When my good friend Craig Werner and I set out in 2005 to do a book about the music-based memories of Vietnam veterans, there was one obvious place to begin. From my own Vietnam and post-Vietnam experience, I knew that the one song we had to feature was the Animals’ 1965 hit, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Not only had that song become de facto the Vietnam vets national anthem, it was also a tune I sang along to loudly and lustily with my brothers and sisters during my 365 days in Vietnam. Hell, it even became the working title for our eventual book — We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War — which arrived 10 ten years later and was named the best music book of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine.
But even with my pop music acumen and rock and roll chops, I’d spaced out on the fact that “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” was written, not by some hard scrabble British rockers, but by a couple Jewish kids who were cranking out hits in New York’s famous Brill Building. The talented woman who wrote the lyrics to that special song, and so many other memorable hits of the 1960s and ’70s, Cynthia Weil, died last week at 82. You could say that she “got outta this place,” but not before she and her husband Barry Mann, who wrote the music, had signposted our lives with songs about love and loneliness, race and justice. And in the case of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” emphasized what every Vietnam GI wanted — to get the hell out of that place and back home to the USA.
Needless to say, Cynthia Weil would be our initial contact. If that didn’t go well, then maybe our book notion wasn’t such a good idea? Given Craig’s status as a member of the nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we were able to connect with Ms. Weil. But at first, the mere mention of the song seemed to give her indigestion.
“When we heard the (Animals) record, I was really upset,” she told us. “They’d made it their own stylistically, which was fine, but they changed or left out sections of the lyric. It killed Barry’s record release, and I felt at the time that the song was not as powerful as it would have been had the Animals consulted us.”
Whoa. Just what in the world had gone on with this song? Turns out, a helluva lot.
According to Weil, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” was originally written for the blue-eyed soul duo the Righteous Brothers as a follow-up to their mega hit, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” another Weil-Mann classic. Neither she nor Mann had given a second thought to Vietnam.
“Although they [Righteous Brothers] were white,” Weil recounted, “they sounded so black that we thought of the song as a ghetto anthem. I was in a sociological, change-the-world-with-songs period of my young life, so the lyric came from that sensibility.”
The songwriting duo cut a demo of the song with Mann himself singing both the lead and background parts. They gave copies of the demo to Alan Klein, the manager of the Redbird record label, in hopes of circulating the demo by Mann for national release.
But not long thereafter, Weil received a call from Klein, congratulating the couple on having a big hit…in England!
“We didn’t know what he was talking about,” she added.
It turned out that Klein had passed the demo on to the Animals’ producer Mickie Most, and the group had cut the record without informing the writers. Like most things centered around Vietnam, it took a while for that wound to heal. But it did, eventually, in part to the letters and comments Weil and Mann kept getting. One from Ann Kelsey, a civilian librarian with Army Special Service in Vietnam, was especially moving.
“Your song became and remains today the anthem for all of us, military and civilian, who served in Vietnam,” Kelsey wrote to Weil. “One of the happier memories of my year in Vietnam was a party at the nurses’ quarters. The highlight of the evening was everyone bellowing at the top of their lungs. ‘We gotta get out of this place.’ That refrain echoed for all of us time and again as we slogged through our tours there. It helped us hold together then, and it continues to bond us together now.”
“‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ was our ‘We Shall Overcome,’” added Bobbie Keith, who served as an Armed Forces Radio DJ in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. “We listened and danced to the tune in a state of heightened awareness that many of us might not make it back out. We counted our blessings each time the song played, that we were still alive. The song conjures up the fire flares and rockets that illuminated the sky each night as helicopters whirled overhead, creating an ominous musical cacophony that the war, ever present, was all around us — would the rockets hit us tonight? — as we danced, listened, and sang along, shouting the words, ‘We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.’ It has become the vets’ national anthem.”
For Weil, those kinds of responses were the real reward for writing the Vietnam Vets’ National Anthem.
“I can’t express how much this kind of feedback means to us,” she ended that 2005 conversation. “To know that you have comforted and strengthened others through your work is the most satisfying feeling in the world.”
I second that emotion. Rest in peace Ms. Cynthia Weil. And heartfelt thanks.
(Vietnam veteran Doug Bradley is the author of Who’ll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance, and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America, co-author with Craig Werner of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War which was named best music book of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine, and DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle now available as an audiobook.)