Unnatural Act, The: Rock, Rhythm and Blues in the Nam: By Robert Wehrman By Steve Hart

Dec 22, 2009

The Unnatural Act is a hilariously true story of Wehrman’s experiences as a sousaphone (Tuba) player during the Vietnam War. Drafted out of high school, he auditioned for the Army band and was shipped off to Vietnam, finding himself stationed in Ho Chi Minh Village.

The Army band was a small group of men who would pack into a helicopter, fly over dangerous enemy territory, and land in a so-called safe zone. Then they would form up and play the American and/or the South Vietnamese National Anthems for a visiting general or a dignitary of some sort, while standing knee-deep in a mucky field with sniper fire zipping through the trees. But the band didn’t play the song straight. Instead, these accomplished musicians would play as poorly as possible; sloppily and purposely out of tune with each other. This was their way of protesting the war, right in the face of the warriors themselves.

Later on, they form a rock band and play to the grunts, grinding through the classics of the day while tripping on acid and taking out their musical frustrations with waves of distortion and off-kilter rhythms. This, in my mind, sounds like a cross between MC5 and the German band Can, with some Hawkwind thrown in for good measure.

 Many books written by veterans describe their experiences as extreme boredom punctuated with moments of sheer terror. In between being forced to burn shit all day, playing a tuba while wearing an M-16, or smoking pot while lounging in treetop hammocks while the V.C. prowled below, The Unnatural Act vividly describes the horrific stories of friends being caught in a freak fire and being burned alive, and the omnipresent terror of RPGs rocketing into camp.

The Unnatural Act is a quick read and has the makings of a great screenplay. A first-time author, (he played keyboards with ZZ Top, studied composition with Aaron Copland, and is a professor at the University Of Hawaii Maui campus), Wehrman is liberal with his doses of humor and oddball observations of the war surrounding the band, delivering a unique twist on the Vietnam story. –Steve Hart (theunnaturalact.com)