ARC: Hello. I’d like to return this record.
CLERK: What’s the problem?
ARC: False and misleading advertising. I’ve been hoodwinked!
CLERK: I don’t understand.
ARC: (points to the album cover) See? Right there. It says “Phil Ochs in Concert.” It even shows a photograph of someone who looks like the back of Phil Ochs playing in an auditorium.
ARC: It’s all a grand deception! They taped Ochs at two concerts—one in Carnegie Hall and one in Jordan Hall in Boston. The tapes were unusable because Phil had performance anxiety attacks at both venues and couldn’t sing worth shit so they had to re-record most of the songs in the studio! Then they spliced in some of his stage patter and audience reactions to make it seem like a concert but it’s not! They should have called the album “Phil Ochs in the Studio Enhanced with Live Chatter and Audience Reaction from Carnegie Hall and Jordan Hall in Boston, Massachusetts” so the consumer would know what they were buying!
CLERK: That’s a pretty long title.
ARC: Yes, but they were into long titles in the ’60s. Haven’t you ever heard of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade?
CLERK: Can’t say that I have.
ARC (thinks for a minute) Okay, here’s something you’ll understand. Given what I’ve told you, don’t you think they should have put a warning label on this album like they do with cigarettes? Here, look! (reaches into her purse, pulls out a pack of cigarettes and hands it to the clerk).
CLERK: This pack has been opened.
ARC: Yes, of course. You have to open the pack to get the cigarettes out so you can smoke them. Now you’re being silly.
CLERK: Well, that means that you didn’t pay any attention to the warning label and bought them anyway.
ARC: But they warned me! They did their job! They allowed me to make an informed decision! Elektra Records didn’t do that. I’ve been hoodwinked!
CLERK: (returns the pack of cigarettes to ARC) Okay. I suppose you’ve played the album.
ARC: Oh, yes. Several times in fact. I love this album. It’s one of my favorites!
CLERK: But you still want to return it?
ARC: Yes. It’s the principle of the thing, you know.
CLERK: Well, okay, but since you’ve already played it—several times, you said—we can’t accept it as a return. You’ll have to sell it back to us as a used record.
ARC: Oh, never mind. I already got what I came for.
CLERK: Excuse me?
ARC: The introduction. I needed an introduction for this review and didn’t want to do the same old shit so I invented you and this record store as a clever way to provide my readers with the necessary background.
CLERK: So . . . you’re saying I don’t exist.
ARC: I’m afraid not. You’re just a figment of my imagination.
In a clever bit of foreshadowing, ARC waves her magic riding crop and the clerk disappears in a puff of smoke.
I hope Phil Ochs treated his producers and the engineering staff at Elektra to dinner at the Rainbow Room for pulling his chestnuts out of the fire and piecing together the first Phil Ochs album to make the Billboard charts. Relieved of his performance anxiety by the comforting walls of the studio, Phil is in fine voice as he works his way through a playlist that includes some of his most memorable topical songs.
After a welcoming round of applause, Phil initiates the sprightly strumming pattern that opens “I’m Going to Say It Now” and wastes very little time getting to the story. The subject of this song is what Baby Boomers fondly remember as The Generation Gap, that period of cultural history when a fair number of Boomers broke the tradition of blindly obeying parents and other authority figures and began questioning the core values and sacred cultural norms cherished by the old farts. Though some of the specific examples of disrespect for one’s elders that Phil refers to may not resonate with history-challenged Millenials, my co-generationists can certainly relate to the theme because a 2009 study revealed that the generation gap in our era is larger than it was in the ’60s. One unfortunate outcome of the current generation gap and the new generation’s ignorance of history is that younger people fail to appreciate how indebted they are to the Boomers for normalizing the right to challenge authority. If that taboo hadn’t been smashed to smithereens, our lives today might look like endless reruns of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
Phil appropriately places his narrator at a college campus, where the generation gap of the ’60s most visibly manifested itself. The song takes the form of a one-sided conversation between a student and an invisible professor where the student asserts his right to speak out on matters important to him whether the professor likes it or not. Each verse ends with the respectful warning “If I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m going to say it now,” and the cheeky repetition of “sir” serves as a subtle rejection of the notion that a person in a position of higher authority automatically deserves respect. I do find it hard to believe that there were as many avid readers of Mao’s Little Red Book as Phil implies (most college activists wanted to work within the system to change the system); his strongest argument invokes the belief that education is best achieved through dialogue rather than the idiotic regurgitation of useless professorial wisdom:
So keep right on a-talkin’
And tell us what to do
If nobody listens
My apologies to you
And I know that you were younger once
‘Cause you sure are older now
And when I’ve got something to say, sir
I’m gonna say it now
By the time Phil recorded “Bracero,” the program that legally permitted Mexican workers to work in America’s farmlands had ended. The initiative was spawned in WWII in response to the projected shortage of American men tagged for military duty; through various extensions, the Bracero program would last until 1964. Here’s how the program was supposed to work . . . but didn’t:
In theory, the Bracero Program had safeguards to protect both Mexican and domestic workers for example, guaranteed payment of at least the prevailing area wage received by native workers; employment for three-fourths of the contract period; adequate, sanitary, and free housing; decent meals at reasonable prices; occupational insurance at employer’s expense; and free transportation back to Mexico at the end of the contract. Employers were supposed to hire braceros only in areas of certified domestic labor shortage, and were not to use them as strikebreakers. In practice, they ignored many of these rules and Mexican and native workers suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap, labor. (from Braceroarchive.org).
The Bracero Program failed primarily because racism always trumps (word choice deliberate) everything else in the United States. In addition to the unsanitary conditions, low pay and substandard food, braceros were routinely sprayed with DDT before entering the Land of the Free and trapped on the farms after they arrived. After the program ended, the government launched an initiative to recruit college students to work the fields in the summer months; after that effort completely bombed, growers chose to ignore immigration laws and hire thousands of undocumented Mexican workers. Needless to say, conditions did not improve; hence the need for Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. The growers were no better than the plantation owners in the Old South:
And the local men are lazy
And they make too much of trouble
Besides we’d have to pay them double
Ah, but if you feel you’re fallin’
If you find the pace is killing
There are others who are willing
Oh, welcome to California
Where the friendly farmers
Will take care of you
Though he makes all the right points, I think Phil could have written a stronger song had he worn his journalist hat and spent some time on the farms instead of relying on second-hand information.
Our first bit of pre-song patter comes before “Ringing of Revolution,” a fantasy about a massive uprising against the idle but powerful rich. Phil’s intro involves imagining the song as a feature film directed by Otto Preminger, complete with a listing of cast members. The three casting decisions that received the strongest applause were “Ronald Reagan plays George Murphy” (identifying the dawn of the celebrity politician), “John Wayne plays Lyndon Johnson” and “Lyndon Johnson plays God.”
The last reference was probably duly noted in Phil’s FBI file.
The opening scene presents a coterie of upper-crust types ensconced in “a building of gold” that is “fully surrounded” by a surly crowd of revolutionaries. We find them in a semi-detached state, knowing that the game is up but determined to indulge in the privileges of wealth while they last:
Sadly they stared and sank in their chairs
And searched for a comforting notion.
And the rich silver walls looked ready to fall
As they shook in doubtful devotion.
The ice cubes would clink as they freshened their drinks,
Wet their minds in bitter emotion.
And they talked about the ringing of revolution.
Phil then permits the future captives to offer a defense of their indifference to the suffering masses, but chosen obliviousness proves to be a fairly weak argument:
We were hardly aware of the hardships they beared,
For our time was taken with treasure.
Oh, life was a game, and work was a shame,
And pain was prevented by pleasure.
The world, cold and grey, was so far away
In the distance only money could measure.
But their thoughts were broken by the ringing of revolution.
As the end draws near, Phil adds a touch of pathos to the scene:
So softly they moan, please leave us alone
As back and forth they are pacing.
And they cover their ears and try not to hear
With pillows of silk they’re embracing.
And the crackling crowd is laughing out loud,
Peeking in at the target they’re chasing.
Now trembling inside the ringing of revolution.
At this point, my attitude flips from “they’ll get what they deserve” to “no one deserves to die in fear,” and I find myself hoping that the elite will be spared a trip to the guillotine. Phil apparently felt differently, depicting the wealthy as begging for their lives and offering to make amends before ending the song in gruesome fashion:
But away from the grounds the flames told the town
That only the dead are forgiven.
As they crumbled inside the ringing of revolution.
I understand that Phil was trying to warn the upper classes of the potential consequences of flaunting their wealth while the masses scrape by, but violent revolution is a non-starter for me. I’d rather do something peaceful like tax the living shit out of the rich and close every damned loophole ever invented. Though I resist the ending, I congratulate Phil for writing a taut and vivid tale that evoked a flood of conflicting emotions.
“Is There Anybody Here” challenges both the value and the sanity of dying for one’s country in the pursuit of eternal glory. For Phil, it’s just “murder by another name” by those with “the courage of the blind.” It’s obvious that Phil’s feelings about this issue were quite intense—so intense that he loses touch with the song’s rhythm at several points (especially when he attempts a tempo change) and sings with over-the-top fervor rather than letting the argument speak for itself. I agree with everything he says, but I think this one could have used more of an overhaul in the studio.
On the other hand, I love the way Phil Introduces “Canons of Christianity”:
“The other night, a voice came to me. It turned out it was God. He said, “Ochs, wake up, this is God here, over.” I said, “You’re putting me on of course . . . Dylan.” (applause) So, he did a few tricks, moved the bed back and forth. (laughter) Trembling I asked, “What is it you want, O Lord?” He said, “Well, frankly, Phil, I went downtown the other day, saw The Greatest Story Ever Told—couldn’t believe it.” (laughter) “It’s gone too far. Something must be done about Christianity.” Then woof, in a puff of smoke he disappeared.
“The next morning I woke up, had a few drinks and realized it was all true and decided to do something about Christianity. What could I do, me, a poor humble boy from the sticks. Then I remembered I was a songwriter. Aha! So I sat down with pen in hand over my typewriter. And then, everybody, this next song, which is a hymn about Christianity—actually, an anti-hymn—the first anti-hymn, folks . . .” (laughter and applause).
Like I said, this generation challenged all authority, even the higher authority.
There is some ambiguity regarding the song’s title. All the versions on Discogs show the title as “Canons of Christianity,” and that form is used by biographer Michael Schumacher in There but for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs. However, the sheet music in The War Is Over songbook lists the song as “Cannons of Christianity,” and “cannons” is used in all the versions of the lyrics I could find. Analyzing the lyrics for continuity, “cannons” fits the context in only two of the seven non-repeating verses (verses one and five), while “canons” is a better fit for the other five verses. The two verses where the word “cannons” makes sense involve war or use the language of war; the verses where the word “canons” works better involve “a regulation or dogma decreed by a church council” or practices common to Christian churches. The first two verses display the dichotomy:
Christian cannons have fired at my days
With the warning beneath the holy blaze
And bow to our authority
Say the cannons of christianity
Oh the children will be sent to schools
Minds of clay are molded to their rules
Learn to fear all of eternity
Warn the canons of christianity
Since Phil Ochs had an excellent grasp of the English language, I think he enjoyed the play on words and the double meanings.
The other verses cover the significant hypocrisies associated with Christianity: the cultural arrogance of missionaries; the support of holy wars in the name of the Prince of Peace; and the obscene accumulation of wealth:
Missionaries will travel on crusades
The word is given, the heathen souls are saved
Conversions to our morality
Sigh the canons of Christianity
Come the wars and turn the rules around
To bend your soul on the battleground
And the lord will march beside me
Drone the cannons of Christianity
Cathedral walls will glitter with their gold
And the sermons speak through silver robes
Building castles amidst the poverty
Say the canons of Christianity
Playful introduction notwithstanding, the mood of the song is tragic, not comic. Wisely avoiding the satiric, mocking tone that characterizes some of his topical songs, Phil delivers the song with restraint and more than a touch of sadness. I’m not so sure he would have been able to restrain his outrage if he were alive today and had to confront the sickness of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, but I am certain that he would have identified that bunch as the American Taliban long before anyone else even made the connection.
Phil tweaks the crowd by referring to his most famous composition as “written for me by Miss Joan Baez.” Unlike most people in English-speaking countries, my first exposure to “There but for Fortune” came not from Joan Baez, but from Françoise Hardy, whose cover of the Baez version opens side two of her all-English album En Anglais. I thought it was the most beautiful and saddest song I’d ever heard, one that permanently altered my perception of the world around me. I was reminded of “There but for Fortune” every time I walked through the streets of San Francisco past the young men who slept in the rain and fog, or when I encountered the street drunks who begged for change so they could score a cheap bottle of wine. I thought of the last verse of “There but for Fortune” on 9/11 as images of “the ruins of buildings once so tall” flashed on the screen.
The lyrical differences between the Baez/Hardy version and the Ochs versions are slight; most of the changes Baez introduced involved syllabic modifications that made the song easier to sing and were more compatible with her approach to phrasing (for example, Phil’s “Show me a prison man” becomes “Show me a prisoner” in the Baez/Hardy version). The most significant change is in the first verse, where Phil’s “his face is growing pale” becomes “whose life has grown stale.” The Baez version is my least favorite of the three because I find her anal precision quite annoying; she always sounds like the music teacher who wound up a spinster and takes it out on her students, correcting any variance from her concept of perfection with sadistic pleasure. Phil’s phrasing is the loosest of the three—a bit too loose for my tastes—so to my ears, Hardy’s is the Goldilocks version.
I’ve always thought of “There but for Fortune” as the most anti-American song Phil Ochs ever wrote. Red-blooded Americans don’t believe in fortune, they believe in hard work (though many are incredibly lazy) and the self-made man (emphasis on man). This is the land of opportunity, so it’s your own damned fault if you’re poor, hungry or sick. Alcoholism only qualifies as a disease if you’re white and wealthy. If colored folk would just stop being so goddamned lazy and show some initiative they could make something of themselves. Criminals? Lock ’em up and throw away the key. The homeless? Pile ’em up with a bulldozer and get them out of my sight. It’s no wonder that Americans still cling to the death penalty, lack universal health care and have the highest incarceration rate in the world. It’s the American way.
If you needed any more reason to fear and loathe America, Phil happily provides it in “Cops of the World.” Since the end of World War II, American foreign policy can be summed up in three words: toxic adolescent masculinity. Republicans and Democrats alike have frequently resorted to displays of toughness when the chips (or the polls) are down. Republicans do it based on their firm belief in American superiority; Democrats do it because they’re terrified that the Republicans will call them out as wimps if they don’t. I find it incredible that anyone was shocked when Trump pardoned three soldiers who were accused or convicted of war crimes—shit, William Calley only got three years of house arrest for wiping out an entire village.
Phil wrote “Cops of the World” years before anyone was aware of the Mỹ Lai massacre, another “shocking” event that shouldn’t have shocked anyone who paid attention to the character of the paranoid Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove:
Dump the reds in a pile, boys
Dump the reds in a pile
You’d better wipe off that smile, boys
Better wipe off that smile
We’ll spit through the streets of the cities we wreck
We’ll find you a leader that you can’t elect
Those treaties we signed were a pain in the neck
‘Cause we’re the Cops of the World, boys
We’re the Cops of the World
Though the phrase “toxic masculinity” hadn’t been invented when Phil wrote the song, he certainly perceived it in its adolescent, murderous form:
Please stay off of the grass, boys
Please stay off of the grass
Here’s a kick in the ass, boys
Here’s a kick in the ass
We’ll smash down your doors, we don’t bother to knock
We’ve done it before, so why all the shock?
We’re the biggest and toughest kids on the block
‘Cause we’re the Cops of the World, boys
We’re the Cops of the World
And decades before the Bush Doctrine formalized the inalienable American right to protect American interests and pre-emptively impose “freedom” on conquered nations, Phil closed the song with these words:
We own half the world, oh say can you see
The name for our profits is democracy
So, like it or not, you will have to be free
‘Cause we’re the Cops of the World, boys
We’re the Cops of the World
LATE-BREAKING UPDATE ON THE BUSH DOCTRINE: From Wikipedia: ” . . . the Bush Doctrine held that the hatred for the West and the United States particularly exists not because of actions perpetrated by the US, but rather because the countries from which terrorists emerge are in social disarray and do not experience the freedom that is an intrinsic part of democracy.” Well! If democracy is the cure for terrorism, then all that stuff I’ve been reading about white supremacist terrorist groups and the Capitol Riots must have been fake news!
Note to Americans: A good portion of the world does in fact hate you because of “actions perpetrated.” Knock it off.
Backing up his claims in “Cops of the World,” Phil cites a specific instance of American aggression in “(The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of) Santo Domingo.” Phil is talking about the second U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic; the first took place under Woodrow “Make the World Safe for Democracy” Wilson in 1916 and eventually led to thirty-plus years of dictatorship under Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo finally croaked off and the people elected a literary figure and opposition leader named Juan Bosch as president, but Bosch was too soft on communism to suit the Kennedy Administration and was magically removed after serving for seven months, replaced by a typically corrupt junta. A couple of years later, some of the younger studs in the military overthrew the junta with the idea of restoring Bosch to power, but LBJ, forever terrified that the Republicans would beat the hell out of him if he showed the slightest sign of weakness, sent in the Marines.
