Phil Ochs, it seems, wrote his own epitaph in “Chords of Fame”: God help the troubadour who tries to be a star. That’s captured, along with 18 other songs, on Live Again, a new concert release from Rock Beat Records. Recorded in the spring of 1973, the album shows that even in the fall of his career, Ochs’ was a voice to be reckoned with.
Kicking off with his setting of Poe’s poem “The Bells,” the songs are evenly distributed over Ochs’ oeuvre. There are powerful protest songs like “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” nostalgic love ballads like “Changes” and poetic word-paintings like “Pleasures of the Harbor.” Ochs is in great spirits throughout, bantering with the audience and providing powerful renditions of his rich and resonant songs. Live Again sounds like an acoustic greatest-hits package and is both compulsory listening for existing fans and an excellent invitation to new audiences.
“Ballad of the Carpenter,” the final track on the album, was taken from a later performance captured in March 1974. It shows how much Ochs’ voice had deteriorated by then. That was caused partly by an incident in the fall of 1973: On a beach in Africa, Ochs was attacked by three men, who nearly strangled and killed him, wrangling his vocal chords and destroying his upper register. Ochs was convinced that this attack was the work of the CIA, who had long taken an interest in him.
Ochs’ explanation may have been motivated in part by paranoia. Yet, listening to the 1973 performance of “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon” captured on Live Again, it’s easy to imagine why some people in power would have wished to silence this voice. A savage and eloquent attack at Nixon’s government, it’s a rewrite of his earlier anthem “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” In a vigorous display of outrage and anger, Ochs comes at Nixon from all directions, concluding with a vitriolic knockout blow:
Here’s to the government of Richard Nixon:
In the swamp of their bureaucracy they’re always bogging down,
And criminals are posing as the majors of the towns,
And they hope that no one sees the sights and no one hears the sounds,
And the speeches of the Spiro are the ravings of a clown.
Whatever the cause of Phil Ochs’ subsequent demise, Live Again is an important document of an American artist in the autumn of his days, sharpening his weapons for a final attack on injustice, a final stand for liberty, honesty and beauty — the values that he always championed so passionately.
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