"Still in Saigon"
Artist: The Charlie Daniels Band
Writer: Dan Daley
Chart Position (US): 22
Artist: The Charlie Daniels Band
Writer: Dan Daley
Chart Position (US): 22
No songwriter has ever disproved the adage "write about what you know" better than Dan Daley, who wrote "Still in Saigon," the classic song about a returning Vietnam War veteran, without being one himself.
"I knew people who had gone to Vietnam, including a cousin," he said. "They didn't talk about it a lot, except to the extent that was, 'I'm glad I got out of there in one piece.' I knew some people who were wounded over there. I didn't know anybody who was killed. Once the song came out, I got letters from people. I've hung onto a few. Some of them were really long. What I noticed was that they begin to give me their narratives. It was almost as though the song made it okay for them to tell somebody. And you got the sense that they wanted to tell somebody for a long time.
"I had extended conversations years ago with Bobby Muller, who was the founder of the VVA, the Vietnam Veterans of America. Bobby is an amazing story, how he basically put together that organization and gave a voice and face to those people who were portrayed in the song. Let's face it, they were being portrayed rather negatively in a lot of the movies, like The Deer Hunter. They were being made to come across as crazies.
"Bobby was paralyzed by a bullet in the war but he accomplished more from a wheelchair that most people accomplish with two legs in their entire lives. I didn't become a spokesman for these people and I'll tell you why. Because the more I learned about what people go through in wars and what people in the Vietnam War in particular went through, the more I realized I could not speak for them. I could maybe create a voice in the form of a song, and that's exactly what happened. There was no way I could put myself out there and say, 'This is how a Vietnam veteran feels.' I didn't have the bona fides for that. It's one thing to make a work of art and interpret what you think someone has gone through, but to put yourself out there and to say, 'I'm speaking for them,' no, you can't do that. They have to speak for themselves. That's why someone like a Bobby Muller was so important."
After he wrote the song in 1981, Daley started playing it with his band in Greenwich Village, at places like the Bitter End and Kenny's Castaways. At the same time his publishing company started pitching it. "We knew we were onto something special with that song," Daley said. "Since it was such a political song, the strategy was there were only two artists that it would make sense to give it to. One was Bruce Springsteen and the other was Charlie Daniels. Because both had made public statements in support of Vietnam veterans. So the song went to both, and both Bruce and Charlie originally passed on it."
Truly, this is one of those deals where the song went through two or three rewrites. At the end of the last rewrite, before I went into the studio to cut the track, I realized I had something I didn't set out to have. This thing fell out of my brain and it went through its various iterations in the process of editing, but it was not what I had set out to write. Every now and then I would mess with political stuff. But in general my writing was not overtly political by any means. The song is a narrative and that was something rare for me. It wasn't a love song and it wasn't a lack of love song. It was a narrative. There was an arc. It starts in one place, San Francisco, because that fit the lyric nicely. The narrative starts there and basically ends upon his return. So in three and a half minutes, we cross the Pacific twice. It didn't occur to me that it was a narrative while I was writing it, but that's how it turned out. I think that's just deeply embedded in our brains. We're storytellers and we're story listeners, so it just came out naturally as a narrative arc. I also think the song has a lot to do with a personal sense, which a lot of people experience, of not being accepted for who you are. That's the subtext within this song.
At the time, I was making demos of all the stuff I was doing for this one particular publishing company and they were making the usual rounds trying to get covers. Some did, most didn't. That's typical. A five percent batting average is good in that game. It was also going out to labels where I was trying to get myself a deal. I didn't have management, but back then, the way you did it was you played the clubs and you got the under assistant West Coast promotions manager to come down and hear you once, then he brings his buddy down, his buddy brings his boss down, and it went that way a few times. But I never got that particular brass ring.
Here's Dan's original demo of "Still in Saigon":
What the demo got me was the Charlie Daniels cover. That got me more attention. That got me bookings that I wouldn't have had before. That got me some television and radio that I would not have had before. It got me a pretty hefty advance from BMI just before they decided to eliminate them. So it gave me some additional credibility in terms of getting my other songs listened to. One thing it didn't turn into is "Oh, we only want political songs from this guy," because, quite honestly, very few people wanted political songs. I mean, getting a political song to hit the charts, to get it out as the single in the first place, is a pretty rare thing. And looking back on it, you really couldn't have done it with another artist besides Charlie or Bruce.
