COM­PUL­SORY HERO

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

Life & Style Weekend - - BIG READ - WORDS: DENISE RAWARD MAIN PHOTO: JERAD WIL­LIAMS

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.” .......................

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