After the burst of energy that gave us Rehearsals for Retirement, Phil Ochs didn’t have much left in the tank. Signs of clinical depression started to emerge, fueled by a combination of Chicago, the ascension of Richard Nixon, alcohol abuse, valium and the commercial failure of Rehearsals for Retirement (A&M pulled the record from the shelves after only a few months). Phil began to experience writer’s block more frequently, compounding his depression and doubling his frustration with a world that refused to change or recognize his contributions.
Searching desperately for a way out, he stumbled upon a solution thanks to an act of generosity on the part of his brother-manager Michael, who offered Phil four tickets to Elvis Presley’s comeback show in Vegas.
The more Phil thought about it, the more convinced he became that his own artistic future hinged upon his appealing to a working-class base. He needed to find a way to reach a larger cross-section of the public and deliver his message to them. In turning it over in his mind, Phil kept returning to his old idols—John Wayne, Audie Murphy, James Dean, and Elvis Presley. All had realized hero status in their lifetime. Elvis intrigued Phil the most. He was a true working-class hero, a truck driver turned King of Rock ’n’ Roll. He had taken American forms of music—rhythm and blues, country, gospel, and even folk—and adapted them to his own style. He had reached unparalleled success, yet in recent years his career had fallen on hard times. He seemed to have lost his way, but now he was returning with a vengeance.
Schumacher, Michael. There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs . University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
Greatest Hits and Gunfight at Carnegie Hall were the products of Phil’s strategic decision to return to his pre-folk fascination with early rock and country-western music. Phil certainly wasn’t the only musical artist of the era looking backward—The Byrds, The Band and Credence Clearwater Revival had already staked their claims in the emerging “roots music” genre and The Dead would soon follow—but his efforts do have the distinction of being the least-commercially-successful of them all. Like Rehearsals for Retirement, Greatest Hits was removed from the shelves in very short order and A&M refused to release Gunfight at Carnegie Hall during his lifetime.
The two albums have to be reviewed simultaneously because in Phil’s mind they were part of the same package that would revive his flagging career. My unwelcome task is to explain why this package failed to do so.
The poor reception to Greatest Hits surprised no one except Phil Ochs. What Phil considered a spoof of Presley’s 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong: Elvis’ Gold Records, Volume 2 was likely perceived as both a ripoff and a turnoff by even the most avid Phil Ochs fans. The gold lamé suit would have completely befuddled the folkies, and those who weren’t immediately put off by Phil-as-Elvis would have been seriously disappointed when they flipped the sleeve to discover that it wasn’t a greatest hits album after all, but a collection of unfamiliar titles under the self-pitying back cover banner “50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong.” Shifting into my role as a reluctant marketing professional, I would classify Phil’s effort as one of the dumbest fucking marketing plans in history, ranking right up there with Chevrolet’s attempt to sell the Nova in Mexico (no va = doesn’t go).
It’s too bad that Phil refused to listen to his brother and the folks at A&M when they expressed sincere dismay with Phil’s half-baked proposal because Greatest Hits might have been saved with discipline and clear intent. Because Phil’s Elvis epiphany took place after he had already lined up a few songs for the album, the contrast between the pre-Elvis, more introspective songs and the rockabilly stuff is sometimes jarring—so much so that it feels like two half-albums were patched together at the last minute. The flow was so annoying to this listener that I put together my own playlists with the rockabilly/upbeat tracks on Playlist Side One and the reflective tracks on Playlist Side Two—sort of like what Dylan did with electric and acoustic sides on Bringing It All Back Home. While my tinkering took care of the flow problem, it made me much more aware of the many production, engineering and arrangement issues with the upbeat tracks (as well as a few problems with the more reflective tracks). Though the album contains a few gems, it’s more of a slog than a pleasant walk in the park.
Phil managed to gather an impressive stable of musicians to back him—James Burton, Ry Cooder, Gene Parsons to name a few—but the results were mixed at best. Even the best musicians need time to get acquainted with each other and get a read on the star of the show. Given that the album was recorded in two days, it’s not surprising that some of the arrangements don’t click and the interplay between Phil and the musicians fails to create much in the way of magic. Most of the magic on the album comes from those moments when Phil reconnects with his songwriting mojo and demonstrates that he still had the power to move hearts and minds.
