Van Halen is their co-pilot: Fliers turn to heavy metal to keep psyched on sorties

January 23, 1991|By Randi Henderson Sun pop music critic J. D. Considine contributed to this article.

What do U.S. fighter pilots listen to as they set out on bombing missions over Iraq?

Heavy metal music -- Van Halen is a popular choice -- according to one Air Force pilot, who told a reporter Sunday that fliers slip earphones for portable cassette players under their official headsets, so they can hear rock and roll along with military radio communications.

That piece of information disturbs military officials, delights the lead singer for Van Halen and makes a lot of sense to music therapist Louise Lynch.

"You'd better believe it pumps them up," said Ms. Lynch, who runs the Daybreak Adult Day Care Center in Frederick, where music therapy is a regular part of the program. "Music has a physical effect on the body."

It's nothing new, she pointed out. "These heavy metal rhythms are the same kinds of rhythms that primitive tribes have used through the ages to incite their warriors. That incessant rhythm, over and over, it gets their heart rate going, their body temperature can rise, it literally gets the juices flowing."

The military, however, takes a dim view of the activity.

"It's against Air Force regulations to use any kind of tape deck while flying," said Major Martin Compton, a public affairs officer for U.S. Central Command. "It's fine to listen to them on the ground. Pilots are not supposed to take them in the cockpit."

But Ms. Lynch thinks rock and roll in the cockpit probably wouldn't interfere with business.

"I wouldn't see it as much of a problem," she said. "When your adrenalin is going like that, your whole response system is enhanced. You become even more alert, like an animal #i confronted with danger."

Music has played a role in many wars. In World War I, soldiers sang music-hall songs in the trenches. World War II pilots listened to Glenn Miller on wind-up gramophones in the officers' mess. Vietnam became known as the rock and roll war, with one famous account of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" blaring out from a tape deck in a foxhole. And in the jargon of infantrymen, "rock and roll" denotes full automatic fire.

The U.S. government itself employed rock and roll as a tactical weapon in 1989, blaring loud music outside the Vatican embassy in Panama in an attempt to rattle General Manuel Noriega.

Some rock and roll enthusiasts, however, are not exactly thrilled with the association between war and music. "It's repulsive," said Dave Marsh, editor of Rock & Roll Confidential, a monthly newsletter, and author of numerous books about pop music. "I think it defiles American pop culture to use rock and roll to murder people."

"Heavy metal music is aggressive and it's probably not bad for psyching guys up for combat," said Tony Scherman, senior editor of Musician magazine. "But to actually use it in that way is pretty repellent to me, pretty much a betrayal of rock and roll."

But Sammy Hagar, lead singer of Van Halen, said he was happy to be an inspiration to American flyers.

"I think it's great," he said on the phone from his home in Malibu. "It's neat to think that someone who is that centered and focused on what they're doing would take something like [our music] as a distraction. Me being the patriot, you gotta realize I'm kinda flattered by it."

He added, however, that he doesn't want his music taken as a political statement. "If I can make 'em feel better for five minutes, or however long the song is, that would be my contribution to all this," he said.

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