More than four decades ago, Perry Deane Young was battling writer’s block while trying to wrestle his first book to the ground.
It was the story of the North Carolina native’s time in Vietnam as a war correspondent, drawn from Young’s memories of two comrades who were still missing in action – rich material, but the words weren’t coming.
So Young undertook a writing exercise based on the World War I vignettes that Ernest Hemingway had sprinkled throughout his 1925 short-story collection “In Our Time,” boiling complicated scenes down to a single terse paragraph. That broke the impasse, and Young incorporated many of these sketches into his acclaimed 1975 Vietnam memoir “Two of the Missing: Remembering Sean Flynn & Dana Stone.”
Forty years on, those vignettes have found new life on a strange and fascinating album, “Indochina” by the German electronic-music duo Reel Banditos. Interspersed among the album’s 14 exotic-sounding instrumental tunes are 11 of Young’s narrations, which sound like the voice of a ghost over a faint phone connection from far away.
We stand waiting to get on a medevac chopper into the fighting across the river in the old Hue Citadel. Two medics come out of a doorway labeled “Make Love not War” and start cooking a goose they’ve just liberated from a nearby house. We watch as a spotter plane gets shot down just a few hundred feet from us. A jeep roars up with the pilot’s charred body, unzipping the bag so the body will cool. The sweet acrid odor mingles with that of the goose as the medics sit down to eat…
“You don’t get many chances to tell your stories in life, and you want to pass them along as you get older,” Young said on a recent morning in his Chapel Hill apartment. “It keeps the memories alive, and in a way also the people I knew over there. A lot of the experience was horror and inhumanity. But it was thrilling and fun, too – horrible and also the time of my life. It’s complicated. I’m old and I have stories to tell. A few regrets, too, a few million regrets. But I’m grateful.”
A varied life
Now 74, Young has had a long and varied writing career. He lives simply in a Chapel Hill basement apartment downstairs from the Compass Center, where he does maintenance and upkeep for his rent. Between Social Security and selling the books lining almost every wall of his apartment, he makes enough to get by.
“I never really planned for old age because I never thought I’d live this long,” he said with a laugh. “But all in all, it’s a good life – great friends, living in the heart of Chapel Hill. One day at a time. I’m probably in better health now than ever, actually.”
One of the books Young wrote was a best-seller, 1977’s “The David Kopay Story,” about one of the first pro football players to come out as gay. He’s also co-written three plays, most notably 2001’s “Frankie” (about Frankie Silver, the North Carolina woman hanged in 1833 for the ax murder of her husband).
But Vietnam still remains the defining experience of Young’s life. He was a correspondent for United Press International, UPI, and he arrived in Saigon at the end of January 1968 – just in time for the North Vietnamese Army to attack the city as part of the Tet Offensive. While the attack failed, it helped turn the tide of U.S. public opinion against the war.
In Vietnam, Young’s fellow war correspondents included Flynn (the son of matinee idol Errol Flynn) and Dana Stone, with whom he shared many adventures. Flynn and Stone continually walked the line between brave and foolhardy, but their nerve yielded amazing pictures that told the story of the war in newspapers and magazines back home.
Flynn and Stone’s luck ran out in April 1970, when they rode their motorcycles into enemy territory and disappeared, presumably dead or captured. The cover shot of “Two of the Missing” shows them right before they went roaring off, never to be seen again. English punk band The Clash would later memorialize Flynn in “Sean Flynn,” a song from their 1982 album “Combat Rock.”
One of Young’s comrades who lived was Tim Page, an English-born photographer who had been arrested onstage with the rock band The Doors in 1967 in Connecticut. In Vietnam, Page had enough of a larger-than-life reputation to serve as inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s burned-out war photographer in Francis Ford Coppola’s surreal 1979 epic “Apocalypse Now.”
“Of all the Vietnam movies, ‘Apocalypse Now’ was the one that got it most right,” Young said. “It’s still like my home movie of that time. It captured the whole wacky scene where weird danger was all around and you didn’t know who the enemy was. And that loony colonel, there were real guys just like that. I knew them.”
Across the Atlantic Ocean, a different Vietnam War movie would start the members of Reel Banditos down the path toward collaborating with Young. That was Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning 1986 film “Platoon,” which so fascinated German teenager Sascha Carl that he took up Vietnam as a studious hobby.
During the years, Carl saw every movie and read every book he could on the subject – including “Two of the Missing,” which he happened to be reading while on a visit to Vietnam in 2009. After visiting some of the places Young wrote about in the book, Carl struck up an email correspondence with Young that continues to the present day (they’ve still never met in-person).
With his childhood friend Stephan Krause, Carl is also half of Reel Banditos, a studio group that has released a series of albums. One of their albums, 2008’s “Indochina,” had been heavily influenced by another Vietnam book, Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” from 1977.
To mark this year’s 40th anniversary of the war’s end, Carl and Krause decided to remake “Indochina” with narration by Young, who resurrected those old “Two of the Missing” vignettes and added a few more. As to the low-fidelity “phoned-in” sound of Young’s voice, Carl said that came about by accident.
“Perry sent me the first recordings of his narration, which he recorded on his computer,” Carl said by email. “I found them too distorted and sent him a studio microphone, and he re-recorded them. But in the end, I used his first round of recordings because they sounded more natural and had more life to them. I also realized that a ‘retro’ sound would suit the album nicely.”
The combination of spooky sounds with Young’s chillingly deadpan short stories makes for a haunting listening experience.
“Hearing that rich North Carolina mountain voice recite the experiences of a young reporter carries you straight back to the streets of Saigon during Tet 1968,” wrote Peter Ross Range, former Saigon bureau chief for Time magazine, in a testimonial. “This stuff is somehow more riveting after all these years … Eerily appropriate to the whole retro-journey.”
In a way, this project has allowed Young to bring his Vietnam experience full-circle by turning some of his memories into music. Vietnam was a multimedia war, which makes “Indochina” the perfect reflection of it (even if Young’s own listening preferences run more toward classical than techno).
“Music was so important in Vietnam,” Young said. “Everybody had a transistor radio even in the most horrendous battles, and you were never far away from the sound of rock music because there were 24-hour rock stations. Music and war, that was just another wacky contradiction. I don’t know what or where the market is for it, but I’d love to do more of this kind of thing.”
What: “Indochina” reading/release party featuring music, spoken-word narration by Perry Deane Young and psychedelic light/sound effects by Mike Benson
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Station, 201-C E. Main St., Carrboro
Details: 919-967-1967 or thestationcarrboro.com