There But for Fortune

I’m returning to my origins trying to tell the experiences and first impressions I had discovering Folk Singers such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Gordon Lightfoot  and Phil Ochs. I can’t remember now how I came to get in my hands Joan Baez album titled “Farewell Angelina.”  The B&W picture on the cover was showing a seductive image of a young woman with a sort of pleading expression in her face and insightful sight. She was wearing a plastic raincoat, so one might deduce the photo was taken on a rainy day (Later in 2007 I came to determine the shot took place at Newport Folk Festival on 24th July 1965, Contemporary Songs Afternoon Workshop.)

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I was just a kid back then, most likely around 14, but maybe already aware of things that matter. No wonder so many things on the mentioned album called my attention. First intriguing subject I noticed was that four of the most beautiful songs on it were attributed to the same author, a certain B. Dylan. Of course I had never heard of him before and I was curious to know who he could be and what more he had ever done. I was thinking he was an old songwriter, a traditional folk singer from the 30’s. I was surprised he was just a youngman of around 20 when “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” came to my hands just a little bit later. I soon became highly interested in such kind of music, searching for everything related to Joan Baez and the artists mentioned on the back cover of that album. Next step was acquiring another LP of the so called ‘Queen Of Folk Music’. The recording was an Hispavox release titled “Lo Mejor de Joan Baez (Best of Joan Baez)” including “It Ain’t Me Babe,” one more song composed by Bob Dylan. Langstone Hughes liner notes refers to the mentioned songwriter as one of the most talented contemporary troubadours. However, the very exciting thing about this album, the most revealing listening experience through the whole LP, was the discovering of a new tune by another unknown artist, written down as P. Ochs on the back cover. It was first track of the B side and it was so beautiful you couldn’t help but stop the record player once done, try and put the needle down in the groove back to the beginning of the first track and listen to it over and over. The name of the song was “There But For Fortune”. The liner notes, oddly, did not even mention that song, nor the origin, neither anything about the composer.

One day one of my best friends came to me telling he had invitations to attend live ‘”Caravana” de Angel Álvarez’, a famous radio show by one of the best DJ’s ever in Spain, most likely the best of his time. My friend had only 3 free tickets so only 3 of us among the usual mates, including himself, had the chance and inclination to attend the program at the Radio SER network studios. So we made the appointment for the day at issue and we met earlier that morning not to miss the show. That was an eventful morning. Angel Alvarez, whose true profession was that of a radio operator on Iberia flights, took advantage of his trips to New York to bring us those magnificent musical jewels, new sounds that made the country wake up and change the pace of our nation. We sat on one of the first few rows. The show began and there he was, with a Long Play on his hands and a gentle deep voice like cotton candy on stormy weather, announcing that he was going to play for us, for the first time in our country, just one track of a remarkable album by Phil Ochs, the outstanding folk singer of the Greenwich Village scene. He warned the attendees that many of us among the audience would already know Joan Baez’s cover of the song, but the heartfelt version by the composer himself would most likely become poignant even for those listeners who knew it first in Joan Baez’s voice. He carefully put the disc on the turntable and dropped the needle on the groove. Listening to it was a revelation. We had a feeling that something was happening and just like new born souls felt touched by the depth of Ochs’ performance. The piece had an emotional meaning for us and it was creating a bond of sympathy between us and the man who wrote it, the same soulful guy who was singing for us through the speakers of the radio set.

Our first thoughts, at the very moment Ochs’s voice was surrounding us, were about the privilege to be there, being the chosen ones allowed to listen to such a gem, and, immediately, about what else we could discover about him.

It was difficult at the time to find information on protest singers or artists fighting pro civil rights, but we managed to get some knowledge regarding Phil Ochs works and facts.

