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!
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.