If There's A Smile On My Face: A Retrospective On Phil Ochs
I dunno, doc, maybe it's because I've been asked to write this, or maybe it's due to the bruise of these times that Phil Ochs' records won't budge from my turntable. Everyday I need some ounce of In Concert, the thundering songs reminding me of how I wasn't even alive and kickin' during the sixties, but instead born smack in the campaign of the eighties, witnessing much of Phil's dreams zipped into both the wild illusions of his dark legacy and the new breed of what was ahead, and where it would take us. So far, for me, it leads no deeper than farther into his work, where in my head, I imagine the man stepping up to the mic and without hesitation plucking away those obtuse power chords, followed by the wake of his beautiful harmonies and cut-throat lyric. It was far more than just rebellion and politics, but sensitivity of life. Come save this world.
There's been a lot goin' down ever since Phil Ochs hung himself in his sister's bathroom in '76. Damn, doesn't the year almost bring a halting silence to the clef of political songs? Since then, my generation was born, and for one, we grew to the aftermath of everything Phil's declaration once spun. I personally find myself feeling an outward desolation to his music, as if his words are a distant echo in yesterday's voyage, and because the world was first blessed by his message, and then lost when he died, we might never catch the rhythm to respond like so ever again. It's both chilling and beautiful to know his verses are as topical today as they were forty years ago-- which is good and bad when you think about it-- but at least we can promise he'll always be there shaking with a fist. It gave birth to a lightning rod of folk-protest albums as told by his classic, I Ain't Marching Any More. This is an essential diamond in the uproar and resembles a deeper wound into what Pete Seeger and the likes had emerged within the Socialist conscience. Last night I was listening to it while reading Thomas Pynchon and everything about both seemed to illustrate a generational verve, never mind, like all of his, the record has a damn excellent cover circa every blowing event that was visible in the photo; Phil sitting on the sidewalk, peace sign on the wall, just him and a guitar. It holds us hostage. Whoever took the picture (William S. Harvey) looks like they were passing him on a bus during an alley of the Chicago riots. It's easily the most "Phil Ochs" record and arguably the greatest tracks of activism and wild heart outta the Village flood. Hell, singers were certainly chatting this in a poetic medium, but nobody was saying "farewell Mississippi", pulling the shackles, or reacting as an lyrical-assassin that they would risk the lives of everybody surrounding them in the open-range. These sounds were it-- "The Highwayman"-- everything finally blooming the place and horizon that all had since been encouraging, but never exposed. He was there.
Sometimes I think it's all since folded in the remnants of obituary tales and foggy rumors of who and what Phil meant to the world. Kinda like a full moon people still talk about. Friends and eyewitnesses of his performances describe them as a terrific energy into the vein of sixties rise; toying with the crowd, singing his songs like an invisible army stood alert behind him. Jim Glover, Phil's roommate at ROTC, and a seminal influence on the man (going on to form Jim and Jean), goes as far to say Phil was even involved in a conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination, while his sister, Sonny, remembers him as her little brother, saddened and distorted by the ending lights. "My son, who was 14 at the time," she tells me nearly thirty years later, "he didn't actually see him, but saw the belt hanging out of the closed door, and a chair was missing from the kitchen."
This is a frightening picture to think of, that all his soft rage, inspiring and signifying an age, was boiled down not by a guitar, but by a kitchen chair. That same year, as Phil's ashes were being spread across the high Royal Gardens of Scotland, Sonny's car exploded just as she discovered she was also unemployed, forcing her to vacate from the doomed house where her brother spent much of his remaining years lost in fits of depression-- since romanticized for his split-persona, John Train. "They threw him out," said Mary Gallanter, an early pal who took him to his first AM radio appearance, spotting him in a bar during this later era. "A typical New York City scene-- it was just another dirty bum trying to get a drink. And then someone said, Hey, that was Phil Ochs." It'd be a surprise to anyone. Folk music and the demonstration itself was sliding off its zenith, Vietnam was nearly over, and suddenly people found themselves growing up while the seventies were quickly taking over every marvel the sixties had bled for. Gossip was even hunching that Dylan had reportedly kicked Phil out of a car after badgering him, and the rock 'n roll tag of Elvis that all had grown up with was descending fast into the shallows that not even Phil could sing about, nor answer for. It was mass confusion to a soul like him, an idealist, who sacrificed every human quality to the shout and holler of the stage-- you could hear it as soon as he began singing-- the movement in the gears of an American boy changing.