Testing the theory that it’s best to get the bad juju out of the way by opening an album with a poorly-written, poorly-arranged, poorly-performed and overproduced piece of crap, Phil introduces the not-new-and-improved version of himself with the ridiculously over-the-top fanfare of “One Way Ticket Home.” Opening with six seconds of the thrill of horns holding a single note over the sound of faux timpani and pounding piano, the scene shifts abruptly to Ry Cooder plunking a mandolin and probably wondering why the hell he took this gig in the first place. Phil then takes the stage, singing with way too much intensity for a guy who just wants to go home and watch TV. In response to Phil’s shocking announcement of the presence of a billboard, the noise rises to peak levels as the timpani and meth-fueled piano pound away while Merry Clayton, Sherlie Matthews and Clydie King give it all they’ve got in the hope that their obvious talents won’t go entirely to waste and they can use a surgically-removed clip of their performance to land a recording date with The Stones. The rest of the song is just as unlistenable; the only tiny piece of relevance is Phil’s pledge of fealty to Elvis: “Elvis Presley is the king, I was at his crowning.” I strongly advise prospective listeners to skip the track to avoid permanent hearing damage.
If you ignored my advice and listened to “One Way Ticket Home” anyway, the healing balm of “Jim Dean of Indiana” may provide some relief. This blessedly simple elegy to the man who became an enduring icon of cultural rebellion is performed as a duet with Lincoln Mayorga’s sensitive touch on piano beautifully supporting Phil’s deeply respectful vocal. Phil takes us on a fairly linear journey through James Dean’s brief existence, covering the key events and relationships that shaped his life with very little in the way of editorializing. Having also escaped a conformist childhood in the Midwest, Phil’s emotional connection to Dean is unsurprising, but he manages those emotions exceptionally well throughout the song, never veering from the tone of respectful mourning established in the opening verse.
Phil might have made a pretty decent record if he’d exerted some of that restraint on the rest of the album instead of making the least of all that talent in the studio with claustrophobic arrangements where no one stands out because everyone’s playing like they’re pieceworkers getting paid by the note. “My Kingdom for a Car” is a good example of bad arrangement and reactive engineering—they had to drench Phil’s voice in heavy reverb so you could hear his voice above the din of all those instrumentalists vying for attention. The lyrics contain no sense of irony or a hint of satire as Phil tears down the highway on leaded gas, singing the line “There’s smoke in the air but I do not care” with no guilt whatsoever. The rest of this rockabilly tune is loaded with the hoary wind-in-my-hair clichés and the toxic masculinity of the muscle car brigade. Double yuck on this one.
Validating my argument that the album should have been split in half, “Boy in Ohio” would have made for a lovely follow-up to “Jim Dean of Indiana,” strengthening the themes of loss and the yearning for a less complicated existence. Though the fiddle, guitar and harmonica threaten to cross the line into overkill, they manage to restrain themselves sufficiently so that each contribution is distinct from the others. While the song does contain predictable scenes of burger joints and freeways ripping through what once was beautiful countryside, the most revealing lines have to do with Phil’s awkwardness with the opposite sex:
Spanish teacher she tried to help
She was much too pretty
So I just stared at the back of her legs
When I was a boy in Ohio
It was 3.2 beer at the honky-tonk bar
Where they said the girls were easy
But somehow I never found me one
When I was a boy in Ohio
None of Phil’s relationships with adult women could be classified as warm or fuzzy, and the dearth of love songs in his catalog speaks volumes about his discomfort with adult-style intimacy. Schumacher opined that Phil saved all his love for his daughter: “As for Meegan . . . Phil recognized that he was less than an ideal father, but Meegan was the only person in his life that he had ever—and would ever—love unconditionally.” I think Phil Ochs loved “the people,” but found it much harder to love individuals, especially adult women.
Phil goes full Hank Williams on “Gas Station Women,” with Don Rich supplying the classic fiddle overture and Phil attempting to emulate the drawl and step-glides of the country singer. Sadly, the song comes across as a weak joke, drenched in my-baby-done-left-me clichés and lacking a strong punchline. The arrangement is a bit too busy and the harmony vocal is so loud that the guy (I’m unable to identify the culprit because the contributions of the three suspects are not track-specific) drowns out both Phil and the backing band. Count your blessings that you’ve survived the worst of it and flip the disc over to side two.
