Sunday, 29 March 2009

American Troubadours: Groundbreaking Singer Songwriters of the 60s

by Mark Brend

"Some have chosen to decay
and others chose to die,
But I'm not dying, no I'm not dying,
Tell me I'm not dying."
From "The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns" by Phil Ochs, A&M Records

Phil Ochs started out as the archetypal protest singer producing "topical songs" on albums with titles like All The News That's Fit To Sing. Later in the 1960s he embarked on a fascinating phase of introspective pop experimentation, but by the early 1970s - just ten years since the start of his career - he had become a washed-up alcoholic on the way to an early death.

"On the first day of summer, 1975, Phil Ochs was murdered in the Chelsea Hotel by John Train, who is now speaking. I killed Phil Ochs. The reason I killed him was he was some kind of genius but he drank too much and was a boring old fart. For the good of societies, public and secret, he needed to be gotten rid of. Although he had good ideas, i.e. An Evening With Salvador Allende and a couple of songs like 'Crucifixion' and 'Changes', he was no longer needed or useful. He was too embarrassing at parties..."

The paranoid, violent, shambling drunk John Train was a sinister figure staggering through the closing chapter of the Phil Ochs story, brandishing a hammer, threatening friends and strangers, men and women. He had started life as some kind of darkly comic alter-ego - Phil Ochs's last creation - but came to acquire a malign power of his own that his creator could not or would not control. When the real Phil Ochs was depressed, directionless, despairing and vulnerable, Train stepped into his skin, spending his money, decimating his relationships and trampling over the detritus of his career, before leaving him broke and broken.

From childhood to the end of his life Phil Ochs found release, escape and inspiration in the movies, sometimes catching as many as six films during the course of a day. He loved the great screen idols - John Wayne, James Dean, Marlon Brando - not in an ironic, distanced way, but with the adoration of a fan, a dreamer and an enthusiast. He loved them for what their images stood for rather than what they really were. He also loved Elvis Presley, an infatuation that was to become manifest in a pivotal episode in Ochs's decline. "I'm a victim of myths, I love the idea of myths," he said. "I love the idea of Hank Williams, I love the idea of Jesse James, I love the idea of Elvis Presley, I love the idea of John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X."

It was ironic, then, that a man so aware of the power of images became one himself, a symbol of the vacuum left by the evaporating idealism of the 1960s folk generation, an archetype of youthful idealism that burnt itself out.

The Phil Ochs who survives in public consciousness is a guitar-toting revolutionary firing acoustic broadsides at Republicans. It's an accurate enough reflection of his early career, when he was recording "topical songs" for Elektra. But one of the tragedies of this most tragic of stories is that as he moved beyond his folk-protest beginnings to the intriguing, ornate, baroque chamber pop of his later A&M albums, he started to lose his modest audience. That music, his best, is all too often obscured by the enduring picture of the strident protestor who finished up a lowly entry in the list of 1960s casualties, way behind the big figures like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Brian Jones.

Philip David Ochs was born on December 19th 1940 in El Paso, Texas. He had an older sister, Sonia (known as Sonny), and a younger brother, Michael. His father, Jacob, was a Polish Jew who had emigrated with his parents to the US. Unable to get a place in a medical school in his adopted homeland, Jacob had moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he studied at the University. There he struck up a friendship with the brother of the woman who later became his wife, Gertrude Phin.

After marrying, Ochs's parents moved to the States. Almost immediately Jacob Ochs was drafted into the army. After postings in several different States he was sent overseas in early 1945, where he saw frontline action in the bloody closing stages of the war with Germany. When he returned, the balance of his sensitive, imaginative mind had become disturbed and he battled with episodic depression for the rest of his life.

The Ochs children had an unsettled childhood. Their father, too unreliable to sustain his own medical practice, found work in tuberculosis hospitals around the country, one of the lowest ranking jobs for a doctor. The family eventually landed up in Columbus, Ohio. Accounts of Phil Ochs's early years describe him as a solitary daydreamer, prone to staring out the window during classes, and finding solace in photography and cinema. By the time the family arrived in Ohio, Ochs had been persuaded by his mother to take up a musical instrument. He settled on the clarinet because the music shop didn't have in stock either a trumpet or a saxophone, his first choices. Despite being an initially reluctant pupil, Ochs excelled, and soon music was added to his list of consuming passions.

As a teenager Ochs chose to attend a military school in order to pursue his musical interests in the institution's band. Once there he became disillusioned with the formal, restrictive nature of marching-band music. By this time he was listening to the radio and developing infatuations for Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and Elvis, passions that would survive through to adulthood. He had cosmetic surgery to correct what he thought was an ugly nose; he grew his straight dark hair long on top and slicked it back, in an attempt to look like Elvis. He started to talk about being a star.

In 1958 Ochs enrolled at Ohio State University where he studied journalism. In early 1959, when Fidel Castro and Che Guevara first started to appear on American television, Ochs adopted them into his pantheon of idols, initially as much for their romantic, rebel-chic appearance as their politics. Dropping out of college before completing his first year, he re-enrolled at the start of what would have been his second. He met a politically aware guitar-playing Elvis enthusiast called Jim Glover with whom he started to write, to play and to sing songs, and won his first guitar from Glover in a bet. They called themselves The Sundowners after a Robert Mitchum film, but following a falling-out with Glover, Ochs began to perform solo.

By now Ochs was consumed by the manic energy that would carry him through early adulthood and punctuate his later depressions. He was writing for the college newspaper, editing his own more radical publication, bombarding the local town newspaper with letters, and spewing out songs by the dozen. Ignoring the protestations of his parents, Ochs eventually quit his studies shortly before graduating. He became disillusioned when he was passed over for editorship of the college newspaper, apparently because he was too politically radical. This time he didn't re-enrol.

It was 1962, Greenwich Village in New York City was alluring for an American youth with a guitar, a political conscience and a few songs. Ochs made the inevitable pilgrimage. Within months he was as immersed in the burgeoning folk community as anyone. He was publishing articles and songs in the radical magazine Broadside, playing at Folk City and other clubs, and scribbling lyrics for songs on whatever scraps of paper he could find.

His early songs were rudimentary in construction, sharing similar chord sequences and melodies, and always about something specific: a current event, an injustice, a message. At this stage there was little to separate Ochs from the many other earnest young strummers - except perhaps an almost overpowering self confidence that manifested itself when he would barge in on conversations to tell people he was going to be a star, and when he played his songs to anybody who would listen.

The energetic, articulate, engaging Ochs - shabbily dressed, stammering, hair falling in a greasy forelock over his eyes - pushed through the massed ranks of contenders with enthusiasm and intelligence until he assumed a position in the upper echelons of the Village hierarchy. For a while he, Dylan and David Blue were close friends, a trinity of fast-talking iconoclasts who spoke, wrote and sang with cynicism, idealism, romanticism and a sharp, scathing wit.

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