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!
After the burst of energy that gave us Rehearsals for Retirement, Phil Ochs didn’t have much left in the tank. Signs of clinical depression started to emerge, fueled by a combination of Chicago, the ascension of Richard Nixon, alcohol abuse, valium and the commercial failure of Rehearsals for Retirement (A&M pulled the record from the shelves after only a few months). Phil began to experience writer’s block more frequently, compounding his depression and doubling his frustration with a world that refused to change or recognize his contributions.
Searching desperately for a way out, he stumbled upon a solution thanks to an act of generosity on the part of his brother-manager Michael, who offered Phil four tickets to Elvis Presley’s comeback show in Vegas.
The more Phil thought about it, the more convinced he became that his own artistic future hinged upon his appealing to a working-class base. He needed to find a way to reach a larger cross-section of the public and deliver his message to them. In turning it over in his mind, Phil kept returning to his old idols—John Wayne, Audie Murphy, James Dean, and Elvis Presley. All had realized hero status in their lifetime. Elvis intrigued Phil the most. He was a true working-class hero, a truck driver turned King of Rock ’n’ Roll. He had taken American forms of music—rhythm and blues, country, gospel, and even folk—and adapted them to his own style. He had reached unparalleled success, yet in recent years his career had fallen on hard times. He seemed to have lost his way, but now he was returning with a vengeance.
Schumacher, Michael. There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs . University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
Greatest Hits and Gunfight at Carnegie Hall were the products of Phil’s strategic decision to return to his pre-folk fascination with early rock and country-western music. Phil certainly wasn’t the only musical artist of the era looking backward—The Byrds, The Band and Credence Clearwater Revival had already staked their claims in the emerging “roots music” genre and The Dead would soon follow—but his efforts do have the distinction of being the least-commercially-successful of them all. Like Rehearsals for Retirement, Greatest Hits was removed from the shelves in very short order and A&M refused to release Gunfight at Carnegie Hall during his lifetime.
The two albums have to be reviewed simultaneously because in Phil’s mind they were part of the same package that would revive his flagging career. My unwelcome task is to explain why this package failed to do so.
The poor reception to Greatest Hits surprised no one except Phil Ochs. What Phil considered a spoof of Presley’s 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong: Elvis’ Gold Records, Volume 2 was likely perceived as both a ripoff and a turnoff by even the most avid Phil Ochs fans. The gold lamé suit would have completely befuddled the folkies, and those who weren’t immediately put off by Phil-as-Elvis would have been seriously disappointed when they flipped the sleeve to discover that it wasn’t a greatest hits album after all, but a collection of unfamiliar titles under the self-pitying back cover banner “50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong.” Shifting into my role as a reluctant marketing professional, I would classify Phil’s effort as one of the dumbest fucking marketing plans in history, ranking right up there with Chevrolet’s attempt to sell the Nova in Mexico (no va = doesn’t go).
It’s too bad that Phil refused to listen to his brother and the folks at A&M when they expressed sincere dismay with Phil’s half-baked proposal because Greatest Hits might have been saved with discipline and clear intent. Because Phil’s Elvis epiphany took place after he had already lined up a few songs for the album, the contrast between the pre-Elvis, more introspective songs and the rockabilly stuff is sometimes jarring—so much so that it feels like two half-albums were patched together at the last minute. The flow was so annoying to this listener that I put together my own playlists with the rockabilly/upbeat tracks on Playlist Side One and the reflective tracks on Playlist Side Two—sort of like what Dylan did with electric and acoustic sides on Bringing It All Back Home. While my tinkering took care of the flow problem, it made me much more aware of the many production, engineering and arrangement issues with the upbeat tracks (as well as a few problems with the more reflective tracks). Though the album contains a few gems, it’s more of a slog than a pleasant walk in the park.
Phil managed to gather an impressive stable of musicians to back him—James Burton, Ry Cooder, Gene Parsons to name a few—but the results were mixed at best. Even the best musicians need time to get acquainted with each other and get a read on the star of the show. Given that the album was recorded in two days, it’s not surprising that some of the arrangements don’t click and the interplay between Phil and the musicians fails to create much in the way of magic. Most of the magic on the album comes from those moments when Phil reconnects with his songwriting mojo and demonstrates that he still had the power to move hearts and minds.
