Classic Music Review: Pleasures of the Harbor by Phil Ochs

Allegedly legendary and overrated music critic Robert Christgau famously lambasted Pleasures of the Harbor, which apparently hit the racks during a period when Mr. Christgau wasn’t getting any. Nor should he have:

Pleasures of the Harbor” epitomizes the decadence that has infected pop since Sgt. Pepper. [The] gaudy musical settings … inspire nostalgia for the three-chord strum.”

He also commented on the artist, saying “Too bad his voice shows an effective range of about half an octave [and] his guitar playing would not suffer much if his right hand were webbed.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Christgau was extolling the virtues of Mr. Dylan, who has no effective range at all if you only give someone credit for being in the octave range when they actually hit the notes.

Now, I’ll admit I can get cranky, huffy and insulting in some of my reviews, but the thing that triggers those bursts of vituperation is not my mood, whether that mood is affected by the absence of sex (a rare occurrence, and anyway, I have a huge collection of vibrators), or my monthly bleeder. What gets my dander up is when established artists produce crap and then try to sell it to the easily-exploitable masses with sophisticated and suitably artistic marketing (McCartney has dispensed with the artistic pretense, in case you hadn’t noticed).

But when someone gives it their best and falls short, I’m actually quite nice about it. However, that statement has no relevance whatsoever to Pleasures of the Harbor, which I think is one of the most remarkable records ever made. I will admit to its flaws. Mr. Christgau’s reference to “gaudy musical settings” is imprecise; while some of the arrangements get too crowded, the more common problem is that the vocal-instrumental balance is off, distracting from the singer and his superb lyrics. Sometimes Phil Ochs can overdo it with his signature vibrato and occasionally I find myself wishing that he would have restrained himself a bit. All in all, those are minor imperfections in a masterpiece of the songwriting art.

Curiously, Pleasures of the Harbor follows a strange pattern: each song is better than the one that precedes it. I don’t think I’ve experienced that with any other album. Think of it as a novel that takes a while to get going, and you’ll be fine. I’d even go one step further and say I’d forgive you if you skipped the first song, “Cross My Heart,” because it’s easily the weakest song on the album and the one with the “gaudiest” musical arrangement. Ochs had hooked up with an arranger by the name of Lincoln Mayorga, and while they did some fabulous things together on the album, sometimes their 60’s experimental exuberance got the best of them. Remarkably, Ochs thought “Cross My Heart” would be a hit. The man simply had no concept of commercial music, bless his heart, and the single bombed.

“Flower Lady” is definitely a step up. The strings, piano and flute provide a relatively subdued chamber music background to allow Ochs to paint a picture of a society too busy, too fragmented and too self-absorbed to bother to stop to buy flowers and celebrate a moment of beauty or friendship. Interestingly, the notoriously political Phil Ochs even laments the lack of civility between anti-war protestors and those shouldering the rifles:

Soldiers disillusioned to come home from the war
Sarcastic students tell them not to fight no more
And they argue through the night, black is black and white is white
Walk away both knowing they are right
But nobody’s buying flowers from the flower lady.

The most famous song on the album, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” is a masterpiece of social satire that still resonates today. The indifference to human suffering, the fear of getting involved, the power of comfort to lull us to sleep, the demonization of minorities . . . not much has changed since he wrote this song almost fifty years ago. The ironic use of Dixieland piano to set a jolly mood as he recounts the murder of Kitty Genovese and rats chewing on children in the ghetto was a masterstroke. What I find amazing is that a song like this—one that did receive some airplay before prudish radio stations pulled it because of the reference to marijuana—didn’t change a fucking thing. For some reason, satire no longer has the power to spark change in our society as it did in the times of Swift and Dickens. That’s not the fault of modern musical satirists like Ochs, Vivian Stanshall and Ray Davies, but a combination of the modern lack of community and the general feeling of impotence that leads the average person to believe that they have no power to make a difference. Have a good laugh and go back to the telly! Or the booze! Or the babes!

I’ve always found it interesting that Ochs, Stanshall and Davies—all exceptionally perceptive people—suffered nervous breakdowns. The gap between truth and reality must have been extraordinarily painful for them.

