I hate to call bullshit on a respected historical institution, but the JFK Library’s chronology of the Cuban Missile Crisis is missing important and vital information that would help the public put the crisis in perspective. I’m specifically referring to the entry for October 24, 1962:
Chairman Khrushchev replies indignantly to President Kennedy’s October 23 letter stating in part:“You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one’s relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.”
The astute historian will likely find this single entry woefully inadequate, and correct the oversight as follows:
1. Chairman Khrushchev replies indignantly to President Kennedy’s October 23 letter stating in part:“You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one’s relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.”
2. James Brown and The Famous Flames performed at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem on the night of October 24; the recording of the performance would prove to be a major factor in establishing the commercial viability of live recordings and a significant development in the history of soul music.
Yes, while Khruschev and Kennedy were wagging their dicks at each other, James Brown was busy triggering orgasms in an audience of 1500 people.
Those who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis (like my parents) invariably spice their stories by describing a world paralyzed by the fear of imminent nuclear armageddon. They give us the impression that every ear in the whole wide world was glued to their transistor radios or vacuum tube TV’s, terrified that at any moment they would receive word that the missiles were on their way. The JFK Library reinforces this narrative by titling their section on the crisis “The World on the Brink.”
Did James Brown, The Famous Flames, the staff at the Apollo and the 1500 concert-goers live in some kind of bubble that shielded them from the daily news? Why weren’t they hiding in fallout shelters or crawling under their beds like everyone else?
Through diligent research and my extraordinary ability to put two and two together, I have managed to solve the mystery. One of the anecdotes often cited in histories of the crisis describes how an American U-2 drifted into Soviet air space on October 27, when tensions were at the breaking point. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara heard the news and rushed out of a meeting shouting, “This means war with the Soviet Union!” In full Paul Revere mode, McNamara immediately called the President, who, according to the accepted mythology, received the news with unruffled detachment: “There’s always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.”
The push-button-activated taping system in the White House confirms that JFK did indeed utter that bit of folklore wisdom, but in one of the many attempts to burnish his legacy, the record was deliberately tampered with to make JFK appear cool and calm in the midst of the crisis. The real conversation featuring that phrase took place in the Oval Office two days before, on the morning of October 25th while Jack was having breakfast with brother Bobby:
BOBBY: Hey! Did you hear James Brown played to a packed house at the Apollo last night? Here we are facing imminent worldwide destruction and the guy decides the show must go on? Either he’s a nut or one of the most dedicated performers alive.
JACK: Well, there’s always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.
James Brown was the son-of-a-bitch who didn’t get the word! As for the 1500 fans who filled the Apollo, they were obviously the smartest people alive at the time. Shit, if you think you’re going to be vaporized any second and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it, you might as well go out partying!
James Brown can be forgiven for not keeping up with the news at that particular juncture in his career. Though he had consistently hit the Top 10 on the R&B charts, he had yet to reach the Billboard Top 30. And while he was widely known as a must-see live act, his performances were still limited to the Chitlin’ Circuit (since refashioned to “Urban Theater Circuit”), making it difficult to reach mainstream (translation: white) audiences. Brown strongly believed he had to try something different and proposed a live album to his masters at King Records. Displaying insight similar to the MLB executives who fought television every step of the way and allowed football to supplant baseball as the American pastime, head man Syd Nathan squashed the idea, arguing that a live recording would discourage fans from attending Brown’s performances.
Imbued with the entrepreneurial spirit most Americans admire, Brown decided to fund the enterprise himself, forking over a lot of his hard-earned dough to pay for the recording equipment, theater rental and tuxedos for the Famous Flames. Even after Brown submitted the finished product, King Records dragged its feet on the release (the album wouldn’t hit the shelves until May 1963). According to James Maycock’s superb retrospective on the album from The Guardian:
As owner of the recordings, Brown forced Nathan to buy the tapes from him. But Nathan wasn’t impressed. Brown: “He didn’t like the way we went from one tune to another without stopping . . . I guess he was expecting exact copies of our earlier records, but with people politely applauding in between.” Once Nathan finally agreed to press 5,000 copies of the album, both men argued about the promotional single. James Brown: “Mr Nathan was waiting to see which tune the radio stations were going to play from the album, and then he would shoot it out as a single. I said, ‘We’re not going to take any singles off it. Sell it the way it is.'”
