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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Kenneth Bowser’s Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune Does Justice to a Legendary Cult Songwriter

For those who haven’t already discovered him, Phil Ochs was arguably the greatest rock songwriter of the 1960s. Ochs cut his teeth in the West Village folk movement in the early part of the decade alongside Bob Dylan, a friend in their early days who would become something of a competitor. A legendary party animal, rakishly handsome and considerably talented multi-instrumentalist proficient on guitar, clarinet and piano, Ochs grew from a wryly witty singer of stinging topical songs, to become one of the most devastatingly powerful lyricists in the history of rock. But where Dylan found rock and roll, Ochs followed his muse into classical before embarking somewhat frantically on a rock career most notable for his 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement, probably the most resonant requiem ever written for the idealism of the 60s. With its cover image of Ochs’ tombstone, it left no doubt that it was also a somewhat early suicide note. Kenneth Bowser, producer of the acclaimed Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, has a poignant, insightful new documentary out, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, a rapidfire collage of period footage, brief snippets of live performances and interviews with colleagues and fans which traces Ochs’ career from his early coffehouse days to his 1975 suicide. It’s currently playing in New York at the IFC Center at Sixth Ave. and West Third St.

Singer Judy Henske, who comes across the most articulately of all of Ochs’ contemporaries, explains that he “made people nervous.” Ochs’ brother Michael (whose halfhearted decision to manage his brother springboarded a successful career as a music executive and archivist) and sister Sunny dredge up some cringe-inducing childhood anecdotes including a candid assessment of the mental illness that had plagued their father, and which their brother probably shared. His plunge into chronic alcoholism may have only exacerbated what seems to be a pretty clear-cut case of manic depression. Bowser follows the theory that Ochs saw himself as an archetypical everyman who took every attack on his fellow freedom fighters personally, and substantiates it well. Ochs is credited with changing Bobby Kennedy’s views on Vietnam on a flight from Washington, DC to New York by playing him his epic JFK requiem Crucifixion, and took Kennedy’s assassination, just a few months later, very hard. The police brutality against protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, followed by the Kent State murders left Ochs at a loss as to how to address them; a particularly crushing blow seems to have been the coldblooded assassination of his friend the Chilean folksinger Victor Jara by a CIA-sponsored death squad in 1972. There’s almost as much footage of Ochs toward the end of his career is there is for his early years, and it is heartbreaking. A brief recovery promoting a benefit concert for Chile, alongside Dylan – who otherwise is conspicuously absent here – is followed by some cruelly vivid homemade footage of Ochs in various inebriated states shortly before the end. While there are numerous contributions on Ochs’ legacy from the likes of Sean Penn and Billy Bragg, Bowser also smartly puts Ochs’ producers Jac Holzman and Larry Marks on screen, who along with A&M Records’ co-founder Jerry Moss offer considerable insight into Ochs’ legacy as someone who was something of an eminence grise before his time. Perhaps the most telling moment of all is when frequent Ochs collaborator and pianist Lincoln Mayorga, playing completely from memory, rips into the ragtime of Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, the uncharacteristically lighthearted 1967 song (and Dr. Demento staple) that remains, somewhat ironically, Ochs’ best-known composition. IFC showtimes are here.

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January 11, 2011 Posted by | Film, folk music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 1/11/11

Tons of new stuff in the pipeline: Winter Jazzfest, gypsy music downtown and a great album by an Iraqi freedom fighter. In the meantime, as we do every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues, all the way to #1. Tuesday’s is #749:

Immortal Technique – Revolutionary Vol. 2

Pretty much what you would expect from a lyrical genius with an awareness of the world around him. Immortal Technique gets universal props for his style, but nobody casts as wide a net and brings in so much knowledge. This is his 2003 response to 9/11 and the terror of the Bush regime. The Cause of Death is the most spot-on critique issued by any musician since that time, Freedom of Speech re-emphasizes the CIA-Bin Laden connection and Bush’s crackdown on human rights that followed, and Leaving the Past drives the point home yet again: “Humanity’s gone in a gravity bong done by a Democrat/Republican Cheech and Chong.” “Immortal Technique is poison to the Patriot Act,” he snarls on The Point of No Return, a crystal-clear portrait of a world gone forever. Peruvian Cocaine sympathetically explores the world of the terrorized peasants who make the stuff (Tech has no sympathy for the drug lords). The Message and the Money and Industrial Revolution are two of the funniest and most apt critiques of the music industry ever written; Crossing the Boundary equates cultural imperialism on the part of American multinationals with the corporate hijacking of rap. The 4th Branch is a slam at the corporate media; Harlem Streets and Internally Bleeding paint a surreal picture of the everyday horrorshow in impoverished America. Mumia Abu-Jamal also guests eloquently on a couple of tracks including Homeland and Hip-Hop: “Do you think duct tape and color codes will make you safer?” Is this the greatest rap album ever made? One of them, anyway. Here’s a random torrent.

January 11, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rap music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment