Dateline: August 17, 1988 — New York City
Tapes. Cassette tapes. R.E.M., The Replacments, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Michael Jackson, Terence Trent D’Arby, The Clash… and so on. Flying at me. Bouncing off my chest, my shoulder, my arms. All of them landing at my feet like wood chips being spit out by a chainsaw.
“JU GONNA STEAL FROM ME?” Victor yelled as he reached into the young man’s coat pocket, gripped another tape, and threw it over his shoulder at me. It flew past my head. “I don think so, muthafuka!” Then he landed another punch to the young man’s side. “How you like that?” The young man didn’t seem to like it much.
Victor had the man—a boy, really, maybe 19, 20 years old, but big; probably 6’3” or so, easily pushing 200 lbs.—wedged up against the window of the shoe store that was next to our place of work, The Record Factory, Records & Tapes. We were smack in the wheelhouse of one of the hottest summers on record in New York City and Victor was barely breaking a sweat—he alternately threw tapes and punches as if assaulting people and retrieving stolen merchandize was something he did to cool off. A crowd was gathering around us on the sidewalk. I uncomfortably and comically gathered and cradled a ridiculous amount of tapes into my arms as, finally, Victor let the boy up. “Now get the fuck outta here—you don wanna have me call the cops.”
Bleeding from the nose, the boy got up, wobbled briefly, then sprinted like an Olympic champion down the street. “Here. One more,” Victor handed me another cassette—The Lion and the Cobra, by Sinéad O’Connor—and we headed back to the store. It was, you could say, a bad scene.
But wait—let’s dial it back about an hour, back to the relative comfort and peace of The Record Factory’s spacious and welcoming sales floor…
“Okay, now listen,” Victor, the store’s manager, said, looming over me, improbably tall, his percussive Puerto Rican accent clipping his words, emphasis falling on the wrong syllables, words haphazardly fused together. He was describing my new promotion to ‘bouncer’. Yes, bouncer. For a record store. Welcome to New York City in the eighties.
“Is eeeeasy! Ju jus gotta stan up here and look down da fucking tape bins—ju got it? Nothin’ to it.” He slapped my arm in punctuation. “Look how I do,” he got up on the elevated observation station by the front door and scanned his gaze dramatically down the long cassette tape bins that ran down the length of the store. “Juuunohhh, suntiiiiinnnne… ju look aroun’”, he sagely said, as he gazed around the store in mock wonder. “Everything okay… but wait… Shit!” he feigned surprise. “Ju gonna see some asshole stealing something!” His eyes got wide as he raised a finger to them. He smiled wryly. “I always watching.” He pointed his finger proudly at the office that overlooked the large but modest store. It was a command view that allowed whoever sat up there the ability to survey the whole store at a glance. “Ju remember, ju see someone stealin’ something?” he paused dramatically. “You get their ass!”
This was the job description:
- Just stand in the perch and watch for anyone stealing tapes (records, while not impossible to put under a coat, would be less likely than the ever-portable cassettes).
- Stop them from leaving the store.
It wasn’t rocket science. But it was, Victor wanted me to know, a Big Promotion. It was a position of trust, one that I had earned, he said, by my showing up early and leaving late, and by always keeping moving, finding things to do in the store during those first three weeks on the job—something, I came to realize, was an impressive run of employment for the place. That trust also earned me $.75 more an hour. I took it. I had no choice.
I had just permanently moved into my expensive apartment in the East Village after spending a frugal yet mostly comfortable summer term at NYU. It was my first term there, the housing was cheap and the meal plan helped, but now I had to pay rent, buy groceries, pay the Con-Ed bill. Shit got real, real fast. You better believe it, I needed money. As much as I could get my hands on. I hit every single conceivable place to find a job, from record stores, to pizza joints—even a Chinese restaurant where no one spoke English. (I don’t think I have to point out that I had no Chinese speaking skills either). Victor, at the Record Factory took one look at me and, with a look of recognition that made me uneasy, asked “Can you start today?”
In a city with few jobs for a twenty-two-year-old out-of-towner with few marketable skills, I took the job and acted like it was mana from heaven. But I knew it was shit. It was also obvious from the onset that this was the kind of place that could offer all sorts of possibilities for earning extra money, provided I could conveniently pocket my ethics, look the other way when I had to. It was clear that Victor wasn’t running a Sunday school.