James Brown’s instincts were balls-on. Live at the Apollo shot to #2 on the Billboard LP charts and stayed on the charts for over a year. The album that blocked its path to the top spot was Andy Williams’ The Days of Wine and Roses.
That, my friends, is the epitome of the term, “polar opposites.”
Though the album opened the door to concerts in mainstream venues, it would take a couple of years for Brown to come up with a Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 single (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, Part 1”) and none of his future studio albums came close to reaching the top. A second live album released a year later (Pure Dynamite – Live at the Royal) reached #10, but the more salient fact is that James Brown holds the record for having the most singles to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 without any of them reaching #1. While he sold lots of records and will be long remembered for his influence on the development of soul and funk, James Brown was first and foremost a live performer, a showman with an extraordinary ability to capture, mesmerize and engage his audience.
And that’s what you hear on Live at the Apollo.
When I’m really, really horny, I hate wasting my time on foreplay. Just pull the damn thing out, and don’t stop until you’ve given me everything you got and then some!
That’s also what you get with Live at the Apollo: nonstop action for twenty-nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds (add another 1:49 if you include Fats’ Gonder’s introduction, and another nine or so minutes if you add the alternative mixes on the deluxe version). Live at the Apollo is the polar opposite (not quite as strong as the James Brown-Andy Williams polarization, but close enough) of a Grateful Dead concert. The Dead take their sweet time moving from one song or jam to another and play as long as they feel like it, usually for multiple hours. Live at the Apollo is bereft of spaces, thank yous and idle chatter. Brown and the Flames never let up, not for a second. Though their appearance was fairly brief in terms of linear time, the sonic record leaves no doubt that they left it all on the field.
As did The Dead, consistently. Sometimes hard and fast is great, sometimes slow and elongated hits the sweet spot. When I say, “Give me everything you’ve got,” I want something more than an automatic thrusting dildo sex machine (available on Amazon) set to the highest speed. I want variation and style!
James Brown understood that variation is as important to music as it is to sex. If you’re someone who has never heard Live at the Apollo, do not assume that the pedal-to-the-floor pace of the show results in a performance that resembles the frantic speed of the guy who explains the dozens of dangerous side effects towards the end of American pharmaceutical commercials. A good chunk of Live at the Apollo is devoted to slow dance numbers, so the minutes don’t exactly fly by. James Brown was pretty good with upbeat material but saved his most dramatic performances for the slow stuff, where often he seems to make time stand still, squeezing every last drop from the musical moment.
Fats Gonder’s job as emcee was to raise the level of the crowd’s anticipation to pre-orgasmic status, an assignment he accomplished with professionalism and aplomb. After sharing the first of several James Brown epithets (“The Hardest Workingman in Show Business”), he runs through a list of Brown’s hits, each followed by an ascending huzzah from the brass-heavy band and each occasioning a noticeable rise in crowd reaction—particularly from the women in the crowd. By the time Fats works his way up the hit list to “Lost Someone,” the screams are reminiscent of the shrieks the American public would hear on February 9, 1964, when The Beatles made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. As Maycock noted in his retrospective, we can thank an uncredited African-American woman for serving as catalyst:
The recording of that Wednesday’s shows was not without its obstacles though. In one of the early performances an elderly woman, just below a microphone, repeatedly screamed: “Sing it, motherfucker!” Debating this dilemma between performances, the band realised she was actually an asset, encouraging the rest of the audience to shriek louder. So King’s vice-president, Hal Neely, bribed her with popcorn into attending the other shows, although he discreetly moved the microphone out of cussing range. Bobby Byrd: “She brought the house down, she was a big part of the album.”
