Dave Rabbit was a renegade pirate DJ in Vietnam who railed against LBJ to the sound of Jimi Hendrix. Now the garrulous Texan granddad is packing up his old persona, minus the psychedelics, and heading to Iraq.
It was another quiet evening in the suburban Sunbelt — Dallas to be exact, February 2006 — and a short, puckish, middle-aged and middle-class father of four named Dave Rabbit was helping his youngest son, a senior in high school, do homework on the Vietnam War. Although Dave had spent most of his adult life managing a family-owned business that designed and manufactured custom T-shirts and caps, he knew about Vietnam, having served three tours there with the Air Force from 1968 to 1971. But that was 35 years ago and now almost a universe away. The decades since the war had been consumed by the simple pleasures and routine trials of being married, raising children, maintaining a summer house on the Gulf Coast and now watching two grandkids grow up.
His son’s homework assignment involved the subject of music and the war, so Dave started Googling “rock ‘n’ roll” and “radio” and “Vietnam War.” Then a very strange thing happened. The all-American dad ran into his former incarnation as wild young renegade. Dave Rabbit, the 57-year-old regular guy, stumbled upon Dave Rabbit the drug-addled, smack-talking, 22-year-old Air Force sergeant who was responsible for one of the strangest stunts in broadcast history. It all went down in 1971, when Dave manned a pirate radio show from the back room of a brothel. He blasted Jimi Hendrix and Steppenwolf, portrayed LBJ as a pervert, talked constantly about smoking pot and having sex with Vietnamese hookers.
Then another strange thing happened. After coming across the old recording of his Vietnam radio show on the Internet, Dave discovered that it had been copied and passed around for decades, first as an 8-track, then a cassette, then as an MP3. Dave Rabbit was a underground cult hero.
The discovery was a revelation for the loquacious Texan granddad, and in a fit of inspiration and perhaps crazy bravado, Dave has decided to resurrect his renegade persona, create a new radio show, and broadcast from a stealth location in Iraq. On Tuesday the reborn pirate DJ flies to the Middle East.
“The show is for the front-line troops searching those houses, putting their lives on the line,” Dave says. “We’re going to slam the terrorists and those knuckleheads, the idiots with bombs strapped to them. But most of all we want the show to be tremendously funny.” Worried about security, Dave prefers not to publicize his real name. He asks to be known only as “Dave Rabbit,” the moniker he adopted in Vietnam in homage to the legendary L.A. rock DJ Jimmy Rabbit.
The context of Dave’s Vietnam radio show speaks volumes about it. In 1965, Armed Forces Radio, known as American Forces Vietnam Network, experienced a brief shot of iconoclasm in the DJ voice of Adrian Cronauer, later the subject of the Robin Williams movie, “Good Morning, Vietnam.” But by 1970, when Dave was on his third tour, Cronauer was long gone. As the lights went down over Vietnam each night, and Charlie crept closer to the wire, the official armed forces radio network was back to playing Dionne Warwick, Glen Campbell and the lobotomized optimism of the official news.
At the time, the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was lost but not yet over. The young American draftees and enlistees were still slogging through menacing jungles, burning down suspected Viet Cong villages, killing or being killed, and coming home horribly maimed. At congressional hearings in Washington, a grim-faced former swift boat lieutenant named John Kerry summed up the mood in one rhetorical question: “How do you ask someone to be the last man to die for a lie?”
Out in the field, some U.S. military units suffered a total collapse of discipline; drug abuse, sabotage, “combat refusals” and “fragging,” the murder of officers by their own men, were rampant. The Green Machine — the mighty U.S. military — was stalled out in the paddy mud, with no clear way out of Vietnam other than ragged-ass retreat. It was amid this squalid meltdown, and because of it, that Dave launched his show, the sound of psychedelic chaos and youthful fury.
The first show aired at 8 o’clock on New Year’s Eve, 1971. Called Radio First Termer, the show was broadcast from a homemade studio that Dave and his friends had constructed in a Saigon whorehouse. They bribed the madam with goods from Air Force supply, like silverware and radios, to keep the room a secret. Dave’s friends included “Pete,” the engineer, and a female news personality, “Nugyen,” who was actually a highly placed administrator in the American Forces Vietnam Network — the U.S. military’s official English-language television and radio network. “She helped, you know, ‘monitor’ when the heat was getting to be too much,” says Dave.
