Saturday, April 09, 2016


It’s still pretty sobering to realize how young Phil Ochs was, when he made that final decision on April 9, 1976, exactly 40 years ago today. He was only 35.

Walter Moseley finally died a few days ago at 81. No, he didn't exactly make good use of being spared the death penalty. In fact, he managed to cause trouble and heartache after his incarceration for the murder of Kitty Genovese.

As for the early demise of Phil Ochs, many fans have wistfully wondered what he would've achieved over the next 40 years. Had he been able to find the right meds and care, some think he might be knocking out potent political protest songs to this day. I doubt it, but I wish he was able to simply enjoy life and family, and if he would sometimes pick up a guitar, great.

Quite a few of his contemporaries (Barry McGuire, Joan Baez, Hamilton Camp, Gordon Lightfoot, Janis Ian, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton) either never had a big hit after the 70's or stopped recording for a major label. It's just a shame Phil didn't have the option of balancing work and semi-retirement. He should've had the chance, ala Mort Sahl or his old friend Jim Glover, of sometimes doing a gig for that small circle of friends.

Phil's song has had a life of its own, as has the very phrase "small circle of friends," usually spoken with a sense of irony.

The incident that sparked it happened on March 13, 1964. A married man with two kids, Winston Moseley’s hobby was committing burglary (30 or 40, without an arrest). An occasional rape and murder added to his fun. He admitted to raping and killing two other women before he snuck out on his wife and hunted for a new victim: Kitty Genovese. He stalked her through the dark and quiet streets of Kew Gardens, where the stores were closed and at 2am, few people were still awake in the small apartments above those stores, or in the modest middle-class homes and apartment buildings.

Phil's version of the event wasn't intended to be song-journalism. It was just the first stanza of a piece covering a wide range of apathy.

The opening lines, to a jaunty almost ragtime melody: “Look outside the window, there’s a woman being grabbed. They’ve dragged her to the bushes, and now she’s being stabbed. Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain. But Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game. And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends…”

There was no "they." It was just one man. But the journalism of the time was not accurate either. The New York Times, the “paper of record,” reported: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law‐abiding cit­izens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”

The truth, which would come out slowly over the years, was that most citizens didn’t hear anything. At that hour, a few short cries were mistaken for delinquents horsing around. As often happens, the reporter colored his journalism with drama over fact. Someone actually did lean out the window and yell at Moseley to leave the girl alone. When Moseley rushed away, leaving his dazed victim behind, the neighbor closed his window. Moseley, lurking rather than leaving, waited and pounced yet again, completing his need to rape and kill. But a few people did call the cops, and one man, arriving on the scene after Moseley fled, comforted Genovese as she took her last breaths.

Only a few months later, June 15th, Moseley was in front of a judge. The judge declared, “I don't believe in capital punishment, but when I see a monster like this, I wouldn't hesitate to pull the switch myself.” It wasn’t an option. Proving the judge’s point, Moseley escaped prison on March 18, 1968, stole an officer’s gun, and hid out in a nearby home. When the man and woman who owned it arrived, Moseley overpowered the man and raped his wife.

Over the years, parole boards had to listen to Moseley’s ravings. At one point he whined, “For a victim…it's a one-time or one-hour or one-minute affair, but for the person who's caught, it's forever.” More recently, he simply declared, “I think almost 50 years of paying for those crimes is enough.”

No, there seems to be no quote from him on whether he ever heard Phil's song. The song has outlived Phil, Kitty, and now Kitty's murderer. People are still being killed. Marijuana is only legal in four states, and other issues raised in Phil's song are still with us as well.

Oddly enough, as horrific as the Genovese case is, as vividly divisive as the question of the death penalty for monsters like Moseley is, Phil's song retains its dark satire. One listens to it with more of a wink than a clenched fist. So often, despite his brilliance at ballads, and his scathing accuracy in protest songs, Phil was able to retain a unique sense of humor. It was part of why he was so beloved in person and on stage.

The audience recording at The Stables in East Lansing is here for its good sound quality. At Hunter College, Phil saved "Small Circle of Friends" as his encore/finale, and in the audience recording, you hear how it draws enthusiastic clapping from the crowd.

PHIL OCHS Small Circle of Frends in East Lansing

PHIL OCHS Closing the Show with a Small Circle of Friends clapping at Hunter College (now Lehman College)

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