It was 1966. I was a year out of high school and had three things on my mind. Girls. Cars. And, especially, my rock band, the Satellites. We'd just landed a recording
contract. Soon, the whole world
would be listening to my songs on the radio.
And then my draft notice arrived.
Before I knew it, I was saying goodbye to family and friends and boarding a train bound for basic training. I became part of a brand new military police unit, the Army's 127th MP Company, created especially for duty in wartorn Vietnam.
It was the beginning of a journey that would take me to places I never could have fathomed, to see and do things I never could have imagined.
But even in Nam, I couldn't give up my rock star dreams. I improvised some instruments and equipment, taught a few fellow MPs to play, and formed my own touring rock band right there in the combat zone – all without missing a single patrol.
What started as a lark, though, ultimately became a lifeline for me and the band, as well as the thousands of combat-weary troops we played for.
One moment we were going toe to toe with the Vietcong. The next we were crossing the deadly An Khe Pass to play "We Gotta Get Outta This Place" for a crowd of cheering GIs.
If you can believe it, we even cut a record there in the jungle, crafting a makeshift sound studio on a war-zone mountainside.
By forming the band – we called it the Electrical Banana, after a line in a Donovan song – the guys and I created our own bit of order out of the chaos of Vietnam, bringing some sense of normalcy to the surreal hell of war.
Rock 'N' Roll Soldier is our true story.
• • •
Read an Excerpt
Click image for the first two chapters of
Rock 'N' Roll Soldier
• • •
Praise for Rock 'N' Roll Soldier
"A remarkable story about the transcendent power of music."
– Graham Nash
"An easy and entertaining read as well as a coming of age story about a young man who was able to live his dream in the middle of a war – and survive."
– Edward T. Luttenberger, National Vietnam War Museum
"Vietnam has been pored over by filmmakers, musicians and serious writers for generations, but Kohler’s uniquely personal perspective puts the reader on the frontline, sharing the weight of a kitbag and the utter sense of bewilderment at the dangerous storm all around."
– Record Collector
"The war memoir gets a unique spin with Kohler’s recollection of his time playing rock and roll in the Vietnam jungle. The 19-year-old Kohler arrives in Qui Nhon in 1967 as part of a new military-police company, but his mind is on the record deal his band had to turn down when he received his draft notice. Word of his talent gets around, though, and soon Kohler and three fellow privates are buying instruments from local merchants and rehearsing covers of everyone from Herman’s Hermits to the Velvet Underground. Their band—the Electrical Banana—quickly becomes the in-demand entertainment for nearby companies, and Kohler is determined to play every gig, even when it means traveling unarmed through VC territory. As scenes of panic and carnage alternate with the wild cheering of weary soldiers, the theme hits you in the gut: the restorative power of music is real, and no band, no matter how famous, could have been any more important than the Electrical Banana. A sober but ultimately inspiring read."
"In 1967, Dean Kohler was a typical car-girl-and-music-loving teenager from Portsmouth. But then he was drafted, sent to Vietnam and indoctrinated into a military police unit in Qui Nhon. His story, eloquently and cleanly told, will settle into its own place on the shelves of classic Vietnam War literature, but with a subgenre of its own: the music of war. The likes of “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Louie, Louie,” and “Under My Thumb” blast louder than machine-gun fire as Kohler and his band, “The Electrical Banana,” play live gigs for the soldiers between their own live battles. With a foreword by Graham Nash about the life-saving power of music, Kohler’s story couldn’t be timelier for the young men and women navigating the war zones of today. "
– Style Weekly
"Drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, Kohler got the chance to pursue his desire to make music when he was asked by his captain to put together a rock band. He recruited three other soldiers, found inexpensive instruments in the local town, and set about practicing and then playing for fellow combatants in the 127th Military Police Company. Soon, he became more serious and tried to get the Electrical Banana gigs in all the clubs in Qui Nhon and beyond. From his eye-opening perspective, Kohler draws in readers with some gut-wrenching accounts of warfare, lightening the mood with references to bands, songs, and his love of music. This memoir reads like an action-packed novel and pairs well with Walter Dean Myers's Fallen Angels (Scholastic, 1998). It could provide an outstanding cross-curriculum tie-in between social studies and English."
