Was Puppet Show really recorded at Camp Taji, Iraq, in a combat zone?

 

Yes (and no).

 

In 2007, I found myself heading back to Iraq for a second tour. The Army had extended my contract involuntarily (a policy called “stop loss”). I was a character in a Kafka story.

 

As a radar operator, my job was essentially “frontline” air traffic control. It sounded exciting in theory, but the truth was, most of my team’s equipment malfunctioned most of the time, clogging with dust or overheating, breaking down and sitting for days (even weeks) as we waited for proprietary repair parts to be delivered and installed by military contractors. What’s more, ambiguity fogged our mission: the insurgency weren’t flying planes. What were we doing there? I had time to kill, frustrations to channel and many questions.

 

Rewind several months. Before deploying, I had bought a portable multitrack recorder, thinking it would be a way to kill downtime. The machine was the size of a slim hardback book, but it packed a fully stocked digital studio: the Boss BR-600. My plan was to record a couple demo tracks that I could use to start a band after getting out of the Army and going back to college.

 

Forty miles north of Baghdad, at Camp Taji, I set up a guerrilla studio in the storage closet next to my team’s radar control room, at the end of a long hallway in a brick warehouse (formerly used by the Iraqi Army), atop of which sat our dead or dying Sentinel radar, a monument to American profligacy.

I turned the closet into a studio using onsite resources. An old mattress deadened reverberations. Stray canvas Humvee tops helped with soundproofing. I was surprised at how quiet the room actually was: the mic didn’t pick up any of the incessant blips, bleeps or radio static which filled the control room next door. The helicopter landing pad, not fifty meters away, with its near constant rotor noise, was only an occasional low hum. The grind of diesel generators was muffled. Sandbags and plywood covered the single window of the room, emplaced to stop potential rocket or mortar shrapnel. No one could hear me from outside. I worked alone on our radar site’s night watch, and so could steal time to practice and write music, slip next door and record a take or two.

 

Gear wise, I had packed in a single Shure SM57 microphone and a Martin Backpacker guitar. Soldiers who had come

before us left an old Silver Tone acoustic guitar (as heard on “Sparrow’s Revenge”). I patiently waited for a MicroKorg synthesizer to be shipped in, my Gibson SG, a bass, even a tambourine (the mail clerk questioned why my package jingled).

Over several months, the music began to take on political undertones, which would then become more explicit. I was frustrated with the military, my country and myself for participating in a war I felt was not only futile, but immoral. Writing and recording music provided me an outlet for my anger.

 

After returning to the U.S. and getting released from the Army, my recorder and the memory cards holding Puppet Show would go into a shoe box in (yet another) closet, this time in Philadelphia. There the project would sit for the better part of seven years, though always on my mind.

 

Why didn’t I let anyone hear the music after I got home, in 2008? One, the drums sucked. This was the one instrument I couldn’t pull off in Iraq. My plan early on had been to use samples. But, for the low-fi sound I was going for (the only one I could realistically achieve), samples were too clean, too exact. I would eventually have a miniature electronic kit shipped in, but it turned out to be little more than a toy.

 

This problem would be met by my brother, Greg. When asked to overdub drum tracks, in 2013, he was more than enthusiastic. I had emailed him tracks-in-progress from Iraq as I was recording, so he already had a sense of the music, my personality and the atmosphere. I knew, too, that his style—unpolished, yet nuanced—would fit well with the music.

There was also a question of reception. How would the message of my music be accepted, especially by those soldiers I had served with—and by my family, many of whom had been in the military themselves. I intended for Puppet Show to be provocative, though at the time I didn’t have the guts to stand behind what I had written and advocated. I questioned myself as being cynical and too self-deprecating.

 

Courage to speak out would be encouraged by Iraq Veterans Against the War. After joining the organization, I found myself surrounded by veterans openly voicing a radical, dissenting anti-war message. This was the push I needed to dust off my music, finish it and let others listen.

All told, about half the tracks (i.e. individual layers: vocal parts, tambourine, guitar, etc.) making up each song were recorded in Iraq. The other half (drums especially) were recorded seven years later in my parents’ basement and my brother’s apartment in rural western Pennsylvania. To maintain the integrity of the project, I recorded under similar studio conditions: one microphone (drums were recorded mono), using the same instruments I had with me in Iraq, with whatever rooms and dirty mattresses were available. Thankfully, mortar attacks could not be reproduced.

 

It’s a strange experience, harmonizing over vocals sung seven years prior—like singing karaoke with your ghost. I resisted the urge to change lyrics, only adding those spoken through a bullhorn during the middle section of “The Master.” I wouldn’t have written those lyrics back in 2007 (I may have bent my rules a bit here), because I hadn’t yet learned about some of the things I reference, and I felt they needed to be there for the overarching message to come together. I, at 32, was essentially responding to questions a still-naive 25 year old was asking.

 

While I released Puppet Show for free online, I also released an edition of 300 CDs, in packaging made by hand. The paper used for the cover—Combat Paper—was handmade from a uniform I wore during my 2007 deployment. The back cover was letterpressed on recycled cardboard sleeves. This pamphlet stitched insert was inkjet printed on 65 lb. paper. It was constructed over more than a few long nights at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey, from late 2013 to early 2015.

 

It’s done. I can sleep.

 

Thanks: Greg Basl, for drums; Eli Wright, for help with cover image layout and packaging production; David Keefe, for many breakthrough opportunities and connections; The Printmaking Center of NJ, for resources and work space; Drew Cameron, for Combat Paper’s first act; Lovella Calica of Warrior Writers, for her constant push; and my parents, for giving me space to be myself (especially my dad, who picked up the three trunks I shipped home from Iraq, each about 60 lbs., with all of my musical equipment and books). And I can’t forget those friends I wore a uniform with—especially those who knew what was going on in the closet next door and didn’t raise a protest.

 

                                   May 2007 – May 2015

LYRICS

PUPPET SHOW
THE MASTER’S HAND
SWEPT THE PAYROLL BOOKS UNDER THE RUG AGAIN.
AND THAT RABBIT THAT HE ONE TIME PULLED FROM HIS HAT
IS EVERY DAY LOOKING MORE AND MORE
LIKE A SICK OLD SEWER RAT.
AS THESE DAYS THEY TWIST AND TURN AS WE ROT UNDER THE SUN.
 
CAN I CUT THESE CORDS,
UNTIE THE NOOSE?
IS LIFE WORTH LIVING IN THIS DEGRADED CONDITION,
AND THE DICE ALWAYS ROLL OUT A DEUCE?
CAN I CUT THESE CORDS,
START THE ROPE UNRAVELING?
THIS IS ONE TIME THAT YOU’LL NEVER FORGET,
WORKING FOR A CARNIVAL, TRAVELING.
 
IT WAS JUST LAST WEEK,
HEARD THE MASTER MAKE HIS SHOW SOUND OH SO SWEET.
ENTICING CHILDREN WITH PROMISES OF LEGEND, SUCCESS, MONEY AND FAME,
HE PROMPTLY MAKES THEM PUSH MORE AND MORE BULLETS FOR HIS UNCLE’S ROULETTE GAME.
HOW THIS SHOW ON THE SURFACE ALWAYS APPEARED TO BE SUCH FUN.
 
SO NOW WE’LL TAKE YOU TO THE SHOW.
SOMETHING WICKED THAT WAY GOES,
THOUGH YOUR HEART OF DARKNESS KNOWS.
LET’S STEP INSIDE.
 
[SAMPLE: DICK CHENEY INTERVIEW FROM 1991]
 
I’M THE ONLY ONE GONNA RUN THIS SHOW
THESE ARE LOOSE STRINGS
AND THERE’S ONLY ONE LEFT TO PULL
AND THERE’S ONLY ONE LEFT TO PULL
(IT’S MINE).
SLEEPWALKING
YOU WANT TO WAKE UP BUT YOUR SENSES ARE FOGGED
YOU’RE LOST IN TIME, YOU’RE LOST IN TIME.
TRUST HAS BEEN TORN AND NOW FLUTTERS AWAY,
YOUR BALANCE GONE, YOUR WORDS ARE WRONG.
PULLING YOU FURTHER AND FURTHER FROM CURE,
AS THE PEOPLE SAY THAT THE ONLY WAY IS TO SLEEP.
LET’S SLEEP IT AWAY.
 
