Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Dylan: A Biography

By Bob Spitz

Bob was on the road when the news broke that the government of Chile had been overthrown by its military. Though the story probably eluded him, it had a devastating effect on other members of the New York folk community.

Pete Seeger, for one, had informal ties to members of the now-deposed Allende government and performed several Chilean folk songs in his repertoire. For Phil Ochs, the revolution meant a more personal and tragic loss. Ochs had maintained a close, albeit long-distance, friendship with folksinger Victor Jara, who was often described as "the Bob Dylan of Chile." As a result of the coup, Jara had been classified an enemy of the state, then dragged into Santiago's National Stadium where he was tortured and finally executed by members of General Pinochet's ruling junta.

Ochs was severely shaken by the news of Jara's death. Immediately, he set out to organize a concert to benefit the Chilean refugees and, in no small part, to embarrass CIA officials, whom he blamed for the coup. "I'm gonna pull this thing off if it's the last thing I do," he told a friend one night over drinks at Max's Kansas City. "I've already lined up the Felt Forum. And we're gonna have John Denver and Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine." Ochs then proceeded to get completely wasted and passed out, a condition that augured the concert plans themselves.

Ochs was in no shape to promote a folk concert, much less sing at one. His career had been in a kamikaze nosedive, brought on by fits of self-destructive fantasy. He struggled with alcoholism, manic depression, paranoia bordering on madness, and, worse perhaps, he had lost his voice as a result of having been mugged in Africa. Unable to sing, Ochs masqueraded as a political radical until the Chilean benefit materialized, and his Janus-like personality found a new focus.

The trouble was, nobody gave a damn about Phil Ochs or his concert. As an activist, he was a Model A in an era of hatchback sedans. He was an old hippie, struggling to keep the movement alive at a time when it was already considered long dead and buried. Politics was anathema to a generation of budding art-rockers who were content to entrust it to the politicians. To them, Sixties phenomena like drugs, Woodstock, peace, were relics of primitive man. The last thing they wanted to hear about was a Marxist politician from South America and the problems of Spanish-speaking refugees. And so, two weeks before the gig, only four hundred of the six thousand seats at the Felt Forum had been sold. The way it was shaping up, Phil Ochs had a major disaster on his hands. Not only wasn't he going to raise any money for the Chilean refugees, but his friends who'd put up a fifteen-thousand-dollar guaranty for the show were going to take a whopping bath.

His biggest problem was the entertainment. So far, only Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Melanie, and Arlo Guthrie had committed themselves to perform, and in 1975 they were comparable to the floor show at a Jewish hotel in the Catskills. John Denver was unavailable, Frank Sinatra was uninterested, and Joan Baez - to hear Phil tell it - was just plain uncharitable. Joan declined on the grounds that she had other things to do that night, which really infuriated Phil, considering she'd had her only hit single with his song "There But For Fortune."

"She's a no-class bitch!" he told Faris Bouhafa, the assistant manager at Max's, who was helping him with booking the talent. That night, at the club, the two men commiserated over an endless succession of drinks. The concert was in trouble, they both knew it, and it seemed they'd either have to come up with a last-minute miracle or pull the plug. Ochs, blinded by booze, began paging through a tattered copy of the Village Voice that someone had left on the table. In the music section, he squinted at an ad for Buffy Sainte-Marie, who was playing across town at a new club called the Bottom Line. "Hey, man, what have we got to lose? Let's go over there and see if Buffy wants to do our show," he suggested. "Maybe she can help us sell tickets."

Obviously, it was the act of a desperate man. Buffy Sainte-Marie might bring in five or ten old folkies, but a serious block of fans? Not a chance. The time was long past when a folksinger could draw a crowd in New York. Still, Ochs and Bouhafa stumbled over to the Bottom Line in the hope that they could pad the passenger list of their sinking ship.

When they arrived, Buffy was finishing the last few songs of the late show. The room was fairly light, there was a straggler or two at the bar, and Ochs walked over there to order a drink before last call. He was already drunk and reeling, barely able to stay on his feet. Then, as he inhaled the tumbler of vodka in his hands, Phil started to stare at a guy standing a few feet away from him at the bar. The last thing Faris wanted was for Phil to start up with someone, but before he could intercede, Phil was pointing with excitement. "I know that guy!" he insisted.

Bouhafa put a restraining hand on his shoulder. "C'mon, man - let's watch the show."

Too late, Phil walked over to the stranger and jabbed him in the ribs. "Hey! You're that kid from Minnesota who wrote a song about South American miners, right?"

Bob Dylan grinned at his old friend and said, "Yup."

"Well, I'm giving a benefit for those miners in two weeks and you're gonna be there!" Bob seemed startled and didn't answer. "When this show is over I want you to come over to my house and hear something."

There is no doubt that Phil's request was facilitated by the ridiculous amount of alcohol in his system. Bob and he hadn't spoken in almost ten years, and their last encounter had ended disastrously. It had been in 1966, after one of Bob's appearances at Carnegie Hall. Backstage, he played Phil the final mix of his new single, "Can You Please Crawl out Your Window," and was told it wasn't up to snuff...

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