I had the honor of playing for the United States’ military and Allied troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after Operation Desert Storm, in July and August, 1991.
True story. Spent five weeks stationed in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and ten days in Doha, Kuwait.
I was in college, at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, and playing with an outfit called Eskimo Sunburn. Four of us. Ben was our lead singer/rhythm guitar, Dan played lead guitar, I on bass and sang backups, and Evans played drums and sang backups.
Picture of me around that time, from App State’s college paper.
The Department of Defense was given our information by another local band that had already been hired to play overseas.
We auditioned during a live show in the mountains of North Carolina. Don’t remember the name of the venue. But the perfect posture, manicured hair, pragmatic spectacles, and professional bearing of the DoD’s “talent scout” made her stand out like a sore thumb in that dive bar just off the campus of UNC-Asheville.
The DoD rep sat through the entire show (from 9pm to 1am!) and then politely introduced herself while we were breaking down our equipment. She offered us the gig and we accepted on the spot.
We’d been notified by our buddies that someone might stop by a show, had already discussed the possibility and agreed that we’d be out of our minds not to jump at this strange opportunity.
We were picked up in a Greyhound bus. And just the four of us rode with our driver all the way to Dover, Delaware. The only thing I remember about that trip is how grumpy our driver was. He must have had some mishaps along the way, because every time I think of that dude, in the back of my mind, in hear, in a rough-textured, irritated voice, “Spilled my coffee. Lost my pen.”
And now the phrase, “Spilled my coffee. Lost my pen” will loop in my mind for the next forty-five minutes. In that same rough tone. Great.
Anyway, we flew from Dover to Madrid, Spain, and spent the night there on the DoD’s nickel. I had calamari for the first time and loved it. I remember the architecture around the University of Madrid was breathtaking. Venerable.
Then we flew from Madrid to Saudi Arabia. I don’t remember where we landed, but we drove a few hours through the desert to “Khobar Towers” in Dhahran. At the time this was the military base where we’d be stationed while in Saudi. Those buildings would become infamous a few years later. For infamous reasons. You can already guess…
During our roughly 35 days around Saudi Arabia, we played every kind of venue from what looked like high school dance halls from the ‘50s to a huge outdoor event right on the Persian Gulf to a small club for Officers’ out in the middle of nowhere.
Almost nightly, we had to stop our show during evening prayers. After a few shows, we’d hear a call to prayer start between tunes and just take a set-break.
The show on the shores of the Persian Gulf was memorable for a number of reasons. First, we got to swim in the Persian Gulf. And that water is so laden with salt, it’ll make you buoyant even if you usually drop like an anvil through ocean water.
Second, it was the biggest venue we’d played, and we performed really well. We were pleased and the crowd loved it. I’ve never given so many free O’Douls beers in my life. More on this point later.
Third was our co-headliner’s struggles. They were a band from Nashville that did a different mix of classic rock and covers than we. For example, where we played Jimi Hendrix, they played Neil Young. We did The Who and they did The Hollies.
But they had a really, really off night. While we all struggled with that thick, warm air knocking our instruments out of tune, they sounded really rough most of the evening.
But there was a special, related problem that we just navigated better than they did.
It was the most humid environment I’ve ever played. If you stood in one spot for more than a few minutes, you’d find yourself in a puddle. And the “stage” was a huge metal flatbed. And if you got too close when you leant forward to sing or say something into the electric microphone…
You’d get a quick shock to the mouth. Same level of shock you get in the dead of winter when you try to open that door after walking across carpet. But when it hits you in the mouth, it tends to make you forget whatever else you were doing.
I got zapped during sound check. We all did, except Dan, our guitarist, because he long ago refused to sing, speak into, or be anywhere near a microphone ever ever ever.
After the second time we all got zapped, we learned to keep enough distance between our faces and the mikes. But the other group just couldn’t get the spacing right, and kept getting shocked.
And then they’d yell out in pain during the lyrics.
For example, in the chorus of “Cinnamon Girl,” when the group was building to the big harmony over the song’s title, you’d hear,
“I could be happy
The rest of my life
So they had a bad night. So bad that, at one point, they got booed after an especially lively and unrecognizable version of some Dolly Parton song. They were hurt, and the leader said, “If you don’t like it, we can just end our set early!”
At which point the crowd erupted.
On the other hand, we spent ten days in Kuwait, stationed in Doha. For military history buffs, that name is familiar as the site of the “Doha Dash” or “Doha Disaster” which involved a large fire and munitions. Tragic and terrifying.
We arrived less than a week later.
It was a scary sight.
Speaking of scary, we were shown several of the battle sites in and around Kuwait City by a U.S. military guide. I’ll just say write that what we saw made the war much more real in that way that battle sites can.
But the event that stands out for me was playing in a tiny building, which served as an Officers’ Club, in the middle of nowhere. We were driven roughly three hours to the place from our base in Khobar Towers. And it looked like the only building for about two hundred miles. The whole thing couldn’t have been more than 1,500 square feet.
We were greeted by a high-ranking Marine with enough hardware draped on his chest, lapel, and shoulders to make getting out of one’s seat a difficult exercise, even for a CrossFit winner.
He, like every officer I met, and I mean every officer, was a model of professional courtesy. He overlooked our typical college rock group appearance and showed us around the place as though he was giving a tour to his commanding officer.
I was impressed enough with his thoughtfulness that I made a point of thanking him for his hospitality, and said something to the effect, “It’s just an honor to be able to do something to show how much we appreciate your service to our country.”
We shook hands and he offered me a Marine recruiting poster. My buddies’ scoffed, because obviously none of us was enlisting any time soon, but I took it as him literally offering the one meaningful gift he had available in that modest club.
Models of professional courtesy.
While we were setting up, medal-laden guests started to arrive and greet one another. Always in English. But, within minutes, it was clear that this party was not limited to Americans. I heard Brits, Irish, Scots, French, and a bunch of other European accents.
But I definitely remember the Scot. He was a foot shorter than me, and a built like…
Imagine how a five-foot-tall lad named Angus Mackenzie, but nicknamed MacBackbuckler, might be built.
That he was from Scotland sealed our bond. Because, as it turns out, some of my ancestors hail from that noble place.
But he really reminded me of some cultural differences between Scots and Americans, rooted in “the troubles” between Catholics and their Martin Luther-following-adversaries in Northern Ireland.
He approached me, and said, “Laddie, with those green eyes and ruddy cheeks, you must be a Scotsman.”
He was already halfway through his drink. I wondered if it was his first.
He must have my slight hesitation, because he said, with a little annoyance, “Or your people are from there, even if you’re not. You’ve got Scottish blood.”
I smiled and agreed that I did.
He put me in a headlock and yelled, “I knew it! I knew I’d find a noble soul here!”
He just started talking about whatever was on his mind. All related to parts of Scottish life that I couldn’t possibly know. He was the funniest person I’d met in years.
And, just before we went onstage, he demanded, “Laddie, you’ve got to have a drink with me.”
I told him I was just about to go onstage, and that we’d catch up later.
He was waiting for me at the end of the first set.
“C’mon laddie, and let’s have that drink,” he said as he ushered me towards the open bar.
I hesitated. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve got a few more sets to play, and I’ve got to keep a steady hand, so I’m gonna need to hold off for now.”
This is an old tactic you use when someone is really drunk. You hope they might just forget about the whole thing if you delay long enough.
We repeated this exercise after the second and third sets. The band was scheduled to play five sets.
Now you, reader, might be wondering, if I was so taken with this man, who could also possibly be a distant cousin, why didn’t I just join him in a drink and get on with it?
A reasonable question.
Even though all us college-kid-rock-stars were hired by the Department of Defense, while in Saudi Arabia we were not under military law. We were under Saudi law.
We were told this during our briefing in Dover. A couple of the highlights:
- “Don’t get caught stealing. That stuff about hands being taken off isn’t an urban legend.”
- “Don’t you dare even look longingly at the women here. Other things might get cut off.”
- “And don’t even think about drinking. That could carry the heaviest punishment you can imagine.”
So, on the off-chance that our little van would be stopped on the way back to Khobar Towers, neither I nor any of the other guys in the band were going to drink any alcohol. Because even a really good Long Island Iced Tea wasn’t worth being beaten or worse.
My new Scottish relative was waiting for me after set four.
“Alright, laddie, this is it, You’re going to…”
I hesitated and involuntarily started to shake my head “no” as I said, “I’m sorry, but I…”
And then he lost it. He was furious and erupted, in a voice that filled the room.
“What are you, a fucking Protestant?!!?” (Cue laugh track)
I dropped my head and said, “Sir, I’m sorry, but I’m under Saudi law and, if they catch me with booze on my breath, they’ll kill me.”
He was immediately repentant. “Oh, laddie, why the fuck didn’t you say something before, you fuckin-muckle-mucklin’-haggis.” Or something like that. Between the unfamiliar swear words, the alcohol slurring his speech, and my ears still ringing I didn’t catch the finer points.
And so we finished our last set and were sent on our way by a group of very appreciate officers which included one very drunk Scotsman.
It was wonderful.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned!