Phil Ochs -Greatest Hits and Gunfight at Carnegie Hall – Classic Music Review

After the burst of energy that gave us Rehearsals for Retirement, Phil Ochs didn’t have much left in the tank. Signs of clinical depression started to emerge, fueled by a combination of Chicago, the ascension of Richard Nixon, alcohol abuse, valium and the commercial failure of Rehearsals for Retirement (A&M pulled the record from the shelves after only a few months). Phil began to experience writer’s block more frequently, compounding his depression and doubling his frustration with a world that refused to change or recognize his contributions.

Searching desperately for a way out, he stumbled upon a solution thanks to an act of generosity on the part of his brother-manager Michael, who offered Phil four tickets to Elvis Presley’s comeback show in Vegas.

The more Phil thought about it, the more convinced he became that his own artistic future hinged upon his appealing to a working-class base. He needed to find a way to reach a larger cross-section of the public and deliver his message to them. In turning it over in his mind, Phil kept returning to his old idols—John Wayne, Audie Murphy, James Dean, and Elvis Presley. All had realized hero status in their lifetime. Elvis intrigued Phil the most. He was a true working-class hero, a truck driver turned King of Rock ’n’ Roll. He had taken American forms of music—rhythm and blues, country, gospel, and even folk—and adapted them to his own style. He had reached unparalleled success, yet in recent years his career had fallen on hard times. He seemed to have lost his way, but now he was returning with a vengeance.

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

Greatest Hits and Gunfight at Carnegie Hall were the products of Phil’s strategic decision to return to his pre-folk fascination with early rock and country-western music. Phil certainly wasn’t the only musical artist of the era looking backward—The Byrds, The Band and Credence Clearwater Revival had already staked their claims in the emerging “roots music” genre and The Dead would soon follow—but his efforts do have the distinction of being the least-commercially-successful of them all. Like Rehearsals for Retirement, Greatest Hits was removed from the shelves in very short order and A&M refused to release Gunfight at Carnegie Hall during his lifetime.

The two albums have to be reviewed simultaneously because in Phil’s mind they were part of the same package that would revive his flagging career. My unwelcome task is to explain why this package failed to do so.

Greatest Hits

The poor reception to Greatest Hits surprised no one except Phil Ochs. What Phil considered a spoof of Presley’s 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong: Elvis’ Gold Records, Volume 2 was likely perceived as both a ripoff and a turnoff by even the most avid Phil Ochs fans. The gold lamé suit would have completely befuddled the folkies, and those who weren’t immediately put off by Phil-as-Elvis would have been seriously disappointed when they flipped the sleeve to discover that it wasn’t a greatest hits album after all, but a collection of unfamiliar titles under the self-pitying back cover banner “50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong.” Shifting into my role as a reluctant marketing professional, I would classify Phil’s effort as one of the dumbest fucking marketing plans in history, ranking right up there with Chevrolet’s attempt to sell the Nova in Mexico (no va = doesn’t go).

It’s too bad that Phil refused to listen to his brother and the folks at A&M when they expressed sincere dismay with Phil’s half-baked proposal because Greatest Hits might have been saved with discipline and clear intent. Because Phil’s Elvis epiphany took place after he had already lined up a few songs for the album, the contrast between the pre-Elvis, more introspective songs and the rockabilly stuff is sometimes jarring—so much so that it feels like two half-albums were patched together at the last minute. The flow was so annoying to this listener that I put together my own playlists with the rockabilly/upbeat tracks on Playlist Side One and the reflective tracks on Playlist Side Two—sort of like what Dylan did with electric and acoustic sides on Bringing It All Back Home. While my tinkering took care of the flow problem, it made me much more aware of the many production, engineering and arrangement issues with the upbeat tracks (as well as a few problems with the more reflective tracks). Though the album contains a few gems, it’s more of a slog than a pleasant walk in the park.

Phil managed to gather an impressive stable of musicians to back him—James Burton, Ry Cooder, Gene Parsons to name a few—but the results were mixed at best. Even the best musicians need time to get acquainted with each other and get a read on the star of the show. Given that the album was recorded in two days, it’s not surprising that some of the arrangements don’t click and the interplay between Phil and the musicians fails to create much in the way of magic. Most of the magic on the album comes from those moments when Phil reconnects with his songwriting mojo and demonstrates that he still had the power to move hearts and minds.

