Recommended CDs

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Dinosaurs on A Diet - the late, great Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs took his own life 30 years ago today [this piece was written and posted on a messageboard 9th April, 2006].

In April 1976, he'd been kicked off the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan's traveling hootenanny of 60s folk stars, and that was the final straw; although in truth Phil had been in no fit state to tour. Having suffered for years from what would now be diagnosed as clinical depression or "bipolar disorder", he was further disillusioned by Watergate, by his own lack of commercial success, and by a physical attack (which he believed to have been organized by the FBI) in Africa that damaged his vocal cords. After his death, it was revealed that the FBI had a 410-page file on Ochs.

Although he flirted with Communism, Ochs was too much of an American patriot to embrace it entirely. His brother has described his work as "love songs to America"; his reaction to America's betrayal of her ideals is like that of a jilted lover. This can be illustrated in The Power and the Glory from his first album (All the News That's Fit To Sing), a kind of update of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land". Here is a video of Ochs performing the song live in 1974 (apparently with a broken arm), accompanied by his friend and mentor Jim Glover.

Ochs's first album also contains a direct tribute to Guthrie, taking its title from that of Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory. Guthrie had been hospitalized for the best part of 10 years, but his influence on a younger generation of folk singers remained immense. See how many Guthrie song titles you can spot!

But Ochs was more than about political anthems. His first album also contains a tender ballad for Cecilia Pomeroy, held in a Filipino jail and separated for 10 years from her American husband, and a spirited adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe poem The Bells.

His second album I Ain't Marching Anymore likewise contains an adaptation of a poem by Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman. It's a reading of great dramatic power, and one of my favourite recordings by anyone. Here is a remarkable video clip of Phil performing the song live:

The title track of Ochs's second album became one of his best known, and most covered, songs. As if realizing that I Ain't Marching Any More would become the anthem of draft dodgers, Ochs included Draft Dodger Rag on the album, which examines the motives and morals of some of the draft dodgers themselves. There is a serious point behind the humour: this particular draft dodger isn't like the young people who were openly burning their draft papers and risking jail to make a political point, but merely interested in saving his own skin.

Another song on the album is That Was the President, written shortly after John F. Kennedy's assassination two years earlier. In the liner notes, Phil wrote:

My Marxist friends can't understand why I wrote this song, and that's probably one of the reasons why I'm not a Marxist.

After JFK's assassination, Fidel Castro aptly pointed out that only fools could rejoice at such a tragedy, for systems, not men, are the enemy. Later Phil would write another, more surreal and poetic song about the Kennedy legacy, Crossroads.

The finest singing on Ochs's second album is definitely on his cover version of Ballad of the Carpenter, a song written by British songwriter and political firebrand Ewan McColl. Like Guthrie's "Jesus Christ", it's an attempt to turn Jesus into a left-wing hero.

And so to Ochs's third album, Phil Ochs in Concert,which was not entirely recorded live, despite the title (some songs were actually recorded in the studio). It was the last of his purely acoustic albums, after which he asked to be released from his Elektra contract, having failed to have the commercial impact that he wanted in order to spread his political message (although In Concert did brush the lower reaches of the Billboard charts). In truth, the world had moved on from simple protest songs: by the time of Ochs's Elektra debut, Dylan had already given up the genre, disillusioned by Kennedy's assassination and even more by the Left's attempt to turn him into their performing monkey. The Beatles-led British invasion and Dylan's own monumental Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde albumns had changed the face of popular music, and Ochs sounded dated.

Nevertheless, In Concert contains some of his best work, and definitely his best singing on record.

There But for Fortune is the best known song, having been a minor hit for Joan Baez (Phil jokes about her having written it for him). Here's a short clip of Phil singing it:

Canons of Christianity is a rather tender song lamenting the subversion of religion, sung (like 'There But for Fortune') with aching tenderness. By contrast, the spoken introduction shows his natural gift for comedy.

The Cops of the World, on the other hand, this is one of the most angry and sarcastic songs Ochs ever wrote. It portrays the U.S. Army as a strutting, macho bunch of thugs, imposing their will on the rest of the world by rape and brutality:

We're hairy and horny and ready to shack
We don't care if you're yellow or black
Just take off your clothes and lie down on your back!
'Cause we're the Cops of the World, boys
We're the Cops of the World

The song builds to a bitter climax:

When we've butchered your sons, boys
When we've butchered your sons
Have a stick of our gum, boys
Have a stick of our buble-gum
We own half the world, "Oh say, can you see",
The name for our profits is democracy
So, like it or not, you will have to be free
'Cause we're the Cops of the World, boys
We're the Cops of the World

For Vietnam, read Iraq.

With caustic wit, Ochs also excoriates those who describe themselves as liberal - until a black man moves in next door or they are asked to bus their children into segregated areas. Love Me, I'm A Liberal ends pointedly:

Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I've grown older and wiser
-- And that's why I'm turning you in!
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

In Concert also includes a rare, and astonishingly beautiful love song, Changes, which has one of the loveliest melodies ever written.

