|CHORDS OF FAME--Phil Ochs|
Phil Ochs hanged himself in mid-78, a fact that makes the second disc of this double record collection even more morbidly fascinating. At the zenith of his popularity, Ochs was a facile protest singer/songwriter during the Sixties, an able rabble-rouser 'at peace rallies and civil rights marchers who . could fire dormant liberal sympathies into anger and shame. The advent of the Seventies meant a total turnaround of musical styles and political attitudes, still, the white knight of worthy causes was considered, passé, and his' music became an object of Instant obsolescence. Not content to be a professional has-been, Ochs attempted on his last few albums (Pleasures of tile Harbor, Tape from California, Phil Ochs Greatest Hits, and Rehearsals for Retirement) to follow the new musical trends, using rock musicians, Sgt. Pepper styled electronic effects, and massive orchestration cast in the mold of Charles Ives. The net result was a confused jumble of affectations, with plenty of good material getting buried under an avalanche of desperate gimmickry. Ochs and his producer absorbed precisely the worst elements of what the Beatles were doing with their in-studio experiments--a convoluted eclecticism that nearly choked the life out of many of their best songs and made the slighter fare they filled their later albums with becoming no just slight, but ineffectively elitist.
His later songs, at their best and most penetrating, were haunting encapsulations, sketching the displaced anomie of his generation found itself in a new set of cultural conditions where people would rather dance than organize, and eerily foreshadowing Ochs' own sense of self-apocalypse. “Tape From California", the song, is a rocking Sojourn through an activist's shattered psyche, someone woken from being from a long sleep and find a terrain not by a community of authentic people working to change the society for the better, but rather by hippies, drug freaks, record company PR men, hip magazine writers, scene makers, blow job artists, flunkies, junkies, alcoholic poets without notebooks and self-declared painters of all sorts who never touched a canvas, everyone one of them feigning art and culture by looking , in truth ,all of them, for a cheap thrill to last until the garbage trucks arrive.
"The Crucifixion", Ochs' masterwork, is a complex, extended allegory about the way a culture treats its heroes (Christ and Kennedy); according to the figures the best virtues they'd like to see In themselves, and then watching them with necrophiliac glee as they are systematically destroyed. a process that begins once the heroes encroach too close to where the change must be made. The version here Is, blessedly, live, free of the special effects clutter that ruined the studio original. Ochs' voice Is plaintive an~ unadorned, with an implicit, devastating sorrow to phrasing. "The War Is Over", first seeming like one of the brilliant anti-war tomes Ochs was capable of writing, turns out instead to be a solipsist daydream. Ochs had been a veteran of countless free benefits and was dismayed that he could sing and declare the same worn out polemics time after time and effect nothing, except perhaps eliciting a momentary surge of self-righteous, smug radicalism in his audiences. The war, meanwhile, trudged on, a fact that caused Ochs to throw his hands in the air and declare the war was over, at least as far as he was concerned.
The final number, "No More Songs", concludes the album on a thoroughly depressing note. Voice and melody drenched in a defeated, archly lyric melancholia, he enumerates the people he's known, the things he's believed in, the lovers he's had and moans that all was In vain. With the past being meaningless, he moans that they're" ... no more songs", and then his voice recedes into a numbing orchestral backwash. the first record, comprised of his strictly protest material, is the least interesting of the set. The topicality is dated and irrelevant to anyone's present state of mind, and the enthusiasm of Ochs' idealism comes off as youthfully smug and embarrassing, It is one of the ironies of modern existence and the expansion of all media, all the time that the subjects of protest songs, those songs that are very specific to a cause, to a particular injustice, no longer seem to spark the desire to work toward the better world the romantics among us wish would come to be. The embarrassment has more to do with our own memories than with Ochs' politics, though. Chord of Fame scans the timeline from the way we were, thinking we could change the world with good sentiments if not concrete policies, to the way we are now,' with ideals shattered and wearing a chic cynicism. One hopes we weather future changes better than Ochs managed to do.