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.
In contrast to the horror my mother and I experience daily as we pore through news and tweets related to the accession of King Donald to the throne of the most powerful and dangerous nation on the planet, my flaming liberal father is rather philosophical about the whole thing. “Been there, done that,” he shrugs.
The “been there” period he refers to is that dark period in American history characterized by the Vietnam war, race riots and the emergence of white backlash. Americans were divided on issues of patriotism, long hair/short hair, liberation movements, the “drug epidemic,” race and the “creeping socialism” of The Great Society. I asked him to reproduce his rant while I captured it on my keyboard.
“You think the 2016 campaign was ugly? Go back to 1968. Two major assassinations. Riots at the Democratic Convention, cops beating the shit out of kids. After the tear gas had cleared, the Gallup Poll put the Democratic establishment nominee in third place—behind George Wallace, a mean-spirited, lifelong segregationist. After losing Bobby Kennedy, we were down to a choice between Wallace, Hubert Humphrey—who spent his time as vice-president licking Lyndon Johnson’s ass and supporting the war—and Richard Nixon, who had been left for dead as a loser years before. A whole generation of young voters who had become engaged through Gene McCarthy and Bobby decided to check out—just like a lot of Bernie voters did. People voted for Nixon and Wallace for the same reason they voted for Trump—it was all about white people feeling threatened by what they saw as an erosion in the white version of the American Dream. Things were tense—families were falling apart over the war, the generation gap was huge, and if you had long hair or black skin, you stood a pretty good chance of having some redneck kick the shit out of you, just for the hell of it. The people who voted for Nixon and Wallace were just as dumb, uneducated and uninformed as the typical Trump voter. Wallace was constantly sneering about the “pointy-headed intellectuals,” and Nixon resented anyone who went to a more prestigious college than he did. Wallace and Nixon were bitter, fearful men who tapped into the bitter fear of the majority of voters who wanted law and order no matter what. Nixon called them the Silent Majority, and you’ve seen one of them on TV reruns—Archie Bunker. People thought we’d made all this progress by electing a black president and they forgot that all those Archie Bunkers were still hanging around, nursing their resentment. We all laughed at Archie Bunker, just like liberals laughed at the deplorables. Back then, that attitude gave us Richard Nixon. Now it’s Trump.
“People are calling Trump fascist, anti-democratic, corrupt, dishonest—all the labels we applied to Nixon. Just like Trump, Nixon was a dishonest prick who fixed an election, too, and it eventually caught up with him, just like it will for Trump. So to me, this is ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.'”
To support his argument, he introduced Exhibit A, Phil Ochs’ post-Chicago release, Rehearsals for Retirement, ghoulish cover and all. “Listen to this and then write your review. It’s all there.”
As is true with everything Phil Ochs ever did, Rehearsals for Retirement is an uncomfortably captivating piece of music. Never one to pull punches or fail to call bullshit on the complacent, unthinking dogma we know as American Exceptionalism, Phil Ochs was a perceptive satirist and usually a compassionate human being. But as I’ve learned through my difficulty in ridding myself of my abiding disgust for anyone who voted for The Orange Nightmare, compassion has its limits. What’s the fucking point trying to dialogue with people who choose to remain uneducated and cling to their fears and prejudices like security blankets? Rehearsals for Retirement is the moment when Phil Ochs realized that the fix was in and that the repressive forces in American society had marshaled their ample resources to put an end to all that socialist hippie nonsense. For Phil Ochs, the shining vision of a compassionate society where everyone could get a fair shake died on the mean streets of Chicago in August 1968.
Hence the tombstone.
Many people in the 60’s believed in “the dream” because they saw parts of the dream come true. The folk revival of the 1960’s coincided with a higher level of economic security in the States, which helped foster a greater degree of openness and self-reflection in the American populace. The consciousness-raising that took place in the early part of the decade was facilitated by leaders like JFK and MLK and encouraged by the work of the great folk artists of the day. It’s hard to believe now, but in the 60’s, protest marches and songs actually changed minds and led to real social progress, particularly in the area of civil rights. Americans by and large wanted to create a truly fair and inclusive society where everyone had an equal shot at the American Dream. The anti-progress conservative movement had been largely discredited by LBJ’s landslide victory over Goldwater in 1964, and LBJ cashed in his political capital on the cornerstone legislation of The Great Society and The War on Poverty: Medicare, The Voting Rights Act, The National Endowment for the Arts, stronger anti-pollution laws, aid to education, low-income housing—a cornucopia of laws validating the new self-image of Americans as a kind and generous people.
