Today is the fifty-second anniversary of Phil Ochs’ death, and I thought I would repost this, which I have previously posted on the “50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong” Facebook Group. This slideshow is more or less a capsule biography of Phil’s life, set to live recording (I think from Montreal) of him singing “Cross My Heart,” a song that encapsulates the contradictions in Phil’s life, contradictions that ultimately led him to take his own life, contradictions that ultimately reflect those that the America still faces. This is in some sense a calling card for a larger project, essentially a two man stage show designed for a small theater, in which one actor (who would need to be a talented high tenor as well as a better than competent guitar player) would play Phil, and the other would the playing various people in his life, starting with his college roommate Jim Glover, a brief appearance as Bob Dylan, Phil’s second manager Arthur Gorson, Phil’s third manager (and brother) Michael Ochs, and Yippee Jerry Rubin. In the second half he would need to be an FBI agent, a prosecutor, Phil’s friend Andy Wickham, and Phil’s protege Sammy Walker. About half would be Phil’s songs, and about half would be dialogue drawn from Phil published and unpublished writers and papers, biographies about him, and his FBI file. I realized from the start that there will be many legal hurdles and permissions to secure, but I have bought theatrical performance rights for a single production run to Marc Eliot’s Death of a Rebel: A Biography of Phil Ochs, which the script draws heavily upon and am currently negotiating for performance rights to about fourteen songs. I hope to be talking to a potential director this week, and at least least get some hints about the audition process as I will need two strong actors, one of whom will also have to be a gifted singer and guitar player, and the other comfortable with quick changes of fairly varied characters. I realize that I will lose money on the project, which I am trying to keep small scale (only about ten performances in a very small theater, probably in North Hollywood or Pasadena). Nevertheless, it feels like something I need to at least try to do, simply because Phil’s songs and story touched me so deeply (I did see him once, but I will save story that for another post).
Anyway, the real reason for this post is the video below, which I compiled last June, when I first conceived of this play project, drawing on internet photographs and a few which I scanned from Eliot’s and Schumacher‘s biographies of him. It seems an appropriate memorial on this aniversary of his passing.
“Jim Dean of Indiana” is not one of Phil Ochs’ better known songs, certainly not up there with “I Ain’t Marchin Anymore,” “Small Circle of Friends,” or even “When I’m Gone.” It is from his last album, the ironically titled Phil Ochs Greatest Hits, was never released as a single, and recieved little to no airplay. I have to admit when I first heard the album back in the seventies, “Jim Dean” didn’t impress me nearly as much as Phil’s baroque mini-masterpieces, “No More Songs” and “Bach, Beethover, Mozart, & Me,” his country semi-parody, “Gas Station Women” (which I now see more as a homage to Faron Young), or the occasionally covered straightforward rock song, “My Kingdom for a Car.” Nevertheless, the song had deep meaning for Phil, for whom Dean had near mythical significance since first encountering him in late adolescence, seeing him in pictures like East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant as a larger-than-life figure at the local movie theater. As he was coming to the end of a brief but incredibly productive recording career, Phil seems to have consciously returned to his roots for inspiration, writing about the time he was “A Boy in Ohio,” and the homage to Faron Young I refer to above. Phil seems to have become increasingly drawn to his own homage to the Hollywood rebel-icon, apparently obssessively playing it on the piano at his sister’s house in Far Rockaway, New York in the last months before his suicide in April 1976.
Coming back to the song after not listening to it for a long time, I find the song has a delicacy and simplicity that is quite moving. It certainly isn’t the type of song Phil was best known for–protest songs like “Another Age“–being instead a kind of understated excercise in empathy, and perhaps a plea for compassion for the lost and the lonely, a state that Phil was coming increasingly to identify with as he started a long slide into deep depression. The song is not strictly accurate as an account of Dean’s life: he wasn’t physically abused by a farm hand, but more likely sexually abused by a local minister, and the song entirely ignores the many years Dean spent in Southern California before his mother’s death from uterine cancer in 1940 (it was at this time he joined his aunt Ortense and her husband Marcus Wilson in Indiana. Phil, in fact, was in a position to know some intimate details of Dean’s life, in that he often talked with Troubadour owner Doug Weston about the actor while living in Los Angeles. In fact, Weston had at least occasionally talked to Dean while working as a bartender in early 1950s Greenwich Village (Eliot, Death of a Rebel 156-57), although how intimate their conversations were, and how much of them Weston conveyed to to a fascinated Phil I don’t know. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting song, very briefly mentioning Dean’s movie career, largely because the song is less anchored to the actor’s person than the place he lived in from pre-adolescence until his mid-teens: the Wilson farm in Indiana. Thus we remain achored in Dean’s conscousness until he moves away, but then he is a figure mostly seen from the perspecitive of Marcus and Ortense Wilson and–to a much lesser degree–the surrounding townspeople. The physical presence of the living Dean only enters the song once away from the farm, and that is when Marcus and Ortense drive to Los Angeles to “speak with him for half an hour,” before leaving for his rendevous with mortality. The song is not strictly chronological, and the slideshow is even more unstuck in time (Giant only came out after Dean died, but I believe the marquee photo is of the local cinema in Fairmount, Indiana), but I think it works. I hope you do too.
This is sort of the conclusion of what I am coming to think of an elegiac trilogy of slideshows, the first on Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, the second on Rufus Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, and this one on Jim and Phil, who never met but who were both ‘boys in Midwest,’ to slightly paraphrase Phil’s song. This one’s for Shannon. And for James and Phil, of course.
Previously posted on The Daily Kos. I really had not intended for this slideshow to be quite so bleak. Once I came up with the idea of using The Verve’s Pipe’s “The Freshmen,” a powerfully moving song apparently written about the suicide of lead singer Brian Vander Ark’s girlfriend, as a way of addressing the political and emotional fallout from the election, it to some degree took on a life of its own, almost in spite of my conscious intentions. Frankly, it’s probably the bleakest thing I’ve done since “UKnowYourReichs,” a slideshow about Holocaust denial set to Kurt Cobain’s last song, a song which (to me anyway) seemed to look forward fairly obviously to his own suicide about a month after Nirvana recorded it. That slideshow was in part inspired by Night Will Fall, Andre Singer’s 2014 documentary about the liberation of the Concentration Camps at the end of WWII. Although I was by no means completely unfamiliar with the material, the film made a deep impression on me when I first saw it about three months ago, so deep that the documentary seemed more like a prophecy of things to come than a a record of events safely compartmentalized in the past.
Like Bitter Salt, this slideshow began as an attempt to find common ground in the shared experience of pain, with idea of moving beyond it to mutual cooperation if not necessarily shared understanding. Tea partiers and progressives may listen to different media outlets, have different circles of friends, have completely different concepts of the historical and philosophical bases for American society, and radically opposed concepts for what goals we hope America might become; nevertheless, as human beings we all suffer, and all those other diametrically divergent attitudes are—at least in part—our attempts to deal with our individual experience of pain, trauma, and isolation. Even our “fearless leader” (apologies to fans of Rocky and Bullwinkle, but I just can’t bring myself to say Hair Furor’s actual title), strikes me as a deeply damaged human being, a damage at least in part the product of his family life, education, experiences, as well as of his own bad choices and their often destructive consequences.
Certainly one of the ideas behind The Verve Pipe song is that we make bad choices, often self-destructive or destructive of those around us, because we don’t necessarily have the wisdom or the life experience to make good choices. To make explicit an implicit conceit of the song, at some point we are all “freshmen,” doing ignorant and even stupid things in stupid ways because we don’t know any better, and because we are too wrapped up in our own pain to acknowledge that of others, at least until it is too late. The repeated and increasingly unconvincing refrain, “I can’t be held responsible,” paradoxically communicates the deep and overwhelming sense of responsibility the singer feels, as well as his understandable and all-too-common desire to blame the other party (after all, like an abused spouse, she’s responsible too because “She fell in love in the first place”).
I am certain that in compiling this slideshow I was playing with the not wholly accurate media portrayal of the Tea Party movement and the “average” Trump voter as—to some extent—political neophytes easily manipulated by a corporate media and political demagogues who cynically exploited these people’s pain for their own ends, ends that were often destructive of the very people that they purported to represent and to help, as well as targeting a host of relatively powerless “others” who could be identified by their darker skin, problematic citizenship, differing sexual orientation, or divergent religious and philosophical beliefs, all of whom merited by their very existence at the very least exclusion and—if Tea Partiers were truly being honest about it—their systematic destruction.
Certainly one thing that struck me in gathering the photos for this slideshow is how fervent the devotion of many Trump supporters were to their leader. While it is difficult if not impossible to truly divine what people are thinking from their facial expressions and body language, with a remarkable number, it looks an awful (and I do mean awful) lot like love, which itself raises questions about how such a beneficent emotion could have such toxic results? I suspect, as the opening slides try to suggest, such tensions are deeply embedded in our human nature, and are certainly evident in the dark (and largely officially suppressed) side of American history. Similarly, I chose the last verse and chorus of the Ben Folds Five “Brick” (a song about the songwriter’s trip to an abortion clinic with his high school girlfriend over Christmas break), because it is one of the saddest songs I think I have ever heard, perfectly expressing the isolation, grief, and overwhelming pain caused by the experience which (to tie it back to The Verve Pipe song) the couple in question were simply not emotionally ready for, being “freshmen” in their own way. Although it isn’t directly stated in the song, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the relationship didn’t survive the trauma of that fateful day over the Christmas holidays.
The two brief film clips—only the second time I’ve tried to include them in a slide show (the first was (“UKnowYourReichs”)—also seem even more significant than they did when I first thought to include them. The first portrays the suicide of a gay German Jew, Albrecht Stein, the lover of the tortured hero of Before the Fall, while the second—from the 2008 horror movie Quarantine—shows the professional woman lead character Angela (a TV reporter) being dragged off into the terrifying darkness by rabid, zombie-like people who really don’t seem much like people at all anymore. The images of the two falling or being pulled into nothingness are both similar, horrifying, and haunting. The point about the dangers of being in a marginal group are almost too obvious to belabor, although one has the sense that being part of the powerful “in” group—whether being a Nazi or an uninfected male—offers no more than a brief reprieve in our collective, ever-accelerating plunge into the abyss.
It seems silly to say I hope you like slideshow, which takes two songs about deeply individual feelings of guilt and transform them into a means of exploring our collective guilt (at least I’ve given you fair warning about what’s coming), but I hope you are moved by it, and that some of that emotional rearrangement might result in positive action.
This is a slideshow I originally posted on the “50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong” group on Facebook, then on The Daily Kos, but it has garnered so much positive response (for me, anyway, so the bar is pretty low), that I thought I would post it here. It is sort of appropriate for the upcoming July 4th holiday, although it is more marked by a tone of elegiac doom than celebratory patriotism (Memorial Day would have been more appropriate, but I just finished it yesterday morning). I have found out some interesting stuff from the numerous responses I have gotten. As one of my Facebook respondents pointed out, Phil had an earlier song on another submarine disaster (the USS Thresher) that appears on his “All the News thats Fit to Sing” album. Also, according to one of my Daily Kos respondents, it was written in the key of D minor, and I must say the effect is still incredibly haunting, and I’m sure I’ve listened to it more than a hundred times.
This slideshow inspired by one of Phil’s most evocative and moving songs, “The Scorpion Departs but Never Returns” (from his “Rehearsals for Retirement” album. Actually, it wasn’t until fairly recently that I learned it was based on an actual event, the disappearance of the nuclear submarine the U.S.S. Scorpion (SSN-589) on May 22, 1968, about three months before Phil went to Chicago. I was nine years old at the time, but passionately interested in news and politics, although I have to admit I have no memory of hearing about submarine’s disappearance at the time (1968 was a very busy and rather horrific year). Although there have been lots of theories, many designed to stoke cold war hysteria and increase public support for the ever-expanding military industrial complex, apparently the sub imploded because it went too deep. As the Scorpion’s nickname among some of her crew members was “scrapiron,”and she apparently had not been fully serviced, I suspect structural deficiencies had something to do with it. The audio at the end of the video, after Phil’s song concludes, is the audio record of the implosion (the first boom is the actual implosion, followed by a series of diminishing echoes). If I am reading the recording correctly (posted above), everybody on board basically died within two seconds, probably crushed by the implosion rather than drowning (of course, this was not public knowledge when Phil wrote the song).
I have tried to do justice to the pathos of the terrible loss of life of the tragedy, and the suffering of the sailor’s surviving friends and relations, while also trying to illustrate how Phil was using his poetic imagination to transform the incident into a means to explore his own growing depression, before being pretty much tipped into the abyss by the tear gas and riot sticks of August. Hope you like it.
This is another one of Townes’ more oblique and allusive songs (cf. “Our Mother the Mountain”), and I certainly see how one could interpret in different ways–most obviously as about alcohol and/or drugs. As I am now looking at those as sort of a way of avoiding the anxiety caused by avoiding rather than confronting mortality, I of course place the song in the visual context of grief, loss, isolation, and death. As you might guess, I’ve been reading Irvin D. Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy, and its explorations have unquestionably had an effect on me. In some sense this is another slideshow about existential dread, and about some of the more dysfunctional ways we deal with pain. At the same time, Townes has created a beautiful, mysterious song about pain, loss, and how we flawed human beings deal with such things, and I hope that the images, timings and movements I have chosen for the slideshow do it justice. I really believe that quote from Kathleen Raine above, by the way, and it also ends the slideshow.
Here’s a video that I just ran into last night for the first time (I didn’t even think Moby was still relevant–obviously, I just hadn’t been paying attention). In some sense it explores some of the same issues–isolation, pain, grief, empathy, and how we deal we such things–but on a much more universal and apocalyptic level.