Only 19 (A Walk In The Light Green) (Schumann/Truman/Atkinson/Timms) – Redgum 1983
Only 19 was a song written by Redgum from the first-hand account of Mick Storen, a regular soldier who was a veteran of the Vietnam war. Redgum front man John Schumann, met Storen through his girlfriend Denise (referred to as Denny in the song) who was Mick Storen’s sister, the song is told from Mick’s perspective in the first person.
The song’s sub-title A Walk in the Light Green disarmingly refers to a mission where there was little natural cover for the troops, and therefore a greater chance of casualties.
The single version of this song was recorded by two Redgum members – John Schumann (vocals,guitar) and Hugh McDonald (violin, vocals), and session musicians Brian Czempinski (drums), Peter Coghlan (bass) with producer Trevor Lucas singing backing vocals.
The song gradually builds through the soldiers passing out parade to action in the war zone and the death of comrades “Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon / God help me, he was going home in June.”
Mick Storen’s father and grandfather had both seen action for their country overseas and typically did not reveal the actual brutality and horror of their wartime experiences, the song evokes the tension and pathos of battle and armed combat with the use of specific place names, words, and expressions – Chinooks, SLRs, greens, Canungra, Shoalwater and Vung Tau.
Essentially it is a simple protest/ folk song which only occasionally adapts the facts to accommodate the structure and rhythm of the song, some special effects are also incorporated to heighten dramatic effect but only sparingly. John Schumann’s deadpan laconic vocals provided the perfect foil for the withering and unerringly realistic lyrics, and the musical accompaniment of guitar, violin, drums and bass was subtle and moving.
Mick Storen was only 19 when he left for Vietnam, a wide-eyed, adventurous, and confident young soldier, but like so many veterans he returned to Australia changed, damaged, struggling to adapt to a civilian environment where his efforts were either ignored or vilified, grappling with the impact of PTSD, feeling dispossessed and marginalised in a country he had fought for.
The song resonated with the public, and aside from Midnight Oil and Goanna, few Australian bands of the 80’s could boast such a fiercely outspoken, passionate, and combative outlook as that of Redgum. The royalties from the song were donated to the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia and four years after the song was released the Vietnam veterans were belatedly honored with a “Welcome Home Parade” in October 1987.
Only 19 is a genuine Australian classic, it charted #1 when released before the Caught In The Act album, stayed on the charts for four months and was rated by APRA as one of the best thirty songs written in the period 1926-2001.
An excerpt from the song’s lyrics are now enshrined on the Wall of Words which forms part of the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Anzac Parade, Canberra –
“Then someone called out “contact”/And the bloke behind me swore/And we hooked in there for hours/ Then a god-almighty roar/ Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon/God help me, he was going home in June.”
Only 19 and the album Caught In the Act were recorded at the Rose, Shamrock and Thistle studios (Syd), and produced by Trevor Lucas, an Australian singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer who had relocated to the UK in the 1970s where he joined the legendary Fairport Convention, was briefly married to Sandy Denys, and upon his return to Australia in the 1980’s produced such classic songs as Only 19 and Goanna’s Solid Rock.
The promo video was a moving visual image of the scenes depicted in the song, it reflected a strong ant-war message, not an anti-soldier message, and sensitively dealt with the complex emotional issues embedded in the narrative.
The song was unjustifiably denied overseas success as Redgum’s release coincided with the release of another song also entitled 19 by Brit Paul Hardcastle, a very different song in structure which used sampled narration, interview dialogue and news reports to convey the anti-war message, Hardcastle had the international hit, and made top ten in Australia.
In 2015 Only 19 was added to the Sounds of Australia Registry at the National Film and Sound Archive as a culturally significant composition.