For the benefit of the uninitiated, Phil Ochs was a Texan American protest singer and contemporary of Bob Dylan’s in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early sixties. Ochs wrote hundreds of songs during the sixties and early seventies, releasing eight albums before committing suicide in 1976.
Like Dylan a disciple of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Ochs’s career took a different direction to Bob’s in the seventies. Believing that the era of the protest song had ended, and that new ways of reaching out to the people were required, he even commissioned a gold lamé suit from Elvis Presley’s costumier in 1970, believing himself to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara”.
Although a very popular live act, Ochs did not have a great deal of commercial success during his lifetime, although after his death several ‘Greatest Hits’ packages and a TV documentary (There But For The Fortune) helped him achieve belated recognition.
But considering his prolific writing and his public impact during his lifetime, there is surprisingly little of Ochs’s music available today. By the time that this live performance – at The Stables, East Lansing in Michigan in 1973 – was recorded, Ochs was paralyzed by depression and writer’s block, and began drinking himself into the decline which was ultimately to lead to his suicide. Not that any of that is evident from this recording, which stands as a welcome addition to Ochs’s otherwise slim recorded legacy.
Given the point Ochs was at in his life when this was recorded, it comes across as a remarkably upbeat and cheerful solo guitar and vocal show. The audience are clearly up for it, applauding each new song and laughing along at Ochs’s jokey inter-song patter. The material is drawn from Ochs’s already extensive back catalogue, and includes some of the light-hearted but stern political observations he was renowned for, such as ‘Here’s To The State Of Richard Nixon’, an update of his own sarcastic song ‘Here’s to the State of Mississippi’, and ‘Is There Anybody There’. Some are more intense and hard-hitting, harking back to the protest song days of the sixties, such as ‘Crucifixion’, and perhaps his most commercially successful song ‘Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends’.
Part of Ochs’s appeal is that his delivery is never gloomy or miserable, even when the subject matter of his songs is at its most disturbing, serious or controversial. Indeed such ironic contrast was quite deliberate and typifies much of his material.
Counterpointing that though, are a proportion of simple, sincere and beautiful songs, and perhaps the best of these, ‘Changes’, is delivered in a wonderfully heartfelt way. As soon as the song ends however, Ochs launches into a long polemic arguing for and encouraging others to call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon, a process which was eventually to begin almost exactly a year later. Again, the contrast is striking and stark, and energetically received.
‘Live Again!’ is a valuable snapshot both Ochs’s political priorities and concerns at a significant time in America’s history, and his timeless music, which ultimately remains his greatest legacy.
Live Again! is released on 12 August 2016 (RETROWORLD FLOATM 6269)