Friday, March 4, 2011
Gunfight at Carnegie Hall - Phil Ochs
A&M SP 9010
In anticipation of the new Phil Ochs documentary that opens today, I thought I'd revisit the album of his that is most special to me. I'm not sure how much I really want to see that new doc, he had such a sad and tragic life, but I'm a big fan of his work so I'll see it at some point. This album is special to me, but it is far from his best record. I treasure it because it was so hard to get (released only in Canada) and because it is so revealing of where Ochs was at in 1970 as his commercial music career was basically ending. It is a fascinating document, I wish I could have seen one of these shows. The background behind this show was the catastrophic effect that the assassinations of 1968 and the protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago had on Ochs' psyche. In his between song patter he mentions having died in Chicago which is also reflected in the cover for his earlier album "Rehearsals for Retirement." He apparently came to the conclusion that in order to achieve positive social change, he'd have to give up being a folk singer and embrace becoming a popular artist. As he puts it on the record, the revolution needed in America would only come about if Elvis Presley would become Che Guevara or something like that. Not unlike Dylan before him, Ochs returned to his rock and roll roots which takes the form of lengthy medleys of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley songs. I have no problem with that, I love that music a lot more than I do Pete Seeger or Joan Baez, but unfortunately Ochs isn't nearly as good a singer as Presley or Holly so the medleys are not all that great although the band behind him definitely is cooking as they used to say. He also offers a rocked up version of the Nat King Cole standard "Mona Lisa" and a seemingly straight and perhaps even sincere cover of "Okee from Muskogee" that I find a bit baffling. His own songs sound very nice thanks to the band behind him, I particularly like the piano on "Pleasures of the Harbor" and the guitar on "Tape From California." Overall this is a very entertaining record. Despite being on the brink of a mental abyss, Ochs seems surprisingly earnest and cheerful, he works hard to win over the crowd. Anyone with any political sympathy for Ochs' position ought to be moved by his passion and dedication. I've had a lot of affection for him ever since I first heard a record by him, which unfortunately was long after his suicide. I don't have a lot of use for singing journalists (as Dylan once belittled him) or preachy folk singers, but Ochs good humor and sincerity have always won me over. I like all of his albums, but this one especially touches me. I hope someday someone will put out a legitimate release of the entire concert (this is less than half.) 40 years later he still has something to say. Recommended for left-wing Elvis fans.