Phil begins the song poetically, describing the sudden disruption of the natural cycle that precedes an invasion: “And the crabs are crazy, they scuttle back and forth/The sand is burning.” The second verse shifts our attention to the impact of the approaching ships on daily life:
The fishermen sweat, they’re pausing at their nets
The day’s a-burning
As the warships sway and thunder in the bay
Loud in the morning
But the boy on the shore is throwing pebbles no more
He runs a-warning
All very well, but as the song develops, the poetic orientation robs the listener of the benefits that could have been gained from Phil’s journalistic background—relating the events in the sparse language of the newsroom and providing sufficient background regarding the politics behind the invasion would have made for a more compelling story. As it is, “Santo Domingo” is a bit of a disappointment.
According to Schumacher, Phil thought “Changes” should have been his breakthrough hit, but time and time again, Phil Ochs would prove that he had no clue whatsoever when it came to divining the tastes of the record-buying public. The commercial shortcomings of “Changes” are easily identifiable: the song lacks a strong hook and offers very little in the way of ear-catching variation that makes for a hit single. “Changes” was obviously Phil’s attempt to extend his reach beyond the polemical to the poetic, but curiously, the song fails to reproduce the talent with imagery he revealed on “Ringing of Revolution.” With one exception, his catalog of life changes are predictable (seasons, aging, night/day, lost love), and the one odd duck (change as a universal constant) is seriously out of place in a story that leads to the all-too-human experience of a breakup. The song does have a pretty melody (part of which would be lifted and repurposed for the melody of “Pleasures of the Harbor”), but I’ve never found it all that compelling—and though I’m not much of a fan, I think Stevie Nicks covered the subject of life change much more effectively on “Landslide.”
Though his poetic side would blossom on Pleasures of the Harbor, Phil’s passions and talents at this moment in his career were best suited to topical songs, especially when he had an opportunity to push the envelope and awaken hearts and minds to perspectives that were not only different but uncomfortably insightful. “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” certainly falls into the category of “uncomfortably insightful,” as it challenges the assumed loyalty of same-side-ism while clearly establishing the need to constantly raise the two-part question, “What is it that we’re trying to accomplish here and are we really accomplishing it?”
Phil took a big risk in writing this song and sharing it with the public, but he introduces the song fearlessly and with no hint of regret: “In every American community, you have varying shades of political opinion, and one of the shadiest of these is the liberals.” A round of mixed applause follows, the responses ranging from enthusiastic endorsement to “I’m clapping because everybody else is clapping.” Needless to say, Phil has no intention of stopping there: “An outspoken group on many subjects . . . ten degrees to the left of center in good times . . . ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally. So, here then is a lesson in safe logic.”
I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
Tears ran down my spine
I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though I’d lost a father of mine
But Malcolm X got what was coming
He got what he asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
Phil pauses here to ask the crowd, “Get it?” and receives affirmative applause in response.
I go to civil rights rallies
And I put down the old D. A. R. (aside: D. A. R.—that’s the Dykes of the American Revolution)
I love Harry and Sidney and Sammy
I hope every colored boy becomes a star
But don’t talk about revolution
That’s going a little bit too far
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
The digs keep on coming; my favorites include “And I love Puerto Ricans and negroes/As long as they don’t move next door,” “But if you ask me to bus my children/I hope the cops take down your name” and the exclamation point of the final verse:
Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
My father must have forgotten the lessons in this song as we argued (and still argue) about the contributions of Barack Obama. I saw Obama as a nice, decent guy given to abstraction who talked a good game but wasn’t much of a fighter and didn’t deliver the goods. Dad would argue that Obama faced a hostile Congress; I would counter-argue that he stupidly separated his political organization from the DNC and let a whole lot of Tea Party wackos shift the GOP further to the right. “What did he do about income inequality, dad?” (crickets) “How did he address racism?” (crickets) “How’s that Guantanamo closure working out, dad?” (crickets) Predictably he would argue, “As the first black president, he had to go slow,” to which I’d respond, “What’s the use of power if you don’t use it?” (I think I stole that from The Clash). Liberals sing of the dream but never figure out how to make the dream a reality, and once they get a taste of the privilege of incumbency, the dream gives way to the fundraising that buys another term in office. Phil Ochs was right: liberals need to grow a pair of cojones and act in accordance with their stated convictions or they’re as useless as a limp dick.
And with absolutely perfect timing, Phil closes the concert with “When I’m Gone,” a subtle but inspiring reminder to all who want to create a better world that you can’t create a better world unless you get off your ass while still capable of drawing breath:
There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.
And I won’t feel the flowing of the time when I’m gone
All the pleasures of love will not be mine when I’m gone
My pen won’t pour a lyric line when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.
And I won’t breathe the bracing air when I’m gone
And I can’t even worry ’bout my cares when I’m gone
Won’t be asked to do my share when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.
Schumacher referred to this song as “a concise explanation of his purpose as an artist and a man.” The sad part is that the artist and the man departed from this mortal coil much too soon.
The bad news: During my research of Call the Doctor I encountered several reviews written by men that I found quite annoying and two in particular that I found absolutely infuriating.
The best news: I can blame my fury on my father! Suck it up, Dad!
The story begins long, long ago in the midst of the Nixon-Ford recession in a small flat bordering the Mission District and Noe Valley, where my parents were completing their tax returns at a small kitchen table they’d found at a yard sale. Due to the collapsing job market, my father had only managed to turn his MSW into a half-time job with the City while my mother had become an early gig worker, taking on several short-term language translation assignments. When my father totaled up their incomes, he was dismayed to find out that his wife made more money than he did—and even more dismayed that it bothered him.
Since my parents agreed to never keep secrets from one another, he shared his feelings with my mother. “Get over it,” she advised. “But how do I do that?” “I’m sure you’ll figure something out.” Her response may seem flippant, but she felt strongly that she was not in a position to cure him of his sexism. He had a problem with all women; working things out with just one woman wouldn’t address the underlying issues.
He read some feminist literature but nothing that really pierced his heart and soul. Sometime during this period, he heard about a course in Women’s Studies at San Francisco State, one of the very few courses on the topic available back then. Not wanting to go through the whole admissions process, he decided he would unofficially audit the class and hope that the professor wouldn’t notice.
He really didn’t need to worry. Except for a couple of sneers on the first day of class, the professor and his fellow students—all women—completely ignored him. At no point during the semester did anyone in the class speak to him, ask him a question or acknowledge his existence. As far as they were concerned, he was a non-person. Every week for sixteen weeks he caught a Muni bus to SF State, slipped into one of the chairs in the back of the class and sat there in virtual isolation. I asked Dad to summarize his experience for me in an e-mail:
“The atmosphere wasn’t just charged. It was like the aftermath of an earthquake and I was surrounded by crackling power lines. There were about thirty women in the room and their collective anger was off the charts. The professor ran the class as if it were group therapy, which was a good call on her part because those women needed to vent and no power on earth was going to stop them. There was very little in the way of formal teaching; either the professor or a student would raise an issue from one of the readings or bring up something that happened in the news and for the next hour it was barely controlled chaos. Everybody had an opinion and they expressed those opinions with force and rage. Most of their anger was directed at men, so yeah, it was very uncomfortable, but it was kind of like the penance I had to go through to get my head straight (once a Catholic, always a Catholic, I guess). Since as far as they were concerned I didn’t exist, all I could do is just shut up and listen. I finally came to understand the extent of the oppression women experience every day, how that oppression feels, the pain in being less than a person and how I had taken advantage of my entitlement as a man in dozens of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The stories they told were deeply personal, so it was impossible to lump them all together and demean their experience by putting it into a convenient category. But the thing I remember most is the anger. It wasn’t irrational anger but rightfully held anger. I had to work really hard to not get defensive or take their anger personally and really listen to their stories so I could face what I had done to fuel similar anger in the women in my life. Listening to those women was a cleansing experience like no other: a cleansing experience where you use Lava soap on the skin, under the skin and into the soul. Man, there was a lot of bullshit in there I had to clean out.”
Confirmation that my father’s enlightenment was permanent came later from my high school girlfriends, who would ask me, “How come your dad isn’t an asshole like all the other fathers?” Those other dads treated teenage girls like tempting jail bait or dumb shits who weren’t worth the time and trouble. My dad talked to them the way he always talked to me—like an adult. He engaged them in conversation, took their opinions seriously and never came close to expressing anything in the vein of “you’ll grow up someday and see things differently.” His experience had made him aware that women go through their whole lives having to deal with men who feel they have the god-given right to dismiss what women have to say, so he did what he could to make each of my girlfriends feel that they mattered.
Moving on to compare-and-contrast, allow me to share a couple of snippets from the criticism that pissed me off. The first comes from Jason Ankeny of AllMusic:
Sleater-Kinney’s masterful sophomore effort Call the Doctor fulfills all the promise of the group’s debut and more, forging taut melodicism and jaw-dropping sonic complexity out of barbed-wire emotional potency. The emergence of Carrie Brownstein as an equal shareholder in Corin Tucker’s vision is the key — her four contributions (particularly “Stay Where You Are” and “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”) are stellar, while her harmonies complete Tucker’s equally superb lead turns by reading between the lines to verbalize the naked aggression at the core of the songs’ polemic power. Forget the riot grrrl implications inherent in the trio’s music — Call the Doctor is pure, undiluted punk, and it’s brilliant.
Translation: Pay no attention to their hopeless effort to dismantle the patriarchy or the ludicrous attempt to achieve true equality, because we all know it ain’t going to happen. Instead, enjoy the meaningless drivel I’ve written that offers no insight whatsoever but reflects my sacred entitlement as a man to come up with clever and empty phrases like “taut melodicism” and “jaw-dropping sonic complexity” and get paid for it!
The second comes from a retrospective review from Tom Breihand of Stereogum:
More important than all that, though, it’s the first album that really captured Sleater-Kinney’s full fury. If you were so inclined, you could hear the band’s entire career as the slow refinement of what Tucker did on Call The Doctor . . . hearing Call The Doctor for the first time, it was clear that Tucker was the force powering this whole enterprise, at least early on. Her second “damn you!” on the intro of the breakneck “Little Mouth” might still be the single most vital moment in the band’s entire career.
Translation: You can save yourself a lot of time and energy and learn everything you need to know about Sleater-Kinney by ignoring Carrie Brownstein and playing a two-second clip of Corin Tucker almost kinda sorta swearing. Play the clip for your friends and dazzle them with your supernatural insight! And don’t forget to give me credit for my ability to distill an entire body of work into two tiny words! Female fury! The ultimate in titillation!
There’s a word on the tip of my tongue, damn it . . . ah, there it is. . . blockheads. Both of these guys thought that because they identified female anger that they understood female anger. The truth is they felt so uncomfortable with female anger that they either had to redefine it (Ankeny) or turn it into a sound byte (Breihand). They can hide behind “critical detachment” all they want, but in doing so they trivialize the messages in the music, displaying that special arrogance of the entitled male that allows him to ignore anything and everything a woman has to say. I’ve yet to read a review of any Sleater-Kinney album written by a man where the writer pushes past that discomfort and engages in even the slightest bit of introspection concerning their role in propagating female oppression—and that really pisses me off.
Just my luck to wind up with an enlightened father who imbued me with unreasonably high standards for male behavior.
Dad, it’s all your fault! Damn you!
As both Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein were playing in other bands at the time, Sleater-Kinney’s eponymous debut album was more of a side project than a full-on artistic commitment. After those other bands decided to call it a day, Sleater-Kinney became the pair’s primary artistic outlet, making Call the Doctor their first “real” album. The drums on the album were handled by a talented Australian multi-instrumentalist by the name of Laura (sometimes Lora) Macfarlane, who also played guitar on one track and contributed a few vocals. While Macfarlane’s drumming on Call the Doctor was adequate, the truth was she needed more room to display her diverse talents and Sleater-Kinney needed a drummer with a broader repertoire of chops. Macfarlane would leave the band immediately after the recording and go on to lead the indie band ninetynine (no caps), giving Corin and Carrie the opportunity to bring the supremely talented Janet Weiss into the fold.
The band on Call the Doctor reflects the punk stylings of many a riot grrrl band, relying heavily on raw energy to get their message across. The sound is somewhat rougher than what you hear on Dig Me Out, but the sense of urgency and excitement generally compensates for the lack of polish. What separated Sleater-Kinney from the punks and other riot grrrl bands was the mind meld that developed between Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein that spawned their innovative approach to guitar and vocals:
Despite the no-frills approach to recording, the songwriting on Call the Doctor brought in characteristics that came to define our sound. On the title track, Corin and I each sang a melody on the chorus. She was louder than me, so her vocal was the lead by default, but we never really considered one a background part to the other. It was a conversation we were having: she had her perspective and I had mine. Or I was emphasizing her point, retelling it even as I was singing along with her. And our guitars did the same thing, augmenting and counteracting each other. We would get to the chorus, and intuitively you’d think this is the time for us to all sing together, that there should be a cohesion, but instead we would split apart. It was almost an anti-chorus. We weren’t trying to form a solidarity with anyone but ourselves. Could you sing along to Sleater-Kinney? Sometimes. But we’d just as likely shout over you. And good luck trying to sing along with Corin. Trust me, I know. It’s nearly impossible. As a listener you have to decide what to follow in the song, which vocal, which guitar.
This way of writing and of singing was something we tacitly understood. We never discussed it; we never mentioned countermelodies. We didn’t want to sing harmonies. Our songs weren’t pretty, nor was our style of singing. It sounded scarier to not sing together, rarely allowing the listener to settle into the music. Everything inside the songs was constantly on the verge of breaking apart—Corin’s voice, the narrative, the guitars, so few moments provided any respite at all. If we did sing together on the chorus, it was only after a strange, uncomfortable verse. Yet the result was forceful; it sounded like a tightly bound entity, fragments clinging to each other for dear life—if you pulled one thing apart, it wouldn’t even sound like a real song. It was a junkyard come to life.
Brownstein, Carrie. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (pp. 107-108). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Later in that chapter, Carrie described the experience of listening to the playback of the entire album for the first time as “it felt like anthems we’d written for ourselves.” Retrospective reviews of Call the Doctor tend to overrate the album (as retrospective reviews often do); like many a maiden effort, Call the Doctor is a mix of strong and weak material, just as one would expect from a band still in search of an identity. “Call the Doctor was not our best record, but it was the last one written before any sense of external identity or pressure,” wrote Carrie. That freedom from expectations allowed them to establish the fundamental components of what would become their signature sound, so in that sense, Call the Doctor has to be qualified as a successful effort.
“Call the Doctor,” with its non-standard structure of Verse Form A1-Verse Form B1-Verse Form A2-Verse Form B2-Chorus-Verse Form B3, is most anthemic in Verse Form A, where Corin addresses the systemic threats. The opening verse (A1) certainly draws distinct battle lines in the struggle against a patriarchy that considers women just another piece of property—lumps of clay suitable for mythological molding:
They want to socialize you
They want to purify you
They want to dignify and analyze and terrorize you
Corin delivers the first two lines over a dissonant grunge guitar duet in a tone of bitter sarcasm, playing off the traditional notions that women are expected to be sugar and spice and everything nice and “above reproach.” For the third line, Corin raises her voice and shifts her tone to impart the dangers inherent in dignifying women (putting them on a pedestal where they can do no harm and have no life), analyzing women (because men know best) and finally, terrorizing women (which may mean rape, domestic abuse or simply denying women the right to choose how to live their lives). The über-message is that women are creatures who need men to mold them into shape, changelings who can be transformed from virgins to whores on command. The use of the word “they” identifies the enemy as the collective weight of rules and restrictions summarized in the word “patriarchy,” and not “all men.” The written record shows that Corin and Carrie were not “man-haters,” but implacable foes of the patriarchy and the unreasonable roles assigned to both genders.
The first appearance of Verse Form B follows; these verses are marked by Corin and Carrie alternating lines (what Carrie referred to as an anti-chorus). The impact of this form is somewhat diminished on Call the Doctor by muddy production that makes it a challenge to make out what Carrie is saying. These B verses are one-sided conversations Corin has with another woman or with three separate women; one could view the progress depicted in the conversations as the growth trajectory of one woman or three women at different levels of development. The variations in each B verse are subtle but loaded with meaning:
- B1: “This is love and you can’t make it/in a formula or shake me/I’m your monster, I’m not like you/All your life is written for you.”
- B2: “This is love and you can’t make it/in a formula or break it/I’m your monster, I’m just like you/All my life is right before you.”
- B3: “This is love and you can’t break it/in a formula or make me/I’m no monster, I’m just like you/All my life is right before me.“
I can’t help but interpret those lines personally, based on my experience in trying to “feel out” women to learn whether or not they’re interested in woman-to-woman sex. B1 is absolutely hopeless; she thinks lesbian sex is sinful. Carrie’s response, “I’ll never show you what’s in here” is spot-on. B2 is a woman in denial about her attraction to other women. B3 is on the brink, giving me more confidence that sharing my tendencies won’t freak her out. I would go one step further and announce the discovery of a B4, a woman who is ready to rock but gets turned off when I tell her I’m bisexual.
I can’t begin to describe how happy I feel that I have a regular partner and never have to go through that shit again.
