Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Phil Ochs, "There but for Fortune".

Back in 1978, when I was (as I often did in those times) spending an evening at the Bells of Hell, I slipped a quarter into the jukebox and played Dylan's "Positively Fourth Street". The music had barely started when Lee, the pretty Gypsy waitress, confronted me with blazing eyes. "I thought you were a nice guy."

"I try," I said, with a shrug.

"How could you play that song?"

"I know it's a bitter song, but I guess I'm in a bitter mood now."

"That's not the point. Don't you know? That song drove Phil Ochs to suicide."

I expressed my regret, and promised never to play the offending song again, a promise I kept so long as Lee was around. She stayed until a shrewish little woman who drank there for a time ratted her out for getting state benefits that partly covered the cost of her treatments for breast cancer while she worked off the books for a paltry wage plus tips.

I told some friends who had been involved in the Village folkie scene in the 1960s and early '70s about my confrontation with Lee, and they assured me she was mistaken. Dylan and Ochs had been friends to the end; the song was about someone else. I was relieved to be able, when the mood struck me, to wallow in self-pity with "Positively" and not feel guilty.

Phil Ochs was never my favorite folk singer. I liked "There but for Fortune" but I thought his voice was too pretty and precious. I didn't like "Here's to the State of Mississippi," which I thought unfairly ignored the presence of a large number of good people, white as well as black, in that much-maligned state, and perversely supported Ross Barnett and his ilk by making it seem that the whole state was under attack by "outside agitators."

Since I wasn't much of a fan, I didn't closely follow Ochs's career or music in the years leading up to his death. Today I received an e-mail from my friend Michael Simmons in L.A., with a link to his article about Ochs, written in conjunction with the release of Kenneth Bowser's documentary, Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune.

Having read Michael's piece, and seen the trailer for Bowser's movie (which I will certainly see), I now realize Ochs was a much more complex (dare I say "nuanced"?) and interesting character than I'd thought, and I regret (even more than the incident with Lee) not having paid more attention to him. For those in the New York area, the movie premieres tomorrow at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue at West Third Street. Call (212) 924-7771 for times.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Da Bearss let me down.

wikimedia commons
Unfortunately, after taking the field at Lambeau yesterday, the Chicago Bears behaved more like pussycats than the beasts wearing the helmets in the photo above. By losing to the Packers, they kept the Giants out of the playoffs, thereby extinguishing the faint hope that there might be an all-Jersey Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, the Jets, their playoff spot already secured, tore up the Bills, who, because of an injury in last week's Pats game, were missing the sure field generalship of Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Chuck Berry at Newport, 1958

Chuck Berry doing "Sweet Little Sixteen" at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. Unlike the hit record version, this features a clarinet break. Thanks to miglesias64 for the clip, which comes from Bert Stern's documentary film Jazz on a Summer's Day.

I was tempted to write that the enthusiastic reception given Berry at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 contrasts with that given Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when he did a set with electric guitar, organ and bass, as well as drums and piano. Some cursory research, however, convinced me that it is not clear that Dylan was booed for using non-traditional instruments instead of for poor sound quality or the shortness of his set.

Brian Williams tells all you need know about Brooklyn.

I'm arranging to have alerts of flash artisinal markets sent to my mobile phone. Thanks to Brooklyn Heights Blog reader "Monty" for the tip.