And so it began.
The bouncer gig started off easily enough. So easy, in fact, that I thought I had actually scored the primo position of the entire operation—all I had to do, it seemed, was, indeed, just stand there.
And that’s all I did for that first hour. I just stood there. I gazed down the aisle, made conversation with one of the cashiers, Schell, an implausibly named African American kid from The Bronx, and listened to the eclectic mix of music loudly coming over the speakers, beckoning shoppers from the sidewalk. Schell, I had learned, also played guitar, and we were in the middle of talking about old blues players’ influence on Jimi Hendrix—who Schell bore a shocking resemblance to. Everything was looking like I was on easy street, like I would, if anything, be trying to find ways to not doze off on my shift.
Then it happened.
“GET HIM!” came Victor’s voice, booming from the office window above me. Startled, I looked down to see a young man with a large coat—incongruous in this heat; a detail that I completely missed—barrel down the aisle, aggressively pushing shoppers out of his way as he headed for the deliverance of the open door—that I was supposed to be guarding. “DAAAAMMMNNNN!” Schell interjected as the young man exited the door as easy as shit through a goose. “WHAT THE FUCK YOU DOIN’?” boomed Victor’s voice and in an instant it all flashed before me: unemployment, eviction from my apartment, starvation, and worst of all, revocation of my scholarship and expulsion from NYU. I knew what I had to do.
I bounded over the railing, hit the threshold of the doorway hard, and followed the trail of tapes on the sidewalk. I caught up to him quickly and, with financial ruin staring me in the face and recalling muscle memory of rugby games in my childhood, tackled him to the sidewalk. He kicked and flailed about and when I was just starting to think about what was next, it was all over: I found myself being magically lifted off of the ground and to my feet. Victor was on the scene—it was his show now.
Later, in the evening, close to closing time, and well after the commotion of the day’s earlier events were filed away into the ‘old news’ section of the day’s gossip, I was sweeping up the store’s fairly impressive jazz record section. The normally wall-to-wall music—which acted like a hawker to bring in shoppers from the sidewalk—was silenced. It was a long, hot day and we all wanted to go home, and the sooner the better. Suddenly, from above me I heard Larry, the store’s middle-aged record buyer, shout loudly: “Well, fuck you, Victor, you fucking bean bandit piece of shit.” There was some heavy stomping as Larry came down the stairs to the main floor. He made it just about to the door when he turned to look up at Victor, still in his office. “And, by the way, it’s YOU KNOW—YOU. KNOW. NOT FUCKING JUNO—WE’RE NOT IN ALASKA, DUMBASS. LEARN HOW TO SPEAK AMERICAN.” Then he calmly walked out the door.
Schell walked over and said, “Well, looks like Larry quit again—get ready.”
“Ready?” I asked. “For what?”
“Victor. He’s going to ask you to help out with the buying—for the jazz, folk, classical, progressive—all that shit that he thinks white people like,” he said with a wink. “You’re a smart guy, know your music, and, most of all, you’re our last white dude.”
The next day, I was (thankfully) taken off of the bouncer position and relegated to the back of the store. My task: reorganize the folk, blues, classical, progressive, and jazz sections into, at the very least, some alphabetical order—“White people like that,” is what Schell joked when I told him what I was doing. I’m not sure what Larry did, exactly, but whatever it was it didn’t seem to be the product of an organizationally inclined mind. He did, however, stock an interesting and deep selection of music. I found several records that I was interested in, some pretty rare recordings of T-Bone Walker and a nice pressing of Howlin’ Wolf’s London Sessions, for example, that I earmarked for my employee discount. And then, as I was organizing, as best as I could, the folk section, I came across this:
Just. What. The. Hell. Was. This? I mean, really, who was this clown?
There were a few things happening for me at once as I held the record in my hand:
- I vaguely remembered my high school art teacher, Mr. Gribbin, featuring Phil Ochs during the music he rotated for our workshop sessions. I could only remember that it was mostly acoustic protest music and that I didn’t mind it. But this memory seemed incongruent with the picture in front of me.
- What was with the gold lamé suit? It was obviously an allusion to Elvis Presley’s Nudie’s Taylors suit that he famously wore on his “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” album cover.
But it was also, obviously, bitingly sarcastic. Was this guy for real? Was he really talking shit about Elvis? I turned over the album cover and got my answer.
Okay. Now I got it. He was talking shit… about himself.
I loved it.
As I said, I only had a foggy recollection of his music playing in the art room of my high school art class, so, I really had no idea what I was in for when I would finally put the needle to the vinyl, but I was determined to find out. I safely parked the Howlin’ Wolf and the T-Bone Walker records deep in the baroque selections of the classical section (a place where no one went—even old white people) for retrieval at a later date, and went home with the one record I could allow myself to afford. It was one of the best and most transformative things I have ever done.
There wasn’t much in the new apartment aside from an air mattress, a lamp, my clothes, and my stereo—my things were still on their way to me, along with my girlfriend that would share the apartment. They were both due at the end of the month, so I had whatever free time I had to myself. On that night, it was just this Phil Ochs guy and me. I unwrapped the cellophane from the album, took out the record, and put it on the turntable. The opening notes started a journey that I am still on to this day.
“One Way Ticket Home” begins with a loud fanfare of rumbling tympani drumbeats and horns, as if heralding the beginning of something big, or, indeed, the return of a hero. But then… the voice.
I’d like a one-way ticket home, ticket home
Where I can watch my television, talk on the telephone
It was plaintive, yearning, real. And yet… there was something… almost tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic, about it. As if he were asking you to be in on the joke, whatever that was.
Ochs’ voice sounded at once like John Denver—melodious, kind—and also, rough, unsophisticated, as if the local railway worker was caught, thinking he was alone, singing on the job. And the song said out loud what I was too embarrassed, too proud, to admit to: I was homesick. And afraid. And lonely in New York City.
I was hooked.
The next song, a beautiful piano and voice only, paean to the actor and icon James Dean, “Jim Dean of Indiana”, made it clear in the very first few lines that, whilst there may be some legitimate sarcasm included in Ochs’ oeuvre and presentation, he was also dead-serious. “Jim Dean of Indiana”, features astonishingly honest singing—his struggle with maintaining pitch underscores the earnest admiration he obviously had for Dean’s upbringing, indeed, the very ideal of the Midwestern, blue collar, coming of age story so mythologized in literature and drama. The rest of the album featured similarly themed songs, unashamedly personal investigations into the legitimacy of fame, the trouble, even well into adulthood, of growing up, meeting expectations, or, indeed, of having the world meet yours.
Ochs, I was quickly realizing, was the very companion I needed at this exciting yet harrowing time of my young life. I needed a friend on this journey and Ochs seemed to be extending his hand.
It became my mission to find out, as soon as possible, as much as I could about Ochs. Now, remember, this was 1988—pre internet. But I did have access to one of the largest research libraries in existence at NYU. On my first day off, I woke up early, and was there when they opened the doors.
I spent hours there, pouring through old periodicals, books on the 1960s counter culture New York City folk scene, the political activism of the early 1960s—you name it. In fact, in my efforts to learn about Ochs, I accidentally learned more about the civil rights movement, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the East Village folk scene of the early 1960s (literally having taken place a block from where I was reading about it), the 1968 Democratic Convention debacle, in which Ochs, along with Abbie Hoffman and the rest of the Yippies, found their idealism meeting up with the blunt end of reality. Finally, I came across a biography on Ochs, Death of a Rebel: a Biography of Phil Ochs, by Marc Eliot.
I read the hell out of that book.
And I found a kind of absent mentor, a kind of benchmark of commitment. Ochs, contrary to the introspective and personal songs that almost exclusively make up Greatest Hits (the title itself a joke), was, I learned, a political protest singer—an actual one. Ochs, it seemed to me, and unlike so many ‘protest’ singers, actually believed in what he sang about, what he stood for, and he seemed well educated on his subjects. His political messages were to the point, delivered with razor sharp wit, all with apparent little care for ‘making it big’ or selling a large amount of records. (Which caused him no end of friction with his record company.) “50 Phil Ochs fans can’t be wrong!” indeed.
