“Taro” – alt-J and “Dispatches” – Michael Herr

Jams, OP-ED

1.

I’m pissed off for two separate reasons. One has to do with my friend (and fellow contributor) Seth, and the other not, but I feel like blaming it on him anyway. I’m actually pissed at him because he already wrote about my favorite band, alt-J. I’m not actually pissed but feel like putting the blame on him for my having not listened to their song “Taro” until only recently.

See? Not his fault at all. But it just feels right saying it is.

Seth is also responsible for introducing me to “Dispatches,” a memoir written by a war correspondent that worked in Vietnam. During the war. Not in some “ivory tower” like all of these so-called “intellectuals” and “professors” seem to be doing these days. Turns out, things weren’t exactly like “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” I was in the prologue of my obsession with “Taro” when Seth started bugging me about reading “Dispatches.” Finally, about a month ago, I conceded defeat, bought the book and read it.

2.

I used to have a war book when I was younger. “Scholastic Encyclopedia of the United States at War.” Man, I loved that thing. There were incredible pictures on each page, dating all the way back to the Revolution. (There weren’t actual photos from that time period, just to be clear. They were paintings and drawings. Unless those were actually real, in which case, I’ve lived a lie my whole life.) I still owe the majority of my war knowledge to that book.

What always struck me about it though was the difference between the Korean War section and the Vietnam War section. You’d see photos of soldiers in Korea, bundled up beyond all recognition. Walking blankets with machine guns. Sometimes they’d be covered in ponchos. Actually, now that I think about it, there were only about four or five pages dedicated to the Korean War. Before it was WWII, which is the granddaddy of all American wars. How many movies have they made about it? Miniseries only count as half.

But then I’d turn to the Vietnam section. And there they were: Soldiers in full color, close up, personal, no blankets or ponchos in sight. Their fatigues unbuttoned with sweat beads so pronounced you almost felt the humidity.
When you’re a child, everyone more than four years older than you seems like an impossible age that you’ll never reach, like being 9 and having a 13-year-old babysitter. These soldiers just seemed so grown up. They smoked cigarettes for godssake! But I never really realized how young these boys were. Not even when I turned 18 or 19, when I finished up high school and lounged around in college, did I really understand what it meant. And I doubt that I ever will.

3.

I don’t remember the first time I heard “Taro.” I wish I’d catalogued that memory away, next to all my other valuable brain keepsakes (my friend and editor, also named Seth and coincidentally the same Seth from earlier, suggested I use a different word besides “memories,” so this is what you get) that I keep shoved in a cabinet somewhere in my brain. Actually, if I’m being honest, what has become my favorite song didn’t really strike me as anything other than another cool-sounding alt-J track (which pretty much describes their entire catalog). I heard it again in my girlfriend’s car one day and something about it stuck with me.

I had to find out what it meant. If you’re at all familiar with alt-J, you’ll know that it’s damn near impossible to understand what Joe Newman is saying. Go ahead, give it a shot. I’ve listened to both albums more than I can count and still don’t know 80 percent of the lyrics. It’s the kind of music that makes you mumble along when you sing in the car, and it feels like you’re nailing it even though you know you’re not.

I found this article while doing some research on “Taro,” as one does when they’re living on his own in a studio apartment. DIY Magazine interviewed alt-J and asked them about the meaning of each song on their first album. Here’s the description of “Taro”:

“Taro” is about two war photographers – Robert Capa and Gurda Taro – who met during the second world war. They became lovers and got engaged to one another and were head over heels, then Gurda Taro was killed. I don’t think Robert Capa ever got over it. He died about ten years later in Indochina, when he stepped on a landmine, so the song documents those moments just before, during and after he steps onto it. It’s basically talking about those moments and how he knows that he’s dying, but that he’s going to be seeing Gerda Taro soon.

This is heartbreaking. Even the “happy ending” is horrible. But, like the cover of an Animorphs book, the song changed into something completely different for me once I knew the backstory.

4.

“Dispatches” is a reading experience I’d never encountered before. Each page is a slow trudge toward a depressing anticlimax. It’s engrossing. Michael Herr puts you in Vietnam, where he and his colleagues worked alongside Marine “grunts.” They get to know the Marines. They become friends with them. They see them die.

And Herr and all his colleagues were there voluntarily. The Marines weren’t. Sure, Herr wasn’t holding a gun, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t in the war. His stories are more affecting, more truthful than any other portrayal of war I’ve ever read. He wasn’t there because he had to be. He wasn’t there because he had an opinion of the war, though he clearly did. He was just there.

Throughout, he talks about photographers who’ve won the Robert Capa Gold Medal award for “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise.” The award loses a little of its glimmer though once you know Capa’s backstory, which is befitting of the stories of all the guys who shot and reported on Vietnam.

5.

“Taro” feels like a song from another culture. It immediately teleports the listener to a different time and place. Newman’s enunciation and delivery are equal parts confusing and foreign. The guitar plucks haunt your ears. Reading lyrics is essential to the listening experience. At 1:14, an instrument I’ve never heard bursts through the bush.

I literally can’t stop listening to it. And it’s such a bummer that Seth already wrote about alt-J because he, Chris and I want to share cool tunes and impress people with our music knowledge. It’s hard to do that when we talk about the same band all the time.

Some songs take on new meanings when you discover the artist’s intention. For example, I never knew that “Stoned” by Smash Mouth was about drugs until I learned what “weedajuana” was. “Taro” reshapes the way you view the album, alt-J and what songs can do.

6.

“Dispatches” should be required reading for everyone even remotely alive. What it has to say about war and man can’t be taught with history lessons or by watching documentaries. It will change the way you see conflict.

“Taro” should be required listening for everyone even remotely alive. The way it takes obscure source material and wraps it in song and lyrics is nothing I’ve ever heard or read before. It will change the way you see music and art.

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