Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Phil Ochs Documentary and Thoughts on "Crucifixion"

Opening at New York's IFC on January 5th will be Kenneth Bowser's new documentary on Phil Ochs.

After a fairly serious obsession with his music while I was in high school, I've fallen away from listening to Ochs. (And I've also stopped scribbling "Phil Ochs Lives" on desks...) But just the description of the documentary made me want to delve back into his repertoire.
Bowser ... began thinking about making a film about Mr. Ochs some 20 years ago. In his vision, the documentary would show how Mr. Ochs had been wrongfully “written out of the history books,” unfair treatment for a man whom Mr. Bowser considers the best protest singer who ever lived — and the most relevant recording artist of the 1960s. A mention of Bob Dylan, whose protest songs disappeared early in his career as he turned his gifts to the surrealistically personal, is an easy way to inflame Mr. Bowser.
Now, I have been thinking a lot about Dylan recently. (In Phil's own words: "'Ochs, wake up, this is God here. Over.' I said, 'You're putting me on, of course, Dylan.'") And you know -- perhaps you need to prepare yourself -- I'm not sure that I would single out any Dylan song as being in the category of serious poetry the way that I would "Crucifixion." Dylan is poetic, but it's so often a poetry of wryness -- a comic poetry -- and then sometimes a poetry of spite (as in "Idiot Wind," for instance). And those things are powerful and meaningful and great art. But "Crucifixion" -- as poetry -- is a lyric that can stand side-by-side with Tennyson, Coleridge, Rimbaud and Whitman, I think: it uses its powerful imagery and internal rhymes in the interest of gravitas. And as much as I love "Stuck inside of Mobile" and could see it being included on a high school English syllabus, I feel less like it needs to be there.
And the night comes again to the circle-studded sky.
The stars settle slowly, in loneliness they lie.
'Til the universe explodes as a falling star is raised --
The planets are paralyzed; the mountains are amazed,
But they all glow brighter from the brilliance of the blaze
With the speed of insanity, then he dies.

In the green fields a-turnin', a baby is born.
His cries crease the wind and mingle with the morn:
An assault upon the order, the changing of the guard,
Chosen for a challenge that is hopelessly hard,
And the only single sound is the sighing of the stars,
But to the silence of distance, they are sworn.
Ochs wrote the song for John F. Kennedy -- and reduced Robert F. Kennedy to tears with it shortly before his own assassination -- and it describes the birth of a leader heralding a new age who at first "stands on the sea and shouts to the shore, / But the louder that he screams the longer he's ignored." And then "his message gathers meaning and it spreads accross the land / The rewarding of his pain is the following of the man." And we know how this drama ends, but Ochs -- perhaps like Dylan in "Who Killed Davey Moore?" -- points out the complicity of our culture in it all:
The child was created to the slaughterhouse he's led
So good to be alive when the eulogies are read
The climax of emotion, the worship of the dead
And the cycle of sacrifice unwinds.
It's brilliant stuff with lyrics that allow for rediscovery and new discovery each time through, and it's powerfully sung, too.

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