Showing posts with label Phil Ochs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Phil Ochs. Show all posts

Friday, April 9, 2010

Cords Of Fame

It was on this day in April in 1976, thirty-four years ago today, that musician Phil Ochs committed suicide. Although Ochs is generally known as a folk-protest, singer-songwriter strongly associated with the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 60s, his career actually consisted of two stages: his early, folk-topical material on Elektra, and his later, more personal material on A&M. I prefer his later, rock-oriented albums on A&M, such as Tape From California (1968) and Rehearsals For Retirement (1969); the latter album is, in my view, the best album he ever made. However, perhaps the best introduction to his work for the uninitiated is the now OOP three-disc box set Farewells & Fantasies (Rhino, 1997), a comprehensive career retrospective, that also happened to be nominated for a 1998 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes, comprised of contributions by Michael Ventura, Mark Kemp, his daughter Meegan Ochs, and Ben Edmonds.

For many years I’ve held Phil Ochs in sentimental regard, perhaps because he died so young, at age 35. His short, troubled life has been the subject of two biographies, both of which painfully recount the decline of Ochs’s mental condition in the 1970s, including his career-ruining alcoholism. So far as I know there’s never been published a formal professional opinion regarding the nature of Ochs’s mental illness; neither biographer indicates that Ochs ever sought psychiatric care nor help for his alcoholism. Marc Eliot, in the updated and expanded edition of his biography Death of a Rebel: A Biography of Phil Ochs (Franklin Watts, 1989; orig. pub. 1979) mentions Ochs’s “manic depression,” while Michael Schumacher, in There But For Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs (Hyperion, 1996), simply refers to his recurring depressions. Surprisingly, there’s much about Ochs’s life that remains unknown. For instance, it wasn’t until the publication of David Cohen’s Phil Ochs: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1999) that anyone knew Ochs had anonymously recorded the LP Camp Favorites (Cameo, 1962 or 1963), an album rather obviously consisting of traditional campfire songs. Apparently no one in Ochs’s family had ever seen a copy. In addition, there are certain events, accepted as fact, that frankly are poorly documented.

As an example of an event in Ochs’ life generally accepted as fact, but which begs credibility, consider the alleged strangling and robbery incident that took place in the city of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania in late 1973. As the story goes, Ochs was walking along the beach—alone—when he was attacked, strangled, and robbed. Both biographers dramatically recount the event, as follows:

Eliot: In September, Phil decided to take a trip to Africa. . . . He set up several concerts in African cities to coincide with a month long safari he planned to take. . . . The first evening he was in Tanzania, he took a long walk, alone, on the beach at Dar es Salaam, as the ocean glowed a gelatinous white. Suddenly, without provocation, he was jumped from behind by three black men. One held him around the neck, while the other two went through his pickets. Phil tried to scream as the arm tightened around his neck, rupturing the vocal cords. He couldn’t breathe, he tore frantically at the steel-like arm with his hands. His knees began to buckle, he felt himself starting to fall, blacking out on the way down. The men beat him savagely before taking off with his cash, leaving him sprawled on the beach. They found him early the next morning and rushed him to the hospital. His wounds were mostly superficial, except for his throat. The upper register was gone. He had no high notes. (221)

Schumacher: In late September, Phil flew to Africa for what he hoped would be a two-month period of restful travel and relaxation. . . . Dar-es-Salaam proved to be his undoing. One evening, while walking alone on the beach, he was attacked by three men, who jumped him from behind, strangling him and beating him to unconsciousness before robbing him and leaving him for dead. He was found early the next morning, still unconscious, and was taken to a nearby hospital. His vocal chords [sic] had been ruptured while he was being choked, and to Phil’s horror, he could no longer sing the upper three or four notes in his vocal range. . . . Phil stayed in the hospital for several days, during which he replayed the mugging over and over in his head. (279-80).