The final song on the album is a mournful reflection on death, When I'm Gone. When Ochs returned with a new label in 1967, he would be a different kind of creative artist, no longer relying on straightforward protest to get his message across, but rather using irony and Dylanesque surrealism and experimenting with musical form.

After failing to change the world or sell enough records to get his message heard to a wide audience, Ochs, as stated above, asked to be released from his Elektra contract. He went away for a while, and returned in November 1967 with a very different album from its precedessors, on the then new A&M label. Pleasures of the Harbor, while flawed, is Phil's masterpiece, and most of the songs still hold up well today.

More controversial are the arrangements. Rather than follow Dylan's lead into the new hybrid "folk rock" ("folk" music played with an electric guitar-led band), Ochs attempted a different kind of pop crossover, with arrangements drawing on classical, lounge, Dixieland jazz. rock and roll, and experimental synthesized music crossed with folk.

Further symbolizing the break with the past, the album was recorded not in New York City (centre of the U.S. folk scene in the early to mid sixties), but in Los Angeles, where Ochs had moved, and where psychedlia and "acid rock" was taking over from the folk-rock of Dylan, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Mamas & The Papas (Dylan responded by going rural Americana, on his way to outright country).

Ochs' chief collaborators on the record were producer Larry Marks, arranger Ian Freebairn-Smith, and pianist Lincoln Mayorga, whose contribution to the albumn was outstanding. The achievements of the producer and arrangement are more debatable.

All these musical changes add texture and ironical counterpoint to the lyrics, which are the record's biggest departure. Gone are the somewhat simplistic finger-pointing songs of the early albums (perhaps Ochs had been stung by Dylan's unfair accusation that he was a journalist rather than a songwriter). The songs are still political, but Ochs is more of a social commentator than a rabble rouser this time round. The songs are longer, and the anger and bitterness of his early albumns is replaced by irony, satire, and pathos.

Passing over the somewhat overproduced opening song Cross My Heart, with its drums, harpsichord, flutes, strings, orchestral horns, and vocal overdubs, we come to the first really classic song on the album, Flower Lady - a deft piece of ironical social commentary wrapped in an achingly beautiful melody:

Soldiers, disillusioned, come home from the war
Sarcastic students tell them not to fight no more
And they argue through the night
Black is black and white is white
Walk away both knowing they are right.
But nobody's buying flowers from the flower lady.

All the people in the song are too wrapped up in their own little lives to indulge in simple pleasures like buying flowers. In the final verse, even the Flower Lady no longer knows what she is selling flowers for.

The Byrds apparently thought of covering this song, but unfortunately for Phil, they decided against it.

A different kind of self-absorption is depicted in the best-known song of the albumn, Outside of A Small Circle of Friends. The song was inspired by the brutal murder of a New York woman, Kitty Genovese, and the inaction of her neighbours. The story was sensationalized in an inaccurate and misleading New York Times report entitled "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police", and the case was cited as illustrating the supposed callousness of urban America. Ochs' song uses a Dixieland jazz backing (with Mayorga on tack piano) that remains almost manically jaunty and unconcerned despite the grim events narrated by Ochs in a splendid deadpan voice:

Look outside the window, there's a woman being grabbed
They've dragged her to the bushes and now she's being stabbed
Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain
But Monopoly is so much fun, I'd hate to blow the game
And I'm sure it wouldn't interest anybody
Outside of a small circle of friends.

And a later verse:

Smoking marijuana is more fun than drinking beer,
But a friend of ours was captured and they gave him thirty years
Maybe we should raise our voices, ask somebody why
But demonstrations are a drag, besides we're much too high
And I'm sure it wouldn't interest anybody
Outside of a small circle of friends

Unfortunately, the drugs reference in the above verse got the song banned from most radio stations, just when it was threatening to chart. An edited version later flopped.

Even more successful in marrying form and content is the albumn's masterpiece, and, in my one, one of the greatest songs ever written. The Party is an account of a high society party in which Ochs plays the part of a singing lounge pianist (although the piano is of course played by Mayorga, who is quite brilliant in his improvisations, quoting everything from Mozart, Bach and Schumann to lounge standards such as "As Time Goes By" and "Stardust"), who passes satirical comments on the guests as they arrive:

The fire breathing Rebels arrive at the party early,
Their khaki coats are hung in the closet near the fur.
Asking handouts from the ladies, while they criticize the lords.
Boasting of the murder of the very hands that pour.
And the victims learn to giggle, for at least they are not bored.
And my shoulders had to shrug
As I crawl beneath the rug
And retune my piano.