THIS IS A LOVE SONG FOR YOU.
WAKE UP AND TELL THE TRUTH.
THE DREAM’S OVER, LET IT CRUMBLE AWAY IN THE LIGHT,
THE TWILIGHT.
SLEEPWALKING TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
WE’VE GOT TIME, LOT’S OF TIME.
IN THE DISTANCE THERE’S A BURNING SHIP GOING DOWN,
LET IT DROWN.
 
MEMORY SLIPS AND THE STORY GETS SOLD,
TRUTH DECAYS, IMPRESSIONS REMAIN.
WANDERING TIRED AND BROKEN, CONFUSED,
THEY DON’T HAVE SPACE FOR HOUSING THE USED.
THE DOCTOR HE SAID HE WOULD BURY YOUR HEAD,
SEND YOU HOME THE SAME DAY WITH THE MEDICINE FIX
SO YOU CAN SLEEP
JUST SLEEP IT AWAY.
DESERT BLUES
ARE WE UNITED, ARE WE UNITED?
NOW MY COUNTRY’S LOVE IS SO UNREQUITED.
ARE WE DIVIDED, ARE WE DIVIDED?
FALLING FAST, YOU CAN’T STAY UNDECIDED.
WE ARE UNITED, WE ARE UNITED.
BROTHERS, SISTERS IN ARMS, WHO ARE WE FIGHTING?
WHO ARE WE FIGHTING, WHO ARE WE FIGHTING?
NO ONE BUT OURSELVES, WHEN WE DIVIDE FOR THEM.
 
GOTTA WAKE UP, GOTTA WAKE UP [REPEAT]
NOW.
 
WHAT THEY CAN’T SEE THROUGH A STATIC SCREEN
IS A RED SUNRISE IN THE SUBLIME SKIES,
WHERE THOSE DESERT BLUES GET YOU SO HIGH
WHERE THE TRUTH BURNS CLEAR.
(WHAT HAS BEEN LOST?)
 
CRUEL MIND/WALLS
BURN IT DOWN, HIT THE GROUND,
ROLL AROUND, TURN ‘EM OUT.
DRIVE YOURSELF TO GO BLACK OUT, CLOWN AROUND,
DO IT ALL AGAIN.
 
TEAR IT UP. YOU WEAR THE CROWN. BLOCKS YOUR VIEW?
SO MOVE THE TOWN.
SEEMS RESPECTABLE—UNFORGETTABLE—PUBLIC’S EYE AGAIN.
 
BEING WISE TO THE WAYS OF A CRUEL MIND,
YOU ASK A QUESTION AND I’LL TELL YOU A LIE
BEING WISE TO THE WAYS OF A CRUEL MIND,
I’VE GOTTA LIE, I’VE GOTTA LIE.
 
SPEECHLESS SOUND, LOST AND FOUND, HOMEWARD BOUND
UNDERGROUND. STANDING UP TO FALL BACK DOWN,
TURN AROUND, DO IT ALL AGAIN.
BREAK HIM OFF, STATIC COUGH, SICK IN BED, LOST YOUR HEAD.
WORKS FOR YOU TO SWITCH OFF, ON—GOING STRONG—
PUSH IT TILL YOU’RE DEAD.
 
IT’S TIME, TIME TO GET IT RIGHT
COME OUT OF YOUR HEAD
THAT COMFORTABLE PLACE WHERE YOU’RE BETTER OFF DEAD,
BUILDING WALLS WITH THOSE KNOWN UNKNOWNS. [REPEAT]
(DRAW BACK THE CURTAIN ON)
THE MASTER
I DON’T KNOW WHY YOU CAME HERE,
FOR THE MASTER NEVER SPEAKS.
HE’S LATCHED ANOTHER WINDOW,
BUT YOU’VE FOUND IT ONLY LEAKS.
I DON’T KNOW WHY YOU CAME HERE,
WHERE PERCEPTION’S ALWAYS BLEAK.
YOU’VE BEEN VICTIMIZED, THEN CAUTERIZED,
BUT THE WOUND’S BEEN CUT TOO DEEP.
I DON’T KNOW WHY YOU CAME HERE,
I DON’T KNOW WHY YOU CAME.
 
(SO NOW YOU’LL HEAR ME SLIP AWAY.)
 
