Lowell April 9: Dylan, Kerouac, and Phil Ochs


On April 9, 1976, Phil Ochs killed himself in Queens.  On April 9, 2013, Bob Dylan is in Lowell, perhaps putzing around at Jack Kerouac’s grave. Lowell is a shitty little town that puts on the best international folk festival in the United States Ochs was already gone long before there was a folk festival in Lowell, and Dylan is not known for performing on stages that do not require an admission fee, but he will be playing tonight at the Tsongas Center at UMass, one of the venues that will come alive this summer during the festival.  He is playing at least a dozen college halls this month.  I don’t think he is offering any student discounts, though. I saw Phil Ochs in 1972 at the University of Washington’s Kane Hall when he was cheerleading for the George McGovern presidential campaign. It was free, and Ochs was exhausted and marvelous. Apologizing for arriving a couple hours after his scheduled time, he launched into several songs and mourned an America that would re-elect Richard Nixon.

When McGovern died on October 21 of last year, Dylan was traveling through California, between shows in Santa Barbara, where he had played Chimes of Freedom and Mississippi, and San Diego, where he opened with a double negative, You Ain’t Going Nowhere and it Ain’t me Babe. Me, I was two days east out of Seattle,

Chicago’s Union Station was in chaos, as a train had derailed somewhere in Michigan, leaving hundreds of passengers without means to get home.  Buses were sent out from every corner of the country to come deliver stranded passengers to points that had access to their destinations.  It lasted all day, and I was there all day to see it.  I didn’t much feel like paying 15 dollars to store my suitcases in order to walk around Chicago, so I spent my six hours among the panicking travelers with a dead train barring their way home. Some of them wound up on my train, which crowded things so much that we were assigned specific seats and nobody got two seats apiece.  I watched Oasis and fell nearly immediately to sleep, but had seen the picture so many times that I never lost track of where I was in the story no matter how much  I dozed. I know I was dozing because the guy in the seat next to me, an Australian policeman who was taking four months of Vacation to travel through Europe and North America, let me know I had been dozing. The Australian was named Cal, and was a pleasant companion, as he had much of his own business to do (watching a BBC documentary on birds, reading a book on the true story of Bonnie and Clyde) so there was a bit of talk in the lulls but no irritating and boring distraction as might have resulted from a more talkative traveler.  After I watched Poor Little Rich Girl, he asked me the name of the Hepburn movie I had been watching, and I proceeded to pontificate on Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol until I realized he could care less about either of them.


Jack Kerouac is worshipped by the Boston poets, but I never thought he was much of a writer.  The book that made his name isn’t much more than a diary of a guy driving across a country about which he had little to say.  I thought when I crossed the country by rail that I would be writing the whole time, looking at the country I was leaving as it passed by and listening to the stories of all the people that lived in all the towns.  But when I got off the train in Florida to catch the ship to Peru, I discovered that I had even less to say than Kerouac. 


The guy who really had some things to say about this country was Phil Ochs. He wrote “Power and the Glory” and wasn’t even invited to play at the January 1968 Woody Guthrie Tribute at Carnegie Hall. Dylan and the Band were there, as were Judy Collins, Richie Havens, Odetta, and Tom Paxton, but the guy who was Woody’s true heir was snubbed. And despite the almost ridiculous adoration Dylan has enjoyed throughout most of his career, I think that Ochs will outlast him. I believe that the generations of Americans to come will revere the songs of Phil Ochs, while most of what Dylan has’ written will have little meaning to the coming generations. Ochs never wrote anything as transcendent  as “Sad Eyed lady of the Lowlands,” but Dylan has never written anything as historically profound as “When In Rome,” as heartbreaking as “Pleasures of the Harbor,” as revolutionary as “The War is Over,” as honest as “Rehearsals for Retirement,” or as politically well-aimed as “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.”  In their early days, of course, Ochs could not compare to Dylan.  Just listen to their respective songs about Davey Moore and it is obvious that Ochs was only a second rate journalist while Dylan was profoundly a second-rate poet. But when both stopped finding their inspiration in newspaper headlines, Ochs moved into the universal with songs like “There But for Fortune” and “Changes,” while Dylan opted for simpleminded pop-song formulas such as “All I Really Want to Do” and “It Ain’t me Babe.” The folk audience didn’t turn against Dylan because he started to play an electric guitar, but because he was writing obscurely personal songs in a Tin Pan Alley mode instead of standing up to the world outside his own petty emotions. I can’t imagine that many people will be whistling “If You gotta go, go now” ” or “Baby Stop Crying’ fifty years hence, but I can picture the students of the future rallying behind songs like “Is There Anybody here,” “I’m Going to Say it Now,” and “The Floods of Florence.”


Don’t get me wrong.  Dylan has been the guiding light of popular song for half a century.  And many of his songs will find a lasting place in the American Songbook alongside those of Stephen Foster and Woody Guthrie.  But I don’t think people are going to love him the way we have loved him.  Or the way the Chileans still love Victor Jara. Or Argentina still loves Facundo Cabral.  Or France Edith Piaf. This is, I believe, how Phil Ochs will be loved by the children of the future.  Those who discover him and see in him their better selves.  Nobody gave two shits about Ochs when he was alive. We could sure use him now. Where is the troubadour to tell the kids that they don’t have to march anymore?  Do they even know that resistance against that which is contrary to their best interests is possible? Ochs was the man who broke the ranks of blind obedience.  What good did Dylan ever do anybody?

For one thing, Dylan is so specific to the times in which he lives that all we are is to some degree reflected in his art. He swallows us whole and when we escape his whale-like influence, we find ourselves in a new shape.  And I’m not just talking about those people who discovered him in the sixties.  In fact, I believe that “Tangled Up In Blue” had far more relevance to the nomadic branches of Generation X than “Like a Rolling Stone” ever had to the baby boomers. It doesn’t matter who you are or who he is when you meet him.  You will be changed by the encounter. You will see yourself in a new light, even though that light does not directly emanate from the artist himself, but from all of the things that have swallowed up and changed him. But when he is gone, when time tramples the last of us who remember him, what then will his legacy be? 

Dylan’s song about Lenny Bruce is so phony when compared to Tim Hardin’s eulogy and even odder and superficial when you compare it to Ochs’ song for James Dean, which is about the singer as much as the person being sung about, as it should be and usually is when a character replaces a narrator.  Who is this song really about?  The gospel songs are less about Jesus than Dylan playing Jesus.  And the Dylan Jesus is more a vengeful Jehovah than a forgiving Christ. Just as Saul who calls himself Paul invented a Salvation Jesus that fit his needs more than the carpenter who was smarter than the rabbis. Ochs’ Jesus is born as Ewan Macoll’s working man and dies in the celestial bullring of the Kennedy curse. He never sees himself as the martyred one, as he despises the very idea of martyrs. His idea of paradise is a place where there is no need for martyrs. 

They say that Ochs fell into his suicidal depression because the words had stopped coming, but I tend to think that his despondency was due to his being alone after the parade of protest had ended.  The movement for social change fell apart as the Vietnam War came to an end, and he found himself in a country that had no cause and no need of singers to keep the campfires burning.  It was a dead society that re-elected Richard Nixon and watched with dead, causeless eyes as the president’s house in Chili was bombed and Victor Jara tortured and murdered in the stadium that now bears his name.