Phil Ochs – Tape from California – Classic Music Review

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This was Phil’s plan for Tape from California (from Richie Unterberger’s Liner Notes):

“In my new album,” he told Broadside, “I’m going to make the next step, which will be a comment on the spiritual decline of America, with some of the musical elements I had in Harbor but somewhat played down. And the words are coming to the fore again. Essentially, I’m going to try and get a balance between the Harbor record and the (solo guitar 1966) Concert one that preceded it.”

This was the critical response (summarized by Michael Schumacher in There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs):

Tape from California was greeted with considerably more enthusiasm than Pleasures of the Harbor. Critics seemed relieved that Phil had returned to the basics and was using his passion and dedication to energize his music. “Phil Ochs may well be the last of the really angry young men,” offered one critic pleased with the album. “In a time when most of the ‘protest’ singers have turned to introspection, Ochs continues his assault on the senses via his assault on the hypocrisy that punctuates modern life.” Calling the album Phil’s “most powerful package so far,” Billboard singled out “Tape from California,” “The Harder They Fall,” and “Half a Century High” as album highlights.

This is my response: Bad plan. Brain-dead critics.

Compromise rarely works in any form of art. You either go the full monty or waste your time trying to please everybody. The First Impressionist Exhibition featured works by Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir, Sisley and Berthe Morisot—a pretty impressive lineup. The First Impressionist Exhibition was considered a complete failure by attendees and critics alike. Instead of apologizing for violating all the rules of academic painting and promising to paint like Rembrandt and Vermeer in the future, the artists shrugged their shoulders and happily continued their exploration of light, color and movement, creating timeless works of art.

Although he publicly made light of it, Phil Ochs was traumatized by the hostile reception to Pleasures of the Harbor from both folkies and critics. On Tape from California, he tried to meet his detractors halfway, compromising his art in the process. Tape from California isn’t a bad album; the best thing you can say about it is that it’s an uneven work that pales in comparison to the album that preceded it (Pleasures of the Harbor) and the album that followed it (Rehearsals for Retirement). I get the overwhelming feeling that Phil Ochs was playing Phil Ochs without being Phil Ochs. Some of the songs are clever but lack the spirit you find in his best works; some are tantalizing but you’ll come up empty when you try to make sense of them. Several of the songs on the album had been written and performed live at least two years before Tape from California, but omitted from the more apolitical Pleasures of the Harbor. Schumacher called it a “hodgepodge,” and he wasn’t far off.

The title track falls into the tantalizing category, but save for one verse, doesn’t offer much in the way of coherent lyricism or meaning. Schumacher fingered the track as the one most damaged by over-arrangement; I’d describe it as just plain bad arrangement where the different pieces never come together. Joe Osborn’s intricate bass part stands out like a sore thumb—not because he’s screwing up but because everyone else is on a different page. Schumacher points to the “heavy-handed rock drumming” as one problem, but I would argue that the unnamed studio drummer is the only guy who got it right—the fast-tempo country-rock version on Gunfight at Carnegie Hall is much more exciting than the loping, flowery, kitchen-sink arrangement you hear on Tape from California.

As for the lyrics, most of the verses find Phil in conversation with his alter ego as he paints a blurred picture of his relocation from New York City to L. A. This internal dialogue is filled with self-criticisms (“He must have lost his mind/He should be put away, right away,” “My rhymes are all repeating, ballads are growing blind”) that appear to provide him with justification for the move, but he offers no tangible proof that is life is better in La-La Land. He seems to get bored with the self-analysis and moves on to more topical material, reeling off a few good lines here and there (“Half the world is crazy and the other half is scared”) and one-half of a solid verse that many men of his generation would have related to:

The draft board is debating if they’d like to take my life
I’d sooner take a wife and raise a child or two
Wouldn’t you?
Peace has turned to poison
And the flag has blown a fuse
Even courage is confused
And now all the brave are in the grave

The song clocks in at 6:45 and could have been vastly improved had Phil exerted some discipline, stuck to one theme and cut out the extraneous material. Structurally and musically, “Tape from California” is one of his most interesting songs with a complex yet coherent chord pattern far removed from the simple music accompanying his folk tunes, so it’s frustrating that this take didn’t pan out.

