Sunday, October 28, 2018

THE END OF HIS ROPE

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CHORDS OF FAME--Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs hanged himself April 9,1976, a fact that makes the second disc of this double record collection even more morbidly fascinating. At the zenith of his popularity, Ochs was a facile protest singer/songwriter during the Sixties, an able rabble-rouser 'at peace rallies and civil rights marchers who . could fire dormant liberal sympathies into anger and shame. The advent of the Seventies meant a total turnaround of musical styles and political attitudes, still, the white knight of worthy causes were considered, passé, and his' music became an object of Instant obsolescence. Not content to be a professional has-been, Ochs attempted on his last few albums (Pleasures of tile Harbor, Tape from California, Phil Ochs Greatest Hits, and Rehearsals for Retirement) to follow the new musical trends, using rock musicians, Sgt. Pepper styled electronic effects, and massive orchestration cast in the mold of Charles Ives. The net result was a confused jumble of affectations, with plenty of good material getting buried under an avalanche of desperate gimmickry. Ochs and his producer absorbed precisely the worst elements of what the Beatles were doing with their in-studio experiments--a convoluted eclecticism that nearly choked the life out of many of their best songs and made the slighter fare they filled their later albums with becoming no just slight, but ineffectively elitist.

His later songs, at their best and most penetrating, were haunting encapsulations, sketching the displaced anomie of his generation found itself in a new set of cultural conditions where people would rather dance than organize, and eerily foreshadowing Ochs' own sense of self-apocalypse. “Tape From California", the song, is a rocking Sojourn through an activist's shattered psyche, someone woken from being from a long sleep and find  a terrain not by a community of authentic people working to change the society for the better, but  rather by hippies, drug freaks, record company PR men, hip magazine writers, scene makers, blow job artists, flunkies, junkies, alcoholic poets without notebooks and self-declared painters of all sorts who never touched a canvas, everyone one of them feigning art and culture by looking , in truth ,all of them, for a cheap thrill to last until the garbage trucks arrive.

"The Crucifixion", Ochs' masterwork, is a complex, extended allegory about the way a culture treats its heroes (Christ and Kennedy); according to the figures the best virtues they'd like to see In themselves, and then watching them with necrophiliac glee as they are systematically destroyed. a process that begins once the heroes encroach too close to where the change must be made. The version here Is, blessedly, live, free of the special effects clutter that ruined the studio original. Ochs' voice Is plaintive an~ unadorned, with an implicit, devastating sorrow to phrasing. "The War Is Over", first seeming like one of the brilliant anti-war tomes Ochs was capable of writing, turns out instead to be a solipsist daydream. Ochs had been a veteran of countless free benefits and was dismayed that he could sing and declare the same worn out polemics time after time and effect nothing, except perhaps eliciting a momentary surge of self-righteous, smug radicalism in his audiences. The war, meanwhile, trudged on, a fact that caused Ochs to throw his hands in the air and declare the war was over, at least as far as he was concerned.

The final number, "No More Songs", concludes the album on a thoroughly depressing note. Voice and melody drenched in a defeated, archly lyric melancholia, he enumerates the people he's known, the things he's believed in, the lovers he's had and moans that all was In vain. With the past being meaningless, he moans that they're" ... no more songs", and then his voice recedes into a numbing orchestral backwash. the first record, comprised of his strictly protest material, is the least interesting of the set. The topicality is dated and irrelevant to anyone's present state of mind, and the enthusiasm of Ochs' idealism comes off as youthfully smug and embarrassing. 

This song is so beautifully tragic and precise in its sense of despair and crushed idealism that I begin to tear up every time I hear it. It was the last song on his last album, the ironically titled "Greatest Hits". Ochs had taken, late in his career, in dressing up in a gold lame suit and famously told a booing audience in Carnegie Hall that America could only be saved by a revolution, and that that wouldn't have happened until Elvis Presley became our Che Guevara.  Ochs, who was a deep romantic in the belief that Great Men with Great Ideas can change the world for the better and who was likewise an alcoholic and a man given to depressions that only deepened as he age, seemed to be writing a series of melancholic laments that dwelled on the smashing of the idealism that had fueled his songwriting as an anti-war and civil rights activist earlier in the Sixties and the failure of his personal relationships. Ochs did, in fact,  take his own life in 1975.


Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I've only called to say, I'm sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone
And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a girl, she was a flower in a flame
I loved her as the sea sings sadly
Now the ashes of the dream, can be found in the magazines
And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a sage, who sang upon the stage
He told about the world, his lover
A ghost without a name, stands ragged in the rain
And it seems that there are no more songs

The rebels they were here, they came beside the door
They told me that the moon was bleeding
Then all to my surprise, they took away my eyes
And it seems that there are no more songs

A star is in the sky, it's time to say goodbye
A whale is on the beach, he's dying
A white flag in my hand and a white bone in the sand
And it seems that there are no more songs

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I've only called to say, I'm sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone
And it seems that there are no more songs

It seems that there are no more songs
It seems that there are no more songs

Strangely, bizarrely, fantastically out of context, I saw Phil Ochs perform this song on a Cleveland dance TV show called "Upbeat", hosted by a local DJ who was desperately trying to comprehend why Ochs, acoustic guitar in hand, was on a teen dance show along with a parade of bubblegum rock and pop-soul bands who performed bad lip sync renditions of their regional hits songs. The DJ knew enough about Ochs to know that he a protest singer by trade and mentioned that with recent civil rights legislation and with the Paris Peace talks taking place in an attempt by the US and North Vietnamese Government to end the Vietnam War, the otherwise gutless host said that Ochs might be out of a job unless he sang more upbeat tunes or words to that effect. Ochs just smiled and said that he hoped for the best, and then performed "No More Songs" live, on acoustic. I remember this being one of the few songs that made haunted me and continued to haunt me for decades. At his best, Phil Ochs was stunningly brilliant as singer and songwriter and especially as a lyricist, a true poet, someone who could easily be the songwriter branch of the Confessional Poets like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath , writers of odd mental activity that they were compelled to write their demons into verse form in perhaps some effort to extract their awfulness from their souls, a project, it's been suggested, is a species of self-medication, a means to alleviate distress without means to grow stronger and find hope and sunlight. It's been suggested as well that this was a school of writing and a habit of thinking for which early death, either by one's own hand or through the degenerative results of copious alcohol and drug abuse, was how a poet of this description achieves their reputation and legitimacy as a poet.

This was something that had repulsed me when I was studying 20th-century poets in college, my idea at the time being that one had to insist that art embrace life and affirm its vitality and every sensation this skin we have has us subject to. I didn't read confessional poets for years but came to a change in my thinking that effectively set aside my previous conceit that poetry, let alone any art, was required to advance any one's preferences as an arbitrary standard each poet, painter, writer, dancer had to live up to; the muse to create came from whatever source it came from, it manifested its inspiration in our personalities and our need to express our comforts and misgivings as creatures in this sphere of existence, and it was under no requirement to make our lives better,  let alone save our selves from a wicked end or at least the bad habits that can make lives sordid, squalid endurance contests. Everyone is different, everyone has their own story to tell, everyone's fate is their own and no one else's. Most live more or less normal lives, where ever that is on the continuum of behaviors, no matter how good or bad or how many poems they write. Others are just....doomed, in some respect. Again , I am reminded of Harold Bloom's assertion that literature's only use is to help us think about ourselves in the world,  the quality of being nothing more nor less than human, struggling through life with wit and grit, creating and failing and destroying with an array of emotion and words to give them personality. The job of the poet isn't to instruct others in how to live a full life, but instead chronicle the unending problematic situations of the life were are constantly trying to negotiate a contract of conduct with , only to find , again, endlessly, that life is pure, unceasing process, churning, burning, destroying, creating from the ash and mire; the poet records the ironies that will not stop coming, the lessons that will always be taught again to the same romantics, adventurers, would be saints and dime store dictators. It is one of the ironies of modern existence and the expansion of all media, all the time that the subjects of protest songs, those songs that are very specific to a cause, to a particular injustice, no longer seem to spark the desire to work toward the better world the romantics among us wish would come to be. The embarrassment has more to do with our own memories than with Ochs' politics, though. Chord of Fame scans the timeline from the way we were, thinking we could change the world with good sentiments if not concrete policies, to the way we are now,' with ideals shattered and wearing a chic cynicism. One hopes we weather future changes better than Ochs managed to do.






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