Tonight in Seattle:  

Phil Ochs: Why Neil Young, Ben Barnett & other great musicians love him (& why you should see his doc at NWFF!)

Phil OchsPhil Ochs was a protest singer in the early 60s folk scene that also spawned Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and others. But I rarely listen to his early stuff; even though it enervates with left-wing patriotic spirit and lacerates society's bullies (the anti-union wealthy, racists, religious bigots) with vicious satire.

This opening segment of the new music movie playing at the NWFF, There But For Fortune (screening Friday, March 11-13) does an inspiring job of getting you involved at the beginning of his career. These were the years Ochs hung out with Stephin Merritt's heroine, art-pop chanteuse Judy Henske; sparred conversationally and artistically with Dylan over the meaning of politics and aesthetics; partied in his NYC apartment with those two and everyone from writers to activists to those in the middle like The Fugs' Ed Sanders (if you think you're a punk and that doesn't ring any bells, take back your Green Day CDs to Everyday Music, kiddo).

Ochs was singing songs like "Here's To The State of Mississippi," in which he threatens to beat down the state personally for flagrantly murdering blacks and white civil rights activists; "Love Me I'm A Liberal" where he makes fun of weak-bellied Democrats for fearing Malcolm X; and "Cops Of The World," the folk song equivalent of throwing water balloons full of piss at the riot troops in downtown Seattle during the WTO riots (though it's more about Vietnam than cop-riling).

No, the reason you (I'm looking at you, kid) need to get your skinny jean ass out to see a movie about a protest folk-singer is primarily because of the amazing musical artwork he made in the midst of personal trauma and feelings of national political treason. If you remember how shitty we all felt after W. stole the election, and how the GOP piggies used 9/11 to drum up dummy-headed "patriotism," and wondered if it would ever be useful again to protest: Ochs felt the same way about civil rights and Vietnam and the unfairness of the world and did everything he could to kick against the pricks

Ochs dealt with those feelings of despair too and turned it into bitter, biting, but ultimately hopeful music. Expansive, full cinema songs supported by brilliant producer/musicians like Van Dyke Parks and Joe Boyd -- which have been huge inspirations to artists as diverse and recent as Billy Bragg, They Might Be Giants, Joe Strummer (who used to go by the tag "Woody," the Guthrie of which hung out with Ochs and his clan), mother goddess of all folk-punk riot grrrls Phranc, but especially Neil Young and Ben Barnett.

If you're a real Young fan then you probably really love his 1973 album On The Beach, which has the same anti-blood for oil topical messages and melancholy, apocalyptic imagery that runs through Ochs' albums from the late 60s/early 70s. You can still hear Ochs in the lyrics of "Thrasher" from Rust Never Sleeps, but mostly in the voice; that voice -- and the fact that both adored singers like Hank Williams, Faron Young, and other sweet-crooning country warblers with hearts like rattlesnakes on pins. As for Barnett, he did an entire lengthy EP of forlorn early Ochs songs, a couple albums before busting up Kind Of Like Spitting. Also, ask Damien and Dave Bazan and Rocky Votolato bout Ochs. Go on, ask them.

Ochs isn't for your parents: He's for you, just like Tim Buckley, or The Clash, or Dylan, or Crass, or The Mekons, or Parenthetical Girls, or The Slits, or whatever great folk-swooning-cum-punk-spirited muse-filled anti-authoritarian artist juiced you up when you first fell in love with rock as rebellion, Ochs had more in common with John Belushi's Bluto smashing the acoustic guitar against the wall of a frat house in Animal House than the preppie playing it to impress someone with a corny 50s folk song. You're going to need to get past the first hour of counter-cultural history; but I think you can handle it. Then we'll talk about what records of Phil Ochs you need to start buying (the two-for in the link at the top is a great place to start).

"Pleasures of the Harbor" first introduced me to Ochs. "Farewells and Fantasies" is the best all around compilation.
Thanks for this nicely edgy review for the young ones. Most of the reviews I've read are perfunctory and don't do the man justice. I'm 56, and I credit Ochs for politicizing me when I was 13. I memorized many, many of his songs and adored the polemic and the poetry. I had tickets to see him at Passim in Cambridge just before he died, but he called in sick and the show was canceled. I cried through most of the documentary for reasons I understood and didn't understand. Anyway, thanks.
"even though it enervates with left-wing patriotic spirit" Confused here. His early music drains us of energy with patriotic spirit? I'm not sure what you meant there. But he was, indeed, a great great singer and songwriter.

The word I was actually thinking of was "invigorates." I hate that those words sound so much alike, considering they mean the opposite of each other.

Neil Young has mentioned Phil several times: in the liner notes for 'Decade: "Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me thru Phil Ochs eyes playing finger cymbals..." In interviews for 'Living with War,' which he referred to as "metal folk protest like Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan," And, more subtly, in the song 'Throw Your Hatred Down:' "And There But For Fortune, May go you or I-- Dressed in gold lame Find a place to stay..." A clear reference to the Nudie suit Phil wore on the cover of 'Greatest Hits.' Paul Simon also mentions him in the movie 'One Trick Pony,' when recalling the musicians he used to perform with in Greenwich Village. Mentioning artists such as Tim Hardin, Dave Van Ronk, and several others I can't recall, he pauses, then adds whistfully, "Phil Ochs."

Wow, thanks, Michael. I've never seen that movie (and thus missed that scene) but I love Paul Simon and have been meaning to. Thanks for prompting me to check it out -- to hear him say that, and for a variety of other (musical-goodness) reasons. BTW, the new film on Dave Van Ronk coming up sounds great ...

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