– School Library Journal
"With its focus on overcoming adversity and creating positive situations, the narrative could devolve into a blathering self-help book, but Kohler and co-author VanHecke avoid that trap entirely. Reluctant readers will find plenty of action and suspense in the war scenes, while those who are musically inclined will appreciate the trials of starting a band, no matter what the circumstances. Brief sidelines regarding both the motivations for and the difficulties of the war emerge, but it does not overtake the plot, and Kohler avoids getting bogged down in the politics. Humorous and light, with a hint of despair, the narrative depicts life continuing beyond conflict."
– Kirkus Reviews
"I hope that today's young adults will enjoy this memoir and perhaps understand how important the band that Dean and his friends put together was to those young guys so far from home in such dangerous circumstances.
"I think that's the way all of us who worked in morale and recreation felt. Whatever we did, whether it was recreation, music, crafts, libraries, or entertainment, it was all directed at making the war and the fear go away, if only for a moment; to remind those soldiers –and us –of home; to bring them, for however brief a time, a small respite from the war. I only hope that there is something similar going on today for the men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan."
– Ann Kelsey, Associate Director, Learning Resource Center at County College of Morris, NJ and a civilian librarian with Army Special Services in Vietnam, 1969-1970.
"In a famous Bill Mauldin cartoon from World War II, a U.S. Army infantryman says to an engineer laboring to lay a useable road in the mud: 'Yer Lucky. Yer learnin' a trade.' A lucky few soldiers actually did find a way to apply what they'd learned in military service to the civilian job market. Far fewer, however, would claim to have served an apprenticeship in rock 'n' roll music by serving with a military police unit in Vietnam. But Dean Ellis Kohler did.
Put to paper with the aid of journalist Susan VanHecke, Rock 'n' Roll Soldier is part of the steadily growing font of Vietnam veterans' tours of duty. In Dean Kohler's case, it was with the 127th MP Company in the port city of Qui Nhon in 1967 – a relatively quiet assignment until just after he left, when the 1968 Tet Offensive turned it into a full-fledged battleground. As fate would have it, Kohler's skills with a guitar and songwriting landed him the added assignment of playing with the Electrical Banana, an ensemble of musically talented soldiers whose morale-raising tours, ironically, took him in harm's way more often than did his regular MP duties.
Back in The World, Kohler got a job at a radio station handling audio and recording equipment, which led to a chance encounter with Graham Nash, then on tour with the Hollies, and a chat that led Kohler to make a career of music. By no coincidence, Nash, too, comes around full circle to pen the book's foreword.
Filled with personal variations on anecdotes that a good many vets will recognize, Rock 'n' Roll Soldier differs from most Vientam entertainers' memoirs in that the troupe here did not come courtesy of Bob Hope and the USO. These troubadours in green emerged from the ranks, giving a different slant to the term 'band of brothers.'"
– Vietnam Magazine
"This memoir from songwriter/performer Dean Kohler describes his experiences as a nineteen-year-old military policeman in 1967 Vietnam. Kohler's band had just landed a record deal with a company in New York City when he was drafted into the Army. Thinking his musical career is on hold and possibly over, Kohler nevertheless comes to the attention of his commanding officer when he performs at the company's going-away party the night before leaving for Vietnam. At the request of his captain, Kohler and several other soldiers form a rock band dubbed the Electrical Banana to entertain the men stationed at their Army base. Kohler's younger self is appealing, and his reconstructed dialogue sounds genuine. The author does not hold back in his description of the casual violence he frequently witnessed in Vietnam, and his nights of being shot at while on perimeter duty and of encountering wounded and dying GIs in Army hospitals reinforce the grim nature of war. These poignant scenes are balanced by the giddiness and optimism of Kohler and his friends in scrounging up makeshift band instruments, rehearsing in the supply tent, and finally performing music for their fellow soldiers. Occasional four-letter words, references to sex, and descriptions of maimed and dead bodies make this quick read best suited for older high school students."