It was gasoline.
It was before the show and we were backstage and his B-string
wouldn't tune how he wanted, so he reached into his pocket
for a handkerchief and dipped a corner of it into a little jar
he kept in his guitar case. He wiped the moistened cloth
along the entire length of the B-string, then retuned. It seemed
to do the trick because when he was done, he looked up
at the man in charge of the proceedings and said, "I'm ready
...whenever you want me."
We went out to our reserved seats, right in the front rows.
I was one of six people who'd come over to Vancouver that
day in 1968 to hear Phil play, all guests of a University of
Victoria professor. I'd just turned sixteen, but had already
been invited into this circle of writers based on some poems
I'd submitted to a high school contest.
Phil came out with just his guitar and stood by the two mics.
The stage was bare except for him and the mic stands. There
was a single spotlight lighting up his face and sending a
thirty-foot long silhouette behind him. His hair hung
across his eyes a little when he leaned forward and looked
like it could use a shampoo.
Phil sang a quiet song first, then spoke a little. He said he'd
moved to Los Angeles and, since Chicago - since Daley's militia
had beaten and clubbed the young people in Lincoln Park -
he hadn't been singing much and might forget the words to
some of his songs. He stuttered a bit when he talked, and it
was hard sometimes to decipher what he said. Maybe he was
nervous, I couldn't tell. He seemed intense, and vulnerable.
Speaking of Chicago, he said, "It was exhilarating at the time,
but very sad after, sad because something extraordinary
died there... which was America."
After the concert in Vancouver we went to the house of a
couple who lived near the venue, a welcome gathering for Phil.
The poet, Allen Ginsberg, was there; he'd joined Phil onstage
to play bells on a piece called The Bells. People were passing
a guitar around, singing. I had gone to the kitchen to get another
glass of juice when Phil came into the room to get a beer from
the fridge. I told him how much I had liked the concert, and
asked if he'd been writing any new songs. He thanked me and
said, "I don't know if there are any more songs to write." He
chuckled, sheepishly, then asked if I was a songwriter. I told
him I'd written a couple things. "Maybe you'll write the ones
I can't anymore," he said, jokingly I thought, and walked back
toward the living room.
I read his biography long after he died in April of 1976. It was
called Death Of A Rebel. I loaned it to someone and never got it
back, but a friend recently sent me her copy and I read Marc
Eliot's book again. It is a fine biography, tells his story well,
from Phil's birth in El Paso to his days alongside Dylan as one
of the protest poets of the early sixties, to his reincarnation as
John Train, to his death by hanging in Far Rockaway, New York.
Phil was only thirty-five.
As pointed as some of his songs were, I always thought that
Phil Ochs was as patriotic an American as there was. So I was
a little disturbed to learn that the FBI had over 400 pages in
their file on him. One of his last songs, The Power And The Glory,
was intended as an alternative to the Star Spangled Banner...
Come and take a walk with me thru this green and growing land
Walk thru the meadows and the mountains and the sand
Walk thru the valleys and the rivers and the plains
Walk thru the sun and walk thru the rain
Here is a land full of power and glory
Beauty that words cannot recall
Her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom
Her glory shall rest on us all
That concert in 1968 was part of my education in how a man's
songs are his signature. It is how he gives and keeps his word.
Dylan changed everything, but I recall the strange difference
between him and Ochs in 1968. Dylan was doing Nashville Skyline
then, having dropped topical songs and begun to croon like
a country singer. Phil had stayed true to his passions and the
various campaigns for social justice and an end to the war.
Ochs had thrown his support behind Robert Kennedy's run
for the presidency, and while that June night at the Ambassador
Hotel in Los Angeles wounded something in almost everybody,
it wounded Phil Ochs more deeply than most. It's as if from that
day onward, with the exception of a few nights when he felt an
audience embrace his songs, Phil Ochs no longer believed in
America or the power of a song.
I saw Phil Ochs again in 1970. Solo as usual, he led off a show
at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver on a bill with James Taylor,
Carole King and Joni Mitchell. It was a comeback of sorts for
Phil. He'd lost most of his voice and range due to a mugging,
but triumphed that night on sheer determination. While James,
Carole and Joni all sounded melodic and languid and sang
beautiful songs, Phil was vitriolic, patriotic and fierce. He held
nothing back, his feelings so nakedly expressed that we all
took him to heart. He invited us to stand and sing with him,
as though our voices might add a salve to the open wound of
his own. Phil received the loudest ovation of the show, quite
a feat considering the artists following him all had albums on
the charts. Phil was one of us that night, and we loved him.
Though I worked my way through the crowd to where I could
see and read his face, I couldn't get close enough to the stage to
tell whether or not Phil Ochs smelled of gasoline. I'd like to
believe that he did.
Doug Lang is a songwriter from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. His Better Days radio show chronicles folk and roots music, old and new. He now lives in Vancouver.