Monday, 10 August 2009

Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock's Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock

By Richie Unterberger

If [Fred] Neil's problem was an inability to handle fame, Phil Ochs had almost the opposite predicament: Fame wasn't coming quickly enough. In particular, he couldn't match the fame of Bob Dylan, the competitor whose discarded topical song torch he was bearing, and who ruthlessly put Ochs down as a singing journalist. Although he remained an active performer in 1966 and 1967, Ochs sat out the folk-rock tempest for about a year-and-a-half as his Elektra contract expired and he shopped for another deal, moving to Los Angeles from New York. Aside from his fine, virtually unheard UK-only single with an electric version of his protest classic "I Ain't Marching Anymore," he hadn't released a single electric folk-rock recording on Elektra. (Intriguingly, however, Lee Mallory had a minor hit in 1966 with an elaborately produced harmony sunshine pop-rock version of a song written by Ochs and folkie Bob Gibson, "That's the Way It's Gonna Be.") "Phil Ochs was beset by a devil that was very difficult for me to deal with, and that was his Dylan fixation," says Holzman. "We did great records with Phil. But he didn't feel we were doing enough for him. When a person doesn't feel that we're doing enough, the right thing to do is give them their release, and let 'em go elsewhere."

Eventually he hooked up with A&M, for whom he finally went decisively not just electric, but orchestral, with grandiose flamboyance. Pleasures of the Harbor (1967) and Tape from California (1968) were among folk-rock's most wide-ranging ventures, with erratic if generally worthy results. From Pleasures, "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends," Ochs's most celebrated song, was inspired by the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, which eyewitnesses did nothing to stop. It proved the art of the topical song was far from dead, its jaunty mock-Dixieland-tack piano arrangement contrasting magnificently with Och's deadpan account of apathetic bystanders refusing to intervene in crimes to justice and morality. It probably would have been a hit single if not for a reference to marijuana, and although two subsequent edited versions were released, it became another victim of unofficial blacklist by AM radio.

Producer Larry Marks put Och's songs in settings that were sometimes ideal counterpoints for the lyrics, as on "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends" and "The Party," a cinematic eight-minute skewering of a socialite gathering with cocktail jazz backup. At other times, however, the rococo baroque-classical arrangements smothered the lyrics; the L.A. session-rock playing fell flat; or caution-to-the-wind experimentalism actually worked against the songs, as on "The Crucifixion," which fought against dissonant electronic treatments by arranger Joseph Byrd. Live, however, like several folk-rock singer-songwriters who'd already gone electric on record, Ochs usually continued to play solo acoustic. For those who felt songs such as "Crucifixion" were ill-served by their overambitious studio arrangements, the archival CD There & Now: Live in Vancouver, 1968 is a recommended alternative, featuring solo acoustic versions of "Crucifixion" and other songs from his late-'60s albums.

Ochs was now dividing his time between topical songs and ever-more abstract poetry, leading Tape from California to change lanes as often as the L.A. traffic. "The War Is Over" was one of the great antiwar songs, with its martial fife-and-drums slamming home Ochs's reports of one-legged veterans whistling as they mowed their lawns; the 13-minute "When in Rome" was interminable, impenetrable, and dripping with syrupy strings. His greatest wish was for these albums to lift him into pop stardom. Yet although they were admired and sold more than most mid-'60s folk LPs had, they didn't come close to being hits. Ochs wanted fame and wide sociocultural influence, but seemed inherently unable to make the artistic compromises that might have gotten him more of it. The contradiction in shooting for high sales with highly literate, controversial anti-establishment manifestos that would have sailed over the heads of much of the great unwashed and been greeted with hostility by major radio outlets does not seem to have been one that he fully comprehended.

"When I took over managing him in '67, he wanted to make his Sgt. Pepper album," says his brother, Michael Ochs. "Having grown up in the movie theaters, he wanted to make Pleasures of the Harbor the John Wayne movie Long Voyage Home. He wanted to do it full orchestral. When he wrote songs like 'Pleasures of the Harbor' and 'Crucifixion,' he wanted to do more with the songs. He wasn't, like, thinking about going into folk-rock. He wanted to be the Beatles. He wanted to be mixing every form of music, from classical to Hollywood-type to rock to you-name-it."

Ochs also had made the leap, as Dylan had before him, of moving beyond protest songs to personal ones, although Phil differed in that he blended sociopolitical songs with introspective poetic ones rather than abandoning topical songwriting altogether. That widening of his repertoire actually dated back to the most popular song on his final Elektra album, the lovely romantic tune "Changes," which in Michael's view "surprised him [Phil]. It was like, 'Oh, this is totally different than anything else I've ever written.' Phil did not think this out. If he would still buy the news, and still get most of his material from that, he would have been just as happy.

"But what happened was, the muse changed within him. He started writing more personal stuff, and that's something he'd never done before. When he wrote 'Changes,' he went, 'Boy, this is great stuff.' Then he opened himself up for more of that type of stuff. But I think it was also the hardest thing for him to do, 'cause emotionally, he played everything very close to the vest. It was very hard for him to get in touch with his emotions." By the end of the 1960s that difficulty and other psychological problems would begin to short-circuit his career as he came up against writer's block, though in 1968 he still seemed as prolific as ever.

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