Sunday, March 01, 2009

"And the Gargoyles Only Sit and Grieve:" Phil Ochs in Chicago

Evan, of Two Dishes, But to One Table, wrote a fascinating post on the folksinger Phil Ochs, who died by his own hand in 1976. He makes this interesting point: "Ochs had a lesser-known rival zoom past him, aping his style a bit, I think. Sitting here today in a coffee shop on 34th Street, I heard "American Pie" for the millionth royalty-generating time in my life and realized that Don McLean's voice (his voice itself!) and song both derive from Ochs just as much as, say, Sum 41 derives from Green Day nowadays. " (I'll have to take his comparison on faith. I've listened to a number of Green Day songs, but I've never heard of Sum 41.) Initially I was going to disagree with him, but then realized that even McLean's best song, "Vincent," has imagery reminiscent of Ochs (though far less so than "American Pie").

I've been thinking a lot about Ochs recently, because of the novel I'm writing, or trying to write, much of which takes place in Chicago during the week of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Ochs sang at the "LBJ Un-Birthday Party at the Chicago Coliseum August 27. Following is an excerpt of the first draft (and I emphasize first draft) of the novel. The narrator, Timothy Rymer, is a youth correspondent for the Indianapolis Times (which folded in 1965, except in the world of this novel). He faces a personal test in the next few days. Failure would cause some horrific consequences, and there are some powerful people who are trying to make sure he fails. His true love, Helena McKechnie, whose mother was a Parsi and is descended from Magi, has a calling to the Episcopal priesthood at a time when it was male-only. Their friends, Liane Thorvaldsen and Gregory Berberian, are journeyman metaphysicians and are something of guardian angels to Tim and Helena. (The story morphed into magical realism. Gregory once [earlier in the novel, in 2005--there's spiritual time travel involved] reminded Timothy of the fact that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was first published in Britain as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. There was once little difference, he explained, between philosophers and sorcerers.)

One difference between the story and the video above is that the frenzy of card-burning takes place during the song, "The War is Over" rather than "I Ain't Marching Anymore." There were conflicting accounts of the concert, and I chose the wrong one. It will be fixed in the next draft.

Excerpt from Things Done and Left Undone by Stephen Crews Wylder:

At around six-thirty that evening we squeezed into the VW and headed south, toward the Chicago Coliseum on Wabash Avenue. There was a huge crowd at Lincoln Park. Helena slowed, and pulled into the lot off Clark We couldn’t see Bobby Seale, but we could hear him.

“If a pig comes up to us and starts swinging a billy club, and you check around and you got your piece--you gotta down that pig in defense of yourself… If a pig comes up and starts swinging a club, then put it over his head and lay him out on the ground.”

We listened for a while longer while I took notes.

“I pray that no one dies tonight,” said Helena. “Have you enough notes, Timothy?”

I said yes, and we turned east to get to Lake Shore Drive, then south to to Michigan Avenue. At Adams we turned right, then left on Wabash. Once south of the Loop, Helena found a parking place and we walked the few blocks to the Coliseum. The place was nearly seventy years old and showed its age.

I had done some research on it, and had learned of its bizarre history. The guy who built it had the Confederate Libby Prison in Richmond dismantled and shipped to Chicago, and then rebuilt it, stone by stone. It was a tourist attraction for a while, but it didn’t pay, so he used some of the prison stones to build the Coliseum, a nineteenth-century castle with turrets and parapets surrounding a hall that could hold 6000. Theodore Roosevelt had accepted the Progressive Party’s nomination for president at the Coliseum in 1912. The three-way election that followed put Woodrow Wilson in the White House. Later it had been home to the Chicago Zephyrs basketball franchise and the National Hockey League’s Blackhawks. Tonight was probably the Coliseum’s last hurrah.

We paid a dollar and a half each at the box office and walked into the cavernous space. A band called “Home Juice,” named for a Chicago company whose trucks delivered fruit juice to people’s homes, was trying to see how many decibels these old walls could stand.