“White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land” plays to Phil’s strength with topical material, though his message is weakened somewhat by his attempt to integrate his more lyrical tendencies into the mix. You can see the problem in the first two verses: the opening couplets are stark and powerful; the third lines unnecessarily elusive:

The pilots playing poker in the cockpit of the plane
The casualties arriving like the dropping of the rain
And a mountain of machinery will fall before a man
When you’re white boots marching in a yellow land

It’s written in the ashes of the village towns we burn
It’s written in the empty bed of fathers unreturned
And the chocolate in the children’s eyes will never understand
When you’re white boots marching in a yellow land

The bridge is particularly awkward; it seems Phil thought the nonsensical simile “And the lost patrol chase their chartered souls/Like old whores following tired armies” was the greatest thing he’d ever written (or since Brecht wrote Mother Courage), as he felt the need to repeat it three times over the course of the song. And though every other critic I’ve read considered the introduction of the bugle and martial drum rolls brilliant flourishes, I find them cheesy and distracting. His best line comes near the end of the song: “We’re fighting in a war we lost before the war began.” Phil would plumb that aspect of Vietnam in greater depth in the song that opens side two.

Sadly, I’m not impressed with “Half a Century High” either. I actually don’t mind the lo-fi filter; after all, millennial music is filled with that kind of thing. I just find the song rather boring and the point of the whole exercise elusive. Lucky for me, this is an abridged version; if you want the full treatment, pick up a copy of Live at the Newport Folk Festival.

Phil finally gives us a well-crafted and interesting song in the form of “Joe Hill,” providing a fairly thorough biography of the man in contrast to the Joan Baez/Paul Robeson song-of-the-same-name that granted Joe Hill sainthood without telling us much about how he earned such an honor. Please do not conclude that I like the song because it’s a good old-fashioned Phil Ochs folk guitar number (guitar played here by the temporarily sober Ramblin’ Jack Elliott). Pleasures of the Harbor is actually my favorite Phil Ochs album, so I have no particular preference as to how my Ochs is served—I’ll take him plain or with all the trimmings as long as the song has impact. “Joe Hill” has impact because its indictment of the American justice system is still relevant today.

“Equal Justice Under the Law” is inscribed on the front of the Supreme Court building but everyone knows it’s crap. Like everything else in the United States, the justice system revolves around money and race. Being rich and white significantly raises the odds of an acquittal or a short sentence in a low-security country club. The rich can afford bail and hire better lawyers who know how to manipulate the system in thousands of ways; if the client has to do some time, there’s always a book deal awaiting their release. Since Joe Hill was a white dude (Swedish is about as white as you can get), race wasn’t a factor in his conviction. Joe’s problem was that he was poor and a Wobbly—a labor activist for the International Workers of the World. To the capitalists who actually run the country and buy the judges and politicians, troublemakers like Joe Hill present a clear and present danger to their comfort and power.

Phil depicts Joe as a typical working stiff blessed with sufficient intelligence to figure out that the game was rigged shortly after he arrived in the USA, moving from shit job to shit job but always whistling while he worked. Eventually he wound up in California, where he joined the IWW and wrote several songs designed to buck up his fellow unionists while marching on the picket lines. Joe then left California and headed for Utah to work the mines and join the fight against the mine owners; a few months after his arrival, he was indicted for murder. As is often the case in polemical verse, the enemies are pure evil and the hero is free of any character flaws; Phil fails to mention that on the night in question, when two men were shot to death in a Salt Lake City grocery, Joe was shot elsewhere in the city by either a spurned lover or jealous husband, indicating that he was hardly a choir boy. Phil’s claim that Joe was shot by the police is bogus; Hill actually went to a doctor to have his wound treated. The doctor called the police, and when the men in blue asked about his whereabouts, Joe admitted he was with a woman but refused to give the woman’s name in order to protect her honor, severely weakening his alibi.

Not that it would have mattered, for once the cops found out he was a Wobbly, it was game over:

Now in Salt Lake City a murder was made
There was hardly a clue to find
Oh, the proof was poor, but the sheriff was sure
Joe was the killer of the crime
That Joe was the killer of the crime

Phil’s strongest indictment is aimed at the justice system and the back-room dealings where “justice” is meted out:

Oh, strange are the ways of western law
Strange are the ways of fate
For the government crawled to the mine owner’s call
And the judge was appointed by the state
Yes, the judge was appointed by the state

Oh, Utah justice can be had
But not for a union man
And Joe was warned by summer early morn
That there’d be one less singer in the land
There’d be one less singer in the land

