Joan Baez singing Phil Ochs’ ‘There But For Fortune’ is an incredibly beautiful thing. It is so very moving, and Phil somehow succeeded in striking the perfect balance between writing a particularly compassionate song and being quietly angry. The gently reflective way Joan sings it, well, sometimes it seems like it was meant for her: she sounds so wise, so understanding, and the recording is so stark and haunting that its magic lasts.
‘There But For Fortune’ is how many of us first unwittingly came across Phil’s work. Once it was often on the radio, the Joan Baez recording, or at least that’s the way it seems. Certainly, at home, it was one of those songs that would be listened to intently whenever it came on: a warning finger raised and the head cocked on one side to catch the words better, and woe betide anyone who interrupted. Joni’s ‘Both Sides Now’ is another one where this would happen, and lines from that song have been pinned up on the wall here for years and years: can you guess which ones?
It is a funny thing about songs heard around the home growing up. They form such a huge part of our early memories. This was by no means a radical household or a musical one, but the radio always seemed to be on in the daytime, and snatches of folk songs could be heard sung around the home, but how did that happen? Goodness only knows. All those songs from that time: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘If I Had A Hammer’, ‘Little Boxes’, ‘We Shall Overcome’, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’. This was far more Peter, Paul & Mary than Bob Dylan, but that’s fine: their subversive songs surely sowed seeds of rebellion in our young minds, and Mary Travers was such a great pop figure.
And, very definitely, there are vivid memories of hearing Peter, Paul & Mary sing ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’, which partly was why it was so great Nicolette sang it with Plaid, and why it was even better to come across the Walter Jackson version, a recording with its own special place in Northern Soul folklore, being the last track played at the Catacombs club in Wolverhampton early one morning in July 1974. Joan sang it too, naturally.
And what a remarkable figure she has been in the world of popular music, very much nonpareil, very much her own person. It is interesting that her version of ‘There But For Fortune’ became a huge hit in the UK in the summer of 1965, but then we are a sentimental lot. She also had incredible success on the album charts here that year, and she was right up there contending with The Beatles and Bobby Dylan, the Stones and The Sound of Music. That seems to get lost in the prevailing narratives of the time. Who were all these British people buying Joan Baez records in 1965? Did they listen to Phil too? Who went to see him play at The Marquee at the end of that year?
There is a passionate belief here that Phil Ochs was an incredible songwriter and performer. His strengths include acute powers of perception and observation allied with an ability to tell a tale. “Things are wrong, things are going wrong. Can you tell that in a song?” asked the Bunnymen, and the answer is a cautious one: “Some can”. Phil could take a newspaper story and turn it into poetry. He also had a winning way with melodies, and when he sang there was an appealing softness, a vulnerability and incredible sensitivity: Studs Terkel with typical pertinacity identified this as tenderness. Phil didn’t hector or harangue. He often looks shy in old clips, dipping his head and gazing up from under the hair falling over his brow. He didn’t copy some obscure old rough folk or blues singer: his music was rooted in a teenage love for Buddy Holly and the Everly Bros., and that never left him.
Phil also had a gift for being able to use humour to make a serious point, using irony or satire (before it became a dirty word). Who else has had that gift? Of my generation, perhaps McCarthy’s Malcolm Eden was blessed in that way: ‘God Made the Virus’ is rather Ochs-like. Was Malcolm listening to him back then? Many of us on the same scene were. And, whatever one may say about McCarthy, few ever got too excited about their aesthetics. Conversely Phil very much looked the part, and it is impossible to separate that from his work, which must have been both a blessing and a curse, like others found in their prime and beyond: Montgomery Clift, Jack Kerouac, and so on. Poor old Phil: if he had looked like Tom Paxton would we care so much? That’s not to demean Tom, for ‘Last Thing On My Mind’ is one of the greatest songs ever.
Everything about how Phil looks on the covers of his first two Elektra LPs is just so perfect: that pea jacket, the way he sits on his guitar case, the shoes. And that’s how he was first heard here, via those two albums: nice thick-cardboard-sleeve Elektra imports, found in the megastores of the 1980s. And, with these, a pattern was set whereby every one of Phil’s studio LPs has a small number of exceptional songs, with occasional striking lines that stay with you always, and passages of melodic brilliance which are so breathtakingly beautiful they haunt you down all the days.
His debut, All The News That’s Fit To Sing, has (and this, all of this, is entirely subjective, these are just personal favourites which mean a lot, an awful lot) two incredibly special and moving songs. One is ‘Lou Marsh’, about the senseless death of a youth worker on the streets of New York City, a good man who tried to help kids caught up in gangs, and ‘Celia’ which is about Celia Mariano Pomeroy, a freedom fighter in the Philippines, and tells the story of her enforced separation from her husband. These are haunting ballads, topical songs which became works of art and which stand as testaments to these people, who may otherwise be forgotten.
Phil and his protest songs, the newsworthy themes: not everyone can do it, and few can make great art out of it. For example, on his second LP, I Ain’t Marching Anymore, there is such simmering anger and a clear insight in his beautiful songs ‘In the Heat of the Summer’ and ‘Here’s To The State of Mississippi’. So, yeah, they were specifically about the civil rights struggle, social unrest and the murder of activists but, as so many people have commented, too little has changed and the words of ‘In the Heat of the Summer’ could apply to the here and now, the flames of fury captured in recent Black Lives Matter protests. And, please, look up a clip of Odetta singing it.
In 1986 a big thing for the pop underground here was A Toast To Those That Are Gone, a compilation of unreleased Phil Ochs material. In the UK it was released by Edsel, the label that had caused a stir a few years earlier with its compilations of The Action and The Creation. It is the closing three songs on this LP that have had the real lasting emotional impact. ‘I’m Tired’, perhaps more than any other song, captures that enervating sense of despair, the black dog, or the mean reds as Holly Golightly called the mood, and the fact Phil could describe the state so well suggests that even in the mid-1960s he was no stranger to bouts of depression. Is it likely that he didn’t release the song in his lifetime because this was not something a campaigning singer was supposed to be open about, a fear that it would be used against him?
Then ‘City Boy’, which on one level is a simple celebration of an urban upbringing, but on another, musically, it shows Phil stretching towards something new. His brother Michael has said the piano part was played by Paul Harris, which is a nice connection for Nick Drake fans. Then there’s ‘Song of My Returning’, a poetic creation with perhaps hints of W.B. Yeats and an acknowledgement of the battle between Phil’s wanderlust and the strong ties of home, seemingly opposing forces at work.
The record came with liner notes by Sean Penn, who called Phil his “favourite all-time fighter”, a phrase that would be borrowed often by this boy. Sean also mentioned plans for a film about Phil. Did that ever happen? There had actually been, back then, a bio-pic called Chords of Fame which was a mixture of anecdotes, renditions of Phil’s songs, and dramatized scenes from the singer’s life. Michael Korolenko directed it, and Bill Burnett appeared as Phil without ever really looking like him, which was odd. It would be fun to see it again, as there is only a dim memory of it being shown once, probably on Channel Four in its early days, on a night when there wasn’t a Jasmine Minks or June Brides show on in town.
Around the same time as A Toast came out this boy was lucky enough to discover Pleasures of the Harbor, by pure chance. A slightly battered secondhand copy for seven pounds? Irresistible with that cover photo of Phil in his suede coat and flat cap: such a totally cool bohemian mod look. It really was a revelation, and for a 1967 record it was so wonderfully un-rock ’n’ roll. Funnily enough this is a genuine Phil Ochs quote, from 1974, which could so easily be Subway Sect speaking to Steve Walsh a few years later: “I consider rock music basically dead, uninteresting, boring, repetitious, too loud, ego-maniacal, ludicrous and totally beside the point.”
There really is not anything else like Pleasures is there? Ahead of recording the LP Phil apparently was inspired by The Beatles’ lyricism and sound, particularly ‘Yesterday’, and one imagines an affinity with ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, the baroque ballads, and definitely the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Phil was giving serious thought to the idea of an LP as a work of art, not just as a convenient collection of songs, and was able to do so due to his growth as an artist. But was this really the dramatic change some make out? It always seems his social realism was infused with lyricism, and even Che sat in the forests of the night reading poetry by the light of a campfire.
Pre-empting detractors Phil wrote: “Ah but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty”. And this song-cycle is a work of extraordinary beauty. Importantly, as the years have slipped-by, we have gained a better understanding of the key players on this and Phil’s two subsequent A&M LPs, Tape From California and Rehearsals for Retirement, three records which form a formidable triptych, but oh what a mess in terms of what’s available where and how in the present tense. It has been a gradual process of identifying who and what the essential personnel link to, and the connections prove these records were not flukes.
The elaborate arrangements on Pleasures, the strings and things, were realised by Ian Freebairn-Smith. The other record readily associated here with Ian as arranger is Tim Rose’s second LP, Through Rose-Colored Glasses which, while clearly not being Tim’s first LP, is nevertheless a great record, and the arrangement on and performance of ‘Angela’ is a wonderful thing, very much a heartbreaking thing. The backing vocals on this track link nicely to the California Dreamers, a vocal group Ian was part of. As an ensemble they, perhaps improbably, appeared on a few Impulse! titles in 1967, including Gábor Szabó’s Wind, Sky & Diamonds which features a fantastic, drivin’ beat-fuelled version of the Mamas & Papas’ ‘Twelve-Thirty’, a personal favourite here.
The California Dreamers are also on a very young Tom Scott’s The Honeysuckle Breeze, a wonderful very-much-of-its-time mix of paisley pop, sitars, sweet harmonies and free jazz, which includes great covers of The Association’s ‘Never My Love’, Joan Baez’s ‘North’ and a version of John Coltrane’s ‘Naima’ with wonderful wordless singing in the background. Tom was soon playing with Sergio Mendes and Ian later worked with Kermit on ‘Rainbow Connection’.
The producer paired with Phil for Pleasures was fortuitously Larry Marks, who really understood what was needed or rather what was possible. There is an excellent episode of Come To The Sunshine, a radio show hosted by Andrew Sandoval (who knows so much more about these things), dedicated to Larry’s career and giving special attention to Pleasures. The show opens with The Action’s recording of ‘Shadows and Reflections’, a song Larry wrote with the enigmatic Tandyn Almer of ‘Along Comes Mary’ fame, the song recorded by The Association (whom The Action were fans of). Larry also wrote and recorded ‘L.A. Break Down (And Take Me In)’ with an elaborate Ian Freebairn-Smith arrangement. Shirley Horn later sang the song and made it very much her own on the magnificent Where Are You Going LP.
The third key player on these LPs of Phil’s was the pianist Lincoln Mayorga who had hitherto been Ed Cobb’s right-hand man, linking him to Ketty Lester (‘Love Letters’, yes, but Lincoln arranged the awesome ‘West Coast’ too), Brenda Holloway, Gloria Jones, Toni Basil’s ‘Breakaway’, and Sandy Wynns’ ‘The Touch of Venus’ which appears on a great Charly CD dedicated to Wolverhampton’s Catacombs, though there’s no ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’. There is also floating around an excellent instrumental version of ‘Touch of Venus’ credited to the Lincoln Mayorga Orchestra. His work with Ed Cobb presumably links him to The Standells and Chocolate Watchband too.
Lincoln stayed with Phil right through to his notorious Gunfight at the Carnegie Hall performance, and certainly he is very much there on ‘Cross My Heart’, the opening track of Pleasures, which is thematically a wonderful mix of ‘I’m Forever Blowin’ Bubbles’ and ‘Shout To The Top’: pretty much all you need really. It’s one of those songs, perhaps a throwaway one in a sense, with the power to get you through some rough times. And, as a statement of intent, it sets the scene perfectly for an LP that contains three of the most remarkable songs ever recorded, three songs that take up more than 20-minutes of the record, three epic songs in every sense.
The first of these, ‘Flower Lady’, has what are this boy’s favourite ever songwords. It is tempting to quote some of them here, but hell, it’s easy enough these days to look them up, and anyway it’s the cumulative effect that really seems extraordinary: image after image, killer line after killer line, and it’s all as sad and as romantic as hell. Phil apparently was haunted by The Byrds never getting around to recording the song, as was once planned, but could anyone do a better version than the one on Pleasures?
The title track itself is incredibly cinematic, which is interesting as seemingly Phil was a big film enthusiast, and it’s often said how so-and-so a movie inspired him to write such-and-such a song. Larry Marks has mentioned that when he first heard Phil sing ‘Pleasures’ he thought of Jacques Brel, and you can see how, with the flow of words, the imagery, that it might be closer to the Brel canon or the French chanson tradition than the folk or rock norm, but Phil’s song is so sweet, so sentimental, and with the power of the narrative you can see a link to great literature, to Moby Dick, to Conrad, to Jack London, even the Jack Kerouac of Lonesome Traveller.
And then there’s ‘Crucifixion’, written while travelling through England by car, and it is almost as though Phil wrote his own epitaph with the lines: “Time takes a toll and the memory fades, but his glory is growing in the magic that he made.” Part of the beauty of ‘Crucifixion’ is its abstract nature, leaving meanings open, deliberately ambiguous, but the gist of it is clear: society’s need to destroy its brightest stars, to build them up and then perform the ritual sacrifice, to destroy. “The way things are going they're going to crucify me,” later wrote John Lennon, a Phil Ochs fan.
It is an astonishing, visionary song, made more remarkable by the arrangement which brilliantly adds elements of electronics, dissonance and discord, to signify the conflict at work in the song. Joe Byrd was tasked with pushing things as far as possible on this track, linking the song to the American tradition of experimental classical composers, and, yeah, that decision to involve him: brilliant! This would have been the period leading into the United States of America LP, and in particular ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ and ‘Love Song for the Dead Che’, two of the most loved songs here.
Imagine making a record as great as Pleasures of the Harbor and being ignored by many and sneered at by others: what would that do to you? Well, Phil and co. did, at least, keep on keeping on, and made Tape From California, with less baroque elaboration, less romanticism, for you can’t pull off such a stunt again. But it’s a great record, and there’s a peculiar attraction in the way the title track and ‘The War is Over’ have this odd skewed soul thing going on, which brings us to the mystery of ‘When In Rome’, and that’s not a reference to the Ngaio Marsh novel (and she, incidentally, was Cristina Monet’s favourite crime writer: these details matter!) although oddly, appropriately, that does feature 1968 student protests. No, this is all about the 1968 Clydie King recording of ‘When In Rome’.
This remained unreleased until it appeared on a 2007 CD covering Clydie’s Imperial & Minit years. The compilation is a wonderful thing, and Clydie’s tracks ‘The Thrill is Gone’, ‘Missin’ My Baby’ and ‘Soft and Gentle Ways’ are up there with the highest works of art. And her recording of ‘When In Rome’ is right up there too. It is attributed to Phil Ochs, but it is very different lyrically to the ‘When In Rome’ which is the centrepiece of Tape From California. So, was it a Phil Ochs song? It is sort of a love-gone-wrong song, and did Phil ever write a love song? ‘Changes’ perhaps? Maybe. Go and ask Neil Young about that song. He knows. And, anyway, Clydie’s ‘When In Rome is really about score-settling, revenge, and it’s a song with a feminist twist.