The most credible of Phil’s country rockers comes in the form of “Chords of Fame,” though the performance is compromised once again by that loud harmonizer who buries any traces of Phil Ochs on the chorus. The rest of the arrangement is pretty clean, if not particularly interesting. The song maintains a nice feel throughout and, when left to himself, Phil is in fine voice. The song is cleverly presented as a piece of life wisdom from a dude Phil happened to stumble upon while waiting to take the stage:
I found him by the stage last night — he was breathing his last breath
A bottle of gin and a cigarette was all that he had left
I can see you make music ’cause you carry a guitar
God help the troubadour who tries to be a star
So play the chords of love, my friend, play the chords of pain
If you want to keep your song
Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t play the chords of fame
What distinguishes “Chords of Fame” from most of the other songs about the rot of corruption in the music business is Phil’s introduction of the possibility that the bullshit permeating the music industry doesn’t always come from the suits but from (gasp!) the musicians as well: “I seen my share of hustlers as they try to take the world/When they find their melody, they’re surrounded by the girls.” I’m tempted to name a few but I’ve already pissed off enough people on this blog to last a lifetime, so I’ll take some advice from the Go-Go’s, seal my lips and move on to “Ten Cents a Coup.”
Pieced together from performances from at least two (and possibly more) anti-war rallies, “Ten Cents a Coup” is the only topical song on the album. Phil’s extended rap before the song lacks the wit of his intros on In Concert, but his insight on the Great American Divide still holds true today: “There’s two Americas—there’s an old America which is just dying and ossifying and growing harder and collapsing and as it dies, the people just get uglier and uglier.” Phil then applies the concept of ugliness to Nixon and Agnew, promoted to the highest offices in the land in a “used car dealer’s election.” The one flash of wit that ignites palpable crowd laughter comes near the end of the song:
I dreamed that Nixon died of a suntan
There was only Spiro left
At his swearing in, he fell on his chin
He assassinated himself.
The feeling evoked by “Ten Cents a Coup” is closer to sadness than the fleeting delight of a trip down memory lane because it’s pretty obvious that Phil has given up the fight, offering his audience insults instead of hope or clarity.
In a curious production decision, “Ten Cents a Coup” fades directly into “Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Me,” a parlor piece decorated in baroque harpsichord and string quartet that has nothing in common with “Ten Cents a Coup” except for a passing mention of Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid. The lyrics describe a typical Sunday in the lives of two couples who share a house in Los Angeles: Phil and his then-partner Karen and Phil’s pal Andy Wickham and his girl Frances. The day is typically uneventful, marked by picking up the Sunday paper, playing volleyball, firing up the barbecue—a series of still-life images painted in music. While there isn’t much meaning to unearth here, the melody is perfectly lovely and Phil’s vocal is excellent.
The calm is rudely interrupted by the dueling guitars that will deepen your appreciation for Lynyrd Skynyrd and the damn-this-is-getting-tiresome overproduction of “Basket in the Pool,” a song that will make no sense at all unless you know the completely weird backstory described in all its gory detail by Mr. Schumacher:
Alcohol was an entirely different matter. As a casual drinker, Phil was fun to be around, but when he was drinking heavily, especially if he was in a depressed state, he could be unreasonable and contentious and, on rare occasions, violent.
One of the more bizarre episodes associated with his drinking during this period occurred at a party hosted by comedian Tom Smothers. The party, thrown in honor of the folksinger Donovan, was overflowing with entertainment figures. As Phil wandered through Smothers’ enormous estate, he could not help but be put off by all the glamour and wealth surrounding him, especially at a time when Hollywood celebrities were making a lot of noise about supporting the starving Vietnamese refugees. To top off his party, Tom Smothers was giving away a door prize of an enormous wicker basket filled with fruit, cheese, and imported wine. Phil won the raffle for the prize, but when he went up to claim it, he surprised the party’s guests by delivering a long, rambling monologue about Vietnam, the well-fed and the starving, and the incongruity of the party. Then, to punctuate his statements, he placed the door-prize basket into the swimming pool, where it sank without further ceremony.
