Listening to my Life

The Terrible War

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In the summer of 1966 I formed my first garage band. I’d recruited three kids from the neighborhood, and we set up shop in the Dunfee’s garage.

Greg Dunfee, two years older than me—and, at 13, a wizened man of the world—actually owned an electric guitar, and he had straight blond hair that fell down into his eyes. The neighborhood girls adored him. He proclaimed himself lead singer, and the rest of us were in no position to argue. I didn’t have a guitar, but I could write songs, and I could mimic the Guitar Hero moves I saw on Shindig! and Hullabaloo. And so I was content to serve in the background, practicing power chords on my tennis racket while making sure Greg got the lyrics right. Greg’s brother Joe played tennis racket as well, and Tony Clay pounded on cardboard boxes and coffee cans and kept a steady backbeat. We called ourselves The Four Scholars, thereby anticipating Nerd Rock by a good 15 years.

“You’re not doing it right,” Greg informed me after our first practice. “You have to move your fingers like you’re playing real chords. There are really only four of them you need to know. Here, put your fingers like this. That’s a B. Then like this. That’s an A. Then like this. That’s a C. And then like this. That’s an H.”

“Bach?” I said.

“Right,” Greg informed me. “Those four chords were the ones he used all the time. That’s why they’re named after him.”

With those kinds of influences we could have been the first prog-rock band, concocting a heady mixture of classical music and rock ’n’ roll.

But, instead, we performed protest music.

“I’ve written a song called ‘The Terrible War,’ and we’re going to work on it today,” I informed the assembled Scholars at our second practice. “Listen to this…”

Down in the valley
Far below me
Stands a soldier brave and true
Fighting and dying for me and you
In the terrible war

My clear tenor (what else could it have been at 11?) rang out, all aquiver with righteous indignation—just the way I’d heard Barry McGuire sing “Eve of Destruction.”

“The Terrible War” went on for 10 insufferable verses. To his credit, Greg memorized the words, and did his best to sing them convincingly. But his heart wasn’t in it.

We practiced, with one guitar and coffee cans, throughout the fall. After a concerted band pitch to the parents, Christmas found us with two electric guitars (one mine), a drum kit, a bass guitar and four amps. We were a real band. I wrote new songs and grew my hair longer so that it fell down into my eyes. Greg learned that there was no “H” chord. We all learned a little bit more about which chords actually worked together.

And at each practice we continued to play “The Terrible War,” even though the rest of the band moaned at every opportunity. One Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1967 it came to a head.

“It’s a good song,” I told them. “Let’s just keep working at it. I’m telling you, it will be a hit some day. You think Joan Baez doesn’t practice her protest songs all the time?”

“It’s boring,” Greg said. “It’s too long. And the soldier dies at the end. What about all the soldiers who come back alive? Did you ever think about them? Nobody ever writes a song about them. It’s stupid, and I’m not going to play it anymore.”

And he didn’t. “The Terrible War” passed from the repertoire, effectively ending my fledgling career as a writer of protest songs. We worked out a few covers—“Satisfaction,” “Please Please Me,” “You Really Got Me”—and Greg and I wrote a few originals. We focused on songs about girls, and a couple of the subjects showed up at our practices on a fairly regular basis. Greg wrote a song about Jenny, and pledged his undying love. It wasn’t that good, but then again, we weren’t that good. We were just four guys fueled by adolescent hormones and a desire to make some noise and say something meaningful. And we didn’t do protest anthems anymore.

As it turns out, The Four Scholars never made it out of the garage. And Greg, he never made it out of high school. It turned out that he wasn’t much of a scholar after all, and he dropped out after his junior year and joined the Air Force as soon as he turned 18. When I was home for spring break my freshman year of college, I heard he’d been killed in a bombing raid over Haiphong. He was one of the last American casualties of the Vietnam War. I think about him sometimes, and that damned, stupid song, and wish that he was still around to moan about it.