“I gave my love a chicken that had no bones”
I’ve been rather dreading writing this. I’m not sure I’ll be able to fully explain why, but then again, maybe I don’t have to.
When I think about Phil Ochs, my Phil Ochs, the one that I have invented by listening to him singing, Changes just doesn’t compute. And yet when I read about Phil, when I see what songs he sang live, when the votes are cast for Phil’s most popular songs, there it is, at the very heart of Phil’s sets throughout his career, at the heart of other people’s love for Phil. Obviously it’s me with the problem.
Trying to explain why you like something, or dislike something, seems a little pointless. Especially when that something is as obviously pretty as this. It’s a nice song. But then I don’t listen to Phil because he wrote nice songs. With Phil I always expect a little more. And more often than not I get it.
I’m not gonna bang on about it, but I will say this – I do find the relative popularity of Changes suspicious.
A funny little aside – which may or may not be slightly stupid…
Phil’s two most covered songs (at least during his lifetime) were almost certainly There But For Fortune and Changes. I don’t think it would be such all that controversial to suggest that these are also Phil’s most atypical songs.
One interesting thing to note (to me at least) is the gender divide in those who covered them. There But For Fortune was covered by Joan Baez, Francoise Hardy, Marianne Faithful and, even Cher.
Changes on the other hand is far more male, being covered by Gordon Lightfoot, Crispin St Peters, Gene Clark, George Hamilton IV and, most recently, Neil Young. Of course women covered Changes too, and men have sung There But For Fortune, but the gender imbalance remains.
When Phil sang them the arrangements are almost identical – finger picked, restrained, gentle. In all instances mentioned above the covers of There But For Fortune remains the same, just about. That pleading caring unaltered. Changes on the other hand is nearly always played upbeat, jaunty even, inspired less by Phil’s version then by Gordon Lightfoot’s (at least I think his was the first to do this).
The point that I am labouring towards is that Changes isn’t really a love song. It concerns love only by virtue of love being the normal topic of such songs. Instead it is something more primal, something more masculine if you will. Those aware of Phil’s personal life would be quick to link this song to his breakup from his wife (they never divorced however). Certainly it would be hard to disagree that that would have been at the very least a jumping off point. The song however has far more going on than that. It takes in nature, life and death, the universe, ageing – only the final verse seems directly to concern personal relationships. Even then it is not soppy, it is not romantic. If this concerns love then it concerns the point at which it dies. It isn’t so much a break-up song, and a dumping song. And it is undoubtedly the singer who is doing the dumping. (In the Jim and Jean version, it’s Jim who sings this last verse) –
Your tears will be trembling, now we’re somewhere else,
One last cup of wine we will pour
And I’ll kiss you one more time, and leave you on
the rolling river shores of changes.
Note – it is “your tears”, “I’ll kiss you” – it is plain who is doing the leaving here, who is in control.
To consider this as a “masculine” trait seems rather odd now, dated perhaps. In 1965 however it would have been rather less so. Dylan’s mid-sixties oeuvre is packed with untender put-downs (“you just kinda wasted my precious time”) for example. Which isn’t to say that Changes is cold or heartless, it’s just a little bit…put it this way, I can’t imagine anybody who has been dumped feeling particularly reassured by being told “Like petals in the wind, we’re puppets to the silver strings of souls”. Rather than empathise with his heartbroken ex, the singer instead chooses to point out how small and pointless we all are, set against the vastness of space and time such things as heartbreak are little more than whimsy.
The trouble is that for Phil at that time he had bigger battles to fight, bigger issues to sing about. Which leads neatly to the next song, a song that only Phil Ochs could have written…