In contrast to the horror my mother and I experience daily as we pore through news and tweets related to the accession of King Donald to the throne of the most powerful and dangerous nation on the planet, my flaming liberal father is rather philosophical about the whole thing. “Been there, done that,” he shrugs.
The “been there” period he refers to is that dark period in American history characterized by the Vietnam war, race riots and the emergence of white backlash. Americans were divided on issues of patriotism, long hair/short hair, liberation movements, the “drug epidemic,” race and the “creeping socialism” of The Great Society. I asked him to reproduce his rant while I captured it on my keyboard.
“You think the 2016 campaign was ugly? Go back to 1968. Two major assassinations. Riots at the Democratic Convention, cops beating the shit out of kids. After the tear gas had cleared, the Gallup Poll put the Democratic establishment nominee in third place—behind George Wallace, a mean-spirited, lifelong segregationist. After losing Bobby Kennedy, we were down to a choice between Wallace, Hubert Humphrey—who spent his time as vice-president licking Lyndon Johnson’s ass and supporting the war—and Richard Nixon, who had been left for dead as a loser years before. A whole generation of young voters who had become engaged through Gene McCarthy and Bobby decided to check out—just like a lot of Bernie voters did. People voted for Nixon and Wallace for the same reason they voted for Trump—it was all about white people feeling threatened by what they saw as an erosion in the white version of the American Dream. Things were tense—families were falling apart over the war, the generation gap was huge, and if you had long hair or black skin, you stood a pretty good chance of having some redneck kick the shit out of you, just for the hell of it. The people who voted for Nixon and Wallace were just as dumb, uneducated and uninformed as the typical Trump voter. Wallace was constantly sneering about the “pointy-headed intellectuals,” and Nixon resented anyone who went to a more prestigious college than he did. Wallace and Nixon were bitter, fearful men who tapped into the bitter fear of the majority of voters who wanted law and order no matter what. Nixon called them the Silent Majority, and you’ve seen one of them on TV reruns—Archie Bunker. People thought we’d made all this progress by electing a black president and they forgot that all those Archie Bunkers were still hanging around, nursing their resentment. We all laughed at Archie Bunker, just like liberals laughed at the deplorables. Back then, that attitude gave us Richard Nixon. Now it’s Trump.
“People are calling Trump fascist, anti-democratic, corrupt, dishonest—all the labels we applied to Nixon. Just like Trump, Nixon was a dishonest prick who fixed an election, too, and it eventually caught up with him, just like it will for Trump. So to me, this is ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.'”
To support his argument, he introduced Exhibit A, Phil Ochs’ post-Chicago release, Rehearsals for Retirement, ghoulish cover and all. “Listen to this and then write your review. It’s all there.”
As is true with everything Phil Ochs ever did, Rehearsals for Retirement is an uncomfortably captivating piece of music. Never one to pull punches or fail to call bullshit on the complacent, unthinking dogma we know as American Exceptionalism, Phil Ochs was a perceptive satirist and usually a compassionate human being. But as I’ve learned through my difficulty in ridding myself of my abiding disgust for anyone who voted for The Orange Nightmare, compassion has its limits. What’s the fucking point trying to dialogue with people who choose to remain uneducated and cling to their fears and prejudices like security blankets? Rehearsals for Retirement is the moment when Phil Ochs realized that the fix was in and that the repressive forces in American society had marshaled their ample resources to put an end to all that socialist hippie nonsense. For Phil Ochs, the shining vision of a compassionate society where everyone could get a fair shake died on the mean streets of Chicago in August 1968.
Hence the tombstone.
Many people in the 60’s believed in “the dream” because they saw parts of the dream come true. The folk revival of the 1960’s coincided with a higher level of economic security in the States, which helped foster a greater degree of openness and self-reflection in the American populace. The consciousness-raising that took place in the early part of the decade was facilitated by leaders like JFK and MLK and encouraged by the work of the great folk artists of the day. It’s hard to believe now, but in the 60’s, protest marches and songs actually changed minds and led to real social progress, particularly in the area of civil rights. Americans by and large wanted to create a truly fair and inclusive society where everyone had an equal shot at the American Dream. The anti-progress conservative movement had been largely discredited by LBJ’s landslide victory over Goldwater in 1964, and LBJ cashed in his political capital on the cornerstone legislation of The Great Society and The War on Poverty: Medicare, The Voting Rights Act, The National Endowment for the Arts, stronger anti-pollution laws, aid to education, low-income housing—a cornucopia of laws validating the new self-image of Americans as a kind and generous people.