ALL METAPHORS ASIDE,
BECAUSE, YES, I KNOW THIS IS NOTHING NEW,
PUPPETS AND STRINGS AND BEING PULLED AROUND BY AN UNSEEN HAND,
AND, YES, I KNOW THESE THEMES WERE ALREADY COVERED
(HOWEVER HALF-HEARTEDLY)
BY A WELL-KNOWN METAL BAND FROM THE 1980S,
ALL THAT ASIDE, I THINK IT’S TIME WE HAD A LITTLE TALK.
BECAUSE THIS IMAGE OF THE MASTER,
WITH ITS ASSOCIATIONS TO SLAVERY, NIETZSCHE,
AND BLACK AND WHITE MAD SCIENTIST MOVIES
IS MORE RELEVANT NOW THAN EVER BEFORE—
THE MASTER, BE IT THE TOXIC REACH OF BIG BUSINESS
OR THE CORRUPTION OF GOVERNMENTS
WON’T BE EXITING THE BUILDING ANY TIME SOON, FOLKS.
BUT REALIZE WHERE THE REAL POWER LIES:
IT’S TIME THE PEOPLE STARTED GIVING A POOR FARMER
STANDING ON A FLATBED TRUCK
SPEAKING REALITY THROUGH A BULLHORN MORE ATTENTION
THAN THE BULLS IN THE CAPITOL,
WHO CAPITALIZE OFF OUR BUYING HABITS AND IGNORANT FEARS.
THIS ONE’S FOR YOU, TROOPS:
LISTEN TO S. BUTLER, P. SEEGER, M.L.K. JR.,
BECAUSE THE BOMBS IN THE DESERT STILL EXPLODE AT HOME.
SOME RELEVANT TRIVIA:
WHAT IS THE BONUS MARCH?
HAYMARKET?
VVAW?
DO YOUR RESEARCH!
 
THE ONLY THING FOR SURE,
IS THAT CHANGE IS GONNA COME.
BUT HOW’S IT’S GONNA LOOK WILL BE FOR YOU TO DECIDE
IN THIS CALM BEFORE THE STORM.
 
BREAK THE HAND THAT FEEDS US
BECAUSE THE FOOD WE’RE GIVEN ARE THE SCRAPS OF A LIE.
YOU’VE GOT TO SEE THE ENEMY AROUND US
ARE STORE-BOUGHT PROPS FROM THE MASTER’S MIND.
WE’VE GOTTA BREAK THE HAND THAT IS PULLING US,
RIP THOSE STRINGS FROM THE HANDS OF GREED.
WE’RE RUNNING AND BETTING OUR LIVES ON THE PAST,
CAN’T KEEP THINKING THAT HIS SCRIPT IS TRUTH.
WE’RE GONNA TURN AND LOOK THAT FUCKER IN THE EYE,
SNATCH THE LINES, CUT THE TIES.
SEE THE ENEMY ABOVE US,
GOT TO BREAK THE HAND THAT HAS WRECKED OUR MINDS.
CONDUIT
I NEED A SONG, CAUSE A SONG’S GONNA TAKE ME AWAY. [REPEAT]
FROM THE PAIN AND THE FIRE AND THE TORTURE WE BRING.
LET’S SING ALONG AND WE’LL FORGET ALL THE TROUBLES WE WEAR.
WE’LL LOSE OUR MINDS, DANCE THE NIGHT AND WE’LL TOAST TO THE DEAD.
IT BEATS A ROPE TO THE NECK OR A BULLET TO THE HEAD.
I’M GONNA GET YOU TO FLY. [REPEAT]
I NEED A SONG CAUSE A SONG’S GONNA TAKE ME AWAY [REPEAT]
IT’S ALL AROUND IN THE PULSE AND THE RHYTHM OF THE DAY.
LET’S TURN OUR BACKS, DROP THE TOOLS, LET THE MACHINE DECAY.
THIS ORGY’S END IS WHEN REALITY WILL BITE BACK AGAIN.
DOTTED LINE
THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
THE ARMY BAND’S REGULARLY SCHEDULED PERFORMANCE OF
“SAME SHIT DIFFERENT DAY”
WILL NOT BE HEARD THIS EVENING—
BUT YOU’RE IN FOR A TREAT.
 
YEAH…THANK YOU.
OKAY, THAT’S ENOUGH.
WE ARE SERGEANT BASL’S LONELY ONE MAN BAND.
(AND YOU’D BETTER LISTEN).
 