Hold up, I just have to say "Joe Hill" is a great song. Ok...
Indoors at Sonny's, he had lost contact with all friends and family including his former wife Alice and his daughter Meegan (Alice, now a postal clerk after a series of drug battles; Meegan, in the American Civil Liberties Union), and would dribble his days draped in booze while sitting at Sonny's piano playing "Jim Dean Of Indiana", the TV, once again returning with fond images of James Dean and John Wayne. When I think about, it was as though he was journeying back into his shy, original boyhood heroes before he trekked off into the political-folk odyssey that undertook his last fourteen years of survival (when his father was still alive). With very little royalties, even his reputation with manic-depression, which consisted of high spurts in the spring and low falls during the other three seasons, was brushed aside, and was, in a way, waiting (also quietly assisting Folkway proteges like Sammy Walker). People would invite him to certain gigs, but he would inadvertently decline their offer, claiming no one cared or wanted him. "The audience was always there, but Phil didn't realize it," noted Sonny, "I thought he was dead broke when he died, but then I found four hundred dollars in his shirt in a closet." This would make sense. Rich with a certain passion that perhaps tore him apart, Marty Gallanter remembers Phil saying to him upon the Kennedy killing that, "All of the hope of Washington D.C. has now been destroyed," and from therein, it was all a signature into and from the political bombshell and the audience's reception.
As four of his records lean next to my leg right now, everything of this "death warrant" is obvious on the cover of Rehearsals For Retirement. The name, the photo of Phil's grave, the songs, are all perfect symbols to the time's axes. Phil on the headstone, flag draped down, rifle on shoulder, it showed the deadening of honest patriotism, and in essence, a paradox of how corruption was being so easily written by the acts of a few hands; the assassinations, Oswald, Nixon, soon Manson. Like Phil, these were individuals-- everybody was a target. Though opposed to taking the hurly-burly into its own collage, the album was a direct effect, and to this day, one of its kind. For us, it speaks riot, unfortunately for Phil, it spelled decline. He wanted nothing to do with the game, and in consequence, it found no solace for him. Hell, Dylan had sold to rock 'n roll tart, and the musical wealth of political conscience was beginning to abort around '68-- (Rehearsals)-- as if music was taking turns between a thousand new objections. To me, this became evident with the threshold of Newport; blues sold to whites, Dylan's electric outro, the clash between "hootenanny" and "hip"; soon it seemed anybody was open to become, as Phil would sing, "Too Many Martyrs" (which he now is). And anybody could feel this when Victor Jara-- the Phil Ochs of Chile, and who together had both performed "I Ain't Marching Anymore" down in the mines with Jara translating-- was brutally murdered just as Phil's vocal chords had been slaughtered after a mugging in Africa. Jara's fate screwed him over, and the African incident is suspicious simply 'cuz the only thing the bastards robbed from him was his knife, never mind the gallivanting 410 page FBI file Phil entailed...christ, where would he go in this world with authorities tabbing him? Or were they? Did Phil want them to remind him he was important? Or was it all paranoia from a great singer with a serious schizophrenic problem, that as Sonny whispers, probably extended from a brainstorm of alcohol abuse...never mind not using lithium to prevent it. As the days Phil once knew passed, John Train and everything else was sinking into the noose-- his guitar slowly dusting the air he coughed up. "I don't know if John Train was a creative person," said Jim Glover, "he was a mean guy. Phil Ochs was the guy getting to the truth, but not too far because that would really talk about John Train...'cuz then that would kill Phil Ochs."
In other words...the Phil Ochs we all know was the hero on-stage; John Train, the vicious reality. Both induced one another like night and day bleeding through the curtains of his voice; his songs, outspoken truth remaining forever. The man stuck between it all? Exactly the spirit that was left with us whenever we listen to him today.
