Perfect Sound Forever


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When He’s Gone – The Life and Times of Phil Ochs
by Kasper Nijsen
(December 2013)

In such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty – Phil Ochs

In his protest song ‘Christmas in Washington,’ Steve Earle calls on past freedom fighters to help us out in the present. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and especially Woody Guthrie bridge the causes of the Sixties protest movement and present times: "Come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now. Tear your eyes from paradise and rise again somehow." In his list of political forces in the civil rights movement, however, Earle has omitted one of the most defiant and trenchant protesters of them all: Philip David Ochs (1940-1976).

Since his untimely passing, two documentary movies and two biographies have been released to document the story of Phil Ochs’s life. It is a strange and sad story, full of innocence and hope but also full of despair and bitterness. Phil Ochs’ life mirrored the historical disintegration of the Sixties movement from innocence and unity into violence and fractured cynicism, and finally to a premature and tragic ending. His hauntingly beautiful recordings tell a story that is worth remembering.

Just a student

Originally from Texas, Phil Ochs arrived in New York in 1962, a few years after his friend and rival Bob Dylan. Once in Greenwich Village, he began writing the topical songs that appeared on his Elektra-released trilogy: All the News That’s Fit to Sing (1964), I Ain’t Marching Anymore (1965) and Phil Ochs in Concert (1966). For a while, anthems like "The Power and the Glory," "There But for Fortune" and "I Ain’t Marching Anymore" rivaled similar Dylan songs in their power to draw audiences together in opposition to war and inequality.

Recordings from those early years show the clarity of Ochs’ music, a combination of crisp finger-picking and stirring vocals, as well as the fire and brimstone of his dedication to ideals of freedom and justice. Ochs was originally an aspiring journalist, and his opposition to the powers that be was based on clear political thinking. "Oh I am just a student and I only want to learn," he sings, adding with dry irony: "But it’s hard to read through the rising smoke of the books that you’d like to burn."

His early anthem against racism and bigotry "Here’s to the State of Mississippi," later rewritten as an indictment of Richard Nixon, was full of hard-hitting metaphors that would make any political writer proud. Of a state where people still bowed down to racism, he wrote that "the sweating of their souls can't wash the blood from off their hands"; bigoted judges "wear the robe of honor as they crawl into the court"; and and "the speeches of the president are the ravings of a clown." Ochs was playing the politicians off at their own game, countering their rhetoric with a fierceness of his own.

This is one aspect of his first three albums, and it remains a powerful display of honest political fervor, wedded to literary and musical craftsmanship. But already on Phil Ochs In Concert (1966), a more poetic and poignant voice is also heard. "Changes," later covered by Ian & Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot and (more recently) Neil Young, is a beautiful meditation on love and transience that shows the poetic side of Ochs’ temperament. And closing this live set is "When I’m Gone," foreshadowing his increasing obsession with the end of (his) life.

Farewell my fancy

But Ochs’s political optimism soon turned sour. After In Concert, he shifted labels; his next four albums, from Pleasures of the Harbor (1967) to Greatest Hits (1970) were released on A&M, and show a radically different artist. The guitar-slinging troubadour is transformed almost overnight into a philosophical balladeer, whose songs are set to sophisticated orchestral arrangements. The lyrical tone darkened as the Sixties march to their end. Pleasures of the Harbor, his best album according to many, already contains many disturbing and ambitious compositions such as "The Crucifixion," "I’ve Had Her" and "Pleasures of the Harbor."

It was the disastrous Democratic convention in August 1968, where dreams were destroyed in a haze of teargas air, that sounded the final death knell to the optimistic Sixties for Phil Ochs, and destroyed his vision of America. In an interview briefly afterwards, he stated: "I think what happened in Chicago was the final death of democracy in America as we know it: the total, final takeover of the fascist military state." He expressed the same views in a more musical but equally strong manner on his third album for A&M, aptly titled Rehearsals for Retirement (1969).

As a whole, Ochs’s sixth album is an exercise in passionate and eloquent despair, a premature suicide note for himself and a bitter obituary to the country of his dreams. The cover shows a tombstone that conflates the two: "Phil Ochs (American) – Born: El Paso, Texas, 1940 – Died: Chicago, Illinois, 1968." The music is entrancing, with sprawling, highly melodic piano accompaniment and beautiful arrangements. But the words leave no doubt as to Ochs’ assessment of the state of his country and his own life.

The songs are drenched in the disconsolate weariness of broken dreams. "My Life," for instance, uses intricate rhymes to paint Ochs’ increasing disillusionment: "My life was once a flag to me, and I waved it, and behaved like I was told." But then: "My life was once a drag to me, and I loudly, and I proudly lost control." The cause for his despair is equally clear: "I was drawn by a dream, I was loved by a lie." It is a powerful and disturbing song and one of Ochs’s best vocals performances.

The album’s closer and title song ‘Rehearsals for Retirement’ ends with a verse addressed apparently to a lover and muse, symbolically to America, but secretly to Ochs himself:

Farewell my own true love, farewell my fancy,
Are you still owing me love, though you failed me?
But one last gesture for her pleasure:
I'll paint your memory on the monument,
In my rehearsals for retirement.

There is something uncomfortable about music so heartbreakingly beautiful in its expression of inconsolable sadness. We are never quite sure whether so much artistic skill and inspiration should have been applied to such a somber vision.
It continued on the follow-up to Rehearsals for Retirement and Ochs’s final album of original material. Greatest Hits (1970) is no retrospective, but a collection of ten new songs, advertised with the ironic tag-line "50 Phil Ochs fans can’t be wrong" (instead of "50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong"). It begins with "One Way Ticket Home," with the repeating verse: "Elvis Presley is the king, I was at his crowning. My life just flashed before my eyes, I must be drowning."

The album’s final song and indeed the last original song released in Ochs’s lifetime is perhaps the clearest expression of his loneliness and creative despair. Aptly titled "No More Songs," it begins with "Hello, hello, hello / Is there anybody home? / I've only called to say I'm sorry." The concluding verse describes Ochs’ final farewell to the world with haunting imagery:

A scar is in the sky, it's time to say goodbye.
A whale is on the beach, he's dying.
A white flag in my hand, and a white bone in the sand,
And it seems that there are no more songs.

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson described the rise and fall of the Sixties movement in California: "We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave." Phil Ochs rode this high and beautiful wave like no other, identifying himself with its ideals of a loving and free America. So when the dream fell apart, when the glorious wave collapsed, there was nothing left for him, or so it appeared, but to dwindle and fade away in lonely obscurity.

The centre cannot hold

Artistically and politically, the end of the sixties may have marked the end of Ochs’s greatest work, yet it was not the end of his life. Nevertheless, things started to disintegrate fairly rapidly after Greatest Hits. The ideals that had held his precarious personality together had been violently destroyed and, perhaps worse, his sources of inspiration began to run dry. To quote Yeats, one of Ochs’ favorite poets: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

Ochs began to cast around for new causes to fight for, now that he felt America was ‘doomed’ with Nixon in power and the never-ending Vietnam war. He latched on to Salvador Allende’s Chile. He visited Chile and became deeply involved with its cause and especially with the ‘Chilean Phil Ochs,’ protest-singer Victor Jara, whom he met and admired greatly. Ochs was devastated when his friend was brutally murdered by the CIA-supported army. In the Chile Stadium, they beat Jara savagely, broke his hands, and taunted him to sing. Defiantly, his broken body produced the words of ‘Venceremos’ (‘We Shall Overcome’), before it was perforated with machine-gun fire and dumped on a side-road. Ochs later organized the successful tribute ‘Evening with Salvador Allende’. Yet his spirit was broken by the Chilean tragedy, as it had been by the American disaster in Chicago.

Growing more desperate, he turned to Africa, which would be the new hope for the world. He travelled to the continent, recorded a few songs there, but failed to make an impact. More tragically, he was attacked on a lonely shore by three black men, robbed and beaten, and strangled so savagely that his vocal chords were destroyed. He would never again be able to reach the high notes that graced his previous albums. In his paranoia, or so it seems, he blamed the attack that finally killed his musical future on the CIA.

The painful details of his further disintegration in New York, his transformation into the violent ‘John Butler Train’ (John for John F. Kennedy, Butler for William Butler Yeats: the ultimate poet-politician), and his clashes with justice and old friends, are dealt with more fully in the available biographies. On the morning of 9 April, 1976, Phillip David Ochs finally hanged himself in the bathroom of his sister’s house, bringing his life to a tragic end. His fourteen-year old cousin David discovered the body.

And now he is bound for glory

When the tales have been told, it is the music that remains; Phil Ochs’s albums are still waiting to be discovered by new generations. More than any of his peers, he was the soul of the young, rebellious, liberating Sixties. He carried its spirit into his music, and offers this gift to the future. On his later albums, he showed the force of sheer beauty even when dreams are dashed. And if the despair of some of these songs makes us uncomfortable, we can remember his own dictum that, "in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty."

Ochs’s is a tragic story, one of the saddest in music history, and yet it must be told and remembered for his tremendous gifts of hope and faith, his eloquent anger and rebellion. Because of his fierce belief in his ideals, Ochs became enmeshed in a story greater than himself, a struggle that is still ongoing today: the never-ending fight for freedom, equality, fellowship and beauty in a flawed world. If only for this reason, his music must survive in an age when so many have turned away from shared dreams, living out their lives in pursuit of narrow-minded day-dreams of happiness and success.

Though hardly as well-known today as some of his contemporaries, Ochs was indeed one of the greatest artists to emerge out of the Sixties. In the scope of his vision, the sharp elegance of his poetry and music, and the honesty of his voice, his best recordings are a match even for the work of his one-time rival Bob Dylan. History has not been kind to Ochs, and in the end Ochs was not kind to himself either. Yet this can never detract from the power of his recordings.

So whenever Steve Earle sings about Christmastime in Washington, whenever he invokes the ghosts of Woody Guthrie and Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Emma Goldman, I also hear a missing verse. It calls back a great musician and songwriter, and above all, a great human being whose spirit can still be with us, even if he himself left the earth on that dismal day in April almost forty years ago:

Come back to us dear Phil Ochs,
Come back to us now,
Tear your eyes from paradise,
And rise again somehow.

Songs mentioned
By Phil Ochs

"The Power and the Glory" from All the News that’s Fit to Sing (1964);
"I Ain’t Marching Anymore" and "Here’s to the State of Mississippi" from I Ain’t Marching Anymore (1965);
"I’m Gonna Say it Now," "There But for Fortune," "Changes" and "When I’m Gone" from Phil Ochs in Concert (1966);
"The Crucifixion," "I’ve Had Her" and "Pleasures of the Harbor" from Pleasures of the Harbor (1967);
"My Life" and "Rehearsals for Retirement" from Rehearsals for Retirement (1969);
‘One Way Ticket Home’ and ‘No More Songs’ from Greatest Hits (1970).

By Bob Dylan
"Blowin’ in the Wind" and "Masters of War" from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963); "With God on Our Side" from The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964)

By Steve Earle:
"Christmastime in Washington" from El Corazón (1997)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (1972)
Death of a Rebel by Marc Eliot (1979)
There But for Fortune by Michael Schumacher (1996)
American Troubadours by Mark Brend (2001)

Chords of Fame (1984)
Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune (2011)

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