Saturday, 3 November 2007

New Phil Ochs Cover

Singer/songwriter Will Oldham, under the pseuodynm Bonnie "Prince" Billy, is set to release his cover of Phil Ochs' "My Life" on his EP Ask Forgiveness on November 20, 2007.

The full tracklisting is as follows:

"I Came To Hear The Music" (Mickey Newbury)
"I've Seen It All" (Bjork)
"Am I Demon" (Danzig)
"My Life" (Phil Ochs)
"I'm Loving The Street"
"The Way I Am" (The Mekons)
"Cycles" (Frank Sinatra)
"The World's Greatest" (R. Kelly)

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Stage Preview: The making of a musical

A creative trio pulls together world premiere at Point Park

Tuesday, October 30, 2007
By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It starts with one person, maybe two, but it also takes a village. It can take years, but there's never enough time. It seems impossible, but sometimes it works out. It's one of the most improbable achievements in the arts, creating a new musical.

This week, Pittsburgh sees the world premiere of just such an achievement, "Streets of America," staged at the Pittsburgh Playhouse by the theater program of Point Park University. To make some sense of the story so far, we talked with the three people most responsible for words, music and putting them together on stage -- composer (and book writer and lyricist) Michael Rupert, book writer and lyricist Matthew Riopelle and director Scott Wise.

"Streets of America" is about the lives and loves of three brothers amid the passions that exploded on the streets of San Francisco in the late 1960s. It's also about the heady folk-rock music of that day. And it's about what they call The Society, a fictional political street theater group like the famous San Francisco Mime Troupe, which provides the musical's framing device.

We found the composer, Michael Rupert, on Broadway, pursuing his day job, playing Professor Callahan in someone else's hit musical, "Legally Blonde." Rupert, 56, was a teenager in the late '60s, growing up in Southern California, but his circle of friends extended to the Bay Area.

"I was a musician, into the whole San Francisco sound and California folk-rock sound," he says. He wasn't in college yet, so he was a little young to be involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. "But come '72, '73, I was in the draft lottery, so I became very aware of what was going on."

By then, Rupert had also started his performing career, which began on Broadway in 1968 as the boy in "The Happy Time" (he received a Tony nomination even though the musical flopped). Most notably, he went on to win a Tony as Oscar in the 1986 Debbie Allen revival of "Sweet Charity," to play Marvin in "Falsettos" (Tony nomination) and to take over the role of Father in "Ragtime." Along the way, he also made his Broadway debut as a composer in 1988 with "Mail."

As a composer looking for a collaborator, he met Riopelle about eight years ago. Riopelle was working on a show with a professor of his from the Boston Conservatory, and Rupert was touring with "Ragtime." "I knew him more as an actor, but I knew he had written 'Mail,' " says Riopelle, some 20 years younger than Rupert. They hit it off and began talking about creating a show about the '60s: "Not much had been written about it other than 'Hair.' "

They came up with three separate stories set in different years and using different musical styles: one in the 1963 Mississippi delta, with a blues sound; one about a 1967 Philadelphia girl, using the girl-group sound; and one in 1969 San Francisco, focusing on an up-and-coming folk-rock singer, modeled on Phil Ochs.

"It's really a trilogy," says Riopelle, with far too much story for one show. They had to choose which story they could tell the best, and in a workshop, people responded most to the San Francisco story.

They worked in the usual way, Rupert says, with Riopelle sending him a lyric. "But as I'd start to set it to music, I'd go off in another direction and his lyrics didn't fit, so I'd write dummy lyrics and ask if he could re-write. More often than not, my dummy lyrics seemed to work. But except for one or two songs, almost every lyric started with Matt. It was the same with the book. I acted almost as an editor, and pretty soon I was helping to write it as well."

"Michael is brilliant," says Riopelle. "He thinks on all those different levels -- writer, director, actor, producer. He's always saying, 'We've got to be entertaining.' " Riopelle distinguishes their show from "Hair" as "much more of a book musical. The structure is classic, about how the characters develop with a payoff at the end."

