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.

1 comment:

themusicologist said...

excellent blog about an artist I have just discovered.

I'm a big fan of protest songs and Phil Ochs sounds like a champion in this arena.

I know almost nothing about him but am looking forward to listening and learning.

I especially empathise with his dissilusionment over the apathy society showed while the promise of revolution slipped away which, for a man like Ochs was obviously too much to bear.

Iv'e heard some of the 'leaders' of the anti-establishment movement speak and read and watched a fair amount about the 'counter-culture' and the conclusion I drew was that as the young became older there was too much for them to lose by being involved and it fizzled out leaving men like Ochs standing in the spotlight to 'take the rap'

there seems to have been a genuine opportunity to change the direction society was headed towards and Och's stood as tall as anyone.

I posted the live cut 'Ringing Of Revolution' during a recent theme on my 'musical diary' and it has inspired me to dig deeper into the Phil Ochs legacy so I am very pleased to have found your knowledge page.