Then something changed. When I researched the two years associated with the pivot point, one statistic leapt out at me above all else: the sudden shift in American attitudes concerning the death penalty. In the early 60’s, Americans had begun to question the value and morality of state-sponsored murder, as reflected in annual Gallup polls showing decreasing support for the barbaric practice. In May 1966, for the first time in the history of the poll, a plurality of Americans favored abolishing the death penalty: 42% wanting to keep it, but 47% opting for abolition.
But the June 1967 survey revealed a sudden and significant reversal: 54% wanted to keep the death penalty, while only 38% wanted to get rid of it. This began a long, sickening trend that peaked in 1994, when 80% of the American people favored executions. While support for the death penalty drifted down to 60% in the 2016 poll, a solid majority of Americans remain enamored with legalized murder.
So what happened between May 1966 and June 1967 that made such a difference?
I can answer that in two words: Ronald Reagan.
Far more likable and telegenic than the grumpy Goldwater, Ronald Reagan swept to victory in a campaign that demonized protesters, hippies, minorities and welfare queens, capitalizing on deep-seeded white fear of economic and social displacement. Elected Governor of California in a landslide fueled by white disgust with the previous year’s Watts riots, Reagan gave voice to nostalgia for days gone by, the virtues of the Protestant work ethic, patriotism, law-and-order and un-politically correct racism. Reagan voters wanted to slam the door on civil rights that threatened property rights, hair styles that threatened gender identity, and any and all behaviors lumped under the label “un-American,” especially disagreement with American foreign policy.
We meet one of the flock who happily voted The Gipper into office in the opening number, “Pretty Smart on My Part.” Musically, the song takes you by surprise, with Phil channeling fellow Texan Buddy Holly in an intense acoustic strum reminiscent of the pattern in “Not Fade Away.” Phil enters in fine voice and seemingly good spirits as the voice of the man of the Silent Majority, who knows there are people out there who want to get him, hurt him and bring him down. These nefarious enemies include hitchhiking hippies, women with big tits, imaginary rapists and disease-ridden Chinese (or any Asian ethnic group; the bastard probably can’t tell the difference and calls them all “Chinese”). He responds to each of these “outsiders” with typically violent responses, some direct, some indirect. With the hitchhiker, he decides to run him over with his car; with the woman, he decides to tie her up and whip her (obviously Phil only had a superficial understanding of BDSM dynamics). The most curious incident involves the alleged rapist, for instead of doing the manly thing and protecting his wife, he does the manly thing and heads off to kill innocent birds:
I can see him coming
He’s walking through bedroom
With a switchblade knife
He’s looking at my wife
He wants to get me
He wants to hurt me
He wants to bring me down
But sometime later when I feel a little braver
I’ll go hunting with my rifle
Where the wild geese are flying
Then I’m gonna bag one
Pretty smart on my part
Find my way home in the dark
Yeah, I bet it makes you feel like such a man to kill a defenseless animal. Ooh, baby, fuck me with your long stiff rod!
Far more frightening is this dumb shit’s take on foreign policy, a completely ignorant, ethnocentric, racist stance that values extermination over negotiation:
I can see them coming
They’re training in the mountains
And they talk Chinese
And they spread disease
They want to get me
They want to hurt me
They want to bring me down
But sometime later when I feel a little safer
We’ll assassinate the president
And take over the government
And then we’re going to fry them
Pretty smart on my part
Find my way home in the dark
The key line in the song is “find my way home in the dark,” for it captures both the “man’s home is his castle” ethic of sacred property rights and the self-engendered belief that anyone who is “not me” is a tool of the Prince of Darkness. As I reconnected with this song, I thought of all those Trump voters, who—with a huge assist from their equally moronic candidate—wanted to blame China for everything: their unemployment, their loss of status in the world, the myth of America the Disrespected. Of course, it never dawned on these dummies that the Chinese were simply engaged in the same cutthroat competition for markets that Americans have practiced with abandon for over a century, or that they could have responded to globalization by GETTING A FUCKING EDUCATION and learning a new trade. No, just as was true in the 60’s, they want to thrill in their misery, blame everyone but themselves and turn to their cherished guns as their ultimate backup plan. Phil Ochs was not describing a phenomenon unique to the 1960’s; he was describing a central character flaw in the American male.