Musically, it feels like a Phil Ochs song. There’s a lovely folk thing going on with the arrangement and instrumentation, but that could be a red herring. It might be a completely different song, but if so, composed by whom? If it is based on something Phil wrote, who adapted it or arranged it? You would expect to read the story behind it somewhere, for these things are so important, but no, nothing, it seems. So, in the absence of information, what can you do?
Maybe it was that Phil desperately wanted a hit record, and Clydie needed a hit, and they knew each other out on the West Coast, met at a protest or at a benefit or when Phil’s brother was taking some photos somewhere. So, they worked out a plan, but nothing happened, which was just their luck really, and thankfully this track survived. A little later Clydie sang back-up on Phil’s Greatest Hits, and she was part of the ensemble on the Brothers and Sisters project, Dylan’s Gospel, prompting Phil to joke about a companion volume. He wanted to call it Gospel Ochs.
Of late Phil’s ‘When In Rome’ has been very much on this boy’s mind. What a song! In a way it perfectly complements ‘Crucifixion’: one is about the meteoric rise and fall of an individual, the young god’s forgotten story, and the other is about the rise and fall of civilisations, empires, great societies destroying themselves. And, oh my, the imagery and the absurdity. Perhaps Phil had been reading an early edition of The Master and Margarita before writing this.
Anyway, recently reading Alfred Hayes’ The Girl on the Via Flaminia brought Phil’s song to mind. It certainly suggested some of the later verses in the epic ballad, with the American soldiers in Rome at the end of the war, the arrogant conquering heroes amid the ruins of a country brought to its knees by fascists and Nazis. Among the debris appear these horribly healthy and wealthy Yanks, the promises of salvation replaced by poverty and deprivation, with resentment and corruption rife: “There was silk in the stores for the whims of the whores”. Alfred Hayes was there in Rome and he witnessed what was happening, which makes the book so powerful.
Oddly, until recently, while being aware of Alfred Hayes’ name, it wasn’t until a charity shop find of a lovely pair of Penguin Modern Classics that his work had been read here. These were recent editions too, in mint condition: ‘In Love’ and ‘My Face for the World to See’, rather later than Via Flaminia and with that hard-boiled, terse, clipped, cynical, jaded thing going on which can be simultaneously so appealing and unsettling. Upon reading the biographical note it became clear why his name was familiar: he wrote the words (pre-WW2) for ‘Joe Hill’ which were set to music by Earl Robinson.
Probably ‘Joe Hill’ was first heard here via Scott Walker on The Moviegoer and it remains a particular favourite, partly because it suggests Paul Quinn was paying attention and, even better, now having heard the version The Dubliners recorded with Phil Coulter, it suggests Scott might have listened closely, and the idea of Scott being a Dubliners fan makes the heart leap. Obliquely Bob Dylan’s ‘St Augustine’ and explicitly Joan Baez had given ‘Joe Hill’ a new lease of life at the end of the 1960s, and memorably Joan sang it at Woodstock, prefacing her performance with an update on her husband organizing a hunger strike in prison.
Joan would presumably have been aware that Joe’s life had recently been celebrated in a new song by Phil Ochs, a starkly beautiful highlight of Tape From California, with just Ramblin’ Jack Elliott along in support. Phil’s ballad is incredibly beautiful, and his storytelling skills are such that the listener is blissfully unaware that the song is seven-and-a-half minutes long. Somehow it seems only Phil would include the line about how, in his letters home, Joe said he was always doing fine, as you do whenever anyone asks, no matter what.
Something else of note about Alfred Hayes is that he has a connection to Vittorio Da Sica’s 1948 film Bicycle Thieves, another of the great works of art, one which recalls Phil Ochs’ line about shedding a tear on poverty, tombstone of us all. Or the line about how you looked as though you hadn't seen the Queen's face for a while, which is how many of us became aware of the film, via the immortal Pale Fountains song. And has anyone written a detailed essay on the film references in the songs of Michael Head? It’s the sort of thing we want to read, not the same old biographical rubbish. Oh boy, what a song: “But if I can get some sleep tonight, you know it’s almost half the fight, for me”.
