Weil’s socially conscious lyrics became the flame of hope in times of despair
by Marshall Bowden
Lyricist Cynthia Weil passed away on June 1, 2023 at the age of 82. Weil, along with her songwriting partner and husband Barry Mann, was one of the members of New York’s famous Brill Building in the 1960s. That group, which included such creative songwriters as Carol King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka, Doc Pomus, and Neil Diamond. Along with their friendly rivals King/Goffin, Mann and Weil were considered to be the most socially conscious, and that is borne out by some of the songs they wrote, including “Uptown,” “On Broadway,” and “Only In America.”
One of Cynthia Weil’s most raw and biting lyrics is “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” recorded by British group The Animals in 1965. The song paints a picture of the state of mind of those living with poverty and oppression. It represents the desperation of living in the ghetto or anywhere that is hostile to any hopes and dreams one might have. As an Englishman, Eric Burdon would have appreciated the class struggle that is suggested in the song’s lyrics. For many Americans the struggle was racial, but America had its own class divide that the Vietnam War insidiously exposed. Those who served, fought, and died in the war were overwhelmingly from poorer demographic groups. The 1970 killing of middle class college students at Kent State University by National Guardsmen, many of whom were from poor or working class backgrounds, was symbolic of this divide.
Cynthia Weill didn’t have Vietnam in mind when she penned the lyrics to ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” She thought of the song as a ‘ghetto anthem’ and had written it, along with Mann, for The Righteous Brothers, who scored an enormous hit with “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” Her lyrics are very hard-edged, surprisingly so for a song that was expected to be a hit single:
In this dirty old part of the city
Where the sun refused to shine
people tell me there ain’t no use in trying.
The song immediately identifies the place that the narrator is in as rock bottom, godforsaken. Not where the sun doesn’t shine or where it’s not sunny, but where it actually refuses to shine. The present is an intolerable hell hole, and there is no hope. Not only that, but you’d be a damn fool or worse for trying to better the situation.
.Coupled with Eric Burdon’s smoldering vocal delivery, it’s a stunning opening to the record. Introduced by Chas Chandler’s evocative bass line and John Steel’s terse cymbal beat, the group slowly builds, matched by Burdon’s vocal, which becomes more declamatory and then builds to the release of the chorus. The chorus is more hopeful, more energetic than anything that has come before, a true release.
No one involved with the song or the record was thinking about Vietnam, but Vietnam found them just the same.
“We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” became one of the hit records that American soldiers heard almost daily and internalized into a secret touchstone for their most personal memories and experiences. There were many others–“These Boots Were Made for Walking,” “Purple Haze,” any number of Creedence songs. But the Weil/Mann tune was one that seemed to bring everyone together. So much so that it became the title of Doug Bradley and Craig Warner’s book about the important role that music played in the everyday lives of those who served in Vietnam and those who performed for the troops:
“More than any other song, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” was the glue that held the improvised communities of Vietnam together then and a magnet bringing vets together today. “ ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ was our ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ” observed Bobbie Keith, who served as an Armed Forces Radio DJ in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. “We listened and danced to the tune in a state of heightened awareness that many of us might not make it back out. We counted our blessings each time the song played, that we were still alive. The song conjures up the fire flares and rockets that illuminated the sky each night as helicopters whirled overhead, creating an ominous musical cacophony that the war, ever present, was all around us—would the rockets hit us tonight?—as we danced, listened, and sang along, shouting the words, ‘We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.’ It has become the vets’ national anthem.”
Observing that “music was our connection to home, our escape,” Dennis DeMarco, who served his tour calibrating artillery at Phu Cat, echoed Keith: “We all had that one song that summed up almost every single soldier’s feelings about Vietnam. One song that stirred everyone no matter what rank or color or political leanings. It didn’t matter what part of ‘the world’ you came from. It was a rallying anthem that gave us hope.”
Bradley, Doug; Werner, Craig. We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War (Culture and Politics in the Cold War and Beyond) (p. 26). University of Massachusetts Press. Kindle Edition.
Through the years vets have written to Cynthia Weil and Eric Burdon or expressed to them in person how much their music, and this song in particular, meant to them. “I can’t express how much this kind of feedback means to us,” Weil has said. “To know that you have comforted and strengthened others through your work is the most satisfying feeling in the world.” (Bradley, p.32)
But there is another timeless element to “We Gotta to Get Out of This Place,” and that is its sheer spirit, its dogged belief that we can get out of this place, and if not, we will die trying. That idea, that spirit, desperation, ambition, hope, and faith is central to rock and roll music. In his 2012 SXSW keynote speech, Bruce Springsteen read Cynthia Weil’s lyrics and then commented that:
“That’s every song I’ve ever written. Yeah. That’s all of them. I’m not kidding, either. That’s “Born to Run,” “Born in the USA,” everything I’ve done for the past 40 years, including all the new ones. But that struck me so deep. It was the first time I felt I heard something come across the radio that mirrored my home life, my childhood. “
Springsteen also commented that it was among the first popular music he heard that addressed class consciousness. But that primal urge to get away to somewhere else, to escape oppression, to live an authentic life, is so universal that it cuts across everything: time, space, class, language, culture. From the mannered expression of The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” to the perverse pleasure of “Welcome to the Jungle,” so much of rock and pop music is a triumph of spirit over the routine, the ordinary, the nothing special tone that so much of our lives take on if we’re not careful. It’s a wakeup call: life is not forever, and somewhere there’s a better life for me and you, and I’m off to find it.
That’s what great art does. Thanks, Cynthia.