Thursday, January 26, 2017

Phil Ochs: music for the Trump era

Have spent much of the past week listening obsessively to political songs from a half century ago, when I was a teenager. Especially Phil Ochs.
If you've never heard of him, but have this image of Bob Dylan as the righteous artist-activist who backed every just cause and went to every rally, the person that was really like that was Phil Ochs.
Which is part of the reason you probably haven't heard of him. The other reason is that he's been dead for four decades. Committed suicide in April 1976, the year following his last public performance at the "War is Over" concert that he organized in Central park following the victory of the Vietnamese over the American government and its South Vietnamese client regime.
If you listen to his last albums, starting with "Pleasures of the Harbor" you will follow his descent into melancholy and eventually madness. Around 1970 he released "Rehearsals for Retirement."
The cover was a tombstone listing his birth in El Paso in 1940 and his death in Chicago in 1968, referring to the Democratic Party convention and the savage police riot against antiwar protesters as the party bosses imposed vice president Hubert Humphrey, who was totally identified with President Johnson's Vietnam War, as the presidential candidate. This choice so thoroughly alienated liberals and progressives that Republican retread Richard Nixon won the presidency.
But 1968 was also the year of the Vietnamese Tet Offensive, which showed the claims about how the United States was winning in Vietnam were a lie; of the assassination of Martin Luther King in April and Bobby Kennedy who was the leading Democratic presidential candidate two months later; the false dawn of the French May-June student rebellion and its East European counterpart, the "Czech Spring" with its hopes for a "socialism with a human face" crushed under the treads of invading Soviet tanks; and then, on the eve of the first anniversary of the death of Che Guevara, the crushing of the Mexican student movement in a bloodbath, the Tlatelolco massacre of October 2 and finally the election of Nixon.
But even before then his music was becoming darker, whereas his earlier albums had been full of an an almost naive optimistic, can-do American spirit even when most outraged at what the government was doing.
Anyways, I hadn't really focused on how much I'd been listening to Phil Ochs since Friday until I saw this blog post on the Washington Post, of all places. The writer refers to the earlier, more political work, whereas I think for some people may also relate to his later work, which I've always called in my own mind "music to commit suicide by."

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