John Mayall is conclusive evidence that “Hope I die before I get old” is the dumbest fucking statement in music history.
The still-active Mr. Mayall will celebrate his eighty-fourth birthday this November. He has been a working musician for sixty-one years, and as I write, he is currently on tour in the United States. After a six-week hiatus, he’ll spend every night save three in the period between October 17 and November 26 on a stage somewhere in the U. K. He released his sixty-fifth album earlier this year, jamming with Joe Walsh on two of the tracks.
Fuck Pete Townsend.
The Woodstock Generation adopted another motto frequently attributed to yippie Jerry Rubin but actually added to the vernacular by Jack Weinberger of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement: “Never trust anyone over thirty.” John Mayall entered the consciousness of that generation with the release of Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton in 1966. The anti-aging crowd probably didn’t notice that John Mayall had already smashed the boundaries of obsolescence, having reached the ripe old age of thirty-two about six months earlier.
Fuck Jerry Rubin and Jack Weinberger.
To be fair, John Mayall is one of those characters who defy time and generational classification. In terms of genre-tagging, he is primarily known as a blues musician, a very limiting tag indeed. For while blues has always served as his musical foundation, and though The Bluesbreakers pretty much stuck to the dominant Muddy Waters electric guitar virtuoso paradigm of the British Blues Boom, Mayall has always been a curious sort, a man more than willing to expand the boundaries of the blues. After giving huge boosts to the careers of Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor by making them featured Bluesbreaker soloists, he grew tired of chasing down the next guitar hero once Mick left for The Stones and decided to move in a different direction.
Hence The Turning Point. From the liner notes, written by Mayall himself (caps preserved):
THE TIME IS RIGHT FOR A NEW DIRECTION IN BLUES MUSIC. HAVING DECIDED TO DISPENSE WITH HEAVY LEAD GUITAR AND DRUMS, USUALLY A ‘MUST’ FOR BLUES GROUPS TODAY, I SET ABOUT FORMING A NEW BAND WHICH WOULD BE ABLE TO EXPLORE SELDOM-USED AREAS WITHIN THE FRAMEWORK OF LOW VOLUME MUSIC. THIS ALBUM IS THE RESULT OF THIS EXPERIMENT AND IT WAS RECORDED LIVE AT THE FILLMORE EAST THEATER, NEW YORK, AFTER ONLY FOUR WEEKS EXPERIENCE OF EACH OTHER’S PLAYING.
Elsewhere in the packaging, Mayall shows off his economical writing style, managing to further expound on his new direction while introducing his new bandmates at the same time:
It no longer seemed logical to me that I should find yet another new lead guitarist; since Eric Clapton more or less founded a whole cult of blues guitar stylists, too many people are into that bag for it to mean much anymore. So I have now got a new thing in operation whereby drums are not used on the theory that every instrument is capable of creating its own rhythm. An acoustic finger style guitarist of the finest order, Jon Mark, replaced drummer Colin Allen, Johnny Almond on flutes and saxophones replaces Mick Taylor who made the headlines a week after leaving me when he was asked to join the Rolling Stones.
“Every instrument is capable of creating its own rhythm” is a concept that solo acoustic guitarists and classical music aficionados easily grasp, and just a few months before The Turning Point, Ian Anderson demonstrated the utility of the flute as a rhythmic instrument in the context of blues on Jethro Tull’s This Was. But even with those precedents, dispensing with the drummer represented a huge commercial risk for Mayall. As anyone who has ever played in a band understands, the presence of a drum kit requires all the other instruments to crank it up so they can be heard. This dynamic becomes a virtue in rock music, because the loudness itself adds to the aura of excitement, allowing even third-rate bands to sound pretty good for a number or two until the audience filters out the noise. Because Mayall’s audience was a rock-oriented audience who expected loud-and-powerful, one would assume that “low-volume music” would have been greeted with hoots, hollers and catcalls by the crowd at Fillmore East on July 12, 1969.
Damn if he didn’t win them over and leave them begging for more. The Turning Point is one of the truly great live albums, all the more delightful for the risk involved.
After Mayall’s decidedly proper introductions of the boys in the band and without further ado, the band launches into the Mayall composition, “The Laws Must Change.” In the midst of the atmosphere of protest pervading the United States with the Vietnam War at its peak, Mayall delivers a song that radicals of the era would have dismissed as “Establishment propaganda.” Urging listeners to be nice to the police and to try to see both sides of a question, Mayall even goes so far as to remind his probably stoned audience that “Every time you’re holdin’/You are guilty of the crime.” Seriously uncool, man! Actually, the advice is quite sensible, but common sense was an alien concept for the starry-eyed idealists of the period:
It seems to be the fashion
To say you’re right and they are wrong (2)
But you gotta see both sides
(Or) You’ll find yourself in jail ‘fore long
You’re screamin’ at policemen
But they’re only doin’ a gig (2)
Gotta try and take the time
To figure out how the issue got that big
After that verse Johnny Almond launches into a Yusef Lateef/Ian Anderson-style flute solo, heavy on the thrust with sharp overtones. The rhythm section of Steve Thompson on bass and Jon Mark on rhythm acoustic guitar is spot-on, inspiring a mid-tempo ass wiggle from yours truly. Halfway through the solo, Mayall asserts himself on harp, leading to a tight call-and-response pattern with Johnny Almond’s flute that earns a well-deserved round of applause. Almond disappears for a moment during the Lenny Bruce verse (“Lenny Bruce was trying to tell you many things before he died/Don’t throw rocks at policemen/But get the knots of law untied), reappearing with a sax to enhance the sharpness of the rhythmic punctuation. This switcheroo pays off in the fade when the band highlights the dominant pattern of three eighth notes played in 4/4 time, leading to a subtle crescendo of rising harmonic notes and a sudden but effective finish that definitely wows the crowd. “The Laws Must Change” is the perfect opener, a mid-tempo number that shows off the tightness of the band (after four weeks!) and allows the audience to get comfortable with drum-deprived rhythm.
