Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Phil Ochs in Vancouver: an interview with Steve Rodgman

(Left: Phil Ochs Inspired Agitators poster by David Lester)

Sometimes, if you're lucky, you can pin down the people who turned you on to a certain musician. I don't remember where I heard of some of my favourites - Eugene Chadbourne, for instance; I think I stumbled across a Shockabilly album somewhere (at Ty Scammell's record dealership in the corner of the flea market? Maybe). I know for sure that Matt Rogalsky turned me on to the Holy Modal Rounders, that Creem magazine introduced me to Sonic Youth and the Minutemen, that Henry Rollins, in a famous article in an early issue of Spin, led me to the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, and that a local artist named Ian Cochrane introduced me to Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman and the world of free jazz. All were important moments, where knowledge was passed on that made a big impact on my listening. One less-expected (but no less significant) torch-passing occurred when my high school writing/ English teacher, Steve Rodgman, plugged me into the music of 1960's folk singer and activist Phil Ochs, here in Maple Ridge in 1985. By good fortune, having run into him a few times, I've been able not only to THANK Mr. Rodgman for the influence (it never really feels natural to call your old high school teachers by their first name, you know?), but interview him about his experiences with Ochs and his music.

Note: all of this is apropos of the upcoming screenings of the documentary, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, starting Friday at the Pacific Cinematheque. More on that to come!

Phil Ochs, March 13, 1969 at the Vancouver Gardens Arena
copyright 1969, 2010 by Mark Millman

A: How did you first encounter the music of Phil Ochs?

S: I first heard his music during my second year teaching (1970-1971) via a US-born house mate who had come to Canada a year or so earlier. (Likely a real draft dodger). He had grown up and gone to school near San Francisco, so had a first-hand view of lots of the issues unfolding at the time in the area and in the US. He was a fan and had some Phil Ochs LPs. I became a fan myself right away. I was really struck by the message, delivered so powerfully, but in such a simple way. Just a guitar. And with such a sweet voice that could draw you in so wonderfully. He sang about things that were current (or had been) and in a story-telling way; some of the songs were unbelievable in their topics. He didn't pull any punches. He was bold, had guts, and didn't care if he upset someone with the truth. He really drove home the message. Many of the songs are as relevant today as they were when he first sang them.

As a young teacher, I was idealistic and naive, lacking in awareness and in having a world view. I had lived in Florida as a young child, so had witnessed the racial issue first hand. But after that I lived in Nova Scotia and Vancouver Island -pretty isolated from the stormy social and political issues in themid- 1960's. In high school, even though we saw stuff on TV, theimpact of what was happening in the US/world never really hit home. While at Uvic, various issues started to make their way onto the scene. Sit-ins and demonstrations made their appearance. A few transplanted US profs opened my eyes a little. Jerry Rubin even held a Yippies Rally on campus (yes, in Victoria.) But, by also taking in Phil Ochs music as a young adult, so much was brought to my attention and my awareness was heightened dramatically. All of this was part of my first impression of Ochs and his music.

A: Any stories about seeing Ochs live?

I'm not sure how many times he played in Vancouver. I know that he played at the PNE Gardens in March 1969 and this was made into an LP incorrectly titled
There and Now: Vancouver 1968
[see photo above. Mr. Rodgman is here disabusing me of a poetic fancy I've long held, since I was born in March 1968, the same month that Ochs supposedly played that show - which would seem a nice correlation, were it accurate]. He performed again in October 1970 at the Coliseum as part of a Greenpeace concert with Joni Mitchell and a then unknown James Taylor. This is available now on CD as The Concert for Amchitka. I did not see these shows. Ironically, I was introduced to Phil Ochs along the way later that same year 1970-71.

When he performed again here in 1973, I didn't miss it. I was fortunate to see him live at The Egress, a club now long gone, on Beatty St. in August, 1973. (No radio advertising for Phil Ochs at the time, but thankfully it was highlighted in the Georgia Straight). From what I can remember, he was everything I had hoped for. Made some great intros to his songs with comments in between. Funny at times. Good sense of humour. Sang fantastically. Every song got a huge reaction. No gold lame - just a sports jacket and shirt. Regular haircut. Just the way he looks on some of his album covers and in many of the posts on Youtube. His voice was terrific. I know he suffered vocal chord damage after an attack in Africa, also in 1973, but this happened later that fall. I also saw no indication of any drinking problem which developed.

A: Did you have reactions to his suicide?

S: I don't remember hearing about his suicide at the time. Not sure why. Likely not front page material. I had continued to pick up an LP here and there, if I came across one, but with no internet to keep track of tours and no local performances, Phil drifted off my radar. (Except for using his songs at times in my English classes.) When I did learn about it, I was shocked and saddened - as with the death of anyone you admire and whose "company" you have enjoyed. I knew that a gift had been lost. A real tragedy. Only 35 years old. Since that time, I've continued to learn about him and, of course, see him perform through the benefit of the internet.

