Part One of Two
One of the most insightful comments in the documentary Nick Drake: Under Review came from Ralph McTell near the end of the film when the various participants weighed in on Nick Drake’s startling rise to fame a quarter-century after his death at the age of twenty-six.
“Unfortunately, the world wasn’t ready for you, Nick, at that time. It seems to be now and I hope it’s not just the glamour—the morbid glamour of an early death and an ending of such promise.”
Nick Drake released three albums that sold a grand total of about four thousand copies during his lifetime. After languishing in obscurity for a decade, 80s artists like Kate Bush, Paul Weller and Robert Smith identified Nick as a significant influence; a couple of BBC documentaries in the 90s solidified his reputation with the British public. Americans didn’t catch on until 1999 when they heard part of Nick’s song “Pink Moon” on a Volkswagen commercial that boosted U.S. sales of the Pink Moon album from a grand total of six thousand to 74,000 in one year. Eventually all three of those long-forgotten albums earned spots on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
McTell’s suspicion regarding “morbid glamour” was spot-on: death is a highly reliable marketing tactic for increasing album sales:
A 2014 study, “Death-Related Publicity as Informational Advertising: Evidence from the Music Industry,” concluded that an artist’s album sales increase by an average of 54.1 percent following his or her death. The research bore out that what makes the passing of an artist a grim, but profitable, retail business model is, by and large, two subsets of consumers: those motivated by nostalgia and those made curious by the publicity that commonly surrounds the loss of a famous person.
Stated Leif Brandes, one of the three authors of the study: “Our research indicates death-related publicity serves primarily as informational advertising that informs new customers. However, complementary survey evidence reveals that death-related publicity also triggers considerable nostalgic reactions and personal mortality salience — a feeling of their own mortality — from existing record-owners.”
Though the study is limited to the years 1992-2010, the phenomenon existed long before the Information Age. Closer to Nick’s era, both Otis Redding and Jim Croce became far more popular after their early deaths. The delay in the rediscovery of Nick Drake’s catalog is simple to explain: unlike Redding and Croce, who both had respectable followings while they were alive, appreciation of Nick’s unique talent was pretty much limited to music insiders like McTell, Joe Boyd, Ashley Hutchings and Richard Thompson.
Post-mortem studies of Nick Drake provide several possible explanations as to why Nick didn’t catch on from the start. Problem 1: The market was already saturated with singer-songwriters. Problem 2: Nick’s lyrics were more poetic than pop, often lacking the catchy hooks that provide the typical music fan with instant gratification. Problem 3: Island Records did little to market his wares, in part due to an uncooperative client, which leads us to Problem 4—Nick was one of those naïve innocents who assumed that the quality of his music would be enough to carry the day, and resisted Island’s urgings to promote his albums through live performances and interviews with music journalists. Problem 5: When he reluctantly took to the stage, he made little effort to connect with the audience—he rarely spoke or made eye contact, wasted a lot of stage time retuning his guitar between songs and in at least one case, walked off the stage in the middle of a set.
One might argue that a marketing strategy focused on “product differentiation” might have worked by peddling Nick’s idiosyncrasies to create a public image of a “man of mystery.” Unfortunately, even the most inventive and disciplined marketing strategy wouldn’t have saved Nick Drake from himself. He simply wasn’t wired to play the game. Nick was devoted to his art first and foremost; it’s impossible to even imagine a Nick Drake who would have been comfortable with the notion that his persona and his music were simply “products” designed for mass consumption.
I’ve studied and played music since I was six and have written about music for almost ten years now, but I still find it appalling that there is very little correlation between quality and success in the music business. Nick Drake was a brilliant musician, a stunningly original guitarist, a superb and insightful songwriter blessed with a unique, breathy baritone that imbued his music with warmth and humanity. I feel genuine outrage when I think of how someone with his talent was ignored for so long and absolute astonishment that his resurrection was aided and abetted by a fucking Volkswagen commercial.
Whatever the cause, be it “morbid glamour” or advertising addiction, I’m thankful that Nick Drake is finally getting the attention he deserves as an artist of the highest order.
Compared to The Grateful Dead, whose every song, studio session, concert and individual effort by its members are thoroughly documented and cross-checked by a legion of highly knowledgable Dead fans, we know comparatively little about Nick Drake. There are no videos of his few live performances; the audio from his appearance on John Peel’s radio program in 1969 only surfaced a few years ago. There are biographies of varying quality, documentaries featuring people who knew him and a whole lot of speculation about Nick’s motives and mental state—but very little in the way of direct communication from Nick himself, either orally or in writing. Jerry Gilbert’s interview with Nick is fascinating largely for the gyrations Gilbert had to go through to patch together something resembling music journalism when faced with a subject who gave him very little to work with.
What we do have are the songs he left behind, and I think that’s probably what Nick would have wanted.
Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake is a 1994 compilation featuring songs from the three albums released in Nick’s lifetime (Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon) and two songs that first saw the light of day in 1987 in the grab bag of outtakes and alternative versions called Time of No Reply. As with nearly all compilation albums, we can argue about various inclusions and exclusions, but this is a solid collection that reveals Nick’s genius with guitar and poetry as well as some of the challenges involved in attempting to commercialize Nick’s art.
One note of critical caution is necessary before we get to the songs. Most interpretations of Nick Blake’s music and poetry tend to view Nick’s artistic output through the lens of mental illness, specifically depression and marijuana-induced psychosis. Studies have shown that introverts are more prone to depression than extroverts (and less likely to seek help), so Nick probably experienced bouts of depression before receiving the official diagnosis in 1971, shortly after it became apparent that Bryter Layter was not catching on with the public. The key thing to remember in interpreting Nick’s work is that depressives have good days and bad days, so without the knowledge of Nick’s mood at the time he wrote a particular song, it’s unwise to automatically assume the influence of mental illness in any of his work—even on Pink Moon, the album most often described as his darkest. Any artist with Nick’s level of sensitivity is going to experience profound dissatisfaction with the “real world” (hello, Phil Ochs), and expressing such dissatisfaction does not always indicate that the artist is in the throes of depression. It’s just as likely that the artist has the courage to tell us something about our fucked-up world that we really don’t want to hear.
Without further ado, we’ll now explore the music of the uniquely compelling Mr. Drake.
“Cello Song” (Five Leaves Left): The compilers couldn’t have selected a better song to open the album because it highlights three important aspects of Nick’s music.
The acoustic guitar passage that introduces the song immediately grabs the listener’s attention by displaying Nick’s remarkable dexterity as well as the distinctive guitar tone he was able to coax out of the instrument. A few years ago, a perceptive young guitarist by the name of Josh Turner encountered Nick’s music and was immediately drawn to its tonal quality: “The first time I ever heard Nick Drake’s guitar playing I just kind of stared at my stereo and thought ‘What in the hell is that?’ Nobody, as far as I’m aware, had ever sounded like Nick Drake, before or since.” Josh shared his insights on how Nick created that tone in an amazing video on YouTube that I highly recommend (short summary: small-body guitar with no low end, incredibly dead nickel strings to create warmth and limit overtones, long thumbnail, right hand in classical position over the middle of the soundhole). Beware that even if you manage to get the tone right, learning how to play Nick’s music presents many challenges due to his frequent use of capos, non-standard chords and open tunings. While you can reproduce open-tuned chords through standard tuning (a chord is still a chord), the voicings will be off and the song just won’t sound like a Nick Drake song. If you want to increase your chances of coming up with an acceptable facsimile, you can find a list of Nick’s open tunings on the Alternative Guitar Tuning Database.
The second aspect has to do with Nick’s deep understanding of music theory that results in his high-level ability to integrate major and minor keys within the song structure. In “Cello Song,” Nick avoids contact with the major third note on his guitar, giving arranger and lifelong friend Robert Kirby the opportunity to use Clare Lowther’s cello to express the natural minor key with its flatted seventh; meanwhile, the song’s vocal melody generally follows the notes in the major scale. This is all done quite seamlessly, and the song flows beautifully, with the mournful, sinuous cello providing a striking contrast to Nick’s warmer tones.
