While I keep finding more and more reason to find Phil Och’s songs almost eerily prescient about the contemporary situation (he died in 1976), I have written elsewhere about seeing him when I was a student in what we used to call Junior High (now “Middle School”), his Facebook group, and his mostly unexplored connection to the pop music of his day, the diary is actually an attempt (probably a poor one), to highlight his musical knowledge and sophistication. I am probably one of the last people in the world you would want to read talking about this, as I’ll admit right now that even at my best, I was a poor amateur musician, and I know virtually nothing about music theory.
Here is lovely excerpt (I believe it was originally from a local morning show in New York) in which Phil talks about ballad form, meter, the relation between poetic and sung forms. The interview starts about nine minutes in, but his characteristic intelligence, penetrating insight, and lyric imagination are evident basically from the moment he steps in front of the camera:
Here’s link to a radio interview Phil had on Folk Guitar from 1966 on N.E.T., in which he talks about his influences, types of guitars he prefers, and picking styles. As he usually performed with just a guitar, he essentially had arrange his later songs twice: a studio version with layers of instrumentation, and a live version in which he would accompany himself on his own (to quote Harry Chapin) “six string orchestra.”
Phil’s most ambitious songs, “The Crucifixion” is often interpreted as his reaction to JFK’s assassination (although actually only a couple of the verses seem to be about JFK, and only in a vague way). I believe, according to one of the biographies I read a long time ago, he actually performed it for Bobby Kennedy on a plane (obviously, this would have been before RFK was assassinated). Even as a teenager, I knew in some obscure manner that the song explained some deep, long obscured, almost inexpressible truth about the universe. Yet, somehow, Phil’s song expresses it. In some of the most beautiful lyric verse ever written, he explores and communicates how this universe is governed by forces, processes, cycles and patterns that are essentially malevolent, and serve to perpetuate an endless cycle of pointless sacrifice and fruitless suffering. [As my Dad told me, no one ever promised you that life was going to be easy]. Listening to the song now, I see it more as a meditation on the American character, in particular on the media, on the kinds of attitudes promulgated by what you might call “spectatorship culture,” and the price of fame. This version (I’m guessing about 1966 or 67), seems to have been recorded for a local television show. I can’t really tell what the show is or even if it was ever shown. It seems to be an incompletely processed video (at least the counter numbers haven’t been removed). I know it’s kind of long, but if you actually listen to the lyrics, I hope you will be impressed. I consider it one of the most brilliant songs written by anyone.
Compare this with the highly experimental version Phil included on his Pleasures of the Harbor album.
What Phil is exploring here is something many artists were exploring in the mid-to late sixties( for example, in songs as popular as The Beatles “Paperback Writer,” or as relatively obscure as Tim Buckley’s “Starsailor”: contrapuntal music (aka counterpoint), in which one or more musical lines are played at the same times, sometimes, competing, sometimes interweaving, and sometimes paralleling each other to create a complex harmony (most folk, country, and rock signs explore a single melody at a time). It is almost as Phil he was trying to examine ways—in a musical medium—that diverse, competing, and even opposite voices could be reconciled in something that wasn’t exactly harmony, but nevertheless formed a complex aesthetic unity. In other words, he was trying to find a way to express musically the way in which a functioning democracy might actually work. Obviously, this is an important issue we continue to struggle with. Michael Simmons notes in his Huffington Post review of the biographical documentary film There But For Fortune, “I hope one of the collateral rewards of this film is that Phil’s extraordinary baroque, contrapuntal latter recordings are unearthed and enjoyed.” Certainly, more recordings are continually being rediscovered, as last week’s release of Phil’s October 22nd, 1966 concert in Montreal testifies.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, who in her Huffington Post blog calls Phil, “The Greatest Folksinger You’ve Never Heard Of,” brilliantly examines how, “On a personal level, his complexity was downright deadly.” His father’s life, a suicide who probably suffered from bipolar disorder, seems to have etched a dark pattern that Phil would re-enact. She goes on to note perceptively,
Ochs’ songs called for a new world vision of greater compassion, peace, honesty, concern and action. But he was soon caught between the rock of the times and the hard place of his brokenness. The public losses were immense: the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Dr. King, and Robert F. Kennedy; thousands of American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese dead or dying on the nightly news; the Kent State shootings; and the splits within various protest movements. Two particular historic devastations - one in Chicago, and one in Chile - especially affected Ochs.
Of course, “a new world vision of greater compassion, peace, honesty, concern and action” is just what we need right now. I’ve really spent too long on this diary (I managed to lose half of this diary last night, and I’ve spent the morning trying to recreate it). I’ll direct you instead to the words (with appropriate links) to the final words of Mirriam-Goldberg in her article:
Check out many videos of Ochs performing youtube, through his sister Sonny Ochs’ remembrance page , the film Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, a book of the same title by Michael Schumacher, and wherever else you can find him. Most of all, listen to him singing of a world we still seek.
And I’ll leave you with a final word from an interview with Phil (he does talk a little bit about counterpoint and countermelody near the end the end of the interview). [perhaps a more knowledgeable music historian than I could note where and when the interview is from (I’m guessing about 1968, probably in NYC).