"Ah but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty." Phil Ochs, who wrote those words, was very possibly the last great romantic folk singer. America was his lifelong lover, and he embraced her ideals even
as he distanced himself from her actions. While many of his fellow Vietnam-era activists believed that the country was rotten to the core, Ochs, like his idol, Woody Guthrie, had an almost Capra-like faith in the American people's essential goodness. But whenever government, industry, religion or apathy threatened American values, Ochs displayed lyrical teeth as sharp as those of any Mississippi police dog.
Rhino's long-overdue triple-CD Ochs box, "Farewells & Fantasies," attempts to place his music within a historical context while simultaneously showing its considerable contemporary value. To that end, Rhino has licensed songs from each of his studio albums, plus live tracks and rarities, and created the most impressive packaging in recent memory: an expensive-looking 6-by-10-inch, 98-page hardcover book, the CDs tastefully enclosed in flaps on the inside front and back covers.
Ochs fans are notoriously rabid. This was true during his lifetime, but even more so since he committed suicide in April 1976 at the age of 35. In death, he has inspired not one but two biographies (the better being last year's "There but for Fortune" by Michael Schumacher) and dozens of cover versions by artists ranging from Billy Bragg to They Might Be Giants. The majority of his catalog is currently in print.
Therein lies the problem with "Farewells & Fantasies." Anybody who simply wants to hear the album that carried them through their own protest years can already buy "Phil Ochs in Concert" (also on Rhino). No doubt there exist a few rich ex-leftists who will buy a box that they won't listen to, simply to show it off, but the bulk of the audience for a 53-song Phil Ochs box are knowledgeable, dedicated fans who want to hear music that's not readily available. Instead, "Farewells & Fantasies" includes every single track of "In Concert," cleverly sprinkled here and there (the sequencing is more capricious than chronological) so that listeners, most of whom will already have the album, will be none the wiser. Conversely, while the four albums that Ochs did for A&M rank highest on fans' wish lists (none of them are available domestically on CD), they are underrepresented here, and many of the tracks used are ill-chosen. Instead of including the original studio recording of "Tape From California," one of his best-known post-protest compositions, the compilers chose the severely truncated live version from "Gunfight at Carnegie Hall."
The accompanying book would be a fine introduction to Ochs for high school students, particularly with its lengthy discourses on "the times," which is the scholarly term for that period of the '60s when you just had to be there, man. Rolling Stone news editor Mark Kemp makes the claim that Ochs' music lives on in Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine. Twice. Ben Edmonds offers better insights in his track commentary, though there are times when one wonders if Rhino were wise to insist he comment on every track regardless of whether he had anything to say. Here's his entry on "Rehearsals for Retirement," in its entirety: "A song of personal surrender, a public admission of defeat."
Other than the book's photos, which are spectacular, the box's saving grace is its stellar sound quality. "White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land" is already available on A&M's best-of "The War Is Over," but only here do its war drums sound as though they're right at your door. Likewise, the excellent, turn-it-up fidelity on "Pretty Smart on My Part" reveals the most rocking acoustic band this side of Nirvana's "Unplugged." In fact, if Ochs were alive and promoting this box, he'd probably be on "Unplugged" -- backed by Teenage Fanclub, playing everything from "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" to "Chords of Fame," and, of course, wearing his notorious gold suit. That is, if Beck hasn't stolen it from his dressing room ...