Studs Terkel’s memoir, Talking To Myself, is rich in wonderful quotes, but there’s one in particular, from Rome in 1962, when he met Vittorio Da Sica and the visionary film-maker is talking about how closet fascists made life difficult for him in the immediate post-war years. He refers to losing all his money making his great films: “I’m glad to lose it this way. To have for a souvenir of my life pictures like Umberto D and The Bicycle Thief.” Amen. Studs tells him that The Bicycle Thief (as it’s known in the U.S.) is one of his favourites, a film he’s seen a dozen times or more.
Studs’ Talking To Myself is a favourite book here, and central to it are the events in Chicago around the Democratic National Convention, the hippies and Yippies’ protests and pranks, and the brutal police response in late August 1968. Studs was an eyewitness, along with the journalist James Cameron, which seems oddly apt as James’ Point of Departure was a set-text for those of us studying journalism 30-plus years ago, the prime example of how to write with concision, elegance and a conscience.
Phil Ochs was very much part of the events of that time in Chicago, events which affected him greatly and which he came to see as heralding the tragic death of liberal America’s progress. Phil is not mentioned in Studs’ account, though floating around on the Internet are a couple of wonderful recordings of Phil and Studs in conversation, and Chicago 1968 is one of the topics they discuss.
Immediately after the Convention Phil did a revealing interview with Izzy Young, of New York’s Folklore Center, for Broadside. Izzy starts by saying that Phil was just about the only folk singer who was in Chicago, and Phil replies, graciously, that Peter and Mary showed up too. Interestingly, if you read Mary Travers’ often inspiring collection of writings, A Woman’s Words, it is clear she remained politically active way after this, opposing U.S. interference in El Salvador and Nicaragua, fighting for abortion rights, and so on. If you look up Mary and Chicago 1968 you are likely to find a great photo of her with Julian Bond. You may, however, be directed to another book by a different Mary Travers which has the 1968 Chicago Convention as its backdrop.
This will be Litany: A Novel, a fantastic work which comes incredibly highly recommended. It tells the tale of three women whose lives become entangled, by chance, and this is three women from different generations who each in their own way are outsiders and who all have had more than their fair share of troubles. This lovely, inventive book shows what effect neglect can have, what happens when lives drift, and what can happen when there is a renewed or shared sense of purpose. It really is a wonderful story, and one that very definitely will make you laugh, cry, cheer, jeer, and believe in life and love all over again.
Phil’s lingering feelings about what happened in Chicago serve as the backdrop for his 1969 LP, Rehearsals for Retirement, on which the beautiful ‘William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed’ refers, often obliquely and poetically, to what happened. It has such a gorgeous arrangement, and very clever lyrics, with playful winks in the direction of ‘As I Went Out One Morning’ and its antecedents. As such it is so much more powerful and emotional than some furious rant. Lincoln (appropriately) plays the haunting elegiac piano accompaniment, and gradually, quietly, other musicians seem to turn up and reverentially join in, an accordion, a fiddle, and others, and it becomes like a strange sad Spanish Civil War ballad, slowly building and building.
There are three other incredibly beautiful and exquisitely sad songs on Rehearsals, each one almost too painfully moving. ‘My Life’ musically has a great Roy Orbison or Charlie Rich thing going on, and it is one of Phil’s great out-and-out pop moments. But, oh, the content, or rather the discontent. “Take everything I own. Take your tap from my phone. And leave my life alone” are lines that could almost come from Studs’ Talking With Myself where he tells stories of enduring FBI surveillance. He could joke about it, but not everyone has that gift. Other people may suffer badly if they are more thin-skinned and have less support.
