Saturday, 5 September 2009

The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir

By Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald

My attitude is essentially that of a craftsman, and I thought a lot of times the politics got in the way of the craft. Also, there is a built-in flaw to topical songs, which is that if you live by the newspaper, you die by the newspaper. You may expend your greatest efforts and do some of your best writing about an incident that will be forgotten in six weeks. I mean, Phil Ochs was one of my best friends and I love a good many of his songs, but it always struck me as a tragedy that so much of Phil's material became dated so quickly. I remember when I heard him sing his song about William Worthy, I thought, "That's not one of Phil's best, but it doesn't matter, because two years down the line he won't be able to sing it anymore." And sure enough, he couldn't, because nobody remembered who William Worthy was. But unfortunately that was also true of some of his other material that I liked a lot more. Paxton dealt with that kind of planned obsolescence by disciplining himself to the point that if you give him a topic, he can give you a song, just like that. Len Chandler did the same thing; for a while he had a radio show in LA where he would improvise songs over the air from the daily newspaper. And if you have that kind of skill, I suppose you can keep going indefinitely as a topical songwriter. But nothing less than that will do, and very few people can do that or would want to, year in and year out. I think that was one of the things that destroyed Phil, in the end: he had painted himself into a corner, and he tried to work his way out of it by doing things like "Pleasures of the Harbor," but they never had the immediacy of his topical material, and he knew it.

When I first met Phil, he was working at a place on 3rd Street called the Third Side. It was the same story as with Dylan: Somebody was making the rounds of the clubs, happened to hear him, and came barging into the Kettle of Fish and said, "There's a guy over at the Third Side who's really fantastic. You've gotta check him out." I don't think he had been in town for more than a week or so, and as I remember, the owner of the club was letting him crash there as well, sleeping on the pool table.

Phil was very much his own man, right from the beginning. For one thing, although he was never going to be nominated to any best-dressed lists, he was one of the last of the jacket-and-tie holdouts. He used to wear this thing that had once been a blue suit, but he had worn it so long that, if you had got him to stand still, you could have shaved in your reflection in the back of the jacket. He had a way with neckties, though. I remember one that looked like it was made out of crepe paper, which he carried around in his back pocket to use for formal occasions.

Musically, what struck me first about Phil's work was that he was a very interesting extension of Bob Gibson. He had Bob's approach to chords and melodic lines, and also a lot of Bob's guitar style, but he had harnessed all of this for political commentary, which Bob was not all that interested in doing. Later on, when he and Bob were collaborating on some songs, it was perfect, because it was like Bob collaborating with his political self and Phil collaborating with his nonpolitical self.

Phil's chord sense was quite advanced, and he was the only person around aside from Gibson who used the relative minor and secondary keys. He was also one of the few songwriters on that scene who knew how to write a bridge. He was no Jerome Kern, but considering the limitations almost everybody else was struggling with, his work stood out. That may in part explain why he was not a very influential songwriter. There were a few Ochs clones, but not many, and that was probably because most of the people who wanted to sound like him couldn't do it. He was also a surprisingly effective guitarist - not a virtuoso by any means, but he filled in all the spaces and never lost the impetus. And man, he pounded the shit out of his instruments. He borrowed a guitar from me once at a festival, and you can still see where his flat-pick gouged into the top.

As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since. That is not to say that I liked everything he wrote, but he had a touch that was so distinctive that it just could not be anybody else. He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line. In a way that was a shame, because he would have come up with more good lines if he had been willing to compromise now and then. But at its best, there was a deftness to his writing that went beyond straight journalism. He wrote a song about the conservatism of big labor in that period called "Links on the Chain," and its last line was, "It's only fair to ask you boys, now which side are you on?" That is goddamn good. There is a dialectic to that line; it has a history, and all of that is right there. A lot of people I knew on the working-class left were upset by that song - they felt he was using "Which Side Are You On?" to attack the people it was written for - but as far as I was concerned, he was laying it on the line to those guys, and that was just what the situation called for. And he not only called 'em the way he saw 'em but made the call a work of art. Phil was very prolific for a while, and he committed as much hackwork as almost any other songwriter of the period, but when that boy cooked, he really cooked.

Phil and I fought like cats and dogs, about politics and everything else. I was a socialist; he was a left liberal. I was a materialist and he was a mystic. So we could argue about everything from the meaning of life to yesterday's headlines. I thought a lot of his stances were too simplistic, which was typical of that whole crowd. His positions would make sense in a limited way, but he had not really thought them through. Like when he wrote "Here's to the State of Mississippi," I understood that he had just been down there and had been horrified by what he was seeing, but I thought that singling out Mississippi as a racist hellhole was unfair to the other forty-nine states. As Malcolm X used to say, "There's down south, and there's up south." Without all the activists who were from there, none of that movement would have happened, and having some northerner come down and shit all over Mississippi was unfair to the people who were living there and trying to fix up their state. And it was also too damn easy.

Like a lot of people on that scene, Phil was essentially a Jeffersonian democrat who had been pushed to the left by what was happening around him. Two consecutive Democratic presidents had turned out to be such disappointments that it forced a lot of liberals into a sort of artificial left-wing stance, and Phil was of that stripe. That may seem a surprising thing to say about the man who wrote "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," but I think it is accurate. He had believed in the liberal tradition, and it had betrayed him, and naturally he had a special contempt for the people who espoused lukewarm liberal views but were supporting the Cold War, the war in Vietnam, the crackdown on the student movement. Someone like John Wayne - an out-and-out conservative, prowar patriot - could earn Phil's admiration in a way. As a matter of fact, Wayne was one of his heroes, and he always believed that if he had somehow gotten a chance to talk with him, he could have won Wayne over to the revolution.

I must add that, along with our honest disagreements, Phil and I also had a lot of very good dishonest disagreements. We both loved to argue, and quite often he would take a position just to be ornery and annoy me. (Me, I was utterly sincere all the time, of course . . .) In an argument, Phil's weapon of choice was the rapier. He would lead you down a primrose path to the place where he had an ambush set, and then he would skewer you...

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