“Saw Mill Gulch Road” is a slower blues number with a gorgeous introduction featuring John Mayall playing slide on a Telecaster, his sustained notes floating over a somewhat intense rhythmic pattern established by Mark and Thompson. Johnny Almond enters toward the end of the intro with a warm and gentle flute pattern that communicates a mood of introspective regret. The song is about a teenage girl, your classic jail bait who sneaks out at night to meet her adult male lover. The male narrator decides to break it off without a word of goodbye, probably realizing that fucking a minor wasn’t the smartest idea he’d ever had. What makes the story work is not the double-sided aspect of the regret (lost love and “how could I have been so fucking stupid?”) but the simple truth that the blues is the place where you share the unthinkable, the shameful and the honest, sometimes ugly truth. As a mood piece, it’s a first-rate performance.
The next piece is John Mayall’s second tribute to the late blues great J. B. Lenoir, a relatively minor figure from the popular perspective but an influential guitarist and one of the few blues singers in the 50’s and 60’s who tackled social and political issues such as racism and war. Mayall’s first song about Lenoir was the mournful “The Death of J. B. Lenoir” on the album Crusade, where he sings that Lenoir’s death “hit me like a hammer blow.” In “I’m Gonna Fight for You, J. B.” he has moved beyond grief and resolves to dedicate his energies toward making sure Lenoir’s blues is “heard everywhere.” Mayall would not realize his dream until the 21st century, when Lenoir was featured in Martin Scorsese’s documentary series The Blues (2003), inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame (2011) and honored by the inclusion of his song “Alabama Blues” in the movie Selma (2015).
“I’m Gonna Fight for You, J. B.” is a relaxed blues in the traditional style, sung by Mayall in his relatively high-pitched voice (a trait he shared with Lenoir) over a guitar duet that shifts to a long instrumental break allowing both guitarists to strut their stuff. Jon Mark’s acoustic solo is a breathtaking flurry of notes and chords with occasional patterns that break the boundaries of the loping rhythm; Mayall’s Tele solo is by contrast clean and classic blues. Interestingly, Steve Thompson doesn’t enter until Mayall’s solo, adding depth to that passage and retrospectively confirming that “every instrument is capable of creating its own rhythm” (you hardly notice his absence during the duet). The simplicity of the arrangement also gives you a moment to appreciate the quality of the recording: The Turning Point is beautifully recorded and engineered (kudos to Eddie Kramer), capturing each performer’s contributions while always maintaining superb sonic balance.
“So Hard to Share” shifts to more of a jazz sensibility in large part due to Johnny Almond’s sax and Mayall’s syncopated rhythm guitar pattern. Johnny Almond’s solo is a marvelous piece of work alternating between smooth riffs, disciplined flurries and near-growls at the higher end of the register. In one memorable passage, Mayall sings scat while harmonizing with his guitar licks, totally immersed in the groove. The fade is fascinating because it is a genuine fade, a slow but steady reduction in volume down to nothing but the sounds of the musicians catching their breaths. The audience is so silent during the fade you’ve almost forgotten about them, indicating how firmly Mayall had them seated in the palm of his hand with his low-volume approach.
Mayall attached a brief explanatory tagline to each of the songs in the track listing, and the one of “So Hard To Share” reads, “Patricia and a possessive ‘old man’ who stood in our way.” Patricia is hard to share because her ‘old man’ sometimes keeps Patricia “locked up,” denying Mayall a coveted spot between her luscious legs. Mayall differentiates himself from the possessive prick in the third verse, stating clearly that “If she loves him that’s okay,” indicating he has no possessive designs of his own. Whoop-de-do. 1969 was the year of one small step for man, and I guess the share-the-broad concept could have been perceived as one small step in the deconstruction of traditional relational paradigms. Since there’s no indication that Patricia had a say in the matter, though, I think it was really one small step forward and two steps back into the safety of a male-controlled society. In a truly enlightened relationship, Patricia would have been in charge of the whole thing! To be fair, Mayall wasn’t the only stepper to stumble that year, for 1969 was also the year of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a thoroughly stupid film about open relationships long on titillation, short on delivering the goods and leaves all participants in the foursome completely disillusioned about traditional and alternative ways of getting your rocks off. If Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice had been released in today’s environment of sequel-mania, there would have been four sequels, one for each member of the quartet, each showing them masturbating for two hours in a state of existential disillusionment.
