He wrote hundreds of songs. He lived to 36, committing suicide in 1976 after succumbing to bi-polar disorder, alcoholism. The sheer enormity of his work is astounding. One must also keep in mind the the man wrote the majority of his songs in the 1960’s starting in 1962. His music was folk and his lyric was “topical,” an interesting mix of humanism and political activism that was always quite witty but at times rather sardonic. Minus the suicide many may conclude this is definitely Bob Dylan. Folk, protest singer, who wrote hundreds of songs in the 1960’s. Yet, the lyricist I am talking about is less known but, in many ways, just as influential to the protest music cause.
Phil Ochs came to the realization that he wanted to be a musician when sleeping on a park bench in Miami at the age of 18. He was arrested but the important conclusion was reached that he would go back to college and study journalism and write. This is the second time I have profiled a lyricist who was an aspiring journalist. I am beginning to get jealous of all of these succesful musicians who used journalism as a stepping stone to greatness. Why can’t I write lyrics!!!!! Okay, enough of my stupidity, back to Phil Ochs.
Ochs became known quickly for his smart brand of passionate protest songs about events like war and civil rights. He described himself as a “singing journalist,” and no trust me as much as I would enjoy this newsrooms do not sing story information. He build his songs from news stories. “Topical” songs. He started performing at numerous folk festivals and was even at the famous Dylan electric experience which he actually commended. He also became rather fixated on John F. Kennedy and he admired him greatly. After his assasination Ochs fell into a deep depression and told his wife that night that he thought he was going to die.
It is safe to conclude that Ochs was a wise man and his music and incredible feeling was beyond his time, and even our time. His music defined him and like for many others before and after him, it became a necessary catharsis. Let’s take a look at some of his music. The song I want to focus on displays Ochs’ incredible skill. It appears on his fourth studio album, Pleasures of the Harbor, and it will forever remain as the awe-inspiring last track. Here is a little taste from “The Crucifixion”
“Time takes her toll and the memory fades
but his glory is broken, in the magic that he made.
Reality is ruined; it’s the freeing from the fear
The drama is distorted, to what they want to hear
Swimming in their sorrow, in the twisting of a tear
As they wait for a new thrill parade.
The eyes of the rebel have been branded by the blind
To the safety of sterility, the threat has been refined
The child was created to the slaughterhouse he’s led
So good to be alive when the eulogy is read
The climax of emotion, the worship of the dead
And the cycle of sacrifice unwinds.
So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true
Come dance dance dance
‘Cause we love you
And the night comes again to the circle studded sky
The stars settle slowly, in lonliness they lie
‘Till the universe explodes as a falling star is raised
Planets are paralyzed, mountains are amazed
But they all glow brighter from the briliance of the blaze
With the speed of insanity, then he died.”
Let that sink in. It is about John F. Kennedy’s death, by the way. Well, the death of any hero for that matter. The allusion to Chris is clear. “A falling star is raised,” with brilliance and speed and the title. Yet, what makes this song so awesome is Ochs’ sheer rawness. While he may have believed that the eight minute recording was a failure it did wonders in representing the meaning in the song. The song brought Robert Kennedy to tears when Ochs performed it for him a cappella. Check out the song with a cool video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sd8sirz99zo