Tuesday, December 20, 2011

God Help the Troubadour

by Ben Greenman

Phil Ochs was born five months before Bob Dylan and died sixteen months before Elvis Presley, and that tells you all you need to know about him, and that tells you nothing. Ochs was an earnest activist, and a rebel, and a satirist, and a town crier, and a crack-up. He built and dismantled personae with such rapidity that it’s sometimes difficult to find the real person who, in theory, provided the foundation on which those personae were built and dismantled. Born in Texas, raised in Ohio, gifted musically and culturally omnivorous, Ochs appeared on the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1962 and performed at Newport, the folkies’ Mecca, in 1963. Early on, he defined a certain kind of straightforwardly sardonic protest song, bringing Woody Guthrie’s plainspokenness into the tumult of the sixties. Bob Dylan famously remarked that Ochs was getting better and better, and that Dylan could’t keep up with him. In 1967, he took a sharp left turn in his work, abandoning guitar-and-voice for a lavishly pretentious folk-rock. He brooded, marvelously, and then broke out of the brooding with both gallows humor and lovely, clear poetry. Many of his most beloved songs come from this period, such as “Pleasures of the Harbor”and “Tape from California.”

Then came Ochs’ sixth album, Rehearsals for Retirement, which he released in 1969. The album was recorded after Ochs appeared at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and it’s at once a document of the deepest despair—it grew out of terror and sorrow over the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and the cover image was of Ochs’s tombstone—and a rollicking good time. “Pretty Smart on My Part,” the leadoff track, skips along on a fleet acoustic riff before descending into a disturbing, if hilarious, series of psychosexual portraits of America. Phil, in chracter, is menaced by a hitchhiker, whips a woman with big breasts, is terrorized by an intruder, experiences humiliation at the hands of the cops, and plots to assassinate the president. Elsewhere, Ochs is the subject of his own pained investigation: “My Life” is almost unbearably naked in both its sound and its subject (“My life,” he sings, “is now a death to me”). “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park And Escapes Unscathed” is a ghostly piano ballad that, in its last thirty seconds, gives way to a glib bit of vaudeville:

Where were you in Chicago
You know I didn’t see you there

I didn’t see them break your head

Or breathe the tear gas air

Where were you in Chicago

When the fight was being fought

Where were you in Chicago

‘Cause I was in Detroit

The album closes with its spectral title song, which starts with one of the most depressing couplets in pop music (“The days grow longer for smaller prizes / I feel a stranger to surprises”) and gets worse from there. Worse, but not even more beautiful: Ochs’s singing in this period is, I think, his best: his limited range and keening style are a perfect match for both the personal lyrics and the more baroque production. “I wear a different kind of garment,” he sings, “in my rehearsals for retirement.”

As it turned out, the garment wasn’t metaphorical. After Rehearsals for Retirement, Ochs commissioned a gold suit from Nudie Cohn, Elvis Presley’s tailor, and transformed himself in a kind of pre-Andy Kaufman King manqué. That period produced exactly two records: the sarcastically titled Greatest Hits, in 1970, which consisted of all new material, and then Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, a chronicle of an utterly chaotic March 1970 live date that included a bomb threat that cut short the first show, an altercation with unhappy fans who wanted to get into the second show, and Ochs’s idiotic solution to this problem—he smashed the glass window of the box office, severely lacerating his thumb, and performed the second show with his hand bandaged. And that’s just the offstage drama. Onstage, Ochs played some of his beloved protest songs but also the standard “Mona Lisa,” Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” and medleys devoted to the work of Elvis and Buddy Holly.

Gunfight at Carnegie Hall was, for most purposes, the last of Ochs as a singer. He began to suffer from crippling writer’s block and equally crippling alcoholism. He traveled extensively (he was mugged in Tanzania, damaging his voice), became interested in Chilean politics, performed at a huge rally in Central Park in April 1975 when the Vietnam War ended. And then, the eternal darkness of madness: Ochs started telling people that he was a man named John Butler Train who had murdered the real Phil Ochs and taken his place. This eventually passed, but what remained behind was insurmountable depression and suicidal thinking. Ochs hanged himself on April 9, 1976.

Many artists have recorded tribute songs: Tom Paxton, Billy Bragg, John Wesley Harding, Todd Snider. Snider’s “Thin Wild Mercury” is built around the famous story of Ochs getting kicked out of Dylan’s taxicab after weighing in unfavorably on “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window.” Well, unfavorable is a relative term. “It’s not as good as ‘Positively 4th Street,’” Ochs said, telling the truth, and Dylan took the mixed review in stride, ordering the driver to stop the car and throwing Ochs out onto the sidewalk. He also delivered a parting shot that stung like an epitaph: “You’re not a folksinger, Ochs, you’re a journalist.”

And then, of course, there’s Dylan’s own “Lenny Bruce,” which isn’t about Ochs, except that it is. Ochs, of course, also wrote a song about Bruce (the heartbreaking “Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore?”), and Dylan’s mournful, clumsy elegy starts by talking about freedom and rebellion and shining the light of truth in the eyes of power. It ends, though, in a cab, which makes me wonder if he’s been talking about Lenny Bruce at all:

Lenny Bruce is dead but he didn’t commit any crime

He just had the insight to rip off the lid before its time

I rode with him in a taxi once

Only for a mile and a half, seemed like it took a couple of months


“Pretty Smart On My Part” mp3
by Phil Ochs, 1969.
available on Rehearsals For Retirement

“William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park & Escapes Unscathed” mp3
by Phil Ochs, 1969.
available on Rehearsals For Retirement

"Chords of Fame" mp3
by Phil Ochs, 1970.
available on Phil Ochs Greatest Hits

“Tape From California” mp3
by Phil Ochs, 1970.
available on Gunfight at Carnegie Hall

“Thin Wild Mercury” mp3
by Todd Snider, 2006.
available on The Devil You Know

“Lenny Bruce” mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1981.
available on Shot of Love, 1981

"Doesn't Lenny Live Here Anymore?" mp3
by Phil Ochs, 1969.
available on Rehearsals For Retirement


Anonymous said...

This is beautiful. Thanks for writing it.
René Saller

Antonio Curado said...

Thanks a lot, I have never thought before about the eventual connection among Dylan's 'Lenny Bruce' and Ochs. By the way, Ochs is wearing a coat one day belonged to Bruce in the Pleasures of the Harbor cover...

Antonio Curado

Anonymous said...

thank you for telling me so more more about a man who was but a name to me

Anonymous said...

Wonderful you're back.
Have missed you and the music. Merry Christmas, Jew-boy, and a soulful shalom.

stoney said...

great post
"Pretty smart on your part"