John Mayall wisely changes the subject with “California,” a nine-and-a-half minute Mayall-Thompson opus described as “improvisations and moods on the theme of homesickness.” California of the late 60’s probably was more like the paradise described in this song (unless you lived in Watts or East Oakland), so the lyrics represent a time capsule of sorts. Here the music is the draw, an extended jazz jam that remains in the key of D for the entire journey. The soloists take over a little more than a minute into the song, beginning with Johnny Almond on alto sax. Almond’s solo captures the feel of driving down Highway 1 during a sunset while the Pacific Ocean fog remains at bay—fluid with peaks of color expressed at the upper end of the alto sax range. The next passage features Jon Mark’s rhythmic capabilities with a few understated variations, inviting Mayall to join in with a touch of support on the harmonica. We also hear a touch of Almond’s flute, presaging a more prominent role in a harmonica-flute duet. Here Almond adds a touch of Arabian Nights by shifting briefly to the Andalusian scale, reflecting the reputed magic of the California scene. The piece wraps up with Mayall returning to the scant lyrics, and my overwhelming reaction is one of disbelief that this piece has ended so soon! It certainly doesn’t feel like nine-and-a-half minutes, indicating that it is very easy to lose yourself in such an enchanting piece as “California.”
“Thoughts about Roxanne” shifts the mood to 3 a. m. night club with a languorous blues number featuring deft and subtle work from Almond, Mark and Thompson (who co-wrote this piece). The fills and responses here are an absolute delight, with Almond’s smooth but intense blues-informed riffs and Mark’s nimble command of the stop-time-punctuated rhythms. John Mayall’s Telecaster enters with some sweet reverb-accented touches before cueing the band to pick up the tempo. Johnny Almond is all over that cue, leaving smoothness behind for the sensibilities of modern jazz played fast and furiously. Mayall comes to the fore with his guitar, a relatively straightforward run that sounds fabulous in context. A sudden shift—perhaps a bit too sudden to my ears—brings us back to the smoky bar and our half-finished highball.
Up to this point, none of the songs on The Turning Point qualify as up-tempo numbers, and though Mayall and friends have broken any resistance to low-volume music with a series of intensely pleasurable performances, both he and the crowd recognize it’s time to slam the foot down on the accelerator and get the fuck moving! In the pause that follows “Thoughts about Roxanne,” someone in the audience calls out for “Chicka, chicka!” Mayall’s response is a puzzled, “What? What’s it say? Chicka-chicka what?” He then acknowledges the request for mouth percussion by announcing, “Well, there’s a bit of chicka-chicka in this one, actually. You’ll be all right. This one’s called ‘Room to Move’.”
Oh, yeah, baby! Chicka-chicka all over me!
According to the liner notes, “Room to Move” is about “a musician’s need for personal freedom to love without entanglement.” The lyrics are short and to the point:
May seem peculiar
How I think o’ you
If you want me darlin’
Here’s what you must do.
You gotta free (give) me
‘Cause I can’t give the best
Unless I got room to move.
If you want me darlin’
Take me how you can
I’ll be circulating,
‘Cause that’s the way I am.
You gotta free me
‘Cause I can’t give the best
Unless I got room to move
I endorse these sentiments whole-heartedly, because unlike the “I’ll be true to you” blather that accompanies too many romantic interactions, these sentiments are unmistakably honest. This man needs freedom to get a hard-on, and unlike all the other lovers who sneak around behind your back, he’s giving you the straight scoop. Now you have a choice, and that choice needs to be just as honest—“Well, I’ll fuck him and maybe he’ll change” just isn’t going to cut it. That’s called a hidden agenda, and that’s something you should never bring into a relationship. And here’s a tip: honest people are experts at sensing hidden agendas and relational bullshit. If you try to get down and dirty with a guy like Mayall, you’ll send all kinds of confusing vibes and the result will be a penis that you couldn’t firm up with all the plaster in the world.
Hmm. Maybe I should do a “Dear Altrockchick” column.
Lyrics aside, “Room to Move” reinforces the other freedom that pervades the album: the freedom to create rhythms without a drummer. There is no better illustration on the album—or perhaps anywhere—to demonstrate that human beings are creatures of rhythm, and if you don’t have a drummer handy, you still have plenty of options. Thighs. Hands. Fingersnaps. Shoes, with or without taps (boots for the heavy stuff). The body of an acoustic guitar.
And the entire human vocal apparatus.
“Room to Move” shoots out of the gate like the proverbial bat out of hell, with all four musicians on point with the quick chord changes and the stop time moments at the end of each bar. The chord changes themselves aren’t at all difficult (E-D-E-D-E-D-E-rest, then up to A-G), but the speed and the precision required to properly execute the pattern isn’t kids’ stuff. The break to a G chord also temporarily changes the rhythm, and whether that feels like temporary relief or a stride-breaking moment depends on the musician. Fortunately, this bunch could handle anything you threw at them.
After only four weeks of rehearsal.
