Certain rituals are performed each time a combat patrol ventures beyond the base perimeter in Iraq: Squad leaders go over operational details. The vehicle and communications gear is checked. Weapons, locked and loaded. Final permission from command for the mission, awaited. All performed to a backing pastiche of heavy metal and aggressive rock, likely recognizable to any young man whose youth lays claim to some segment of the last two decades...or, at least, recognizable to someone with trailer park roots like mine. You've got your AC/DC, your Metallica, your Guns N' Roses. No real surprises there.
Amongst these familiar strains and roars, however, one unfamiliar bouncy, slick-yet-overdriven track with the menacing refrain, "Let the bodies hit the floor!" was an obvious favorite. I heard the song so often my mind would sometimes momentarily process other sounds -- not even necessarily music -- as that song playing somewhere. Finally, sitting in an idling Humvee at a base gate outside Samarra one day as the song blared for the umpteenth time, I asked the driver who composed it. He looked at me as if I had just beamed in from a cultural black hole rivaling the planet the Robinsons found themselves on in Lost in Space.
"It's Drowning Pool," he said, flavoring his incredulity with a mere dash of disdain. "Did you really not know that?"
No, I really didn't. It wasn't the only thing I had no clue about during my short time in Iraq. Not by a long shot.
"YOU KNOW, WE STARTED THIS BAND so we could have beer money on weekends and somehow a few years later we found ourselves on stage in Iraq," Drowning Pool bassist Stevie Benton laughed when I related this anecdote to him recently between stops on the band's This Is For the Soldiers Tour, proceeds from which benefit veteran advocacy groups and the USO, organizers of the band's successful Iraq jaunt. "It's a little bit crazy."
Benton first began to notice a burgeoning number of soldiers turning up at shows a year or two after "Bodies" hit the airwaves. Fans became friends, and friends soon surprised, awed and humbled the band with tales of how the song had affected them. "I never thought we'd ever accomplish anything that would have significance for anyone's life, so to hear over and over again that a song we wrote helped these troops through such a scary, dangerous time is just...overwhelming," Benton said. "It's more than I ever, ever hoped to accomplish in my career playing in a stupid rock band."
Despite these relationships, however, the members of Drowning Pool prepared for the worst on their first trip to Iraq, Benton admitted.
"Our exposure to the war previously was only what everyone else here sees -- CNN, things like that," he explained. "So we really thought we were going to be playing in front of a lot of demoralized people; people completely down on themselves and what they're doing..." Benton trails off for a moment, as if attempting to reconnect with a preconception made hazy and out of reach by experience. "Actually being there changes your perspective on a lot of things. The vast majority of servicemen and servicewomen we met were as enthusiastic as possible to be serving their country and doing what they're doing.
"Here we are in the U.S. debating the war and everybody has got their stance and all these hardcore political views, and then you meet these soldiers who are just so above it all, just doing their duty," he continued. "They don't have the convenience we have here of dealing with the war as just another thing to argue over and take sides on. For them it's real. The commitment is real. The sacrifice is real. The honor is real."
And what is a homesick audience of soldiers in Iraq like?
"The enthusiasm would blow your hair back," Benton answered in a reverential tone. "It was just unlike any other show we'd ever played."
TO SAY DROWNING POOL'S experiences have left them out of step with many of their peers would be an understatement. While members of Metallica and Rage Against the Machine expressed horror upon learning their bands' songs were being used during interrogations in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, Benton responded in perhaps the most politically incorrect way imaginable. "People assume we should be offended that somebody in the military thinks our song is annoying enough that, played over and over, it can psychologically break someone down," he told a Spin magazine reporter who confronted him with reports that "Bodies" was an interrogator favorite, adding, "If they detain these people and the worst thing that happens is they have to sit through a few hours of loud music -- some kids in America pay for that."
During our conversation Benton showed little interest in revisiting past controversies, but remained steadfast in his core support of the military. "I wouldn't trade our experiences with the U.S. military for a million records sold," he said. "Once you see how much our soldiers give of themselves, it's hard to not want to do whatever you can for them."
Case in point: At nearly seven hours, Drowning Pool holds the record for the longest USO signing/meet-and-greet session, and those interactions with the troops in a war zone -- signing records for fans that moments later jumped into Humvees headed out on patrol, for example -- were profound experiences. After the band returning from Iraq, the general feeling was that while it was flattering that the military had adopted "Bodies," a new, more intentional song was necessary to cement Drowning Pool's newfound sense of camaraderie with the troops. Hence, "Soldiers," the band's latest single and a high-energy ode to U.S. servicemen and women, sans any of the pity or hushed, lament-friendly acoustics typical of such odes.
"We didn't want anyone nodding off 'cause there's some sappy power ballad on the radio," Benton said. The band left the sap out of the lyrics as well, with lines such as, "Gut tight/Hold steady/Bellicose/And ready/There is no compromise/Your pain, your worth, your sacrifice," leading into the growled chorus, "This is for the soldiers!"
The response to the song from soldier and civilian alike has been almost uniformly positive. Almost.
"With everything attached to 'Soldiers,' the only problem we've had is a few people wanting to catch us up in an argument about the war," Benton said. "It's hard with those people to keep the focus on the troops and convince them that what we're doing isn't pro-war or anti-war, Republican or Democrat. We're just trying to keep in mind the ones who are really involved here."
All in all, though, Benton said the band doesn't worry too much about any outside criticism. The men and women they wrote "Soldiers" for get it, and that's enough for them.
"If we roll into a town close to a military base, it's absolutely nuts," he said. "Our guitarist joked at the USO shows that the shots would be on him for Iraq vets at the next stateside show. Just about every night he's got people yelling at him on stage, 'You owe me a shot!'" The normally jovial Benton paused, and in a more quiet, subdued voice added, "It's great to see them back home, just hanging out, relaxing."
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