Then something changed. When I researched the two years associated with the pivot point, one statistic leapt out at me above all else: the sudden shift in American attitudes concerning the death penalty. In the early 60’s, Americans had begun to question the value and morality of state-sponsored murder, as reflected in annual Gallup polls showing decreasing support for the barbaric practice. In May 1966, for the first time in the history of the poll, a plurality of Americans favored abolishing the death penalty: 42% wanting to keep it, but 47% opting for abolition.
But the June 1967 survey revealed a sudden and significant reversal: 54% wanted to keep the death penalty, while only 38% wanted to get rid of it. This began a long, sickening trend that peaked in 1994, when 80% of the American people favored executions. While support for the death penalty drifted down to 60% in the 2016 poll, a solid majority of Americans remain enamored with legalized murder.
So what happened between May 1966 and June 1967 that made such a difference?
I can answer that in two words: Ronald Reagan.
Far more likable and telegenic than the grumpy Goldwater, Ronald Reagan swept to victory in a campaign that demonized protesters, hippies, minorities and welfare queens, capitalizing on deep-seeded white fear of economic and social displacement. Elected Governor of California in a landslide fueled by white disgust with the previous year’s Watts riots, Reagan gave voice to nostalgia for days gone by, the virtues of the Protestant work ethic, patriotism, law-and-order and un-politically correct racism. Reagan voters wanted to slam the door on civil rights that threatened property rights, hair styles that threatened gender identity, and any and all behaviors lumped under the label “un-American,” especially disagreement with American foreign policy.
We meet one of the flock who happily voted The Gipper into office in the opening number, “Pretty Smart on My Part.” Musically, the song takes you by surprise, with Phil channeling fellow Texan Buddy Holly in an intense acoustic strum reminiscent of the pattern in “Not Fade Away.” Phil enters in fine voice and seemingly good spirits as the voice of the man of the Silent Majority, who knows there are people out there who want to get him, hurt him and bring him down. These nefarious enemies include hitchhiking hippies, women with big tits, imaginary rapists and disease-ridden Chinese (or any Asian ethnic group; the bastard probably can’t tell the difference and calls them all “Chinese”). He responds to each of these “outsiders” with typically violent responses, some direct, some indirect. With the hitchhiker, he decides to run him over with his car; with the woman, he decides to tie her up and whip her (obviously Phil only had a superficial understanding of BDSM dynamics). The most curious incident involves the alleged rapist, for instead of doing the manly thing and protecting his wife, he does the manly thing and heads off to kill innocent birds:
I can see him coming
He’s walking through bedroom
With a switchblade knife
He’s looking at my wife
He wants to get me
He wants to hurt me
He wants to bring me down
But sometime later when I feel a little braver
I’ll go hunting with my rifle
Where the wild geese are flying
Then I’m gonna bag one
Pretty smart on my part
Find my way home in the dark
Yeah, I bet it makes you feel like such a man to kill a defenseless animal. Ooh, baby, fuck me with your long stiff rod!
Far more frightening is this dumb shit’s take on foreign policy, a completely ignorant, ethnocentric, racist stance that values extermination over negotiation:
I can see them coming
They’re training in the mountains
And they talk Chinese
And they spread disease
They want to get me
They want to hurt me
They want to bring me down
But sometime later when I feel a little safer
We’ll assassinate the president
And take over the government
And then we’re going to fry them
Pretty smart on my part
Find my way home in the dark
The key line in the song is “find my way home in the dark,” for it captures both the “man’s home is his castle” ethic of sacred property rights and the self-engendered belief that anyone who is “not me” is a tool of the Prince of Darkness. As I reconnected with this song, I thought of all those Trump voters, who—with a huge assist from their equally moronic candidate—wanted to blame China for everything: their unemployment, their loss of status in the world, the myth of America the Disrespected. Of course, it never dawned on these dummies that the Chinese were simply engaged in the same cutthroat competition for markets that Americans have practiced with abandon for over a century, or that they could have responded to globalization by GETTING A FUCKING EDUCATION and learning a new trade. No, just as was true in the 60’s, they want to thrill in their misery, blame everyone but themselves and turn to their cherished guns as their ultimate backup plan. Phil Ochs was not describing a phenomenon unique to the 1960’s; he was describing a central character flaw in the American male.
