Rockin' On The Rock (Okinawa)

Here is the ‘musical soundtrack’ to my
working manuscript about my time as
a U.S. Army Photographer during 1970-71.

In 1970-71, the majority of American military barracks on The Rock (GI jargon for Okinawa) had plenty of personally owned stereo music systems set up in them. Most of those stereos were the first high quality, separate component stereo systems that many of us GIs had ever listened to music on or had even seen for sale in a store. And, they only cost us about 40% of what we would have had to pay for them in the states at the time. Best of all, the other GIs usually played plenty of my kind of music on their stereos.

When I was growing up, in the 1950s + ‘60s, in a blue collar neighborhood, which was flanked by a steel mill on one side and an automobile assembly plant on the other, the very few people whom I ever knew of who had nice component stereos were Jazz or Classical Music aficionados with higher than average incomes. Most of the kids I grew up with, and I, only had little 9 volt battery powered transistor radios tuned into Top 40 Pop Music stations for our listening pleasure, until we received old hand me down, monaural (one small, lousy, built in speaker) record players, or we got a new one for a birthday or Christmas present that for us lucky few like me was an inexpensive stereo with two small, lousy speakers. In my 1960s teenage world, the best recorded music players that we had were them Magnavox brand, long, stylish and polished wooden furniture type, console stereos. They sounded fine at the time, but the audio quality of them big old things was no match for a good component system with its separate high quality amplifier-radio tuner, speakers, turntable, and maybe a reel-to-reel tape deck. These kids today have no idea how much better their little computer speakers and small, personal stereos sound compared to my teenage generation’s average home stereos.

When I was in army basic training, we recruits weren’t allowed to have any radios or record players in our barracks at all; but I did smuggle in one of those little 9-volt transistor radios about half way through my basic training. After basic training, when I was attending U.S. Army Photo Lab Tech School, I had one of only two little radios that were available to be listened to by us photography students who resided on the second floor, twenty-man squad bay of the barracks which I lived in. The one record player we had was a small, white, plastic, General Electric music machine with a turntable and tiny, weak amplifier manufactured into an about 18 x 18 x 7 inch carrying case along with one, cheap, 2 x 3 inch oval speaker built into it. That minimal machine was owned by a Jerry Lewis type character named Bill Dickout (swear to it, that was the guy’s name, and he was a Sad Sack type clown with a high degree of natural intelligence and great taste in music).

Bill and several of our barracks mates bought record albums for us to listen to while we worked to complete our photo course homework, polished our boots and brass, did our barracks cleaning chores, swapped wild stories and true facts about our lives back home, matched wits in all kinds of manly but not too overly aggressive ways (no fist fights broke out), and trepidatiously waited to see if we were gonna’ be sent to Vietnam. I didn’t bring any of my records to that barracks for us to listen to, because I always took real good care of my records, and them guys didn’t care so much as me about not getting scratches and greasy finger smears on theirs, so they weren’t getting their paws on mine. Fortunately for me, we all had a lot of the same albums in our personal record collections, so the ones we listened to in the barracks were my kind of music. Our squad bay ‘theme song’ was Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones; we’d sing along to it with loud abandon ‘cause it sure enough helped relieve some of them possibly Vietnam bound blues.

We heard some great music for the first time up on the second floor of that barracks: including James Taylor’s first album, and side one of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s first album—Two Virgins. That is the album with John and Yoko posing frontally nude on the front and a rear nude shot of their raggedy asses on the back. Side two of that album is mostly Yoko (Oh, no!) wailing and screaming high pitched vocalizations of her infamous, artistic personality. Ya’ gotta’ take the good with the bad though, and one time we all had to hear side two of Two Virgins completely through. Bill Dickout wanted to listen to the whole album at least once, and when some one of us ripped the record off the turntable after we had heard about sixty-six seconds of that awful, assaulting noise on side two, Bill went into a rage, grabbed a hold of his record player, raised it up over his head and threatened to smash it to bits if we didn’t let him play side two all the way through just one time; unfortunately, we were such low paid soldiers that none of us could afford the twenty-five bucks to buy another record player like Bill’s; nor could we afford to go to the enlisted man’s club and have a few beers for a while, because it was too far past payday at that time; and, it was too cold outside to go sit out there and study our homework or just hangout together for awhile; so we had to bitch and bear it—twenty some freakin’ minutes of Yoko’s vocal, artistic assault on our senses, or Bill was definitely going to smash that record player to bits, which was treasured by all. That’s how much our music meant to us average GIs in 1970.

You can now imagine how fantastic it was for me when, after graduating from Photo Lab Tech School, I arrived on Okinawa and discovered that there were high quality component stereo systems well placed in every barracks and their owners were often cranking out rockin’ sounds from them. They were rockin’ on The Rock.

