Friday, 25 April 2008

British invaders reborn

Peter and GordonBy Tom Harrison, The Province


On the one hand, Peter and Gordon were doing substantial folk-rock typified by their recording of Phil Ochs' "Flower Lady."

"Phil Ochs was a friend of mine," notes Asher. "'I Ain't Marching Anymore.' God, we need that song now."

Read more: British invaders reborn

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Phil Ochs in Africa

Photo of Phil Ochs by Tom CopiPhil Ochs
George Myers, Jr., Westerville, Ohio

I was attending the Royal University of Nairobi in 1973 and, on a green wooded hill a mile away, sharing a two-man room in the YMCA. One day a heavy-set man announced himself from the doorway, bougainvillea in bloom behind him on a makeshift trellis. He strode in, dragging an army surplus bag and a guitar, and dropped wearily on the cot facing me. He wore a funny blue cap, like a beret maybe, and fatigues. The army jacket was too warm for the weather. In my thinking about it I missed his name.

Pushed by indifference, the man reached into his duffel bag, withdrew a book or album and tossed it to me. It was The Phil Ochs Songbook. The man was Phil Ochs, folksinger and songwriter, author of any number of small hits from the sixties. He was disturbed I didn’t recognize his name at the outset, but was pleased that I eventually did. I was twenty, not yet into my time. His time had passed, he said. Over the next three weeks he would say that the past was a terrible burden on him, that the ‘movement’ was dead, that there were no more issues, no more dragons to slay.

Ochs had just been mugged and beaten up by robbers in Tanzania and he was working his way through Kenya, sore throat, guitar and dungarees. Ochs said he was looking for a cause, to be ‘reignited,’ as he said it. He had set up a recording session at an EMI-affiliated studio in Nairobi and did produce, after much translation problems, a two-sider to be played on local jukeboxes, and it was after that he moved on.

My favourite memory of Ochs was when we attended Once Upon a Time in the West for the second time at a rundown old movie house in Nairobi. The Jason Robards-Henry Fonda film was his favourite, he said, and he knew its scenes forward and backward. The locals, however, did not. About two hours into the picture, the projectionist goofed up the order of the reels and played the finale too soon, and then continued with the out-of-order reel. I could understand a little Swahili by that time and could hear that no one in the audience seemed to notice, or care. The fact that one man could be shot and killed, then rise up again alive seemed perfectly okay to everyone.

Ochs was enraged, at first. He left his seat to talk to the projectionist and came back happy. I asked him what happened. ‘You’ll see,’ he said. And I did see, for another three hours. He talked the projectionist into playing the reels in the right order. By lengthening the film to a marathon five-plus hours, we could watch Fonda live, be killed off, live again and then die a second time around. No one thought anything amiss, from what I could tell. Ochs was particularly pleased; he was laughing.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Phil Ochs as Elvis Presley

A few months ago I provided background materials on Phil Ochs' 1970 Carnegie Hall "gold suit" concerts to Dan Booth, for a conference with the Experience Music Project, a museum in Seattle, Washington. Last Friday, he gave the presentation as part of the "Continuum of Protest" panel. Here is the abstract:
"Phil Ochs as Elvis Presley: Gunfight at Carnegie Hall"
Contradictions are our hope! -Bertolt Brecht

If there’s any hope for America, it lies in a revolution, and if there’s any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara. - Phil Ochs

In 1970 Phil Ochs felt played out as a protest singer, his faith in the transformative power of music challenged by the ongoing war. So the post-Dylan heir apparent of folk lay claim to a different throne. He wore a gold suit from Elvis Presley’s tailor on his next record cover and on tour, performing Elvis and Buddy Holly medleys. He became a walking contradiction: a folksinger playing chords of fame. It was a radical challenge to his fans, who found the oldies shtick not just retrograde but counter-revolutionary. At the notorious show documented on Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, the crowd booed him at first, cheering when a heckler cried, “Bring back Phil Ochs!” He responded with the hippie-baiting “Okie From Muskogee.” In the end the audience embraced the concept, demanding encores for a Phil reinvigorated through Elvis, and recuperating the old wild Elvis as reanimated by Phil. Earnest and uproarious, confronting the mainstream and the underground at once, this event is a model for inspired engagement with the world. My paper will use Gunfight as a means to explore notions of folk music as pop, culture as politics, performance art as show business, message as method, and Phil Ochs as Elvis Presley.