Doing a 180, Phil gives us “The Doll House,” a lovely waltz highlighted by Lincoln Mayorga’s deft celeste-like piano. The lyrics tend to the obscure, generally describing a fantastical and mythical world reminiscent of dreamland. Some have translated the opening line as, “Lost in the valley of dolls,” suggesting a drug-induced fantasy; what I hear is “Valley of Oz,” which fits better with the cultural references strewn throughout the song. This alternative world is a mélange of surreal imagery and mythical personages drawn from a variety of cultures (Cinderella, Tom Sawyer, The Lady of the Lake and Pirate Jenny—and perhaps Oz) with no apparent connection to one another. The only solid clue to interpretation is Phil’s shift to Dylan imitator in the second chorus, which could indicate the song was a send-up of Dylan’s more symbolist work . . . but that’s pure speculation. In any case, “The Doll House” is a lovely rainy afternoon song that flows beautifully.
There’s no mistaking the meaning of “I Kill Therefore I Am,” a no-holds barred attack on the American police. The cops of the era were labeled “pigs” by the New Left due to their well-documented, televised preference for beating heads with nightsticks, blasting little kids with firehoses and the disgusting frenzy of physical force displayed in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. The tendency of many young people in that generation to indulge in illegal substances added to the general tension between police and populace. What makes the song relevant today are two aspects of American policing that haven’t changed in fifty years: racial profiling and the conspiracy of the system to protect police from blatantly illegal actions:
I don’t like the black man, for he doesn’t know his place
Take the back of my hand or I’ll spray you with my mace
I’m as brave as any man can be
I find my courage through chemistry
I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am . . .
Farewell to the gangsters we don’t need them anymore
We’ve got the police force, they’re the ones who break the law
He’s got a gun and he’s a hater
He shoots first, he shoots later
I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am.
As in “Pretty Smart on My Part” and “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” the upbeat, light rock music provides ironic counterpoint to the penetrating lyrics. This proved to be one of Phil’s most courageous songs, for as paranoid as he might have seemed to friends and family during his later decline, the FBI was busy building a file of over 500 pages related to his “subversive” activity.
Next, Phil’s attention turns inward in a trio of songs most would classify as “difficult.” I can’t argue with that characterization, but I deeply appreciate the emotional honesty of all three songs.
It all begins at Lincoln Park on the night of August 28, 1968, with his presence at an earth-shattering event that would add new pages to his FBI file. Phil Mershon described the scene in a piece on furious.com:
Humphrey accepted his party’s nomination on August 28, as the day ended and the scent of tear gas wafted up Michigan Avenue to the nominee’s suite at the Conrad Hilton. The worst violence was about to begin. And the New York folk singer would be right in the thick of things. The protestors had gathered in Grant Park to hear a series of speeches before marching to the Convention Center. The Chicago Police attempted to contain the group by surrounding the Park. One after another speaker addressed the crowd. In between speeches of men like activist Dave Dellinger, poet Allen Ginsberg, and comedian Dick Gregory, Phil would stand in the back of a pick-up truck and sing for the crowd. Shortly after he sang a rousing version of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” he saw a young boy climb the park’s flag pole and pull down Old Glory. The was all the provocation the police required. They grabbed the kid, beat him with their nightsticks, and tossed him into the back of a squad car while the more agitated onlookers threw rocks at the arresting officers. Press cameras filmed all this for posterity and even broadcast one cop commanding “Make sure you show them throwing rocks!” While Dave Dellinger attempted to lead a nonviolent march to the Convention Center (and was blocked from doing so), others took advantage of an opening in the quarantine and thousands of young people marched toward the Hilton. Enraged at being distracted, the police charged up Michigan Avenue, firing tear gas canisters and clubbing everything in sight. When clubs failed to subdue, they stomped. And when that proved ineffective, they kicked, shoved, punched and beat. The crowd shouted “The whole world is watching!”
That scene provided the bulk of the material for “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed,” a melancholy depiction of the riot and, to some degree, its consequences. Given Phil’s politics, one might approach this song expecting a classic poor-me leftist rant that pins the blame squarely on the cops, but Phil Ochs was a much more perceptive human being capable of connecting the hidden dots. After describing the scene where young people peacefully assembled in the gloaming before the mayhem began, Phil comments on those who organized the protest:
They spread their sheets upon the ground just like a wandering tribe
And the wise men walked in their Robespierre robes
Through Lincoln Park the dark was turning
Robespierre is the ultimate symbol of the extreme zealot, a purist leader who responded to any suspected deviation from the party line by sending the heretics to the guillotine. The reference clearly indicates that Phil considered the movement’s organizers equally culpable for the violence that night by stoking an “us-against them mentality” that would prove to be completely self-defeating. Phil Mershon put it this way:
As Phil Ochs and the others would soon come to realize, most of the whole world didn’t care and among those who did, many felt the cops hadn’t gone far enough.