Doing a 180, Phil gives us “The Doll House,” a lovely waltz highlighted by Lincoln Mayorga’s deft celeste-like piano. The lyrics tend to the obscure, generally describing a fantastical and mythical world reminiscent of dreamland. Some have translated the opening line as, “Lost in the valley of dolls,” suggesting a drug-induced fantasy; what I hear is “Valley of Oz,” which fits better with the cultural references strewn throughout the song. This alternative world is a mélange of surreal imagery and mythical personages drawn from a variety of cultures (Cinderella, Tom Sawyer, The Lady of the Lake and Pirate Jenny—and perhaps Oz) with no apparent connection to one another. The only solid clue to interpretation is Phil’s shift to Dylan imitator in the second chorus, which could indicate the song was a send-up of Dylan’s more symbolist work . . . but that’s pure speculation. In any case, “The Doll House” is a lovely rainy afternoon song that flows beautifully.
There’s no mistaking the meaning of “I Kill Therefore I Am,” a no-holds barred attack on the American police. The cops of the era were labeled “pigs” by the New Left due to their well-documented, televised preference for beating heads with nightsticks, blasting little kids with firehoses and the disgusting frenzy of physical force displayed in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. The tendency of many young people in that generation to indulge in illegal substances added to the general tension between police and populace. What makes the song relevant today are two aspects of American policing that haven’t changed in fifty years: racial profiling and the conspiracy of the system to protect police from blatantly illegal actions:
I don’t like the black man, for he doesn’t know his place
Take the back of my hand or I’ll spray you with my mace
I’m as brave as any man can be
I find my courage through chemistry
I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am . . .
Farewell to the gangsters we don’t need them anymore
We’ve got the police force, they’re the ones who break the law
He’s got a gun and he’s a hater
He shoots first, he shoots later
I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am.
As in “Pretty Smart on My Part” and “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” the upbeat, light rock music provides ironic counterpoint to the penetrating lyrics. This proved to be one of Phil’s most courageous songs, for as paranoid as he might have seemed to friends and family during his later decline, the FBI was busy building a file of over 500 pages related to his “subversive” activity.
Next, Phil’s attention turns inward in a trio of songs most would classify as “difficult.” I can’t argue with that characterization, but I deeply appreciate the emotional honesty of all three songs.
It all begins at Lincoln Park on the night of August 28, 1968, with his presence at an earth-shattering event that would add new pages to his FBI file. Phil Mershon described the scene in a piece on furious.com:
Humphrey accepted his party’s nomination on August 28, as the day ended and the scent of tear gas wafted up Michigan Avenue to the nominee’s suite at the Conrad Hilton. The worst violence was about to begin. And the New York folk singer would be right in the thick of things. The protestors had gathered in Grant Park to hear a series of speeches before marching to the Convention Center. The Chicago Police attempted to contain the group by surrounding the Park. One after another speaker addressed the crowd. In between speeches of men like activist Dave Dellinger, poet Allen Ginsberg, and comedian Dick Gregory, Phil would stand in the back of a pick-up truck and sing for the crowd. Shortly after he sang a rousing version of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” he saw a young boy climb the park’s flag pole and pull down Old Glory. The was all the provocation the police required. They grabbed the kid, beat him with their nightsticks, and tossed him into the back of a squad car while the more agitated onlookers threw rocks at the arresting officers. Press cameras filmed all this for posterity and even broadcast one cop commanding “Make sure you show them throwing rocks!” While Dave Dellinger attempted to lead a nonviolent march to the Convention Center (and was blocked from doing so), others took advantage of an opening in the quarantine and thousands of young people marched toward the Hilton. Enraged at being distracted, the police charged up Michigan Avenue, firing tear gas canisters and clubbing everything in sight. When clubs failed to subdue, they stomped. And when that proved ineffective, they kicked, shoved, punched and beat. The crowd shouted “The whole world is watching!”
