Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs was one of the most gifted folksingers and songwriters of the 1960’s. Ochs wrote some of the best protest songs of that era. His most famous songs are probably “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” “There But for Fortune,” which was a hit for Joan Baez, and “Crucifixion.” Despite Ochs’s talent, he never achieved the widespread popular acclaim of his contemporary, Bob Dylan.

The War Is Over: The Best of Phil Ochs, is a best-of compilation covering Phil Ochs’s years with A&M Records from 1967-70. It serves as a fine introduction to this period of Ochs’s career. It’s now out of print and has been replaced by Ochs’s entry in the 20th Century Masters series. These two CDs share eight songs, however, The War Is Over does feature three songs from Ochs’s impossible to find 1970 album, Greatest Hits, which are not on 20th Century Masters. The only other rarity on The War Is Over is “Kansas City Bomber,” which was Ochs’s attempt to write a title song for the 1973 Raquel Welch movie. His song was not used in the movie, and was only issued as a single.

Ochs’s art was changing during this time, as he left behind the all-acoustic folk sound of his first three albums, on the Elektra label. His A&M albums showed him embracing more ornate, baroque accompaniments. The flowery baroque-pop of 1967’s Pleasures of the Harbor was directly influenced by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, issued earlier that same year. Ochs’s subject matter strayed from the left-wing topical protest songs he was most closely identified with, and the album showed the full range of his songwriting. With Pleasures of the Harbor, Ochs made the switch from “singing journalist,” as he described himself, to poet.

The songs on Pleasures of the Harbor ranged from the stateliness of the title track, a tale of sailors on shore leave, to the neo-ragtime boogie of “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” which would be the closest Ochs would ever come to having a hit single. Despite becoming a hit in various markets, nationwide it stalled outside of the Top 100. The song was Ochs’s satire on apathy, as he mocks those with good intentions who do not follow up on their words. It’s one of Ochs’s best songs, as he mixes the funny and witty with a strong social commentary.

Tape From California, recorded in the spring of 1968, showed some signs of a cautious optimism about the state of the world, as found in “The War is Over.” Ochs perhaps thought by writing a song declaring the Vietnam War over, he might make his own private fantasy a public reality. The hope of ending the war in 1968 was a real possibility, especially with the anti-war presidential candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Sadly, it was not to be. Another of Ochs’s finest anti-war songs is also from Tape From California, “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land,” which is sadly very applicable to our current war in Iraq. (“We’re fighting in a war we lost before the war began.”)

America underwent tremendous upheavals during the late 1960’s, and so did Ochs’s music and mental state. In a way his troubles mirrored the fate of the country as a whole. His songs grew darker and more pessimistic, especially after he witnessed the riots at the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago. Ochs’s next album after the 1968 election was 1969’s Rehearsals for Retirement. Ending with the bleak hopelessness of the title track, it showed an artist unsure of where to go, despondent at the failure of the 1968 election to change the world for the better. The optimism behind “The War is Over” was gone, replaced by a bitter fatalism. The album cover told much of the story, as it showed Ochs’s own gravestone, with the inscription saying that he had died in Chicago in 1968. As Ochs said in a 1969 concert, “Chicago was exhilarating at the time, and then very sad afterwards. Because something very extraordinary died there, which was America.”

But instead of actually retiring, Ochs transformed himself for his next album, 1970’s Greatest Hits. The title was meant ironically, as Ochs had never had any “hits” in the commercial, Top 40 sense, and just to confuse people, it was an album of all-new material. The cover of the album showed Ochs, electric guitar in hand, dressed in a gold suit, an obvious homage to Elvis. The songs were a mixture of rockabilly and country, and the sound harkened back to the 1950’s. Ochs seemed to be seeking an escape, a return to the past, to a simpler time in his life, hence the return to a 1950’s sound and subject matter. “Jim Dean of Indiana” was a tribute to James Dean, an immensely important icon to the teenage youth of the 1950’s. The lyrics of “One Way Ticket Home” talk of Elvis being the king, and Ochs being there for his crowning. The lyrics can also be seen as a metaphor for death-the one way ticket from which no one returns. “Gas Station Women” is about cars and girls, classic 1950’s song material. Cars and girls were simpler topics to write about than the current political situation, and more uplifting, too. The final song on Greatest Hits was “No More Songs”, a beautiful but heart-wrenching song about Ochs’s writer’s block. Ochs released just a handful of singles after Greatest Hits, but no more albums. For him, there truly were no more songs. After a long struggle with depression, Ochs committed suicide in April, 1976. He was just 35 years old. But his music lives on.

1 comment:

eric (pas chic chic) said...

In my opinion, the three closing years of the sixties represent Ochs' most creative and inspiring years. Pleasures of the Harbor still ranks as one of my favorite records.