The third distinctive mark of a Nick Drake performance draws attention to his advanced skills in vocal phrasing that eschews the follow-the-notes-on-the-staff approach in favor of phrasing that employs the pauses and extended enunciation of words common in poetry readings. Melodic lines extend beyond the bar lines; notes are often held through compatible or incompatible chord changes. For example, in the captivating opening couplet, “Strange face, with your eyes/So pale and sincere,” when the chord changes from Bb major to F major, Nick hesitates a split-second before the “So” and completes the melodic line well after the chord has shifted back to Bb major. The off-beat phrasing shifts the listener’s focus from the music to the lyrics, and with Nick Drake songs, the lyrics are always worth the attention:
Strange face, with your eyes
So pale and sincere
Underneath you know well
You have nothing to fear
For the dreams that came to you when so young
Told of a life
Where spring is sprung
You would seem so frail
In the cold of the night
When the armies of emotion
Go out to fight
But while the earth sinks to its grave
You sail to the sky
On the crest of a wave
So forget this cruel world
Where I belong
I’ll just sit and wait
And sing my song
And if one day you should see me in the crowd
Lend a hand and lift me
To your place in the cloud
My take is that “Cello Song” is an internal dialogue with what Jung referred to as the anima, the unconscious feminine aspect of a man that is often personified as the muse, the source of inspiration for many a poet. The lines centered around the phrase “armies of emotion” brought to my mind Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” where Arnold also spoke of alienation in an unimaginably cruel world (“And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and fight/Where ignorant armies clash by night”). Nick’s “armies” are internal forces in battle with the true self; the final verse represents a plea to his muse to help him avoid becoming another mundane member of the crowd and inspire him to attain and retain a purer, more authentic existence. “Cello Song” essentially encapsulates Nick’s struggle between his ingrained idealism and a stubbornly cynical world, a struggle that would define both his life and death.
“Hazey Jane I” (Bryter Layter): In an attempt to broaden Nick’s commercial appeal, producer Joe Boyd took a different approach on Nick’s second album, Bryter Later, moving away from the pastoral simplicity of Five Leaves Left to more layered, pop-friendly arrangements. Boyd also brought in a slew of musicians—John Cale, Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Richard Thompson, various session musicians and a couple of guys who played with The Beach Boys—to give the record a more professional feel. The extent to which Nick bought into Boyd’s ideas is questionable at best; some have opined that the commercial failure of Five Leaves Left led Nick to defer to Boyd and the more seasoned professionals against his better judgment. Some of the enhanced arrangments work; some are only slightly annoying; some don’t work at all. I tend to agree with Ralph McTell’s belief that Nick Drake was one of those rare musicians whose music is diminished when you add too many parts to the mix. It should be noted that the critics of the time loved the gloss; it should also be noted that Bryter Layter did nothing to improve Nick’s standing with record buyers. Nick’s delayed reaction to Bryter Later came in the form of the stripped-down arrangements heard on Pink Moon.
The first of two Hazey Jane songs in the collection features a comparatively straightforward production with Nick’s open-tuned guitar (CGCFCE) mingling beautifully with Kirby’s string arrangement and the unintrusive rhythm section of Mattacks and Pegg. Recalling his performance in the documentary Under Review, Mattacks offered that Nick’s sense of rhythm was so strong that a traditional drum part was completely unnecessary and that his job was to use cymbals and timpani to provide color. Pegg takes a similar approach on the bass, providing light rhythmic punctuation that suits the song perfectly. In this case, the introduction of professional musicians who understand that it’s their duty to put their egos and stylistic preferences aside turned out to be a plus—the arrangement works beautifully with Nick’s warm and fragile voice.
What blows me away about “Hazey Jane I” is Nick’s keen insight into an essential aspect of modern existence: the simple truth that we spend most of our lives making choices that have little connection to what we really want but seem to be the only options on the table. Nick makes it difficult for the listener to escape that uncomfortable reality by structuring the verses around a series of questions posed to Hazey Jane:
. . . Do you like what you’re doing? Would you do it some more?
Or will you stop once and wonder what you’re doing it for?
. . . Do you feel like a remnant of something that’s past?
Do you find things are moving just a little too fast?
Do you hope to find new ways of quenching your thirst?
Do you hope to find new ways of doing better than your worst?
I hear those questions and say, “Hey! He’s talking about me! I’m a Hazey Jane!” I sort of stumbled into a career in B2B marketing because I needed a job to eat, drink and support my kinky lifestyle. Fifteen years later I have a reasonably successful consulting practice in a field where I use about one-tenth of my brain capacity coming up with marketing strategies that wow my clients and leave me feeling empty . . . phony . . . hoping to “find new ways of doing better than your worst.”