After Mayall sings the first verse, he launches into an energetic harp solo. What I find amazing here is that he’s already spent more energy alternating between voice and harp in the first verse than most singers expend during your average song, but damn, this is a man on fire and there’s nothing that can slow him down. Accompanied only by Jon Mark slapping his guitar body and a bit of handicapping, Mayall delivers a solo that qualifies as an absolute delight—I smile every time he starts to crank it up. Right when he seems to hit the peak, Johnny Almond enters with “mouth percussion” (chicka-chicka stuff), a series of unvoiced syllables attached to the frantic rhythm. Eventually, Mayall puts his harp in his shirt pocket and does counterpoint mouth percussion that draws oohs and aahs from the crowd, throwing in a cheek pop and random breath for good measure. Now I’m smiling and giggling, immersed the sheer playfulness of this unique musical moment. Mayall reconnects with his harp for a few more measures, gives the countdown one more time and once again, the entire band enters on point, thrilling both the crowd and yours truly. Amazingly, Mayall, who has taken more breaths during the preceding four minutes than an out-of-shape stud giving the fuck of his life, steps up to the mike to sing the final verse, blowing harp between the lines. I want this man’s genes preserved for science! Needless to say, “Room to Move” ends on the dominant pattern, with everyone ending at precisely the same moment, like a group of Olympic gymnasts who all stick it at once in a ten-point performance that even a Russian judge would validate.
God damn, what an experience! More! More! More!
If, like my dear OLD dad you bought the original album in the 60’s, you didn’t get any more. The album ended with “Room to Move.” What? No encore? No sloppy seconds? No post-fuck cigarette? You’re just going to fuck me, put your pants on and split! You rotten bastard!
Ah, but if you buy the 2001 re-issue, “Room to Move” is followed by three bonus tracks. I usually abhor bonus tracks because they usually are sloppy seconds, but in this case, the bonus tracks enrich the listening experience so much I can’t imagine listening to The Turning Point without them. “Sleeping by Her Side” combines a soothing background of acoustic guitar and clean flute with a lyrically-vivid story about a seriously desirable party chick who passes out in John Mayall’s arms, and though he didn’t hit the jackpot, he nestles by her side as the sun rises over the Arizona desert. “Don’t Waste My Time” is a country-tinged hoot (Jon Mark does some brilliant finger-picking here), a reinforcement of the “Room to Move” message:
Well, tell me woman who you’re with tonight
If you’re on your own then that’s alright
But if you don’t want me with you
Don’t waste my time with your jive
Mark opens “Can’t Sleep This Night” with another mesmerizing pattern that seems more British folk than blues or jazz, a pattern that eventually gives way to bass, sax and Tele riffing over a steady, slightly edgy contrasting minor key pattern. When Mark returns with the opening pattern, it has the effect of intensifying the edge, a musical replication of the tension that often drives a sleepless night. After the song ends, Mayall responds to the applause with a polite but absolutely firm, “Thank you and good night,” giving the album the proper ending it deserved.
One of the most truly unique and memorable albums to come from a unique and memorable decade, The Turning Point is a testament to the freedom-seeking ethos that formed the positive pole of the 60’s dynamic. Conceived and released during a period when genre-definition was virtually irrelevant, the spirit of The Turning Point reflects the same spirit that led Miles Davis to turn traitor to the pure jazz contingent and create the inevitable act of fusion we know as Bitches Brew. In The Turning Point, John Mayall proved two things: one, that despite certain structural norms, the blues is much more malleable than people believe; and two, music in all its various forms has the power to move people to let go of expectations when the music is played with drive, enthusiasm, talent and ego-free collaboration.
May John Mayall live and play forever.
In contrast to the horror my mother and I experience daily as we pore through news and tweets related to the accession of King Donald to the throne of the most powerful and dangerous nation on the planet, my flaming liberal father is rather philosophical about the whole thing. “Been there, done that,” he shrugs.
The “been there” period he refers to is that dark period in American history characterized by the Vietnam war, race riots and the emergence of white backlash. Americans were divided on issues of patriotism, long hair/short hair, liberation movements, the “drug epidemic,” race and the “creeping socialism” of The Great Society. I asked him to reproduce his rant while I captured it on my keyboard.
“You think the 2016 campaign was ugly? Go back to 1968. Two major assassinations. Riots at the Democratic Convention, cops beating the shit out of kids. After the tear gas had cleared, the Gallup Poll put the Democratic establishment nominee in third place—behind George Wallace, a mean-spirited, lifelong segregationist. After losing Bobby Kennedy, we were down to a choice between Wallace, Hubert Humphrey—who spent his time as vice-president licking Lyndon Johnson’s ass and supporting the war—and Richard Nixon, who had been left for dead as a loser years before. A whole generation of young voters who had become engaged through Gene McCarthy and Bobby decided to check out—just like a lot of Bernie voters did. People voted for Nixon and Wallace for the same reason they voted for Trump—it was all about white people feeling threatened by what they saw as an erosion in the white version of the American Dream. Things were tense—families were falling apart over the war, the generation gap was huge, and if you had long hair or black skin, you stood a pretty good chance of having some redneck kick the shit out of you, just for the hell of it. The people who voted for Nixon and Wallace were just as dumb, uneducated and uninformed as the typical Trump voter. Wallace was constantly sneering about the “pointy-headed intellectuals,” and Nixon resented anyone who went to a more prestigious college than he did. Wallace and Nixon were bitter, fearful men who tapped into the bitter fear of the majority of voters who wanted law and order no matter what. Nixon called them the Silent Majority, and you’ve seen one of them on TV reruns—Archie Bunker. People thought we’d made all this progress by electing a black president and they forgot that all those Archie Bunkers were still hanging around, nursing their resentment. We all laughed at Archie Bunker, just like liberals laughed at the deplorables. Back then, that attitude gave us Richard Nixon. Now it’s Trump.
