Phil Ochs – Phil Ochs in Concert – Classic Music Review

ARC: Hello. I’d like to return this record.

CLERK: What’s the problem?

ARC: False and misleading advertising. I’ve been hoodwinked!

CLERK: I don’t understand.

ARC: (points to the album cover) See? Right there. It says “Phil Ochs in Concert.” It even shows a photograph of someone who looks like the back of Phil Ochs playing in an auditorium.


ARC: It’s all a grand deception! They taped Ochs at two concerts—one in Carnegie Hall and one in Jordan Hall in Boston. The tapes were unusable because Phil had performance anxiety attacks at both venues and couldn’t sing worth shit so they had to re-record most of the songs in the studio! Then they spliced in some of his stage patter and audience reactions to make it seem like a concert but it’s not! They should have called the album “Phil Ochs in the Studio Enhanced with Live Chatter and Audience Reaction from Carnegie Hall and Jordan Hall in Boston, Massachusetts” so the consumer would know what they were buying!

CLERK: That’s a pretty long title.

ARC: Yes, but they were into long titles in the ’60s. Haven’t you ever heard of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade?

CLERK: Can’t say that I have.

ARC (thinks for a minute) Okay, here’s something you’ll understand. Given what I’ve told you, don’t you think they should have put a warning label on this album like they do with cigarettes? Here, look! (reaches into her pursepulls out a pack of cigarettes and hands it to the clerk).

CLERK: This pack has been opened.

ARC: Yes, of course. You have to open the pack to get the cigarettes out so you can smoke them. Now you’re being silly.

CLERK: Well, that means that you didn’t pay any attention to the warning label and bought them anyway.

ARC: But they warned me! They did their job! They allowed me to make an informed decision! Elektra Records didn’t do that. I’ve been hoodwinked!

CLERK: (returns the pack of cigarettes to ARC) Okay. I suppose you’ve played the album.

ARC: Oh, yes. Several times in fact. I love this album. It’s one of my favorites!

CLERK: But you still want to return it?

ARC: Yes. It’s the principle of the thing, you know.

CLERK: Well, okay, but since you’ve already played it—several times, you said—we can’t accept it as a return. You’ll have to sell it back to us as a used record.

ARC: Oh, never mind. I already got what I came for.

CLERK: Excuse me?

ARC: The introduction. I needed an introduction for this review and didn’t want to do the same old shit so I invented you and this record store as a clever way to provide my readers with the necessary background.

CLERK: So . . . you’re saying I don’t exist.

ARC: I’m afraid not. You’re just a figment of my imagination.

In a clever bit of foreshadowing, ARC waves her magic riding crop and the clerk disappears in a puff of smoke. 


I hope Phil Ochs treated his producers and the engineering staff at Elektra to dinner at the Rainbow Room for pulling his chestnuts out of the fire and piecing together the first Phil Ochs album to make the Billboard charts. Relieved of his performance anxiety by the comforting walls of the studio, Phil is in fine voice as he works his way through a playlist that includes some of his most memorable topical songs.

After a welcoming round of applause, Phil initiates the sprightly strumming pattern that opens “I’m Going to Say It Now” and wastes very little time getting to the story. The subject of this song is what Baby Boomers fondly remember as The Generation Gap, that period of cultural history when a fair number of Boomers broke the tradition of blindly obeying parents and other authority figures and began questioning the core values and sacred cultural norms cherished by the old farts. Though some of the specific examples of disrespect for one’s elders that Phil refers to may not resonate with history-challenged Millenials, my co-generationists can certainly relate to the theme because a 2009 study revealed that the generation gap in our era is larger than it was in the ’60s. One unfortunate outcome of the current generation gap and the new generation’s ignorance of history is that younger people fail to appreciate how indebted they are to the Boomers for normalizing the right to challenge authority. If that taboo hadn’t been smashed to smithereens, our lives today might look like endless reruns of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