As the din of Home Juice subsided, I saw Allen Ginsberg sitting on the edge of the stage, doing a yoga exercise. Ed Sanders of the Fugs, the master of ceremonies, introduced the writer Jean Genet, a short balding man, who addressed the crowd in his heavy French accent, saying he that while he loved the Yippies, the ones he really loved were the ones who dressed unconventionally--the Chicago cops. The crowd loved him.

Allen Ginsberg had lost his voice the previous night, so he continued to do yoga on the stage while Sanders read his statement on the power of Om.

“I bring you greetings from Norman Mailer,” said David Dellinger. Applause and cheers echoed through the hall. He went on to give a fine antiwar speech, though some of the speeches that followed were less than rational.

Phil Ochs came onstage to deafening applause, and went into “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore.” It was an electrifying performance. He followed it up with “ The Power and Glory, perhaps his best song, and one that puts the lie to those who say we don‘t love our country:

This is a land full of power and glory
Beauty that words cannot recall
Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom
Her story shall rest on us all

We were wiping the tears from our eyes when he began “The War is Over,” with its last lines, so fitting in this nineteenth-century castle:

And the gargoyles only sit and grieve
The gypsy fortune teller told me that we'd been deceived
You only are what you believe.
I believe the war is over It's over, it's over

The hall erupted with cheers and applause. People had their hands in the air, giving the “V” sign for peace. Some were burning money, draft cards, or whatever they had on hand to burn. All four of us were caught up in the excitement, though none of us burned anything. It’s easy to be seduced by the crowd, especially when you‘re in harmony with it. But I‘ve always been uneasy about crowd situations, and I felt myself holding back just a little.

And then came Abbie Hoffman, screaming and ranting about a march to the Amphitheatre. The crowd had lost control. Most would have followed him, had he decided to march then and there. But he left the stage, and Paul Krassner followed.

He told a story of a journalist who had interviewed Lyndon Johnson. After the official interview was over, the president said, “You know, what the Communists are really saying is, 'Fuck you, Lyndon Johnson,' and nobody says 'Fuck you, Lyndon Johnson,' and gets away with it!" He paused. "Well, when I count three, we're all gonna say it -- and we're gonna get away with it! Are you ready? One...two...three..."

“Fuck you, Lyndon Johnson” roared the crowd, though with at least four exceptions.

“That’s the last thing I want to do,” said Liane, causing a few titters around us. Helena put her arm around me and whispered her thanks for not joining in.

“I hope this program does not go out with that,” she said.It didn’t. It was Dick Gregory, the black comedian, who told a few of his jokes and then began reading:

“When in the course of human events,” he started, and the audience became quiet. The crowd cheered when he got to “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It was Dick Gregory’s delivery that reminded us of that this was a revolutionary document. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” Gregory continued.

But the climax of his reading came with the next sentence: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The yells, cheers, and whoops reverberated through the old building, as the crowd gave Home Juice a run for its money. As the cheers finally subsided, people began heading for the exits. We followed them out the exit and into the cool Chicago night.

I saw the hand raised first, then the knife, and finally the painted face of the Yippie who wielded it. Greg, his target, reacted first, deflecting the knife, but cutting himself in the process. I made a lunge for his right arm, while Helena grabbed his left. The man was incredibly strong, and the three of us were barely able to prevent another thrust.

And then the man went limp. His eyes glazed over as he collapsed on us.

“Let him down slowly,” said Greg. “This wasn’t his idea.”

I looked around and saw Liane, staring intently toward the other side of Wabash. Greg’s arm was cut. Someone gave him a clean handkerchief to stop the bleeding.

"Don’t call the cops,” Greg said to the onlookers. This guy’s just hopped up on meth. I’m O.K.”

To me, he said, “It’s Liane who’s fought the hardest. Make sure she doesn’t fall.”

Helena and I went to her. She was still staring, but wavering. We both steadied her while Greg got up slowly and began staring in the same direction as Liane. We looked in the direction of their gaze and saw a man in a suit and tie staring back. He turned abruptly and disappeared into the crowd.


