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Face of Defense: Marine Balances Service, Music

By Marine Corps Cpl. Juan D. Alfonso
Marine Forces Pacific

CAMP H.M. SMITH, Hawaii, Jan. 4, 2011 – When most people see a tattoo-covered, heavy-metal-shirt-wearing, guitar-playing rock front man, “U.S. Marine” might not be the first thing that pops into their minds.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Clinton W. Walker asks the crowd if the music is loud enough during the Military Band Mele, May 29, 2010, at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii. Walker has traveled and performed in several countries around the Pacific as a member of the Marine Forces Pacific Band. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Juan D. Alfonso
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

But Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Clinton W. Walker, supply chief for Headquarters and Service Battalion, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, has spent the last 20 years balancing his career as an active-duty Marine with his love for music.

The Texas native came from humble beginnings. His father, a mechanic, taught Walker about cars and engines. But his love for music began at the age of 12.

“My cousin took out a guitar one day and said, ‘Clint, check this out,’” Walker said. “I learned what he taught me pretty quickly, and I just fell in love with it. I remember just jamming for hours and hours, playing the same thing over and over again. It just grew from there.”

Inspired by artists such as Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss, Motley Crue and Quiet Riot, Walker honed his skills while attending high school. But unlike many aspiring rock stars, Walker never wanted to make a music video or tour the country making millions of dollars. For him, it was and has remained about the music.

“There used to be this band that came down maybe once or twice a month to my town, and they always played the latest songs on the radio,” Walker said. “If the song played for the first time that morning, they had already learned it and were playing it on the same night. They were a big inspiration to me. At 15, I realized I just wanted to be that local band. I didn’t want to go any further than that.”

Despite his humble dreams, growing up in a relatively small town made it difficult for Walker to pursue his ambitions.

“There just weren’t enough people my age who wanted to do the same thing I wanted to,” he said.

That’s when the Marine Corps recruiters began to call.

“I was always the rebellious kid,” Walker said. “I was always pushing the envelope. I wore ripped jeans, drove the fastest car, and I was ready for a new challenge in my life, so when the recruiter asked me what job I wanted, I told him I didn’t care, I just want to be a Marine. I just wanted to do something different”

On Dec. 7, 1990, Walker graduated from Marine Recruit Depot San Diego, Calif. After he graduated from supply school, he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, where he was shocked to find the local music scene suited him.

“Okinawan musicians really know how to throw down with some rock ’n’ roll,” he said with a laugh.

In 1992, Walker was stationed in Michigan, where his musical inspirations turned to artists such as Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, BB King, Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan, which led to him from playing rock metal to “good old blues,” he said.

Always looking for a new hobby and with a knack for building things, Walker began modifying guitars, which eventually led to building guitars.

In 1996, Walker was stationed in Albany, Ga., where he was exposed to a new aspect of the Marine Corps Band.

“I found out there was more to the Marine Corps Band than the traditional drum and bugle corps or ceremonial events,” Walker said. “I saw their rock and show bands perform and just started talking to one of their guitar players after the show.”

The guitarist invited Walker to a blues jam at a local bar. What began as a casual jazz and blues session turned into a five-piece band of musicians calling themselves Clint Walker and the Blues Raiders, named after the band’s front man, lead guitarist and singer, a trend that followed Walker with his later bands.

In 1999, Walker transferred back to Okinawa, where he decided to create another band, Clint Walker and the Groove Cats, named after the Japanese bar where they performed, The Groove.

In 2002, Walker transferred to Albuquerque, N.M., where he initially had reservations about his new assignment.

“I was scared there wasn’t going to be a music scene,” he said. “So I went to the music store -- which by the way, is a great place to get info about the local music scene pretty much everywhere you go -- and there turned out to be at least 20 bands with a good mix of musicians out there.”

Walker began attending open mike nights and eventually fell in with the Breakers, a band that had lost its lead singer. He spent a year as the Breakers’ front man before his participation began to interfere with his family life. Like many artists, Walker became consumed with his music and had to choose between it and his family.

“I wanted to be a better parent,” the 39-year old father of five said. “I wasn’t just performing. I was practicing with my band, writing songs, jamming -- something had to give. So I sold off my guitars and quit playing. … Six months later, my wife told me I was driving them crazy and to buy a guitar.”

In 2006, Walker returned to Okinawa and the Groove Cats. With his love for music and performing rekindled, Walker began to experiment as the bassist for his band. Once again fully engaged in the music scene, Walker began to cover a whole new spectrum of rock and punk music, finding new inspiration from artists such as Billy Idol, AC/DC, Green Day and many more.

But after returning from a short deployment, Walker said, he was disappointed to see the band’s skills had slipped in his absence and that his bandmates had more interest in partying than they did in the music.

It was the beginning of the second time Walker gave up his music.

“I had two really expensive hobbies,” Walker said. “On top of being a father, a husband and a musician, I was also building custom guitars and custom [motorcycles.]”

Walker’s life took a rock star-like crash shortly after. His mother had recently died, his marriage needed work, and to make matters worse, his son was admitted to the emergency room for an unknown condition.

“Life just happened,” the soft spoken, humble Marine said.

The Walkers were transferred to Hawaii so his son could receive the medical care he needed. A short surgery later, his son was in perfect health, and the Walkers have made their new home here. But the life of a Marine, mechanic and family man couldn’t keep the musician from what he loved.

“He just gets that itch, and if he doesn’t play, he’ll drive everybody crazy,” his wife said. “He’s so multi-talented. If he’s not building something, he needs to be playing.

“He’ll sit there and play the same tune over and over again for hours. and then when he performs, we’re just in awe,” she continued. “He plays with such feeling that every time I go to see a live band, I’m constantly comparing them to him. And a lot of times, they just don’t play the way my husband does.”

After attending a jam night at a bar in Kailua, Walker’s musical career came full circle when he met Marine Corps Master Sgt. Stephen Jeremiah, Marine Forces Pacific bandmaster.

“I threw out a couple names from the band in Albany, and he invited me to come out and play the [2010] Great Aloha Run gig with them. After the show, he said ‘Well dang, Gunny, you want to go to Samoa?’ Next thing I knew, I was part of the … show band.”

Walker joined the band just in the nick of time, said Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Chazz Harbison, a bassist and a member of Walker’s current band.

“We were short on guitar players, and he really was a pleasant surprise,” Harbison said. “This guy is a rock star. It’s the best way to describe him. He knows how to work a crowd; he always has a smile on his face. He’s one of those guys that will text me if he’s having a bad day and be like, ‘I need to rock. Let’s jam.’”

Since he began performing with the Marine Forces Pacific Band, Walker has played at least 20 gigs and traveled as a Marine musician to Samoa, Mongolia and Canada. And he received an unexpected surprise when he traveled to Cambodia.

“There were giant banners with photos of me,” he said chuckling as he recalled the memory. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Today, Walker is known as the Marine Forces Pacific rock star by many of the Marines in the command, and he is more involved in music than ever before. After nearly 20 years of service, he said, he’s finally found a balance between his music, family, career and his numerous other hobbies.

With retirement around the corner, Walker and his family plan to move back to Albuquerque, where he said the warm, dry weather provides the perfect conditions for him to do metal work and where he can become the small-town front man he has wanted to be since he was 15.

 

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