“People are calling Trump fascist, anti-democratic, corrupt, dishonest—all the labels we applied to Nixon. Just like Trump, Nixon was a dishonest prick who fixed an election, too, and it eventually caught up with him, just like it will for Trump. So to me, this is ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.'”
To support his argument, he introduced Exhibit A, Phil Ochs’ post-Chicago release, Rehearsals for Retirement, ghoulish cover and all. “Listen to this and then write your review. It’s all there.”
As is true with everything Phil Ochs ever did, Rehearsals for Retirement is an uncomfortably captivating piece of music. Never one to pull punches or fail to call bullshit on the complacent, unthinking dogma we know as American Exceptionalism, Phil Ochs was a perceptive satirist and usually a compassionate human being. But as I’ve learned through my difficulty in ridding myself of my abiding disgust for anyone who voted for The Orange Nightmare, compassion has its limits. What’s the fucking point trying to dialogue with people who choose to remain uneducated and cling to their fears and prejudices like security blankets? Rehearsals for Retirement is the moment when Phil Ochs realized that the fix was in and that the repressive forces in American society had marshaled their ample resources to put an end to all that socialist hippie nonsense. For Phil Ochs, the shining vision of a compassionate society where everyone could get a fair shake died on the mean streets of Chicago in August 1968.
Hence the tombstone.
Many people in the 60’s believed in “the dream” because they saw parts of the dream come true. The folk revival of the 1960’s coincided with a higher level of economic security in the States, which helped foster a greater degree of openness and self-reflection in the American populace. The consciousness-raising that took place in the early part of the decade was facilitated by leaders like JFK and MLK and encouraged by the work of the great folk artists of the day. It’s hard to believe now, but in the 60’s, protest marches and songs actually changed minds and led to real social progress, particularly in the area of civil rights. Americans by and large wanted to create a truly fair and inclusive society where everyone had an equal shot at the American Dream. The anti-progress conservative movement had been largely discredited by LBJ’s landslide victory over Goldwater in 1964, and LBJ cashed in his political capital on the cornerstone legislation of The Great Society and The War on Poverty: Medicare, The Voting Rights Act, The National Endowment for the Arts, stronger anti-pollution laws, aid to education, low-income housing—a cornucopia of laws validating the new self-image of Americans as a kind and generous people.
Then something changed. When I researched the two years associated with the pivot point, one statistic leapt out at me above all else: the sudden shift in American attitudes concerning the death penalty. In the early 60’s, Americans had begun to question the value and morality of state-sponsored murder, as reflected in annual Gallup polls showing decreasing support for the barbaric practice. In May 1966, for the first time in the history of the poll, a plurality of Americans favored abolishing the death penalty: 42% wanting to keep it, but 47% opting for abolition.
But the June 1967 survey revealed a sudden and significant reversal: 54% wanted to keep the death penalty, while only 38% wanted to get rid of it. This began a long, sickening trend that peaked in 1994, when 80% of the American people favored executions. While support for the death penalty drifted down to 60% in the 2016 poll, a solid majority of Americans remain enamored with legalized murder.
So what happened between May 1966 and June 1967 that made such a difference?
I can answer that in two words: Ronald Reagan.
Far more likable and telegenic than the grumpy Goldwater, Ronald Reagan swept to victory in a campaign that demonized protesters, hippies, minorities and welfare queens, capitalizing on deep-seeded white fear of economic and social displacement. Elected Governor of California in a landslide fueled by white disgust with the previous year’s Watts riots, Reagan gave voice to nostalgia for days gone by, the virtues of the Protestant work ethic, patriotism, law-and-order and un-politically correct racism. Reagan voters wanted to slam the door on civil rights that threatened property rights, hair styles that threatened gender identity, and any and all behaviors lumped under the label “un-American,” especially disagreement with American foreign policy.
We meet one of the flock who happily voted The Gipper into office in the opening number, “Pretty Smart on My Part.” Musically, the song takes you by surprise, with Phil channeling fellow Texan Buddy Holly in an intense acoustic strum reminiscent of the pattern in “Not Fade Away.” Phil enters in fine voice and seemingly good spirits as the voice of the man of the Silent Majority, who knows there are people out there who want to get him, hurt him and bring him down. These nefarious enemies include hitchhiking hippies, women with big tits, imaginary rapists and disease-ridden Chinese (or any Asian ethnic group; the bastard probably can’t tell the difference and calls them all “Chinese”). He responds to each of these “outsiders” with typically violent responses, some direct, some indirect. With the hitchhiker, he decides to run him over with his car; with the woman, he decides to tie her up and whip her (obviously Phil only had a superficial understanding of BDSM dynamics). The most curious incident involves the alleged rapist, for instead of doing the manly thing and protecting his wife, he does the manly thing and heads off to kill innocent birds:
I can see him coming
He’s walking through bedroom
With a switchblade knife
He’s looking at my wife
He wants to get me
He wants to hurt me
He wants to bring me down
But sometime later when I feel a little braver
I’ll go hunting with my rifle
Where the wild geese are flying
Then I’m gonna bag one
Pretty smart on my part
Find my way home in the dark
Yeah, I bet it makes you feel like such a man to kill a defenseless animal. Ooh, baby, fuck me with your long stiff rod!