The nightly three-hour show is haunting, heady stuff. One show starts with the languid, dreamy notes of a sitar, over which the sultry voice of Nugyen announces, “The following program is in living color and has been rated X by the Vietnam academy of maggots. The purpose of this program is to bring vital news, information and hard acid rock to the first termers and non-re-enlistees in the Republic of Vietnam. Radio First Termer operates under no Air Force regulations or manuals. In the event of a vice squad raid this program will automatically self-destruct.”
Radio First Termer is a mix of skits, jokes, news updates about possible vice raids, and a lot of rock ‘n’ roll. It has a play list full of now forgotten psychedelic bands like Blood Rock, Cactus and Sugarloaf, along with those we remember, like Hendrix, the Who and Led Zeppelin. Much of show’s humor is right out of the locker room. Early on, Dave intones, “Here’s the Rabbit philosophy: Pussy is the breakfast of champions.” That’s one of the more classy asides.
But the show can also be subversive, as when Dave reads “another quickie from the latrine walls around the Republic of Vietnam” over the eerie intro to the mournful Vanilla Fudge cover of “You Keep Me Hanging On.” “This joker writes, ‘Eighteen days until I can go home to picket and protest this fucking waste of human lives that lifers and the government call a war.’” In another passage, after playing a recording of a sputtering, furious officer, allegedly describing his hatred of Radio First Termer, Dave responds, “Fuck you, sir.” He continues: “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Can you believe that’s what the base commander thinks of me and my nasty ways. You notice how I emphasized the word ‘sir’? The guy’s got an inferiority complex.”
To stay on the air, which meant overriding the military’s own programming, Dave depended on the aid of about a dozen sympathetic technicians at key relay stations of the American Forces Vietnam Network, as well as like-minded friends in the military police. “What are they gonna do,” asks Nugyen in one skit, “Send you to Vietnam?” Dave, defiant and mocking, his voice distorted into a crazed frogfish rasp, responds: “Ha ha! Fooled ya, sister — they already did!”
Radio First Termer lasted 21 days and 63 broadcast hours. “We were at the top of shit list of the Air Force base commander in Saigon, who was dying to shut us down,” Dave says. Nevertheless, he planned to continue broadcasting until he learned that his friends in the military police and radio network were also in danger of being disciplined or court-martialed. To protect his buddies, Dave called it quits. He and the crew were so scared of jail that they destroyed all their archives.
As it turned out, an unknown listener had taped and saved one of the Radio First Termer shows. As the years rolled on, the surviving show was copied and recopied, building a considerable following. After Vietnam, Dave experienced one brief close encounter between Mr. Rabbit past and Mr. Rabbit present.
“In 1982, I met a guy at a party in Dallas,” says Dave, his Texas accent having thickened a bit since the homogenizing influences of his stint in the Air Force. “He was in the service over in Europe, and we were talking and Vietnam came up, and he says, Did you ever hear of Dave Rabbit? And I said, Well, yeah, I am Dave Rabbit. He asks me to do some of the gags. I did some of the ones I remember, like, ‘The sanitation department asks that you don’t throw toothpicks in the toilet — crabs can pole vault!’ and I did the Captain Ivan Pansy voice.”
The soldier told Dave that tapes of his one surviving Radio First Termer show were still circulating in Europe and were popular at military parties. Later the guy gave Dave a copy of the show. But before long, one of Dave’s daughters taped over the program by mistake. “I put in the tape one day and there this teeny-bopper music instead of Radio First Termer,” he says. “So I put out ads in the paper and on a billboard. I tried every way to find the guy who’d given me the show, but nothing came of it and I just pretty much forgot about it.”
One of Radio First Termer’s biggest fans, a 37-year-old lawyer in North Carolina named Will Snyder, had discovered the show in high school through a friend. Once the Internet was able to host audio files, he put digital recordings of the show on the Web. “I think the show captures a sensibility of an important time in history,” Snyder says. “With the Web site, I was mostly looking for other recordings, to see if there was more than one remaining show.”
Snyder found many fans but no other recordings. “A guy wrote to me saying that he knew of a therapist who had used Radio First Termer to treat posttraumatic stress disorder with some of his Vietnam Veteran patients,” he says.