Moving on to Verse A-2, Corin steps out of character and assumes the role of “spokesperson of the patriarchy” in the first two lines, mocking the absurd notions that women are nothing more than baby factories and that to challenge that “truth” is an act of sacrilege.
Your life is good for one thing
You’re messing with what’s sacred
She then returns to the Cassandra role, warning that transforming women into simple beings with limited choices is, ironically, the ultimate act of sterilization:
They want to simplify your needs and likes
To sterilize you
This brings us to Verse B-2, which ends on Carrie’s sarcastic line, “Call the doctor, miracle—she can talk!” We then hear an interruption in the chord pattern over a drum roll that quickly flings the band into hyperspeed mode where Corin shouts “Call the doctor!” eight times. I interpret the line to mean, “Call the doctor—there’s something wrong with this broad—she can speak her own mind! Oh, the horror!” If you haven’t figured it out by now, I think “Call the Doctor” is an amazing song with exceptional musical and emotional build, and a great way to kick off the album.
“Hubcap” opens with ragged, dissonant guitar and an equally ragged vocal from Corin, as if she’s watching the clock as it creeps towards closing time in the camera shop where she worked. She tries to forestall the boredom by writing on the side, hiding the paper when her boss shows up in his suit and tie. “You’re my co-pilot, not my god pilot,” she says to herself while considering her boss, and though she would love to share his “calm belief” in his work, there’s no question she doesn’t belong there. One of the aspects of Call the Doctor I find appealing is that both Corin and Carrie were still working day jobs to support themselves while hoping the music thing would work out, and the experiences they describe in several of the songs on the album ring true for all of us who have to deal with the ennui of the daily grind.
“Little Mouth” is another such song, and it must have felt quite liberating for Corin to express the rage that burns hot when you’re working a shit job far below your capabilities:
Smile pretty take take the money
You know me well oh don’t you?
Smile pretty take take the money
You know how to sell?
The music captures both the expressed rage in the intense all-hands-on-board bash and the seething rage when they ease up a bit as Corin repeats the phrase “damaged goods.” Carrie wrote about the grim reality of retail in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: “So much of working customer service is about self-erasure, subjugating and then selling yourself in order to sell the product, merging with the commodities until you feel like one. Like many young women, we felt like we were on display.” No wonder Corin’s vocal sounds like she’s millimeters away from her breaking point—but since the song ends with another “Damn you,” we can assume that at least at this point in time, that “Damn you” remained safely inside in her head because she needed the damn job.
Continuing the theme of “self-repression as a survival tactic,” Corin’s opening line in “Anonymous” is “She’s worried, she’s worried, she’s worried she said too much.” It’s pretty obvious that living on the edge has resulted in a full-fledged case of neurosis, as Corin alternates between first-person narrative and an out-of-body experience where she observes her public self with the harsh judgment of a woman confronting her doppelgänger:
Feel safe, inside, inside those well drawn line
Boyfriend, a car, a job, my white girl life
She swallowed a spider to catch, to catch that fly
But I don’t know why, why she swallowed that lie
The music is classic two-chord punk riot with the verses in C# and the chorus in Bbm (allowing for Sleater-Kinney’s drop-down tuning), moving from steady drive in the verses to let-it-the-fuck-out in the chorus. Corin is more than up to the tasks of keeping her voice a couple of notches below manic in the verses and crossing the line into temporary madness in the chorus. At this stage in her life, she has a deep desire for anonymity so she can be “Not enough for you to know/not enough for you to own.” She closes the song by admitting that at present, she hasn’t found a satisfactory solution to her dilemma: “These words are all I have/These words are who I am.” Having gone through a similar experience in my early twenties, I relate more to this song than any of the other songs on the album and find it strangely comforting—I don’t think anyone ever gets their shit together completely, but I know I’m not the ungrounded mess I was back then.
I love the rough guitar duet of “Stay Where You Are,” but find the repeated lyrics a bit dull and inadequate; the theme of identity struggle is addressed much more effectively in “Call the Doctor” and “Anonymous.” What follows is much more interesting, as “Good Things” is the least riot grrrl song of the lot and deals with one of the most common themes in rock: relationship failure. What makes this song stand out is that this particular failure likely involves a homosexual relationship, where the loss of a partner is intensified by the vulnerability you already put on the line when you entered a homosexual relationship in the first place. It may have been more true in the ’90s, but it’s still true today: most people who enter a homosexual relationship begin in the closet, and you wouldn’t do that if you didn’t feel especially vulnerable. I certainly felt more vulnerable in the States and had many unpleasant experiences there when my partner and I held hands or kissed in public; in Europe, it’s more common for women to hold hands and walk arm-in-arm, whatever their sexual orientation, so it’s a bit easier . . . but we still have to accept that there are limits when it comes to public displays of affection.
I have to use the qualifier “likely,” for Corin never identifies the gender of the lost partner and, like me, she is bisexual, so anything is possible. I just hear something in her voice that gives me that impression—something I’ve heard in other voices who have ended a relationship with a same-sex partner. The positive aspect of avoiding gender identification is it makes the song universal; everybody can relate to the soul-searching and self-doubt Corin sings with such poignancy:
Try to make it good again
Is it worth it?
Will it make me sick today?
It’s a dumb song
But I’ll write it anyway
It’s an old mistake
But we always make it — why do we?
The hardest part is things already said
Getting better, worse, I cannot tell
Why do good things never wanna stay?
Some things you lose, some things you give away
Though performed with electric guitar in the Sleater-Kinney tradition, “Good Things” is actually quite lovely on acoustic guitar with its pleasant E-C#m-Ab-C#m chord combination (an A major chord is introduced in the transition from verse to chorus to keep things interesting). I love this song so much that I actually took the time to submit a chord correction to Ultimate Guitar—tedious work, but I felt it was worth it.