"Boasting of the murder of the very hands that pour" is a splendid line. My favourite verse is the following:

They travel to the table, the host is served for supper,
And they pass each other for salt and pepper.
And the conversation sparkles as their wits are dipped in wine,
Dinosaurs on a diet, on each other they will dine.
Then they pick their teeth and they squelch a belch saying:
"Darling you tasted divine."
And my shoulders had to shrug, etc.

"Dinosaurs on a diet, on each other they will dine" is a splendid line. What Ochs is actually saying to these aging, backbiting socialites who nibble on lettuce and light snacks and pass scandalous remarks about one another is that they are dying. Or perhaps he is saying, "Die, die, die!" The image might have come from Sheridan's School for Scandal.

In the final verse, the commentator does not spare himself, catching sight in the mirror of a "laughing maniac who was writing songs like this."

The song is the equal of Dylan's 12-minute opus "Desolation Row", to which it is indebted.

The title track, Pleasures of the Harbor, is a bittersweet story of sailors seeking escape on shore leave, possibly a metaphor for other sorts of escape.

In the room dark and dim
Touch of skin
He asks her of her name
She answers with no shame
And not a sense of sin.
Until the fingers draw the blinds
A sip of wine
The cigarette of doubt
The candle is blown out
The darkness is so kind.

Soon your sailing will be over
Come and take the pleasures of the harbor.

The album's final track, Crucifixion, is a surrealistic reflection on the death of John F. Kennedy, which moved Bobby Kennedy to tears when Ochs played it for him. Unfortunately, the song is lost in the eerie morass of loops, electric harpsichord, and washes of electric distortion arranged by Joseph Burd, leader of a late-60s experimental electronic rock group called The United States of America.

Clocking in at more than 50 minutes, Pleasures of the Harbor was an outrageously long album for 1967. This was Phil's most ambitious project ever, but it was not terribly successful commercially, peaking at #168 in the charts. While Ochs would not retreat to acoustic folk for his subsequent A&M LPs, and would continue to write songs as unusual (and often as lengthy) in construction throughout the rest of the 60s, he would never again employ textures as recklessly varied as those heard on Pleasures of the Harbor.

[The second part of this piece, dealing with Ochs's final three albums, was never completed].


Meg said...

Thanks for adding the videos, they're great.

I always wished you'd finished the second part of this one.

Joan said...

Phil Ochs was a hazy presence I’d heard about in my youth. He was connected to a vague memory of an obscure protest song or two. This extraordinary piece of writing has brought him clearly into focus. The commentary provides the social and cultural milieu that surrounds his musical contribution, and illuminates his role in the development of the American folk tradition. The pictures and video clips bring him fully to life for me and cause great regret that I had not paid attention a lot sooner. It would be wonderful to have the second part.

raggedclown said...

Ooh, my first feedback! :D

Thank you, Meg and Joan. This piece was a real labour of love, and I think it stands up better than many of my other ramblings.

I did actually start the second part, but I got bogged down in the politics of the period, which are fascinating but caused me to lose focus on Phil. As the anniversary of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which played such an important and tragic role in Phil's life, is nearly upon us, now would be a good time to finish this second part.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article but I'm not nit picking when I note that from 1976 to 2006 is thirty NOT forty years...1966 Ochs was alive & active that whole year.

raggedclown said...

DOH! Thank you, anonymous, for pointing out this silly error, which has now been corrected.

Burns said...

R-C I always enjoy and learn from your 'ramblings.though we both know they are more than that.
However I take issue at this observation:
Although he flirted with Communism, Ochs was too much of an American patriot to embrace it entirely.

It seems to me that this is too weak,too absolutive (by you)and maybe too forgiving of those Americans who well into the 60's hid their left leanings,Joe (Nobodys Uncle) McCarthy left a long shadow.
America, it seems to me, really did have a chance to embrace real Socialist Principles (The USSR did not) but the National Psyche was more attuned to Fascism.........I urge everyone to read Nixonland by Perlman.
I think you NEED to write Part 2 of this excellent Essay...but I think you need to look closely at the reasons...inside and outside Phils head for the answers to his terrible decline.
I refer you to the hunt for 'The Pink Spot'.
The majority of Psychiatrists diagnose Bi-Polarism and Schizophrenia through a series of observation and 'tests'. The most definitive test would appear to be the 'Pink Spot' in Urine....if you have the Pink Spot you are whatever definition the particular shrink uses.
Some emminent Psychiatrists called Anti Psychiatrists believe that social facors create the terrible and unutterably awful conditions that creat,through stress,confusion and anomie, the chemical conditions to create the Pink Spot.
This is what I believe finally happened to Phil Ochs.
Johjn Train was as real,to him, and Dylan whom he stalked with a Hammer,as The Sun and the rain.
Ochs was a highly talented man...........but he was also very ambitious..........had he not been he WOULD have joined The C.P. which was pretty much defunct by then.
So lets have part two and how Phill Ochs sequed into John Train and why he really didn't have the ticket to get him in The RTR Bus.