Monthly Archives: March 2015

Cops of the World

cops

“God created war so that Americans would learn geography” – Mark Twain

I was once asked to sing some of Phil’s songs at a Peace Festival in Liverpool organised by CND. I immediately said “no”, then thought about it and eventually said “yes”, unable to resist the opportunity to sing Phil’s songs to an unsuspecting public, no matter how nerve-wracking it may have been.

Standing in the shadows of the ruins of a church gutted by Nazi bombs, strumming nervously, one moment stands out. Standing there is 2010, singing a 45 year old song I got to the words;

“We spit through the streets of the cities we wreck,

We’ll find you a leader that you can’t elect”,

I felt this surge, this rush of blood to the head. I can almost feel it now, that same feeling, somewhere between anger and excitement; anger that these words can still ring so true, excitement that Phil was able to capture so purely something that would blast down the decades.

At that point I forgot my nerves, letting the lyrics come spilling out, the current events giving new life to decades old lyrics, feeling as I sang that same righteous anger that Phil must have felt when writing them;

“We’ve done this before so why all the shock?”

*

“We…began to feel the sense of a world power, that possibly we could control the future of the world…” – Clark Clifford, Aide to President Trueman

Cops Of The World was written at a time of escalating American involvement in Vietnam, from 16,000 troops in 1963 to over 180,000 in 1965.

This isn’t just about Vietnam however. Writing at a time when the so-called Islamic State are goading the west with their particular brand of unimaginable horror it is important to consider the wider role that American military intervention has played in destabilising the peace of the world.

It’s about Korea. China. Cuba. Guatemala. Indonesia. Congo. Peru.

Later Phil could have written about Laos. Cambodia. Grenada. Libya. El Salvador. Nicaragua. Panama. Iraq. Sudan. Afghanistan.

The difficulty is that anti-American feeling (however justified some of it may be) has created an impression of American monstrousness that makes this a topic difficult to discuss with any kind of a clear head.

The joy of Phil and his brand of unsentimental songwriting allows the listener (in my case, the uneducated listener) the opportunity to step back from the bigger picture with all the pitfalls of various biases and consider things from Phil’s perspective.

In dispensing with the daftness of Draft Dodger Rag nor utilising the pin point song-as-movieness of Santo Domingo, nor going for the almost abstract madness of White Boots Marching In A Yellow Land (which though released later, dates from around 1965) – Cops Of The World retains elements of all these songs.

The overall feeling, besides the obvious anger, is perhaps disappointment. Key to an understanding of Phil’s approach to the topic of American military intervention is that, at this time at least, Phil was still something of a patriot. And this is the problem! Phil wanted to believe that there was inherent good in America, that the good he felt he could do – through his songs and his activism – was inspired as much by his nationality as his politics. His good was an American good. And yet there was an ever growing list of evidence to suggest otherwise – both at home and abroad.

Images of patriotism and American culture litter Cops Of The World, “our Coca Cola is fine, boys”, “have a stick of our gum” (a line echoed in Santo Domingo “the soldiers make a bid giving candy to the kids”), “if you like you can use your flag”, “we own half the world, oh say can you see” – distorted images of distorted motives. For that is the key to an understanding of this very American brand of militarism – the awkwardness of knowing that while there is good there, deep down, well-hidden – the real motives for these actions are not moral but ideological and economic. This isn’t so much empire-building, as market-building – “the name for our profits is democracy”.

And there it is, that most unholy of motives. Money. What was that Billy Bragg lyric? “War, what is it good for? It’s good for business”. There’s more to it than that. Somewhere between machoness and childishness – “We’ve got too much money and we’re looking for toys, guns will be guns and boys will be boys” before the killer (literally) line –

“And we’ll gladly pay for all we destroy”.

(This last line brings to mind Arthur Clough’s epic satirical poem Dipsychus which he began writing in 1850 –

I drive through the streets, and I care not a damn;

The people they stare, and they ask who I am;

And if I should chance to run over a cad,

I can pay for the damage if ever so bad.

So pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho!

So pleasant it is to have money.)

A nation obsessed with money, obsessed with its power. Money as kingmaker and serf destroyer. Money bestows the ability with such totality, that motive and conscience follow tremulously in its wake.

Remember though that the refrain, repeated not once but twice at the end of each verse is “We’re the cops of the world, boys”*. “We’re”. This isn’t that modern sport of America-bashing from without. This is America-bashing from within; an American singer singing to an American audience. The key here is complicity.

Cops Of The World is Phil’s ode to refusal.

*

It would take a couple more years to Dr King to acknowledge it, but the links between the civil rights and peace movements were becoming undeniable. In What Are You Fighting For? Phil sang “if we win the wars at home there’ll be no fighting anymore” – a line that I have always found slightly uncomfortable, but the inference is clear – that internal injustices were being echoed externally.

As with the images of patriotism, this song is also filled with images of bigotry, be it anti-Communist (“dump the reds in a pile, boys”), misogynist (“just take off your clothes and lie down on your back”) or racist (“we don’t care if you’re yellow or black”).

In Dr King’s great speech denouncing American involvement in Vietnam he addressed the issue of whether he, as a civil rights leader, should involve himself in the peace movement;

In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: ‘To save the soul of America.’ We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear…

“Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.”

Beautiful. A little late perhaps, but beautiful all the same.

So the next time someone uses its various military incursions to denounce the good name of the United States of America remind them of Dr King, of all those Americans who fought for peace and continue to fight for peace.

And remind them of Phil Ochs – American.

*An end note about an odd note. At the end of each verse Phil plays a mischord. A moment of inspired disharmony. I’m assuming this is on purpose! It’s uncomfortable, a little moment of the kind of experimental excesses we’ll later hear on Half A Century High and The Crucifixion.

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There But For Fortune

I suppose I’d better admit it straight away. I don’t like this song. I have absolutely no interest in it. Oh, it’s nice enough I suppose, but that is part of the problem.

It is worth bearing in mind that quite apart from being a performer and recording artist in his own right Phil also worked very hard to get his songs recorded by other singers. If There But For Fortune sounds like someone else’s song, which it does to me, then the reason might that to a large extent it is someone else’s song. Phil’s quip that it was written for him by Joan Baez actually has a ring of truth to it.

Part of Phil’s problem, albeit a problem that to large extent he created for himself, was that at the heart of his aim to become the “first left-wing star” was a dichotomy that he struggled to fully come to terms with. In being “left-wing” he was compelled to challenge issues head-on that would be considered controversial by a mainstream audience. In wanting to be a “star” he would have to find a way of dealing with these issues in such a way as to be palatable to a wider public. The compromise solution was There But For Fortune.

In Phil’s introduction to Love Me I’m A Liberal he calls out liberalism as being chiefly concerned with issues only they affect them personally. There But For Fortune is an extension of that, a gentle reminder that these issues that may seem remote (war, homelessness, alcoholism, criminality) could very easily bite you on the arse someday.

It is a protest song much in the way that Blowin’ In The Wind Is. That is to say that it isn’t a protest song at all, but rather a song that suggests a concern for issues that it utterly fails to deal with in any meaningful way at all. Where it fails as a protest song (or arguably as a Phil Ochs song) it succeeds as a pop song – though it may suggest social concern, it is vague enough to pass as innocuous.

The song’s greatest crime however may be in utilising a cliché at its very heart. The refrain “there but for fortune may go you and I” is just an atheistic take on “there but for the grace of God go I”, its meaning unaltered, its uselessness as a concept unchanged. Clichés turn up in a few other Phil songs too – think of “when in Rome do as the Romans do”, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” – but he’s at his best when subverting them – “Cross my heart and I hope to live” is a personal favourite.

Even worse is that coupled with this cliché is a contradiction – the chorus goes from “and I’ll show you a young land/ man with so many reasons why” (suggesting that behind the troubles of a person or nation are genuine reasons) to the suggestion at the heart of these problems are misfortune. If there is one thing that Phil Ochs songs teach us it is not fortune that creates bad situations, it is the actions, or inactions, of men (always men!).

What this is I suppose it is a song about empathy. Social concern. Caring. The understanding that bad stuff can happen to you and me and anyone in the right set of circumstances. In other words – stating the blooming obvious.

There is very little joy in tearing to pieces a song that I know means a lot to people. There is even less joy however in pretending to appreciate a song that I feel nothing for personally.

I feel like I’ve said enough anyway…

(I’ve been dreading writing this to be honest with you)

Cannons of Christianity

american-flag-cross-1One nation under God”

Trying to prove a point via statistics is always oh-so tempting, but is nevertheless fraught with danger.

Finding the perfect stat is the first problem. Failing to do so can lead to just picking anything that might support your argument, regardless of its source of validity.

I found some statistics via Wikipedia that stated that the amount of Christians in the United States had dropped from 89% in 1965 (when Phil wrote Cannons of Christianity) to 70% in 2014.

This was what I was thinking – every word of Cannons of Christianity still holds up, it still retains it’s relevance. Possibly as much as any of Phil’s songs from the same period do. However, it is the omnipotence of Christianity that has changed. From being the only thing in town it is now mired in its own controversies, schismed to the point of irrelevance. The rise of Islam and Atheism, the liberalisation of societal morals, has made poor of Christ and his followers seem backwards and anachronistic.

That was the argument anyway. Trouble is, I don’t really believe it. Christianity is still here and remains every bit a cornerstone of the American experience.

Cannons, though presented purely as an attack on Christianity, also touches on other subjects close to Phil’s heart – fear of authority, financial inequality, globalisation, empire building, hypocrisy, corruption and war (indeed the role of the church during wartime is something Phil would return to later in his Chaplain of The War – But the church is known to change, embracing half the wrongs it hopes to right”) The notion of the modern church as hypocritical is one that intrigues me. The idea that the church and its practitioners doesn’t practise what it preaches is a strong one, but the suggestion remains that much of what it preaches is good and worthy. In a sense this could be a sister song to Love Me I’m A Liberal or Links On The Chain where the anger derives not so much from opposition to the doctrines in question (Trade Unionism, liberalism, Christianity) but from a lack of adherence to their own teachings and preachings.

Think of Phil’s attitude to his own patriotism. When he turns on his nation it is not because he hates it, but because he is disappointed with it’s inability to live up to its own potential. To me it’s an interesting notion, and may begin to tell us something of how Phil viewed himself and his own work. There is an argument that he set himself impossibly high standards, standards that he had no hope of living up to. Maybe the standards he expected of others were similarly out of reach. Think of those he sang about in his previous LPs – Kennedy, Ruben Jaramillo, Christ – all dead, and in death, all the more powerful, incorruptible and saintly. One of Phil’s jokey intros to Joe Hill says much about this process – Joe, he said, was a minor left wing hero, till he died and became a major left wing hero.

Everyone loves a martyr.

So, how does one live up to such people? In Cannons Christ is conspicuously absent. Maybe that’s the point. The church has moved so far from the teachings of Christ (away from the simple tenets of love and compassion) that it is not even trying to live up to Him anymore. The simplicity of Christ’s teachings doesn’t allow for the dogma required to have such a hold on people, to be able to stymie progress, to be able to hold law makers to some kind of faux-moral ransom. In the place of clarity of thought steps in the politicians. It’s Love Me I’m A Liberal all over again. It’s Days of Decision too. It’s Phil crying out “Think clearly people!”

Where Christ does appear in Phil’s songs it’s usually as a symbol of man’s failure and corruptibility. Think of the desperate richos in The Ringing of Revolution, kneeling by the cross where “the blood of the Christ is still flowing” or the image of the “fallen face of Jesus” in Here’s To The State Of Mississippi, where the “cross once made of silver now is caked with rust”. Fantastically strong, emotive symbolism.

That’s part of the problem though.

As this strong symbol Christ is impossible to live up to, partly because he is not a real man. This is a point I keep coming back to with Phil’s songs. He had such high standards. Such high expectations.

Which isn’t to say that he wasn’t justified in writing Cannons. Feeling personally slighted by other’s religious beliefs is one thing. People’s religious beliefs actively influencing a nations politics is quite another. And that is one thing where little has changed. Marriage equality, women’s rights, education, all suffering, all being strangled by bigotry. Christianity as an excuse for small mindedness, as an excuse for bigotry, as an excuse for stemming the flow of social justice is inexcusable. Using Christ as a tool for the worst kind of reactionary conservatism is just horrible. Jesus deserves better.

There’s a word I keep going back to when thinking about so many of the songs on Phil Ochs In Concert, and it’s a word that seems especially appropriate here. That word is “disarming”. Excuse the pun but, central to Phil’s arsenal was his power to disarm an audience, to lull them with his boyish charm and them, BLAM, hit em where it hurts.

Phil’s spoken intro to Cannons of Christianity is a case in point (“Ochs, wake up, this is God here. Over.”) – it is disarmingly cute. The song itself is disarmingly gentle (it is the world’s first “anti-hymn” after all). The lyrics, of course, are anything but gentle. And therein lies Phil’s great skill. To hector without seeming to be hectoring, to preach without preaching, to fingerpoint so gently that it’s almost a tickle. To deal with such issues as Phil does and maintain a certain dignity is one of Phil’s great strengths.