A FORMER KING OF POP REFLECTS ON HIS CONSCRIPTION TO A WAR THAT KILLED HIS MUSIC CAREER BUT GAVE HIM A LIFELONG BAND OF BROTHERS
Half a century after serving in Vietnam, entertainer Normie Rowe still feels the lingering taste of bitterness over his call-up to a war that changed the course of too many lives, his own among them. “There’s a huge amount of healing that’s happened in that time for everyone,” he says. “But it’s still there.” In 1967, with the war raging in a distant land, a 20-year-old Normie was at the height of his music career. In just two years after bursting on to the Melbourne music scene in 1965, he’d had 13 chart hits, was drawing crowds of screaming fans and was, hands down, Australia’s most popular solo performer. The burgeoning UK market beckoned and in the thick of the Swingin’ 60s, Normie was recording and touring there, in company with musicians such as The Troggs, Gene Pitney and Kiki Dee. While he was in England, he was largely oblivious to what was happening in Vietnam but when he returned to Australia later that year, the war was on every front page, with the nation bitterly divided over the federal government’s policy to send conscripted 20-year-olds into the conflict. Before the year was out, Normie was to receive his call-up for national service. “I still have a few questions about it,” he says. “There was a military attache in the prime minister’s office at the time who thought what they needed was some good PR for national service. What they were looking for was a sort of Australian Elvis Presley. “When Elvis did his US military service, they made a huge publicity campaign around it. There was even a movie and a song, but that wasn’t my experience.” While Normie can’t prove he was used as a poster boy for conscription, there are things he can’t reconcile to this day. “I was in Kalgoorlie doing a show when a bloke who said he was a member of the press gallery in Canberra stood up and asked me how I felt about being called up to national service,” Normie says. “I said to him, ‘I haven’t been called up’. He said, ‘Yes, you have. You just don’t know about it yet’.” It was at a radio station interview several days later in Bunbury, his parents made contact to say his letter had come. “I still don’t know how the press knew about it before I did,” he says. Australia’s compulsory national service
call-up was based on a ballot of birthdates. Normie says in his time in the service, he never met another nasho, as they were called, with the same birthday as him. “I could have avoided it,” he says. “I could’ve stayed in London or I could have enrolled in further study but I wasn’t brought up like that. “The minute I was called up, I thought if it’s good enough for another bloke – a mechanic or a bank johnny – it’s good enough for me. If I didn’t do it, the alternative was jail.” In 1968, the same year he became Australia’s King of Pop, Normie was inducted into the Australian Army. His training at the Puckapunyal base in country Victoria was closely followed by the press. Normie copped a hard time over his profile from some quarters – “bullies with rank”, he calls them – but says his training was no worse than anyone else’s. At the end of it, he put his hand up to go into a fighting unit, one of only two in his intake of 60 to go into an armoured corps, serving in Vietnam with the 3rd Cavalry Regiment. Normie was posted to Vietnam in January, 1969, where he rose to the rank of corporal and commanded an armoured personnel carrier. “Looking back on it now, certain things of reality became a normality,” he says. “I suppose at any moment I could have been in a vehicle that hit a mine or copped AK47 fire, but we were all in that situation.” There is not too much else Normie says about his time in Vietnam. He served for a year before being released from the army in February, 1970. “It took us 25 years to come home,” he laments, referring to the quarter-century gap before Vietnam vets were afforded a welcome home parade. “We came in at night and they told us to wear civilian clothes. We were unrecognised even by the military.” By that time, the national mood on Vietnam had swung dramatically. Returned soldiers were unprepared for the personal attacks that awaited them, even though many of them had been conscripted as young men. “It was pretty confronting,” he says. “People were calling us names, telling us we were traitors. There were a lot of people with very strong opinions.” His time away from the music scene and the tide of anti-war sentiment effectively
ended Normie’s career. In his own words, he felt lost, as did many Vietnam veterans who returned home to find they had become pariahs. “My father said to me, ‘the best thing you can do now is forget it and just get on with your life’,” Normie says. “But that probably wasn’t the best advice. “In the first five years after the war, we lost 10 per cent of vets to confirmed suicide or single-vehicle accidents or other things. That’s 5000 people. It’s pretty disgusting.” Back in civilian life, Normie found himself working the Sydney club circuit with people yelling abuse at him and poker machines pinging in the background – a “cabaret hack” as he calls it. He says it took him a good five or six years to find his way again and credits enrolling in acting school with giving him a new perspective, setting him up for stage work, television drama and as an acclaimed musical theatre performer. He also continued to entertain on the club and hotel circuit, falling in love with the Gold Coast “before it was even known as the Gold Coast”, Normie says. “When Surfers Paradise used to have an apostrophe.” He now lives at Oxenford, his relaxing retreat from life on the road. Fifty years on from his war service, Normie is marking it by releasing his poignant version of the Australian war ballad Compulsory Hero, first released in 1989 on the top-selling 1927 album Ish. It tells a story similar to Normie’s own, of a conscripted soldier sent to Vietnam just wanting to make it home. It was originally written for a film that never got made. The song, however, found its own success on an album that sold more than half a million copies in Australia and was released worldwide. “It’s a fantastic song,” Normie says. “There are certain singles and albums that stand the test of time and this is one of them. “They’re such strong lyrics; they mean so much to me personally. It’s a great honour to be involved.” The song was released yesterday, in time for Anzac Day, a day Normie has always marked in his own way. “Every day is Anzac Day for me pretty much,” Normie says. Although he’s never held any office with the RSL or veterans’ groups, Normie has emerged as a spokesman and dogged supporter for Vietnam vets over the years. “I’m not interested in holding office or any official titles,” he says. “I just speak my mind and that seems to have some resonance with the rest of the community.” In 1994, he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his services to Vietnam veterans and the entertainment industry. Half a century on, he says he’s largely reconciled his own Vietnam experience. “The 1987 welcome home march in Sydney was an amazing event and the beginning of a huge amount of healing that’s taken place for a lot of people,” Normie says. “Although I still meet people who haven’t reconciled. “I still don’t think the defence forces are across it today. The Department of Veterans Affairs has accepted the damage that can be done (in conflict) but I think very few of the upper echelons are really across it. “Vietnam changed things for a lot of people but, like anything, you can look at it two ways. It might have killed my career, but I met my best mate in my section in Vietnam. We’re still very close 50 years later. I’ve got some great friends in the ex-service community and they’re friendships I wouldn’t have had otherwise. “There’s good and bad. You’ve got to look at it that way.”
“VIETNAM CHANGED THINGS FOR A LOT OF PEOPLE BUT, LIKE ANYTHING, YOU CAN LOOK AT IT TWO WAYS. IT MIGHT HAVE KILLED MY CAREER, BUT I MET MY BEST MATE IN MY SECTION IN VIETNAM. WE’RE STILL VERY CLOSE 50 YEARS LATER.” .......................