Fear and Loathing in Milton
An Interview with Bruce Innes
Canadian songwriter Bruce Innes has had quite a career. He performed hit singles such as “Mr. Monday” and the famed Vietnam protest song “One Tin Soldier” with his band The Original Caste in the late 1960s. He wrote and recorded with artists such as Ian Tyson, John Denver and Joni Mitchell. And those illustrious associations are but the tip of the iceberg. Innes’ credits also include work with iconic oddball Ray Stevens (“You could never write a song too silly for Ray,” he says); outlaw country badass Waylon Jennings (“a quiet guy”); and legendary comedic actor Leslie Nielsen (“Kind of a hound. All he did was chase women”). And, believe me, the list goes on.
Seven Days recently caught up with Innes by phone from Milton in advance of his upcoming Vermont performances, which feature a blend of music and stories from his remarkable career. We chatted about music, protest songs and, of course, his good friend Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote about Innes in his landmark novel Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.
SEVEN DAYS: Did you ever imagine that the lyrics to “One Tin Soldier” would be as relevant today as they were in the Vietnam era?
BRUCE INNES: Really, we had no idea, to start with, that it was sort of an antiwar song. But when we released it, it was right in the middle of the war and it became sort of an anthem.
It was a mixed blessing in lots of ways, because the country was really divided. There was a huge contingent of people in this country who thought it was antipatriotic. It was not like it is today. It really caused a lot of trouble. Lots of radio stations banned it. We had lots of letters saying things like, “Why don’t you go back to Canada, you son of a bitch?” That sort of thing. It was interesting.
SD: Given that many of the people in charge of our current military conflicts are products of that generation, do you feel the lessons of the Vietnam era have been forgotten?
BI: I do, in lots of ways. Every time we read about another one of our young people being killed . . . we seem to be fighting in a place where we’re not wanted. It reminds me of the Vietnam War in lots of ways. You wonder if maybe we’re doing the same thing all over again. It’s hard to know.
SD: It almost seems as though antiwar songs have become a sort of campy, nostalgic cliché. Do you still believe in the power of protest songs to affect change?
BI: I don’t know if they ever have, actually. One thing I think it does do is to get people talking and thinking. I was thinking the other night about Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Ohio,” about Kent State . . . That got a lot of people thinking. I think protest songs get people talking. I don’t know that they change a lot of people’s minds. I don’t know that I’ve ever changed anybody’s mind, quite frankly.
SD: How did you come to know Hunter S. Thompson?
BI: I was playing in the Gun Room at the Finlen Hotel in Butte, Montana, one summer and Hunter came up to do a story on the mines for the Wall Street Journal. And so he was there for a month . . . and we quickly figured out that we were the only two sane people in the town of Butte . . . Although, it may have been the other way around.
All the stuff he wrote about me in Fear and Loathing is only 50 per- . . . 40, er, 30 percent true.
SD: I should hope so! Tell me something about Hunter that most people wouldn’t know.
BI: He loved volleyball. He was a really good athlete. I think as his health deteriorated in later years that really contributed to him being depressed and maybe ending up the way it ended up.
But he had a great sense of humor. Absolutely great. One time I was at home in Canada and he called at 4 a.m. and woke my mother and father up. He asked to speak to me and I went to the telephone and heard this huge explosion on the other end of the line. It was a gunshot. And Hunter yells, “I got the bastard!” And I said, “What do you mean? An intruder?” And he said, “No, my typewriter. Nobody could write anything with a piece of shit like that.”
I don’t think my parents ever recovered from that.