Phil appropriately places his narrator at a college campus, where the generation gap of the ’60s most visibly manifested itself. The song takes the form of a one-sided conversation between a student and an invisible professor where the student asserts his right to speak out on matters important to him whether the professor likes it or not. Each verse ends with the respectful warning “If I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m going to say it now,” and the cheeky repetition of “sir” serves as a subtle rejection of the notion that a person in a position of higher authority automatically deserves respect. I do find it hard to believe that there were as many avid readers of Mao’s Little Red Book as Phil implies (most college activists wanted to work within the system to change the system); his strongest argument invokes the belief that education is best achieved through dialogue rather than the idiotic regurgitation of useless professorial wisdom:

So keep right on a-talkin’
And tell us what to do
If nobody listens
My apologies to you
And I know that you were younger once
‘Cause you sure are older now
And when I’ve got something to say, sir
I’m gonna say it now

By the time Phil recorded “Bracero,” the program that legally permitted Mexican workers to work in America’s farmlands had ended. The initiative was spawned in WWII in response to the projected shortage of American men tagged for military duty; through various extensions, the Bracero program would last until 1964. Here’s how the program was supposed to work . . . but didn’t:

In theory, the Bracero Program had safeguards to protect both Mexican and domestic workers for example, guaranteed payment of at least the prevailing area wage received by native workers; employment for three-fourths of the contract period; adequate, sanitary, and free housing; decent meals at reasonable prices; occupational insurance at employer’s expense; and free transportation back to Mexico at the end of the contract. Employers were supposed to hire braceros only in areas of certified domestic labor shortage, and were not to use them as strikebreakers. In practice, they ignored many of these rules and Mexican and native workers suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap, labor. (from

The Bracero Program failed primarily because racism always trumps (word choice deliberate) everything else in the United States. In addition to the unsanitary conditions, low pay and substandard food, braceros were routinely sprayed with DDT before entering the Land of the Free and trapped on the farms after they arrived. After the program ended, the government launched an initiative to recruit college students to work in the fields in the summer months; after that effort completely bombed, growers chose to ignore immigration laws and hire thousands of undocumented Mexican workers. Needless to say, conditions did not improve; hence the need for Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. The growers were no better than the plantation owners in the Old South:

And the local men are lazy
And they make too much of trouble
Besides we’d have to pay them double

Ah, but if you feel you’re fallin’
If you find the pace is killing
There are others who are willing

Oh, welcome to California
Where the friendly farmers
Will take care of you

Though he makes all the right points, I think Phil could have written a stronger song had he worn his journalist hat and spent some time on the farms instead of relying on second-hand information.

Our first bit of pre-song patter comes before “Ringing of Revolution,” a fantasy about a massive uprising against the idle but powerful rich. Phil’s intro involves imagining the song as a feature film directed by Otto Preminger, complete with a listing of cast members. The three casting decisions that received the strongest applause were “Ronald Reagan plays George Murphy” (identifying the dawn of the celebrity politician), “John Wayne plays Lyndon Johnson” and “Lyndon Johnson plays God.”

The last reference was probably duly noted in Phil’s FBI file.

The opening scene presents a coterie of upper-crust types ensconced in “a building of gold” that is “fully surrounded” by a surly crowd of revolutionaries. We find them in a semi-detached state, knowing that the game is up but determined to indulge in the privileges of wealth while they last:

Sadly they stared and sank in their chairs
And searched for a comforting notion.
And the rich silver walls looked ready to fall
As they shook in doubtful devotion.
The ice cubes would clink as they freshened their drinks,
Wet their minds in bitter emotion.
And they talked about the ringing of revolution.

Phil then permits the future captives to offer a defense of their indifference to the suffering masses, but chosen obliviousness proves to be a fairly weak argument:

We were hardly aware of the hardships they beared,
For our time was taken with treasure.
Oh, life was a game, and work was a shame,
And pain was prevented by pleasure.
The world, cold and grey, was so far away
In the distance only money could measure.
But their thoughts were broken by the ringing of revolution.

