Phil Ochs, Brilliant Yet Widely Obscure Troubador

What do Robert Allen Zimmerman and Philip David Ochs have in common? Both wrote brilliant protest songs in the ’60s. The difference? Robert changed his name to Bob Dylan and became one of the most famous music artists of our time. Philip chose to perform as Phil Ochs and remained largely obscure outside singer-songwriter circles.

Until recently, I had never heard of Phil Ochs myself. Then I saw somebody ranting on Facebook that Bob Dylan undeservedly gets all the credit for being this brilliant protest singer when the recognition should really go to Ochs. The truth is while both artists at some point were important protest singer-songwriters, none of them invented the genre. According to Wikipedia, the tradition of protest songs in the U.S. long predates the births of Dylan and Ochs – in fact going all the way back to the 18th century.

One of the important forerunners to the 1950s and 1960s protest singer-singwriters were the Hutchinson Family Singers, who starting from 1839 became well known for singing about social issues, such as abolition, war and women’s suffrage. And let’s not forget Woody Guthrie, who was born in 1912 and started learning folk and blues songs during his early teens. Over a 26-year-period as an active music artist, Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk and children’s songs. He was a major influence on numerous other songwriters who in addition to Dylan and Ochs included Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and many other former and contemporary artists.

Hutchinson Family Singers
Hutchinson Family Singers in 1845 painting by an unkown artist

‘I get it,’ you might think, ‘but who the hell is Phil Ochs?’ Sadly, it’s a pretty rough story, and it doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending.

Ochs was born on December 19, 1940 in El Paso, Texas. His dad Jakob “Jack” Ochs was a physician from New York, and his mom Gertrude Finn Ochs hailed from Scotland. The two met there and got married in Edinburgh where Jack was attending medical school at the time. After their wedding, they moved to the U.S. Jack joined the army as a doctor and was sent overseas close to the end of World War II. He returned as a sick man with bipolar disorder and depression.

Jack’s health conditions prevented him from establishing a successful medical practice. Instead, he ended up working at a series of hospitals around the country and frequently moving his family. As a result, Phil Ochs grew up in different places, along with an older sister (Sonia, known as Sonny) and a younger brother (Michael). His father was distant from the family, eventually got hospitalized for depression, and passed away from a brain bleeding in April 1963. Phil’s mother died in March 1994.

Phil Ochs as teen with clarinet
Phil Ochs as a teenager playing the clarinet

During his teenage years, Ochs became a talented clarinet player. Prior to the age of 16, he was principal soloist with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. Although Ochs had become an accomplished classical instrumentalist, he soon discovered the radio and started listening to the likes of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Initially, Ochs wanted to become a journalist. Well, he of sort did, combining his interest in writing about politics with music. During his journalism studies at Ohio State University, he met fellow student, activist and future folk singer Jim Glover in the fall of 1960, who introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The Weavers, and taught him how to play guitar. It wouldn’t take long before Ochs merged his interest of politics and music and started writing his own songs. He preferred to characterize himself as a topical rather than a protest singer.

Glover and Ochs started performing as a duo called The Singing Socialists and later The Sundowners but broke up before their first professional gig. Glover went to New York, while Ochs started performing professionally at a local fok club in Cleveland. In 1962, he went to the Big Apple as well and soon established himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scence. Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist,” explaining his songs were inspired by stories he saw in Newsweek. By the summer of 1963, he had developed a sufficiently high profile and was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, along the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Ochs’ debut album All The News That’s Fit To Sing, an allusion to The New York Times‘ slogan “All the news that’s fit to print,” appeared in 1964. Here is Ballad of William Worthy. The tune tells the story about an American journalist who traveled to Cuba despite the U.S. embargo and was forbidden to return to the U.S. Check out the brilliant lyrics of this tune – safe to assume Ochs’ words didn’t endear him to the Johnson Administration.

In 1965, Ochs’ sophomore album I Ain’t Marching Anymore came out. Here’s the excellent satirical anti-war tune Draft Dodger Rag, which quickly became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

After Ochs’ first three albums with Electra Records had gone nowhere commercially speaking, he signed with A&M Records and in October 1967 released his fourth studio record Pleasures Of The Harbor. Unlike his first three folk music-oriented records, the album went beyond folk, featuring elements of classical, rock & roll, Dixieland and even experiental synthesized music. Apparently, the idea was to produce a folk-pop crossover. While the album included great tunes, it’s safe to say it didn’t bring Ochs commercial success. Here is Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends, which became one of Ochs’ most popular songs. The tune was inspired by the case of a 28-old woman who was stabbed to death in front of her home in Queens, New York, while dozens of her neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help.

Tape From California is Ochs’ fifth album. Released in July 1968 on A&M Records, it continued his shift away from straight folk-oriented protest songwriting, though he was far from abandoning topical songs. The War Is Over is a tune that was inspired by poet Allen Ginsberg who in 1966 declared the Vietnam war was over. Ochs decided to adopt the idea and organize an anti-war rally in Los Angeles, for which he wrote the song.

Phil Ochs’ final studio album came out in February 1970. Weirdly, it was called Greatest Hits, even though it was not a compilation but a collection of 10 new tracks. Most of the record was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who previously had appeared on Tape From California, contributing piano and keyboards to the title track. Greatest Hits featured an impressive array of guest artists, including Clarence White and Gene Parsons, both from The Byrds; Ry Cooder; Jim Glover; and members of Elvis Presley’s backing band, among others. The album cover was an homage to Elvis, showing Ochs in a gold lamé suit reminiscent of the outfit Elvis wore for the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong greatest hits compilation. Here is Jim Dean Of Indiana, a tune about the actor James Dean, who like Elvis was one of Ochs’ idols.

Greatest Hits was Ochs’ final attempt to connect with average Americans, who he was convinced weren’t listening to topical songs. Disillusioned by key events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago around the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, Ochs felt he needed to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ochs supported the album with a tour, performing in the Elivs-like suit and being backed by a rock band, singing his own songs, along with tunes by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard. But his fans weren’t sure what to make of the “new Phil Ochs.”

Pretty much from there, things went downhill for Ochs. He developed writer’s block and slipped into depression and alcoholism. He did not release any additional records. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in the home of his sister Sonny. He was only 35 years old.

I’d like to conclude this post with a few quotes I found on Life of a Rebel, a blog dedicated to Ochs. “As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since,” said fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk. “He had a touch that was so distinctive that it just could not be anybody else. He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line.” In a note to Ochs in 1963, Pete Seeger wrote, “I wish I had one tenth your talent as a songwriter.” And what did the mighty Bob Dylan tell Broadside magazine in 1964? “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting better and better and better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Life of a Rebel; YouTube

Second Tom Petty Posthumous Album Out

Career-spanning compilation features hits and two previously unreleased recordings

The title pretty much says it all. The Best Of Everything is a compilation of Tom Petty’s amazing music from his 40 years as a recording artist, largely focusing on his better known songs. Released yesterday, it’s billed as his first career-spanning collection of hits. Unlike last September’s An American Treasure, the 38 tracks for the most part were taken from past albums. There are two exceptions: For Real, a previously unreleased tune, and an alternate version of the title track that restores a lost second verse.

While to a longtime Tom Petty fan like myself it’s not exactly news what an outstanding songwriter he was, it’s still impressive when you see the track listing. Free Fallin’, Mary Jane’s Last DanceSaving Grace, Breakdown, Refugee, American GirlThe Last DJRunnin’ Down A Dream and Even The Losers, to name some of the gems, surely make for a beautiful collection. While I would say American Treasure is more for die-hard Tom Petty fans, The Best Of Everything is a terrific compilation for folks who know just a few songs and would like to further explore his music beyond the fantastic first Greatest Hits mid-career collection from November 1993.

Tom Petty_The Best Of Everything Collage
Released via Geffen Records/UMe, The Best Of Everything is available as a 2-CD or 4-LP set

To make it truly career-spanning, it would have been nice to include a couple of tunes from The Traveling Wilburys. Sure, it’s fair to note the supergroup wasn’t Petty’s band. The Wilburys were primarily initiated by George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, and their songs were credited to all members. Unlike Mudcrutch and Petty’s solo albums, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, who helped put together The Best Of Everything and last year’s compilation, had no involvement with the Wilburys. There may also have been legal reasons for keeping the supergroup’s material out. Still, adding two tunes featuring Charlie T. Wilbur Junior on lead vocals would have been cool, in my humble opinion!

Let’s get to some music. I deliberately skip the big hits. The track order seems to be a bit random. Perhaps part of the idea here was to spread the bigger hits throughout to keep the more casual Tom Petty fans engaged. The number of YouTube clips from The Best Of Everything is still limited, so I’m borrowing clips from the original albums, as needed. The first tune I’d like to call out is Dreamville from The Last DJ, the 11th studio album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, released in October 2002. I’m glad they included this beautiful ballad, which definitely is not among Petty’s big hits.