On The Rock, the variety of recorded music that was available for listening pleasure was outa’ site. Some of us GIs had brought as many of our record albums as we could to The Rock, and the largest retail store on my U.S. Army base over there, the Main PX, not only sold record albums at the lowest prices that I had ever seen, there was an outstandingly large number and selection of them.

I had been collecting record albums since I was thirteen years old. I was one of the first kids in my high school to buy the first albums of John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Country Joe and the Fish, Zappa, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, plus I had albums by The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Blues Project, Muddy Waters, West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, and I could keep on truckin’ with puttin’ names this list. When I flew to Okinawa in June 1970, I took about twenty-five of those albums with me, in a psychedelic art covered record carrying case.

But (Hallelujah!) them army buddies of mine on The Rock turned me on to all kindsa’ new music.

My good friend Bart, from San Francisco, had all of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s album covers displayed on his barracks room wall, because that was his favorite band. I had never heard of them till he turned me onto to ‘um. Bart had grown up living two blocks from the world famous 1960s hippie haven known as Haight-Ashbury. When he was a teenager, hundreds of other teenagers were running away from their homes all over America to go to “The Haight” to “Turn On-Tune In-and-Drop Out” but all Bart had to do was walk up the street from his family’s home to get there. Them other kids were infamous for bumming spare change off of strangers in order to be able to buy themselves some food to survive on. Bart said he knew it was a good thing for him that whenever he got hungry all he had to do was walk home and ask his mother what was in the fridge that he could snack on or what was for supper.

I was in Bart’s two man barracks room one day when one of our barracks buddies walked into the room and said, “Hey man, I really dig this cat from England named Elton John, have any of you guys ever heard this album of his, ever heard of him before?”

Bart, his roommate, and I replied, “No.”

Then Bart told him, “No, man, we ain’t ever heard of him yet, but you can put that record on the turntable when this Pink Floyd one is done playing. We’re gonna’ finish listening to Careful With That Ax Eugene first. Crews never heard it before.” Musical adventures like that happened to us quite often on The Rock.

There are two notable but rare albums I first heard on The Rock that are still amongst my favorites: First Step by The Faces, with Rod Stewart on vocals and Ron Wood on guitars, and one of the most finely crafted albums of that era–The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus by Spirit. Friends, buddies, and new acquaintances of mine over there often insisted that I sit down and listen to some record album that I had never had the pleasure of hearing before.

Some GIs had great selections of Rhythm and Blues albums to play for themselves and us buddies of theirs. They’d add to our musical mix the solid soul sounds of Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Areatha Franklin, Junior Walker and the All Stars, and the hardest workin’ man in show business—James Brown.

I love the fantastic 1960s-70s Top 40 songs that are still played on oldies radio stations today, but there are many other dynamite songs on those music artists’ albums that’re rarely ever heard by most people. On The Rock, and in army photo school, we were into what I have always been into, listening to whole record albums, not just the most popular songs on each album which were issued as 45 RPM singles and played over and over again on radio stations.

We GIs had some great Rock ‘n Roll and Rhythm ‘n Blues and Blues and a bit of Folk and some Jazz and a little Classical music listening times in our barracks on The Rock, during the time that I was stationed there in 1970-71.

We loved our music.

Life in our barracks even got a lot better when, sometime in late 1970 or early 1971, an official U.S. Army directive came down from somewhere way up above which stated that we lowly, low ranking GIs living in army barracks could redecorate our places of residence to suit ourselves (with some reasonable limitations of course). At least it was that way on The Rock. The stated spirit of the deal was, “Make ‘um up just like home, after all, they are your home away from home for now.”

Nice coffee tables were issued all around to every one who wanted one in every army barracks on The Rock, and, if I remember correctly, floor and/or table lamps too; portable, wooden, chest high, eight-foot wide office type room dividers were issued. I can’t remember all that they issued, but I do remember that I got one of everything that they did issue. I also got my hands on a comfortable, living room type, well cushioned, bamboo framed chair from somewhere. Can’t remember if the Army gave the chairs out, or I bought it off of somebody, but it was great to have it right next to my bunk were it would have been against Army Rules and Regulations prior to that directive making things more homey.

There were men living in double occupancy, semi-private barracks rooms, and they were told to paint their rooms any color that they wanted to–as long as it was all one color. And they could chose their roommates. My good friend Doug from Florida and his roommate painted their room bright red. Doug loved walking up to our barracks with a few of us barracks mates of his and pointing out the way that his beeerite red room appeared to be jumping right out through the windows.

Men in the twenty man barracks squad bays were given permission to rearrange their bunks in what ever pattern that facilitated their maximum achievable privacy, comfort, and social needs.

