Sunday, June 1, 2014

No More Songs, a song by Phil Ochs

This song is so beautifully tragic and precise in its sense of despair and crushed idealism that I begin to tear up every time I hear it. It was the last song on his last album,the ironically titled "Greatest Hits". Ochs had taken , late in his career, in dressing up in a gold lame suit and famously told a booing audience in Carnegie Hall that America could only be saved by a revolution, and that that wouldn't happened until Elvis Presley became our Che Guevara.  Ochs , who was a deep romantic in the belief that Great Men with Great Ideas can change the world for the better and who was likewise an alcoholic and a man given to depressions that only deepened as he age, seemed to be writing a series of melocholic laments that dwelled on the smashing of the idealism that had fueled his songwriting as an anti-war and civil rights activist earlier in the Sixties and the failure of his personal relationships. Ochs did, in fact,  take his own life in 1975.


Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I've only called to say, I'm sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone

And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a girl, she was a flower in a flame
I loved her as the sea sings sadly
Now the ashes of the dream, can be found in the magazines
And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a sage, who sang upon the stage
He told about the world, his lover
A ghost without a name, stands ragged in the rain
And it seems that there are no more songs

The rebels they were here, they came beside the door
They told me that the moon was bleeding
Then all to my surprise, they took away my eyes
And it seems that there are no more songs

A star is in the sky, it's time to say goodbye
A whale is on the beach, he's dying
A white flag in my hand and a white bone in the sand
And it seems that there are no more songs

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I've only called to say, I'm sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone
And it seems that there are no more songs

It seems that there are no more songs
It seems that there are no more songs

Strangely, bizarrely, fantastically out of context, I saw Phil Ochs perform this song on a Cleveland dance TV show called "Upbeat", hosted by a local DJ who was desperately trying to comprehend why Ochs, acoustic guitar in hand, was on a teen dance show along with a parade of bubble gum rock and pop soul bands who performed bad lip sync renditions of their regional hits songs. 

The DJ knew enough about Ochs to know that he a protest singer by trade and mentioned that with recent civil rights legislation and with the Paris Peace talks taking place in an attempt by the US and North Vietnamese Government to end the Vietnam War, the other wise gutless host said that Ochs might be out of a job unless he sang more upbeat tunes , or words to that effect. Ochs just smiled and said that he hoped for the best, and then performed "No More Songs" live, on acoustic. I remember this being one of the few songs that made me haunted me, and continued to haunt me for decades. At his best, Phil Ochs was stunningly brilliant as singer and songwriter and especially as a lyricist, a true poet, someone who could easily be the songwriter branch of the Confessional Poets like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath , writers of odd mental actvity that they were compelled to write their demons into verse form in perhaps some effort to extract their awfulness from their souls, a project, it's been been suggested, is a species of self-medication, a means to alleviate distress without means to grow stronger and find hope and sunlight. It's been suggested as well that this was a school of writing and a habit of thinking for which early death, either by one's own hand or through the degenerative results of copious alcohol and drug abuse, was the means by which a poet of this description achieves their reputation and legitimacy as a poet. This was something that had repulsed me when I was studying 20th century poets in college , my idea at the time  being that one had to insist that art embrace life and affirm its vitality and every sensation this skin we have has us subject to. I didn't read confessional poets for years but came to a change in my thinking that effectively set aside my previous conceit that poetry, let alone any art, was required to advance any one's preferences as an arbirtrary standard each poet, painter, writer, dancer had to live up to; the muse to create came from whatever source it came from, it manifested its inspiration in our personalities and our need to express our comforts and misgivings as creatures in this sphere of existence, and it was under no requirement to make our lives better,  let alone save our selves from a wicked end or at least the bad habits that can make lives sordid , squalid endurance contests. Everyone is different, everyone has their own story to tell, everyone's fate is their own and no one else's. Most live more or less normal lives,where ever that is on the continum of behaviors, no matter how good or bad or how many poems they write. Others are just....doomed, in some respect.
Again , I am reminded of Harold Bloom's assertion that literature's only use is to help us think about ourselves in the world,  the quality of being nothing more nor less than human, struggling through life with wit and grit, creating and failing and destroying with an array of emotion and words to give them personality.

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