And to be honest, I'm almost a little sick of writing about music suicides. In the last three months I've been asked to contribute three pieces about three people all of whom hung themselves. It's as if Phil might not be as legendary or notorious without the "dead poet" hanging off his shoulders. But if any singer need be glorified, 'tis Phil. I mean, just listen to Songs For Broadside, it's a raw torch to the live selections of his voice that wasn't herding, but asking people to think for themselves. Which is what it was always about-- "Pleasures From The Harbor", "Ringing Of Revolution", completely a cry for individualism, you could feel the moments shaking. As Sonny would say, "I liked Phil when he was Phil", he was at his peak when doing such. On Songs For Broadside, the audience (though in audio they never seemed like they were there) would frantically clap off the chimes of his victorious words, and soon you too felt a sense of faith shivering up your spine that "he was for real". All of his albums, even the messy ones, were sailing off a mass uproar that worked 'cuz it was there. To me, his personality seemed most innocent during the early years before stardom, the Carnegie Hall concerts, the organizing of the Yippie party, and before he went spaghetti-mind off the whole John Train pit. When he purged into his electric yellow-jacket heard later in Greatest Hits, there are cringes, no doubt, but it's almost a sub-mockery of his own image, too. (I wonder if anybody tried to help him.)
Anyway, it was this shaky period coming out of college, hosting with Jim Glover political discussions that even Dylan would just casually drift in and out of, and how could we forget traveling to Florida to get a nose-job?...a freak thing when you think about it: Phil Ochs with a fake nose. "He use to say to me, with my brains and your good looks, we could really make it," recalled Glover, who remembers him wanting to sing with a vibrato. And on the back photo of Tape From California, how he waves to us all.
Of course, Glover bakes the cake claiming Phil also told him he was part of national security and was keeping "surveillance" on key socialists on and off the campus. Not only that, he insists Phil was in downtown Dallas the day of Kennedy's assassination as a planted suspect just in case the Oswald theory went kaput. The feds could lay the blame elsewhere...But I guess the only proof he has is a video profile that's similar to Phil. Glover says he was on the outskirts riding a tour bus with strange guys. "We were asked to observe," he said.
"When he starts talking to you about conspiracy theories and Cuba, say you gotta go!" Sonny laughs a day before on the phone with me.
Ahh, at least this bullshit didn't exist back then (uuhh). With those early days, Phil needed no alibi, and was setting fire to the pass-the-hat clubs in New York, where every night he was guaranteed twenty bucks without fail. Unfortunately, at home he was treating his wife, Alice, as a typical housewife, common for the time, but a wee bit chauvinistic now. Which...I dunno, doesn't present itself dramatically in Phil's music (although the political groups were all-male/Castro-oriented), but there ain't a whole lotta lusty talk of women and love in his songs, but more of a sensual charm to the state of humanity. Sometimes I wonder if he had strapped on some Cupid wings to his activism what sort of society we'd be scooting with today...if he was capable of that.
In any case, these were the clubs that burned through folk warriors on a tight-rope, writing songs like the end of the world was next week. You can faintly hear the walls of these places within any track where Phil was alone with his acoustic, pulling the world over, bending a smile as his lyrics relayed new meanings as the time itself progressed on, turning, clapping, and moving. When staying home from the 1963 march to tend to his daughter, he thereafter wanted to know every single flesh detail from Marty Gallanter. Sonny was already a housewife at this time cart wheeling to put herself through school, but was blown away after witnessing him at his Carnegie Hall concert, despite when she once noted: he wasn't gonna go very far. "He loved being recognized," she went on, "loved the fact that people were listening, and a great humor onstage." Which is always cool to hear-- the joking-- especially on any live recording (In Concert; Sonny's favorite, too), where the crowd, you can feel, is just beaming up and responding to every breath-- Phil pokin' it all with "Love Me I'm a Liberal". For most folkies, music was just a habit (then habitual, then an occupation)-- you can read this in most Dylan/Baez bios, where in a sense, everybody was tutoring each other, locking themselves behind doors for a key number of hours to create. To invent. And maybe hide. It was like they were mad scientists lost in a bohemian whirlwind of innocence and experience; whereas with Phil, he was talking the song even as he slept. He lived the phenomena. There was no question of artistry, it was about freedom, social order, not as a sub-conscious, but as a point-blank and true-blue uprise. There was no hidden puzzle in his lyrics either, which yes, made him less mysterious, and like Woody Guthrie and Victor Jara, will never win their own category. It was a devoted hunt for equality that never filtered off course, and with his unforgettable melodies, it was almost as though he was singing to somebody he did love...Us.
