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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

Song of the Day 7/16/10

Less than two weeks til our best 666 songs of alltime countdown reaches #1…and then we start with the 1000 best albums of alltime. Friday’s song is #13:

Phil Ochs – Another Age

“We were born in a revolution, and we died in a wasted war…if that was an election, I’m a Viet Cong,” Ochs rails in the hardest-rocking song he ever recorded. Bob Rafkin’s ferocious, melodic bassline is the centerpiece of the studio version on the death-obsessed Rehearsals for Retirement, 1969; the version on Live in Vancouver, released posthumously in the 90s, has a gentler janglerock feel.

July 16, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 7/14/10

Just about two weeks til our best 666 songs of alltime countdown reaches #1…and then we start with the 1000 best albums of alltime. Wednesday’s song is #15:

Phil Ochs – Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore

While the Lenny of the title was inspired by the great Lenny Bruce, this isn’t exactly a funny song. As Lincoln Mayorga’s organ weaves around, Ochs paints an unforgettably seedy tableau where a “haggard ex-lover of a longtime loser” searches for him in vain. At the end, in an evocation of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention riots, “the shoulders charge, the boards of the barricade are splintered,” but it’s too late. From Rehearsals for Retirement, 1969.

July 14, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 5/22/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Saturday’s song is #68:

Phil Ochs – My Life

The blitheness of the song’s ragtime-pop melody contrasts savagely with Ochs’ lyric about being harrassed by the Nixon gestapo: “Take your tap from my phone, and leave my life alone.” That’s Lincoln Mayorga on piano – his 2010 album of Gershwin would raise the bar for anyone wishing to play An American in Paris. From Rehearsals for Retirement, 1968.

May 22, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Songs for the Weekend

We’ll be upstate at the Beefstock Festival til Sunday and will be full of news about it when we get back on Monday. Since the mountain valley up there has no frankenpines, and no cell or wifi service, unless we can score a dialup connection somewhere we’ll be (somewhat gratefully) offline til then. In order to keep the best 666 songs of alltime countdown going without missing a beat, Friday’s song is #111:

Phil Ochs – The Scorpion Departs but Never Returns

Like the Thresher, the Scorpion was a US nuclear submarine that went down off the coast of New Hampshire. Ochs uses the story as a springboard for his own tale of departing and never returning: “I’m not screaming, I’m not screaming, TELL ME I’M NOT SCREAMING!!!” The piano-based art-rock version on the classic Rehearsals for Retirement album, 1968 is pretty intense, but others prefer the janglerock guitar version on the live Edmonton album, recorded the same year but not released until the 90s.

Saturday’s song is #110:

Ninth House – Put a Stake Right Through It

In our predecessor e-zine’s first year of publication, 2000, this was their pick for best song of the year, a despairing, exhausted, Rachmaninoff-esque guitar-and-string-synth-fueled portrait of complete emotional depletion. From the Swim in the Silence cd.

And Sunday’s is #109:

The Dead Kennedys – Dead End

Written by guitarist East Bay Ray, this is a rare non-political song for these guys, but still a great one, all trebly reverb-drenched guitar with characteristically melodic bassline and morbid lyrics. From Plastic Surgery Disasters, 1983.

April 8, 2010 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Balthrop, Alabama – Subway Songs and Cowboy Songs

Two brand-new eps from the multistylistic Brooklyn music mob. True to the band’s signature shtick (Balthrop, Alabama style themselves as a little Southern town relocated to the BK), a lot of people were involved with making these albums and in general they acquit themselves well. Perhaps because of the sheer number of contributors, the band’s ability to fluently channel a ridiculous number of styles from decades ago to the present day is uncanny, and spectacularly so. The first of the two, Subway Songs is delightfully gruesome, lushly and imaginatively produced with layers of vocals, horns, keys and a variety of rustic stringed instruments. It also doesn’t seem to have the slightest thing to do with subways. It opens with Subway Horns, theatrical gypsyish ska punk like World Inferno. Bride of Frankenstein, which follows, is southwestern gothic with some biting slide guitar in the style of Friends of Dean Martinez. Prom Story is an amusingly and musically spot-on spoof of early 60s girl group ghoul-pop; Ocean’s Arms adds a faux Irish tinge to an immigrant’s tale gone drastically awry.

 

Red Hook Pool is a fast, upbeat folk-rock number spiced with banjo, a dead ringer for a Phil Ochs pop hit from, say, Tape from California, 1967. It, too comes to a grisly conclusion after the rain starts, morphing strangely into a vintage style soul song after a long instrumental vamp. With its beautiful, soaring vocals, the 6/8 ballad My Way the Highway sounds like what Caithlin de Marrais might have done if she’d been alive in 1965. At least nobody seems to die in this one.

 

Cowboy Songs explores a satirical concept. Trouble is, between Ween’s Twelve Golden Country Greats album, the Inbreeds, and David Allan Coe, there isn’t much country music territory left  to parody, and this doesn’t exactly add anything to the canon. The musicianship here is all first-rate, and in fact some of these songs are so period-perfect that they could be from Nashville in the mid-60s – but as b-sides. Old Cowboy Queer sounds like a ripoff of I Thought I Was Country Til I Found I Was Queer by fellow Brooklynites the Illbillies (now Maynard and the Musties), which achieved some notoriety about ten years ago. There are also thoughtful attempts at crafting a slowly swinging romantic ballad and an oldschool Ray Price-style shuffle. And then they end it on a tongue-in-cheek apocalyptic note. Balthrop, Alabama plays the cd release for these two at the 92YTribeca on 3/13 on an excellent bill with the Ukuladies and the Moonlighters starting at about 9:30 PM.

March 9, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment