One summer night in 1969, Kimo Williams went to a rock concert in Hawaii, which led to one of the two most important decisions of his life.
"I started out on guitar. I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix," Williams says.
The day after he saw Hendrix play the Waikiki Bowl, Williams made the other decision: He joined the Army. He spent the following year in Vietnam as a combat engineer. Surprisingly, that's where his musical career took off, with a band of GIs touring South Vietnam.
"They'd put us in the middle of a firebase just before they got attacked, for us to give them some music," Williams says. "We were up in Da Nang. We would set our guitars down in mud. I knew I was making a difference in the lives of these soldiers; I knew music was the direction I'd be going in."
And it wasn't just for others that Williams became a composer. Music was the only language he could use to explain how he felt about the war. When he got home from Vietnam, he found a country that didn't want to hear about where he'd been. Williams says he's glad that's not happening to vets today.
"It's entirely different than an Iraq, Afghanistan vet — because we had to shut up," he says. "Now they are allowing these veterans to talk about their service. The Vietnam vet coming back ... was a problem that you just didn't talk about."
Williams used GI Bill money to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and he started composing. He saw the Oliver Stone movie Platoon in 1986, with his wife and collaborator Carol Williams, and decided there were ways to talk about the war in public. In 1990, his Symphony for the Sons of Nam premiered in Savannah, Ga.
The symphony was performed all over the country. Williams started writing more music inspired by his time at war. But conductors and composers told him not to get stuck doing just one thing.
" 'It's time to move on, Kimo. You did your Vietnam piece; it's time to move on and do something else,' " Williams says, recounting the words of his peers. "And I said, 'Yeah, you know, you're right.' And I sat down and thought about it. And then it hit me — that I can't get away from it. Vietnam is a part of who I am."
Williams says his identity as a combat veteran still comes through even when he sets out to write about something else. That was the case recently when the New York City-based string quartet Ethel commissioned a piece from Williams based on thousands of photographs from an archive called Documerica.
Documerica was formed by the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s to document American life and landscapes, especially with an eye on the environment. Williams says he was drawn to the waterways, which he used as an autobiographical theme, stretching from the beach at Coney Island in Brooklyn to fishing in the Mississippi River to surfing in Hawaii. But the final scene was Vietnam: a military hospital on the beautiful beach of Cam Ranh Bay.
Ethel will premiere Williams' Documerica-inspired work, A Veteran's Lament, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music tonight, along with other pieces inspired by the photos. Ralph Farris, who plays viola in the quartet, says he knew he wanted Williams for a project about the fabric of America.
"He came to us as a real revelation as the perfect guy for this project," Farris says. "There's an American flavor to his work, clearly underscored by the fact that he is a veteran."
Decades after Vietnam, Williams says he can talk about Vietnam now, and there is open discussion of issues like PTSD. But there are things he still can't explain with language.
"I want to leave something with you that helps you understand, [in a way] deeper than words, what that experience meant to me," he says. "And so I was able to do that through music."