Back in Los Angeles, Phil began to question his own approach to politics in America. While the Yippies and other radicals had been creating and recreating their own counterculture, they had alienated the American working class along with Middle America. People who were already involved, Ochs reasoned, didn’t need to be converted. Nixon–who would ride to victory above the shattered remains of a splintered Democratic Party–called these frightened Americans ‘the Silent Majority.’ Ochs knew that if this majority rejected the members of the New Left, they would in turn embrace the solutions of men like Nixon and George Wallace. Frightened by those prospects, the songwriter began to detach himself by degrees from the journalistic approach to his craft. The resulting music spoke with broader, more universal tones.
The reference to Yeats in the song’s title is therefore not a validation of candidate Eugene McCarthy’s favorite poet, but a realization that truths discovered through poetry have greater depth and duration than polemical positioning. The arrangement is itself poetic, combining piano with accordion and viola, creating that slow-motion atmosphere one experiences in the midst of a catastrophic event, where every visual, sound and smell is amplified a thousandfold. The curious addition of a barrelhouse segment after a brief silence underscored the competition for activist purity common on the left—if you weren’t in Chicago, you were nowhere, even if you happened to be helping the citizens of Detroit rebuild a city torn by riots.
“My Life” is the complementary twin of “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed,” a statement of rebirth following the symbolic death of Chicago: “My life is now a death to me/So I’ll mold it and I’ll hold it till I’m born.” But as is true with nearly everything associated with Phil Ochs, the truth is much more complicated. He follows the statement of rebirth with the sad acknowledgment that no matter how much of his past he leaves behind and no matter where he chooses to take his art, he will always be a stranger in a strange land, deprived of peace and privacy:
So I turned to the land
Where I’m so out of place
Throw a curse on the plan
In return for the grace
To know where I stand
Take everything I own
Take your tap from my phone
And leave my life alone
My life alone.
The expression of alienation and the desire to retreat is the antithesis of American Optimism, so insipidly expressed in Paul Anka’s “My Way.”
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way
Americans love a fighter—someone who can take the punch and get up from the canvas. In real life, things don’t work that way. People lose their jobs and slip into depression, and all the optimism in the world isn’t going to make a difference to someone who feels utterly worthless. You can fight until you turn black and blue but when you’re trying to work an employment system where your chances of getting a job depend largely on favoritism or dumb luck, fighting isn’t going to get you anywhere. Although this final verse is heartbreaking and full of anguish, it has the undying virtue of emotional honesty. This was a man frightened and astonished by what was happening in the world, feelings that many of us living in the present can easily relate to.
The final song in the trilogy, “The Scorpion Departs, But Never Returns,” superficially relates the story of the USS Scorpion, a US Navy submarine that was lost due to an “unexplained catastrophic event” that caused the ship to be crushed by the sheer pressure of the ocean’s depths, killing all 99 crewmen. In the liner notes for Rehearsals for Retirement/Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, Richie Unterberger noted that, “it could just be taken as a tale of a ship lost at sea, it also reflects directionlessness Ochs saw in both the course of America and within his own life.” The depiction of the captain as an unresponsive, uncommunicative leader captures the aimlessness one feels when leaders fail to live up to their responsibilities, but it also points out the problematic nature of depending on leaders to protect us from harm. In the last two verses, Phil gamely attempts to balance hope and despair, but in the end, comes firmly down on the side of anguish and self-doubt:
The radio is begging them to come back to the shore
All will be forgiven, it’ll be just like before
All you’ve ever wanted will be waiting by your door
We will forgive you, we will forgive you
Tell me we will forgive you
But no one gives an answer not even one goodbye
Oh, the silence of their sinking is all that they reply
Some have chosen to decay and others chose to die
But I’m not dying, no I’m not dying
Tell me I’m not dying
The arrangement here echoes the more complex arrangements of Pleasures of the Harbor, featuring a French horn counterpoint that somehow manages to express a mournful urgency.
Having plumbed the depths of his soul, Phil gives himself and the listener a break with the light-and-bouncy “The World Began in Eden and Ended in Los Angeles.” Some have remarked that the cheesy horns were a dig at Herb Alpert, but I don’t think The Tijuana Brass was that bad. It’s followed by “Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore,” another waltz featuring one of Phil’s most lovely melodies, one that flows so beautifully with the lyrics that it’s difficult to reconcile the beauty with the subject matter—the relentless progression of depression. This song has been mistakenly identified as some kind of tribute to Lenny Bruce, a perception that fits neither with the lyrics nor the timing (Lenny Bruce had died over two years before). My take is Lenny is the narrator of his own story, the depressed soul separating himself from his decaying self by shifting to the third-person perspective. Our Lenny’s journey into darkness ends in a dingy room in nowheresville, a “long-time loser” grieving for an ex-lover but still suffering from her definitive judgment of his worth:
The fat official smiles at the pass on the border
And the hungry broom makes sure that the room is in order
You pull the shade
All the beds are made
As your lips caress the razor of the blade
Of the blade
And the haggard ex-lover of a long-time loser
Stands rejectedly by the door
Doesn’t Lenny live here anymore?