Testing the theory that it’s best to get the bad juju out of the way by opening an album with a poorly-written, poorly-arranged, poorly-performed and overproduced piece of crap, Phil introduces the not-new-and-improved version of himself with the ridiculously over-the-top fanfare of “One Way Ticket Home.” Opening with six seconds of the thrill of horns holding a single note over the sound of faux timpani and pounding piano, the scene shifts abruptly to Ry Cooder plunking a mandolin and probably wondering why the hell he took this gig in the first place. Phil then takes the stage, singing with way too much intensity for a guy who just wants to go home and watch TV. In response to Phil’s shocking announcement of the presence of a billboard, the noise rises to peak levels as the timpani and meth-fueled piano pound away while Merry Clayton, Sherlie Matthews and Clydie King give it all they’ve got in the hope that their obvious talents won’t go entirely to waste and they can use a surgically-removed clip of their performance to land a recording date with The Stones. The rest of the song is just as unlistenable; the only tiny piece of relevance is Phil’s pledge of fealty to Elvis: “Elvis Presley is the king, I was at his crowning.” I strongly advise prospective listeners to skip the track to avoid permanent hearing damage.
If you ignored my advice and listened to “One Way Ticket Home” anyway, the healing balm of “Jim Dean of Indiana” may provide some relief. This blessedly simple elegy to the man who became an enduring icon of cultural rebellion is performed as a duet with Lincoln Mayorga’s sensitive touch on piano beautifully supporting Phil’s deeply respectful vocal. Phil takes us on a fairly linear journey through James Dean’s brief existence, covering the key events and relationships that shaped his life with very little in the way of editorializing. Having also escaped a conformist childhood in the Midwest, Phil’s emotional connection to Dean is unsurprising, but he manages those emotions exceptionally well throughout the song, never veering from the tone of respectful mourning established in the opening verse.
Phil might have made a pretty decent record if he’d exerted some of that restraint on the rest of the album instead of making the least of all that talent in the studio with claustrophobic arrangements where no one stands out because everyone’s playing like they’re pieceworkers getting paid by the note. “My Kingdom for a Car” is a good example of bad arrangement and reactive engineering—they had to drench Phil’s voice in heavy reverb so you could hear his voice above the din of all those instrumentalists vying for attention. The lyrics contain no sense of irony or a hint of satire as Phil tears down the highway on leaded gas, singing the line “There’s smoke in the air but I do not care” with no guilt whatsoever. The rest of this rockabilly tune is loaded with the hoary wind-in-my-hair clichés and the toxic masculinity of the muscle car brigade. Double yuck on this one.
Validating my argument that the album should have been split in half, “Boy in Ohio” would have made for a lovely follow-up to “Jim Dean of Indiana,” strengthening the themes of loss and the yearning for a less complicated existence. Though the fiddle, guitar and harmonica threaten to cross the line into overkill, they manage to restrain themselves sufficiently so that each contribution is distinct from the others. While the song does contain predictable scenes of burger joints and freeways ripping through what once was beautiful countryside, the most revealing lines have to do with Phil’s awkwardness with the opposite sex:
Spanish teacher she tried to help
She was much too pretty
So I just stared at the back of her legs
When I was a boy in Ohio
It was 3.2 beer at the honky-tonk bar
Where they said the girls were easy
But somehow I never found me one
When I was a boy in Ohio
None of Phil’s relationships with adult women could be classified as warm or fuzzy, and the dearth of love songs in his catalog speaks volumes about his discomfort with adult-style intimacy. Schumacher opined that Phil saved all his love for his daughter: “As for Meegan . . . Phil recognized that he was less than an ideal father, but Meegan was the only person in his life that he had ever—and would ever—love unconditionally.” I think Phil Ochs loved “the people,” but found it much harder to love individuals, especially adult women.
Phil goes full Hank Williams on “Gas Station Women,” with Don Rich supplying the classic fiddle overture and Phil attempting to emulate the drawl and step-glides of the country singer. Sadly, the song comes across as a weak joke, drenched in my-baby-done-left-me clichés and lacking a strong punchline. The arrangement is a bit too busy and the harmony vocal is so loud that the guy (I’m unable to identify the culprit because the contributions of the three suspects are not track-specific) drowns out both Phil and the backing band. Count your blessings that you’ve survived the worst of it and flip the disc over to side two.
The most credible of Phil’s country rockers comes in the form of “Chords of Fame,” though the performance is compromised once again by that loud harmonizer who buries any traces of Phil Ochs on the chorus. The rest of the arrangement is pretty clean, if not particularly interesting. The song maintains a nice feel throughout and, when left to himself, Phil is in fine voice. The song is cleverly presented as a piece of life wisdom from a dude Phil happened to stumble upon while waiting to take the stage:
I found him by the stage last night — he was breathing his last breath
A bottle of gin and a cigarette was all that he had left
I can see you make music ’cause you carry a guitar
God help the troubadour who tries to be a star
So play the chords of love, my friend, play the chords of pain
If you want to keep your song
Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t play the chords of fame
What distinguishes “Chords of Fame” from most of the other songs about the rot of corruption in the music business is Phil’s introduction of the possibility that the bullshit permeating the music industry doesn’t always come from the suits but from (gasp!) the musicians as well: “I seen my share of hustlers as they try to take the world/When they find their melody, they’re surrounded by the girls.” I’m tempted to name a few but I’ve already pissed off enough people on this blog to last a lifetime, so I’ll take some advice from the Go-Go’s, seal my lips and move on to “Ten Cents a Coup.”
Pieced together from performances from at least two (and possibly more) anti-war rallies, “Ten Cents a Coup” is the only topical song on the album. Phil’s extended rap before the song lacks the wit of his intros on In Concert, but his insight on the Great American Divide still holds true today: “There’s two Americas—there’s an old America which is just dying and ossifying and growing harder and collapsing and as it dies, the people just get uglier and uglier.” Phil then applies the concept of ugliness to Nixon and Agnew, promoted to the highest offices in the land in a “used car dealer’s election.” The one flash of wit that ignites palpable crowd laughter comes near the end of the song:
I dreamed that Nixon died of a suntan
There was only Spiro left
At his swearing in, he fell on his chin
He assassinated himself.
The feeling evoked by “Ten Cents a Coup” is closer to sadness than the fleeting delight of a trip down memory lane because it’s pretty obvious that Phil has given up the fight, offering his audience insults instead of hope or clarity.
In a curious production decision, “Ten Cents a Coup” fades directly into “Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Me,” a parlor piece decorated in baroque harpsichord and string quartet that has nothing in common with “Ten Cents a Coup” except for a passing mention of Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid. The lyrics describe a typical Sunday in the lives of two couples who share a house in Los Angeles: Phil and his then-partner Karen and Phil’s pal Andy Wickham and his girl Frances. The day is typically uneventful, marked by picking up the Sunday paper, playing volleyball, firing up the barbecue—a series of still-life images painted in music. While there isn’t much meaning to unearth here, the melody is perfectly lovely and Phil’s vocal is excellent.
The calm is rudely interrupted by the dueling guitars that will deepen your appreciation for Lynyrd Skynyrd and the damn-this-is-getting-tiresome overproduction of “Basket in the Pool,” a song that will make no sense at all unless you know the completely weird backstory described in all its gory detail by Mr. Schumacher:
Alcohol was an entirely different matter. As a casual drinker, Phil was fun to be around, but when he was drinking heavily, especially if he was in a depressed state, he could be unreasonable and contentious and, on rare occasions, violent.
One of the more bizarre episodes associated with his drinking during this period occurred at a party hosted by comedian Tom Smothers. The party, thrown in honor of the folksinger Donovan, was overflowing with entertainment figures. As Phil wandered through Smothers’ enormous estate, he could not help but be put off by all the glamour and wealth surrounding him, especially at a time when Hollywood celebrities were making a lot of noise about supporting the starving Vietnamese refugees. To top off his party, Tom Smothers was giving away a door prize of an enormous wicker basket filled with fruit, cheese, and imported wine. Phil won the raffle for the prize, but when he went up to claim it, he surprised the party’s guests by delivering a long, rambling monologue about Vietnam, the well-fed and the starving, and the incongruity of the party. Then, to punctuate his statements, he placed the door-prize basket into the swimming pool, where it sank without further ceremony.
Schumacher, Michael. There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs . University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
Phil later defended his actions as an Abbie Hoffman-type protest, but while I share his disgust concerning the oblivious hypocrisy of well-heeled liberals, the incident (and the fact that he felt it was worth his time and energy to write a song about it) says more about his declining mental state than the insensitivity of the party-goers.
It’s fitting that his last studio album ends with “No More Songs” but it’s unfortunate that the song fell victim to the scourge of overproduction that dominates the album. The introduction of additional singers who aren’t anywhere close to being in unison or harmony with Phil pretty much spoils the party for me; the instrumentation is ornamental at best; what should have been a quiet and reflective song is overwhelmed by a pompous heaviness that obliterates the sense of tragedy. The song begins and ends with the same verse, one that unintentionally described most of the content on the album:
Hello hello hello, is the anybody home
I’ve only called to say I’m sorry
The drums are in the dawn
And all the voices gone
And it seems that there are no more songs.
I’ve never had this feeling about any of Phil’s other albums, but I’m relieved that there are no more songs.
Gunfight at Carnegie Hall
The only person on earth who wanted to release Gunfight at Carnegie Hall was Phil Ochs.
Phil’s last Carnegie Hall concerts (there were two shows scheduled back-to-back on a single day) were the ultimate in shit shows. There was no soundcheck because the crew showed up late. Then there was a bomb threat. Then Phil damaged the tendons in his right hand by punching through the glass window of the ticket box between shows, treating his injury by guzzling down a whole lotta booze. Sometime during the second show, Carnegie management shut off the electricity. Up to that point, Phil had spent a good chunk of his time on stage trying to get the crowd to embrace the man in the gold lamé suit with limited success—they cheered when Phil played his classic songs on acoustic guitar, they jeered and booed whenever the band took the stage. Shutting off the electricity—a brazen suppression of artistic freedom—finally did the trick and moved the crowd over to Phil’s side:
At Carnegie Hall, the battle was waged into the wee hours of the morning. At three o’clock, when Phil finally reached the end of the show and had walked offstage, the hall management cut the stage’s electricity before he could perform an encore, giving Phil one more opportunity to bond with his audience. “I want power!” he began to chant when he walked back onstage for the planned encore. The crowd quickly joined him. “We want power! We want power! . . .” After a few minutes, the electricity was restored and Phil closed out the evening with three songs—a cover of Elvis’ “A Fool Such as I,” the evening’s second reading of “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” and, as the coup de grâce, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “School Days.” The crowd ate it up. By the time he had finished, many audience members were dancing in the aisles. “It became a total magic moment,” Phil later recalled.
Schumacher, Michael. There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs . University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
The “magic” left Phil with a false high, leading him to conclude that the night at the Carnegie was a smashing success. Both his brother Michael and Jerry Moss, president of A&M, were appalled when Phil argued for releasing the recording of the shows as a live album, and Moss wisely vetoed the idea. Phil would always maintain that he was right and that Moss, his brother and everyone else on the planet were full of shit.
They weren’t. Gunfight at Carnegie Hall is one of the worst live albums ever recorded. The sound quality is piss-poor, the band lacks cohesion, the harmonies are horrible and the song selection highly questionable. Two of the tracks are medleys featuring the songs of his teenage heroes, Buddy Holly and Elvis. Ignoring the sloppiness of the band, the Holly medley isn’t half bad, largely because the timbre and range of Phil’s voice were well-suited to Buddy Holly’s melodies. By contrast, the Elvis medley is bloody awful—there was no way in hell that Phil Ochs could come close to reproducing Elvis’ mojo or the King’s facility with the low notes. His rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” would be laughable under normal circumstances; in the context of an artist suffering from creative decline and increasing mental instability, it’s simply pathetic. The only track that captures my fancy is the high-speed rock version of “Tape from California,” which almost makes up for the off-key harmonies on “Pleasures of the Harbor.”
A&M eventually relented and released Gunfight at Carnegie Hall in 1974—but only in Canada. I don’t know what they had against Canadians; perhaps they felt that nicer people would be more forgiving. The album would not be released in the United States until the late 1980s, long after Phil had vacated the material world. In the intervening years, the album has become something of a cult classic—the musical equivalent of an Ed Wood movie. If you’re into that sort of thing, go for it.
It is deeply ironic that his career collapsed at Carnegie Hall—not because Phil had performed there successfully several times before, but because of his lifelong fascination with the magical aura of that legendary venue—Carnegie Hall was his “If I can make it there/I’ll make it anywhere” measuring stick from the moment he arrived in New York City:
Although he had played in the hall as part of large hootenanny ensembles, Phil had fantasized, almost from his first day as a performer, about appearing there as a solo act. To Phil, playing Carnegie Hall signified an arrival. Phil and Arthur [Phil’s manager at the time] tried the doors and, finding one open, snuck into the empty hall. The two made their way up the aisles to the front of the hall. Standing on the edge of the darkened stage and looking up at the tiers of seats above them, both felt a rush of excitement. “Someday,” Phil told Arthur, “we’ll have this place.”
Schumacher, Michael. There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs. University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
For all intents and purposes, the shows at Carnegie Hall killed what was left of his career. But though Phil’s career ended with a pratfall, his late-stage errors in judgment should not in any way diminish his reputation as one of America’s greatest songwriters. Any performer can have an off-night—in this case, a whopper of an off-night—but Phil Ochs gave us more than enough great music to earn our forgiveness and enduring respect.