Schumacher, Michael. There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs . University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
Phil later defended his actions as an Abbie Hoffman-type protest, but while I share his disgust concerning the oblivious hypocrisy of well-heeled liberals, the incident (and the fact that he felt it was worth his time and energy to write a song about it) says more about his declining mental state than the insensitivity of the party-goers.
It’s fitting that his last studio album ends with “No More Songs” but it’s unfortunate that the song fell victim to the scourge of overproduction that dominates the album. The introduction of additional singers who aren’t anywhere close to being in unison or harmony with Phil pretty much spoils the party for me; the instrumentation is ornamental at best; what should have been a quiet and reflective song is overwhelmed by a pompous heaviness that obliterates the sense of tragedy. The song begins and ends with the same verse, one that unintentionally described most of the content on the album:
Hello hello hello, is the anybody home
I’ve only called to say I’m sorry
The drums are in the dawn
And all the voices gone
And it seems that there are no more songs.
I’ve never had this feeling about any of Phil’s other albums, but I’m relieved that there are no more songs.
Gunfight at Carnegie Hall
The only person on earth who wanted to release Gunfight at Carnegie Hall was Phil Ochs.
Phil’s last Carnegie Hall concerts (there were two shows scheduled back-to-back on a single day) were the ultimate in shit shows. There was no soundcheck because the crew showed up late. Then there was a bomb threat. Then Phil damaged the tendons in his right hand by punching through the glass window of the ticket box between shows, treating his injury by guzzling down a whole lotta booze. Sometime during the second show, Carnegie management shut off the electricity. Up to that point, Phil had spent a good chunk of his time on stage trying to get the crowd to embrace the man in the gold lamé suit with limited success—they cheered when Phil played his classic songs on acoustic guitar, they jeered and booed whenever the band took the stage. Shutting off the electricity—a brazen suppression of artistic freedom—finally did the trick and moved the crowd over to Phil’s side:
At Carnegie Hall, the battle was waged into the wee hours of the morning. At three o’clock, when Phil finally reached the end of the show and had walked offstage, the hall management cut the stage’s electricity before he could perform an encore, giving Phil one more opportunity to bond with his audience. “I want power!” he began to chant when he walked back onstage for the planned encore. The crowd quickly joined him. “We want power! We want power! . . .” After a few minutes, the electricity was restored and Phil closed out the evening with three songs—a cover of Elvis’ “A Fool Such as I,” the evening’s second reading of “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” and, as the coup de grâce, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “School Days.” The crowd ate it up. By the time he had finished, many audience members were dancing in the aisles. “It became a total magic moment,” Phil later recalled.
Schumacher, Michael. There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs . University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
The “magic” left Phil with a false high, leading him to conclude that the night at the Carnegie was a smashing success. Both his brother Michael and Jerry Moss, president of A&M, were appalled when Phil argued for releasing the recording of the shows as a live album, and Moss wisely vetoed the idea. Phil would always maintain that he was right and that Moss, his brother and everyone else on the planet were full of shit.
They weren’t. Gunfight at Carnegie Hall is one of the worst live albums ever recorded. The sound quality is piss-poor, the band lacks cohesion, the harmonies are horrible and the song selection highly questionable. Two of the tracks are medleys featuring the songs of his teenage heroes, Buddy Holly and Elvis. Ignoring the sloppiness of the band, the Holly medley isn’t half bad, largely because the timbre and range of Phil’s voice were well-suited to Buddy Holly’s melodies. By contrast, the Elvis medley is bloody awful—there was no way in hell that Phil Ochs could come close to reproducing Elvis’ mojo or the King’s facility with the low notes. His rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” would be laughable under normal circumstances; in the context of an artist suffering from creative decline and increasing mental instability, it’s simply pathetic. The only track that captures my fancy is the high-speed rock version of “Tape from California,” which almost makes up for the off-key harmonies on “Pleasures of the Harbor.”
A&M eventually relented and released Gunfight at Carnegie Hall in 1974—but only in Canada. I don’t know what they had against Canadians; perhaps they felt that nicer people would be more forgiving. The album would not be released in the United States until the late 1980s, long after Phil had vacated the material world. In the intervening years, the album has become something of a cult classic—the musical equivalent of an Ed Wood movie. If you’re into that sort of thing, go for it.
It is deeply ironic that his career collapsed at Carnegie Hall—not because Phil had performed there successfully several times before, but because of his lifelong fascination with the magical aura of that legendary venue—Carnegie Hall was his “If I can make it there/I’ll make it anywhere” measuring stick from the moment he arrived in New York City:
Although he had played in the hall as part of large hootenanny ensembles, Phil had fantasized, almost from his first day as a performer, about appearing there as a solo act. To Phil, playing Carnegie Hall signified an arrival. Phil and Arthur [Phil’s manager at the time] tried the doors and, finding one open, snuck into the empty hall. The two made their way up the aisles to the front of the hall. Standing on the edge of the darkened stage and looking up at the tiers of seats above them, both felt a rush of excitement. “Someday,” Phil told Arthur, “we’ll have this place.”
Schumacher, Michael. There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs. University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
For all intents and purposes, the shows at Carnegie Hall killed what was left of his career. But though Phil’s career ended with a pratfall, his late-stage errors in judgment should not in any way diminish his reputation as one of America’s greatest songwriters. Any performer can have an off-night—in this case, a whopper of an off-night—but Phil Ochs gave us more than enough great music to earn our forgiveness and enduring respect.
This was Phil’s plan for Tape from California (from Richie Unterberger’s Liner Notes):
“In my new album,” he told Broadside, “I’m going to make the next step, which will be a comment on the spiritual decline of America, with some of the musical elements I had in Harbor but somewhat played down. And the words are coming to the fore again. Essentially, I’m going to try and get a balance between the Harbor record and the (solo guitar 1966) Concert one that preceded it.”
This was the critical response (summarized by Michael Schumacher in There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs):
Tape from California was greeted with considerably more enthusiasm than Pleasures of the Harbor. Critics seemed relieved that Phil had returned to the basics and was using his passion and dedication to energize his music. “Phil Ochs may well be the last of the really angry young men,” offered one critic pleased with the album. “In a time when most of the ‘protest’ singers have turned to introspection, Ochs continues his assault on the senses via his assault on the hypocrisy that punctuates modern life.” Calling the album Phil’s “most powerful package so far,” Billboard singled out “Tape from California,” “The Harder They Fall,” and “Half a Century High” as album highlights.
This is my response: Bad plan. Brain-dead critics.
Compromise rarely works in any form of art. You either go the full monty or waste your time trying to please everybody. The First Impressionist Exhibition featured works by Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir, Sisley and Berthe Morisot—a pretty impressive lineup. The First Impressionist Exhibition was considered a complete failure by attendees and critics alike. Instead of apologizing for violating all the rules of academic painting and promising to paint like Rembrandt and Vermeer in the future, the artists shrugged their shoulders and happily continued their exploration of light, color and movement, creating timeless works of art.
Although he publicly made light of it, Phil Ochs was traumatized by the hostile reception to Pleasures of the Harbor from both folkies and critics. On Tape from California, he tried to meet his detractors halfway, compromising his art in the process. Tape from California isn’t a bad album; the best thing you can say about it is that it’s an uneven work that pales in comparison to the album that preceded it (Pleasures of the Harbor) and the album that followed it (Rehearsals for Retirement). I get the overwhelming feeling that Phil Ochs was playing Phil Ochs without being Phil Ochs. Some of the songs are clever but lack the spirit you find in his best works; some are tantalizing but you’ll come up empty when you try to make sense of them. Several of the songs on the album had been written and performed live at least two years before Tape from California, but omitted from the more apolitical Pleasures of the Harbor. Schumacher called it a “hodgepodge,” and he wasn’t far off.