That scene provided the bulk of the material for “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed,” a melancholy depiction of the riot and, to some degree, its consequences. Given Phil’s politics, one might approach this song expecting a classic poor-me leftist rant that pins the blame squarely on the cops, but Phil Ochs was a much more perceptive human being capable of connecting the hidden dots. After describing the scene where young people peacefully assembled in the gloaming before the mayhem began, Phil comments on those who organized the protest:
They spread their sheets upon the ground just like a wandering tribe
And the wise men walked in their Robespierre robes
Through Lincoln Park the dark was turning
Robespierre is the ultimate symbol of the extreme zealot, a purist leader who responded to any suspected deviation from the party line by sending the heretics to the guillotine. The reference clearly indicates that Phil considered the movement’s organizers equally culpable for the violence that night by stoking an “us-against them mentality” that would prove to be completely self-defeating. Phil Mershon put it this way:
As Phil Ochs and the others would soon come to realize, most of the whole world didn’t care and among those who did, many felt the cops hadn’t gone far enough.
Back in Los Angeles, Phil began to question his own approach to politics in America. While the Yippies and other radicals had been creating and recreating their own counterculture, they had alienated the American working class along with Middle America. People who were already involved, Ochs reasoned, didn’t need to be converted. Nixon–who would ride to victory above the shattered remains of a splintered Democratic Party–called these frightened Americans ‘the Silent Majority.’ Ochs knew that if this majority rejected the members of the New Left, they would in turn embrace the solutions of men like Nixon and George Wallace. Frightened by those prospects, the songwriter began to detach himself by degrees from the journalistic approach to his craft. The resulting music spoke with broader, more universal tones.
The reference to Yeats in the song’s title is therefore not a validation of candidate Eugene McCarthy’s favorite poet, but a realization that truths discovered through poetry have greater depth and duration than polemical positioning. The arrangement is itself poetic, combining piano with accordion and viola, creating that slow-motion atmosphere one experiences in the midst of a catastrophic event, where every visual, sound and smell is amplified a thousandfold. The curious addition of a barrelhouse segment after a brief silence underscored the competition for activist purity common on the left—if you weren’t in Chicago, you were nowhere, even if you happened to be helping the citizens of Detroit rebuild a city torn by riots.
“My Life” is the complementary twin of “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed,” a statement of rebirth following the symbolic death of Chicago: “My life is now a death to me/So I’ll mold it and I’ll hold it till I’m born.” But as is true with nearly everything associated with Phil Ochs, the truth is much more complicated. He follows the statement of rebirth with the sad acknowledgment that no matter how much of his past he leaves behind and no matter where he chooses to take his art, he will always be a stranger in a strange land, deprived of peace and privacy:
So I turned to the land
Where I’m so out of place
Throw a curse on the plan
In return for the grace
To know where I stand
Take everything I own
Take your tap from my phone
And leave my life alone
My life alone.
The expression of alienation and the desire to retreat is the antithesis of American Optimism, so insipidly expressed in Paul Anka’s “My Way.”
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way
Americans love a fighter—someone who can take the punch and get up from the canvas. In real life, things don’t work that way. People lose their jobs and slip into depression, and all the optimism in the world isn’t going to make a difference to someone who feels utterly worthless. You can fight until you turn black and blue but when you’re trying to work an employment system where your chances of getting a job depend largely on favoritism or dumb luck, fighting isn’t going to get you anywhere. Although this final verse is heartbreaking and full of anguish, it has the undying virtue of emotional honesty. This was a man frightened and astonished by what was happening in the world, feelings that many of us living in the present can easily relate to.
