P.O.V.– PHIL OCHS ¡VIVA!

This post is adapted from a paper about “witnessing” and first-person POVs in songwriting, so it’s a little up its own ass but it still means something. It continues from an earlier review of Sun Kill Moon and talks about writers who use their positions as songwriters and “witnesses” to tell political and personal stories. This section deals with Phil Ochs, who should be considered as a successor to George Orwell–a writer whose entire project was dedicated to exposing systematic bullshit and power-perpetrating bullshitters and empowering people who are constantly heartbroken or worse by that bullshit. As with the last section, this piece is meant to facilitate discussion on first person songwriting in general or whatever you want in particular. 

image by Ulysse2000, pulled from Wikimedia Commons
image by Ulysse2000, pulled from Wikimedia Commons

In 1965, Phil Ochs titled his first album All the News that’s Fit to Sing, a title that plainly articulated his position as a “singing journalist.” It was also a title that would undercut his skill as a guitarist and singer until the end of his career. Ochs started his recording career just as Bob Dylan was transitioning away from straightforward folk music and into Beat-ist rock—a matter of timing that limited Ochs to many as merely a topical folkie trying to extend that form’s brief moment of usefulness in the early 60’s (even though troubadours had functioned as popular news sources for hundreds of years). Politically, as well as musically, the environment Ochs entered into was in rapid flux (which is why Dylan ditched basic folk songs for other, more flexible forms, right? He would try less-direct, more personal or philosophical approaches to witnessing contemporary problems), which could’ve easily rendered Ochs’ songs obsolete upon issue. But even as his political affiliations, singing career, and his very life were tested throughout his songwriting years (the recorded portion of which lasted just over half a decade), many of Ochs’ early bare-bear-witness songs retain their original power. And because Ochs was sensitive to the place of his songs in the world, he was able to add power to the old songs while keeping his new songs up to critical speed.

One way Ochs attempted to build a lasting life for his songs was to explore different sonic moods on his albums. Just his third studio album, 1967’s Pleasures of the Harbor marks a departure for Ochs that reflects his evolving opinions of witnessing, activism, and music. The album is strange and somber, lush yet sour compared to his early rompy sound. These sounds date the record in the baroque tradition of Scott Walker and others just as much as his early albums are clearly of early-mid-60’s Greenwich–but for writers with who deal intimately with their present, is dating a problem in lyrics or music? Ochs’ studio choices make his albums stand out in relation to each other. They give him the opportunity to work with great musicians like Warren Zevon, Lincoln Mayorga, Van Dyke Parks, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Ry Cooder, Gene Parsons, Bob Rafkin, and others–which wouldn’t have happened if every album were “timelessly” him and his guitar. He was a great band leader and a great guitar and piano player himself. The differences between the sounds of the albums also tell that Ochs doesn’t try to apply the same dressing to every wound. As shit went down in that decade, he thought critically about his musical and lyrical place. In the liner notes to Pleasures, Ochs writes,

I watched my life fade-away in a flash


A quarter of a century dash through closets full of candles with never a room


For rapture through a kingdom had been captured.

And so I turn away from my drizzling furniture and pass old ladies


Sniffling by movie stars’ tombs, yes I must be home again soon.

To face the unspoken unguarded thoughts of habitual hearts


A vanguard of electricians, a village full of tarts


Who say you must protest you must protest


It is your diamond duty…


Ah but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty.

Pleasures of the Harbor

His lush sounds are reaching toward beauty, but in a strained way that doesn’t hide the fact that this beauty is trying to address deep pain. In that passage we can also recognize several moves characteristic to this “witness” role I’ve been talking about, especially the witness in a stressful position—“turning away,” “facing,” and then testifying (making beauty, finding poetry, as Mark Kozelek put it). It would seem an obvious misstep for an artist interested in witnessing to turn away from anything—that would be diverting the gaze, missing events. Ochs, however, posits turning away as a critical act, a basic human reaction on the part of the witness. Of course we flinch, we get fed up, but what then? He articulates this in a well-known early song, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” (from 1965’s album of the same name) and revisits the proposition on several occasions across various live albums until his final full-length release, Gunfight at Carnegie Hall.

“I Ain’t Marching Anymore” is, from its title, a song about not doing something. Written in first-person from the point-of-view of a soldier who has fought in all of America’s wars up to Vietnam and who now decides to refuse the ever-repeating trend of old men sending young men to die, the song stuck in the minds of anti-war protesters. The turning point for the narrator seems to be the use of nuclear weapons, as noted in this verse:

For I flew the final mission in the Japanese sky,

Set off the mighty mushroom roar.

When I saw the cities burning, I knew what I was learning—

That I ain’t marching anymore.

I Ain’t Marching Anymore

It’s a visceral and subtle verse for what could have been a song that merely surveyed all wars and said, “No, thanks.” Ochs brings in the image of flying over entire cities aflame and the immediate knowledge that this is different—and when compared to the previous verses that tell the notable horrors of killing “millions of men” in World War One, killing your brothers in the Civil War, and stealing California from Mexico, the nuclear bomb verse clearly acts as a testimony of change. The impulse to turn away as a witness is not driven by denial or distraction; it is the result of an event that is insists that things have changed and new approaches must be considered. The nuclear bomb, to Ochs’ narrator and to many anti-war activists of the time, signaled a need to turn away from excuses to go to war, and to face the challenge of finding alternatives.

As a result of the song, Ochs became a legal witness in the trial of the Chicago Seven. Ochs, along with Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and others, was active in organizing protests outside of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. The protests were mainly aimed to criticize President Johnson and the Democratic Party for their continued military involvement in Vietnam. Ochs had written another song in preparation for the convention, the purposely overly optimistic “The War is Over,” from Tape from California, a tune which borrowed Alan Ginsberg’s idea of simply declaring the war over and letting that self-appropriated power speak for itself. Ochs performed “The War is Over” and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” live at the convention and his performance was reportedly so impactful that many young men in attendance burned their draft cards on the spot. Eventually, Chicago police violently dispersed the protesters, making several arrests. The violence disillusioned Ochs, who was of course already critical of power systems. But being so closely involved in an artistic and political protest doused with brutality by the supposedly more liberal party, affected Ochs drastically.

Rehearsals_For_Retirement

The cover art for his subsequent album Rehearsals for Retirement features a gravestone that lists Ochs as having died in Chicago, 1968. Although Ochs had been involved as an activist on behalf of the issues he sang about, the Chicago riots were a major moment of first-person witnessing for him as a writer. In response to that moment, Ochs, as a first-hand witness, faces his duty in interesting ways on Rehearsals. In line with the title and cover art, the record assumes a mostly baroque sound that refines the attempts on Pleasures of the Harbor. His most direct account of the riots is “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed,” in which Ochs assumes the poetics and persona of Yeats to tell his own story. He said he expected to return from Chicago and write thunderous protest songs, but he actually came up with one of his quietest songs:

The towers trapped and trembling,

and the boats were tossed about

When the fog rolled in and the gas rolled out

From Lincoln Park, the dark was turning

Like wild horses freed at last

we took the streets of wine

But I searched in vain for she stayed behind

In Lincoln Park, the dark was turning

William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed

The song is immediately followed by a music hall ditty:

Where were you in Chicago?

I didn’t see you there.

I didn’t see them break your head or breathe the teargas air.

Where were you in Chicago,

When the fight was being fought?

Where were you in Chicago, ‘cause I was in Detroit.

Even while writing as characters, Ochs conveys his own testimony. But it is interesting to note that at this point in his career, after he has experienced one of the most important turns in his life as a first-person witness, his articulation of the events is as a character—a historically real character, a poet. The “joke” from the cover art of Phil Ochs dying in Chicago is extended into the album, where there isn’t a Phil Ochs voice where there should be, but “Yeats’s.” An Irish poet, no less, which suggests Ochs didn’t feel he had any American poets left to call on. The use of The Poet, whichever one, perhaps speaks to how Ochs witnessed—he certainly took himself seriously as a writer, as he should have, and to assume the persona of Yeats when he was at his most-Ochs, shows that Ochs saw witnessing and poetry and songwriting as a compound action.

As a live performer, he was more easily able to bridge his own voice and his characters, but his albums function as pastiches of different first-person points of view used to map out the landscape of contemporary mindsets. When he offered his own mindset, it was usually in commentary on the others. However, his late-career, live album performances of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” speak to how the years of singing the song affected its singer personally.

In a March 1969 performance in Vancouver (several months after the Chicago riots, a couple months before Rehearsals was released), Ochs introduces “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” near the end of the set:

I’m going to do for you nice people now a protest song. A protest song is defined as something you don’t hear on the radio. And they’ll say you don’t hear it on the radio because the guy can’t sing or because the words are no good, as they play the shit that they play these days. But it’s got to do with a process all around the Western trail that includes England and France and Canada and America—they have the media syndrome where they control everybody’s mind by use of fairly mindless and mind-distorting distortions of the facts, which lead all of us into the Vietnamese war and into the Kennedy assassination. So what can you do? Here we are a helpless soul, a helpless piece of flesh amid all this cruel machinery and terrible heartless men. So all you can do is turn away from the filth and hopefully start to build something new someday. Here’s a turning away song…

Ochs started to face a better world by confronting his own life in a way he hadn’t openly done on stage often. “Boy from Ohio” and “Jim Dean of Indiana” from his final studio album Greatest Hits and his live act Buddy Holly and Elvis medleys let audiences into the formative elements of Ochs and, by extension, the majority of his generation now faced with confronting the atrocities of a nation which had also given them the mainstream joys of Buddy Holly and Elvis in their youths.