The title track falls into the tantalizing category, but save for one verse, doesn’t offer much in the way of coherent lyricism or meaning. Schumacher fingered the track as the one most damaged by over-arrangement; I’d describe it as just plain bad arrangement where the different pieces never come together. Joe Osborn’s intricate bass part stands out like a sore thumb—not because he’s screwing up but because everyone else is on a different page. Schumacher points to the “heavy-handed rock drumming” as one problem, but I would argue that the unnamed studio drummer is the only guy who got it right—the fast-tempo country-rock version on Gunfight at Carnegie Hall is much more exciting than the loping, flowery, kitchen-sink arrangement you hear on Tape from California.
As for the lyrics, most of the verses find Phil in conversation with his alter ego as he paints a blurred picture of his relocation from New York City to L. A. This internal dialogue is filled with self-criticisms (“He must have lost his mind/He should be put away, right away,” “My rhymes are all repeating, ballads are growing blind”) that appear to provide him with justification for the move, but he offers no tangible proof that is life is better in La-La Land. He seems to get bored with the self-analysis and moves on to more topical material, reeling off a few good lines here and there (“Half the world is crazy and the other half is scared”) and one-half of a solid verse that many men of his generation would have related to:
The draft board is debating if they’d like to take my life
I’d sooner take a wife and raise a child or two
Peace has turned to poison
And the flag has blown a fuse
Even courage is confused
And now all the brave are in the grave
The song clocks in at 6:45 and could have been vastly improved had Phil exerted some discipline, stuck to one theme and cut out the extraneous material. Structurally and musically, “Tape from California” is one of his most interesting songs with a complex yet coherent chord pattern far removed from the simple music accompanying his folk tunes, so it’s frustrating that this take didn’t pan out.
“White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land” plays to Phil’s strength with topical material, though his message is weakened somewhat by his attempt to integrate his more lyrical tendencies into the mix. You can see the problem in the first two verses: the opening couplets are stark and powerful; the third lines unnecessarily elusive:
The pilots playing poker in the cockpit of the plane
The casualties arriving like the dropping of the rain
And a mountain of machinery will fall before a man
When you’re white boots marching in a yellow land
It’s written in the ashes of the village towns we burn
It’s written in the empty bed of fathers unreturned
And the chocolate in the children’s eyes will never understand
When you’re white boots marching in a yellow land
The bridge is particularly awkward; it seems Phil thought the nonsensical simile “And the lost patrol chase their chartered souls/Like old whores following tired armies” was the greatest thing he’d ever written (or since Brecht wrote Mother Courage), as he felt the need to repeat it three times over the course of the song. And though every other critic I’ve read considered the introduction of the bugle and martial drum rolls brilliant flourishes, I find them cheesy and distracting. His best line comes near the end of the song: “We’re fighting in a war we lost before the war began.” Phil would plumb that aspect of Vietnam in greater depth in the song that opens side two.
Sadly, I’m not impressed with “Half a Century High” either. I actually don’t mind the lo-fi filter; after all, millennial music is filled with that kind of thing. I just find the song rather boring and the point of the whole exercise elusive. Lucky for me, this is an abridged version; if you want the full treatment, pick up a copy of Live at the Newport Folk Festival.
Phil finally gives us a well-crafted and interesting song in the form of “Joe Hill,” providing a fairly thorough biography of the man in contrast to the Joan Baez/Paul Robeson song-of-the-same-name that granted Joe Hill sainthood without telling us much about how he earned such an honor. Please do not conclude that I like the song because it’s a good old-fashioned Phil Ochs folk guitar number (guitar played here by the temporarily sober Ramblin’ Jack Elliott). Pleasures of the Harbor is actually my favorite Phil Ochs album, so I have no particular preference as to how my Ochs is served—I’ll take him plain or with all the trimmings as long as the song has impact. “Joe Hill” has impact because its indictment of the American justice system is still relevant today.
“Equal Justice Under the Law” is inscribed on the front of the Supreme Court building but everyone knows it’s crap. Like everything else in the United States, the justice system revolves around money and race. Being rich and white significantly raises the odds of an acquittal or a short sentence in a low-security country club. The rich can afford bail and hire better lawyers who know how to manipulate the system in thousands of ways; if the client has to do some time, there’s always a book deal awaiting their release. Since Joe Hill was a white dude (Swedish is about as white as you can get), race wasn’t a factor in his conviction. Joe’s problem was that he was poor and a Wobbly—a labor activist for the International Workers of the World. To the capitalists who actually run the country and buy the judges and politicians, troublemakers like Joe Hill present a clear and present danger to their comfort and power.