He used to be among the crowd Bob Dylan was in, both of them performing in the Village at Gerde’s Folk City, Gaslight and other clubs in the same area. They soon became good friends, though they later had also some pronounced misunderstanding and disappointments at times. They even felt a certain rivalry. It’s been said that at one point Phil Ochs could have felt peeved by the success and fortune Dylan and others had gained. We have now reasons to believe he was a wounded soul divided between honesty, devotion for the truth or any altruistic cause and eagerness for fame and recognition.

Anyway, the comparisons between them were unavoidable in the early 60’s. Even if Phil Ochs might sometimes turn out disadvantaged in that confrontation, the fact is that he was actually the true voice of a young generation’s protest. While Bob Dylan was a poet able to open our minds to a different world, looking at it with new eyes to find a philosophical truth, Phil Ochs was more a journalist, but one who would provide us awareness of the events with an angry, driving, urgent passion. Actually, Ochs was also a minstrel. His work sheds light on what is wrong in the world and how we could help make it right.

For what we know the singer/songwriter from El Paso was a talented lyricist with sardonic sense of humor and an insisting voice wanting to be heard, as Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, said. Ochs main virtues as a performer were a fantastic sense of rhythm, vibrant guitar picking and a especially haunting diaphanous ringing voice. His deep passion that he would drive through neatness, wit and conviction, could always transcend his technical and vocal skills, though.

“Another Side Of Bob Dylan” release meant a step in a different direction for the musician from Minnesota. Dylan leaves his convictions regarding the fight for the civil rights and becomes more intimate, surrealistic and concerned about soul’s issues. Phil Ochs, instead, remains faithful to his beliefs, defending his ideals, becoming the voice of the oppressed ones. The assassination of three civil right workers in 1964 inspired one of Phil Ochs’ angriest ballads, “Here’s To the State of Mississippi.” As the Vietnam War raged he dedicated himself fierily to his political activism, writing generational anthems like “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” protesting and leading the crowd in demonstrations against the war.

He had also a keen musical instinct to create insightful ballads that have already become part of our collective memory, mainly the widely praised “Changes,” and the haunting “When I’m Gone,” which, far from setting down his last will, meant a commitment to take advantage of the time left for him, as if he already knew he wouldn’t last long. But things changed all of a sudden. Dylan’s move to electrified rock and The Beatles psychedelic success likely made some negative impact on him. Whatever happened, looks like he had come to a turning point. Maybe he was disillusioned because of his lack of a big hit, a success which was denied for him that other singers of his generation were enjoying. His new releases included compositions of outstanding lyrical beauty, such as “The Flower Lady” and the melancholy “Pleasures of The Harbor,” reportedly inspired by John Wayne’s movie, “The Long Voyage Home,” but the overly orchestrated arrangements were bleak and turned out outdated.

Years later of our discovering of his performing art, one of my brothers bought in the USA an album by Ochs titled “Rehearsals For Retirement”, which I loved from the beginning, especially the title song. That particular track contained a heartfelt statement of intents, a manifesto against the consumer society with the will to leave this world in which someone like him did not seem to fit. I don’t know why I thought the album was a posthumous release, published after his death. Maybe I was misled by Phil Ochs graveyard portrayed in the front cover. My mistaken idea was also reinforced by the requiem of the title song, a stirring melody with pessimistic lyrics about the end that’s looming. However, the “topical singer,” as he liked to call himself, died by his hand in 1976, though the LP was released in 1969. Looks like the reason why for this cover was his deception because of the events at the Yippies’ “Festival of Life,” one of the many demonstrations outside the Democratic convention, in which he was one of the organizers. It happened in Chicago in 1968. He was caught in the standoff between peaceful protesters and the boundless charge of a police brigade, a clash that resulted in a huge mess of lavish bullets, teargas and beatings. Many people were arrested, including Phil Ochs. For someone as sensitive as Phil was that was a devastating experience leading him to use on the cover of his next album a picture of a gravestone engraved with his name professing his death happening in Chicago in 1968.