The final song in the trilogy, “The Scorpion Departs, But Never Returns,” superficially relates the story of the USS Scorpion, a US Navy submarine that was lost due to an “unexplained catastrophic event” that caused the ship to be crushed by the sheer pressure of the ocean’s depths, killing all 99 crewmen. In the liner notes for Rehearsals for Retirement/Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, Richie Unterberger noted that, “it could just be taken as a tale of a ship lost at sea, it also reflects directionlessness Ochs saw in both the course of America and within his own life.” The depiction of the captain as an unresponsive, uncommunicative leader captures the aimlessness one feels when leaders fail to live up to their responsibilities, but it also points out the problematic nature of depending on leaders to protect us from harm. In the last two verses, Phil gamely attempts to balance hope and despair, but in the end, comes firmly down on the side of anguish and self-doubt:
The radio is begging them to come back to the shore
All will be forgiven, it’ll be just like before
All you’ve ever wanted will be waiting by your door
We will forgive you, we will forgive you
Tell me we will forgive you
But no one gives an answer not even one goodbye
Oh, the silence of their sinking is all that they reply
Some have chosen to decay and others chose to die
But I’m not dying, no I’m not dying
Tell me I’m not dying
The arrangement here echoes the more complex arrangements of Pleasures of the Harbor, featuring a French horn counterpoint that somehow manages to express a mournful urgency.
Having plumbed the depths of his soul, Phil gives himself and the listener a break with the light-and-bouncy “The World Began in Eden and Ended in Los Angeles.” Some have remarked that the cheesy horns were a dig at Herb Alpert, but I don’t think The Tijuana Brass was that bad. It’s followed by “Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore,” another waltz featuring one of Phil’s most lovely melodies, one that flows so beautifully with the lyrics that it’s difficult to reconcile the beauty with the subject matter—the relentless progression of depression. This song has been mistakenly identified as some kind of tribute to Lenny Bruce, a perception that fits neither with the lyrics nor the timing (Lenny Bruce had died over two years before). My take is Lenny is the narrator of his own story, the depressed soul separating himself from his decaying self by shifting to the third-person perspective. Our Lenny’s journey into darkness ends in a dingy room in nowheresville, a “long-time loser” grieving for an ex-lover but still suffering from her definitive judgment of his worth:
The fat official smiles at the pass on the border
And the hungry broom makes sure that the room is in order
You pull the shade
All the beds are made
As your lips caress the razor of the blade
Of the blade
And the haggard ex-lover of a long-time loser
Stands rejectedly by the door
Doesn’t Lenny live here anymore?
Are you sure?
A difficult piece of work, indeed.
Phil returns to the political in “Another Age,” a fairly straightforward condemnation of American involvement in the Vietnam War and the lasting damage to American society that went far beyond the sickening body count. “We were born in a revolution and we died in a wasted war” expresses both the pointlessness of that terrible war and the complete destruction of America’s standing as the world’s moral guardian. Once again, a snappy tempo contrasts with the bitter lyrics, though the way the rhythmic structure allows Phil’s voice to soar on “So I pledge allegiance against the flag” confirms the wisdom of the counterintuitive choice.
The title track ends the album, one of the most remarkable duets of voice and piano you will ever hear. Phil and Lincoln Mayorga perform like perfectly-synced dancers following a rhythm of spontaneous creation. Both introduce subtle delays in the song’s progress to highlight the emotional content, with Phil in particular extending syllables beyond expected length, particularly on the second lines of the verses. The couplet that serves as the song’s bridge is one I find endlessly intriguing, due to the ambiguity concerning the kind of laughter he’s describing: joyful, contemptuous or absurd? The message of comfort to his daughter in the second line might indicate any of the three, with the implication that the end is not as important as the journey:
Had I known the end would end in laughter
Still I’d tell my daughter that it doesn’t matter
Rehearsals for Retirement turned out to be a commercial disaster, Phil Ochs’ worst-selling album, one that was removed from the A&M catalog rather speedily after its release. While the relentless sense of despair at the loss of one’s country and one’s soul may have accounted for poor sales, I think the more likely culprit was its rejection of American Optimism. Phil Ochs saw the writing on the wall and put it into song but no one wanted to hear that America was finished or that the tried-and-true tactics of the early Civil Rights Movement would fail to stop the war. Identities were locked into place, the battle lines were drawn and any chance of dialogue obliterated be the “me”/”not me” paradigm.