Dan Booth is a lawyer in Boston. He has written about music for the Boston Phoenix, In These Times, Index and a bunch of zines. He is an editor for the film journal, The Molten Rectangle. His dad once gave Phil Ochs a lift to a gig after a demonstration.
Here is some commentary on the presentation from the KEXP Blog:
So excited was I then to hear Dan Booth’s liberating call to artistic challenge, “Phil Ochs as Elvis Presley: ‘Gunfight at Carnegie Hall,’” which reminded me of how the protest singer once took amazing chances with his art and image, when folk music was the indie rock of its time. Booth is a zine dude who name-checked the Minutemen and The Mekons as he took the podium (yeah!), and described how Ochs became disenchanted with the ineffective political stiff-necks of his fan-base and forced them to give up phony grabs at authenticity, finding truth in the raw vision of artists like Merle Haggard — exemplified by himself dressing up like Elvis and playing raw rock and roll along with his caustic political songs. I’ve been an Ochs fan for years but never really understood this bizarre experiment until now. Ochs’ best quote on the subject: “To cater to an audience’s taste is not to respect it.” Ochs showed how anger could be used not only in the content of his lyrics but in the form in which he presented it.

Saturday, 12 April 2008


Venice Magazine, April 1999

Alex Simon: Let's talk about Images, which is a very overlooked film. I have an interesting story about this. Phil Ochs, who was a famous folk singer in the 60's, went to see Images with a friend of mine. Halfway through the film, when it's still not quite clear what Susannah York's visions are all about, Phil turned to my friend and said "I get it now. This chick's gonna kill herself." And three years later, Phil committed suicide. I can't think of any other film before or since that's captured the psychology of a suicidal mind so vividly.

Robert Altman: That's very interesting, I didn't know about that. I like that movie a lot. (Susannah York's) character was going through all that, and the images that she kept seeing led to that confrontation with herself. So I think we did succeed in capturing that psychology. The only thing that dates it is that goddamned wardrobe, with the boots and the mini-skirts, all those Carnaby Street fashions. Susannah York did her own wardrobe, and again, that's the only thing that I don't like about the film today. The clothes just date it so badly.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Newport 1963

Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger at the Newport Folk Festival, July 28, 1963Phil Ochs' "Birch Society Song" was not only a "tribute" to the John Birch Society, but his solution to the dearth of song material available as "groups move farther and farther to the right...I wrote this song for them, so they can sing when they get together," he said. The very basic song began with the line "I like Hitler, jolly, jolly Hitler" and ended with a chorus "Loyally we Birch along." Since it was not as clever or well-written as Bob Dylan's "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," would Ochs have chosen to perform it at Newport, and during his first appearance there, no less?

Pictured at the top right are Dylan and Pete Seeger, performing the song "Playboys and Playgirls" at the Newport Folk Festival on July 28, 1963. Earlier that day on the same stage, Phil Ochs made his debut performance at the festival, singing "Too Many Martyrs" and "Talking Birmingham Jam." That much everyone agrees on, as these two tracks are included on the releases Phil Ochs Live At Newport and The Early Years. Beyond this point, accounts have differed. Marc Eliot in Death of a Rebel reports that Ochs played two more songs, "Birch Society Song" ("the enthusiasm was boisterous, contagious") and an encore of "Power and the Glory." Eliot then writes that after the show Seeger passed Ochs a note that called the "Birch" song "sophomoric." Michael Schumacher in There But for Fortune seems to indicate that Ochs' performance ended with "Talking Birmingham Jam." Neither accounts are true.

As the original sound recording of the event reveals, Ochs rounded off his set with "Talking Cuban Crisis," which was certainly more polished than "Birch Society Song." The note from Seeger on the "Birch" being "sophomoric" had been in fact passed to Ochs in September of the previous year. Seeger likely heard the song from Ochs' 1962 demo of the song recorded by Sis Cunningham of Broadside Magazine. So, Ochs did not play "Birch" at Newport (or ever in front of an audience, as far as we know). He instead played two "talking blues" numbers, with similar musical accompaniment, in a row. He would play another, "Talking Vietnam," the following year at Newport. Within two years, he was finished with "talking blues" genre, abandoning the songs altogether. Eliot's presumed selection, "Power and the Glory," would likely have made a better choice to close his 1963 set, but Ochs instead chose to use the song to open his 1964 Newport nighttime performance.

The full three reels of the July 28, 1963 Newport performances contain the following:
1. Pete Seeger - (intro regarding topical songs and new songwriters)
2. Jim Garland - I'm Crazy 'Bout You, Baby
3. Jim Garland - Gimme Back My Job
4. Peter La Farge - Ira Hayes
5. Peter La Farge - Custer
6. Peter La Farge - Coyote, My Little Brother
7. Tom Paxton - The Willing Conscript
8. Tom Paxton - Ramblin' Boy
9. Pete Seeger - Intoxicated Rat
10. Pete Seeger - Weave Room Blues
11. Phil Ochs - Too Many Martyrs
12. Phil Ochs - Talking Birmingham Jam
13. Phil Ochs - Talking Cuban Crisis
14. Pete Seeger - Tom Dooley
15. The Freedom Singers - Fighting For My Rights
16. The Freedom Singers - I Love Your Dog, I Love My Dog
17. The Freedom Singers - Calypso Freedom
18. Mississippi John Hurt - Candy Man Blues
19. Mississippi John Hurt - Stagolee
20. Mississippi John Hurt - Trouble, I've Had It All My Days
21. Mike Settle - Little Boy
22. Mike Settle - Sing Hallelujah
23. Tom Paxton with Pete Seeger - A Little Brand New Baby
24. Tom Paxton with Pete Seeger - Hope You Have a Mighty Nice Life
25. Bob Dylan - Who Killed Davey Moore
26. Bob Dylan - Masters of War
27. Bob Dylan with Pete Seeger - Playboys and Playgirls

Interestingly, Ochs' performance that day was not only recorded on audio tape, but there is a good chance it was captured on film as well. Dylan's Newport performance of "Who Killed Davey Moore" listed above is available on the DVD The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965.