I don’t think I’m the only soul in the world who feels that way.
I found no evidence that Nick Drake ever worked in a real job, so I’m not sure how he was able to grasp the essence of modern ennui, but I do know (because I live with one) that introverted intuitives are blessed with acute perceptual ability that even they can’t explain. They just “know.”
“Way to Blue” (Five Leaves Left): Nick leaves the guitar in the case and sings over another marvelous string arrangement by Robert Kirby. Having attempted to play the song on guitar using standard chords in standard tuning, I can understand why Nick felt the need to dispense with the six-string—the chord structure and timing demand a smooth legato best produced by a string quartet.
The chord structure confirms Nick’s mastery of major-minor key juxtapositions and integrations, with the first two lines of each verse in E minor, the next two in E major and a final couplet that begins in E minor but resolves on an E major chord. The tiny uplift provided by that E major chord reinforces the question mark at the end of the verses while coloring Nick’s vocal with a touch of empathy as he attempts to reassure his companion that there’s no need for pretense—it’s okay to share the deeper, darker thoughts that might be troubling them:
Can you now recall all that you have known?
Will you never fall when the light has flown?
Tell me all that you may know
Show me what you have to show
Won’t you come and say
If you know the way to blue?
At this point in his life, depression had not taken hold, so I think the sadness in the song came from Nick’s belief that a world where people believe they have to hide their deepest feelings from one another is a pretty sad place. The closing couplet offers a way out of the dilemma—let’s talk about it and banish the shame.
“Things Behind the Sun” (Pink Moon):
In stark contrast to Bryter Layter, the arrangements on Pink Moon are as spare as spare can get—Nick Drake and his guitar on all tracks and a piano overdub (also performed by Nick) on the title track. The only other participant in the proceedings was engineer John Wood, who had worked with Nick on his first two albums and was one of the few people Nick still trusted.
If you’re just not into fiddling with the tuning pegs, you’ll be happy to learn that “Things Behind the Sun” is one of his compositions in standard tuning, though you will need a capo on the fourth fret to make the chord fingering manageable. The chord pattern is complex, both in its Drakean mix of major and minor chords and one particular pattern featuring the unusual sequence of A6sus2-Absus4-Ab7 that employs subtle half-step note changes to create an almost unbearable tension when he repeats the pattern at the end of each verse.
The tension reflects the disgust expressed in the lyrics—disgust with a world dominated by manipulative people locked into meaningless competition for power and status—and the simple truth that we continue to accept such a destructive model as “that’s just the way it is”:
Please beware of them that stare
They’ll only smile to see you while
Your time away
And once you’ve seen what they have been
To win the earth just won’t seem worth
Your night or your day
Who’ll hear what I say?
The last verse departs from the poetic and musical patterns in dramatic fashion. Nick begins the verse by offering a solution to the madness, an affirmation of “to thine own self be true” . . .
Open up the broken cup
Let goodly sin and sunshine in
Yes, that’s today.
And open wide the hymns you hide
You find renown while people frown
At things that you say
But say what you’ll say
. . . then shifts to what becomes a bitter recitation of his own experience of rejection and dismissal as he lingers on the ominous tension of the A6sus2-Absus4-Ab7 chord combination:
About the farmers and the fun
And the things behind the sun
And the people around your head
Who say everything’s been said
And the movement in your brain
Sends you out into the rain.
The anger in his voice is palpable, understandable and, as things turned out, inherently self-destructive. A couple of years later, while attempting to record material for a fourth album, Nick confronted mentor Joe Boyd with the same seething anger:
In his 2006 autobiography, (Joe) Boyd recalled being taken aback at Drake’s anger and bitterness: “[He said that] I had told him he was a genius, and others had concurred. Why wasn’t he famous and rich? This rage must have festered beneath that inexpressive exterior for years.” —Wikipedia
“River Man” (Five Leaves Left): There always seems to be a “yes, but” attached to Nick Drake’s music. “YES, the chords are simple BUT you have to retune your guitar.” “Yes, the song is in standard tuning BUT you have to use a capo.” With River Man, the “BUT” is a bit more problematic. “YES, the song is in standard tuning BUT it’s in 5/4 time.” Quintuple meter is a pain in the ass for the most part unless you’re Dave Brubeck or Frank Zappa. Robert Kirby was spared the agony of coming up with the string arrangement and grateful for it: “I could not for the life of me work out how to write a piece of music that didn’t stagger along like a spider missing a leg.”