I recorded it in mid to late '81. Shortly after that, the publisher called me. "We got a call from Epic, they want a license," he said. I don't know what the conversation was like in The Charlie Daniels Band as to why they finally decided to cut it. But it represented a pretty major step for him, because he had never released a single that he didn't write. But Charlie Daniels wears his politics on his sleeve. All you have to do is read his blog and he's pretty out there on the right edge of things. But this to me was a topic that anybody could weigh in on and you could see the unfairness of how Vietnam veterans had been treated.
When we spoke with Charlie Daniels, he said: "I talked to Vietnam vets before I recorded that song because I'd never been to Vietnam. I thought it was a very personal experience. And I went around and talked to some of the guys, 'How do you feel about me recording this?' I had a guy, ex-Green-Beret, was working security with me at the time, and they said, 'Do it.' So I did. And I've always been glad that I did, because it was, I guess, the first song of support for the Vietnam veterans."
So it was a wonderful thing, though I'm still not exactly sure of all the mechanisms that were going on in there. I was certainly tuned into Billboard, and I think we had Cashbox and Record World back in those days, too. So you tuned into all of them to see what your chart number was going to be for that week and whether or not you still had a bullet. When that stuff happens, yeah, it's definitely exciting. Even if you didn't have a #1.
I always think back to what Chuck Tanner, the old manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates, used to say. "Winning a major league baseball game is the greatest thrill in the world," he said. "The second greatest thrill in the world is losing a major league baseball game." So, just being in the game at that level was great.
"Still in Saigon" had a bunch of covers in places like Poland and Sweden. I would get my BMI international statements and they would be like, $1.38 over here and $20 over there. It certainly seemed to be big in Scandinavia and Australia and in the UK as I recall. Of course, it's also on Charlie's Greatest Hits, which went double platinum. I remember pitching it to Oliver Stone's music supervisor for Platoon. He sent me back a really, really nice letter to the effect that the song was too literal. That's not the kind of song you put in the movie, he said, that's the kind of song you make a movie about.
I first met Charlie Daniels, I think it was backstage at Saturday Night Live. Or else it was some other TV show that they did in New York where they played the song. And then he invited me down and I played a couple of times at the Volunteer Jam that he used to do in Nashville, where I managed to forget the lyrics to my own song on stage. I never had the opportunity to really have a conversation with him about how he happened to cut the song, but I did become somewhat friendly with a couple of guys in the band, like Taz [keyboard player Joel "Taz" DiGregorio], who unfortunately passed away in 2011, and Billy Crane, who passed away a couple of years ago. They were very cool guys and they liked the song. I mean, they genuinely liked the song, which always made me feel good.
Only years later did I become aware of the full impact of the song and what it meant to people. That's when the letters started accumulating from people who would somehow find me in an era before the Internet. People would somehow find out where I lived and send me a letter. I never had a single negative letter. I never had a letter that said, "How dare you."
What did wind up happening about 20 years after the song came out, in the '90s and early 2000s, was that I began to get emails from kids. Kids were doing reports for school about the Vietnam War and either they were talking about the war itself or they were talking about some of the art that came out of the war, whether it was The Deer Hunter or "Still in Saigon." They would ask me, "How did the song come about, how did you write this? Did you go to Vietnam?" Basically, I went from getting input from the veterans themselves to getting input from their kids. Now, it may not have necessarily been the kid of a Vietnam veteran, but it was someone from that generation, which was pretty amazing.
That happened I would say 5, 6, 7 times. "I have to do a big homework assignment on the song you wrote, 'Still in Saigon.' I want to know what influenced you to write it." I got one from a student at Bismarck State College. "Our English teacher asked us to find the background information on what America was like during the Vietnam War. My assignment was to find music about it. My whole family are Charlie Daniels fans, so I immediately thought of the song 'Still in Saigon,' which you wrote and I looked up the lyrics on the internet. I know you had another song about MIAs and I read your article called 'Bring 'em Back Alive,' that was in Genesis magazine." I had completely forgotten about that article. But that was the kind of stuff I was getting in the early 2000s from that generation of kids.
Dan has written for Billboard, Spin and Mix magazines, and has also published the book Nashville's Unwritten Rules: Inside The Business of Country Music. You can find him at dandaley.net.
January 9, 2014