Are you sure?
A difficult piece of work, indeed.
Phil returns to the political in “Another Age,” a fairly straightforward condemnation of American involvement in the Vietnam War and the lasting damage to American society that went far beyond the sickening body count. “We were born in a revolution and we died in a wasted war” expresses both the pointlessness of that terrible war and the complete destruction of America’s standing as the world’s moral guardian. Once again, a snappy tempo contrasts with the bitter lyrics, though the way the rhythmic structure allows Phil’s voice to soar on “So I pledge allegiance against the flag” confirms the wisdom of the counterintuitive choice.
The title track ends the album, one of the most remarkable duets of voice and piano you will ever hear. Phil and Lincoln Mayorga perform like perfectly-synced dancers following a rhythm of spontaneous creation. Both introduce subtle delays in the song’s progress to highlight the emotional content, with Phil in particular extending syllables beyond expected length, particularly on the second lines of the verses. The couplet that serves as the song’s bridge is one I find endlessly intriguing, due to the ambiguity concerning the kind of laughter he’s describing: joyful, contemptuous or absurd? The message of comfort to his daughter in the second line might indicate any of the three, with the implication that the end is not as important as the journey:
Had I known the end would end in laughter
Still I’d tell my daughter that it doesn’t matter
Rehearsals for Retirement turned out to be a commercial disaster, Phil Ochs’ worst-selling album, one that was removed from the A&M catalog rather speedily after its release. While the relentless sense of despair at the loss of one’s country and one’s soul may have accounted for poor sales, I think the more likely culprit was its rejection of American Optimism. Phil Ochs saw the writing on the wall and put it into song but no one wanted to hear that America was finished or that the tried-and-true tactics of the early Civil Rights Movement would fail to stop the war. Identities were locked into place, the battle lines were drawn and any chance of dialogue obliterated be the “me”/”not me” paradigm.
Once again, America finds itself thoroughly divided and in a much more precarious position than it was in the 1960’s. Nixon never came close to experiencing Republican control of Congress, so he had no choice but to compromise on issues of human rights and the environment. For all practical purposes, America is now a one-party state led by a mean-spirited sociopath. While Democrats can vote against this insult to intelligence or that abuse of human rights, the right wing controls the votes. Things seem beyond hopeless, but the worst thing Americans can do is go into denial about it or—even worse—normalize the situation.
In Rehearsals for Retirement, Phil Ochs spoke the emotional and political truth of a country shattered by repeated acts of self-destruction—a country very much like the United States of January 2017. Despite its dark and brooding tone, listening to Rehearsals for Retirement turned out to be a cathartic and comforting experience for me. Phil Ochs expressed all the feelings I have experienced since the election: angst, depression, anguish anger, frustration and confusion about what to do next. Being reminded that we have gone through similar dark periods in recent history helped me appreciate the fundamental truth that the struggle against prejudice, greed and violence is a never-ending battle against human fear and ignorance.
When I reviewed London Calling a few months ago, I had no answer to Joe Strummer’s essential question: “What are we gonna do now?” Somehow, listening to Rehearsals for Retirement clarified things for me. We need to accept the fundamental truth that the emerging fascist leaders of the day (Trump, Le Pen, Duterte, etc.) capitalize solely on human fear and insecurity. They do that because they are frightened human beings themselves. They project a strong, tough image to protect their essential vulnerability, and in the process gather many frightened followers. While human beings in fear can be terribly dangerous, they are also inherently fragile. On my part, I will do everything I can to expose these frauds as the deeply insecure people they are and persistently fight them with the truth. I also intend to respect, engage and try to understand the frightened people who follow these corrupt leaders (and I have lots of opportunity to do that, since I live in a part of France where LePen is relatively popular). Finally, I will do whatever I can to work with others to eliminate the two primary sources of fear in our world today: economic inequality and prejudice.
With luck, I may be able to influence half a dozen people to face their fears and move on. But if enough of us fight the fascists with the weapons of truth and human respect—no matter how ugly things get—we can put these motherfuckers where they belong—on the ash heap of history.
Fuck “Let’s win one for The Gipper.” Let’s win this one for Phil Ochs!