Testing the theory that it’s best to get the bad juju out of the way by opening an album with a poorly-written, poorly-arranged, poorly-performed and overproduced piece of crap, Phil introduces the not-new-and-improved version of himself with the ridiculously over-the-top fanfare of “One Way Ticket Home.” Opening with six seconds of the thrill of horns holding a single note over the sound of faux timpani and pounding piano, the scene shifts abruptly to Ry Cooder plunking a mandolin and probably wondering why the hell he took this gig in the first place. Phil then takes the stage, singing with way too much intensity for a guy who just wants to go home and watch TV. In response to Phil’s shocking announcement of the presence of a billboard, the noise rises to peak levels as the timpani and meth-fueled piano pound away while Merry Clayton, Sherlie Matthews and Clydie King give it all they’ve got in the hope that their obvious talents won’t go entirely to waste and they can use a surgically-removed clip of their performance to land a recording date with The Stones. The rest of the song is just as unlistenable; the only tiny piece of relevance is Phil’s pledge of fealty to Elvis: “Elvis Presley is the king, I was at his crowning.” I strongly advise prospective listeners to skip the track to avoid permanent hearing damage.

If you ignored my advice and listened to “One Way Ticket Home” anyway, the healing balm of “Jim Dean of Indiana” may provide some relief. This blessedly simple elegy to the man who became an enduring icon of cultural rebellion is performed as a duet with Lincoln Mayorga’s sensitive touch on piano beautifully supporting Phil’s deeply respectful vocal. Phil takes us on a fairly linear journey through James Dean’s brief existence, covering the key events and relationships that shaped his life with very little in the way of editorializing. Having also escaped a conformist childhood in the Midwest, Phil’s emotional connection to Dean is unsurprising, but he manages those emotions exceptionally well throughout the song, never veering from the tone of respectful mourning established in the opening verse.

Phil might have made a pretty decent record if he’d exerted some of that restraint on the rest of the album instead of making the least of all that talent in the studio with claustrophobic arrangements where no one stands out because everyone’s playing like they’re pieceworkers getting paid by the note. “My Kingdom for a Car” is a good example of bad arrangement and reactive engineering—they had to drench Phil’s voice in heavy reverb so you could hear his voice above the din of all those instrumentalists vying for attention. The lyrics contain no sense of irony or a hint of satire as Phil tears down the highway on leaded gas, singing the line “There’s smoke in the air but I do not care” with no guilt whatsoever. The rest of this rockabilly tune is loaded with the hoary wind-in-my-hair clichés and the toxic masculinity of the muscle car brigade. Double yuck on this one.

Validating my argument that the album should have been split in half, “Boy in Ohio” would have made for a lovely follow-up to “Jim Dean of Indiana,” strengthening the themes of loss and the yearning for a less complicated existence. Though the fiddle, guitar and harmonica threaten to cross the line into overkill, they manage to restrain themselves sufficiently so that each contribution is distinct from the others. While the song does contain predictable scenes of burger joints and freeways ripping through what once was beautiful countryside, the most revealing lines have to do with Phil’s awkwardness with the opposite sex:

Spanish teacher she tried to help
She was much too pretty
So I just stared at the back of her legs
When I was a boy in Ohio

It was 3.2 beer at the honky-tonk bar
Where they said the girls were easy
But somehow I never found me one
When I was a boy in Ohio

None of Phil’s relationships with adult women could be classified as warm or fuzzy, and the dearth of love songs in his catalog speaks volumes about his discomfort with adult-style intimacy. Schumacher opined that Phil saved all his love for his daughter: “As for Meegan . . . Phil recognized that he was less than an ideal father, but Meegan was the only person in his life that he had ever—and would ever—love unconditionally.” I think Phil Ochs loved “the people,” but found it much harder to love individuals, especially adult women.

Phil goes full Hank Williams on “Gas Station Women,” with Don Rich supplying the classic fiddle overture and Phil attempting to emulate the drawl and step-glides of the country singer. Sadly, the song comes across as a weak joke,    drenched in my-baby-done-left-me clichés and lacking a strong punchline. The arrangement is a bit too busy and the harmony vocal is so loud that the guy (I’m unable to identify the culprit because the contributions of the three suspects are not track-specific) drowns out both Phil and the backing band. Count your blessings that you’ve survived the worst of it and flip the disc over to side two.