And here we are-- Phil's dead, and the remaining notes of his life basically say a few things: his hereditary depression earned him a modern rock band to call themselves John Train. He was a rebel and perhaps the only one who took it to the end. No one thinks he did drugs. And yes, the Piagrus pig-- there were actually two of 'em that Phil bought for the mock election with Abbie Hoffman and the gang. To write about the whole Yippie glory that Phil and Jerry Rubin pioneered is better left to the ones who lived through it, and deeper, the ones who can tell you what it was to be a citizen during its great and happy crisis. Not to plot barriers, though, throw on any moment of All The News That's Fit To Sing, and boom, you're there. That album alone is a genuine quill against all warfare, and Phil, let's face it, had more dignity and guff when unaccompanied by any other instrument. And Elektra, front-runners and all, always compromised such a truth-- you had to hand it to them for scoring him the patience. Phil sitting on his guitar case on the pavement, studious, gripping a newspaper in the most extreme sense of conviction. I can just envision myself then being my parents' age and having a record like this released into the palm of my world. Just listening to Phil's ruthless fire in singing reasons of what was fucked up about the world would grant me to escape and flee. No wonder the movement happened, it could. Ain't like today somebody singing "War Is Over" in front of a colossal fuel of MTV thongs, there were ingredients, and not just musical. Especially "Taking Vietnam"; Phil, one of the few to literally say the word "war" without sounding passive and stereotypical (which was impossible anyway). A song like "Talking Cuban Crisis" honing in on the Bay Of Pigs-- this was dangerous turf, even for the listener-- still would be. Really, the record is a close as anyone ever got to the next Woody Guthrie album, in that, not only were the songs tributes to the man, but his were muscling the following step. Routing down to the grit, All The News... had all the moments of Phil's prime that also occurs in Songs For Broadsides's very own bare protests. Sometimes on the Broadside record it vividly sounds like he's incarcerated somewhere, especially with the muffled "Cruxifiction" and "Changes", a surrounding depth to what we're already hearing. You can just imagine him humming these melodies while going crazy. The round-and-a-round vocal that reappeared in "Half A Century High" off Tape From California, Phil singing alone into the crackle of a beat tape recorder, the rest of the music overdubbed into what arose one of his most harmonious songs.
Just now, a friend wrote to me: "Astounding to think Dylan and Ochs were around at the same time-- kinda cool to have had both intellects brewing the scene." Definitely. Yet, and maybe it's because he perished, it baffles me why Phil's gift has been so understated, as if people are still speculative of his motives, or, too shy to come forward.
For instance, how come I found Pleasures From The Harbor in the dollar bin? "I didn't like the music on that record," Sonny shared. This is a good point-- much of the album is imposed by an ecstatic production of avant-garde twinklings that usually sound as though they shouldn't be there. It's weird, too, 'cuz these were predominantly the songs we'd come to identify with-- "Flower Lady", "The Cruxifiction"-- and for some circumstance, flooded with modern chamber music. This was his weird record; a renegade wrapped in tissues; die-hard Phil Ochs fans will curl their lips at it, whereas cult-huggers will laud it. No matter, it was pretty corny when the honkytonk piano erupted during the beginning of "Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends", which was a great song only when under Phil's acoustic junction. The nut in me can't help but think it was some sort of intentional sabotage goin' down-- probably not, though. In a gist, the album stands before and under the aesthetics of the sixties musical role-play, heard weeping in "The Party", and in between the direction Phil's avenging path. You can hear the entire intimidation of The Beatles' pop-art bleeding through, and within his liner notes he's also poetically floating-- I have been away for a while and I hope to be back again soon-- like he had something invincible up his sleeve; despite that these tunes were his crucial blocks: havoc, friends, would indeed rise. "Pleasures From The Harbor" itself was a working-man's title, too, of appreciating what blew in. And hey, like me, when listening to "The Cruxifiction", you might get thrown back to Jim Glover's private-eye theories. After all, it tails around Kennedy, but when attempting to decode any secret hints, it's impossible due to the all the jangling. Move to another that has the same cut: Songs For Broadside.
