Phil Ochs

TrackAlbum
ChangesPhil Ochs In Concert
I Ain'’t Marching AnymoreI Ain’'t Marching Anymore
There But For FortunePhil Ochs In Concert
Pleasures Of The HarborPleasures Of The Harbor
The CrucifixionPleasures Of The Harbor
The War Is OverTape From California
Outside Of A Small Circle Of FriendsPleasures Of The Harbor
Jim Dean Of IndianaGreatest Hits
I’'ve Had HerPleasures Of The Harbor
William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park
and Escapes Unscathed
Rehearsals For Retirement

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Contributor: Kasper Nijsen

“One of the greatest,” that’s what Neil Young called him at this year’s Farm Aid concert. After years of on and off obsession with Phil Ochs, I tend to agree, even if ‘greatest’ includes major songwriters like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison.

While there’s much to say about the tragic course of Ochs’s life, I won’t go into all that. For those interested, there are two biographies as well as two biopics, including the excellent There But For Fortune (2011).

Let´s focus on the music here. Basically, Ochs’s career is divided into two acts. Act One: guitar-slinging protest singer (think: ‘this machine kills fascists’). Act Two: philosophic balladeer with sprawling baroque arrangements and ambitious lyrics.

I’ve only included three songs from the First Act. There’s the bitter-sweet finger-picking ballad Changes, covered by notables like Gordon Lightfoot, Gene Clark and Neil Young. I Ain’t Marching Anymore used to be Ochs’s signature tune and shows his sincere passion for the pacifist cause. And There But for Fortune is perhaps his best-known song, as covered by Joan Baez.

But the gist of my Toppermost is derived from the ambitious string of A&M albums recorded between 1967 and 1970. This is not because I don’t admire Ochs’s topical tunes. In fact, I think he was one of the best writers of protest songs. But artistically the form was limiting, and Ochs released his greatest work when he moved into more elaborate genres.

The first of the A&M records, Pleasures Of The Harbor, is one of my all-time favorite albums and its title track, inspired by a John Wayne movie, is among its best songs. Pleasures Of The Harbor opens with a beautiful, cinematic woodwind and strings overture, till Ochs’s voice takes over to a simple guitar accompaniment. He tells the story of a sailor’s troubled homecoming; the yearning for redemption that quickly turns awry. There’s much to admire in the lyrics: from “the lonely in disguise are clinging to the crowd” and “he’s trembling for the taste of passion gone to waste in memories of the past” (Ochs knew the lure of drink) to “In the alley, red with rain, cry of pain, for love was but smile, teasing all the while, now dancing down the drain.” While some have found the arrangements overdone, I think the song is one of the most darkly perfect blends of poetry and music.

I’ve Had Her takes the concept of romantic disillusionment to even more disturbing lengths: “Now the only way to touch her is the gun beside your head: now there’s no doubt for her. But I’ve had her – she’s nothing.” Listening to the song again, with Lincoln Mayorga’s sprawling piano accompaniment, I’m reminded of Shelley writing how he “pursued a maiden and clasped a reed”, adding that “it breaks in our bosom and then we bleed.” It’s the same disillusionment, a romantic yearning too strong for reality to satisfy. Written and sung by an artist who committed suicide less than a decade later, I’ve Had Her is both profoundly beautiful and, frankly, quite frightening.

But Phil Ochs could also blend in a humorous note without dismantling a song’s significance, a skill he shared with people like Warren Zevon and Randy Newman. Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends is quite hilarious, even though he’s clearly not joking around in this ironic and iconic jab at civil complacency. And The Party, the eleventh song on my list, is a sardonic take on a high-class party where “the conversation sparkles as their wits are dipped in wine: dinosaurs on a diet: on each other they will dine.”

These are long, ambitious songs – often over eight minutes – that push the pop form into territory traditionally claimed by classical music. Perhaps the most ambitious of them all is The Crucifixion, a story of hero-worship and hero-killing that blends religious images with memories of John F. Kennedy and other casualties of the Sixties. Jim Dean Of Indiana is about another of Ochs’s American heroes. His biographer writes that in the weeks before his death, Ochs kept playing its moving melody in A major, both serene and sorrowful, on the piano in his sister’s house.

It seems to me that Ochs believed so deeply in his dreams – whether of love or of America – that they finally, and inevitably, destroyed him. But let’s remember his moving music rather than his tragic end. Even as he moved away from the folk music of his early years, he remained one of the most eloquent advocates of a peaceful and loving America. To my mind, The War Is Over is still the best anti-war song ever written. Set to a militaristic flurry of drums and horns, Ochs sings:

So do your duty boys and join with pride
Serve your country in her suicide
Find the flags so you can wave goodbye
But just before the end even treason might be worth a try
This country is too young to die

 

Remembering Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs Tribute + Lyric Index

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune movie

Celebrating Phil Ochs

No More Songs – 50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong

Phil Ochs biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #150

10 Comments

  1. Ian Ashleigh
    Dec 21, 2013

    Thanks for the essay Kasper, I’ve not listened to Phil Ochs extensively but what I’ve heard I’ve liked. Harvey Andrews recorded ‘Song for Phil Ochs’ in 1975 on his album ‘Someday’ which prompted me to find his music.

  2. Kasper Nijsen
    Dec 21, 2013

    Thanks for the suggestion; I’d never heard of that song, but I’ll look it up. There are actually quite a few Ochs tribute songs, by songwriters like Tom Paxton (‘Phil’), Harry Chapin (‘The Parade’s Still Passing By’), Billy Bragg (‘I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night’) and Sammy Walker (‘Legends’). A ‘musician’s musician’ I guess, to use a hackneyed phrase. A curious conversation and duet between Ochs and John Lennon (on slide guitar) also turned up on YouTube a while ago.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Jan 2, 2014

    Great list and good to see Phil Ochs getting some of the credit that he has due.

    Here is my alternative list of ten Phil Ochs classics.
    1. ‘Bound for Glory’ – Ochs’ brilliant early tribute to Woody Guthrie
    2. ‘Power and Glory’ – The best attempt to write a successor to ‘This Land is Your Land’ that I know of
    3. ‘When I’m gone’ – one of Phil’s greatest songs – there is also a fine cover version by Dick Gaughan
    4. ‘The Crucifixion’ (Live version) – Phil later admitted that the over-the-top arrangement on “Pleasures’ was a mistake – the acoustic live version on the box set ‘Farewells and Fantasies’ is far superior to it
    5. ‘The Scorpion departs but never returns’ – one of Phil’s finest lyrics
    6. ‘Rehearsals for Retirement’ – Phil’s beautiful admission of defeat
    7. ‘Bracero’ – one of the songs that shows that Ochs was the true heir to Woody Guthrie’s mantle
    8. ‘The Bells’ – Ochs superb adaptation of the poem by Edgar Allen Poe
    9. “Pretty Smart on my Part’ – it is arguable that Phil’s late albums capture the spiritual and moral malaise of late 60’s America more fully than anything by his contemporaries
    10. ‘I’m’ Tired’ – one of Phil’s most beautiful and saddest songs

  4. Andrew Shields
    Apr 23, 2014

    Just picked up a copy of the A Hero of the Game (Live) CD today. It’s a recording of a broadcast that Phil did on the WBAI station in New York in 1965.

    From a few early listens, the standout tracks are a great early version of ‘Crucifixion’, a fine version of ‘White Boots in a Yellow Land’ with a tougher and more directly anti-Vietnam War lyric, and a beautiful rendition of “Cannons of Christianity’. Although the sound is sometimes ropey, I would strongly recommend it to any Phil fan..

    And thanks again for this great list, Kasper…

  5. Kasper Nijsen
    Apr 24, 2014

    Thanks for alerting me to that live release; I hadn’t heard of it yet but will check it out soon. I know quite a few of his acoustic performances from the period, some of which are outstanding. I remember an absolutely devastating ’66 version of Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore that’s introduced as ‘a study in levels of depression’. It’s also on youtube I just found out. A few audience members laugh when hearing the song’s title, but they’re dead silent at the end of this nine-minute journey to the depths of despair.

    And I really like your alternative list. ‘When I’m Gone’ was hard to omit, as were ‘The Scorpion Departs…’, ‘Rehearsals of Retirements’ and, well, just about all the songs on your list. I’m not too fond of the Poe adaptation though; I prefer his version of Noyes’s The Highwayman as far as poem-songs go.

    • Andrew Shields
      Apr 24, 2014

      Just listened to the version of ‘Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore’ you mentioned – it is really, really good. The more I listen to Phil the more I realise he belongs in the very first rank of songwriters… Is it on a bootleg, as I had never come across it before?

      • Kasper Nijsen
        Apr 25, 2014

        Yes, it’s from a bootleg known as ‘Live in Montreal’ or the ‘FBI Concert’, supposedly because (as the story goes) the recordings were made by the FBI. The whole thing’s quite stunning; I don’t think his voice was ever in better shape than here. If you’re interested, you can download it at this blog (scroll down to the comments for an active download link).

  6. Andrew Shields
    Apr 25, 2014

    Kasper, thanks a million for this – am on the case, as the FBI agent said to the…

    My favourite story about the FBI & Phil is the one where they had ‘Name: Phil Ochs Alias: Philip David Ochs’ at the top of his file…

    Phil’s evidence at the Chicago Seven trial is also a masterpiece of sly humour (and there is the great story of the policeman saying ‘the pig squealed’ – in relation to Pigasus, the pig they nominated for president – when he was arrested …)

  7. Andrew Shields
    Aug 25, 2014

    Picked up another ‘new’ live Ochs cd yesterday, but on a few listenings this one (‘Live Again’, recorded at the Stables in East Lansing in 1973) is – both in terms of its sound quality and content – of a very high calibre indeed. The immediate standouts for me were a lovely version of ‘Boy from Ohio’ and a fine rendition of ‘Pleasures of the Harbour’, but the standard throughout is uniformly good…

  8. Andrew Shields
    Sep 15, 2014

    Thought this might interest any Phil fans out there. Looks like this new Phil Ochs Archive at the Woody Guthrie Center may include Phil’s journal from the early 1970s, which if Michael Schumacher’s book is anything to go by, included descriptions of his meetings/conversations with Bob Dylan around this time.

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