The most credible of Phil’s country rockers comes in the form of “Chords of Fame,” though the performance is compromised once again by that loud harmonizer who buries any traces of Phil Ochs on the chorus. The rest of the arrangement is pretty clean, if not particularly interesting. The song maintains a nice feel throughout and, when left to himself, Phil is in fine voice. The song is cleverly presented as a piece of life wisdom from a dude Phil happened to stumble upon while waiting to take the stage:

I found him by the stage last night — he was breathing his last breath
A bottle of gin and a cigarette was all that he had left
I can see you make music ’cause you carry a guitar
God help the troubadour who tries to be a star

So play the chords of love, my friend, play the chords of pain
If you want to keep your song
Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t play the chords of fame

What distinguishes “Chords of Fame” from most of the other songs about the rot of corruption in the music business is Phil’s introduction of the possibility that the bullshit permeating the music industry doesn’t always come from the suits but from (gasp!) the musicians as well: “I seen my share of hustlers as they try to take the world/When they find their melody, they’re surrounded by the girls.” I’m tempted to name a few but I’ve already pissed off enough people on this blog to last a lifetime, so I’ll take some advice from the Go-Go’s, seal my lips and move on to “Ten Cents a Coup.”

Pieced together from performances from at least two (and possibly more) anti-war rallies, “Ten Cents a Coup” is the only topical song on the album. Phil’s extended rap before the song lacks the wit of his intros on In Concert, but his insight on the Great American Divide still holds true today: “There’s two Americas—there’s an old America which is just dying and ossifying and growing harder and collapsing and as it dies, the people just get uglier and uglier.” Phil then applies the concept of ugliness to Nixon and Agnew, promoted to the highest offices in the land in a “used car dealer’s election.” The one flash of wit that ignites palpable crowd laughter comes near the end of the song:

I dreamed that Nixon died of a suntan
There was only Spiro left
At his swearing in, he fell on his chin
He assassinated himself.

The feeling evoked by “Ten Cents a Coup” is closer to sadness than the fleeting delight of a trip down memory lane because it’s pretty obvious that Phil has given up the fight, offering his audience insults instead of hope or clarity.

In a curious production decision, “Ten Cents a Coup” fades directly into “Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Me,” a parlor piece decorated in baroque harpsichord and string quartet that has nothing in common with “Ten Cents a Coup” except for a passing mention of Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid. The lyrics describe a typical Sunday in the lives of two couples who share a house in Los Angeles: Phil and his then-partner Karen and Phil’s pal Andy Wickham and his girl Frances. The day is typically uneventful, marked by picking up the Sunday paper, playing volleyball, firing up the barbecue—a series of still-life images painted in music. While there isn’t much meaning to unearth here, the melody is perfectly lovely and Phil’s vocal is excellent.

The calm is rudely interrupted by the dueling guitars that will deepen your appreciation for Lynyrd Skynyrd and the damn-this-is-getting-tiresome overproduction of “Basket in the Pool,” a song that will make no sense at all unless you know the completely weird backstory described in all its gory detail by Mr. Schumacher:

Alcohol was an entirely different matter. As a casual drinker, Phil was fun to be around, but when he was drinking heavily, especially if he was in a depressed state, he could be unreasonable and contentious and, on rare occasions, violent.

One of the more bizarre episodes associated with his drinking during this period occurred at a party hosted by comedian Tom Smothers. The party, thrown in honor of the folksinger Donovan, was overflowing with entertainment figures. As Phil wandered through Smothers’ enormous estate, he could not help but be put off by all the glamour and wealth surrounding him, especially at a time when Hollywood celebrities were making a lot of noise about supporting the starving Vietnamese refugees. To top off his party, Tom Smothers was giving away a door prize of an enormous wicker basket filled with fruit, cheese, and imported wine. Phil won the raffle for the prize, but when he went up to claim it, he surprised the party’s guests by delivering a long, rambling monologue about Vietnam, the well-fed and the starving, and the incongruity of the party. Then, to punctuate his statements, he placed the door-prize basket into the swimming pool, where it sank without further ceremony.

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

Phil later defended his actions as an Abbie Hoffman-type protest, but while I share his disgust concerning the oblivious hypocrisy of well-heeled liberals, the incident (and the fact that he felt it was worth his time and energy to write a song about it) says more about his declining mental state than the insensitivity of the party-goers.

It’s fitting that his last studio album ends with “No More Songs” but it’s unfortunate that the song fell victim to the scourge of overproduction that dominates the album. The introduction of additional singers who aren’t anywhere close to being in unison or harmony with Phil pretty much spoils the party for me; the instrumentation is ornamental at best; what should have been a quiet and reflective song is overwhelmed by a pompous heaviness that obliterates the sense of tragedy. The song begins and ends with the same verse, one that unintentionally described most of the content on the album:

Hello hello hello, is the 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.