Unlike Rupert, he had no memories of the '60s. But he had a lucky break. Working as a personal trainer, he met Susan Rosenberg, a former member of the radical left organization Weather Underground, just freed by President Clinton after 16 years in prison. She told him her story and asked what he was working on, so he gave her the script, and she became a kind of native informant, even inviting him to a homecoming party with some ex-radical friends.

He was still struggling with the characters' motivations when she told him something he considers important: "Sometimes we do the wrong things for the right reasons. ... That's kind of what the show is about."

On to Pittsburgh

Their show is in Pittsburgh because of "Ragtime" and Scott Wise.

At just this time last year, Rupert directed a splendid "Ragtime" for Point Park, assisted by Wise. Rupert thought so much of his skills as a director and dramaturg that he gave him the script of "Streets of America" to read for suggestions. Wise came up with three single-spaced pages of notes, the basis for another rewrite.

A self-described country boy, Wise graduated from Penn State with a degree in health-care administration. But he made a U-turn into dance, then moved into choreography and directing.

Now 45, he started teaching part time at Point Park nearly two decades ago and gradually grew into one of the pillars of its big program in musical theater. But he has also worked for many theaters in town, especially Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, for whom his work has included directing "James Joyce's The Dead" and the upcoming "Pride and Prejudice."

Wise surprised Rupert and Riopelle by saying he thought they already had something about ready to stage. So he took "Streets of America" to Point Park's Playhouse Rep producing director Ron Lindblom, who is ambitious for the Downtown university to develop new works.

Lindblom was even willing to provide a three-week workshop last June with professional actors. Riopelle was able to get here three days each week, and Rupert managed a few days, too, and they did another rewrite. They've continued to rewrite during rehearsals this fall.

Riopelle says a college is a perfect place to stage their material, because the characters are already college-age, they get a much fuller production than they could otherwise afford, and Pittsburgh is far from the pressure cooker of Manhattan.

"There are enormous resources you don't have in a [professional] workshop, with its time limits. And there's a freshness, the kids aren't jaded, there's a willingness to try things. You can shape something and you won't end up in some Broadway chat room. That's why a lot of pieces with potential don't develop, because it's a vicious world."

There are also the Point Park personnel, starting with Wise but including the student performers, the designers and music director Douglas Levine, on whom both Rupert and Riopelle shower praise. Riopelle says there are a couple of young performers "I'd put up against anyone."

They will both be here for Thursday's opening. "We're actually going to get to see what we have," Rupert says. "It's like having a first-class, fully realized workshop, but also a full production."

Maybe the show will have a future, too.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

A week in the war in Texas

Every week one Texan soldier dies in Iraq and 10 are wounded. Gary Younge reports on how war is affecting Bush's home state

Saturday October 6, 2007
The Guardian

In Texas, late summer, the sun clings to you like a second skin, baking the day and all those who venture into it. The Lone Star State is vast, the size of Germany, Italy and Denmark combined, and coping with the heat is one of the few things that unites everyone who lives here. On a sweltering Friday, Carl Rising-Moore and three others stand next to a ditch by the Broken Spoke ranch in Crawford, Texas, and wait for President George Bush to arrive home for a barbecue. Rising-Moore holds a banner saying "Traitor ... Impeach". The secret service tell him to move to the other side of the gate. He refuses. They arrest him and send him to jail.
More than 100 miles away in Fort Worth, Lance Corporal Patrick Myers returns home to streets lined with American flags and an escort of "Patriot Guard Riders" on motorcycles. Myers, 23, used to ride a motorcycle himself, but rolls home today in a wheelchair from an army medical centre in San Antonio. Two years ago he was driving his Humvee near the Syrian border in Iraq when it struck a wayside bomb and he lost both his legs.

In a New York courtroom, Texas oilman David Chalmers pleads guilty to conspiracy in a scheme to pay illegal kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime in return for the right to buy oil.

And in Austin that same day, Will Martin, 19, stands in the shadow of the State Capitol at the head of a youth demonstration to announce the end of the war. "A lot of young people lack the confidence to challenge authority," Martin says. "We want to tell them that things can change if you want them to. The first step is to declare the war over."

While the war does not dominate daily conversation in America, it nags at people's consciousness, like a dripping tap or a wayward car alarm. "It is kind of like a low-grade fever," a Democratic congressman told the New York Times recently. "It worries them, but they are so used to the drumbeat of death, destruction and confusion, they don't know how to react."

Nowhere more so than in Texas, home to nearly 200,000 military personnel as well as the president who has deployed them. According to a recent Lyceum poll, Texans believe the war is by far the single most important issue facing the nation. Almost everyone here, including me, seems to have a relative or friend in the military or to have served themselves - my cousin from Houston has fought in the war.

In any average week, the body of one Texan soldier will be flown home from Iraq and 10 others will return wounded. In that sense, this random Friday was the beginning of a very regular week.

Friday, Austin

Martin had hoped for 1,000, but in the end only around 150 show up. Most I speak to are disappointed with the turnout. "We haven't had a good demonstration here since March," David Morris says. "It's hard to tell why people aren't more motivated."

Austin, a university town, has a reputation, as a liberal island marooned in a sea of Texan conservatism, that is not entirely deserved. Texas isn't that conservative and Austin isn't that liberal. The last time Bush's approval ratings were above 50% here was January 2006 - he's more popular in 20 other states. In 2004, the year Republicans took the state with 68% of the vote, Dallas elected a lesbian, Hispanic, Democratic sheriff. Most of the border counties are also Democrat. It may be the home state of the leader of the war on terror, but it was also the native land of the leader of the war on poverty, President Lyndon Johnson.

"Texas is unfairly characterised as homogenous and monolithic," says Daron Shaw, the director of the Lyceum poll. "On some issues, like gun culture, it's almost impossible to be too conservative. But on others, like immigration, it's a moving target and much more diverse than people give it credit for. When I conducted the recent poll, I was shocked by how polarised and disparate attitudes to the war actually were."

Back at the State Capitol, what the demonstrators lack in numbers they make up for in spirit. Six older women, one bare-breasted, spell out "I-M-P-E-A-C-H" on human billboards, while another man carries a banner rallying "Girlie men against imperialism". Most messages involve permutations of "oil", "troops", "impeach", "war", "Bush" and "Cheney".

The demonstration began as a re-enactment. In 1967, guitarist and activist Phil Ochs declared the Vietnam war was over to a crowd of around 100,000 (eight years before the White House recognised that the end had come). Forty years later, Martin and the other teenage organisers - some of whose parents had demonstrated against the Vietnam war - replicate Ochs' message, word for word at some points, for a smaller crowd and a different war.


Friday, 21 September 2007

John Train

Jon Houlon was already thinking about writing political songs when Neil Young gave him a kick in the pants with Living with War last year.

"I'd already written a few hundred songs about myself," Houlon, the leader of John Train, says with a laugh. The country-flavored Philadelphia folk-rock band has just released its fourth album, the sterling life-during-wartime song cycle Mesopotamia Blues, and will hold down its regular Friday happy-hour slot at Fergie's Pub in Center City tonight before going over to Johnny Brenda's to open for Frog Holler.

"But I'm a student of folk music, and a lot of the people I admire from the '60s, like Dylan and Phil Ochs, wrote about what was happening in the world around them," Houlon continues. "Plus, I'm a huge fan of the Clash. So I thought it was time to start looking outward, instead of inward."

When Young put out his sonic salvo against the Bush administration, he challenged young songwriters to write antiwar music of their own. So Houlon, 39, who works as a lawyer for Philadelphia's Department of Human Services by day and leads John Train and the garage-rock outfit the Donuts by night, figured that was his job.

"I love Neil, but I thought that album [Living with War] was a little ill-considered, a little too from-the-hip," says Houlon, who lives in Mount Airy with his wife and stepson. "I wanted to dig a little deeper."

He read Jon Lee Anderson's The Fall of Baghdad, which pointed him to Rudyard Kipling's poem "Mesopotamia," a protest directed at bungling British leadership in what is now Iraq in the early 20th century, which Houlon put to a piano melody. He read a book of Iraqi folk tales, which inspired the steel-guitar-kissed "The Kind Merchant."

And to broaden the album's perspective, he included songs by his favorite Texas songwriters Butch Hancock and Terry Allen, and reached back to cover Vietnam-era songs such as Tom T. Hall's "Mama Bake a Pie" and John Stewart's "Draft Age," which in turn compelled Houlon to write the Iraq war sequel "Mulloy 2006."