After wrapping up the list by mentioning Brown’s latest release (“Night Train”), Fats throws in two more epithets (“Mr. Dynamite” and “The Amazing Mr. Please Please Himself”) before announcing “The star of the show, James Brown and the Famous Flames!”
The band takes the cue and jumps out of the gate with a high-speed blues interlude. What stands out most prominently is the Al Caiola-Duane Eddy style guitar, dishing out a riff eerily similar to the theme song of the Batman television series. Since that series wouldn’t air for another three years, you can hold your shouts of “Holy ripoff, Batman!” and just revel in the fun. At the start of the third go-round, the screams from the audience tell you that the star performer and his entourage have made what was no doubt a dramatic entrance.
“You know I feel alright!” (Yeah!) “You know I feel alright!” (Yeah!!) “I feel aaaaawwwwlllllllrigh—–ight!” Brown’s welcome is followed by a crunchy, descending vamp on electric guitar that introduces a seriously uptempo riff in 6/4 time that ends with a tight closing flourish from the brass. The tempo shifts to a nice, hip-grinding mid-tempo beat as the singer launches into “I’ll Go Crazy” with doo-wop style support from the Famous Flames. The pre-chorus and chorus are filled with sharply-executed stop-time moments designed to get the adrenaline pumping. Brown’s vocal in this opening piece is delivered with disciplined ease, more concerned with phrasing in sync with groove than lyrical articulation, though he and the Flames tighten up the pronunciation a bit when they sing the key line, “You’ve got to live for yourself/Yourself and nobody else.” As the verses depict a man about to go crazy if his baby leaves him, that key line forms a primitive version of self-affirmation technique.
I don’t want to spend any time imagining James Brown as a self-help guru, so I’m very thankful that the next number starts immediately.
The applause hasn’t run itself out before Brown opens “Try Me,” and those two little words elicit intense screams spiced with swoons. The call-and-response and background vocals from The Famous Flames are outstanding, more than worthy of the few moments of rapt, silent attention they elicit. Sporadic screams do fill the air during the piece, but only in the breaks, never in the verses. This song is directed at two parts of the body—the heart and the clitoris (sorry, guys)—and the performers are right on target. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I’ll say it forever—there’s nothing quite as hot as a man showing a hint of vulnerability. Although James Brown could definitely play the part of drama queen, he also had a remarkable knack for vocal understatement, and here his tone and delivery reflect a man at the lowest of all low points.
After a brief vamp played at hyperspeed, we get “Think,” a hyperspeed version of the version James and the Flames recorded in 1960. It’s such a shocking shift from the slow grind of “Try Me” that the crowd has a hard time getting into the groove; as such, it stands out as the track featuring the least intense audience reaction. The single was definitely uptempo but still danceable; the Apollo version is so fast you might wind up snapping tendons and ligaments trying to keep up. Brown would re-record the song many times over the course of his career, a curious obsession with a rather “meh” song.
This time the vamp leads to a brief guitar lead-in and the welcoming downtempo rhythm of “I Don’t Mind.” Here The Flames’ harmonies take on more of a sweet gospel feel that is a delight to the ear. As with “Try Me,” there are plenty of moments of elongated stop time to raise anticipation, and James Brown’s vocal runs the gamut from low-register notes delivered with emotional restraint and high-pitched howls that display how difficult is for the narrator to maintain that restraint (he’s leaving his baby rather than the other way around, and the wavering emotion tempers the general tone of gloating). The truth is he does mind—and that’s what drives the extremes in Brown’s magnificent vocal.
The original November 1961 release of “Lost Someone,” is a fairly standard slow dance piece distinguished by James Brown’s intense, melodramatic vocal. It touched a sufficient number of hearts to hit #2 on the R&B charts, and you can easily imagine its potential as the closing number in a live set, leaving the crowd begging for an encore. From a purely logical perspective, however (she says, channeling her inner Spock), it’s hard to imagine it as a crowd participation number. I mean, who wants to admit they just got their sorry ass dumped in front of an audience? “Yeah, James, that’s me, I’m a fucking loser! Sing it, man! Bring it on home!”
