It's about one of the best songs he ever wrote with his band Marah called Round Eye Blues, based on a book by William Ehrhart, who was from the same area of Pennsylvania Serge and his brother Dave grew up in. It's a great book, Serge was kind enough to lend me his copy and I was kind enough to return it in only 4 short years, so you should get a copy and read it too. I remember it being both powerful in its subject matter and refreshing in its candor re: not giving a shit about being some sort of war hero, but just wanting to get home without being blown to bits.
Take the hits boys, take the hits.
I wrote a song once about a Vietnam vet.
I had read W.D Ehrhart's riveting memoir, Vietnam-Perkasie, and it stayed with me. I couldn't shake it. I couldn't shake this idea that a young guy from a place not far from where I was from had seen things like he had seen, done things like he had had to do.
I was living with a girlfriend on Passyunk Ave in South Philly when I wrote it. I still remember the afternoon it came to me. Everything happened very quickly, like the best songs usually do. Two cups of coffee/I'm gnawing the ass end of a Bic/trying this chord with that chord/no, THIS chord with that chord/the words to the tune gushed out of my face like sweat or puke. Like blood if I had been shot in the face.
Immediately, after the hour or two I spent writing it, I did what I always did when I was excited about something I'd written but never confident enough to be sure. I took the song to my brother.
That was always a real exercise in car crash nerves for me. His approval was my God. It still is even now. If he wasn't into it, if he so much as made this certain face he makes when he's amused or kind of impressed that I made the effort but his ass isn't kicked, I immediately hated the damn song and myself for wasting time on it.
Anyway, I wandered outside in the South Philly summer sun, past the pizza joint, past the Vietnamese haircut place that sold Bánh mì, past the Golden Donut, past the Italian Market, past St. Paul's , past The Chicken Man's brother's house, down Salter Street, and into my brother's tiny trinity house where he was always... ALWAYS- no matter what time of day or night I showed up unannounced- he was always sitting there smoking a cigarette right by his ten-thousand year old coffee machine, which was always in the very middle of brewing a full pot of coffee, even when no one else was around/just Dave, seemingly waiting, mid-puff, for me to walk through the door with a new song that I had written in a desperate attempt to outdo the last one he had written (which was always the day before).
I grabbed a cup of coffee and his shitty Yamaha acoustic and lit a smoke and stuck it in the headstock and I told him to just sit down and listen.
He gave me that courtesy too. He always did. He always wanted to hear what I had.
He sat there sipping coffee, smoking, head bent down to the floor so I couldn't see his face as I fumbled through the thing once straight through.
Then I remember this very distinctly.
I was shaking. I was literally fucking shaking, my hands wobbling, my nerves shot to shit from all of it. The song, the writing, the idea, the book, the excitement, the fear of failure, the sense that I was way in over my goddamn head here trying to write through a Vietnam vets eyeballs when I had never even come close to that particular flame.
Dave got up when I was done, walked over to rinse his cup out in the sink. Then he lit a smoke from his last smoke. The air was Mars. I couldn't breathe.
I tried to act cool. But no.
Finally, he went back over to his sink, rinsed a saucer or some shit, looked up straight out the small window that looked out onto a solid concrete wall, and spoke.
"Yeah," he said. "Oh, yeah. What's it called? 'Round Eye Blues'? Shit. Yeah. Play it again."
I felt the whole city lift up beneath me then. Billy Penn, Vet Stadium, Temple, City Hall, the Khyber, my apartment, all the pizzerias, all the cops and the killers, all the teachers and the drunks, a bus sitting in traffic as the whole world was busy doing something else while nine or ten people stared out the filthy Septa windows wishing they were home already, everything/all of it at once/removed from my back like a leaf blowing down the street.
I'm so proud of this song, of the way we all played on it and the way it was recorded in a garage in South Philly, and Paul Smith's genius production, and the way Dave managed to sing it like I had dreamed he would sing it in the dream I was dreaming long before I was even born.
Back when I was a shooting star careening across some outer universe.
Back before the time of wars.
Back when Vietnam was nothing. Back when South Philly was nothing. Back when everything was nothing.
Happy Memorial Day.
Enjoy yourself. Be cool. Write a song. Drink a beer. Toast the sun. Kiss your kid. BBQ a skirt steak. Run the hose. Smoke a cigarette. Touch your lover's ass. Hit a Wiffleball. Catch a fish. Mow the lawn. Look at the stars...
...and remember what it's all about.