Today is the 75th birthday of Phil Ochs, for whom, in a Spoonerized way, this blog was named. The blog began as an attempt to pay tribute and give space to "ill folks," unique singers and songwriters who often are on the other side of fame.
Phil was born December 19, 1940 in Texas. Despite that infamous "Rehearsals for Retirement" tombstone album cover photo claiming he died at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, he killed himself April 9, 1976.
At that time, political singer-songwriters were pretty much obsolete, and replaced by guys like James Taylor and Cat Stevens. Phil's struggles with alcohol and depression make up the sad final chapters in two biographies.
Phil's romantic demise, and the realities and mythology of the late 60's, have led to a variety of websites and Facebook groups using his name. Some do it with sincerity, and some are trying to play his chords of fame to advance their own names. A few blogs and sites seem to want to shove the Ochs family aside and take over as keepers of the flame, and the real deal authority on the man and his work. That they are sensitive enough to choose Phil to ring the bells and wring their hands, outweighs their vainglorious egotism. Usually.
It's optimistic to know that there are any Millennials out there concerned with topical songs or political and social change. That there's anybody here who wants to call attention to a person whose songs are over 40 years old...songs that have been around a longer time than the creator of them. It's pessimistic to also admit that some in the small circle are, to put it bluntly, fucking idiots and paranoid pains in the butt…an irritating assortment of Yippie wannabe's, hipsters faking being hippies, and paranoids who live to babble conspiracy theories.
Both groups have converged on the 75th birthday, and on the chewy topic of: "If he was alive today, what would Phil be singing about THIS and saying about THAT?"
My guess, if you take a look at Phil's surviving contemporaries, is two words: "not much." The surviving folkies and musical satirists from Tom Paxton to Eric Andersen to Loudon Wainwright to Tom Lehrer aren't waving torches and leading the way anywhere. At best, Randy Newman jibed a track he pretty much gave away on YouTube for lack of commercial interest, "In Defense Of Our Country."
There used to be wild, innovative and often topical comedians on the bill at the folk venues. People expected "the word" from iconoclastic comics as well as the new generation of folk singers. In fact, there were topical folk comedians who seemed like they could be the new heroes of the day, from Shel Silverstein to the Smothers Brothers. The brothers are retired. Nobody's wondering "what would they have to say about today's situation." They aren't interested. Mort Sahl is, but he's a twitching, unfunny right-winger who hasn't muttered a quotable joke in 40 years. Anyone care what Jackie Mason, "Dice" Clay or Howard Stern think of anything? Are they quoted much? You think that "they're take on today's problems" would warrant one paragraph much less the cover of Time magazine?
"If he was alive today..." is a kind of sad thing to speculate on, whether it's Phil or Lenny Bruce or any other cult favorite. Better to be a Realist and accept that nobody's doing it the way it was done generations ago. Ramblin' Jack is still rambling somewhere, but nobody fuckin' cares. (If you believe he ignored Sammy Walker at the Phil tribute and made sure Sammy didn't even perform, then you REALLY don't fuckin' care!). As for the icon still with us, Bob Dylan, is anyone breathlessly waiting for his take on today's issues? Not really. Nor are they expecting "the word" on love, hate, getting older, or climate change. Bob dropped out of pure protest songs long ago. You can't blame him for preferring faux-Delta blues, considering the critical disgust he received on tunes about George Jackson and Joey Gallo. There's the distinct possibility that half of his riveting "Hurricane" is untrue and the boxer may well have killed several people. The man is more likely to have his eye on Alicia Keyes than any politician. You can't count him out because he can still glare with blood in his eyes, but nobody's even saying, "I can't wait for Dylan to sing about this…" Or any other songwriter. It's just not what music is about anymore, and both stand-up and music will not likely be used with the same political fire as they were a generation ago.
We are in the musical age of such lame names as Adele, Justin Bieber, One Direction and Taylor Swift. At one time, young men such as Mr. Phil Ochs and Mr. Sammy Walker sang about the problems of the "Flower Lady" and an old woman dying alone on a "Cold Pittsburgh Morning." What's Ed Sheeran singing about? Or Sam Smith? Them selfies? We are in an age without disc jockeys or meaningful rock critics. There's no direction home. When the Grammy show is hosted by Jay-Z and dominated by rappers and teen idiots, don't expect a new Ochs, Zevon or Randy Newman to find any meaningful size of audience.
It's nice that there are "Phil Ochs Nights" in Portlandia, or upstate New York somewhere, and some Millennials are fascinated with 1968 and want to wear hippie beads or leather jackets and strum an acoustic guitar and sing about fracking. But most are Viley Virus types who wear a dildo or twerk and only sing about fucking. We've got Millennials who don't even know John Lennon's music, or whether he's alive or dead. Seriously. Last Friday night, Jimmy Kimmel's put-on street interview bit included a very depressing moment. A woman in her late 20's was told, tongue-in-cheek, about the recent Beatles reunion with John Lennon and George Harrison taking the stage. Instead of snarling, "You're putting me on," the young interviewee allowed that it was nice news for Beatles fans.
I don't expect the average bint to know who Phil Ochs is, or to know his music, but to not know John Lennon was murdered?
Your download is "Chords of Fame," as performed by Phil for John Lennon. Phil, you may recall, was on the bill at Lennon's "John Sinclair Rally," performing "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon." In a hotel room, an eager Mr. Lennon learned about the history of folk protest songs from an awed, and stuttery Phil Ochs.
Phil played the long "Joe Hill" for John. As the tape starts rolling for "Chords of Fame," Ochs explains how he borrowed the "Joe Hill" melody from previous folk ballads, "John Hardy" and "Tom Joad." Part of the true "sharing" of folk music is that you borrow ideas, pay tribute by re-using or adapting melodies, and pay it forward by modernizing old lyrics. Lennon was keenly interested in the traditional process of American folk and topical ballads. Some of that interest you'll find on this blog, with entries on how British ballads were adapted in America and turned into "Farewell to Nova Scotia" and "Lily of the West."
On this strange and mournful day, I don't ask "What would Phil say" or sing. I just feel wistful that he's not around to enjoy his family, and the satisfaction that so many of his songs haven't aged at all. Some are even more powerful now, like his ominous "No More Songs," with a line that seemed to predict the phenomenon of whales beaching themselves and preferring death over polluted seas. But Phil is not with us, actively singing to a small circle as Tom Paxton or Eric Andersen is. He's not in happy retirement or semi-retirement like some of his contemporaries from Oscar Brand to Judy Henske and back. He is gone. And I guess you better cover his songs…and listen to his old stuff…while you're here.
John Lennon listens to Phil Ochs sing Chords of Fame