Jim Dean of Indiana

Ochs’ final album, the live Gunfight at Carnegie Hall (recorded in 1970, released in 1975), was meant to be an amalgam of Ochs’ songs from the 60’s and other songwriters’ songs from the 50’s in an attempt to connect those generations of songwriters, to connect pop and folk and country, and to fight bigotry and atrocity with the power of combined and connected first-person testimony. Early in the Carnegie show, he introduces “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” by saying: “I’m going to wear this gold suit and sing a song of significance. And try to have wealth come to terms with responsibility.” The song has grown from journalism into performance art.

gunfightatcarnegiehall

Ochs follows his song with a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” written by Haggard in 1969 (just months before Ochs concert) as a response to anti-war protesters and youth counterculture in general. Ochs introduces the song:

It used to be all the songwriters were leftwing types. And now as we get toward a fascist America, which is coming in the 70’s in a big way, we start to see a change in the right wing. The right wing usually does without artists. They usually have to rely on William Buckley and his good looks and a lot of television time to present the façade that the right wing has a mind or sense of art—which Buckley has, but which the right wing doesn’t have. Just lately they’ve come up with an artist, a genuine songwriter, who’s as good as anybody around, his name is Merle Haggard. He has the possibility of being today’s Hank Williams, who is still the foremost songwriter.

Okie From Muskogee

Ochs would make similar connections about John Wayne when introducing “Pleasures of the Harbor.” Haggard’s song is so square that it borders on parody. The point-of-view character thinks that none of the drug use or sexual awakenings of San Francisco have touched Oklahoma, is proud of still flying Old Glory and respecting the college dean. He, when presented with the litany of generational, geographical, political, social differences between the posited “San Franciscans” and the “Okies,” picks their footwear choices as most egregious: “Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear; beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen.” Haggard’s ability to write songs that live up to Ochs’ comparison of him to Hank Williams lends him the benefit of the doubt that this is either an earnest song about folks who are proud of being square or a written-off song Haggard wrote while frustrated at the hippie entitlement he perceived. The song has Old Glory (the symbol of slavery) flying at the courthouse (the symbol of justice) while claiming that Okies like “living right and being free.” The argument that preserving slavery is better than protesting against war or for civil rights seems impossible to sustain. Ochs’ performance of it at Carnegie Hall (the symbol of high culture and musical significance) is consistent with the pastiche of viewpoints he assembles on most of his albums. Ochs’ own composition “I Kill Therefore I Am” presents similar material to Haggard’s song, though obviously derided:

I keep the country safe from long hairs.

I am the masculine American man,

I kill therefore I am.

I don’t like the black man, for he doesn’t know his place…

But Ochs’ use of Haggard’s song at Carnegie Hall, as opposed to his own “I Kill Therefore I Am” does more than simply deride violent masculinity or “traditional values” or racists. Firstly, it gives his band a chance to show off—and they make lovely use of the traditional country form of the song, imbuing it with some Byrds-like jangle pop while keeping it twangy and danceable. Mainly, the song’s inclusion speaks to Ochs’ respect for the first-person narrative. To Ochs, the journalist-witness-activist-poet-songwriter-Buddy-Holly-loving-American (Holly and Ochs, both Texans), the first-person narrative is a right. Everybody has the right to express what they’re turning away from, what they’re facing. Ochs sees the significance of the popularity of “Okie from Muskogee”—Haggard obviously saw a need to write it and it was obviously needed by its audience. But Ochs disagrees that the narrative witnessed by Haggard is characteristic of “normal people” or “true Americans,” as its proponents assumed. He’s witnessed millions of “normal Americans” risk their freedom in worthy protests. So Ochs offers a counter-narrative by re-contextualizing the song in the Carnegie set. As I said, Ochs ends “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” (the symbol of anti-war protest) in the set and then offers “Okie from Muskogee” as an example of what songwriting looks like from the other side, from a songwriting perspective that isn’t radical-activist-oriented—and of course it turns out that the ideas in “Okie” are far more problematic than Ochs saying that we shouldn’t send young men to die for the benefit of powerful men.

This turn underscores Ochs’ career-long project of stewarding the ties between activism and American music, between youth culture and America’s self-perception.

How does Ochs’ project jive with what we’ve been interested in regarding Lee Baines and Two Cow Garage and Mark Kozelek and other majorly first-person songwriters? In publishing there’s been a huge memoir boom in the last handful of years, in songwriting we seem to be paying more attention to individual testimonies, so there’s a big premium on Voice at the moment. Sometimes we might make demands on individual voices that they actually be speaking about greater social concerns, which is a bummer for artists trying to just make whatever art they can manage to make. But I think those demands are good in moderation–if by “actually speaking about greater social concerns” you really mean, “show me you’re smart and sensitive enough to engage me, with stories from your unique experience, in a discussion of how all this bullshit effects us as individuals and communities and couples and generations and…” Most of the time, that’s what I like about the writers I like. Phil Ochs is a model for that. I really think he belongs up there with Orwell or James Baldwin in a group of writers who saw through a system that fucks people up and then blames them for it, and then, as artists and humans, they couldn’t not use their writing to dismantle those systems from every angle.

Boy in Ohio

I highly recommend Kenneth Browser’s 2011 documentary Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, which should still be on Netflix and elsewhere. Listen to all of Ochs’ music, especially the live albums. Read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and anything by Baldwin. Let me know what other writers you think write in that league.

Author: Mike Ostrov

Mike Ostrov relays the history of popular song on message boards and under rocks.

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