Still clinging to the illogic of it all, my inner Spock reminds me that human beings are irrational creatures governed by their emotions, encourages me to get over it and give James Brown a helluva lot of credit for pulling off the impossible.
Refusing to let any marketing opportunity go to waste, Brown opens the performance with a brief advertisement for some of his hits:
I said if you leave me I go crazy
‘Cause I know it’s true now
You’ve got the power, and I want you to try me
‘Cause I don’t mind
Don’t leave me bewildered
‘Cause this old heart can’t stand no more
Kudos to J. B. for his marketing prowess, and thank your lucky stars he didn’t remind the audience of the merch table. The brief commercial break is followed by four repetitions of “there’s only one thing I can do/say,” a signal to the sharper pencils in the audience to anticipate a full performance of another James Brown hit. The audience has only one second to shout out or telepathically send their wishes his way, but everyone probably knew it simply had to be either “Please, Please, Please” or “Lost Someone.” The screaming, swooning crowd reaction tells us he made the right call, especially for the women in the audience.
Brown plays it close to the recording for the first few verses, teasing occasional responses from his hypnotized audience. He confirms their location in the palm of his hand through the classic, “Let me hear you say yeah” trope, building it up with “Let me hear you say it a little bit louder.” Soon you hear him move away from the mike, a brilliant little trick that forces the audience to listen even more intently. He conclusively proves the audience will follow him anywhere when, in his distant, near off-mike voice, he screams out “I’ll lo-OOOVE you tomorrow” and the audience rewards him with the most passionate screams on the album. As he continues to float in the distance during the repetition of “I’m so weak,” you wonder if he’s going to do the bit where he feigns utter exhaustion, a signal to one of the Flames to cover his shoulders in a wrap or cape and start to lead him offstage when WHAM! Brown taps into his reserve tank, rips off the covering and explodes in a fit of passion to cap his performance. Alas, it’s just a teaser; Brown returns to full mike and another run-through of “Lost Somebody.” During this phase, he wanders away from the written lyrics and starts playing with the crowd again. My favorite part is when he sings, “I want to hear you scream” and tries to get them to loosen up (“Don’t just say “aah,” say OWWWW!”). Like a good preacher, he tells them that if they let loose, “I believe that my work will be done.” I hope he meant that his work was to make everyone permanently horny so we would spend all our time fucking and never go to war with one another again.
Although early rock/R&B/soul critic and author Peter Guralnick has a tendency to go hyperbolic at times, his description of this performance is fairly grounded in reality:
Here, in a single, multilayered track … you have embodied the whole history of soul music, the teaching, the preaching, the endless assortment of gospel effects, above all the groove that was at the music’s core. “Don’t go to strangers,” James pleads in his abrasively vulnerable fashion. “Come on home to me . . . Gee whiz I love you . . . I’m so weak . . .” Over and over he repeats the simple phrases, insists “I’ll love you tomorrow” until the music is rocking with a steady pulse, until the music grabs you in the pit of the stomach and James knows he’s got you. Then he works the audience as he works the song, teasing, tantalizing, drawing closer, dancing away, until finally at the end of Side I that voice breaks through the crowd noise and dissipates the tension as it calls out, “James, you’re an asshole.” “I believe someone out there loves someone,” declares James with cruel disingenuousness. “Yeah, you,” replies a girl’s voice with unabashed fervor. “I feel so good I want to scream,” says James, testing the limits yet again. “Scream!” cries a voice. And the record listener responds, too, we are drawn in by the same tricks, so transparent in the daylight but put across with the same unabashed fervor with which the girl in the audience offers up her love.
Guralnick, P. (1986). Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, 236-237. New York: Back Bay Books.
I don’t buy “the whole history of soul music bit,” or the “steady rocking bit” but the description of the milieu feels right. You may notice the phrase “Gee whiz” is mentioned, and yes, it is part of the song. More shocking (and not in the original lyrics) is the moment James Brown says, “Shucks,” a word I only associate with one Opie Taylor, inhabitant of the fictional realm known as Mayberry.
There is NO break—not even a nanosecond of space—between “Lost Someone” and the medley, which opens with the first verse of “Please, Please, Please.” This is the worst tease on the album—one lousy verse of “Please, Please, Please” where J. B. sings only the opening line and then we’re off to the races to “You’ve Got the Power” (twelve seconds of it), then to “I Found Someone,” and then . . . five more excerpts before the “Please, Please, Please” reprise, stream after stream of premature ejaculation. In case you haven’t figured it out, I consider the medley the weakest part of the performance, a highlight reel of questionable musical value. I can’t believe there weren’t fans in the audience who didn’t feel a little more than annoyed with these selected shorts. To my ears, the crowd response is fleeting, the cheers and screams fade quickly and my guess is more than a few people took the opportunity presented by this half-assed collage to hit the head. Sadly, I’m not all that impressed with the closing number, “Night Train,” but the crowd seems to be having a good time. I guess I’m not into geography songs.
As it is impossible for a live performance to come out flawless, don’t take my assessment of its few defects as a thumbs-down vote for the album as a whole. With Live at the Apollo, the whole is better than its parts. It’s a damned exciting record, and I think the concert would have been an absolute knockout live-and-in-person.
While later in life his aggressive core would turn nasty and result in several complaints of domestic violence, Live at the Apollo is the culmination of a mid-20th Century Horatio Alger story. James Brown faced more obstacles than most people reading this review will ever face. Through a combination of guts, willpower, talent and a commitment to his craft, he climbed to the top of his profession and made a whole lot of people happy as they grooved to his music. Live at the Apollo is a celebration of his talent and his pluck, and is more than worth the modest price of admission.
I do have to point out that for all his foresight and despite the impressive breadth of his marketing campaign, James Brown didn’t think of filming Live at the Apollo. Fortunately for history, we can catch his performance at the 1964 T. A. M. I. show (Teenage Awards Music International or Teen Age Music International). The lineup was pretty damned impressive—The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Jan & Dean, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Lesley Gore and a host of others—but there is no question that James Brown stole the show. Here you’ll see the physical nature of his performance, the precise choreography and not one, not two, not three but FOUR fits of feigned exhaustion. Even if you don’t give a hoot for James Brown’s music, you have to smile at his audacity, his discipline and his off-the-charts kinetic energy.
Allegedly legendary and overrated music critic Robert Christgau famously lambasted Pleasures of the Harbor, which apparently hit the racks during a period when Mr. Christgau wasn’t getting any. Nor should he have:
He also commented on the artist, saying “Too bad his voice shows an effective range of about half an octave [and] his guitar playing would not suffer much if his right hand were webbed.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Christgau was extolling the virtues of Mr. Dylan, who has no effective range at all if you only give someone credit for being in the octave range when they actually hit the notes.
Now, I’ll admit I can get cranky, huffy and insulting in some of my reviews, but the thing that triggers those bursts of vituperation is not my mood, whether that mood is affected by the absence of sex (a rare occurrence, and anyway, I have a huge collection of vibrators), or my monthly bleeder. What gets my dander up is when established artists produce crap and then try to sell it to the easily-exploitable masses with sophisticated and suitably artistic marketing (McCartney has dispensed with the artistic pretense, in case you hadn’t noticed).
But when someone gives it their best and falls short, I’m actually quite nice about it. However, that statement has no relevance whatsoever to Pleasures of the Harbor, which I think is one of the most remarkable records ever made. I will admit to its flaws. Mr. Christgau’s reference to “gaudy musical settings” is imprecise; while some of the arrangements get too crowded, the more common problem is that the vocal-instrumental balance is off, distracting from the singer and his superb lyrics. Sometimes Phil Ochs can overdo it with his signature vibrato and occasionally I find myself wishing that he would have restrained himself a bit. All in all, those are minor imperfections in a masterpiece of the songwriting art.
Curiously, Pleasures of the Harbor follows a strange pattern: each song is better than the one that precedes it. I don’t think I’ve experienced that with any other album. Think of it as a novel that takes a while to get going, and you’ll be fine. I’d even go one step further and say I’d forgive you if you skipped the first song, “Cross My Heart,” because it’s easily the weakest song on the album and the one with the “gaudiest” musical arrangement. Ochs had hooked up with an arranger by the name of Lincoln Mayorga, and while they did some fabulous things together on the album, sometimes their 60’s experimental exuberance got the best of them. Remarkably, Ochs thought “Cross My Heart” would be a hit. The man simply had no concept of commercial music, bless his heart, and the single bombed.
“Flower Lady” is definitely a step up. The strings, piano and flute provide a relatively subdued chamber music background to allow Ochs to paint a picture of a society too busy, too fragmented and too self-absorbed to bother to stop to buy flowers and celebrate a moment of beauty or friendship. Interestingly, the notoriously political Phil Ochs even laments the lack of civility between anti-war protestors and those shouldering the rifles:
Soldiers disillusioned to come home from the war
Sarcastic students tell them not to fight no more
And they argue through the night, black is black and white is white
Walk away both knowing they are right
But nobody’s buying flowers from the flower lady.
The most famous song on the album, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” is a masterpiece of social satire that still resonates today. The indifference to human suffering, the fear of getting involved, the power of comfort to lull us to sleep, the demonization of minorities . . . not much has changed since he wrote this song almost fifty years ago. The ironic use of Dixieland piano to set a jolly mood as he recounts the murder of Kitty Genovese and rats chewing on children in the ghetto was a masterstroke. What I find amazing is that a song like this—one that did receive some airplay before prudish radio stations pulled it because of the reference to marijuana—didn’t change a fucking thing. For some reason, satire no longer has the power to spark change in our society as it did in the times of Swift and Dickens. That’s not the fault of modern musical satirists like Ochs, Vivian Stanshall and Ray Davies, but a combination of the modern lack of community and the general feeling of impotence that leads the average person to believe that they have no power to make a difference. Have a good laugh and go back to the telly! Or the booze! Or the babes!
I’ve always found it interesting that Ochs, Stanshall and Davies—all exceptionally perceptive people—suffered nervous breakdowns. The gap between truth and reality must have been extraordinarily painful for them.
The song that got the team of Ochs and Mayorga going was the stunning “I’ve Had Her.” As Mayorga explained in an excellent piece in Political Affairs, “Phil wanted some kind of classical styles behind his singing for “I’ve Had Her”, one of the songs on ‘Pleasures of the Harbor’, his first LA album. I suggested that I would incorporate different composers’ styles, changing them up with each verse. You know, Bach behind one, Schumann behind another, and so on. He loved the idea.” It was a brilliant idea indeed; the music is so beautiful that I long to hear an instrumental-only version. The problem with that idea, though, is that we’d lose the equally beautiful lyrics. I’ve read some horribly moronic interpretations of “I’ve had Her,” all from males who believe the song is about a chick who plays the field and who is therefore worthless. Besides the obvious and offensive sexism in that line of thinking, the lyrics tell a completely different tale if you bother to read and reflect on them.
The structure of “I’ve Had Her” is a verse describing an encounter with a “woman” followed by the key lines, “But I’ve had her, I’ve had her . . . She’s nothing.” The problem with the standard male interpretation is that Phil Ochs is not describing real women but images and fantasies of women: the image of a woman sailing, a mermaid, a queen that appears in a dream. The one verse where a real woman is present illustrates the instinctual male ability to transform a woman into an abstraction:
The players at the party are prepared to take a chance
They drop their pants
They drop their pants
In the corner, she’s so crystalline no one dares to ask a dance
And she calls out to you
And she calls out to you
But, I’ve had her, I’ve had her
Of course she’s nothing! Every “woman” in this song is a manufactured male fantasy. The verse with the queen even describes masturbation to that fantasy: “In the prison of your broken bed you dribble in a dream.” The point (which should be obvious by now) is that men have a horrible habit of relating to women in terms of their idealized notions of womanhood rather than learning to deal with a living, breathing human being. Phil Ochs wasn’t a sexist pig, but one of the few men who perceived this persistent problem in male-female relations.