I’D LIKE TO THINK THAT THERE’S A PLACE CALLED “HELL”
RESERVED FOR POLITICIANS, VILLAINS AND THIEVES.
AND IF THAT’S SO, I’LL HAVE YOU KNOW,
I REALIZE THERE’S A SPOT FOR ME.
BECAUSE WE’RE DROWNING IN HYPOCRISY, AND CAN’T YOU SEE
IT FLOWS INSIDE OF YOU AND ME.
AND IF YOUR SOUL WAS TANGIBLE,
WOULD YOU TAG THAT MOTHERFUCKER WITH A FEE?
 
SO LISTEN UP FOLKS, BECAUSE YOU’RE GONNA GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE.
RED STAIN, FREEZE FRAME, STOPS YOU DEAD
MAIN LINE TO THE OLD CROSSROADS,
WHERE SIXTY HEROES STAND AND WAIT THEIR TURN
FOR THE BUSINESSMAN TO BUY THEIR SOULS.
THEN FROM BELOW, OUR MAN HE SHOWS,
YOU KNOW HE WOULDN’T MISS THIS DATE.
CONTRACT, QUILL PEN, INK THAT GLOWS
AND A SALESMEN SPEECH TO SET THEM STRAIGHT.
NOW, LISTEN UP, MEN, CAUSE YOU’RE GONNA GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE.
 
HE’S GONNA GIVE YOU EVERYTHING YOU WANT,
EVERYTHING YOU DON’T NEED. [REPEAT}
 
GOT THE DEVIL IN YOU.
 
WELL, THEY DIDN’T GET IT—
BUT COME ON, WE’VE GOT TO GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE.
STOP RIGHT THERE!
AH, SHIT.
SPARROW’S REVENGE
HE SINGS THIS SONG FROM THE UNDERGROUND
COFFIN WALLS REFLECT THE SOUND.
THE FIGHT HE LOST, HIS LIFE THE COST—
AND HE THINKS ABOUT HIS FATAL FLAW.
HE REMEMBERS SPARROW TAKING HIM FOR A RIDE,
DUST IN THE TRUNK, IT SCRATCHED HIS EYES,
TOOK HIM TO A PLACE WHERE THE WINTER HIDES,
A CAVE OBSCURED FROM ALL BUT THE KILLER’S EYES.
 
THEN SPARROW TIED A NOOSE AND HE TOSSED IT AROUND
A STOUT OAK ROOT POKING DOWN THROUGH THE GROUND
FORCED HIS VICTIM TO LOOP HIS OWN NECK
KICKED OUT THE ROCK AND ASPHYXIA SET.
 
SPARROW, FLY AWAY, FLY AWAY. [REPEAT]
ALL IS DONE, HE LONG THOUGHT FROM INSIDE OF HIS BOX,
UNTIL ONCE WHILE HE SLEPT A VISIT RATTLED HIS LOCKS.
SPARROW TOOK A LOT BUT IT JUST WASN’T ENOUGH,
CAME BACK AGAIN, STILL MORE VENGEANCE HE SOUGHT.
NOW A WAR OVER ROSES IS FOOLISH IT SEEMS,
BUT FOR SPARROW’S REVENGE FLOWERS PROVIDED THE MEANS.
 
WELL, WE PREQUEL THE STORY BY INTRODUCING A WIFE,
SPARROW’S THAT IS, HE KNEW HER MOST OF HIS LIFE,
OUR VICTIM (THAT’S ME) I STOLE HER FLOWERS, YOU SEE?
SO EVERY ANNIVERSARY HE NOW STEALS THEM FROM ME.
 
SPARROW, FLY AWAY, FLY AWAY. [REPEAT]
 
AND HE ROBS ME THE SAME WAY,
HE STEALS THE FLOWERS THAT MY FAMILY BRINGS ME,
I SPIN AROUND AND AROUND AND AROUND IN THIS DARKNESS, I CAN’T SEE.
AND THERE’S NO ONE LEFT TO AVENGE ME,
HE STEALS THOSE FLOWERS AND HE SPITS ON MY GRAVE.
IT TRICKLES DOWN, DOWN, DOWN, THROUGH THE EARTH FROM WHICH I CAME.
 
WHERE WERE MY FRIENDS WHEN THE SPARROW CLAIMED ME? [REPEAT]
 
WHERE WERE YOU WHEN THE SPARROW SPAT ON MY GRAVE? [REPEAT]
 
FLY AWAY. NO MORE.