As the end draws near, Phil adds a touch of pathos to the scene:

So softly they moan, please leave us alone
As back and forth they are pacing.
And they cover their ears and try not to hear
With pillows of silk they’re embracing.
And the crackling crowd is laughing out loud,
Peeking in at the target they’re chasing.
Now trembling inside the ringing of revolution.

At this point, my attitude flips from “they’ll get what they deserve” to “no one deserves to die in fear,” and I find myself hoping that the elite will be spared a trip to the guillotine. Phil felt differently, depicting the wealthy as begging for their lives and offering to make amends before ending the song in gruesome fashion:

But away from the grounds the flames told the town
That only the dead are forgiven.
As they crumbled inside the ringing of revolution.

I understand that Phil was trying to warn the upper classes of the potential consequences of flaunting their wealth while the masses scrape by, but violent revolution is a non-starter for me. I’d rather do something peaceful like tax the living shit out of the rich and close every damned loophole ever invented. Though I resist the ending, I congratulate Phil for writing a taut and vivid tale that evoked a flood of conflicting emotions.

“Is There Anybody Here” challenges both the value and the sanity of dying for one’s country in the pursuit of eternal glory. For Phil, it’s just “murder by another name” by those with “the courage of the blind.” It’s obvious that Phil’s feelings about this issue were quite intense—so intense that he loses touch with the song’s rhythm at several points (especially when he attempts a tempo change) and sings with over-the-top fervor rather than letting the argument speak for itself. I agree with everything he says, but I think this one could have used more of an overhaul in the studio.

On the other hand, I love the way Phil Introduces “Canons of Christianity”:

“The other night, a voice came to me. It turned out it was God. He said, “Ochs, wake up, this is God here, over.” I said, “You’re putting me on of course . . . Dylan.” (applause) So, he did a few tricks, moved the bed back and forth. (laughter) Trembling I asked, “What is it you want, O Lord?”  He said, “Well, frankly, Phil, I went downtown the other day, saw The Greatest Story Ever Told—couldn’t believe it.” (laughter) “It’s gone too far. Something must be done about Christianity.” Then woof, in a puff of smoke he disappeared.

“The next morning I woke up, had a few drinks and realized it was all true and decided to do something about Christianity. What could I do, me, a poor humble boy from the sticks. Then I remembered I was a songwriter. Aha! So I sat down with pen in hand over my typewriter. And then, everybody, this next song, which is a hymn about Christianity—actually, an anti-hymn—the first anti-hymn, folks . . .” (laughter and applause).

Like I said, this generation challenged all authority, even the higher authority.

There is some ambiguity regarding the song’s title. All the versions on Discogs show the title as “Canons of Christianity,” and that form is used by biographer Michael Schumacher in There but for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs. However, the sheet music in The War Is Over songbook lists the song as “Cannons of Christianity,” and “cannons” is used in all the versions of the lyrics I could find. Analyzing the lyrics for continuity, “cannons” fits the context in only two of the seven non-repeating verses (verses one and five), while “canons” is a better fit for the other five verses. The two verses where the word “cannons” makes sense involve war or use the language of war; the verses where the word “canons” works better involve “a regulation or dogma decreed by a church council” or practices common to Christian churches. The first two verses display the dichotomy:

Christian cannons have fired at my days
With the warning beneath the holy blaze
And bow to our authority
Say the cannons of christianity

Oh the children will be sent to schools
Minds of clay are molded to their rules
Learn to fear all of eternity
Warn the canons of christianity

Since Phil Ochs had an excellent grasp of the English language, I think he enjoyed the play on words and the double meanings.