Far more frightening is this dumb shit’s take on foreign policy, a completely ignorant, ethnocentric, racist stance that values extermination over negotiation:
I can see them coming
They’re training in the mountains
And they talk Chinese
And they spread disease
They want to get me
They want to hurt me
They want to bring me down
But sometime later when I feel a little safer
We’ll assassinate the president
And take over the government
And then we’re going to fry them
Pretty smart on my part
Find my way home in the dark
The key line in the song is “find my way home in the dark,” for it captures both the “man’s home is his castle” ethic of sacred property rights and the self-engendered belief that anyone who is “not me” is a tool of the Prince of Darkness. As I reconnected with this song, I thought of all those Trump voters, who—with a huge assist from their equally moronic candidate—wanted to blame China for everything: their unemployment, their loss of status in the world, the myth of America the Disrespected. Of course, it never dawned on these dummies that the Chinese were simply engaged in the same cutthroat competition for markets that Americans have practiced with abandon for over a century, or that they could have responded to globalization by GETTING A FUCKING EDUCATION and learning a new trade. No, just as was true in the 60’s, they want to thrill in their misery, blame everyone but themselves and turn to their cherished guns as their ultimate backup plan. Phil Ochs was not describing a phenomenon unique to the 1960’s; he was describing a central character flaw in the American male.
Doing a 180, Phil gives us “The Doll House,” a lovely waltz highlighted by Lincoln Mayorga’s deft celeste-like piano. The lyrics tend to the obscure, generally describing a fantastical and mythical world reminiscent of dreamland. Some have translated the opening line as, “Lost in the valley of dolls,” suggesting a drug-induced fantasy; what I hear is “Valley of Oz,” which fits better with the cultural references strewn throughout the song. This alternative world is a mélange of surreal imagery and mythical personages drawn from a variety of cultures (Cinderella, Tom Sawyer, The Lady of the Lake and Pirate Jenny—and perhaps Oz) with no apparent connection to one another. The only solid clue to interpretation is Phil’s shift to Dylan imitator in the second chorus, which could indicate the song was a send-up of Dylan’s more symbolist work . . . but that’s pure speculation. In any case, “The Doll House” is a lovely rainy afternoon song that flows beautifully.
There’s no mistaking the meaning of “I Kill Therefore I Am,” a no-holds barred attack on the American police. The cops of the era were labeled “pigs” by the New Left due to their well-documented, televised preference for beating heads with nightsticks, blasting little kids with firehoses and the disgusting frenzy of physical force displayed in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. The tendency of many young people in that generation to indulge in illegal substances added to the general tension between police and populace. What makes the song relevant today are two aspects of American policing that haven’t changed in fifty years: racial profiling and the conspiracy of the system to protect police from blatantly illegal actions:
I don’t like the black man, for he doesn’t know his place
Take the back of my hand or I’ll spray you with my mace
I’m as brave as any man can be
I find my courage through chemistry
I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am . . .
Farewell to the gangsters we don’t need them anymore
We’ve got the police force, they’re the ones who break the law
He’s got a gun and he’s a hater
He shoots first, he shoots later
I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am.
As in “Pretty Smart on My Part” and “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” the upbeat, light rock music provides ironic counterpoint to the penetrating lyrics. This proved to be one of Phil’s most courageous songs, for as paranoid as he might have seemed to friends and family during his later decline, the FBI was busy building a file of over 500 pages related to his “subversive” activity.
Next, Phil’s attention turns inward in a trio of songs most would classify as “difficult.” I can’t argue with that characterization, but I deeply appreciate the emotional honesty of all three songs.
It all begins at Lincoln Park on the night of August 28, 1968, with his presence at an earth-shattering event that would add new pages to his FBI file. Phil Mershon described the scene in a piece on furious.com:
Humphrey accepted his party’s nomination on August 28, as the day ended and the scent of tear gas wafted up Michigan Avenue to the nominee’s suite at the Conrad Hilton. The worst violence was about to begin. And the New York folk singer would be right in the thick of things. The protestors had gathered in Grant Park to hear a series of speeches before marching to the Convention Center. The Chicago Police attempted to contain the group by surrounding the Park. One after another speaker addressed the crowd. In between speeches of men like activist Dave Dellinger, poet Allen Ginsberg, and comedian Dick Gregory, Phil would stand in the back of a pick-up truck and sing for the crowd. Shortly after he sang a rousing version of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” he saw a young boy climb the park’s flag pole and pull down Old Glory. The was all the provocation the police required. They grabbed the kid, beat him with their nightsticks, and tossed him into the back of a squad car while the more agitated onlookers threw rocks at the arresting officers. Press cameras filmed all this for posterity and even broadcast one cop commanding “Make sure you show them throwing rocks!” While Dave Dellinger attempted to lead a nonviolent march to the Convention Center (and was blocked from doing so), others took advantage of an opening in the quarantine and thousands of young people marched toward the Hilton. Enraged at being distracted, the police charged up Michigan Avenue, firing tear gas canisters and clubbing everything in sight. When clubs failed to subdue, they stomped. And when that proved ineffective, they kicked, shoved, punched and beat. The crowd shouted “The whole world is watching!”
