Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Phil Ochs: To Die in Madrid

Two days ago I saw a movie called TO DIE IN MADRID, a documentary on the Spanish Civil War. And it’s very strange – here I am a comfortable middle class Jewish guy sitting there watching movies from 1936 and 1937 and seeing young men volunteering for the International Brigade and going to fight in Spain and you see the pattern emerging from the movie that they’re just not going to win. They’re going to be fed into the German military machine as fodder to test out new weapons and they’re going to die, thousands and thousands are going to die and they’re going to be tortured. And I sit there wondering, questioning myself all the time: could I do that? And I’ve got this great streak of cowardice in myself and I’m most afraid of dying – and I sit there wondering, could I? Then I walk outside and I go down to the Village and I see people running around with long hair, climbing on the Beatle-Dylan bandwagon and I’m struck with this incredible difference of the young man going off to die in Spain and the young man growing his hair long and trying to sound like John Lennon. It becomes a revolting thing. You see it adds up to this: when you try to develop your sense of perception you come to the inevitable view, the world is absurd. Which is essentially what Dylan says. How can you even think about it! It just can’t be possible. No amount of work can ever change the absurdity.

This leads to – and somehow this is the thing – this is what I can’t understand as part of my own psychological make-up. Something inside of me gets greatly disturbed at seeing this absurdity, and this as it turns out is probably the root of my songs. And yet I’m totally turned off – as I have written in recent articles – by the protest songwriting movement, because it tends to have too much disregard for quality. There is a further paradox here, and I’m trying to resolve it by thinking and talking about it. Something in my psyche has to feel the responsibility of what goes on in Viet Nam. When we bomb North Viet Nam I have to be disgusted and repelled. But I can also look at Viet Nam and laugh, can make jokes like it’s a fun war. And laugh about the napalm. I admit this – I do laugh about it, and say, well, it must be a joke, it’s so ridiculous. I can make jokes about it in what you might call sick humor. But then I go off and I write a very serious song about it. In the notes of my last record there was one very important part that ELEKTRA cut out – in which I said that some of these songs are so intense that when I’m singing them on the stage sometimes my view of the absurd will carry me one step beyond how evil something is. And I fear that one day I might have to break out laughing on stage. ELEKTRA was afraid to print that because they thought it would hurt my image. They were worried about my image. But I sure wish they’d printed it – well, at least we’ll get it out here in BROADSIDE. You see, it’s a paradox inside my head, to laugh at something and at the same time take it seriously and deal with it.

To sum up. This is one thing I feel is a driving force: that I get so repelled by certain things – or they strike me as funny – or weird or strange – or ridiculous – and my response comes out in the form of a song. And there is one thing that helps carry me through: this close identification with the problems of the world where things like Viet Nam go on. And as I said before, it’s not enough to know the world is absurd and restrict yourself merely to pointing out that fact. To me this was the essential flaw of the fifties, great perception leading to inaction. If there is to be any hope for the world this perception must lead to action. In the song MY BACK PAGES Dylan laughs at himself as an impotent musketeer fighting false battles. I often laugh at myself in the same way and many times consider my role ridiculous, but still I am forced to go on. Because the ugly fact is ingrained in my mind that if I don’t go on the world will be left to the hands of the Hitlers, the McCarthys and Johnsons. I don’t want to have to read Dylan’s works smuggled out from prisons. I like to bring in the great Greek writer Katzenakis to illustrate this point. He says it is wrong to expect a reward for your struggle. The reward is the act of struggle itself, not what you win. In other words, even though you can’t expect to defeat the absurdity of the world you must make the attempt. That’s morality, that’s religion. That’s art. That’s life.

No comments: