BAGHDAD, Iraq – While Saddam Hussein spent a second New Year’s Eve in a jail cell, a Southern California rock band known for such albums as “Hitler Bad, Vandals Good” and “Look What I Almost Stepped In” played in the heart of his former empire.
The 3rd Brigade of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division got a one-hour show by punk perennials The Vandals during a modest Friday night party in the Green Zone. The show was one of the few entertainments provided for U.S. troops in Iraq
on New Year’s Eve, a day marked chiefly by a relative lull in violence.
A nighttime curfew kept Iraqis off the street, and the only fireworks were a few flares shot out of the Green Zone and about 20 minutes of gunfire echoing across the city just after midnight.
“It’s pretty cool to be asked to come out and go right in the middle of it – it’s like we stepped inside our television,” Vandals bassist Joe Escalante, wearing a flak jacket he borrowed from the Army for the tour, said before the show.
While soldiers bounced and bobbed their heads, The Vandals reeled off favorites like “Oi to the World” and “Anarchy Burger (Hold the Government),” a ditty that earned them brief fame – and $22,000 – when it was quoted in the 2002 Vin Diesel movie “XXX.”
Many soldiers sat in the dusty, darkened theater staring in bemusement, but a handful of die-hards jostled each other in true slamdance style in the impromptu mosh pit.
“This is straight up one of the few times I get to go out and beat people up, but it’s a friendly atmosphere so we’re not getting beat up too bad,” said Pfc. Russell Holt, 20, a medic from Tampa, Fla. “These guys are up there with Superchunk.”
The Vandals, who gained popularity in the 1990s for blending a sharp sense of humor with punk riffs, mixed it up with a few three-chord ditties, speed versions of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and “Summer Nights” from the musical “Grease.”
The set earned the praise of Matthew Linus Byars, a 31-year-old medic from Nashville, Tenn., and self-proclaimed punk rocker for 18 years. He stomped through the mosh pit and stood before lead Vandals singer Dave Quackenbush, nodding in rapture.
“There aren’t many real punk rockers in the Army,” Byars said. “I just kind of blew off Christmas as another day of work, but this was really special to me.”
The Vandals are on a two-week tour in which they have played eight shows at several bases, with their last coming on New Year’s Day in Kuwait.
Celebrity visitors for every taste have touched foot in Iraq since the war began. Troops have chuckled to Robin Williams and Rob Schneider of “Saturday Night Live.” Pro wrestler Diamond Dallas Page taught soldiers a few moves, while pro fisherman Ray Scott, affectionately known as the “Bass Boss,” cast lines into the Tigris River.
The Vandals acknowledged they do not have the drawing power of other visitors like country music star Toby Keith, former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Rob Dibble or the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. But they said they were pleased with the military crowds.
“You rock out to the band you have, not the band you wish you had,” guitarist Warren Fitzgerald said, riffing on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s comments to troops in Kuwait who complained the Army was not getting them enough armor.
There were few other events planned for the troops’ New Year’s Eve. Mess halls served a special menu and troops were allowed nonalcoholic beer at a few bases. But there were no big-ticket visitors like for Christmas Eve, when Rumsfeld stopped at Fallujah and David Letterman filmed “The Late Show” from Camp Taqaddum.
“It’s work today, work tomorrow. We’re here to work,” said Spc. Joe Killo, 22, a military policeman from Columbia, Md. “Iraqis don’t celebrate our holidays, so we can’t put the war on holiday.”