But wait, before that: Tape From California. We know this album even before hearing it. It's second after Rehearsals For Retirement, and yet another reminder of how he always had "for" or "from" titles. Like any of his records, much of it intertwined from the incident of being able to both hear and live the current of the words. You can literally hear the sleeves of the sixties blowing in the album's air. Catching it now illustrates the power and musings, but is absent of the environment...which is almost the mystifying part of Phil Ochs: where is he now? The first side is the kick-in-the-head; "White Boots Marching In A Yellow Land", "Joe Hill", "The War Is Over"; c'mon! these were beautiful bullet-ballads. Somebody who walked out of the room with these on deserved to be hung upside down and questioned. Nevermind Van Dyke Parks and Ramblin' Jack Elliot were on here. Come side two, and they are subtle blankets of Phil's character lost in transit, "When In Rome" seriously resembling Leonard Cohen on fast-forward. The rhapsody of his voice was removed and distinct all in the same measure. You could witness his career in action here; as though with his two guerrilla portraits, Rehearsals and All The News…, were the fighters, Pleasures and Tape From California, his two sewing hearts, and Broadsides and In Concert, the dogs kickin' up the dirt (though, I Ain't Marching Any More stands on its own). A thousand lyrical metaphors ("New York fallin' on my head") were preconceived events and parties of the future (really?). His appearance went with the voice: searching, and as Jim Glover said: "very shy and quiet, but when in the manic stage, he would have a dictator mode." That fierce energy no doubt penetrated it all, keeping the tapes from California rolling. Of course, some of the loveliest stuff is heard on the unreleased sounds off A Toast To Those Who Are Gone. Hearing these are like unheard letters to his closest love. But hold on...
Overall, my favorite's In Concert, then Songs For Broadside. The Mao Tse-Tung poems on the back, so perfect. Man, I would give anything to attend this show-- like my entire record collection, most of which don't even possess half of Phil's work. The album's his best by far and I would start anybody with it. Nothing's an item, and god, he must fool around with Dylan's name a dozen times; "and Lyndon Johnson plays god, and I play Bob Dylan"; breaking down the cahoots of religion and universal ruins. Much like any of his live shows-- Vancouver, Newport-- it captured him at his armed revolution, satirically speaking to the crowd, and playing with the utmost strength. The audience is in love with him, too, pouncing on every lyric, which helps as he pushes out song after song, totally swimming in the belief that was visible with the crowd's enthusiasm. Farewell and Fantasies, his other treasure, was like this, too. Unfortunately, I can't find this record anywhere, even in my father's stack who grew up full-throttle in the age. But this doesn't matter, that's the beauty. Also, you can trust live recordings, and Phil you had to trust. You had to lose yourself-- your vanguard-- release yourself into the spotlight-- but never once let go of your identity. After that, miracles happened.
So who knows why he killed himself, doc, nor do I the person who plunges from the Golden Gate every two weeks. A bulk of classic writing and the neverending possibility, and he torches it all. "It's probably a cruel thing to ask, but if he were alive, what do you think he would be doing?" I asked Sonny.
"I suspect if he were alive he'd be writing day and night."
Wouldn't that be a killer. Roasting it all. There was a soul difference between Phil and anything that leaked out of sixties folk. He was a spokesman, not for one generation, but the following after. A rescue. They speak to me throughout all patches of guessing, sometimes when hearing him I begin looking for Phil Ochs in person, but only find In Concert whirling around my turntable...and to think all that was stuck in one record groove. Cross my heart and I hope to live. The demonstration won.
p.s. My father who looks over my writing just showed me he did own Farewell and Fantasies after all, and now, it's playing endlessly.