I Should Have Known It is a nice rocker with a great guitar riff – my kind of song! Perhaps not surprisingly Campbell was a co-writer for this guitar player type of tune, which appeared on the band’s 12th studio record Mojo from June 2010. “I was glad that was on there, because I’m really proud of that track and that performance,” Campbell noted during an interview with Variety, conducted together with Tench and Petty’s eldest daughter Adria Petty, who was also involved in assembling the collection. “It showed a band in their later development still doing quality music.” Listen for yourself!

Next up: The alternate version of The Best Of Everything, another great tune! Originally, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded it for their sixth studio album Southern Accents, which came out in March 1985. Even though I own that record on CD, frankly, I had forgotten about the song.

Scare Easy is a track from the first Mudcrutch album simply titled Mudcrutch, which appeared in April 2008. Initially formed in Gainesville, Fla. in 1970, Mudcrutch was the predecessor to The Heartbreakers. After recording some demos and releasing one single that failed to chart, Mudcrutch broke up in 1975. It’s kind of remarkable they lasted for more than four years. Then, in August 2007, Petty reunited the band. In addition to Campbell (guitar, mandolin) and Tench (keyboards), the lineup featured the other two original members Randall Marsh (drums) and Tom Leadon (guitar), with Petty on bass and lead vocals.

The last tune I’d like to call out is For Real. This previously unreleased song also wasn’t available on any bootlegs, so until it came out as a single a few weeks ago, it’s something even fans hadn’t heard before. According to Rolling Stone, the track was recorded in August 2000 and is “a declaration of purpose” by Petty. “That song to me sounds like Tom reporting from his heart — reporting from the front,” Tench told Variety during the above interview. “It may sound like it’s meant to be a summing up of a career or something, but it’s not, really, because it’s almost 20 years old. We weren’t quite as long-in-tooth and gray then.” I think Tench is right, though it’s the perfect tune to close out the collection.

“When I went back through all this stuff… I don’t want to get heavy with it, but it’s very emotional, in being nostalgic, because we were never nostalgic when we were working,” Campbell told Variety. “We never looked back. We just always were looking forward. But Ben and I were forced to look back as we went through this stuff, and we both had an epiphany about how we have a legacy that has integrity. We were sad, but also very proud of what we’ve done.” Who can blame them.

Added Adria Petty: “I feel like Ben and Mike haven’t had a second to process this, what the next chapter can be, and I think for us, it’s kind of the same. Ben had a baby for the first time six or seven weeks after my dad died, and he’s been deeply in love and entrenched in that. It’s a really horrible thing to have to process both things at the same time, so he probably finally has a little space to just focus on that. Mike’s going to be on the road with Fleetwood Mac through April. He had his first grandchild right after Dad died. There’s a third generation of Heartbreaker kids coming in that are all amazing.”

Benmont Tench & Mike Campbell
Benmont Tench (l) and Mike Campbell, August 2018

So after two major compilations, what else might be in store or in the vault I should perhaps better ask. “There a bunch of really great stuff,” Tench told Billboard. He noted early Mudcrutch recordings, demos from The Last DJ and music from the period of Hypnotic Eye, the final studio album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers from July 2014.

Campbell would like to explore a live album from the band’s shows at the Fillmore from 1997 to 1999, he explained to Rolling Stone. “For me, that was almost the pinnacle of the band just being totally spontaneous night to night to night. We might throw in a Grateful Dead song that we just learned that afternoon. We recorded every show and we had guest artists from Bo Diddley to Roger McGuinn to John Lee Hooker. And I know, in my memory of those 20 nights, there’s an amazing album in there.” That surely sounds like a great idea to me!

However, both Tench and Campbell want to be mindful about further releases to make sure the quality is right and Petty would have wanted to release the material. Adria Petty agrees. “I don’t want to inundate the fans with “Hey, here’s another record!”,” she told Variety. That’s a good thing!

Sources: Wikipedia, Tom Petty official website, Variety, Rolling Stone, Billboard, YouTube

Ultimate Classic Rock’s Take On 2018’s Biggest Rock Stories

The other day, I came across an article on Ultimate Classic Rock (UCR), which I thought provides a nice wrap-up of rock’s biggest headlines in 2018 and is worth highlighting. Following I’m going to address some of the stories included in the piece.

Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic of Queen, which premiered on October 24 in the U.K. and on November 2 in the U.S., became a massive success at the box office. With more than $702 million in ticket sales, it was the eighth highest grossing picture in 2018 and the most successful film biopic to date. The movie has received various nominations, including a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama. All this attention has also triggered renewed interest in Queen’s music. The Billboard 200 for the week of December 29 include the movie soundtrack (no. 8); The Platinum Collection: Greatest Hits I, II & III,  November 2000 (no. 33) and Greatest Hits, October 1981 (no. 122). Obviously, it’s not a coincidence that Queen in early December announced a North American Rhapsody tour with Adam Lambert in July and August 2019. Here’s the official trailer of the biopic.

About three and a half years after Fleetwood Mac had restored their most commercially successful line-up with the return of Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham was dismissed in April 2018, reportedly over disagreements about the band’s next tour. And before people knew it, Mike Campbell (formerly of Tom Petty’s band The Heartbreakers) and Neil Finn (former frontman of Crowded House) were hired to replace Buckingham. In early October, Fleetwood Mac embarked on their current world tour, which is scheduled to stretch all the way until June 2019. A lawsuit brought by Buckingham in October was settled earlier this month. Since I’ve seen the Mac a few years ago (with Buckingham but sans McVie), I currently don’t have any plans to see them again. That being said, based on clips I’ve seen, Campbell and Finn are doing a pretty decent job. Here’s a clip of Go Your Own Way, which apparently was captured in St. Louis in October.

Neil Young managed to pull off getting married to American actress and environmental activist Daryl Hannah in August and keeping the festivities a secret to the public – quite a feat in the age of social media! Young and Hannah certainly need to thank their 100 guests who kept quiet about the wedding, which Young officially confirmed in October. I suppose Neil Young doesn’t require any further introduction. Hannah, who started her acting career in 1978, has had roles in more than 70 films of different genres, including Blade Runner (1982), Wall Street (1987), Grumpy Old Men (1993) and Kill Bill Volume 1 & 2 (2003 and 2004, respectively). Young and Hannah had been in a relationship since 2014.

Daryl Hannah & Neil Young

In September, Paul McCartney released his 25th studio album and 17th solo record Egypt Station, which I previously reviewed here. While as a longtime fan of The Beatles, who generally also likes each member’s work thereafter, I may not be entirely objective here, I think Egypt Station may be Macca’s best album since Flowers In The Dirt from 1989. Remarkably, it became his first to debut at no. 1 on the Billboard 200. At 76 years, his voice sounds worn, but I actually feel it goes quite well with the songs. Here’s one of my favorites, I Don’t Know.

Gibson Brands, maker of legendary Gibson guitars like the Les Paul or the SG, re-emerged from bankruptcy in October. As part of the re-organization, a new management team was installed, and private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR) assumed majority ownership control. KKR also brought in a guitarist and Gibson collector as chairman of the board: Nat Zilkha, former lead guitarist of Red Rooster, a New York-based band that describes itself as a folk collective with music rooted in Americana with an urban-infused sound. “I feel like I have a personal relationship with the product,” Zilkha told Bloomberg in an interview. “This is a great American brand that sort of lost its way. It’s almost like a responsibility to try to bring it back to what it’s supposed to be.” In May, the 124-year-old music company had filed for Chapter 11 protection with up to $500 million in debt, according to NPR.

Gibson SG Standard
Gibson SG Standard

Sources: Deriso, Nick (December 20, 2018) 2018’s Biggest Rock Stories. Ultimate Classic Rock. Accessed December 30, 2018; Wikipedia; Billboard Top 200 Albums; Red Rooster website; Bloomberg; NPR; YouTube

Neil Young Triumphantly Returns To Boston

Solo set at Wang Theatre spans various decades

“One of my first solo shows was in the Wang Theater, then called the Music Hall,” wrote Neil Young on his website in May, talking about his 2018 solo tour that officially ended last night with the second of two dates at the landmark venue in Boston’s Theatre District. “It’s a real beauty folks – a chapel of soul and music. I hope it still sounds as good as it did then and that I do too!” While I wasn’t around when Young played Music Hall in January 1971, I saw him at Wang Theatre on Wednesday night, the first of his two concerts there, and he surely sounded amazing to me!

Wang Theatre
View of Wang Theatre auditorium from stage

Young was right. The venue is pretty impressive. Take a closer look at the above photo, and you can see the rich ornaments and decorative painting. In addition to its looks, he certainly also well remembered the Wang Theatre’s acoustic, which was great.