The song is a kissing cousin to The Beatles’ ‘In My Life’ and Brel’s ‘My Death’, and perhaps the line “My life is now a myth to me, like the drifter, with his laughter in the dawn” has echoes of Dylan, yes, but also in a tangential way the Ray Pollard song, ‘The Drifter’, memorably first heard here via the Richard Searling compilation Sold On Soul which, like love, slipped through my fingers. Interestingly, the single of ‘My Life’ has the arrangement credited to Nick De Caro, the man who waved his magic wand over Clydie King’s ‘The Thrill is Gone’ and ‘Missin’ My Baby’. Is that a clue?
The title track of Rehearsals for Retirement reflects Phil’s despair and dismay, about his country and his life: “The lights are cold again. They dance below me. I turn to old friends. They do not know me. All but the beggar. He remembers. I put a penny down for payment, in my rehearsals for retirement.” It must have been hard being Phil Ochs just then. Everybody knew better than Phil what he should be doing, everybody was making demands on his time, and he ends up shot by all sides. Phil being sensitive, someone who felt things deeply and tried to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, who tried to stand tall and put a brave face on it all, well, inevitably things took their toll, for cumulatively things can really get to you, and then something snaps, and you tumble in despair, pull the shutters down and retreat.
The beautiful piano playing on ‘Rehearsals for Retirement’, presumably provided by Lincoln again, has echoes of Chopin and Debussy and the other great solo piano works that have come to be so loved here, and musically there are links to Phil’s song, ‘Jim Dean of Indiana’, another incredibly moving composition. One of the highlights of his 1970 Greatest Hits LP, the final studio album, ‘Jim Dean’ is a sensitive tribute to a childhood hero, and only Phil would have approached it by writing about the actor’s home environment and the farm on which he grew up, so we see the little kid lost in dreaming and later the young film star, destined to die too soon: “He played a boy without a home, torn with no tomorrow, reaching out to touch someone, a stranger in the shadow”.
And it is at Jim Dean’s grave, near that farm in Indiana, that Phil lays a flower: so lovely and so simple a gesture. Thematically, and presumably not coincidentally, it provides an odd contrast to another song on that record, ‘Boy in Ohio’, which is about Phil’s own youth: “Soon I was grown and I had to leave, and I've been all over the country, but I don't believe I've had more fun than when I was a boy in Ohio”. Ah life.
Going back to Rehearsals for Retirement, and the present personal favourite here, something of an obsession in fact, is ‘Doesn't Lenny Live Here Anymore?’ which really is an eerie song, with Phil seemingly haunted by the torch ballads of Bob Dylan and by the death of Lenny Bruce. Larry Marks told Andrew Sandoval a great story about Phil wearing Lenny’s jacket on the cover of Pleasures (so presumably it’s that very cool pea jacket) and never wanting to leave it off. But more than all that the song is haunted by the spectre of everyday failure and despair, the web of loneliness and futility, and a desire to find a way out and the hurt of those left behind to endure alone: “Now you searched the books in vain for a better word for lonely”.
Musically, it’s lovely, so sad, a real rebel waltz, and no, that’s not a gratuitous allusion: many people will have come across the name of Phil Ochs first via Sandinista! and the lines included at the end of ‘Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)’. What was the story behind that? Later we would learn that the words were adapted from Phil’s song ‘United Fruit’, but have we ever learnt how The Clash came to borrow them? We read the same old biographical details, we are given the same old stories of how the group got through the day, but this is the sort of thing we want to know. Who was the Phil Ochs fan? Mick had that softness, but Joe seems the likeliest suspect, doesn’t he? And this was such a cool move: it’s not as though the song was one of Phil’s, ahem, greatest hits. It’s only been available on a Broadside compilation, which came out in 1976 when Phil died and when ironically The Clash were just getting going.
So, who had the Broadside LP? Did the publication of Marc Eliot’s Death of a Rebel bring Phil’s name back onto The Clash’s radar? Did Joe sit and play Phil’s songs on his guitar, say with Tymon Dogg and other cats? Were Joe’s ballads and blues influenced by Phil? Would they have hit it off if they’d met? Indeed, did they meet when Phil was in London? These things matter. Oh they, Phil and Joe, were similar: incurable romantics, yet complex, flawed individuals, hardly saints, but great poets and wonderful singers and showmen. And on Sandinista!, even with that mention of Victor Jara, Joe would have been aware of the connection to Phil and how they met in Chile before the military coup in 1973, which surely would have been the final straw for Phil as he had been so excited by Allende’s administration.