There are, of course, differences in the dramatic accents in each account. While both writers aver robbery as the motive for the assault, for Eliot, it was the first evening in Dar es Salaam; for Schumacher, it was “one evening.” Eliot indicates the attackers were black men; Schumacher doesn’t say. More significantly, Schumacher indicates Ochs was left for dead, while Eliot avers the wounds “were mostly superficial, except for his throat.” Nonetheless, while the wounds “were mostly superficial,” both biographers indicate he spent the night unconscious on the beach, because he wasn’t found (by whom?) until the next morning. These accounts raise some puzzling questions. Were the three attackers indeed black men? For if he were jumped from behind, as both biographers claim, how did he know the muggers were black, according to Eliot? And if he were beaten so severely by the attackers, so badly that he remained unconscious on the beach the entire night, why does Eliot aver the wounds were “mostly superficial”? Eliot indicates a “steel-like arm” was wrapped tightly around Ochs’ neck, while Schumacher doesn’t mention the powerful arm, just that he was strangled and choked. If Ochs’ vocal cords were indeed damaged, that would suggest the act of strangulation, in which case Ochs very likely would have known the racial identity of his assailant.

Frankly, the entire episode begs credibility. Although Schumacher refers on several occasions to a diary Ochs began keeping in the early 70s, he makes no reference to this diary during his recounting of the attack in Dar es Salaam. Since Ochs purportedly was alone at the time of the attack, on what basis do the biographers take the event as credible? When did the story originate? A clue is provided by Marc Eliot, who at least provides an actual quotation. Apparently Ochs was committed to a concert in Johannesburg, South Africa (which Schumacher also acknowledges), a performance that was something of an embarrassment. Eliot:

During that show [at Johannesburg], which lasted all of forty minutes, Phil drank beer continuously on stage, the icy brew helping to cool his burning throat. He put it down next to him at one point and kicked it over. He stopped singing until the bottle of beer was replaced. Then, while slurring something about his voice not being in the best condition, he fell completely off the stage, headfirst, into the orchestra pit. The next day, the front page of the Johannesburg Star headlined the story.

“Yeah, man, I was pretty crazy,” he told a reporter. “Getting all that beer down was not a normal part of my act. I’ve been in a dilemma for days, as I can’t decide whether to stay in South Africa or go back to America. I’ve got trouble with my voice. In Dar es Salaam three guys jumped me and strangled me as they robbed me. My voice is not right yet. I’m seeing a doctor.” (222)

Hence the evidence for the event, so far as I can tell, is from this remark in the Johannesburg Star (the date is not indicated in the text). Schumacher interviewed a friend of Ochs’s named David Ifshin (spelled “Ifshkin” on p. 206 of Eliot’s biography, the only time he is mentioned), who met up with Ochs in Kenya—after the Dar es Salaam incident, in other words. Schumacher:

“I vividly remember waiting for him outdoors as his plane landed in Nairobi,” said Ifshin. “He’d been strangled by muggers and he was really out of it. He had deteriorated badly from our adventure in South America. Almost the first thing he said was, ‘We’re going to have to control the drinking. You gotta help me stop on this trip. All I want is one beer a day.’ (281)

Since neither biographer indicates that Ifshin was with Ochs in Dar es Salaam, he obviously learned of the alleged strangulation from Ochs himself (again, both biographers indicate Ochs was alone at the time of the attack). Surprisingly, Schumacher places the recording of the songs “Bwatue” and “Niko Mchumba Ngambe” after the mugging, while Ifshin and Ochs were in Kenya, as is widely acknowledged. He also places the disastrous Johannesburg performance after the recording of these two songs in Kenya, so one is left to wonder just how badly his vocal cords were damaged. (Ochs simply indicated he was having trouble with voice, having been strangled while being robbed. Nothing about being beaten unconscious or ruptured vocal cords.) I should indicate that I have a fan-club reissue of the “Bwatue”/”Niko Mchumba Ngambe” single, and I notice no discernable difference in Ochs’ voice from previous recordings, although I don't claim to be an expert. But then again, I’m assuming, based on the biographical accounts, the recording of these songs took place after the Dar es Salaam event, not before.

As should be clear by now, based on the available evidence, I am dubious of the Dar es Salaam strangulation incident. I say this for another reason as well. While I’ve done no extensive research on the subject—and I state this explicitly—I feel it necessary to bring up the robbery of a rock star that serendipitously took place on the west coast of Africa at about the same time as the strangulation incident in Dar es Salaam. I’m referring, of course, to the mugging of Paul and Linda McCartney that happened while they were recording Band on the Run in Lagos, Nigeria in August and September of 1973. According to the liner includes included in the 2-disc, 25th anniversary box set of Band on the Run issued in 1999, Paul McCartney and Wings left for Lagos on 9 August 1973. They spent roughly the next six weeks there working on the album, returning to London on 23 September. Again, I don’t know the actual date, but during the time they were in Lagos recording the album, they were robbed at knife-point by a group of black men (young men?) who took their belongings but spared their lives. I accept this event as true, primarily because McCartney was with his wife at the time of the attack, that is, not alone. My question is whether this robbery was reported in the press, rock or otherwise; if it were, then Ochs might well have known about it and been inspired by its dramatic impact, using the same story as an excuse for his embarrassing performance in Johannesburg. Was the event reported by the press (print or electronic, that is, television)? I don’t know, but I find it a remarkable coincidence that it happened at about the same time as the event in Dar es Salaam, especially since Ochs was in Africa to make a recording as well.