Once again, America finds itself thoroughly divided and in a much more precarious position than it was in the 1960’s. Nixon never came close to experiencing Republican control of Congress, so he had no choice but to compromise on issues of human rights and the environment. For all practical purposes, America is now a one-party state led by a mean-spirited sociopath. While Democrats can vote against this insult to intelligence or that abuse of human rights, the right wing controls the votes. Things seem beyond hopeless, but the worst thing Americans can do is go into denial about it or—even worse—normalize the situation.
In Rehearsals for Retirement, Phil Ochs spoke the emotional and political truth of a country shattered by repeated acts of self-destruction—a country very much like the United States of January 2017. Despite its dark and brooding tone, listening to Rehearsals for Retirement turned out to be a cathartic and comforting experience for me. Phil Ochs expressed all the feelings I have experienced since the election: angst, depression, anguish anger, frustration and confusion about what to do next. Being reminded that we have gone through similar dark periods in recent history helped me appreciate the fundamental truth that the struggle against prejudice, greed and violence is a never-ending battle against human fear and ignorance.
When I reviewed London Calling a few months ago, I had no answer to Joe Strummer’s essential question: “What are we gonna do now?” Somehow, listening to Rehearsals for Retirement clarified things for me. We need to accept the fundamental truth that the emerging fascist leaders of the day (Trump, Le Pen, Duterte, etc.) capitalize solely on human fear and insecurity. They do that because they are frightened human beings themselves. They project a strong, tough image to protect their essential vulnerability, and in the process gather many frightened followers. While human beings in fear can be terribly dangerous, they are also inherently fragile. On my part, I will do everything I can to expose these frauds as the deeply insecure people they are and persistently fight them with the truth. I also intend to respect, engage and try to understand the frightened people who follow these corrupt leaders (and I have lots of opportunity to do that, since I live in a part of France where LePen is relatively popular). Finally, I will do whatever I can to work with others to eliminate the two primary sources of fear in our world today: economic inequality and prejudice.
With luck, I may be able to influence half a dozen people to face their fears and move on. But if enough of us fight the fascists with the weapons of truth and human respect—no matter how ugly things get—we can put these motherfuckers where they belong—on the ash heap of history.
Fuck “Let’s win one for The Gipper.” Let’s win this one for Phil Ochs!
Fantastic review! Dollhouse remains my favorite Ochs song.
As to the lyrics, I’m pretty sure it’s “Lost in the valley of vaults” – rhyming with “fault” on the next line (and backed up by the lyrics in the songbook). Interpretation is, of course, open.
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[…] Rehearsals for Retirement […]
Thank you ! That should be interesting. :_ I’m not sure exactly what I think of the Carnegie Hall performance but on Retirement there is a definite toggling between the public and private with almost every song a reaction to or deepening personal exploration of what came prior. He had been envisioning records as a work of fully developed work of art since Pleasures of the Harbor but to do a complete song cycle where every piece is organically related and designed to be performed in a sequence only really came out on this album.
“William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed,” seems to be about his girlfriend getting maced in the protests, which would of course have been more widely known at the time and not at all now. Yeats is almost certainly referring to himself who would rather claim she was dead than continue searching. As Phil said in an interview in 1971 the song describes a poet who “visits the chaos” before retreating to the outskirts. It is a major theme of the entire album in one way or another. How much of the political turmoil of the time should impact him personally and what is the nexus between the public sphere and his immediate environment (Chicago, LA., a whorehouse etc or even the bottom of the ocean where he claims the victims of the Scorpion disaster chose to remain rather than come back to the nightmare of life on earth).
As always, your insights on Phil Ochs and this remarkable album are spot-on and deeply appreciated. The personal-political struggle is a major Ochs theme on full display in the experience of Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, which I’ll get to sooner or later. Thank you!
Forgot to mention that I also agree with the interpretation of “Lenny doesn’t live here anymore” as essentially personal, either as a process of self evaluation or through the eyes of a woman or both. Phil also described it as such in the ’71 interview with Studs Terkel (crossed with “offshoots” of Lenny Bruce).
Doll house is a fascinating song, although I admit to only understanding two sets of images : the empty passion of a whorehouse contrasted with the enchantress/seductress/goddess/savior or Arthur Lady of the Lake (Camelot, caves, etc from King Arthur). Cinderella’s soldiers fish is probably from the Vietnamese version of Cinderella (Tam and Cam), Beyond that I am reluctant to speculate although almost certainly it is meant as a humorous statement on his profound attachment to larger than life myths and other cultural symbols as a means of attachment to the world and ultimately as a form of escapism. In addition to doing Dylan one better. The vocal imitation must come from Dylan always encouraging that Phil turn to personal, emotional, soul searching songs over that bs political stuff. The most interesting questions are what he is escaping from and going to, and what is the meaning of this piece between two hard hitting blatantly political numbers ? It almost sounds at points like he isn’t taking the narrators position during that Dylan part all that seriously, like it is mostly a charade to satisfy his “poet brother” Bob (who doesn’t figure in the song as far as I can see). It is very probable he did see himself as a King Arthur of sorts but what is the point of “though” in “though I danced with the dolls” I guess is what I am really wondering.
Really loved this in depth listen and commentary. Thanks for taking the time to research and write it. Beautifully done.
Thank you! Some people find my detail rather tedious, but for me the research is the most enjoyable aspect of the job!
Really solid and informative piece. Thanks. I’ve been listening to this album a lot over the past couple of years and definitely think it is one of the highlights of the 60s, a perfect obituary for that messy decade. W
Excellent review! Far more insightful than the recent Washintonpost retrospective on Ochs which simply retreads the same old conclusions about Ochs work and life. ( https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/01/24/why-phil-ochs-is-the-obscure-60s-folk-singer-america-needs-in-2017/?tid=sm_tw&utm_term=.716f2eed4234 )
I’d be interested in reading your review of the follow-up Greatest Hits, if not because of the musical and lyrical content (its probably Ochs most frustrating work) because so many of the most prominent Ochs apologists (folks like Billy Bragg and Neil Young) seem to get it so damn wrong. Everyone seems to want that era to be about Ochs’ attempt to succomb to commercialism but I think he was far too self-aware for that to be the case. I described it once as this… if Dylan was labeled a Judas for abandoning the folk movement in favor of commercialism (and perhaps the even lamer excuse of artistic integrity), Ochs was more like a technicolor Christ (literally donning a gold suit) offering his career and reputation as a symbolic sacrifice. Of course, it’s hard to really understand Ochs intentions. While Rehearsals for Retirement seems to signify a break from the Yippie movement, Greatest Hits and Gunfight at Carnegie Hall seem like Ochs fully transitioned into the mode of perfomrance art and political theater. Perhaps he was genuinely trying to find a middle road to unite the movements.
Thank you! I am seriously considering reviewing all his work, because I find the experience of Phil Ochs so rich and rewarding. I’m very intrigued by the Greatest Hits album because of the consensus opinion, as whenever an artist defies expectations they tend to piss off those unable to let go.
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Awesome! You had a great and similarly insightful review of Pleasures of the Harbor that is no longer available. Things are getting so bad that even Pitchfork has come out with a review of I Ain’t Marching Anymore, done in their trademark ‘pretentious and overlong’ writing style and complete with lazy, offhand mentions of his A&M albums
Thank you! My review of Pleasures of the Harbor is still live: you can access it through the 1962-1969 menu or on the Favorite Classics list on the home page. Or you can just go here: https://altrockchick.com/2013/09/17/classic-music-review-pleasures-of-the-harbor-by-phil-ochs/
It’s also available on 50thirdand3rd, where I’ll be publishing my Rehearsals for Retirement review next week: http://www.50thirdand3rd.com/classic-music-review-pleasures-of-the-harbor-by-phil-ochs/
I remember someone asked me if the purpose of my blog was to try to angle my way into Pitchfork or Rolling Stone. NOT!
