PHIL OCHS (December 19, 1940 – April 9, 1976)- My memories of the Greenwich Village folk music scene- in the way of old memories – have gotten crystalized into a few visuals, a few songs. Sometimes this gets jostled and prodded. That happened for me this spring with the Phil Ochs documentary, “There But For Fortune”.
Matt Cheney on his Mumpsimus blog writes about this:
I remember hearing Ochs perform at (I think) The Bitter End - even own a “Best Of” CD. And I have a personal memory or two. The voice wasn’t great but it reflected an absolutely sincerity. And he was a compelling stage presence – a good looking kid. Chosing shots from Google I found myself ruling out the ones that just looked too handsome.
For good or ill the visionary troubaduor was a large part of the ’60′s dream. Dylan gets remembered. But circa 1965 when I began hanging around, Bob Dylan had just begun to break out of the pack – and few in Greenwich Village had a good word for him. A singer/composer like Ochs, committed and political was a lot closer to the Greenwich Village ideal.
Ideological disillusion, artistic disappointment, drugs, alcohol and (my guess) the onset of mental illness combined to destroy him.
That first time I saw him play – just him with guitar in a not very large space he did political songs but also his own setting of Alfred Noyes highly romantic tragedy “The Highwayman” and I was impressed.
Seven or eight years later, maybe a bit more, I was walking down Sixth Avenue in a Manhattan with a lot less neon than it has now. At the corner of Fourteenth Street was a bank of public phones. A man, unshaven, disconected, talking to himself, was picking up the receivers, listening to each, hanging up, going on to the next one. The guy I was with said, “Jesus, that’s Ochs”.
When I heard about his suicide a few years later it was the Highwayman, romantic,doomed, riding to his death that I wanted to hear.
ochs – power and glory
a small circle of friends
Tim Hardin:December 23, 1941 – December 29, 1980)
With his long, brooding, ex-marine face and that sweet, haunting, slightly cracked voice, Hardin has always been part of my internal repetoire.
But I had forgotten how central he was back in the ’60′s. Then I found Patti Smith in her bio/ autobio of life with Robert Mapplethorpe and her path to rock stardom, citing Hardin more than once and his “Black Sheep Boy” in particular.
And, yes, that song in was one that ran through so many of our heads in the back seat of the car, on the bus, the plane, the train, hauling our troublesome attitudes and bad habits towards home and an uncertain welcome.
With Hardin I find myself wanting to show black and white photos – an old fashioned grit look. But Hardin had a dozen reincarnations and relaunchings. I heard him play in a small club on MacDougal Street – just him on guitar and Jeremy Steig the jazz flutist.
That scene, that scale seemed perfect. Hardin’s image of an artist whose sensitivity threatened to overturn him at any moment reminded me of Lady Day. Like her (and eventually me) he was a junkie. Hardin got into heroin early on (legendarily in Vietnam in 1959 while in what would have been semi-covert operations with the marines) and never got free. A lot of his career consisted of trying to support a raging junk habit.
If Ochs was the disillusioned idealist Hardin was the maltreated artist. He felt himself badly used by record companies and probably was. The violin backup on that first album is ridiculous. But he was also widely recorded. His “Reason to Believe” and “If I Were a Carpenter” became standards. He was recognized and appreciated but he never had a hit recording singing his own music.
The search for a drug have caused him to move to London and back to the U.S. It never worked for long. I know quite well that the main thing that seperates those of us who kick and those who don’t is luck plain and simple.
His catalog is small At some point his ability to write songs as good as the early ones dried up. He died at 39 which seems very young to me now. The most meaningful song of his late career was his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” with its line about trying in his way to be free. Perhaps it summed up his life in ways he no longer could.
black sheep boy – Joe Strummer intro
reason to believe
if I were a carpenter
the lady came from baltimore (live and without strings)
like a bird on a wire – hardin covers cohen
Fred Neil (March 16, 1936 – July 7, 2001)
Fred Neil did not die young with his ideals crushed or grapple with an unsupportable drug habit. In 1965 he was big on the folk scene and with good reason. He could write and I will testify that he could perform. His voice was deep and true. His stage presence was powerful. Songs like “The Other Side of this Life” and “Blues on the Ceiling” got picked up by other singers.
His 1965 album “Bleecker and MacDougal” gives about as clear an idea of what the scene felt and sounded like as is possible.
The 1966 album “Fred Neil” contains some great material including two songs “Everybody’s Talking” which was covered by Nilsson and used in the movie “Midnight Cowboy” in 1970. The song won a Grammy and became a gigantic hit (one used to hear it in elevators). “The Dolphins” didn’t achieve anything as grand but it became a solid standard recorded by Tim Buckley, Kenny Rankin and others.
As I recall Neil was around for a while after that but seemingly not producing new songs. By the early ’70′s he had mostly retired from the music business and devoted his time and attention to the protection of dolphins. When he died in 2001 it was kind of a shock that he was still alive. He seemed a figure of a prior time.
I wonder with Neil as with Ochs and Hardin if their song writing ability was a kind of lyric outpouring which did not survive very far into their maturity. I’m reminded of Rimbaud who between a dreary childhood and a hard and unimaginative maturity had a brief, amazing burst in which he wrote and loved to the hilt.
And I wonder if Dylan never felt that flash of genius and instead worked doggedly, constantly found new sources of inspiration and went on to have a career that flourishes still.
Here’s young Fred 45 years ago standing in front of the building in which I now live. His album “Bleecker and MacDougal” was one of the things that made me move to this spot a couple of months before his death. His talent, while he had it, was very real. And the voice for me is unforgetable.
everybody’s talking at me.
other side of this life
blues on the ceiling