Phil Ochs - no more songs
by Bob Reuter on Saturday, March 26, 2011 at 4:53am
I was actually kind of blown away tonight by the crowd for the Phil Ochs tribute. I dont really know what I was expecting. I guess I wasnt expecting anyone at all. I mean the largest part of Ochs catalogue is pure uncut "protest singing" - what Dylan never was. Ochs was a weird cat from the get go. His father had been a doctor who was drafted and spent his tour of duty trying to put soldiers back together on the battle fields - he came back somewhat shell shocked and depressed - bounced around from hospital to hospital and was never able to establish any kind of personal medical practice anywhere. He was also never able to be close to his wife or family
Phil was born in Texas but spent the bulk of his childhood in Ohio so he was pretty much a midwest city kid. That was maybe one of the draws for me, he actually looked like somebody from my neighborhood - long haired greaser haircut and black leather but not a motorcycle jacket, the kind hoods wore. He had actually gone to college and then dropped out cause he couldnt figure what he was there for. He hit the road and wound up spending two weeks in jail down in Florida for sleeping in a park. He later said he decided during that fifteen days in jail that he wanted to be a writer. He went back to school with that intent but right off the bat he was writing political stuff that the school paper wouldnt print so he started his own alternative paper.
He'd always been a musician - clarinet player for school orchestra as a kid - good enough to make first chair. Now some where along the way a friend taught him to play guitar and turned him on to Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston - that was pretty much where it really started.
I had always been a fan but I needed more than just politics, that scene seemed pretty fucking Spartan to me. It wasnt till he hooked up with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin who were forming the Youth International Party or the Yippies and he went with them to Chicago to take part in the Festival of Life that was taking place in Chicago during the 68 Democratic convention that something started coming apart inside him. The police violence, culminating in massive arrests including he himself was too much to deal with and where as Abbie and Rubin rode the absurdity of it all, Phil was more of an idealist and the reality of what went down began his unraveling. It was shortly after that, that Ochs realized America was never really gonna warm up to a protest singer - he realized what it was gonna take was a cross between Elvis Presley and Che Guevera to reach the American people! He commissioned Nudie Cohn, who'd made Elvis's, to make him a Gold lame' suit and went on tour culminating with a gig at Carnegie Hall doing some of his own songs mixed with Elvis and Buddy Holly covers which he had always loved. I remember reading about this shit in Creem magazine at the time - it had been an insane thing for him to do, the largest part of the audience HATED it, didnt get it at all - didnt know what the hell to make of it. Oddly enough this is what really sealed the deal on Phil Ochs for me. The idea of rock and roll revolt had appealed to be too - Anyway, A&M his new label put it out on a record under the title "Shoot Out at Carnegie Hall". I dont think they ever actually released it in america though,it was a "Canada only" thing. I never actually even heard it but I didnt need to - the concept alone was enough I was a fan for life.
Several years later I put my favorite cuts from "Rehearsals For Retirement" on a cassette tape with Tim Buckley's "Greetings From LA" (which was an equally insane release) on the flip - I labled the cassette "Desperate Dead Men" (I made another with Howlin Wolf on one side and Captain Beefheart on the other at the same time but that's another story) "Rehearsals For Retirement" featured a grave stone with Ochs name on it declaring him dead as of 1968 the year of the Democratic Convention.
See as much as I had his back as a protest singer for all those years, it was the start of his crack up that really won my heart - that's what spoke to me, this cat looking his total deconstruction straight in the eye and moving forward with it. Then there were stories of his drinking, of another personality "John Train", killing Ochs and taking his place. There were bar fights and his getting jumped on the street in Africa by a couple of street thugs trying to rob and strangle him - it fucked up his voice for the rest of his short life and added to to his destruction and then the final news that he'd taken his own life. I died a little when I heard. I bought up several of his late period albums and held them close for years.
Two months before I heard of this Tribute Night, I'd gone to Record Exchange and rifled through their vinyl folk section looking for cleaner copies or to replace stuff I've lost along the way and I grabbed up a used copy of "Rehearsals" and as I took it up to the counter to pay for it I noted the obligatory hand written name scrawled across the label of the record was that of a girl I knew back in 1972, an old friend. Two months later I was on the bill for this show and my old friend was in attendance.
I put off learning the four songs I had agreed to, till the very last moment. I've never been one to pick up songs my other artist, preferring to write my own but especially not if the songs were as complicated as Ochs' stuff. The four songs I'd chosen were, "Pretty Smart on my Part" a completely unhinged rant of a quintessential american paranoid freak, set to a off kilter semi Bo Diddley beat - "My Life" who's first line, "My life, was once a joy to me..." has always just tore my guts out. I almost wasnt even concerned with the rest of the song, he just sings that line so sadly, it speaks reams each time I hear it. - "Chords of Fame" his most countryish tune about a singer/songwriter who he finds dead on the side of a stage and features the chorus,
"So play the chords of Love my friend,
play the chords of pain,
but if you want to keep your songs,
dont dont dont,
dont play the chords of fame!"
And finally, "No More Songs" one of his last tunes ever.
Three days before this gig and I realized I couldnt put it off forever if I was gonna do this gig so the first day I just listened to them over and over - the second I got the chords and words off he internet and then late that night, played them several times while lying in bed with my unamplified electric guitar. The night before the gig I got out my acoustic and just cranked'em them over and over. I played them for my roommate Mark and his band who had been down in the basement practicing their two songs for the gig. It felt like I was playing them in an insane asylum which was just what I needed. See I dont know if you can get this but once I started really getting inside these things I almost felt like I was getting a look inside Phil himself. I got it, I understood. I kept getting this sensation of almost wanting to cry but couldnt. Anyway, I "got it" ! I felt like I wasnt all that far removed from where he was. I'm not trying to compare my self with him - our lives are different I KNOW that - I will never know what he lived through but I DO think I have an idea.
So anyway, it seems that Phil Ochs people or either kind of old or fairly young. The kids who staged this thing are in their early twenties - old souls I think but still, in their early twenties, the same age Phil was when he wrote his best protest stuff. The songs I chose were his later work, the shit he wrote while coming apart. The room there at Foam was the most crowded I'd seen it, older and younger fans, the middle ground was noticeable in it's absence. I played my four songs - the one I chose to end the night with ( I DID play last) naturally enough is called, "No More Songs". The whole time I was learning it I could feel him - what he must have been going through, he HAD dried up according to all reports, the songs had slowed to a halt, the guy Dylan had marveled at, thought he could never keep up with, had become kind of a burned out shell, had given all he had. And this song doesnt sound like he even wrote it, it sounds like he was the radio tower that picked it up and relayed it to the world. It sounds like it had been written hundreds of years ago, an ancient folk song, but he DID write it, it says all he knew to say right there at the end,
"Hello, hello, hello Is there anybody home?
I've only called to say I'm sorry.
The drums are in the dawn,
and all the voices gone.
And it seems that there are no more songs"
Phil Ochs was 36 years old when he took his own life.