Er, no, that would be 7/8 time. The spider would have to be missing three legs and moving at half speed to achieve 5/4 time.
The more experienced Harry Robertson (or Robinson) filled in for Kirby and essentially ignored the time signatures (there are a couple of shifts to 4/4), allowing the strings to flow like a river. That approach worked perfectly with a singer who loved to extend or shorten melodic phrases in defiance of the bar lines. Combined with the non-standard but simple “jazz chords” (Aadd9, C7sus2, Amadd9, Aadd13, Amadd13), the arrangement creates a lazy-day, dreamy atmosphere with a touch of grandeur that is unusually pleasing to ear and soul.
The general speculative consensus centers around biographer Trevor Dunn’s assertion that the inspiration for the song came from Wordsworth’s poem, “The Idiot Boy,” a reasonable assumption given that Nick Drake was well-versed in the English Romantics and several of his songs have a bucolic, Wordsworthian feel. Both poems introduce characters named Betty, both of whom are in a state of agitation. The similarities end there, as “The Idiot Boy” is a very long narrative poem and Nick’s contribution consists of four verses that alternate between Betty’s perspective and Nick’s. Another difference is that the Wordsworth poem deals with the maternal instinct while Nick’s poem covers the classic struggle between nature and civilization (also a favorite theme of Wordsworth).
Our Betty “came by on her way,” indicating an unconscious impulse that drew her to what we can safely assume is the English countryside. The source of her agitation (as well as the impulse to make the detour) seems to come from one of those no-win situations that modern civilization insists on tossing our way:
Said she had a word to say
About things today
And fallen leaves.
Said she hadn’t heard the news
Hadn’t had the time to choose
A way to lose
But she believes.
Meanwhile, Nick pays a visit to the River Man “. . . to tell him all I can/About the plan/For lilac time.” I’ve read some opinions that the River Man is Charon, the ferryman who gives recently departed souls a lift to the world of the dead, but there is zero evidence of that connection. The more likely influence comes from Hesse’s Siddhartha, where the ferryman teaches Siddhartha to listen to the wisdom of the river.
When we return to Betty’s tale, at first we find her still struggling with her internal conflict, but in the meantime, she has rediscovered the healing power of nature:
For when she thought of summer rain
Calling for her mind again
She lost the pain
And stayed for more.
Nick then pays a second visit to the River Man, but this time he wants to share his own sense of disillusionment with modern civilization:
Going to see the river man
Going to tell him all I can
About the ban
On feeling free.
The poem ends with some ambiguity as if Nick is uncertain whether or not the healing power of nature will work its wonders on him:
If he tells me all he knows
About the way his river flows
I don’t suppose
It’s meant for me.
Oh, how they come and go
Oh, how they come and go
I interpret those last lines as a commentary on the indecisiveness that inflicts us all—how our search for the meaning of life forever oscillates between certainty and uncertainty. There is no “yes, but” in my mind when I describe “River Man” as a work of breathtaking musical and poetic genius.
“Poor Boy” (Bryter Layter): NO, NO AND NO! Joe Boyd diminished the hell out Nick with his ludicrous overproduction that transforms Nick into a cheesy lounge singer struggling for attention amidst the cacophony of faux-jazz sax, too-energetic piano and the unwelcome intrusion of Doris Troy and Pat Arnold as the irritatingly incompatible chorus. The upbeat music stands in jarring contrast to the downbeat lyrics that tell a tale of a homeless young man struggling against cold temperatures and cold people. I searched in vain for a stripped-down version with just Nick and acoustic guitar, so if any of you know of one, please send the link my way. Boyd’s arrangement earns not one, not two but a triple “Oh, for fuck’s sake” from yours truly.
“Time of No Reply” (Time of No Reply): I don’t know why this song was omitted from Five Leaves Left, but if the statute of limitations hasn’t run out, criminal charges should be filed immediately.
Of all the songs in Nick’s catalog, “Time of No Reply” is the one most misinterpreted through the lens of mental health issues. As the song was written at the outset of Nick’s career—before he had experienced commercial failure or was diagnosed with depression—such interpretations do Nick a grave disservice. The song isn’t about Nick’s personal struggles with loneliness and the phrase “the time of no reply” does not reflect a death wish. “Time of No Reply” is a melancholic yet beautiful poem that captures what we all feel when the first signs of autumn appear—a touch of sadness as we enter the phase of decline in the circle of life. The experience of autumn tends to inspire human beings to turn inward and reflect on the apparently temporary nature of existence, and by extension, one’s own mortality. It’s “the time of no reply” because we withdraw into ourselves:
Summer was gone and the heat died down
And Autumn reached for her golden crown
I looked behind as I heard a sigh
But this was the time of no reply
The sun went down and the crowd went home
I was left by the roadside all alone
I turned to speak as they went by
But this was the time of no reply
It should be noted that human beings seem to be the only species in the animal kingdom who tend to indulge in self-pity regarding mortality with the coming of autumn. All the other animals accept reality and get to work: birds fly south, squirrels squirrel, bears fatten up. In the next verse, Nick engages in a bit of anthropomorphism by imbuing the trees with the capacity for self-reflection, but even the trees realize that losing their leaves is but a temporary phase in the lifecycle:
The trees on the hill had nothing to say
They would keep their dreams till another day
So they stood and thought and wondered why
For this was the time of no reply
Nick seems to accept the cycle better than most, finding his own answer to the conundrum of mortality by looking to the ever-changing sky:
Time goes by from year to year
And no one asks why I am standing here
But I have my answer as I look to the sky
This is the time of no reply
The time of no reply is calling me to stay
There’s no hello and no goodbye
To leave there is no way
“The time of no reply is calling me to stay” certainly sounds like he welcomes the change in the lifecycle, while “To leave there is no way” certainly doesn’t sound like suicidal ideation. The bright arpeggiated guitar never shifts to the minor key and Nick’s vocal tone sounds closer to hope than despair. “The Time of No Reply” is a sublime reflection on the circle of life and a ringing affirmation of Nick’s ability to mesmerize the listener through a simple arrangement of voice and guitar.
NOTE TO GUITARISTS: Nick uses BEBEBE tuning on this one, but if you want to play along with the record you’ll have to take an extra step because the strings are a half-step flat. The mistuning likely stems from a tape problem rather than negligence on Nick’s part, as “Pink Moon” is also a bit off but the presence of the piano eliminates the possibility of a guitar tuning problem.
“From the Morning” (Pink Moon): In her contribution to the 33 1/3 series covering Pink Moon, Amanda Petrusich cites a contrarian perspective offered by Bryter Music’s Cally Calloman on Nick’s state of mind during the creation and recording of the album. “Nick was incapable of writing and recording while he was suffering from periods of depression. He was not depressed during the writing or recording of Pink Moon and was immensely proud of the album.” The best evidence to support that assertion can be found in the last track, “From the Morning.”
The beautiful simplicity of the song is reflected in both the I-IV-V-Vsus4 chord pattern and in lyrics reminiscent of Blake’s Songs of Innocence. The righteous anger that marked “Things Behind the Sun” has completely vanished as if Nick has returned to a state of child-like innocence where the elaborate tensions of adulthood have no place. His gentle voice glides over the cascade of notes from his guitar as he sings of the “contraries” Blake identified as the essence of human existence:
A day once dawned, and it was beautiful
A day once dawned from the ground
Then the night she fell
And the air was beautiful
Night she fell all around
Quite a series of contraries here: rise-fall, day-night, ground-sky and the implied contrary of yin-yang through his identification of the night as feminine. In the last verse, Nick applies the contraries to human activity, equating the day with innocence and the night with imagination/inspiration:
And now we rise
And we are everywhere
And now we rise from the ground
And see she flies
She is everywhere
See she flies all around
So look see the sights
The endless summer nights
And go play the game that you learnt
From the morning
The “game” he mentions is “learnt from the morning,” the time of freshness and innocence—as opposed to “the game” triggered by the annoying sound of the alarm clock. As we have seen, Nick frequently equates the natural world with healing and rejuvenation; here he reminds the adults in the audience that they still have access to that world of innocence and wonder.
I realize I’ve used up a whole lot of blog space for one-half of an album, so I’ve decided to split my essay on Way to Blue into two parts. I make no apologies for giving Nick Drake all the time and energy he deserves.
See you next week!
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
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.