But that night, the night I brought home that record to my nearly empty apartment… that’s the night that started it all. I would spend the following decades aligning, affirming, educating myself on my own politics and my personal code of ethics. And Ochs’ music, it can be said, was like a soundtrack to this growth. I soon tracked down the rest of his catalogue, old used and abused copies of his albums–they were most all long out of print.
And, just as true, Ochs’ music echoed much of my own personal life. An unhappy coincidence, I, like Ochs did, suffer from depression. I recognized in Ochs’ often incomprehensible movements and choices he made in his personal life—particularly after moving from New York City to Los Angeles—the calling cards of this difficult condition. I lived a lot of those same scenes, made a lot of the same bad choices, oftentimes in the very same locations, the same neighbourhoods.
But I believed in his story, what he had to say. So much so that I used what was probably my one at-bat in Hollywood to get a feature-film or mini-series TV project off of the ground. I had some very minor success with getting a feature film script into development at a major studio. While that ended up being passed on, I realized that I consequently had a short window of time wherein folks might actually return my calls. It seemed that, for the moment, I was someone who was regarded as talented and had, for the very short time being, the advantage of being part of some recent conversations. I would, in a turn of phrase, strike whilst the iron was lukewarm. So, for a time, a very short time, I was a real person in Hollywood–and took this brief moment of legitimacy to pitch my Ochs project.
I tried valiantly to get Sean Penn interested–a professed Ochs fan and, at the time, the perfect age to play Ochs. I got some interest but, as you, of course, know, there was no Ochs feature film made. There would be, eventually, in 2010, a damn fine documentary made about him: There But for Fortune. I think you’ll find that it’s a riveting look at a life lived strongly and with real purpose; a life that looked outward, not inward; a life that asked what it could do for others, not what could be done for it.
Ochs’ choices, his struggle, finally gave out to him in 1976, when, visiting his sister in Far Rockaway, in Brooklyn, he took his own life. He hung himself in her bathroom. The terrible detail here is that he sent his nephew out on an errand. Upon his return, the nephew noticed a chair missing from the dining table. He found it blocking the bathroom door. Ochs had used it to stand on whilst hanging himself.
It’s a grim detail, yet, I’m surely risking some good will here, but I’m going to submit that it is also the kind of poetic, but brutal, detail that sort of summed up Phil Ochs’ approach to his message, his art, his life.
Look at this picture:
This is an image from a photoshoot for promotional stills that were used, ultimately, for the cover of his live album, Gunfight at Carnegie Hall. (The title a tongue-in-cheek reference to the audience’s open hostility towards him for, to their shock, Och’s coming out on stage in that gold suite and with an electric backup band. Up to this point, he was, the prototypical protest singer: just a guy with a message and an acoustic guitar.) This image, for me, sums up everything I love about Phil Ochs. (I love it so much that I have this image tattooed on my right shoulder and arm.) It makes an obvious and overt statement of confidence, arrogance, it’s cool as hell, and yet… it is so obviously satirical. Ochs seemed to constantly want to call bullshit on all and anything that anyone would dare to put on a pedestal—even, or, perhaps, especially, himself. He was a champion of women’s rights, labour rights, immigrant’s rights, he was vehemently anti-war, a fierce defender of the American Constitution—I could go on and on, for pages.
And he was flawed. After a succession of personal, professional, and, perhaps most importantly to him, political failures, he succumbed to alcoholism and, in his last few years, his behaviour became more erratic and dangerous–to himself and others. He was a mess. But, to me, he was a hero. He was the hero that I needed in some tough times in my life—in fact, I still need him.
I spent that first night with Phil Ochs staring out my window, overlooking the lower east side of New York City, the second avenue traffic passing below me, wondering. About what as next, just where my life would take me. About those lives, those choices, passing on the street and the sidewalk, through the grating of the fire escape from the sixth floor of my six-floor walk-up, and returned, again and again, to the turntable, to turn the record over just one more time. I thought about all of the things, the possibilities, that lay before me and wondered. The only thing I was certain of was that the voice in my ears, the new friend I was making, would be with me the rest of the way.
You must protest
It is your diamond duty…
Ah but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty