Now here’s a rare thing!
At the time of writing I can walk into my local branch of HMV and purchase a Phil Ochs CD. It’s been a while since this has been possible. The last time was probably when Phil’s first two albums were released as part of the Elektra reissues ten or so years ago. They didn’t stock Phil Ochs in Concert when it was re-issued a couple of years ago and I have never seen any of his A&M records in there and, they way things are looking, I never will. It is odd that, instead of being able to go into a large record shop (it’s the largest chain in the UK by the way) and buy a classic Phil Ochs record, one that was carefully written and produced and lushly packaged and re-mastered – I can wander in and buy a cd called A Hero Of The Game…a ropey recording made late one night when Phil wandered onto Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable show and chatted and strummed through a few of the sonsg he had percolating in his brain at that pericular time. As exciting as it remains to listen to such a candid and intimate session, it’s always been one of the more readily available bootlegs and anyway I can’t imagine any uninitiated Phil fans being particularly interested in it. It also contains uber-shoddy sleevenotes (uncreditied, of course). Surely it wouldn’t have been too hard to find out that Phil’s debut LP wasn’t called “All The News That’s Fit To Print” and that he didn’t die on his 36th birthday? I guess that Phil fans can’t be choosers.
Fass is one of those many people who played a small, but nevertheless important, part in Phil’s life and career, who also has a story of their own to tell.Abbie Hoffman referred to Bob Fass as the movement’s “secret weapon” and it Fass’s show that he called to announce the formation of the Yipees. Fass’s intention was to “put my culture on the air…politics and exotic people” and along the way “to entertain and spread compassion”. It was on Fass’s show that Phil first heard Sammy Walker.
In 1968 Phil asked “What happened to all the promise of the beautiful, exciting aesthetic of 1965?”, yet what did Phil do in 1965? As far as his recorded output is concerned you’d be left feeling that the answer is…not very much! Though it was released in 1965, I Ain’t Marching Anymore was actually recorded in 1964 – so essentially Phil recorded nothing at all in 1965, nothing that got released anyway.
The Fass recording captures Phil in December 1965, between the release of I Ain’t Marching Anymore and the recording of Phil Ochs In Concert, and contains only two songs that features on either. The transition between the two albums is not quite the seismic shift that occurred between In Concert and Pleasures Of The Harbor, but there is change afoot none the less. There is a whole raft of songs written around this time that never made it onto a record.
For a topical songwriter there is something awful about this, that his songs topicality should be so compromised. Worse than this lack of topicality is something that emerges out the songs he was writing at the end of ’64 and into ’65, somethat that would charecterise so many of the songs of this period. This could be described as simply a fear of ageing. Not of death, but of growing old. Phil was barely 25, but he was getting this sense that life was passing fast and he had to grab it while he could.
Think of I’m Tired with its reference to a world that “tears on my time“; think of Song of My Returning with its “time must have her victory” and “deeper are the lines upon the face” and the “fast dissolving years“; think of his Sailors and Soldiers “growing older, over the sea“; think of Take It Out Of My Youth with it’s refrain that youth is akin to a tab at a bar; think of You Can’t Get Stoned Enough where “every hour tells you that you’re growing older“, think of A Year To Go By positively full of his fear of ageing where Phil tells us “I know the rules, old men are fools“. Think of all this then think of Changes. Taken on its own Changes is a song of heartbreak, of a relationship dying. In the company of all these other songs it becomes a song about growing old – where his youth had become nothing but a shadow. His first two albums were littered with bad stuff and his response to bad stuff. By 1965 his worries were becoming personal – what was he going to do? What had he done? How much time did he have left? How was he going to respond?
And how did he respond? With utmost positivity, that’s how! “I’m gonna do what I have to do, say what I have to say“, “When I’ve got something to say sir, I’m gonna say it now” and finally “I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here“. He was going to make the most of the time he was given. What was that line in Song Of My Returning? “I’ve got to conquer all the courage of my fears“. Well he did – and it ended up with “I’m going to give all that I’ve got to give/ Cross my heart/ And I hope to live”.
Something changed between I Ain’t Marching Anymore and Phil Ochs In Concert. Phil suddenly realised he needed to get busy. It helped make Phil Ochs Concert the album of a Phil Ochs fans dreams!
(P.S. – This idea of this “lost” Phil Ochs studio album between I Ain’t Marching and Pleasures of the Harbor rather tickles me. The stripped down arrangement of The Trial on the A Toast To Those Who Are Gone album offers a clue – a set-up somewhere between the solo-guitar of I Ain’t Marching Anymore and the orchestral excesses of Pleasures of the Harbour. Perhaps the pared down arrangements on Tim Hardin’s early records could been an influence , after all, Phil was certainly a fan. That this album happened perhaps suggests that Phil (and/or Elektra) were more concerned with pushing the topical/political aspect of Phil’s songs over the personal. Certainly the album that would follow – Phil Ochs in Concert – is heavy with the political – and heavier still with the social.
If Phil had recorded an album in 1965 I’m sure it would have been wonderful. That he didn’t is a shame, but a shame that is tempered by the appearance of Phil Ochs in Concert in 1966 – probably my favourite Phil Ochs album and one that does something that, listening 60 years later anyway, his first couple of albums don’t quite do. And that is – bring Phil Ochs to life. Not the Phil Ochs that countless hours in the studio left behind, but the Phil Ochs who stood on stage, chatted, and sang these wonderful songs.
For arguments sake, this lost album could have looked something like this –
1 – Do What I Have To Do
2 – City Boy
3 – I’m Tired
4 – Take It Out Of My Youth
5 – We Seek No Wider War
6 – Song Of My Returning
7 – The Confession
8 – The Trial
9 – Morning (Jazz Version)
10 – Just One Of Those Days
11 – A Year To Go By
Come on! That would have been great, wouldn’t it?)