The most popular song from the album is “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” and as is often the case, I’ve found the interpretations in various reviews to be slightly off. I doubt very much that Corin thought she had a shot at becoming the “queen of rock and roll” at the time the song was written—she probably just wanted to put that shopping mall job in the rearview mirror. While she obviously understood the sexual potential of rock star power, her motivations at this moment involved getting a babe to move away from her devotion to male rock stars and love her with the same intense passion she projected onto lifeless posters of Joey Ramone and Thurston Moore:
I wanna be your Thurston Moore
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Wrestle on the bedroom floor
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Always leave you wanting more
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Throw away those old records
Adding squeals in the chorus was an inspired choice—not only for the excitement they bring to the performance but also because they tell us that Sleater-Kinney had “passed the test”:
“I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” was a test for ourselves, to see what it felt like to give yourself the smallest amount of power, and to put that power on display, to be unafraid and unafraid of yourself. So in Sleater-Kinney, we sang a lot about a world that we wished we could access without the added explanation or justification. We sang about playing and performing, as if in singing about it, we could really live it, free of judgment or the feeling that we were interlopers.
Brownstein, Carrie. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (p. 110). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
That statement certainly reflects Carrie’s lyrical responses to Corin, indicating she’s moved beyond idol worship and now is starting to think “that could be me up there.”
I swear they’re looking right at me
Push to the front so I can see
It’s what I thought
It’s rock and roll
I love the contrast between the moody verses and the ecstatic chorus, and if there’s one song on Call the Doctor that proves Sleater-Kinney really didn’t need a bass player, it’s this one.
We head back to the mall where Corin is still brooding about her shit job in “Taking Me Home.” The aspect of retail reality that she explores here is pretty straightforward: like the merchandise on the shelves, the sales clerk “merges with the commodities” and finds herself on display for all the horny guys who assume that it’s okay to hit on the hired help. Corin plays out their mating fantasies to the nth degree, even to the point of imagining marriage:
A dozen red roses
A cute little house
A cheap little ring
The deal is cut, now
She emphatically rejects that alternative reality, in all-caps: NOT FOR SALE/NOT YOUR GIRL/NOT YOUR THING. The music on this one is a bit tiresome, though, weakening the message in the process.
The music is not the problem with “Taste Test,” where the forward drive of the chorus and the clearest double-lead vocals on the album make for some exciting moments. The lyrics, which apparently involve a shaky relationship between two very confused people, simply fail to register on the coherence monitor. The same is true for “My Stuff,” a dark, grungy tune best captured in the line: “Such an easy thought and now I had it but I lost it.”
Things get a whole lot better with the blatantly sexual (yay!) “I’m Not Waiting.” Songs celebrating the delights of lesbian sex were extremely rare in the mid-90s but Corin holds nothing back—her voice is drenched with the erotic tension of a bitch in heat, her words completely unapologetic and free of shame:
I’m not waiting
‘Till I grow up
To be a woman
To be a woman
Honey baby sweetness darling
I’m your little girl
Your words are sticky, stupid
Running down my legs
Laura Macfarlane’s drumming is excellent here, punctuating the simmering choruses with the primitive sound of tom-toms and going full-on nasty in the verses. The second verse finds Corin in a particularly naughty frame-of-mind as she commands her partner to fulfill a specific fantasy, her voice made edgier through the application of a lo-fi filter:
Go out on the lawn
Put your swimsuit on
Go out on the lawn
Put your swimsuit . . .
The next round of the chorus ends with Corin squeezing every last bit of passion out of the word WOOOOOOOO-MAN, cueing the band to remove all restraints and accelerate to an orgasmic climax. Passion spent, Corin gives us two rounds of “I’m not waiting/’Till I grow up,” affirming her deep and guilt-free satisfaction with the experience of loving another woman.
Call the Doctor closes with a mid-tempo tune from self-confessed hypochondriac Carrie Brownstein, “Heart Attack.” This confessional reveals Carrie’s hyper-awareness of mortality (a subject she would return to in “The Size of Our Love” on The Hot Rock) and her associated fears that “Something’s bound to give me a disease.” What’s important is how her high-strung nature interferes with her chances of connecting with other people:
Stress case undone preplanned no fun
I’m scared I’ve scared them all away
High strung let go loss of control
I’m scared I’ve scared them all away
Though technically it’s not a fit with the larger themes of Call the Doctor, the willingness to reveal one’s quirks and anxieties has a humanizing effect, ironically minimizing the distance between musician and listener—for we are all mortal and we are all at least a little bit weird.
In parting, I want to share one more review, this one from my bête noire, Robert Christgau, The Dean of American Rock Critics:
Like the blues, punk is a template that shapes young misfits’ sense of themselves, and like the blues it takes many forms. This is a new one, and it’s damn blueslike. Powered by riffs that seem unstoppable even though they’re not very fast, riding melodies whose irresistibility renders them barely less harsh, Corin Tucker’s enormous voice never struggles more inspirationally against the world outside than when it’s facing down the dilemmas of the interpersonal–dilemmas neither eased nor defined by her gender preferences, dilemmas as bound up with family as they are with sex. As partner/rival/Other Carrie Brownstein puts it in an eloquently tongue-tied moment: “It’s just my stuff.” Few if any have played rock’s tension-and-release game for such high stakes–revolution as existentialism, electric roar as acne remedy. They wanna be our Joey Ramone, who can resist that one? But squint at the booklet and you’ll see they also want to be our Thurston Moore. They want it both ways, every which way. And most of the time they get it.
Can anyone tell me what the fuck that man is talking about? Well, at least he was one of two critics (Greil Marcus was the other) who identified Sleater-Kinney as the best rock band in the world, so there’s that. I appreciate the compliment but loathe the use of the superlative—I’ll just say that Sleater-Kinney would indeed become a fabulous rock band and Call the Doctor was the blessed event where they laid the foundation for a truly remarkable journey.