ARC, when I finished reading this “review” (in quotes because it soars far above the connotations of that word), I just sat in front of my computer for about three minutes, taking it all in – your father’s words, those of yourself, and Phil’s words and music on this album – I have never been this MOVED by an appraisal of an LP. I first learned about Phil on the Fordham University radio station in NYC during the early 1980’s – “One More Parade”, the opening track on his debut album, came on the radio – I stopped whatever it was I was doing and just listened, having heard nothing like it before. Several months later, I had all of his albums on vinyl except “Rehearsals” and “Gunfight At Carnegie Hall” – couldn’t find them anywhere. In desperation I called information in Canada, to get A&M’s phone number, because I had read that “Gunfight” had only been released in that country…and they had both vinyl albums still in print! When I finally played it from beginning to end, it blew me away for all of the reasons you’ve just stated-it was intense music, with no punches pulled, and it rocked, but I could hear in the songs that his heart was broken (and seeing the “There But For Fortune” documentary years later confirmed it). Thank you again, ARC – I hope you review all of his original albums eventually, if you feel so inclined (six more to go!), and I’ve printed both of your reviews so I can insert them into the album sleeves, ‘cuz that’s where they should be when I hand over my albums to my two sons. And thanks to bazzabaz for his/her equally heartfelt reply…
Thank you! I’ll probably do more reviews of his work because he’s an important voice and I find it easy to connect with his deep concern about the human race and his orientation towards bullshit. He’s complex without being obscure so it’s always a rewarding experience to delve into his work. Some artists drain me; Phil Ochs energizes me!
Superb! Well researched and covering a few angles and elements I wasn’t so clued up on regarding the American political climate in 68-69. Can totally agree with your Dad’s take on Trump – meet the new boss, same as the old boss. I would also like to clue you into the fact that we in the UK are trapped in a right wing hell as well – Theresa May is a renowned homophobe and racist who despises immigrants and the whole British political system is every bit as rigged… May is shifting the goalposts to ensure we’ll forever be trapped in right wing hell. She and Trump should get along VERY nicely.
Anyway… glad you decided to cover this album since a while ago you admitted feeling reluctant to do so, but it’s astonishing how this postcard from the past is just as relevant 48 years later. Yes, have read that this and the following album were amongst the worst selling in A+M’s history – I still find it downright bizarre that A+M actually signed and stuck with Ochs given he was pretty contrary to their cosy smooth muzak image! And what song did A+M choose as the single from this album? “My Life”! (One of my prized possessions!) You also highlighted the problem which was pretty similar to why The Pretty Things’ “S.F. Sorrow” was shunned and sold badly – Ochs and the Pretties were too dark and truthful for the time and dope smokers, acid heads and er… “normals” couldn’t handle such realities!
Sadly, neither could Phil as this album and “Greatest Hits” come across to me as parts one and two of his own suicide note. His more personal writing touches and speaks to me much deeper than his earlier work and the resigned despair in “My Life” and the title track… let’s put it this way, I have to be in the right mood to listen to them since I find them pretty painful along with the immortal “No More Songs”… I am a rather troubled soul myself so I can relate to those songs a little too well for comfort… sure, uneasy listening, but works of utter brilliance. “Doll’s House” is a curious one… a very pretty melody and a nice bit of relief, but his lapse into the Dylan parody remains a mystery to this day and he would even do it as “Dylan” live in concert. MAYBE he was satirising the fact at that time, Dylan was trying to reinvent himself as some kind of crooner, moving away from the Dylan voice everyone knows. Maybe not…
I’d LIKE to think that Phil Ochs’ time has finally come. His work is so rich, yet remains depressingly obscure. It’s great there are some of us who are still listening and taking note… we can only do our best to try and get others to LISTEN to the guy. And that was perhaps his biggest failing – he knew too much… could see reality much better than most and sadly, it overwhelmed him.
Thank you again! I’ll always love A&M records for signing Phil Ochs and The Move (even though the latter totally blew the opportunity). When I was listening to this album, I kept wondering, “Why was Bob Dylan the icon and not Phil Ochs?” He had a better voice, more musical range and diversity and wrote so many songs that shake me to the core. I think you’re right: people don’t want to deal with truthfulness, which is why the world is in such a sorry state today. He did indeed perceive too clearly, but the fact that everyone else stopped looking probably made him feel frighteningly alone.
You’ll be delighted to learn that my review of Rehearsals for Retirement has already received double the hits of my recent Radiohead review.