The Columbus Free Press

Phil Ochs: Pleasures of the Puzzle

by Dave Cohen, Dec 4, 1997

"Ochs, you're a journalist."

Thus spake Bob Dylan, although he certainly wasn't alone in his criticism. Almost every piece of Phil Ochs the performer was hammered in the press: Ochs' voice was "harsh and raucous" (Variety); his appearance was "like a porcine version of Elvis Presley" (Philadelphia Evening Bulletin -- presumably an insult, although Phil probably loved it); "his melodies are about as inventive as an average Tibetan chant" (High Fidelity); while his "guitar playing would not suffer much were his right hand webbed" (Esquire).

Phil never ran from any of these snipes. A fervent advocate of freedom of the press, Phil made sure these views were not censored in any way -- he reprinted them in his songbook The War is Over under the rubric '...The Critics Raved...'. Perhaps he could also have recycled his quote from the liner notes of his In Concert album -- "Is this the enemy?" What each of these critics missed was actually the whole picture. They were too busy picking apart notes, unable to appreciate the whole song.

It's never been particularly easy to get a complete view of Ochs, as albums went in and out of print and his first biography Death of a Rebel, contained so many factual errors that it could in no way be seen as definitive. Luckily for fans, and there have always been more than 50 as Phil joked, a new, more accurate biography has been published (There But for Fortune by Michael Schumacher) which corrects most, if not all, of the factual faults found in the earlier tome. Although a few clunkers still creep in, for example, Phil's rendition of I Shoulda Known Better, with Eric Andersen, was performed at a Broadside Hoot, not at the Newport Folk Festival.

Even more exciting is the recent release of a definitive box set by Rhino, Phil Ochs: Farewells and Fantasies. Burgeoning out over three cd's are songs from all of Phil's eras, uniting once more material from his Elektra and A&M albums. The only previous LP to do so, Chords of Fame, is long out of print. Although many fans may have been hoping for a complete re-issue of Pleasures of the Harbor, Tape From California and Rehearsals for Retirement, which have been all but unfindable, except as an exceedingly rare Japanese import, the compilers -- Phil's brother and daughter, Michael and Meegan -- have made some very good choices.

All of the central songs are present and accounted for, of course -- Bound for Glory, Power and the Glory, The War is Over, I Ain't Marching Anymore (including the hard to find electric version from the single), There But For Fortune, Changes, Draft Dodger Rag, When I'm Gone and Crucifixion. However, these are songs that might be on any Ochs compilation. Also included are songs not seen or heard in many a year.

Previously unreleased songs are sprinkled through the set, and the strength of each one shows that Phil wrote no filler. We Seek No Wider War, the only inclusion from the remaining Broadside Tapes, takes its rightful place alongside White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land and The War is Over as a landmark topical song excoriating the Vietnam War. The Confession, an early demo, works well as a pendent piece to (unfortunately not included) The Trial in presenting a look at the American judicial process. Instead of the album version of Cross My Heart, we are given a demo version that is, of course, not as smoothly produced but which includes a verse which had to be cut off the original album due to length considerations! Morning and Song of a Soldier are slightly weaker, preserved from tapes of radio shows and previously only heard on bootleg tapes circulating amongst fans.

Each fan will have their own assessment of the songs included, for example, I was appalled by the absence of Another Age. However, many of the most egregious examples of missing songs can be found on yet another current release, American Troubadour, compiled by Sid Griffin, although only released in Britain at the moment. This two cd set includes the aforementioned Another Age, as well as Bwatue and Niko Mchumba Ngobe (Phil's African single -- decades before Peter Gabriel got the bug, Phil recorded in Swahili and Lingala with a Kenyan band in Nairobi -- the single never made the African Top Ten), the album cut of Cross My Heart and an unreleased track from Phil's Gold Suit concert at Carnegie Hall, School Days, by Chuck Berry (Phil's version of Danny Boy from that fabled night has yet to emerge).

In addition to the songs, there is an incredible set of liner notes (96 pages worth!), which includes a note from Phil's daughter Meegan on the course of her own political activism as inspired by her father. An essay by Michael Ventura gives a historical perspective on the environment that shaped Ochs. While Mark Kemp pens a virtual mini-bio, replete with detail and anecdotes and only a few errors, which seems to be par for any article of length on Phil. Phil, unfortunately did not pen Men Behind the Guns (it was a poem by John Rooney) and John Wesley Harding has yet to record I Ain't Marching Anymore, but the mistakes are few and far between. The track by track listing by Ben Edmonds is occasionally interesting -- I Ain't Marching Anymore pulled in more requests on Murray the K's radio show than the Rolling Stones' Dandelion. At other points Edmonds has nothing to say about a song; unfortunately he says it anyway. The real feast in the liner notes is the luxurious cache of photographs and reproductions of posters, tickets and many other never before seen items from the collections of Michael and Meegan Ochs.

The photos showcase Phil from his earliest days (literally), to his preliminary performances at Faragher's in 1961, to Chicago 1968,to the mid-70's with his own childhood idol Faron Young (who also took his own life), to his last great 'event' -- the War is Over rally from 1975 when he sang There But For Fortune with Joan Baez. Just as fascinating are the pieces from the Meegan Lee Ochs collection -- Phil's McCarthy pass (presumably Eugene...), a ticket and poster from an early Carnegie Hall appearance, a small pocket calendar featuring Phil in gold lame and a handwritten note from Pete Seeger. It is this note from Seeger that solves another old Ochs mystery. Pete criticizes Phil's song 'for' the John Birch Society (an early, satiric song it extols the virtues of various right wing personae, and ends with a rousing "God save the King!", it remains uncollected) as being "sophomoric". Previous biographies insist that this note was presented to Phil at Newport in 1963, but all evidence showed that Phil never sang this song at the Folk Festival. All is revealed when the date at the bottom of the note appears -- September 22, 1962, a full year before Newport!

Phil often asked "will my songs survive?" With 5 cd's released just this year, in addition to the Live at Newport album of last year, the answer is a resounding yes! As Phil's sister Sonny noted "I think it is the honesty and passion in his songs that makes them still relevant today -- not to mention the fact that certain political situations still exist." What does the future hold for the songs of Phil Ochs? Performers of all ages and musical genres continue to find inspiration in the songs and to cover them, either at the Song Nights produced by Sonny around the country or on their own albums. Artists as diverse as Billy Bragg, Jello Biafra, Rolling Hayseeds, Squirrelbait and Anita Bryant have all covered Phil! There have been translations of Phil's songs into Norwegian, German, Dutch, French and even Japanese. "As if that weren't enough, there is a double cd in the works being produced by an independent label, Sliced Bread. Among the more than 20 performers on this work are: Peter Yarrow, Arlo Guthrie, Eric Andersen and Tom Paxton all of whom knew and loved Phil," Sonny remarked recently. With all this music pouring forth the pieces of the Phil Ochs puzzle are finally falling back into place.

More culture reviews
Back to Front Page