The story was played out in the national press, with Helen Keller and the Swedish government arguing for clemency, but the fix was in and Joe was dispatched by a firing squad. Though Phil may have played loose with some of the facts, at least two historians have concluded that the execution was a miscarriage of justice, despite the efforts of the powers that be to cover their tracks:

Now some say Joe was guilty as charged
And some say he wasn’t even there
And I guess nobody will ever know
‘Cause the court records all disappeared
‘Cause the court records all disappeared

Though it seems that “Joe Hill” would have been a better fit on his earlier albums, Tape from California was released only a month before the 1968 Democratic Convention, where Mayor Daley and his uniformed thugs meted out their own version of American justice on the streets of Chicago, which in turn let to the travesty of the first Chicago Seven (minus Bobby Seale) trial.

“The War Is Over” finds Phil coming up with a solution to the Vietnam War that would have made Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco proud:

Phil came around to the idea that the only way to deal with an absurd war was with absurdity, by declaring the war over from the bottom up. This absurdist notion was anchored by two public gatherings, in Los Angeles (June 23, 1967) and New York City (November 25, 1967); one song (“The War is Over”); and articles in the Los Angeles Free Press and Village Voice, all rooted in the idea that “demonstrations should turn people on, not off,” and “if there is going to be an America, there is no war.” This was a turning point in Ochs’s life where he attempted to impose a cinematic, poetic logic on a most uncinematic, unpoetic world.

Ochs, Phil. I’m Gonna Say It Now (p. 15). Backbeat. Kindle Edition.

Phil explained his approach in greater detail in a piece he wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press:

Now some of you may not believe the war is over—and that, essentially, is the problem. The mysterious East has taught us the occult powers of the mind, and yet we go on accepting our paranoid president’s notion that we actually are involved in a war in Asia. Nonsense. It’s only a figment of our propagandized imagination, a psychodrama out of 1984. By this time, it must certainly be apparent that Johnson is absurd, as compared to being wrong. It should also be crystal clear that the war has been extended so ridiculously long that it is more absurd than immoral, and that the standard moral arguments have been repeated so many times that they seem to have lost their meaning. There is no dialogue on the war, only the repetition of clichés. One outrage must be answered with another; only absurdity can speak the language of absurdity.

Ochs, Phil. I’m Gonna Say It Now (p. 194). Backbeat. Kindle Edition.

One of the “celebrations” took place in L. A. when LBJ was in town, and Phil urged those planning to attend to shift gears: “Classics like ‘Hey, Hey, LBJ—How many kids did you kill today?’ are about as dated as the M-16. Since the war is over, we should have positive signs, like ‘Johnson in 68—the Peace President,’ ‘Welcome Hanoi to the Great Society,’ or ‘Thank you, Lyndon, for Ending the War.'”

I guess the gear shift got stuck that day, as the cops swarmed in and broke up the rally. Still, I think Phil might have had something there, so I’m going to follow in his footsteps and declare right now that this GODDAMNED PANDEMIC IS OVER!

Feel better? Nah, I didn’t really think you would.

Actually, the song is much stronger than the concept because Phil really was onto something: The Vietnam War was as absurd as absurd can get—ghoulishly absurd. Over an arrangement filled with snatches of parade music, Phil sings with clarity and confidence as he demolishes every tactic and argument employed by the hawks to justify involvement in Vietnam:

So do your duty, boys, and join with pride
Serve your country in her suicide
Find the flags so you can wave goodbye
But just before the end even treason might be worth a try
This country is too young to die
I declare the war is over
It’s over, it’s over

Again and again it seems like Phil Ochs was one of the few people of that era blessed with common sense. America paid a terrible price for its embrace of the absurd.

Unfortunately, the inconsistency of Tape from California raises its ugly head once again with “The Harder They Fall,” where Phil combines one part cliché with four parts nursery rhyme and ends up in the crapper. The one promising thread involves Jack and Jill going up the hill to do the deed instead of fetching a pail of water but–oops, Jill forgot to take her pill, so Phil drops the thread to spout some irrelevant nonsense. The Mother Goose-Lenny Bruce-killing jews verse is nothing more than a horrid example of tastelessness (and no, coming from a Jewish family doesn’t give him a pass).