Phil depicts Joe as a typical working stiff blessed with sufficient intelligence to figure out that the game was rigged shortly after he arrived in the USA, moving from shit job to shit job but always whistling while he worked. Eventually he wound up in California, where he joined the IWW and wrote several songs designed to buck up his fellow unionists while marching on the picket lines. Joe then left California and headed for Utah to work the mines and join the fight against the mine owners; a few months after his arrival, he was indicted for murder. As is often the case in polemical verse, the enemies are pure evil and the hero is free of any character flaws; Phil fails to mention that on the night in question, when two men were shot to death in a Salt Lake City grocery, Joe was shot elsewhere in the city by either a spurned lover or jealous husband, indicating that he was hardly a choir boy. Phil’s claim that Joe was shot by the police is bogus; Hill actually went to a doctor to have his wound treated. The doctor called the police, and when the men in blue asked about his whereabouts, Joe admitted he was with a woman but refused to give the woman’s name in order to protect her honor, severely weakening his alibi.
Not that it would have mattered, for once the cops found out he was a Wobbly, it was game over:
Now in Salt Lake City a murder was made
There was hardly a clue to find
Oh, the proof was poor, but the sheriff was sure
Joe was the killer of the crime
That Joe was the killer of the crime
Phil’s strongest indictment is aimed at the justice system and the back-room dealings where “justice” is meted out:
Oh, strange are the ways of western law
Strange are the ways of fate
For the government crawled to the mine owner’s call
And the judge was appointed by the state
Yes, the judge was appointed by the state
Oh, Utah justice can be had
But not for a union man
And Joe was warned by summer early morn
That there’d be one less singer in the land
There’d be one less singer in the land
The story was played out in the national press, with Helen Keller and the Swedish government arguing for clemency, but the fix was in and Joe was dispatched by a firing squad. Though Phil may have played loose with some of the facts, at least two historians have concluded that the execution was a miscarriage of justice, despite the efforts of the powers that be to cover their tracks:
Now some say Joe was guilty as charged
And some say he wasn’t even there
And I guess nobody will ever know
‘Cause the court records all disappeared
‘Cause the court records all disappeared
Though it seems that “Joe Hill” would have been a better fit on his earlier albums, Tape from California was released only a month before the 1968 Democratic Convention, where Mayor Daley and his uniformed thugs meted out their own version of American justice on the streets of Chicago, which in turn let to the travesty of the first Chicago Seven (minus Bobby Seale) trial.
“The War Is Over” finds Phil coming up with a solution to the Vietnam War that would have made Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco proud:
Phil came around to the idea that the only way to deal with an absurd war was with absurdity, by declaring the war over from the bottom up. This absurdist notion was anchored by two public gatherings, in Los Angeles (June 23, 1967) and New York City (November 25, 1967); one song (“The War is Over”); and articles in the Los Angeles Free Press and Village Voice, all rooted in the idea that “demonstrations should turn people on, not off,” and “if there is going to be an America, there is no war.” This was a turning point in Ochs’s life where he attempted to impose a cinematic, poetic logic on a most uncinematic, unpoetic world.
Ochs, Phil. I’m Gonna Say It Now (p. 15). Backbeat. Kindle Edition.
Phil explained his approach in greater detail in a piece he wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press:
Now some of you may not believe the war is over—and that, essentially, is the problem. The mysterious East has taught us the occult powers of the mind, and yet we go on accepting our paranoid president’s notion that we actually are involved in a war in Asia. Nonsense. It’s only a figment of our propagandized imagination, a psychodrama out of 1984. By this time, it must certainly be apparent that Johnson is absurd, as compared to being wrong. It should also be crystal clear that the war has been extended so ridiculously long that it is more absurd than immoral, and that the standard moral arguments have been repeated so many times that they seem to have lost their meaning. There is no dialogue on the war, only the repetition of clichés. One outrage must be answered with another; only absurdity can speak the language of absurdity.
Ochs, Phil. I’m Gonna Say It Now (p. 194). Backbeat. Kindle Edition.
