Big bussinessmen and political leaders failed to rally behind us,” said Vietnam veteran Bobby Muller, speaking to about 15,000 remarkably attentive rock fans on August 20th at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. “And now it ultimately turns out to be the symbol of our generation – rock & roll – that brings us together. . . . This is the first step in ending the silence that has surrounded Vietnam.”
To deafening applause, Muller, sitting center stage in a wheelchair, turned over the spotlight to Bruce Springsteen, the first of several rockers to play benefits for the veterans. Minutes earlier, Springsteen had introduced Muller with his own, terse, eloquent speech; now, he led the E Street Band into a dark, swelling melody and stepped to the mike to sing, “Long as I remember, the rain’s been falling down. . . .” Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s eleven-year-old “Who’ll Stop the Rain” was transformed into a majestic call to arms, and the next two songs deepended the mood: “Prove It All Night” was stripped of its usual joy, and Springsteen came down hard on the lines “If dreams came true, oh wouldn’t it be nice/But this ain’t no dream we’re living through tonight.” Then, without pause, he turned toward the two stage-side platforms full of veterans in wheelchairs and no crutches and ripped into “The Ties That Bind”: “You been hurt and you’re all cried out you say/You walk down the street pushing people out of your way.”
All proceeds from the show – the first in a six-night stand for Springsteen at the Sports Arena – will be split between the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) – the organization Muller heads – and the Los Angeles Mental Health Clinic (the VVA will receive seventy-five percent of the estimated $100,000 take). Shortly after Springsteen announced his benefit, other musicians came to the aid of the veterans: Pat Benatar’s September 20th Detroit performance will benefit the VVA, and Charlie Daniels will give the organization proceeds from a Warner Amex cable TV concert filmed in Saratoga Springs, New York, on September 4th. “I feel that the Vietnam veterans have been the most mistreated and most ignored people I can remember in my lifetime,” said Daniels, “and this is the third war I’ve been through. It’s time they were looked after and respected in the way they deserve.”
Springsteen became interested in the veteran’s plight through his friendship with disable vet Ron Kovic; he asked his manager, Jon Landau, to research the various veterans organization to determine which is the most effective, and he decided to do the show after meeting with Muller and VVA vice-president Michael Harbert earlier this summer.
“These are people of our generation – Bruce’s, mine,” said Landau. “I think Bruce saw a lot of his high-school friends go to Vietnam. It sounds corny, but these people we’re trying to help could have been us if the circumstances had been a little different.” Landau said he expects Springsteen to continue working for the veterans in different ways; an official Springsteen poster is already for sale, with all proceeds going to the VVA.
Backstage after the Springsteen show, Muller was ecstatic about the support his group is suddenly getting. “We tried everything,” said Muller of his three-year-old organization. “Corporations, foundations, direct mail. We got thirty-five editorials in the Washington Post in 1978, but we didn’t realize a single legislative objective. You can’t push costly benefit programs through Congress with good arguments. You need political strength, and that means numbers.”
With only 8000 members, the VVA does not have that strength. But after years of maneuvering, the group finally obtained a list of 1 million Vietnam veterans, and money from the concerts will go towards a direct-mailing operation aimed at those vets. Muller said that a goal of 50,000 members by spring and another 100,000 by the end of 1982 is realistic.
“People don’t like to think about the Vietnam vets, because everything about the war was negative,” he said. “We shouldn’t have been fighting, we lost. . . . But Bruce has publicly aligned himself with the lepers of our society and taken us out of the shadows.”
Springsteen made his commitment clear in his speech introducing Muller in Los Angeles. “It’s like when you’re walking down a dark street at night, and out of the corner of your eye you see somebody getting hurt in a dark alley,” he said slowly. “But you keep walking on because you think it don’t have nothing to do with you and you just want to get home. Vietnam turned this whole country into that dark street, and unless we can walk down those alleys and look into the eyes of those men and women, we’re never gonna get home.”
This story is from the October 1st, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.