Monday, August 20, 2012

50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong!

I don’t know what my recent fascination with so-called “folk music” is lately. I’m not so much into folk music in it’s stereotypical format. I think John Belushi’s critique of “traditional” folk music is spot on, don’t you?
What I find really fascinating are those artists who start out as folkies and end up making some kind of break into other forms. For some reason, experiments in stretching the boundaries of “folk” music can often yield some interesting results. Even if the results aren’t always successful commercially or even artistically, there’s some really interesting stuff to be found lurking on records sometimes shoved into the “folk” bins.

“Folk” is such a catch-all category to begin with. I forget who said it, but someone made the comment that “it’s ALL folk music” – unless we’re talking about music created for machines to enjoy, right? That’s kind of how I look at it. Yet, there once was a “folk music” craze in the early 1960s. Perhaps typified by The Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary and maybe even Harry Belafonte. Heck, even Muddy Waters got roped into trying to pass himself off as a “folk-blues” act for a few minutes there. Any old way to sell  records I suppose. One of the wackiest uses of the word “folk”, in terms of trying to categorize the unclassifiable, came from Charles Mingus who insisted on having his album “Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” stamped with the legend: File Under – Ethnic, Folk-Dance Music. Now, really Mingus’s music was conceived of as a ballet. I wonder if he thought by including the word “folk” he might somehow lure people into checking out his album? Well, it is ALL folk music anyway, right?

A few entries ago I mentioned how I spent an evening viewing a recent documentary about Phil Ochs streaming from PBS online. I had heard some of Phil Ochs’ music before – the classic “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” certainly ranks up there with “Blowin’ in the Wind” as a sixties folk anthem if we can admit to there being such a thing. Maybe they’re just good songs that evoke the times they come from. No denying the acoustic guitar singer format though.

Like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs ended up being more than a guy with an acoustic guitar, the New York Times and a point of view. Unlike Dylan, however, Phil Ochs could really  SING! Having proved the worth of his art on three acoustic-based records for Elektra Records, Ochs sailed on to A&M Records in 1967 where he would break free of the stereotypical “folksinger” image. Although Ochs would eventually be confronted with an uncomprehending audience just like Dylan was, he didn’t jump headfirst into the rock and roll pond. Ochs took a decidedly more mature approach, at least in terms of the sound of the music on the records. The albums on A&M were groundbreaking, yet quite polished in comparison to Dylan’s “wild, thin mercury” sound.

Yet, Ochs was hardly selling out to a new audience. It seems to me that the body of work he did for A&M was designed for a more sophisticated audience. Ochs was moving his art into some highly esoteric waters despite the professional-sounding production. The results sound like socially-informed, adult pop music. I am thinking especially of his A&M debut disc “Pleasures of the Harbor”.
This record is such a quantum leap from what Ochs was doing on the other albums it isn’t funny. And yet, I wonder who the intended audience was. The music isn’t radical, crazy protest music like The Fugs. But it isn’t sanitized to the point of Judy Collins either. In fact, there’s a wacky sense of humor found on this album that reaches greater heights later on in his catalog. Here’s what I mean – by the time of his fourth (and last) studio album for A&M, the elusive hit song failed to materialize so, Ochs put out a new album’s worth of material that looked like this:
Phil Ochs “Greatest Hits” album is at once a spoof of AND an aspiration to the heights of popular music, typified by the Elvis image. Now, it’s funny enough to see the King of the Folk Protest Song decked out in gold lame on the album cover, but it didn’t stop there. Ochs took to none other than the Carnegie Hall stage wearing the same suit, totally Elvis-ing it up and essentially causing a near-riot and revolt not unlike Dylan’s infamous “going electric” at Newport five years earlier. There was even a record released from this debacle though I have yet to hear it.

Why did he do it? I think it was part poking fun at himself, the music industry in general and an overall feeling of frustration. What Ochs really needed was one major, catchy-as-hell hit song in his new style at A&M. And, dang it, it never materialized. Well, the events of 1968 also seemed to take a personal toll on Ochs. It is interesting to note what the album cover before the “Greatest Hits” album looked like. Here’s the image that graced his previous album in 1969, ominously titled “Rehearsals for Retirement”:
Yikes. Was the “gold lame” image supposed to represent a “rebirth” of Ochs in new, more commercial form? This toying with alternate personas took a more severe turn as Ochs’ personal demons started to overtake him in the mid-1970s. For a time, he literally took to calling himself by another name though this was not for professional reasons. Ochs had long been suffering the effects of bipolar disorder without being properly treated. He continued to perform in spite of some severe personal misfortunes though his illness eventually got the better of him – Ochs took his own life in the early spring of 1976. His legacy as one of the finest socially-conscious musicians of the twentieth century cannot be denied. Yet, I also hear a brave pioneering spirit in his A&M output.

I’ve been on the lookout for Phil Ochs LPs ever since I saw the documentary. Interestingly enough – finding Ochs on vinyl has proved to be a challenge. Which is funny considering he had the good fortune of being associated with two record companies who kept his albums in print even long after his decline and death! I got lucky last weekend when I scored four LPs – all but one of them being reissues. That leaves only four LPs left of his main catalog for me to track down. Actually, I saw original copies of his first two Elektra albums in Princeton and, tellingly, they were well-loved by previous owners – I’m talkin’ PLAYED, man. Phil Ochs inspires some serious loyalty and it’s no wonder. I’ll bet not just a few people clung to his songs for dear life in those tumultuous days.

I have to be honest, though. I’m just not a lyric person. It can take me a long time to latch onto the words of any song. Seriously. What really interests me is the whole sound, the music, the abstract nature of the art. Phil Ochs was a hell of a songwriter, but the craft would have been a whole lot less compelling were it not for that fabulous voice. There are a handful of singers who’ve made me think to myself, “If I could sing like that, I’d never shut up!” Phil Ochs is one of those singers. I suppose his tragic demise casts a bit of a shadow over the possibilities his music has of being heard more often. Or maybe his politics? Or a combination of both. Which is a shame, either way.

I’ll bet as people discover Phil Ochs down the line, they’ll wonder like me – “Why haven’t I heard this guy before?” His life may have ended tragically, but Phil Ochs left a great body of music behind as well as a legacy of true passion for the betterment of his country. Whether you agreed with his point of view or not, his contribution as an American Original will continue to be appreciated for generations to come.

Here's the link to watch the great documentary about Phil Ochs - "There But For Fortune" - streaming from

Here's the trailer: