If you were a soldier during the Vietnam War, odds are you had a Zippo lighter in your breast pocket. And if you did, it was likely engraved with an inscription.
The lighters are collectors items a curious relic from a difficult time in U.S. history. The inscriptions cast a wide emotional net some are terse, obvious and full of swagger; others are philosophical and poetic.
The poems form the text to composer Phil Kline's signature musical work "Zippo Songs: Poems From the Front."
That work will be performed next weekend at the Mondavi's Vanderhoef Studio Theatre. The New York-based Kline will appear, as guitarist, with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, violinst Todd Reynolds and percussionist David Cossin.
Kline is well-known in the Manhattan cultural scene that spawned the likes of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and later Jim Jarmusch. Kline, with his tape loops and sampling experimentations on boom boxes, wrote the seminal contemporary 1992 Christmas musical work "Unsilent Night."
He has done commissions for Bang on a Can and has performed as guitarist in Glenn Branca's noted Ensemble.
The Bee talked to Kline, 58, via phone from his apartment in New York's Lower East Side about "Zippo Songs," a work that premiered in 2004 and has become the signature work in Kline's musical career.
What do you remember from the Vietnam War era?
I remember I had this paper route in the seventh grade and one of the families on my route had one of their boys in the service, and they had a star in one of the windows. For me, seeing that was as if I was living in 17th century London and someone had put a symbol of someone having the plague in the window it was so spooky.
When did you first encounter the Zippo lighter engravings?
It was in a Vanity Fair magazine. There were 12 poems in the article, which came out in 1997. I cooked up the idea for the songs two years later. The next step was that I went to eBay and tried to look at the collectors market, and it was on eBay that I found the collectors catalog and coffee table books about the Zippos. Those contained hundreds of photos of the lighters, and I started culling them.
How hard were they to set to music?
It took a long time to put them together as songs, because some of the texts were, like, eight words long. ... If you look at the way they're written out every little stanza is one lighter. I put them together thematically. Most of the poems were very much like bumper stickers in that there were probably a hundred other lighters that would share the same inscription.
You have said you wrote them in two weeks. True?
Yes. I just did not know how to approach them, and then suddenly an intuitive answer came to me.
What was that answer?
I imagined that, somehow I was looking through a camera that was filming me where I pulled back and into the air like a crane shot. And somehow the songs became sort of like ghosts drifting over me and it suddenly had this different feel, and that is where all of it took off.
Why were the inscriptions more common on lighters from Vietnam and not another war?
Zippos were available in Korea and in WWII, but for some reason, the engraving craze didn't happen then. Some of the early Zippos had this coating which made them hard to engrave, but not the ones in Vietnam. The GI's would get them engraved in towns or at the Army PX.
Can you give an example of one the engravings?
"When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace," was one of them.
Have you ever connected with any GI's who wrote on the Zippo lighters?
Only once. Recently, after a lecture demo in Florida, a guy came up to me and showed me his lighter, and showed me what the lighter said it was a one- word inscription. I have had very little contact with Vietnam-era GI's.
I've heard you say you're wary about communicating political ideas in your work. However, when you combine texts with music, things always get political.
I never liked art that is agitprop. We don't need that. The point of Zippo songs is to come from the emotions of the people who were there. ... It has to be about human beings and human feelings. This work is not about any political position.
How would you describe the "Zippo Songs" lineup?
It's a mixed rock chamber ensemble which is to say, electric guitar, amplified violin, vocalist and percussionist who are hooked up to electronics. We use sampling and looping devices so that we're able to create more complex textures than we could if we were playing acoustically. The performance at Mondavi is the only one that we are doing with the original group this year.
What: U.S. soldiers engraved their lighters with sometimes terse, occasionally obvious and often swaggering statements during the Vietnam War. Phil Kline has set the phrases to music.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. April 15
Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, Mondavi Center, UC Davis
Contact: (530) 754-2787, www.mondaviarts.org