Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Phil Ochs Time

As I read the latest news from the state of Mississippi, which once again has taken the lead in raw, unbridled, smug, self-satisfied hatred, I felt increasingly angry. And then, as I sometimes do, I went beyond my anger, beyond my frustration: I decided it was Phil Ochs time.

And it almost always is. It's no coincidence that Billy Bragg found evoked him with "I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night"-- for indeed, he's still "as 'live as you or me" -- in fact, he's more alive now than he ever has been. Phil always claimed to just grab his songs from the headlines -- as witness, the wry title of his first LP,  All the News that's Fit to Sing -- but there was a whole lot more to them than that. Phil was a sort of tuning fork for his times, but in being that, he was tuned right in to many of the timeless foibles every era shares.

Many hailed (or dismissed) Phil as a mere "protest" singer -- a label I'm sure he wouldn't have minded -- but there was so much more to him than that. He could write the greatest anti-war ballad ever penned ("I Ain't Marching Anymore"), and at the same moment depict the common sailor in a way any Navy veteran couldn't help but admire ("The Men Behind the Guns"). At a moment when many hardcore lefties were dismissing JFK as a sellout, Phil wrote an elegy for the slain president that stands with Whitman's among the finest ever written -- and yet, his acerbic tirades against American interventionism never lost their edge, as in "The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of Santo Domingo" or "Cops of the World." And he always had a crazy sense of ironic humor (on both sides), which bubbled up in songs such "Draft Dodger Rag" and "Love Me, I'm A Liberal."

Another side of Phil was that he dug deep in the annals of American poetry, and had an uncanny knack for setting poems to music. His version of Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman" rescues that poem from what, in mere printed words, might seem maudlin, crafting it into a ballad that can bring a tear to the eye of the most hardened anti-romantic. But still better is his setting of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells," which transmogrifies a tuneful poem into a poetic tune, complete with guitar harmonics for the bells themselves -- it's a masterpiece.

It's often said that Phil felt despair, and lost his way, later in his career. Fear he surely felt, but his way was always sure; in his late musings such as "The Flower Lady" and "Pleasures of the Harbor," he reached a lyric height far beyond the common songwriter's scope, and with "Crucifixion" he revisited the Kennedy assassination with an apocalyptic overlay of epic proportions. Many of these songs are the equal -- some might say, the better -- of Dylan's anthems of the time. Phil and Bob were, indeed, always linked together; it was Phil that brought Bob out of motorcycle-accident retirement to Madison Square Garden's Evening with Salvador Allende. And, back in the day, it was to Phil's apartment that Bob went to share "Mr. Tambourine Man" for the first time.

Phils Ochs took his own life forty years ago in Far Rockaway, New York. Och's biographer, Marc Eliot, wrote about how personally that loss was felt, He predicted that, when Dylan dies, his death -- though greater in some wider sense -- would never be felt as personally as was Phil's.

And I agree.

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