That scene provided the bulk of the material for “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed,” a melancholy depiction of the riot and, to some degree, its consequences. Given Phil’s politics, one might approach this song expecting a classic poor-me leftist rant that pins the blame squarely on the cops, but Phil Ochs was a much more perceptive human being capable of connecting the hidden dots. After describing the scene where young people peacefully assembled in the gloaming before the mayhem began, Phil comments on those who organized the protest:
They spread their sheets upon the ground just like a wandering tribe
And the wise men walked in their Robespierre robes
Through Lincoln Park the dark was turning
Robespierre is the ultimate symbol of the extreme zealot, a purist leader who responded to any suspected deviation from the party line by sending the heretics to the guillotine. The reference clearly indicates that Phil considered the movement’s organizers equally culpable for the violence that night by stoking an “us-against them mentality” that would prove to be completely self-defeating. Phil Mershon put it this way:
As Phil Ochs and the others would soon come to realize, most of the whole world didn’t care and among those who did, many felt the cops hadn’t gone far enough.
Back in Los Angeles, Phil began to question his own approach to politics in America. While the Yippies and other radicals had been creating and recreating their own counterculture, they had alienated the American working class along with Middle America. People who were already involved, Ochs reasoned, didn’t need to be converted. Nixon–who would ride to victory above the shattered remains of a splintered Democratic Party–called these frightened Americans ‘the Silent Majority.’ Ochs knew that if this majority rejected the members of the New Left, they would in turn embrace the solutions of men like Nixon and George Wallace. Frightened by those prospects, the songwriter began to detach himself by degrees from the journalistic approach to his craft. The resulting music spoke with broader, more universal tones.
The reference to Yeats in the song’s title is therefore not a validation of candidate Eugene McCarthy’s favorite poet, but a realization that truths discovered through poetry have greater depth and duration than polemical positioning. The arrangement is itself poetic, combining piano with accordion and viola, creating that slow-motion atmosphere one experiences in the midst of a catastrophic event, where every visual, sound and smell is amplified a thousandfold. The curious addition of a barrelhouse segment after a brief silence underscored the competition for activist purity common on the left—if you weren’t in Chicago, you were nowhere, even if you happened to be helping the citizens of Detroit rebuild a city torn by riots.
“My Life” is the complementary twin of “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed,” a statement of rebirth following the symbolic death of Chicago: “My life is now a death to me/So I’ll mold it and I’ll hold it till I’m born.” But as is true with nearly everything associated with Phil Ochs, the truth is much more complicated. He follows the statement of rebirth with the sad acknowledgment that no matter how much of his past he leaves behind and no matter where he chooses to take his art, he will always be a stranger in a strange land, deprived of peace and privacy:
So I turned to the land
Where I’m so out of place
Throw a curse on the plan
In return for the grace
To know where I stand
Take everything I own
Take your tap from my phone
And leave my life alone
My life alone.
The expression of alienation and the desire to retreat is the antithesis of American Optimism, so insipidly expressed in Paul Anka’s “My Way.”
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way
Americans love a fighter—someone who can take the punch and get up from the canvas. In real life, things don’t work that way. People lose their jobs and slip into depression, and all the optimism in the world isn’t going to make a difference to someone who feels utterly worthless. You can fight until you turn black and blue but when you’re trying to work an employment system where your chances of getting a job depend largely on favoritism or dumb luck, fighting isn’t going to get you anywhere. Although this final verse is heartbreaking and full of anguish, it has the undying virtue of emotional honesty. This was a man frightened and astonished by what was happening in the world, feelings that many of us living in the present can easily relate to.
The final song in the trilogy, “The Scorpion Departs, But Never Returns,” superficially relates the story of the USS Scorpion, a US Navy submarine that was lost due to an “unexplained catastrophic event” that caused the ship to be crushed by the sheer pressure of the ocean’s depths, killing all 99 crewmen. In the liner notes for Rehearsals for Retirement/Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, Richie Unterberger noted that, “it could just be taken as a tale of a ship lost at sea, it also reflects directionlessness Ochs saw in both the course of America and within his own life.” The depiction of the captain as an unresponsive, uncommunicative leader captures the aimlessness one feels when leaders fail to live up to their responsibilities, but it also points out the problematic nature of depending on leaders to protect us from harm. In the last two verses, Phil gamely attempts to balance hope and despair, but in the end, comes firmly down on the side of anguish and self-doubt:
The radio is begging them to come back to the shore
All will be forgiven, it’ll be just like before
All you’ve ever wanted will be waiting by your door
We will forgive you, we will forgive you
Tell me we will forgive you
But no one gives an answer not even one goodbye
Oh, the silence of their sinking is all that they reply
Some have chosen to decay and others chose to die
But I’m not dying, no I’m not dying
Tell me I’m not dying
The arrangement here echoes the more complex arrangements of Pleasures of the Harbor, featuring a French horn counterpoint that somehow manages to express a mournful urgency.
