Easy Rider" taken from Dennis Hopper's anti-establishment film "Easy Rider". It is Springsteen's only performance of the song.
A Night for the Vietnam Veterans is one of the main reason why I feel the Darkness tour is overrated to some degree. Had this show been a radio broadcast the River tour might well have been held up to the same esteem as the Darkness tour. This show, along with a few others, rank among the best shows Springsteen ever gave in his career. But you'll have to be willing to put up with audience tape quality. While the sound on this recording isn't bad at all, especially not on the Ev2 remix, it still isn't the near album quality of the infamous '78 FM broadcasts. Even with Ev2's remixing skills the sound stays a bit on the muddy side, the guitars remain tinny, Max's drum doesn't pack quite the wallop it should. On the whole the recording sounds a bit distant. Soundwise it is nice recording for an audience tape, something you do need to have the stomach for and not every fan does. Even though this is a fantastic show, A Night for the Vietnam Veterans is relatively underplayed in my collection. Something that would undoubtedly be different if the recording was better. I feel that during the River tour Springsteen struck a great balance between his more heavy handed material and great and exhilarating R&R tunes. Songs like "Ramrod" or "Out On The Street" took the function the cover tunes used to have in the old sets, to strike a balance with his own big sound and images. Some of these images come across twice as hard in this show, rarely will you hear Bruce putting so much emotion into "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" and I can imagine that a line as "keep pushing till its understood, these bad lands start treating us good" rarely found more understanding ears. A Night for the Vietnam Veteran needed those light and upbeat Rock and Rollers from "The River" as an exorcism for the emotions those songs from "Darkness" no doubt set loose. This is a must have show, if only because Bobby Muller later admitted that the VVA would never have made it without Springsteen's effort that night, they would have been bankrupt. I know we often say that the Boss gives it his all every night, but it was never truer than on this night.
Download the Ev2 mix of the show here.
Sound: 3+ out of 5
Show: 6 out of 5
Artwork: 4,5 out of 5