Lisa said...

Hey, it's you and your dog! Now you just need a picture that's a little bigger so we can see you better :)

Great post! I love the historical background you provide on this and I remember this particular chapter -- I feel like you've done some revision, but I'm not entirely sure what's different. I like it though.

I'm going to have to follow the link to read more about Phil Ochs. I don't know much about him at all and didn't know he killed himself.

Keep up the great work on the story!

Charles Gramlich said...

Of course I know about American Pie, but I had no idea it was influenced by Ochs. Learn something new every day I guess.

steve on the slow train said...

Lisa--Thank you for your kind comments. Your best bet is to check the Wilipedia site for Ochs, then check out some of his songs posted on YouTube. "The War is Over" is on Google Video. It's brilliant, lyrically, but the tune doesn't have the power of, say, "I Ain't Marching Anymore."

Charles--The Ochs influence isn't established, but I agreed with Evan's arguemnt. I don't wknow what McLean would have to say about it.

Elizabeth said...

I was so glad to see you'd posted again and look forward to really reading what you've put up -- I'll be back! And thanks for all the info -- I so enjoy reading your posts, perusing the links, listening to the music.

Elizabeth said...

love it and want to read and know more about this book that you're writing

steve on the slow train said...

Elizabeth--Thank you for your kind and encouraging comments.

Tea N. Crumpet said...

This whole piece has a feel of surrealness to it. i almost feel dizzy reading it.

Everything you post brigs light to an era that I missed, that my young parents dissed. (My mom is now 70-- she just missed it.)

steve on the slow train said...

Tea--There's that old line, "If you remember the Sixties,you weren't really there. Being oppositionally defiant, I never was tempted by drugs, so I do remember the Sixties. Sometime I need to write about the 1969 Special General Convention of the Episcopal Church in South Bend, which seemed to be a microcosm of the late 1960s--the beauty and idealism and the ugliness of power politics.

Lilith des Cavernes said...

Your excerpt is really intriguing. I look forward to more.


Olivia said...

Wow, I cannot imagine being part of a generation that agitated for and witnessed huge social change. It was almost like when the world started to grow up.

However, with the new economical situation, it's entirely possible I am witnessing the beginning of my own generation's evolution, social change, paradigm shift, whatever you want to call it.

But still, there's something about what happened in the 60s that changed everything.

steve on the slow train said...

I think your generation is driving the change that my generation and the so-called "Silent" generation were unable to foster in the Sixties and Seventies.

The social change--civil rights, feminism, gay rights, etc, came out of the Sixties and Seventies in spite of the conservative revolution that began with Nixon and ended with George W. Bush. In hindsight, there was a lot of change, but for the liberal idealists like me, it's been forty years of frustration, at least politically.

steve on the slow train said...

Elaine--Thank you. I'll forward future chapters to you. Right now I'm stuck on the day of the Grant Park police riot.

twoblueday said...

I never liked Phil Ochs's singing, so (and this is just me) his lyrics were of no interest to me. Music is a gestalt sort of thing with me. If the piece doesn't move me, the words don't matter to me.

I never liked Bob Dylan's singing, either, and still don't.

I never comment on fiction writing by friends. Bad practice either way. I will say never quit writing.

Patry Francis said...

"The consumer society needs to die a violent death." It took a few decades, but the words may prove to be prophetic. You've chosen a fascinating, and much misunderstood year to write about.

steve on the slow train said...

Gerry--We all have different tastes in music. But we do share an enthusiasm for the Incredible String Band. I remember that you mentioned you didn't comment on bloggers' fiction. No problem with that. "Never quit writing" is more than enough.

Patry--Thank you. I think it was Abbie Hoffman who said that, while Jerry Rubin eventually turned from Yippie to Yuppie. It seems like there are are pivotal years in history--1776, 1789, 1848, etc. Nineteen sixty-eight was surely one of them. When I go into the second draft, I need to add that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was going on at the same time.