Over the years, weird rumors circulated about who Dave Rabbit was and how Radio First Termer came to be. One theory postulated that Dave Rabbit was really Art Bell, talk radio’s king of conspiracy theory and the supernatural.
Bizarrely, Dave didn’t know about any of this. After Vietnam, he slowly lost touch with his two collaborators, gave up dreams of a broadcast career, laid off the psychedelics, and buckled down. The news that he had a cult following came as a shock. “I just couldn’t believe it. I mean I was just going along with my life, and totally unbeknownst to me there was this parallel universe,” he says with exuberance. “Finding those recordings was like a dream come true.”
By chance, David Zeiger’s documentary, “Sir, No Sir!” — which celebrates GI antiwar resistance and rebellion in Vietnam — came out around the same time that Dave stumbled on his underground fan base. Zeiger had used a few sections of audio from the one surviving Radio First Termer show and is adding an interview with Dave as an extra on the DVD issue of the documentary this winter.
Since Dave “came out of the rabbit hole,” as he puts it, he has started doing occasional podcasts. So far they have included remixed versions of his old show, interviews with Zeiger and Tim Goodrich of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and one or two rather garrulous and rambling descriptions of vacations with the family. For the most part, they are full weirdness and ribald humor about Preparation H, life in prison, Osama bin Laden, and bizarre rants about things like “goddamned fucking bullshit duty-free shops” that sell booze to tourists knowing that it will be confiscated by security.
His podcasts have been downloaded hundreds of time in various countries, including, Dave says, Lebanon, Libya and China. In countries less than friendly with America, he says, he is paranoid that those offended by his broadcasts might come looking for him, another reason he doesn’t want to divulge his real name. On the Web, Dave hangs out on a conspiracy theory Web site called Above Top Secret, where discussants touch on issues ranging from 9/11 to the mysteries of friendly-fire deaths in combat. He is also part of a strange podcasting scene at Podomatic, where online DJs tend to ventilate about subjects from Jesus Christ to penis size to the possibility of a viral outbreak at Area 51.
In heading to Baghdad with press credentials, Dave will be stepping up his radio game to a whole new level. The show will be broadcast live in Iraq, and once Dave is home, it will be podcast worldwide. To pull this off successfully will be an amazing feat, as Baghdad is now in the grips of civil war and a tidal wave of criminal violence.
The new show will involve Dave and two new collaborators. Their identities are also being kept “top secret,” but Dave says one of them is “a well-known broadcast personality.” The crew will also bring a professional photographer and rely on armed security. They’ll stay and operate from a “non-military location,” which likely means one of the two fortified hotel complexes where journalists stay.
In the lead-up to the show, Dave is remaining cagey about details, yet describes the new show as a mix of skits and music. Featured personalities will be, of course, Dave Rabbit, his new sidekick Charlie Cooper and a sultry Iraqi woman (she’s not really Iraqi) named Nadira.
“We’re gonna do some sexist off-color type stuff,” says Dave. The crew will also have a studio gofer named Omar bin Fucking. Some of the original Radio First Termer characters will reappear, like Captain Ivan Pansy. “And of course, we’ll have the ‘base commander,’ because that guy is the same wherever you go,” says Dave with a chuckle.
There will be messages from the latrine walls around Iraq and some drug humor, but not as much as in the original show. “In Nam, it was a major part of the culture,” Dave says. “But we’ve learned a lot about drugs since the ’60s and it’s not all pretty. So we not going as heavy on that type of humor.”
And what about antiwar politics? “They’ll be there, but in a subliminal sense,” says Dave, who calls himself apolitical. “I never vote.” But get him started about the politics of war and he’s soon livid. “How many jobs could you make, or people could you feed, with all that money being used to stir up a civil war in Iraq? The only thing we do by staying there is get more American soldiers killed. It’s insanity. I’m really scared about where it’s all headed. Nothing is going to stop the fighting. Just like in Vietnam, you can’t defeat an enemy that doesn’t know the word ‘defeat.’”
At the same time, the all-American dad’s politics have clearly mellowed since his days in the Saigon brothel, railing against LBJ and Nixon to the sound of the Doors. Now his thoughts are focused on his fellow soldiers, as young as he was in Vietnam. “If I can help them, comfort them just a little, bring home a little bit closer, that’s all I aim for,” Dave says.
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