While it must be about 40 years ago that Young entered my radar screen with Heart Of Gold, I had never been to one of his shows. When I read about his solo tour a few months ago and noticed it would bring him to Boston, it didn’t take long for me to decide that seeing him was worth a five-hour drive from my house, especially given the tour only had six dates: Two in each Chicago and Boston, and one in each Detroit and St. Louis.

Neil Young

But before I further get to Young, I’d like to acknowledge William Prince, a folk and country singer-songwriter, who like Young hails from Canada. Punctually at 8:00 PM, he walked on stage with just an acoustic guitar and opened the night. Prince is a member of the Pegius First Nation from Manitoba.

In 2015, he released his debut album Earthly Days, for which he won a Western Canadian Music Award for Aboriginal Artist of the Year in 2016 and the 2017 the Juno Award for  Contemporary Roots Album of the Year. From that album, here’s Breathless. The look and feel of the performance, which apparently was captured in December, is very similar to Wednesday night. I thought his voice and guitar-playing sounded really nice. Visit his website for more information.

And then it was time for Young. To get an idea what to expect, I checked the previous shows from the tour on setlist.fm. I noticed the sets were relatively constant and included a mix of well-known songs and other tunes that at least to me were deeper cuts. A friend of mine, who is a Neil Young connoisseur and the lead vocalist in an excellent Neil Young tribute band, thought it was a selection for longtime fans.

The stage setup looked a little like a music workshop. It featured areas with different instruments, including an array of acoustic guitars, a semi-hollow electric guitar, two grand pianos and two organs. Young also had multiple harmonicas on hand. During the show, he shared anecdotes about most of the instruments. For example, one of the grand pianos was from the 19th century, and the bottom had been burned during a fire. Young maintained this gave it a very unique sound, adding this tour was the first time he took it on the road. He also pointed to guitars that had once been owned by Stephen Stills and Hank Williams.

Time for some music. I tried capturing some of the songs, and while the audio came out okay, the quality of the video varies quite a bit. The latter was due to challenging lighting conditions and my seat up on the balcony in the back of the theater. There was also what looked like an illuminated stripe in the background above the stage. I’m wondering whether this may have been done on purpose to discourage taking videos, which officially was strictly forbidden.

While I get they don’t want flash photography, I generally find these “no video rules” complete nonsense. Unless you walk in with a professional camera that enables you to record footage you could sell, what damage are you going to do with clips taken with a smartphone? On the contrary, in my opinion, taking and posting such clips on Facebook or elsewhere actually helps promote the artist. Okay, I’m stopping going off on a tangent now. The following is a combination of my own clips and footage from other recent solo gigs.

First up: Pocahontas, a song by Young that first appeared on the Rust Never Sleeps live album from July 1979. Initially, he recorded a version of the tune in the mid-70s for Chrome Dreams, a then-planned but unreleased album.

Ohio was the only Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tune Wednesday night and one of two songs Young played on the electric guitar. Written by him in the wake of the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970, the track was released by CSNY as a single in June that year. It was also included on the band’s 4 Way Street live album from April 1971 and the studio compilation So Far, released in August 1974. The tune also appeared on Young’s solo compilation albums Decade (Oct 1977) and Greatest Hits (Nov 2004).

A highlight of the show and perhaps my favorite moment of the night was After The Gold Rush. Young played the title track of his third studio album from September 1970 on a pipe organ. The church-like sound was just incredible. He slightly updated the lyrics by singing, Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century/Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century. The performance was incredibly powerful and gave me the goosebumps!

Among Young’s more recent tunes was Love And War. He recorded the song for his 30th studio album Le Noise, which appeared in September 2010. This clip was captured at his June 28 show in St. Louis.

Young finished his regular set with two gems from Harvest, his fourth studio album released in February 1972: The Needle And The Damage Done and Heart Of Gold. Unfortunately, the following clip of Needle, shot in Chicago on July 1, is cut in the beginning but otherwise 10 times better than my attempt to film it.

Here’s the mighty Heart Of Gold. Young may be getting old (though he sounded great!), but not the song.

Young came back for one encore: Tumbleweed, a tune from the deluxe edition of his 34th studio album Storytone from November 2014. He performed it with a ukulele. This clip is from the above St. Louis clip.

For now, Young’s second gig in Boston last night marked the final show of his solo tour. In September, he is scheduled to perform back-to-back at Farm Aid (Hartfort, Conn., Sep 22) and, together with Promise Of The Real, at another Willie Nelson event (Saratoga, N.Y., Sep 23).

Sources: Wikipedia, Neil Young official website, William Prince official website, setlist.fm, YouTube