Bad Moon Rising

By  Jeff Sharlet |  May 9, 2011

A song doesn't have to be that great to mean something to you.

"Bad moon rising” isn’t even the best Creedence Clearwater Revival song, and Creedence isn’t, technically, even a Southern band. They were from California. But their specialty was swamp rock and twang, big spooky beats and white-boy blues, whammy bars and caterwaul, all of it uncool and “classic rock” from the first day they recorded. “Bad Moon Rising” is just a foot-stomping jingle, really, jackhammer guitar and an earnest vocal, the lyric not really bluesy so much as churchy. Not pious, but scared, the sort of worry that knows this world is no good and bound not to get better, so you best stay indoors. The moon in this song isn’t a symbol of the nighttime, but of the darkness rising: “I fear rivers overflowin’,” Creedence sings. “I hear the voice of rage and ruin.”

Last time I paid attention to the song was on a sweaty night in Knoxville, the end-of-August slump that burns out every summer, 1999. I’d gone down to visit my granny, but our talk wouldn’t move past my mother, dead then ten years. So I left to go visit downtown. That ended pretty fast—the “city” of Knoxville was all but empty, what action there was having migrated into the exurban ringworm that now sprouts around every American metropolis. I wound up on a deserted Gay Street—used to be a bustle—around eleven, staring down into a canyon between two deserted buildings where once something had stood; the hole that was left, scraped clean of all but a few bricks from the foundation, looked like a tooth had been pulled. Silty yellow streetlight didn’t quite reach the bottom.

Then I heard the song: “I see a bad moon risin’…” An old man was coming off the Gay Street Bridge, a transistor radio pressed to his ear, the tune loud but tinny and bouncing off the blacktop like a ball nobody was chasing. “I know the end is comin’ soon…”

Some words from my mother’s diary, which I’d read after she died, came to mind, rough harmony with John Fogerty’s vocal: I see those words “Bad Moon Rising” and wonder again why that thumping, Southern-revival song was playing when Jeffrey was dying.

The Jeffrey here is my uncle, after whom I’m named. My father’s younger brother, a casualty, after a fashion, of Vietnam. He was twenty-seven when he died of cancer, just like my mother would thirty years later. Hers was in the breast; his was throughout his body, young bones and flesh riddled with disease and rotting in a Miami VA hospital so overcrowded his parents had to almost move in to take care of him; the nurses, I guess, were busy with those with better odds.

My mother went, too. She was close to her brother-in-law, closer in some ways than she was to my father, who still believed in the war then. My uncle, who’d fought in it, did not. Something bad had happened to him there—well, a lot bad had happened to him there, but there was something he’d done, something that bothered him, something that wouldn’t let him die easy. He’d gone over early, 1963 or ’64, a graduate of the Army Language School, near-fluent in Vietnamese and eager to put it to use. Instead, he found himself attached to a Marine unit in North Vietnam, skulking through the jungle, creeping up on little clusters of huts so they could listen in with their radios for military operations. Bombers did the rest: Guided by Jeff’s eavesdropping, they erased villages.

Then the Army erased Jeff, doused him and his unit in defoliant—not Agent Orange but an earlier, even nastier chemical called, I kid you not, Agent Purple. The VA did try to save him at first, or so my mother believed, back before she learned that sometimes you fight disease for no good reason, because you don’t know what else to do. Radiation treatmentsshe wrote.I watched these. You could watch the treatment on a closed circuit television screen outside the room where the radiation treatment was being given. The treatment room was like a bank vault. Joking with attendants, he laid down on a hospital stretcher and they rolled him in. Hospital pajama bottoms. Bare chest with a radiation map charted across his belly—lines and arrows. Zap here on the liver for what it’s worth. Image on a small black and white screen is rough, fuzzy. Body is thin but still pretty and dark-skinned and muscular. A lean redneck, wearing work clothes, maybe 55 or so, waiting outside the room for his treatment smokes a Lucky and coughs again and again.

My mother dug those old notes out twenty years later when she found herself in much the same situation, forty-eight years old and on fire with radiation her doctors privately believed wouldn’t help her; she’d never had a chance, either, but it takes a while for a body to submit to dying.

“Hope you got your things together,” sings Creedence.

Jeff came round in a dream to help my mother get ready. He comes in, smiling, she wrote. His hair is rich black. We talk and joke. An ugly woman, fat and stern and sour waddles in. She wears a brown uniform with a belted jacket and a plain brown skirt. She takes his arm—he is wearing a white shirt—and tells him to get going. I ask, confused, what is going on. She snorts. He laughs and goes along, a good sport. He says, laughing, that I am so naive, and walks away with the woman in the brown uniform.

This past May, a friend brought me a special present—a Xerox of a tabloid newspaper, the whole page bordered in black and the headline in giant letters: JEFF SHARLET DIES. I’d known about this page of newsprint, had found a copy of it once when I was a kid rustling through my father’s old boxes in the basement, but I hadn’t seen it in years, and certainly didn’t own a copy. The date of the page was August 1969; the paper was Vietnam GI, published by and for soldiers opposed to the war. Jeff was the editor.

Quite a gift. Two years’ worth of the paper, in fact. My friend had found them at a rally against the Iraq war, a big stack of near-complete print runs for sale to anyone who cared to remember that everything they were saying now had been said before, that this current war is not much more than an old song being played yet another time. Rip-off contractors (an earlier incarnation of Halliburton, no less), soldiers betrayed by their officers, widespread torture, delivering “Freedom”—I could be reading Vietnam GI, or I could be reading today’s paper.

Iraq and Vietnam, a crowded VA hospital in Miami, an empty street in Knoxville, my mother’s diary, my uncle’s fixin’-to-die rag. It all makes me think of “Bad Moon Rising,” neither a sad song nor an angry one, not even a great song; just a true one. My mother thought it was a revival song and therefore foreboding, and my uncle, dying in Miami, probably thought it was a harsh song—his tastes ran toward softer stuff, Joan Baez and a band called the Stone Poneys. I think it’s a song for lost causes—true because it never makes them pretty.