The Ghost of Bob Hope

Doing the Baghdad boogie with traveling band Jack Knife & the Sharps

Prior to this year, Rick Hollister had never flown in an airplane. Any touring the 52-year-old had done with his local rockabilly outfit, Jack Knife & the Sharps, had been strictly land-based. That all changed in February when the trio decamped on a two-week tour of the Balkans to entertain U.S. troops with songs like "Rockabye Boogie" and "Hot Rod Man."

Then, in July, Hollister and his rhythm section, Tommy and Jeff Velline, pulled a 10-day tour of duty in Iraq and Kuwait. They skirted mortar fire and endured 130-degree temperatures to serve as a temporary divertissement for soldiers stationed in some of the most violent areas of Iraq. Hollister figures he's now made 20 flights--not counting rides on Chinook helicopters and C-130 military transport planes. "Thank God for dizziness medicine," he says.

Back safe in Anoka, Hollister, who wears jeans and a white cowboy hat, talks about his experiences in Iraq with a lasting amazement. City Pages caught up with the leader of the biggest rockabilly band in Basra on a recent weekday afternoon at Bob's Java Hut.

Are you sure we couldn't just rock the Casbah instead? Jack Knife & the Sharps, seen here in Al-taqaddum, took mortar rounds on their way to a gig in Basra
Jack Knife & the Sharps
Are you sure we couldn't just rock the Casbah instead? Jack Knife & the Sharps, seen here in Al-taqaddum, took mortar rounds on their way to a gig in Basra

City Pages: How did the Iraq gig come about?

Rick Hollister: It was an extension of first going to the Balkans. And I got that job by answering the telephone. What happened is, a friend of mine who's in the Army reserves was stationed there and he mentioned it to the soundman of a band that had come through there entertaining groups. [My friend] was given the e-mail address of this A.K.A. Productions out of L.A. They called me and asked for availability. I said I'd love to do it.

When you go [to Bosnia] the first thing they tell you is, stay on the hard surfaces and if you didn't drop it, don't pick it up, because there are mines everywhere.... The locals have what they call a 2,000-pound mine detector. They stake a cow on a 60-foot rope and let the cow graze. And that's how they get their fields cleared. So when you're there you see all this beautiful countryside and you can't go there. You can't walk out on it. You can't touch it. It's a shame.

CP: Why did you want to go?

Hollister: During Vietnam I got a high number and I felt like I won the lottery then. Because a lot of my friends had to go. I got to have a girlfriend and a job and a nice car. So I thought I could give back a little bit. And it was an adventure.

CP: On the Iraq trip, where did you fly into initially?

Hollister: We flew commercial until we got to Kuwait. Then we were brought to an Army base. We used that as our main base and we played some shows at different bases in Kuwait.

CP: What were those shows like?

Hollister: In Kuwait we were able to drive to the base. Kuwait is not a war zone. Then when we left Kuwait we flew a C-130, which was the Minnesota Vikings squadron. They had heard us play before so they let me fly in the cockpit. I got to see Iraq from the cockpit of a C-130, all the way across it, north of Baghdad, where we landed almost at a 90-degree angle. They dropped the plane down as fast as they could to avoid being shot at. Alarms are going off as we're descending. It was like a ride at the fair.

CP: Where was the first place you touched down in Iraq?

Hollister: It was in [Al-taqaddum], west of Baghdad about 60 miles. That was a Marine base. It was on a huge lake. Saddam Hussein had a house on that lake, with some small houses for his upper party members. No one else was allowed on that lake, punishable by death. Here's a lake bigger than Mille Lacs, in Iraq, and it's 120, 130 degrees, and no one was allowed to go on it. That's what a prick that guy was.

CP: How was the response to your show there?

Hollister: We got a lot of them to get up and play with us. They liked that, seeing their mates. People really bond. You would be so proud of those troops. They're just the best. They're policemen, lawyers, doctors, teachers. And of course everyone is sober. So everyone's in such good shape. The first time I did this I couldn't understand why everybody's got such a glow about them. They're all so healthy. I realized it's because they're not drinking and partying.

CP: Where did you go next?

Hollister: At three o' clock in the morning, we were out on the field in the dark loading up the helicopter with a .50 caliber machine gun on either side of us. Their eyes are all lit up from the night-vision goggles.... When they pulled back the bolt and put the shells in, I kept waiting for Francis Ford Coppola to yell "cut." I thought I was in a war movie. So we flew right out of there and into Fallujah in the middle of the night.

CP: Fallujah's a place that the U.S. has basically pulled out of now because of violence.

Hollister: Yeah. But I never went into the city. They kept us on a base. Then we flew in the middle of the night again, after doing a show, from Fallujah to Basra.

When we were in Basra, because we took so many mortar hits, they sent a special SUV that was bulletproof. When I went to open the door, I thought it was locked. The door was so heavy that I just couldn't get it to open. They told me that one of those took a direct [rocket-propelled grenade] hit. It went underneath the car, lifted it up. Everybody lost their hearing for a week, but they drove away.

They survived it. They made sure we were safe. As safe as they could...there's always a danger, they warn you, that a mortar could hit us. As a matter of fact, we had one lying pretty close, but it didn't go off. It was a dud.

CP: You say you never really felt in danger, but you never left military bases?

Hollister: That's right. That's why I never felt in danger. When I did this I had a sense that I was not going to be put in harm's way. I knew full well they weren't going to ask the band to go to Iraq and leave us out in the boondocks to get shot. That wouldn't look good on the news.... If something happened to me it was going to be a fluke. It would've just been my time.

When I got back I did a show down in Baxter, Iowa, and they had to bring in the ambulances and the police because some guys were beating up on each other. They were hauling women away in ambulances. I seen more blood when I got back than I did in Iraq.

And then two days later somebody stole my truck [laughs]. The cop was laughing when I told him I just got back from two weeks in Iraq and I've seen more action here in two days in Minnesota and Iowa than the whole time I was gone.

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