The Impotence of Being Earnest

Despite himself, Phil Ochs just didn't like the cut of his gold lame suit. The liner notes to the excellent new Ochs retrospective, Farewells & Fantasies, tell us that the folk musician -- more usually decked out in the studied proletariat garb of early 1960s Greenwich Village -- first wore this garment for the album Greatest Hits. The title, subheaded "50 Phil Ochs fans can't be wrong!", was an Elvis joke -- referring to Presley's best-of, 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong -- and so was the suit. Even if you know nothing about Ochs, looking at him in these pictures -- where he struts about with his mouth hanging open like a rock and roll sock puppet -- you might suspect there's a sense of humor at play. Being familiar with Ochs's back catalog of barefaced, political folk -- which includes such accomplished satirical numbers as "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" and "Cops of the World" -- not only confirms that you've met a rare wag, but one whose humor extends well past the stereotypic folkie's myopic purpose: strum, whine and change the world.

But that was part of Ochs's problem. In some ways, he was the stereotypic folkie. He saw strumming and whining as not his imperative, but as ours. Until he was crushed by reality, he thought the world would change if we'd all just speak up. The gold lame suit was a joke, but more important, it wasn't. To Ochs, the silly outfit didn't just lampoon over-the-top showmen, it presented him with -- get this -- a means of communicating with the people. This from an artist quoted in the liner notes of Farewells & Fantasies as saying, "To cater to an audience's taste is not to respect them ... and if the audience doesn't understand that, they don't deserve respect." Ochs was making fun of himself, but alas, only for a larger purpose.

Ochs was full of compromise. He compromised his talent for lyrical satire in the name of being earnest. He compromised his optimism when, gasp!, it turned out that pop songs couldn't change the world. And he compromised himself, his family and, less crucially, his 50 fans by hanging himself in his sister's house on April 9, 1976, with his own belt -- a prison suicide, really, with the added advantage that Sis had to mop up. It shows you just how far Ochs was willing to take being earnest, and just how ineffective being earnest really is. Ochs had a suit to wear, not a cross to bear.

Farewells & Fantasies contains three CDs full of songs culled from Ochs's 12-year career, most of which display a feisty talent with simple words and open chords ("I Ain't Marching Anymore," "Cops of the World," "Canons of Christianity") and some of which find their stridency reduced to novelty ("The War Is Over," "Here's to the State of Mississippi," the electric version of "I Ain't Marching Anymore"). The amount of material isn't exhaustive -- a good thing, considering the brevity of Ochs's time in front of the mike -- but there's enough here to give you a good idea of what Ochs contributed to the form, and not so much that you begin to hate his guts. The set's booklet includes detailed notes about each of the songs, and long and short essays by Rolling Stone senior editor Mark Kemp and Los Angeles writer Michael Ventura, respectively. Kemp contributes biography, and Ventura offers cant (important, contextualizing cant -- reminding cynics that the '60s actually did change the world, and that Ochs was brave to bitch, given the tenor of his era -- but cant nonetheless). It's a well-considered package, informative but not erudite. And even when the liner notes give us the addresses for (and praise the virtues of) the ACLU, Amnesty International, the AFL-CIO and (ahem) Rock the Vote, we can excuse the preaching as part of Ochs's genre.

What has remained fresh in Ochs's songs isn't their topical, political content, but the way he had with music. Unlike most of the socially minded troubadours we imagine sticking candles into wicker Chianti bottles and preaching to the converted -- thinking, perhaps rightly, that the content of their lyrics gave them leave to play the same old dumb Gs, Cs and Ds and warble the same staid old melodies -- Ochs cared about songcraft. You hear it in the way that the chords move independent of the fake book in "Links on the Chain," in the way the somewhat saccharine vocal line weaves through the arpeggios on "Changes."

Only where Ochs polluted the simple voice-and-guitar chemistry of folk with flat orchestration and excessive instrumentation did he really fail. And that's not because of any shortsightedness on his part -- or because the folkniks who jeered Ochs's contemporary, Bob Dylan, when he strapped on an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival were right -- but simply because the sort of aural knickknacks fastened insecurely on the electric version of "I Ain't Marching Anymore" don't add anything to the song. The militant drumbeat and Farfisa tones that initiate the track give it a cheap recast, like a novelty announcement: "See, this song is about war. Get it?" They may have put meat on the beast, but only in the form of moles, freckles and skin tags.  

The most impressive part of Ochs's talent, though he seems to have resisted it at every turn, was his gift for satire and even sarcasm. The most famous (and best) example of this is "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," Ochs's "lesson in safe logic." Here, Ochs sets up the checkbook lefties he felt didn't go far enough by giving them, at first, an agreeable disposition. "Sure, once I was young and impulsive, I wore every conceivable pin / Even went to Socialist meetings, learned all the old union hymns." Satire isn't just about wearing the cloak of your enemy, but about actually crawling inside your enemy's body like a righteous parasite. Sarcasm, often a vital component of satire, means to rip the flesh. Only then, nestled in your host's warm innards, do you let loose your quills, as Ochs does when he adds the line, "Ah, but I've grown older and wiser, and that's why I'm turning you in." It's lethal, and more important, it's entertaining.

Protest songs were, of course, all about attack, and Ochs's knack for satire gave him a particularly invasive form of offense. Unfortunately, he didn't use it to its full end. As often as you hear the satirical "I" or "we" in Ochs's songs (such as in the rather funny "I Kill Therefore I Am" and "Cops of the World"), you hear the blunt, accusative "you." Ochs, like so many of the second-rate protest singers, made the mistake of thinking that the mission was more important than the means. As a result, tunes such as "Here's to the State of Mississippi" (later recast as the gloating "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon" after the end of Ochs's compositional career) fall short of their target. In that song, all the broad casting of the net common to satire is there, but it just ends up sounding like an itchy blanket statement: "Here's to the land you've torn out the heart of / Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of." Ochs has his enemies in mind, but he resorts to terms (such as "the people of Mississippi," which included not only rednecks, but black folks and people who actively fought rednecks) that sweep up his allies. "And here's to the people of Mississippi / Who say the folks up north, they just don't understand / And they tremble in the shadows at the thunder of the Klan / Oh the sweating of their souls can wash the blood from off their hands / Or they'll smile and shrug their shoulders at the murder of a man." When Ochs goes through his litany of corrupt Mississippian institutions -- schools, cops, judges, government, laws -- he ends up vilifying Mississippi churches, without, of course, specifying which ones. "And here's to the churches of Mississippi / Where the cross once made of silver now is caked with rust / And the Sunday morning sermons pander to their lust / Oh the fallen face of Jesus is choking in the dust / And heaven only knows in which god they can trust." Oops! Black Baptist churches were probably the most important social centers in the South's black community, and while it's certainly savory to ridicule Christian hypocrites, those churches played a more vital role in social reform than Ochs or any other quixotic folk musicians ever did.

By design, folk music (of the "protest" variety) didn't have much in common with the rock and roll of its time. It was a move away from pop, gloss and "mere" entertainment. That's why the folkies shut their legs to Dylan's electric sound, even though folk eventually became absorbed into rock's protoplasm. Yet somehow, in the aftermath, you'll find lots of writerly sorts claiming that these political folk musicians influenced, of all things, punk. After our gears are stripped and we've sneezed away the smoke, we can give this argument some credit: Folk was the first popular music to complain, politically. But the qualities of folk and punk gripes are naturally disparate, indulging in different sorts of license. Punks relished sarcasm, irony, jokes and incompetence, and championed the individual along the way; folkniks favored being earnest, sincere, didactic and effective, and yearned for community. Phil Ochs was by no stretch a punk, prototypic or otherwise, and yet his satire probably would have rested more comfortably under a pair of punk dog tags.  

Mark Kemp's notes provide an anecdote about Ochs's final performance at Carnegie Hall on March 27, 1970, where he actually wore the gold lame suit in performance. "There, before thousands of his fans, Phil mixed medleys of Presley and Buddy Holly songs in with his protest anthems. It turned out to be a brilliant disaster. From the moment he walked on-stage for the night's first show, Phil was treated to catcalls and laughter ... At one point a member of the audience yelled for 'the real Phil Ochs' to come out, which prompted Phil to lecture the crowd about 'real' songwriting. More boos and hisses ensued."

Anyone raised on all the music that came after Ochs hanged himself -- who thinks of rock as something that arrived with punk -- can probably see exactly where Ochs went wrong. Asked to reveal himself, Ochs shouldn't have lectured in his glittering frippery. He shouldn't have aimed for dignity. He should have stripped naked. That would have shut them up, or made them laugh. In either case, it would have gotten Ochs more notice.

Punk has taught us that much. Too bad it wasn't there to teach Ochs.

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