Saturday, June 6, 2009

O - Phil Ochs - "All the News That's Fit to Sing"

Phil Ochs hanged himself in 1976, broken down & busted. His career was over, ruined by bad career moves, a mugging in Africa in 1973 that resulted in a drastic loss of his singing range, a crippling case of writer’s block, and the prolonged act of giving up. You can’t really say it was a tragedy, because, frankly, Phil belonged to the 60’s and the 60’s were over. He knew it – hell, he’d say it. Sinking into soft alcoholic middle age, he squandered money and friends to the point where even he couldn’t stand himself. A belt wedged over a doorway took his problems away.

I first read about Phil in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. I’d joined a book club around 1986-7 & this was one of my initial freebees for joining. During the next couple of years, I literally wore the book out; by the time it went into the trash, it was in about 7 pieces due to the binder splitting (damn Rolling Stone cheap asses – put some of that ad money into GLUE!) Phil Ochs was the first listing in the short “O” section (I think it also had Mike Oldfield, the Ohio Players, & the Ozark Mountain Daredevils – no Yoko, though, because I think Rolling Stone still blamed her for breaking up the Beatles. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils never broke up any band other than their own, thus their inclusion, I suppose.). Under his listing was a picture of him from around the “Tape from California” years that I remembered for a long time before hearing anything of his material: short unruly brown hair & steely determined eyes looking west. I learned his story: straight ahead folk singer who went rock & roll long after it was trendy, very politically active and outspoken, fell apart after 1968, killed himself in the 70’s. Eventually, I found several of his records, and the voice & songs matched the doomed / damned mystique that had built up; I thought he was better than Dylan. Well, Phil wasn’t as good as Dylan – not even close, but he made some powerful records, the best of which reflect the emotion that the obviously troubled singer was experiencing.

On his first record, Phil has nothing. At all. The liner notes celebrate the material’s “topicality” – which translates now to “extremely dated”. He claims to “get most of his basic material from Newsweek & the NY Times”, which also explains the record's lyrical shortcomings. These songs are the equivalent of a very liberal newscaster preaching to the choir about the inequalities in our society, the resolve of the workingman, and the hypocrisy of government. Like Keith Olberman, but nowhere near as entertaining, because not only had Phil not yet found his lyrical voice, his vocals are, to put it plainly, strident and stand-offish. (The reason that Dylan was a success, besides his gift for writing lyrics that weren’t painfully obvious, was that, as he once claimed with more than a little honesty disguised as irony, he was at heart “a song & dance man”. It wasn’t just what he sang; it was his delivery that made the words even more powerful. That’s why so many cover versions of Dylan are, if not awful, at least substandard to the originals – Dylan knew HOW to sing. Phil didn’t – at least not right off the bat.

(Interlude – I’m not being mean or unfair by bringing up Dylan. Though Dylan had a couple years head start on Phil, they played in a lot of the same clubs, ran in the same circles, considered each other peers: the liner notes of this record quote Dylan as saying “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting’ better and better and better.” To which I say “nice plug, Bob. That’s being a good friend. Because, really, by this time, you’ve changed the definition of folk music with “Blowin in the Wind” & “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (which, don’t look now, but in about 10 years, Bryan Ferry is going to record a version of which will BLOW you away), and you’re about to change rock and roll, too – actually for the worse, long term. Phil might as well be living in the 50’s. And also, you’re high.” Dylan grasped the SINGING aspect of folk music much quicker than most of his peers (wow, I mean listen to Dylan’s first record – it’s the roughest sounding album of his career, & it’s almost completely filled with covers, but it’s totally engaging.) A fair comparison are the tributes Dylan & Phil wrote for Woody Guthrie on their first albums: “Song for Woody” & “Bound for Glory”, respectively. Dylan, in addition to celebrating Woody’s life, personalizes Woody’s place in his own life & times, whereas Phil is relegating to listing Woody Guthrie song titles to fill a verse. They both felt passionately about this great influence, but only one song resonates. Sorry Phil.)

The trouble with recording the equivalent of a newspaper is that by tomorrow that paper is recycled unless the writing is good enough to make you stop in your tracks. When Phil sings about “current” events, I’m lost, & frankly, don’t care because of the doctrinaire lyrics. Even when the songs are well-written, & the lyrics sting when they’re supposed to (“One More Parade”, “Too Many Martyrs”), Phil’s delivery, that of a schoolteacher instructing his young Maoists, sinks them like the submarine in “The Thresher”. Even worse, his attempts at satire – in what amount to a really bad Dylan imitation, (“Talking Vietnam”, “Talking Cuban Crisis”) are PAINFULLY pathetic & horribly unfunny.

There’s bound to be SOME glory in here, and there is: when Phil puts Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells” to music, it’s very nice. “Celia” is a sweet song about love locked in a political prison, and points to a better artistic direction for Phil: humanity holds so much more value than doctrine. Also, as Phil mostly plays acoustic guitar unaccompanied, and was, even at his peak, a rudimentary guitarist, adding Danny Kalb (later of the Blues Project) on lead acoustic was a nice touch.

Though I’ve been a big Ochs fan for a long time, this, his first release, was the last I actually purchased, mainly because I knew what it would be: the tentative first steps of a songwriter not really ready to record.

Verdict: there are some really great Ochs records out there. Don’t start with this one.
Video:(this is Phil on the Midnight Special 10 years after the original release of this song. It almost hurts to watch, considering the disarray of his life at the time. It also says a lot about the state of his career that for his first network appearance in years, he plays what amounts to a rewrite of "This Land is Your Land” that wasn’t even good when he recorded it a decade earlier. Who booked him for this show, anyway? Regardless, LOVE the Curtis Mayfield intro – ooooh!)

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