In some army barracks, groups of the closest buddies living there would all form various sized living pods in their squad bays. They lined their wall lockers all up into nifty room dividers, that went in a semicircle or squared U shape from the wall then out and around their bunks and back to the wall again; then they put a rod with a curtain hanging down from it across a door sized opening which they had left between two wall lockers in the semicircle.

The pod buddies and the two double room residents, always liked the same kinds of music, which they had amassed in their individual record collections.

I’d go visit some Janis Joplin or James Gang fans for awhile, walk out through their barracks afterward and hear some Otis Redding or Ike and Tina Turner albums playing in a different pod or room, some Beatles playing in just about any pod or room, and the music of my all time favorites, The Rolling Stones, was liable to come wafting towards me from any direction at any time from any barracks on The Rock.

Barracks buddies often followed the same professional and college sports games with a passion, but not always the same teams, we were all from too many places back home. Athletes, science guys, electronics buffs, history buffs, outdoorsmen, book worms (most of us had a bit of that in us) all formed close friendships in their living quarters. Any combination of common interests that could help a wide variety of heterosexual American men to live together comfortably and peacefully in such limited privacy and personal space was the glue that binds.

Due to that Army directive, every barracks received government funds to redo their day room (recreational room). We all were given permission to buy new stuff for our day rooms, paint them up nicely, and arrange them as we felt was best for all. Anything that was still good stayed, anything that needed replacing was replaced.

Well, the other barracks got to do their own day room redecorating, but our 30th Artillery Brigade Headquarters Battery Company Commander, the intrepid Cap’n Sawyer, took over control of our day room project. He used our funds to buy us the lamest, out of style, cheap crap that he could find. He musta’ felt that it was his own, personal space, and we were uninvited guests there. (Much more on Captain Sawyer in other parts of this manuscript.)

Day rooms generally had a TV, a stereo, a Ping-Pong Table, you know they had to have a Pool Table, a reading room stocked with a few books and magazines, plus there were board games and decks of cards for all to share. There was always at least one soft sofa and several soft, comfortable chairs in the TV viewing area.

The men down at one of the Army Intelligence Command barracks, who lived on the top floor, did the most outstanding job of all on their day room redecorating project. For some reason, they had a small day room for their squad bay, instead of just the one large day room on the first floor like other barracks. It must have had something to do with the top secret nature of the different jobs that the men who were stationed in that barracks had to do.

Those guys, up on that third floor, built a wooden wall across the back third of their day room, made from 2 x 4s and plywood. It was about 2 ½ feet thick and hollow in the center. They cut out rectangular holes, put shelves in them and made a recessed component stereo entertainment center. Their TV viewing area was set up in the back third of the day room, behind the stereo system in the wooden wall, and accessed by a doorway sized opening built into the wall, so that the music would not override the sound of the TV. The Pool and Ping-Pong Tables were set up in the front two-thirds of the room where the music ruled the scene.

Now, here’s the coolest part:

Have you ever seen the cover art on the Moody Blues album named In Search Of The Lost Chord?

It has a beautiful piece of art work on it, I’m looking at my CD copy of it now. It’s a soft, mellow, flowing painting of an ancient, wizened man sitting down wearing a robe with its hood up over his head, a human skull is on one side of him and a human fetus floating in its mother’s womb is on the other side. The man’s meditations, dreams, deepest human feelings, the sum of his life experiences all seem to flow upward and outward across the album cover.

One of the guys who lived there on the third floor of that army intelligence barracks painted a perfect mural of that album cover on one of their day room walls where the Pool and Ping-Pong Tables were located. When they showed it off to me, I looked up at it and darn near fell over backwards.

My best friend from Army Photo Lab Tech School, Bruce, from Pennsylvania, was the Public Information Office Photographer for that intelligence unit. He lived there on the third floor, next to the day room where the mural was painted. Bruce was a gentle, humorous fellow. He was ¼ Gypsy. His grandfather had ‘kidnapped’ and married his non-Gypsy grandmother. The kids at Bruce’s elementary school did not believe their little classmate Bruce, when he told them about his full blooded Gypsy Granddad one day on the playground at recess. The other kids teased Bruce something terrible about claiming that his grandfather was anything as mysterious and interesting as a Gypsy. So, one day, Granddad dressed up in full Gypsy regalia, and went down to visit the kids at recess. Way back then, he was one of the only men in America who could get away with wearing a big, round, golden earring in each pierced ear like some famous pirates used to. Bruce was real popular amongst the other kids after that.

The other men who lived on the third floor there, where Bruce lived, had all spent eighteen months going to the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Ft. Holabird, Maryland. I grew up about two miles from Ft. Holabird, it was in my neighborhood. The fact that they had all spent a year and a half in my childhood neighborhood helped us bond as army buddies just a bit easier than usual. And then of course, we had similar record album collections to listen to together.

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