My interest in him was rekindled in a major way in 1988. I saw a one-man play The Ballad of Phil Ochs written by Ross Desperez (and performed by him) at the Cultural Centre as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival. I couldn't believe it. It was fantastic. Spoke with him backstage after. (I have not done this, but it would be interesting to contact him and see if The Ballad... might ever be resurrected. He is now in the Theatre Department of Vancouver Island University - formerly Malaspina College.)

On the anniversary of Ochs' death in April, 1996, I happened to listen to an outstanding in-depth CBC radio program covering his life and music. At the same time, the Vancouver Sun published an article reviewing his life. In October 2004, Sonny Ochs brought A Celebration of the Music of Phil Ochs to Cap College. She recruited Zach Stevenson (of Buddy Holly fame) to perform. (He had played in The Ballad... in Ottawa and occasionally did a Phil Ochs tribute). All of this has helped me keep my thread of interest in Phil Ochs. When I realized a movie was being planned, this got me paying attention to him again even more over the last year or so.
A: Any thoughts on Ochs vs. Dylan?

S: Ochs or Dylan? Well, I like them both, Tough to choose. Have seen Dylan a few times. Some similar messages. Ochs never got the airplay or notoriety that he deserved. If he had become a household name....? Maybe Ochs has a more journalistic approach in his message? Both have unique voices, but I think Ochs' is actually better. Several of Ochs' songs have been covered by others (not as many as Dylan's.)

It's unfortunate that Ochs got labelled a 'protest singer' early along. Yes, he spoke out about various social and political issues with a sense of protest, but he was far more. He was much more than"I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" and "Draft Dodger Rag". Many of his songs are haunting, melancholy , beautiful and timeless. "Pleasures of the Harbor" is brilliant. Although maybe there is a touch of 'protest' in some of the songs, it is a long way from his early work. Dylan has released 17 studio albums (not counting compilations) since 1976. No #1 singles. Where might Ochs have been? Arlo Guthrie isn't mainstream, but he still has a big following. He has written many fine songs over the years, and still tours regularly. Witness Amy Winehouse right now. It can be said of all the (possible) greats that have died young. It's a "what if....?" But, had Ochs not died, and maybe re-crafted or re-invented himself a little, who knows where his music and writing might have gone. He was only 35.

If it means anything, I listen to Ochs a bit more often now than I do Dylan. I've checked out a lot more postings for Phil Ochs than I have for Dylan. I also admire Ochs for the risks he took. Check out a post of his singing "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon" at the University of Michigan. Would Dylan have done this? Food for thought: "Power and the Glory" would have been a huge hit for Johnny Cash, if he had recorded it. Just my opinion. [Note: that link is to a live clip from after Ochs suffered damage to his vocal cords in Africa; his voice is a little deeper, lacking his previous range].

A: As I have first hand experience of, you've used some of Ochs' songs in your teaching. I'm curious if that ever generated controversy - for example, I remember hearing "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends" in your class, with the line about how "smokin' marijuana is more fun than drinking beer." I can't imagine a lot of high school teachers risking that now.

S: I used quite a few of his songs in class, but tended to use ones that fit into a particular theme or had certain poetic value. For example, "Changes" and "There But For Fortune" and "When I'm Gone" have a timeless/universal message about the human condition and are great poetry in themselves. So are "Cross My Heart" and "Flower Lady." Despite the one line (it never caused any problems), "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends" still has a powerful message. It actually got mainstream pop radio airplay for a few months when it was first released. "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" , "Draft Dodger Rag" and 'The War is Over" all fit into a 'Poetry of War' discussion and make for great comparison against poems from a great war poet such as Wilfred Owen. One song that continued to amaze students year-after-year, even very recently with their awareness of Iraq and Afghanistan, is "Is There Anybody Here?" What a song.

In listening to Phil Ochs more recently, I'm surprised a little at how many of his songs I did use. Aside from those mentioned, there were many others, including "The Highwayman" ,"One More Parade", " I'm Going To Say It Now", "No More Songs", "Pleasures of the Harbor", and "Crucifixion." I always found students quite open-minded and willing to listen. Especially if you made the effort to explain and place the song in the context of the time. Like any work of art. There was never any controversy about using his music. At least for me. Phil's songs strike a chord even today.

Showtimes for Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, opening this Friday at the Pacific Cinematheque (1131 Howe Street).

Postscript from Steve Rodgman:
Hi Allan, Just came across these...

1. On Sonny Ochs homepage: a posting of a complete video of the PhilOchs Song Night last October.

2. Check out: Zachary Stevenson sings Phil Ochs "(I Ain't MarchingAnymore") This is new. [says he was asked to put up a post.] As mentioned, the fellow (also played Buddy Holly), who has done aPhil Ochs tribute. Uncanny.

- Steve

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