One of the “celebrations” took place in L. A. when LBJ was in town, and Phil urged those planning to attend to shift gears: “Classics like ‘Hey, Hey, LBJ—How many kids did you kill today?’ are about as dated as the M-16. Since the war is over, we should have positive signs, like ‘Johnson in 68—the Peace President,’ ‘Welcome Hanoi to the Great Society,’ or ‘Thank you, Lyndon, for Ending the War.'”
I guess the gear shift got stuck that day, as the cops swarmed in and broke up the rally. Still, I think Phil might have had something there, so I’m going to follow in his footsteps and declare right now that this GODDAMNED PANDEMIC IS OVER!
Feel better? Nah, I didn’t really think you would.
Actually, the song is much stronger than the concept because Phil really was onto something: The Vietnam War was as absurd as absurd can get—ghoulishly absurd. Over an arrangement filled with snatches of parade music, Phil sings with clarity and confidence as he demolishes every tactic and argument employed by the hawks to justify involvement in Vietnam:
So do your duty, boys, and join with pride
Serve your country in her suicide
Find the flags so you can wave goodbye
But just before the end even treason might be worth a try
This country is too young to die
I declare the war is over
It’s over, it’s over
Again and again it seems like Phil Ochs was one of the few people of that era blessed with common sense. America paid a terrible price for its embrace of the absurd.
Unfortunately, the inconsistency of Tape from California raises its ugly head once again with “The Harder They Fall,” where Phil combines one part cliché with four parts nursery rhyme and ends up in the crapper. The one promising thread involves Jack and Jill going up the hill to do the deed instead of fetching a pail of water but–oops, Jill forgot to take her pill, so Phil drops the thread to spout some irrelevant nonsense. The Mother Goose-Lenny Bruce-killing jews verse is nothing more than a horrid example of tastelessness (and no, coming from a Jewish family doesn’t give him a pass).
I suppose “When In Rome” was Phil’s attempt at coming up with a long-form song to compete with Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” and if so, he is to be congratulated for coming up with something as equally boring and so completely open to interpretation that it can mean whatever you want it to mean. You can infer a connection between the Roman Empire and the American Empire if that’s your thing, but don’t look to Phil to make that connection because he doesn’t. Dylan’s opus has the virtue of not being half as gruesome as Phil’s blood-soaked stab at an epic, so if I actually believed in hell and was given a choice of which awful song to listen to for all eternity, I guess I’d go with Bob’s.
Our bumpy ride ends with “Floods of Florence,” with Ian Freebairn-Smith reproducing the arrangement magic he conjured up for Pleasures of the Harbor. Phil gave Ian a pretty simple set of chords to work with and Ian responded with lovely flute counterpoints, baroque strings and a touch of harpsichord, reflecting the mythical loveliness of Florence. I emphasize “mythical” because if you’ve ever visited Florence, you know that the place is overrun with tourists most of the year. When I hear Phil describe how “the holy words of love and reverence/Fell before the floods of Florence,” I assume he’s talking about the tourist crunch and not the Arno overflowing its banks. As for the rest of the lyrics, Phil seems to get his wires crossed, especially when D. W. Griffith appears out of nowhere to have a shot of whiskey and fondle a young starlet’s gams. I assume the troubadour in the last verse is Phil himself (“Armed with his anger, he sings of the danger”) but if the verse was meant to be a search for himself, he didn’t find much there.
One impression that lingers in my head after studying Tape from California is Phil’s tendency to oscillate between dark pessimism and naïve optimism. When I listen to “When in Rome,” I get the impression that Phil knew in his heart that America was doomed; when I listen to “The War Is Over,” I hear a guy who still believes he can make a difference and that maybe—just maybe—America can pull itself back from the brink. He brought that oscillating nature with him to the 1968 Democratic Convention:
He continued to hold out hope for a miracle. McCarthy, he optimistically told reporters, was going to win the nomination. The realist in him knew otherwise, and in some of his statements to the press, he hinted that he would have to leave the country if either Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon was elected in November.
Fortunately for posterity, Phil would remain to record the vastly unpopular but clearly superior Rehearsals for Retirement, discovering a new source of inspiration in his mythical death on the streets of Chicago.