I’ve never had this feeling about any of Phil’s other albums, but I’m relieved that there are no more songs.

Gunfight at Carnegie Hall

The only person on earth who wanted to release Gunfight at Carnegie Hall was Phil Ochs.

Phil’s last Carnegie Hall concerts (there were two shows scheduled back-to-back on a single day) were the ultimate in shit shows. There was no soundcheck because the crew showed up late. Then there was a bomb threat. Then Phil damaged the tendons in his right hand by punching through the glass window of the ticket box between shows, treating his injury by guzzling down a whole lotta booze. Sometime during the second show, Carnegie management shut off the electricity. Up to that point, Phil had spent a good chunk of his time on stage trying to get the crowd to embrace the man in the gold lamé suit with limited success—they cheered when Phil played his classic songs on acoustic guitar, they jeered and booed whenever the band took the stage. Shutting off the electricity—a brazen suppression of artistic freedom—finally did the trick and moved the crowd over to Phil’s side:

At Carnegie Hall, the battle was waged into the wee hours of the morning. At three o’clock, when Phil finally reached the end of the show and had walked offstage, the hall management cut the stage’s electricity before he could perform an encore, giving Phil one more opportunity to bond with his audience. “I want power!” he began to chant when he walked back onstage for the planned encore. The crowd quickly joined him. “We want power! We want power! . . .” After a few minutes, the electricity was restored and Phil closed out the evening with three songs—a cover of Elvis’ “A Fool Such as I,” the evening’s second reading of “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” and, as the coup de grâce, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “School Days.” The crowd ate it up. By the time he had finished, many audience members were dancing in the aisles. “It became a total magic moment,” Phil later recalled.

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

The “magic” left Phil with a false high, leading him to conclude that the night at the Carnegie was a smashing success. Both his brother Michael and Jerry Moss, president of A&M, were appalled when Phil argued for releasing the recording of the shows as a live album, and Moss wisely vetoed the idea. Phil would always maintain that he was right and that Moss, his brother and everyone else on the planet were full of shit. 

They weren’t. Gunfight at Carnegie Hall is one of the worst live albums ever recorded. The sound quality is piss-poor, the band lacks cohesion, the harmonies are horrible and the song selection highly questionable. Two of the tracks are medleys featuring the songs of his teenage heroes, Buddy Holly and Elvis. Ignoring the sloppiness of the band, the Holly medley isn’t half bad, largely because the timbre and range of Phil’s voice were well-suited to Buddy Holly’s melodies. By contrast, the Elvis medley is bloody awful—there was no way in hell that Phil Ochs could come close to reproducing Elvis’ mojo or the King’s facility with the low notes. His rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” would be laughable under normal circumstances; in the context of an artist suffering from creative decline and increasing mental instability, it’s simply pathetic. The only track that captures my fancy is the high-speed rock version of “Tape from California,” which almost makes up for the off-key harmonies on “Pleasures of the Harbor.” 

A&M eventually relented and released Gunfight at Carnegie Hall in 1974—but only in Canada. I don’t know what they had against Canadians; perhaps they felt that nicer people would be more forgiving. The album would not be released in the United States until the late 1980s, long after Phil had vacated the material world. In the intervening years, the album has become something of a cult classic—the musical equivalent of an Ed Wood movie. If you’re into that sort of thing, go for it. 

It is deeply ironic that his career collapsed at Carnegie Hall—not because Phil had performed there successfully several times before, but because of his lifelong fascination with the magical aura of that legendary venue—Carnegie Hall was his “If I can make it there/I’ll make it anywhere” measuring stick from the moment he arrived in New York City:

Although he had played in the hall as part of large hootenanny ensembles, Phil had fantasized, almost from his first day as a performer, about appearing there as a solo act. To Phil, playing Carnegie Hall signified an arrival. Phil and Arthur [Phil’s manager at the time] tried the doors and, finding one open, snuck into the empty hall. The two made their way up the aisles to the front of the hall. Standing on the edge of the darkened stage and looking up at the tiers of seats above them, both felt a rush of excitement. “Someday,” Phil told Arthur, “we’ll have this place.”

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

For all intents and purposes, the shows at Carnegie Hall killed what was left of his career. But though Phil’s career ended with a pratfall, his late-stage errors in judgment should not in any way diminish his reputation as one of America’s greatest songwriters. Any performer can have an off-night—in this case, a whopper of an off-night—but Phil Ochs gave us more than enough great music to earn our forgiveness and enduring respect. 

 

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