I suppose “When In Rome” was Phil’s attempt at coming up with a long-form song to compete with Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” and if so, he is to be congratulated for coming up with something as equally boring and so completely open to interpretation that it can mean whatever you want it to mean. You can infer a connection between the Roman Empire and the American Empire if that’s your thing, but don’t look to Phil to make that connection because he doesn’t. Dylan’s opus has the virtue of not being half as gruesome as Phil’s blood-soaked stab at an epic, so if I actually believed in hell and was given a choice of which awful song to listen to for all eternity, I guess I’d go with Bob’s.

Our bumpy ride ends with “Floods of Florence,” with Ian Freebairn-Smith reproducing the arrangement magic he conjured up for Pleasures of the Harbor. Phil gave Ian a pretty simple set of chords to work with and Ian responded with lovely flute counterpoints, baroque strings and a touch of harpsichord, reflecting the mythical loveliness of Florence. I emphasize “mythical” because if you’ve ever visited Florence, you know that the place is overrun with tourists most of the year. When I hear Phil describe how “the holy words of love and reverence/Fell before the floods of Florence,” I assume he’s talking about the tourist crunch and not the Arno overflowing its banks. As for the rest of the lyrics, Phil seems to get his wires crossed, especially when D. W. Griffith appears out of nowhere to have a shot of whiskey and fondle a young starlet’s gams. I assume the troubadour in the last verse is Phil himself (“Armed with his anger, he sings of the danger”) but if the verse was meant to be a search for himself, he didn’t find much there.

One impression that lingers in my head after studying Tape from California is Phil’s tendency to oscillate between dark pessimism and naïve optimism. When I listen to “When in Rome,” I get the impression that Phil knew in his heart that America was doomed; when I listen to “The War Is Over,” I hear a guy who still believes he can make a difference and that maybe—just maybe—America can pull itself back from the brink. He brought that oscillating nature with him to the 1968 Democratic Convention:

He continued to hold out hope for a miracle. McCarthy, he optimistically told reporters, was going to win the nomination. The realist in him knew otherwise, and in some of his statements to the press, he hinted that he would have to leave the country if either Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon was elected in November.

Schumacher, Michael. There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs . University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.

Fortunately for posterity, Phil would remain to record the vastly unpopular but clearly superior Rehearsals for Retirement, discovering a new source of inspiration in his mythical death on the streets of Chicago.

6 responses

  1. Thank you, altrockchick! My only question is: “When In Rome” – you really think it’s just a bunch of words? I ‘ve been listening to that song for years, and thought it meant, well, something!

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    1. Schumacher couldn’t make sense of it either. The narrator is obviously a sociopath-psychopath-escapee . . . perhaps representing the dark side of America . . . who travels through the landscape creating mayhem . . . and somehow this is like what the Romans did . . . feel free to take a shot! His reference and allusions are so vague that the comparison gets lost in a torrent of I-don’t-know-what.

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  2. Rolling Stone called it…oh, I can’t remember the quote. If I can find it, I’ll send it to you. “Brilliant”, but I can’t recall what else at the moment. I have to admit, I do like some of the imagery in the song, he didn’t usually write that …brutally…

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  3. Great to revisit these records, and as always you observations are good.

    I’m with you about the bugles in White Boots, maybe someone was trying for the vibe of The Byrds’ “Draft Morning” where the sound effects thing works for me on that other record. On the other hand I kind of like the lost patrol…old whores following line.

    Did you know that some figure the Joe Hill not quite alibi story is thought by some to be the germ of the song “Long Black Veil?” By the way, Scandinavian immigrants did receive some level of distain by the longer-landed Americans, somewhat based on the “they talk funny and don’t know English” trope and the proportions who came to America that were from poorer and less educated parts of their former country. Finns got that even more so.

    I can’t recall, but I wonder if John and Yoko ever credited Phil with the “The War Is Over” thing they also propagated? I think that only a few months to a year later than Phil.

    As I try to catch up on my must read blogs, I’m happy to see that this Ochs series is continuing and I’ve got more to read this weekend.

    Did John and Yoko direct

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    1. I checked Wikipedia and the article cited three sources denying that John or Yoko had ever heard Phil’s song or “The Unknown Soldier” by The Doors. Phil’s song didn’t get that much airplay, but The Doors’ Waiting for the Sun album hit #16 on the UK charts, so if John and Yoko borrowed it from anyone, it would have been The Doors.

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  4. er, looks like I had more than one start of the idle question about John and Yoko and Phil Ochs The War is Over possible connection, and some bit got left in there at the end.

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