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Phil Ochs

After the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, added to the debacle of the police riot, he became depressed and progressively affected by bipolar disorder, compounded by a severe case of alcoholism. Also his political involvement and existential bitterness caused him serious troubles, being arrested In Uruguay at a political rally in 1971 and again in Argentina. While touring South America he met Chilean singer Victor Jara and they became good buddies.

Pinochet’s military coup forced Allende from power in 1973. With president Allende already dead, Jara, along with thousands of other victims suspicious of activism, was brought to a giant stadium where he remained arrested and tortured for 4 days. They kept him on a corridor in the basement under close surveillance. On the 5th day, brought up to the stadium, soldiers beat him brutally and trashed his hands with rifle butts. The putschists guards mocked him telling “Sing now, if you can!” Then he was ordered to sing. Jara stood up with bloodied hands and led thousands of other prisoners in singing the anthem of Allende’s unity party. Then they peppered him down in the basement corridors, along with the director of the State Railway Company. His body was thrown into some bushes near the Metropolitan Cemetery and found 3 days later with 44 bullets on it. News broke Ochs’s heart and clouded his mind. He went nuts, but still was able to regain some willingness and put his soul and understanding to serve another noble cause organizing “An Evening with Salvador Allende,” a Friends of Chile Benefit Concert. He invited Bob Dylan to take part of the event, performing at the Felt Forum in New York. While they were so drunk during the show that they could hardly sing at times, the benefit became a complete success, thanks to Dylan’s involvement. In fact it was also the first time people publicly announced that the CIA was likely behind the Chilean coup, planned and financed by the Nixon administration.

Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs May 9, 1974 Friends of Chile Benefit New York

Phil Ochs & Bob Dylan at Friends of Chile Benefit Concert May 9th, 1974

Unfortunately, while visiting Africa in 1973, he was assaulted by a thief, who strangled him damaging his vocal cords.

He still played a few shows yet, even became part of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue for a short time. Reportedly, he was filmed doing four songs for “Renaldo and Clara” that were never used in the final cut of Dylan’s film.

Returning home his behavior became increasingly erratic. He alarmed friends with paranoid delusions about CIA plots against him [Although that certainly was not going totally misguided, since recordings of his made by the FBI as part of the corresponding investigation file were found later.] There was even a time when his rant came to the point that he invented an alternative identity, calling himself by another name for months. During that time he used to live out on the street, saying he had killed Phil Ochs and had impersonated his identity.

Finally, in 1976, he did it: he killed Phil Ochs. He hanged himself up with a belt in his sister’s house in Far Rockaway, Queens, in New York City. Perhaps he never got to see that “young land with so many reasons why”, but he was able to show us a country ravaged by bombs and ruins of buildings once so tall; And he sowed in us the hope that one day a young land, where we could live in peace, would be shown to us mortals who look at the world with clean eyes… there but for fortune, may go you or I.

The Hypnotist Collector

Bibliography:

Mirriam-Goldberg, Caryn (February 7, 2016) In Praise of Phil Ochs: Everyday Magic, Day 887. Retrieved April 7, 2016 from  https://carynmirriamgoldberg.com/2016/02/07/in-praise-of-phil-ochs-everyday-magic-day-887/

Goldberg, J.J. (April 10, 2016) Remembering Phil Ochs, the Other Great Jewish Folksinger of the ’60s. Retrieved April 13, 2016 from http://forward.com/opinion/338253/remembering-phil-ochs-the-other-great-jewish-folksinger-of-the-60s/

Eder, Bruce (April 2016) Phil Ochs. Artist Biography by Bruce Eder. Retrieved April 19, 2016 from http://www.allmusic.com/artist/phil-ochs-mn0000333634/biography

Wikipedia (last modified April 13, 2016) Víctor Jara.  Retrieved April 19, 2016 from https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%ADctor_Jara

Délano, Manuel (December 6, 2009) La Muerte Lenta De Victor Jara. Retrieved April 20, 2016 from http://cultura.elpais.com/cultura/2009/12/05/actualidad/1259967604_850215.html

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