Having plumbed the depths of his soul, Phil gives himself and the listener a break with the light-and-bouncy “The World Began in Eden and Ended in Los Angeles.” Some have remarked that the cheesy horns were a dig at Herb Alpert, but I don’t think The Tijuana Brass was that bad. It’s followed by “Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore,” another waltz featuring one of Phil’s most lovely melodies, one that flows so beautifully with the lyrics that it’s difficult to reconcile the beauty with the subject matter—the relentless progression of depression. This song has been mistakenly identified as some kind of tribute to Lenny Bruce, a perception that fits neither with the lyrics nor the timing (Lenny Bruce had died over two years before). My take is Lenny is the narrator of his own story, the depressed soul separating himself from his decaying self by shifting to the third-person perspective. Our Lenny’s journey into darkness ends in a dingy room in nowheresville, a “long-time loser” grieving for an ex-lover but still suffering from her definitive judgment of his worth:
The fat official smiles at the pass on the border
And the hungry broom makes sure that the room is in order
You pull the shade
All the beds are made
As your lips caress the razor of the blade
Of the blade
And the haggard ex-lover of a long-time loser
Stands rejectedly by the door
Doesn’t Lenny live here anymore?
Are you sure?
A difficult piece of work, indeed.
Phil returns to the political in “Another Age,” a fairly straightforward condemnation of American involvement in the Vietnam War and the lasting damage to American society that went far beyond the sickening body count. “We were born in a revolution and we died in a wasted war” expresses both the pointlessness of that terrible war and the complete destruction of America’s standing as the world’s moral guardian. Once again, a snappy tempo contrasts with the bitter lyrics, though the way the rhythmic structure allows Phil’s voice to soar on “So I pledge allegiance against the flag” confirms the wisdom of the counterintuitive choice.
The title track ends the album, one of the most remarkable duets of voice and piano you will ever hear. Phil and Lincoln Mayorga perform like perfectly-synced dancers following a rhythm of spontaneous creation. Both introduce subtle delays in the song’s progress to highlight the emotional content, with Phil in particular extending syllables beyond expected length, particularly on the second lines of the verses. The couplet that serves as the song’s bridge is one I find endlessly intriguing, due to the ambiguity concerning the kind of laughter he’s describing: joyful, contemptuous or absurd? The message of comfort to his daughter in the second line might indicate any of the three, with the implication that the end is not as important as the journey:
Had I known the end would end in laughter
Still I’d tell my daughter that it doesn’t matter
Rehearsals for Retirement turned out to be a commercial disaster, Phil Ochs’ worst-selling album, one that was removed from the A&M catalog rather speedily after its release. While the relentless sense of despair at the loss of one’s country and one’s soul may have accounted for poor sales, I think the more likely culprit was its rejection of American Optimism. Phil Ochs saw the writing on the wall and put it into song but no one wanted to hear that America was finished or that the tried-and-true tactics of the early Civil Rights Movement would fail to stop the war. Identities were locked into place, the battle lines were drawn and any chance of dialogue obliterated be the “me”/”not me” paradigm.
Once again, America finds itself thoroughly divided and in a much more precarious position than it was in the 1960’s. Nixon never came close to experiencing Republican control of Congress, so he had no choice but to compromise on issues of human rights and the environment. For all practical purposes, America is now a one-party state led by a mean-spirited sociopath. While Democrats can vote against this insult to intelligence or that abuse of human rights, the right wing controls the votes. Things seem beyond hopeless, but the worst thing Americans can do is go into denial about it or—even worse—normalize the situation.
In Rehearsals for Retirement, Phil Ochs spoke the emotional and political truth of a country shattered by repeated acts of self-destruction—a country very much like the United States of January 2017. Despite its dark and brooding tone, listening to Rehearsals for Retirement turned out to be a cathartic and comforting experience for me. Phil Ochs expressed all the feelings I have experienced since the election: angst, depression, anguish anger, frustration and confusion about what to do next. Being reminded that we have gone through similar dark periods in recent history helped me appreciate the fundamental truth that the struggle against prejudice, greed and violence is a never-ending battle against human fear and ignorance.
When I reviewed London Calling a few months ago, I had no answer to Joe Strummer’s essential question: “What are we gonna do now?” Somehow, listening to Rehearsals for Retirement clarified things for me. We need to accept the fundamental truth that the emerging fascist leaders of the day (Trump, Le Pen, Duterte, etc.) capitalize solely on human fear and insecurity. They do that because they are frightened human beings themselves. They project a strong, tough image to protect their essential vulnerability, and in the process gather many frightened followers. While human beings in fear can be terribly dangerous, they are also inherently fragile. On my part, I will do everything I can to expose these frauds as the deeply insecure people they are and persistently fight them with the truth. I also intend to respect, engage and try to understand the frightened people who follow these corrupt leaders (and I have lots of opportunity to do that, since I live in a part of France where LePen is relatively popular). Finally, I will do whatever I can to work with others to eliminate the two primary sources of fear in our world today: economic inequality and prejudice.
With luck, I may be able to influence half a dozen people to face their fears and move on. But if enough of us fight the fascists with the weapons of truth and human respect—no matter how ugly things get—we can put these motherfuckers where they belong—on the ash heap of history.
Fuck “Let’s win one for The Gipper.” Let’s win this one for Phil Ochs!