The other verses cover the significant hypocrisies associated with Christianity: the cultural arrogance of missionaries; the support of holy wars in the name of the Prince of Peace; and the obscene accumulation of wealth:

Missionaries will travel on crusades
The word is given, the heathen souls are saved
Conversions to our morality
Sigh the canons of Christianity

Come the wars and turn the rules around
To bend your soul on the battleground
And the lord will march beside me
Drone the cannons of Christianity

Cathedral walls will glitter with their gold
And the sermons speak through silver robes
Building castles amidst the poverty
Say the canons of Christianity

Playful introduction notwithstanding, the mood of the song is tragic, not comic. Wisely avoiding the satiric, mocking tone that characterizes some of his topical songs, Phil delivers the song with restraint and more than a touch of sadness. I’m not so sure he would have been able to restrain his outrage if he were alive today and had to confront the sickness of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, but I am certain that he would have identified that bunch as the American Taliban long before anyone else even made the connection.

Phil tweaks the crowd by referring to his most famous composition as “written for me by Miss Joan Baez.” Unlike most people in English-speaking countries, my first exposure to “There But for Fortune” came not from Joan Baez, but from Françoise Hardy, whose cover of the Baez version opens side two of her all-English album En Anglais. I thought it was the most beautiful and saddest song I’d ever heard, one that permanently altered my perception of the world around me. I was reminded of “There but for Fortune” every time I walked through the streets of San Francisco past the young men who slept in the rain and fog, or when I encountered the street drunks who begged for change so they could score a cheap bottle of wine. I thought of the last verse of “There but for Fortune” on 9/11 as images of “the ruins of buildings once so tall” flashed on the screen.

The lyrical differences between the Baez/Hardy version and the Ochs versions are slight; most of the changes Baez introduced involved syllabic modifications that made the song easier to sing and were more compatible with her approach to phrasing (for example, Phil’s “Show me a prison man” becomes “Show me a prisoner” in the Baez/Hardy version). The most significant change is in the first verse, where Phil’s “his face is growing pale” becomes “whose life has grown stale.” The Baez version is my least favorite of the three because I find her anal precision quite annoying; she always sounds like the music teacher who wound up a spinster and takes it out on her students, correcting any variance from her concept of perfection with sadistic pleasure. Phil’s phrasing is the loosest of the three—a bit too loose for my tastes—so to my ears, Hardy’s is the Goldilocks version.

I’ve always thought of “There but for Fortune” as the most anti-American song Phil Ochs ever wrote. Red-blooded Americans don’t believe in fortune, they believe in hard work (though many are incredibly lazy) and the self-made man (emphasis on man). This is the land of opportunity, so it’s your own damned fault if you’re poor, hungry or sick. Alcoholism only qualifies as a disease if you’re white and wealthy. If colored folk would just stop being so goddamned lazy and show some initiative they could make something of themselves. Criminals? Lock ’em up and throw away the key. The homeless? Pile ’em up with a bulldozer and get them out of my sight. It’s no wonder that Americans still cling to the death penalty, lack universal health care and have the highest incarceration rate in the world. It’s the American way.

If you needed any more reason to fear and loathe America, Phil happily provides it in “Cops of the World.” Since the end of World War II, American foreign policy can be summed up in three words: toxic adolescent masculinity. Republicans and Democrats alike have frequently resorted to displays of toughness when the chips (or the polls) are down. Republicans do it based on their firm belief in American superiority; Democrats do it because they’re terrified that the Republicans will call them out as wimps if they don’t. I find it incredible that anyone was shocked when Trump pardoned three soldiers who were accused or convicted of war crimes—shit, William Calley only got three years of house arrest for wiping out an entire village.

Phil wrote “Cops of the World” years before anyone was aware of the Mỹ Lai massacre, another “shocking” event that shouldn’t have shocked anyone who paid attention to the character of the paranoid Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove:

Dump the reds in a pile, boys
Dump the reds in a pile
You’d better wipe off that smile, boys
Better wipe off that smile
We’ll spit through the streets of the cities we wreck
We’ll find you a leader that you can’t elect
Those treaties we signed were a pain in the neck
‘Cause we’re the Cops of the World, boys
We’re the Cops of the World

Though the phrase “toxic masculinity” hadn’t been invented when Phil wrote the song, he certainly perceived it in its adolescent, murderous form:

Please stay off of the grass, boys
Please stay off of the grass
Here’s a kick in the ass, boys
Here’s a kick in the ass
We’ll smash down your doors, we don’t bother to knock
We’ve done it before, so why all the shock?
We’re the biggest and toughest kids on the block
‘Cause we’re the Cops of the World, boys
We’re the Cops of the World

And decades before the Bush Doctrine formalized the inalienable American right to protect American interests and pre-emptively impose “freedom” on conquered nations, Phil closed the song with these words:

We own half the world, oh say can you see
The name for our profits is democracy
So, like it or not, you will have to be free
‘Cause we’re the Cops of the World, boys
We’re the Cops of the World

LATE-BREAKING UPDATE ON THE BUSH DOCTRINE: From Wikipedia: ” . . . the Bush Doctrine held that the hatred for the West and the United States particularly exists not because of actions perpetrated by the US, but rather because the countries from which terrorists emerge are in social disarray and do not experience the freedom that is an intrinsic part of democracy.” Well! If democracy is the cure for terrorism, then all that stuff I’ve been reading about white supremacist terrorist groups and the Capitol Riots must have been fake news!

Note to Americans: A good portion of the world hates you because of “actions perpetrated.” Knock it off.

Backing up his claims in “Cops of the World,” Phil cites a specific instance of American aggression in “(The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of) Santo Domingo.” Phil is talking about the second U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic; the first took place under Woodrow “Make the World Safe for Democracy” Wilson in 1916 and eventually led to thirty-plus years of dictatorship under Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo finally croaked off and the people elected a literary figure and opposition leader named Juan Bosch as president, but Bosch was too soft on communism to suit the Kennedy Administration and was magically removed after serving for seven months, replaced by a typically corrupt junta. A couple of years later, some of the younger studs in the military overthrew the junta with the idea of restoring Bosch to power, but LBJ, forever terrified that the Republicans would beat the hell out of him if he showed the slightest sign of weakness, sent in the Marines.

Phil begins the song poetically, describing the sudden disruption of the natural cycle that precedes an invasion: “And the crabs are crazy, they scuttle back and forth/The sand is burning.” The second verse shifts our attention to the impact of the approaching ships on daily life:

The fishermen sweat, they’re pausing at their nets
The day’s a-burning
As the warships sway and thunder in the bay
Loud in the morning
But the boy on the shore is throwing pebbles no more
He runs a-warning

All very well, but as the song develops, the poetic orientation robs the listener of the benefits that could have been gained from Phil’s journalistic background—relating the events in the sparse language of the newsroom and providing sufficient background regarding the politics behind the invasion would have made for a more compelling story. As it is, “Santo Domingo” is a bit of a disappointment.

According to Schumacher, Phil thought “Changes” should have been his breakthrough hit, but time and time again, Phil Ochs would prove that he had no clue whatsoever when it came to divining the tastes of the record-buying public. The commercial shortcomings of “Changes” are easily identifiable: the song lacks a strong hook and offers very little in the way of ear-catching variation that makes for a hit single. “Changes” was Phil’s attempt to extend his reach beyond the polemical to the poetic, but curiously, the song fails to reproduce the talent with imagery he revealed in “Ringing of Revolution.” With one exception, his catalog of life changes are predictable (seasons, aging, night/day, lost love), and the one odd duck (change as a universal constant) is seriously out of place in a story that leads to the all-too-human experience of a breakup. The song does have a pretty melody (part of which would be lifted and repurposed for the melody of “Pleasures of the Harbor”), but I’ve never found it all that compelling—and though I’m not much of a fan, I think Stevie Nicks covered the subject of life change much more effectively on “Landslide.”

Though his poetic side would blossom on Pleasures of the Harbor, Phil’s passions and talents at this moment in his career were best suited to topical songs, especially when he had an opportunity to push the envelope and awaken hearts and minds to perspectives that were not only different but uncomfortably insightful. “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” certainly falls into the category of “uncomfortably insightful,” as it challenges the assumed loyalty of same-side-ism while establishing the need to constantly raise the two-part question, “What is it that we’re trying to accomplish here and are we really accomplishing it?”

Phil took a big risk in writing this song and sharing it with the public, but he introduces the song fearlessly and with no hint of regret: “In every American community, you have varying shades of political opinion and one of the shadiest of these is the liberals.” A round of mixed applause follows, the responses ranging from enthusiastic endorsement to “I’m clapping because everybody else is clapping.” Needless to say, Phil has no intention of stopping there: “An outspoken group on many subjects . . . ten degrees to the left of center in good times . . . ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally. So, here then is a lesson in safe logic.”

I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
Tears ran down my spine
I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though I’d lost a father of mine
But Malcolm X got what was coming
He got what he asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

Phil pauses here to ask the crowd, “Get it?” and receives affirmative applause in response.

I go to civil rights rallies
And I put down the old D. A. R. (aside: D. A. R.—that’s the Dykes of the American Revolution)
I love Harry and Sidney and Sammy
I hope every colored boy becomes a star
But don’t talk about revolution
That’s going a little bit too far
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

The digs keep on coming; my favorites include “And I love Puerto Ricans and negroes/As long as they don’t move next door,” “But if you ask me to bus my children/I hope the cops take down your name” and the exclamation point of the final verse:

Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

My father must have forgotten the lessons in this song as we argued (and still argue) about the contributions of Barack Obama. I saw Obama as a nice, decent guy given to abstraction who talked a good game but wasn’t much of a fighter and didn’t deliver the goods. Dad would argue that Obama faced a hostile Congress; I would counter-argue that he stupidly separated his political organization from the DNC and let a whole lot of Tea Party wackos shift the GOP further to the right. “What did he do about income inequality, dad?” (crickets) “How did he address racism?” (crickets) “How’s that Guantanamo closure working out, dad?” (crickets) Predictably he would argue, “As the first black president, he had to go slow,” to which I’d respond, “What’s the use of power if you don’t use it?” (I think I stole that from The Clash). Liberals sing of the dream but never figure out how to make the dream a reality, and once they get a taste of the privilege of incumbency, the dream gives way to the fundraising that buys another term in office. Phil Ochs was right: liberals need to grow a pair of cojones and act in accordance with their stated convictions or they’re as useless as a limp dick.

And with absolutely perfect timing, Phil closes the concert with “When I’m Gone,” a subtle but inspiring reminder to all who want to create a better world that you can’t create a better world unless you get off your ass while still capable of drawing breath:

There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

And I won’t feel the flowing of the time when I’m gone
All the pleasures of love will not be mine when I’m gone
My pen won’t pour a lyric line when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

And I won’t breathe the bracing air when I’m gone
And I can’t even worry ’bout my cares when I’m gone
Won’t be asked to do my share when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

Schumacher referred to this song as “a concise explanation of his purpose as an artist and a man.” The sad part is that the artist and the man departed from this mortal coil much too soon.

2 responses

  1. Thanks for reviewing this! It was one of the first record albums I ever owned, and still a favorite.

    Among the songs, my preferences don’t quite align with yours. I’m with you on “There but for fortune” (thanks for Hardy rec) “When I’m gone,” and “Cops of the World,” but I’ve always found “Ringing” and “Canons” quite tedious. To me, “Changes” and “Santo Domingo” are both more beautiful than anything he did on “Pleasures of the harbor.” And “Bracero” and “Is there anybody here” are wonderful just the way they are.

    There’s no accounting for taste!


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