Anyway, there are so many great lines in ‘Doesn't Lenny Live Here Anymore?’, and the chorus is a complete film or novel in itself: “It's the haggard ex-lover of a long-time loser standing rejectedly by the door”. And, somehow, certain lines, like “You sit at the desk to lose your life in a letter, but the words don't seem to come”, maybe connect to ‘No More Songs’, another incredible recording on Phil’s Greatest Hits a year later, a track which with ‘Chords of Fame’, two songs so closely connected, works as a pair of bookends. ‘Chords’ has a terrific country rock thing going on, with Phil revelling in being a born-again roots enthusiast, which is ironic as Van Dyke Parks was the producer, and yet Larry Marks had been at the controls for Gene Clark with the Gosdin Bros., the Dillard & Clark LPs and the Flying Burrito Bros. titles. The form suits Phil, and he always had that ache in his voice which was there with Gene and Gram too.
‘Chords’ deals with the dichotomy of being a singer and a star, and how “the more that you will find success, the more that you will fail”. Phil once sang the song for John Lennon and told him it was about the dangers of fame, and Jack Kerouac said something about how fame makes you stop writing, which leads us to ‘No More Songs’ and, if you know Phil’s story, maybe this was a presentiment and maybe he was tempting fate, for if you have writer’s block you can’t create something so magical. Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Maybe he felt a horrible sense of foreboding, but knew there was enough poetic inspiration in the tank for one more fantastic work of art. It happens. If so, what a way to go.
‘No More Songs’ works so wonderfully with its inventive arrangement, and it seems to fit so brilliantly that you almost don’t notice how strange it is, and how it almost seems like it could be David Munrow and the Early Music Consort at work on it, which would be about as perfect as it could get. In with the lute and flute, or is it a recorder, or less exotically or quixotically simply a soprano sax? And, anyway, who played on it? Tom Scott perhaps? That would be cool.
There is a clip of Phil miming to ‘No More Songs’ on a TV show, shot on location as he wanders through an abandoned industrial setting with his guitar, which is so incredible that it hurts like hell every time you watch it. “A ghost with no name stands ragged in the rain, and it seems that there are no more songs”. Oh boy. So beautiful and yet, like Tim Rose’s ‘You’re Slipping Away From Me’, it’s very hard to listen to right now.
And it wasn’t the end, anyway. Phil had difficulties writing new material, sure, so instead he travelled, a restless spirit abroad, a pilgrim ghost adrift, searching for something to inspire him and to connect with, as he passed through South America, East Asia, and in 1973 on to Africa, spending time in Nairobi, and making a single there which he hoped would be played on café jukeboxes. Without reading too much into it (ah, but who else did anything similar?) the 45 Phil made with the Pan-African Ngembo Rumba Band is a total joy, and God bless the day a copy of the ‘unofficial’ 1993 reissue turned up in the singles racks of the Tottenham Court Road Virgin Megastore and this boy bought a copy as an indulgent treat.
It would be ridiculous to claim to be an authority on Kenyan pop of that time, but it seems to have been a thriving scene, and the beautifully-presented Soundway Kenya Special compilations are wonderful and played a lot here. It is tempting to wonder what Phil heard and saw there. One side of this single of his, ‘Bwatue’, is completely irresistible with the gorgeous melody and the trebly guitars, sharper than lightning, making intricate patterns as they soar weightless over the rhythm. It’s just so joyous. And, oddly, it suggests Jonathan Richman somehow. Oh well, you know how these things work. They don’t have to be logical. And it always makes me smile, the idea of Phil Ochs dancing in a Kenyan bar. Now there’s an image to leave you with.