People have called Pleasures of the Harbor a somber album, which means they’ve given it a superficial run-through and moved on. How could an album with “Miranda” on it be called “somber?” In a more boozy Dixieland style than “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” this song is a hoot! It’s a fun song to help you work on your barbershop harmonies and relatively light in terms of the social satire. The spooky verse is the last verse, when Phil Ochs sings, “In the bar we’re gin and scotching/While the FBI is watching.” While he later became quite paranoid, there was nothing paranoid about those lines. According to the Wikipedia bio, this was real shit:
Years after his death, it was revealed that the FBI had a file of nearly 500 pages on Ochs. Much of the information in those files relates to his association with counterculture figures, protest organizers, musicians, and other people described by the FBI as “subversive”. The FBI was often sloppy in collecting information on Ochs: his name was frequently misspelled “Oakes” in their files, and they continued to consider him “potentially dangerous” after his death.
Okay, I wasn’t there, but I have a hard time believing that this gentle soul was more dangerous than J. Edgar, who was seriously fucking weird.
As I said at the beginning, Pleasures of the Harbor gets better the further you go. “The Party” is a breathtaking tour de force of the satiric arts, where Phil Ochs appears in the role of piano flunky to provide decoration and background music for a upper-crust soirée. Each verse satirizes a type or group, followed by the couplet, “And my shoulders had to shrug/As I crawled beneath the rug and retuned my piano.” Some of my favorites:
The hostess is enormous, she fills the room with perfume
She meets the guests and smothers them with greetings.
And she asks, “How are you” and she offers them a drink
The countess of the social grace, who never seems to blink
And she promises to talk to you if you promise not to think
I’ve run into a lot of these lately at corporate parties . . . trophy women:
The beauty of the hour is blazing in the present
She surrounds herself with those who would surrender
Floating in her flattery, she’s a trophy-prize, caressed
Protected by a pretty face, sometimes cursed, sometimes blessed
And she’s staring down their desires
While they’re staring down her dress
And I love the way Phil Ochs decides to make an entrance at the end of the piece:
Oh, the party must be over, even the losers are leaving
But just one doubt is nagging at my caustic mind
So I snuck up close behind me and I gave myself a kiss
And I led myself to the mirror to expose what I had missed
There I saw a laughing maniac who was writing songs like this
I wonder what it was about the 1960’s that gave birth to such talented lyricists . . . and please don’t tell me it was the drugs.
You may be wondering why a thirty-two year old woman would be bothering with an album that probably none of her generational cohorts have heard. The answer lies in the title track, “Pleasures of the Harbor.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I was a little girl growing up with my hippie parents in San Francisco, music was a constant presence every day of the life. Although I was a pretty precocious little kid, I won’t make the claim that I understood much of anything I was hearing, but certain songs filled me with a sense of absolute wonder. I called them “The Most Beautiful Song in the World,” and the use of the singular is deliberate. I had several of them, but the one I was listening to in the moment was The Most Beautiful Song in the World and I’d get very pouty when my parents laughed and reminded me that I’d already given that honor to another song. The ones I remember are “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Donovan’s “Celeste,” Judy Collins’ version of “Suzanne” and “Pleasures of the Harbor.” I haven’t listened to Donovan in years (I have Fairytale and Sunshine Superman on my to-do list), but I still think the other three qualify. Later dismissed for its “cinematic” music (a dismissal that even Phil Ochs bought into), I still find it heartstoppingly beautiful. My favorite passage is the ritual of sex and the sailor:
And the girls scent the air
They seem so fair
With paint on their face
Soft is their embrace
To lead them up the stairs
Sailing will be over
Come and take the pleasures of the harbor
In the room dark and dim
Touch of skin
He asks her of her name
She answers with no shame
And not a sense of sin
‘Til the fingers draw the blinds
Sip of wine
The cigarette of doubt
The candle is blown out
The darkness is so kind
The shyness of the rough man as he faces the beauty of the woman is so touching; that “cigarette of doubt” he smokes is so real; the “darkness is so kind” to hide both our emotional vulnerabilities and the embarrassment of desire. Magnifique!
If Phil Ochs had ended Pleasures of the Harbor at this point, he would have had a masterpiece. That he gave us another masterpiece to end the album is astonishing. “Crucifixion” is primarily an allegory with John F. Kennedy substituted for Jesus, but in truth describes the human flaw of elevating people to heroic status, destroying them and then turning them into gods. It applies to JFK, Martin Luther King, Kurt Cobain . . . the whole tragic lot.
When I was still living at home, my parents made me watch a six-hour special (it must have been PBS) of the live NBC coverage of the events of November 22, 1963 to try to elevate my appreciation of the significance of the event. My first impression was amazement and the professionalism of the journalists; by the time I grew up, journalism had become a form of entertainment. More than that, I’d never seen so many truly spontaneous expressions of grief and shock; the faces and the voices of the people they interviewed in the streets dramatically expressed the incomprehensibility of the event. As part of my cultural study I’d paired with my musical exploration, I decided to learn more about JFK, particularly the meaning he had to people of the time (although I had a good sense of it by simply comparing him to the boring old fart who preceded him and the seriously weird pair who followed him). I was especially delighted by videos of his press conferences and how intelligent his answers were. I’d never seen that in a president!
Needless to say, I liked him much better when I found out what a horny bastard he was.
So, although I can’t emotionally appreciate the real impact of his death since I came eighteen years after the fact, I get it on an intellectual level. This was an event of monumental proportions that, if you follow the subsequent history, seemed to let all the evil genies out of the bottle. Lincoln Mayorga’s brilliant decision to use the eerie sound of dissonant strings to support the tale communicates the other-worldliness of the event better than words ever could. His equally intense scoring of the matador sequence is truly terrifying. Through this mad music, Phil Ochs relates the tale of the strange dynamic between leader and follower, one that is darkly complex and deeply disturbing, for the opposites of love and hate coexist in uneasy and ominous tension:
Then His message gathers meaning and it spreads across the land
The rewarding of His pain is the following of the man
But ignorance is everywhere and people have their way
Success is an enemy to the losers of the day
In the shadows of the churches, who knows what they pray
For blood is the language of the band
The Spanish bulls are beaten, the crowd is soon beguiled
The matador is beautiful, a symphony of style
Excitement is ecstatic, passion places bets
Gracefully He bows to ovations that He gets
But the hands that are applauding are slippery with sweat
And saliva is falling from their smiles
Another passage recalls a line from Ian Anderson’s “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me,” where he wrote, “And the limp-faced hungry viewers/Fight to fasten with their eyes/Like the man hung from the trapeze/Whose fall will satisfy.” In this context, though, the meaning is horrifyingly real, because I grew up in world where people were much more fascinated by the gruesome details of Kennedy’s assassination than any of his contributions, thanks to Oliver Stone:
But you know I predicted it, I knew He had to fall
How did it happen? I hope His suffering was small
Tell me every detail, I’ve got to know it all
And do you have a picture of the pain?
Back and to the left. Back and to the left. Back and to the left. All while his brain explodes on the big screen. Disgusting.
Although I shouldn’t be surprised, I’m dismayed that Phil Ochs is not as well-known today as some of his contemporaries, given the excellence and originality he displayed over a too-brief career. Following Dylan’s lead, he began to expand his reach beyond protest songs strummed on guitar and seemed to hunger for interesting new approaches to music while never losing his strong sense of social consciousness. Although his later years were characterized by wide behavioral swings and a growing sense of alienation (Mayorga said that “Phil saw himself as the artist trying to destroy himself.”), nothing can diminish the power of his work. Pleasures of the Harbor is one of the great albums in American music, and its messages retain their stark power today.