The problem is the dating. On p. 279, Schumacher writes that Ochs left for Africa in "late September." Eight pages later, on p. 287, he writes that Ochs was in Africa on 11 September 1973, that is, during the military coup that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende. (The two biographers do not seem to be definite as to whether Ochs knew about the coup before, or after, his trip to Africa.) Is 11 September considered late in the month, as Schumacher suggests? In contrast, Eliot simply indicates the month was September, without indicating a specific time. These sorts of broad approximations of dates and places are extremely frustrating when trying to determine the authenticity of a specific event, as I hope I have demonstrated here.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Critical Overcomprehension

In his witty and insightful book, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) William Goldman, a highly successful screenwriter (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) but also a wry critic of Hollywood, observes that a Hollywood studio head is very much like the manager of a baseball team: each and every day he wakes up knowing that sooner or later he is going to be fired.

No doubt the vast majority of today’s critics--of the theater, movies, music, contemporary fine arts--wake up each morning in a similarly precarious position, not necessarily thinking they will be fired from their privileged critical occupation, but that most certainly and with a creeping, unavoidable inevitability--like the day of their death--they will be wrong. What is a critic’s deepest fear? To have erred in judgment, to have made the wrong call, in short, to have missed the boat.

No music critic wants to miss the boat--to have critically underestimated, or what’s worse, to have dismissed the next Velvet Underground, for instance--so in order to avoid making such an unwitting mistake, the critic engages in what Robert Ray, employing a term coined by Max Ernst, calls overcomprehension (How a Film Theory Got Lost, Indiana University Press, 2001, p. 82). Ray writes:

Aware of previous mistakes, reviewers become increasingly afraid to condemn anything....Hence ... [one] ... of modern criticism’s ... great dangers, what Max Ernst called “overcomprehension” or “the waning of indignation”.... (82)

No critic, of course, can see beyond the curtain of time. Time is the ultimate critic, and the critic’s limited perspective doesn’t allow him to see beyond his own pitifully narrow moment in history. Critical overcomprehension--the act of giving every new record an equally glowing reception--is a result of the critic’s deep fear of being judged by history as wrong. No one wants to be, for instance, television critic Jack Gould, who reviewed the Milton Berle Show appearance of Elvis Presley for the New York Times in 1956:

Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. His specialty is rhythm songs which he renders in an undistinguished whine; his phrasing, if it can be called that, consists of the stereotyped variations that go with a beginner's aria in a bathtub. For the ear, he is an unutterable bore, not nearly so talented as Frank Sinatra back in the latter's rather hysterical days at the Paramount Theater. (qtd. in Robert Ray, 80)

Of course, as Ray points out, Gould’s kind of critical error had its own unintended consequences: such gross critical mistakes, Ray argues, led to “rejection and incomprehensibility as promises of ultimate value” (82). In other words, if an album sold poorly, or the artist who recorded it was given scant attention--or worse, completely neglected in his time, the record must therefore be great, perhaps even a masterpiece.

I suppose we all have adopted our favorite neglected artist, the artist whose critical neglect or, if you will, martyrdom, ironically, is the sign of greatness, of ultimate value. In my own music collection, this sort of artist is represented by, among others, Tim Buckley and Phil Ochs.

But I’m wondering, what do we do with the opposite case, the artist who is the critical establishment’s darling and whose records we therefore own, but never play? (Perhaps I'm a heretic, but I find myself playing only certain selections of Trout Mask Replica, not the entire disc.) The presence of both sorts of records, side by side in our music collections, reveals the persistent problem of what Robert Ray calls the Gap, the problem of assimilation, the failure of a new or unusual artistic style to be made intelligible to the public. Although rock 'n' roll is now over fifty years old, we still find ourselves struggling to fully comprehend its challenges and complexities, rather like a person who has difficulty reading or understanding the lines indicating contours and elevations on a topographic map.