Thursday, July 05, 2007
Phil Ochs, American
It says something about the mass of media out there -- and my ever-diminishing attention span -- that I didn't realize that almost all Phil Ochs' A&M albums had finally become available for download. (The most recent CD versions, from the Collectors' Choice label, date back to 2000; I can't find any sign that they've been re-released on CD in conjunction with the downloads, though please let me know if I'm mistaken.)

The albums are a mixed bag, to be sure: "Pleasures of the Harbor," which contains one of Ochs' best-known songs, "Outside a Small Circle of Friends"; the sometimes over-produced "Tape from California"; the stark "Rehearsals for Retirement"; "Greatest Hits," with its deliberately cheeky and misleading title; and "Gunfight at Carnegie Hall," in which Ochs attempted to perform his own songs and rock 'n' roll classics clad in a gold lame suit. His audience generally didn't get the joke.

The standout, for me, is "Rehearsals for Retirement." Ochs, ardently antiwar, was a founder of the Yippies and was in Chicago for the 1968 Democratic convention, an event marred by violence in an already tumultuous year. Ochs left Chicago severely disillusioned with -- well, pretty much everything. He poured out his heart in 1969's "Rehearsals."

The album leads off with the brash "Pretty Smart on My Part," a sprightly ditty told from the point of view of an angry extremist. (The attitude is reiterated later, on "I Kill Therefore I Am.") There are moving songs about Chicago ("William Butler Yates Visits Lincoln Park and Leaves Unscathed") and the tragedy of the USS Scorpion ("The Scorpion Departs but Never Returns").

Above all, there's "My Life," which closed Side 1 on the original LP. "So I turned to the land/Where I'm so out of place/Throw a curse on the plan/In return for the grace/To know where I stand/Take everything I own/Take your tap from my phone/And leave my life alone/My life alone." Add to that a cover shot of a gravestone engraved "Phil Ochs (American)," and you have a history lesson on the dark side of the '60s. (The grave eerily foreshadowed Ochs' own death, of suicide in 1976.)

Ochs had a troubled life. He was forever chasing his friend Bob Dylan, a colleague in the Village folk scene, and his A&M work showcased his struggle to find a place in the ever-changing late-'60s music scene. But his best songs -- "Small Circle of Friends," "Crucifixion," "Chords of Fame," "Rehearsals" -- stand the test of time. Indeed, in our times, they're often all too resonant.
It is hard to describe Och's poetry. I only heard and saw his performance of "I ain't gonna march" a long time ago on Vh1's "My Generation". He was angry, troubled, and gritty. "March" was a politcal song that was unfairly underappreciated.
Phil Ochs touched me deeply as a youngh aspiring folk musician at that time - I still think his "Highwayman" is haunting and brilliant, "Changes" can still reach me in a place only Deathcab comes close to and "Pleasures of the Harbor" has a worldly, matter-of-fact sweetness that few poets recognized in watching life. He was one of a kind and deeply missed.
The haunting melodies and brilliant poetry of Ochs were only surpassed by his biting humor. "I dreamed Nixon died of a suntan, there was only Spiro left. At his swearing in, he fell on his chin. He assassinated himself." Imagine what Phil would do with the mess that Dubya's got us into.
Oh, I have always, always loved Phil Ochs. I was tremendously fortunate to have liberal parents who would allow me to take the train into New York (from a country area in New Jersey), so I could go to the folk music clubs in the Village (most defunct, alas) and see all these topical folksingers/writers. Phil Ochs got into my heart the very first time I saw him perform. Oh, and when he "went electric for the first time," I didn't mind in the least bit. For the remaining years of his life, I was a huge fan (hate the word "fan"). His death saddened me. To this day, I oftentimes find myself singing his many poetic contributions. I sure wish he were around today, because oh my, he'd have SO much political material, wouldn't he?!
I feel fortunate to have seen Phil in concert several times in the 60's and early 70's. How sad that he felt that he had become irrelevant. Especially now that we are repeating history fighting a useless war, when we should be fighting terrorism. His songs deserves to be heard.
you left out 2 of my favorites: Changes, and Dress Rehearsal Rag.
I found Phil's "I Ain't Marching Anymore" in the folk bin at Schoolkids Records in Ann Arbor, MI when I was in the 8th grade, and my world broadened and changed overnight. Phil himself had long since left us, but his music was so vivid, so timely, so steadfastly honest, so achingly real, that I could easily imagine him sitting in my living room singing his songs just for me. I still can. If you are not familiar with Phil's music, please, buy some. If you are, do yourself a favor and go see a Phil Ochs Song Night when one comes to your town. You will be amazed at how relevant his songs remain almost forty years after they were written. Oh how I long to hear the songs he'd be writing if he were alive today!
great article; however, you neglected to mention och's "flower lady"...the song that i, a chicagoan, will always remember him most by.
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has several recordings of Phil Ochs available both on CD through the online catalogue, and for digital download through Smithsonian Global Sound. They include Broadside Tapes 1, Broadside Ballads, Vol. 11: Interviews With Phil Ochs,and Broadside Ballads, Vol. 10: Phil Ochs Sings for Broadside.
If you have questions, feel free to contact us at whitmorea@si.edu.
I didn't know either. I'll start downloading and listening.

Thanks.

Blather From Brooklyn
Thanks for remembering Phil Ochs with kindness and understanding. He was the greatest of the 60's folk singers. I just wish he knew how much and how many people loved him. The song of Phil's that haunts me the most is When I'm Gone. I wrote a tribute to him that I call Broadside Balladeer in which I weaved many of his song titles and phrases into the salute. When I write topical songs these days, I always consider how Phil might deal with the subject if he were alive, and it plays a part in how the song comes out. And I'm gonna say it now cause I can't say it when I'm gone!
For those interested, there are several bios on Phil Ochs, including There But for Fortune, one about the FBI's investigation into his activities, and a reference book, A Bio-Bibliography.
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