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Sunday, September 20, 2015

What We Mock, We Be ... The Great Songwriting of Phil Ochs

I think we can safely say What we Mock, We Be.  This declaration follows from listening to a Phil Ochs disc I got when I joined others in helping Bob Fass celebrate Mr. Ochs birthday (December 19, 1940... I think I did this 10 years ago).

The disc's first song was the one I played, declaring on the authority of a gypsy fortune teller who told Phil, "you only are what you believe," that "The War Is Over!" Many innovative songs followed on the disc. The one with the most bite is "Cops of the World," a heartless, waltz anthem (I wrote something like it called "Living in Freedom") sung by the big boys. So, who is singing that song?  Is the singer ironic?  No.  Listen to him.  Believe him.  He is the song.  He's one of the big boys

There was another song glorifying the masculine man.  Without too much build-up I want to point out that the first person nature of these songs makes the singer that which he mocks.

If the listener is not in on his joke, and everyone in the 1960's folk singer audience was, then the singer is alone.  He's painted himself into his personified corner.  I shut off the collection when I reached When in Rome, before the hitchhiker attacked his ride-provider.  What a bleak dark ages battleground that is and the singer is turning on everyone.

My acknowledgment here, in addition to loving his beautiful voice, even as he struggled with it in later recordings, is that his songwriting is unique.  It inspires me (Although his career paralleled, it is independent of the unique inspiring songwriting of Bob Dylan.  They are two independent fonts of innovative composition.).  His melodies and harmonic movement are often groundbreaking and are somewhat untapped today.

The wild pianist, Lincoln Mayorga, helped create ambitious album productions.  It is amazing to find they are often almost as good as Phi Ochs just playing his guitar and singing solo.

So he's another great composer that we lost too soon, basically after 35 years....

Linda Draper helped reacquaint me with Phil Ochs some 10 years ago, but like some 45 years ago.. oh boy... Jil Johnson's older brothers must have introduced her to Phil's protest songs (his topical songs??) and she, when we were 13/14, introduced them to me.  (Yes we attended his Lincoln Center concert... wow, of course I can find the date here, it's April 23, 1974.)   She loved him, and she easily expanded my eternal affection for her to include him, something I am most grateful for, because incidentally, I am influenced and inspired and even in some ways cautioned by Phil Ochs.  He joins Frank Zappa as one of my heroes and their ventures into dangerland can be a lesson for us all.  It's not that we're not going there but we're going further and will live to tell

Oh, and at this time I am at last listening to his collection of songs.  The great discovery last night is the song, "The Confession."  How do we know? -- because he confessed...   (The devastating impact of this conclusion is also explored in Carl Dryer's movie, The Days of Wrath.)

It is September 20th, 2015... (My head is still spinning from concluding the amazing 6 performance run of FLOAT.)  This is how long it takes me to open my listening ... I would only listen to those chosen Phil Ochs tracks over, over and over again.   Pleasures of the Harbor, Crucifixion, The War Is Over, Small Circle of Friends and the dreaded When In Rome.

Still going strong is another groundbreaking folk-singer/songwriter who passionately sings lyrics that assume challenging first-person characterizations, David Bowie.  His various song personae are really quite fun... there's a guy in the tree singing "And the next day, and the next, and another day."

Like the fellow in When In Rome, Bowie's persona in "The Next Day," is singing from the dark ages too, I think...