The Never-Ending Revival: Rounder Records and the Folk Alliance

By Michael F. Scully

Born in 1954, I was too young to have experienced the revival as it occurred. I came to it in early 1968, in a moment that I recall with great clarity. Walking into the living room of my family's home in Queens, New York City, I saw a guitarist on television singing an explicit antiwar song, a type of song that I had never before heard. "Phil Ochs," said my older sister. At the time, I was a precocious thirteen-year-old with an incipient political consciousness and a developing fascination with the growing anti-Vietnam War movement. I fancied myself a fan of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, though I knew nothing of the context in which their careers developed, and I did not truly understand Dylan. I had never heard of Ochs but was immediately in awe of him. I quickly purchased his three albums on Elektra Records, which consisted almost entirely of topical songs drawn, as Ochs acknowledged proudly, from the day's headlines.

The song I had heard on television was "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore," from the 1965 album of the same name. By the time I discovered it, the tune had become an antiwar anthem, though neither it nor Ochs had enjoyed anything approaching mainstream success. Like almost every song on those three records, its lyric was a straightfoward expression of Ochs' leftist sociopolitical beliefs. As other albums revelaed, Ochs' art was already moving beyond overt political commentary, but the topical explicitness of his earliest work was perfect, in my case, for educating a teenager ready to embrace the language of leftist "movement culture." I listened to those records virtually nonstop in that tumultuous year, 1968, leading my sister to joke that our neighbors, hearing the subversive sounds emanating from my bedroom window, would surely be calling the FBI. Now, whenever I hear someone pose the insoluble question of whether art can truly mold beliefs, I remember that Ochs' lyrical commitment to humanism, pluralism, and genuine democracy shapes my political value system to this day.

The Rolling Thunder Logbook

In the autumn of 1975, when New England was festering with Bicentennial madness, Bob Dylan and his Rolling Thunder Revue - a rag-tag variety show that Dylan envisioned as a traveling gypsy circus - toured twenty-two cities across the Northeast. Swept up in the motley crew, which included Joni Mitchell, T-Bone Burnett, Allen Ginsberg, Mick Ronson, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, was playwright Sam Shepard, ostensibly hired to write, on the spot, the script for a Fellini-esque, surreal movie that would come out of the tour. The script never materialized, but throughout the many moods and moments of his travels with Dylan and the troupe, Shepard kept an impressionistic Rolling Thunder Logbook of life on the road. Illuminated by forty candid photographs by official tour photographer Ken Regan - many never-before-published - Shepard's mental snapshots capture the camaraderie, isolation, head games, and pill-popping mayhem of the tour, providing a window into Dylan's singular talent, enigmatic charisma, and vision of America.


Blasted - 8th Street, New York

Phil Ochs is blasted out of his mind and trying to reconstruct the entire plotline of the film Hard Times to Dylan, who seems on the verge of taking a swan dive off a balcony in an 8th Street apartment. The apartment is one of those suave, party-oriented jobs with blond people draped all over the furniture. David Blue is handing out animal tranquilizers indiscriminately, in his double-breasted pinstripe gangster suit. Physically he seems like the only dude who could actually handle Phil Ochs if it came down to a matter of meat. Dylan is cranked up on some kind of funny chemical and keeps tapping his entire body to an inside rhythm. His eyes snake around the room, trying to find an opening. He's cornered by a sixteen-millimeter lens, a boom mike, a short girl who keeps referring to marriage, and various acoustic guitar pickers in the background, pretending he's out of earshot. Below, another scene is being set up for the film involving T-Bone Burnett disguised as a professional golfer, complete with golf bag and cap. The place is exploding with crazies. Outside, Ginsberg is yelling from the pavement, one story below, that he's ready for us to film him reading one of his poems. No one seems to hear. The film crew is raining sweat under the hot lights as more and more people cram into the space. Every once in a while somebody's girlfriend catches a glimpse of Dylan and tries to get her boyfriend to look up at the top of the stairs. He's crouched like a bat in black leather jacket and chewing on Red Man tobacco. He hands a chew to one of the girls beside him, who feels obliged to bite into it. She spits the whole thing over the balcony. It just misses the Tom Collins of somebody who doesn't seem to notice. The electric fire in the fireplace is being lit for the background motif. T-Bone is lining up a putt on the Persian carpet. We haven't even left town yet.