Though between John Train and the Donuts, he's released 10 albums in the last decade, Houlon calls himself an "amateur musician." There's nothing amateurish about Mesopotamia Blues, however. The production by Mike "Slo-Mo" Brenner of the album recorded at Fishtown's Miner Street studio brings a skilled and versatile roots ensemble to life, and Houlon succeeds at writing story songs, not screeds.

"I can't really say there's a message in the songs," Houlon says. "I'm writing more descriptively than prescriptively. I'm trying more to make a painting than make a point."

- Dan DeLuca

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Wall-to-wall music drives 'Seeger' film


Unlike Jane Fonda, Pete Seeger is not about to apologize for his trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War.

One thing that comes across strongly in Jim Brown's documentary, "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song," is the consistency of the folksinger's beliefs throughout a long and turbulent career. He didn't quit The Weavers when they were blacklisted for their leftist politics; he quit when they did a cigarette commercial.

Whenever Seeger came up against a wall, he opened a door. Banned from network television, he produced his own folk music program for public TV. When the FBI made it difficult for him to perform in commercial venues, he took to the schools.

The film is an illustrated oral history of Seeger's life and work, driven by wall-to-wall music, most of it written and performed by Seeger. Exceptions include a rare clip of Bob Dylan singing "Blowin' in the Wind" from the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, and Elizabeth Cotton performing "Freight Train" on Seeger's television show, "Rainbow Quest."

The music is always well integrated into the biographical material. The lovely "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" accompanies a collage of photographs picturing Seeger and his wife, Toshi. A clip of Paul Robeson singing "Joe Hill" introduces the beginning of Seeger's problems with the anti-Red movement.

Although Seeger was among the leading forces of the 1950s and '60s folk music revival, the film mistakenly credits him as its sole instigator. No mention is made of the political refugees from South Africa, such as Miriam Makeba, who fueled the civil rights movement with their forceful protest music. Also significantly absent is any reference to Phil Ochs, the country's most important topical songwriter since Woody Guthrie.

Director Brown has made a career of chronicling the history of American folk music, and "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song" is a worthy companion piece to his 1982 debut, "The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time?" Somewhat compromised by an reverential tone, it is most successful when approaching its subject as a man, not a saint. Seeger's greatest attribute as a performer was his ability to get an audience to sing along, even when they didn't want to. Two years shy of his 90th birthday, he sums up his philosophy in these words: "Participation is going to save the human race."

Monday, 2 July 2007

Phil Ochs Myths

Myth #1: Phil Ochs appeared on the CBS Evening News singing "I Ain't
Marching Anymore" on the courthouse steps during the Chicago 7 trial.
--Marc Eliot tells this story in Death of a Rebel. A scan through the
CBS Evening News broadcasts from this period reveals no references to
Ochs, and the day in question (December 11, 1969) had no Chicago 7
trial coverage. The next day CBS gave brief coverage of Allen
Ginsberg's testimony. Ochs did appear on the rival NBC Evening News
on December 11, albeit in the form of courtroom drawings of the

Myth #2: Phil sang "Chords of Fame" on NBC's Midnight Special.
--This has been posted on various websites based on personal
memories. However, surviving tapes and TV show listings indicate that
Ochs sang "Power and the Glory" and "Changes." Ochs was also
prevented at the last minute from performing "Here's to the State of
Richard Nixon."

Myth #3: Phil borrowed the melody of "Joe Hill" from Woody
Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd."
--This is stated in Michael Schumacher's book There But for Fortune.
As Ochs relates to John Lennon in the 1971 hotel room tape, "Joe
Hill" was in fact based on a traditional melody that Woody Guthrie
(among others) used for the song "John Hardy."

Myth #4: Phil sang "I Should Have Known Better" with Eric Andersen at
Newport in 1964.
--Again from Schumacher's book. This performance appears on The
Broadside Tapes 1 (Folkways Records) and according to David Cohen's
book Phil Ochs: A Bio-Bibliography, it originates from a Broadside
Hootenanny recorded at the Village Gate in New York City on November
1, 1964.