The song that got the team of Ochs and Mayorga going was the stunning “I’ve Had Her.” As Mayorga explained in an excellent piece in Political Affairs, “Phil wanted some kind of classical styles behind his singing for “I’ve Had Her”, one of the songs on ‘Pleasures of the Harbor’, his first LA album. I suggested that I would incorporate different composers’ styles, changing them up with each verse. You know, Bach behind one, Schumann behind another, and so on. He loved the idea.” It was a brilliant idea indeed; the music is so beautiful that I long to hear an instrumental-only version. The problem with that idea, though, is that we’d lose the equally beautiful lyrics. I’ve read some horribly moronic interpretations of “I’ve had Her,” all from males who believe the song is about a chick who plays the field and who is therefore worthless. Besides the obvious and offensive sexism in that line of thinking, the lyrics tell a completely different tale if you bother to read and reflect on them.

The structure of “I’ve Had Her” is a verse describing an encounter with a “woman” followed by the key lines, “But I’ve had her, I’ve had her . . . She’s nothing.” The problem with the standard male interpretation is that Phil Ochs is not describing real women but images and fantasies of women: the image of a woman sailing, a mermaid, a queen that appears in a dream. The one verse where a real woman is present illustrates the instinctual male ability to transform a woman into an abstraction:

The players at the party are prepared to take a chance
They drop their pants
They drop their pants
In the corner, she’s so crystalline no one dares to ask a dance
And she calls out to you
And she calls out to you
But, I’ve had her, I’ve had her
She’s nothing.

Of course she’s nothing! Every “woman” in this song is a manufactured male fantasy. The verse with the queen even describes masturbation to that fantasy: “In the prison of your broken bed you dribble in a dream.” The point (which should be obvious by now) is that men have a horrible habit of relating to women in terms of their idealized notions of womanhood rather than learning to deal with a living, breathing human being. Phil Ochs wasn’t a sexist pig, but one of the few men who perceived this persistent problem in male-female relations.

People have called Pleasures of the Harbor a somber album, which means they’ve given it a superficial run-through and moved on. How could an album with “Miranda” on it be called “somber?” In a more boozy Dixieland style than “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” this song is a hoot! It’s a fun song to help you work on your barbershop harmonies and relatively light in terms of the social satire. The spooky verse is the last verse, when Phil Ochs sings, “In the bar we’re gin and scotching/While the FBI is watching.” While he later became quite paranoid, there was nothing paranoid about those lines. According to the Wikipedia bio, this was real shit:

Years after his death, it was revealed that the FBI had a file of nearly 500 pages on Ochs. Much of the information in those files relates to his association with counterculture figures, protest organizers, musicians, and other people described by the FBI as “subversive”. The FBI was often sloppy in collecting information on Ochs: his name was frequently misspelled “Oakes” in their files, and they continued to consider him “potentially dangerous” after his death.

Okay, I wasn’t there, but I have a hard time believing that this gentle soul was more dangerous than J. Edgar, who was seriously fucking weird.

As I said at the beginning, Pleasures of the Harbor gets better the further you go. “The Party” is a breathtaking tour de force of the satiric arts, where Phil Ochs appears in the role of piano flunky to provide decoration and background music for a upper-crust soirée. Each verse satirizes a type or group, followed by the couplet, “And my shoulders had to shrug/As I crawled beneath the rug and retuned my piano.” Some of my favorites:

The hostess is enormous, she fills the room with perfume
She meets the guests and smothers them with greetings.
And she asks, “How are you” and she offers them a drink
The countess of the social grace, who never seems to blink
And she promises to talk to you if you promise not to think

I’ve run into a lot of these lately at corporate parties . . . trophy women:

The beauty of the hour is blazing in the present
She surrounds herself with those who would surrender
Floating in her flattery, she’s a trophy-prize, caressed
Protected by a pretty face, sometimes cursed, sometimes blessed
And she’s staring down their desires
While they’re staring down her dress

And I love the way Phil Ochs decides to make an entrance at the end of the piece:

Oh, the party must be over, even the losers are leaving
But just one doubt is nagging at my caustic mind
So I snuck up close behind me and I gave myself a kiss
And I led myself to the mirror to expose what I had missed
There I saw a laughing maniac who was writing songs like this

I wonder what it was about the 1960’s that gave birth to such talented lyricists . . . and please don’t tell me it was the drugs.

You may be wondering why a thirty-two year old woman would be bothering with an album that probably none of her generational cohorts have heard. The answer lies in the title track, “Pleasures of the Harbor.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, when I was a little girl growing up with my hippie parents in San Francisco, music was a constant presence every day of the life. Although I was a pretty precocious little kid, I won’t make the claim that I understood much of anything I was hearing, but certain songs filled me with a sense of absolute wonder. I called them “The Most Beautiful Song in the World,” and the use of the singular is deliberate. I had several of them, but the one I was listening to in the moment was The Most Beautiful Song in the World and I’d get very pouty when my parents laughed and reminded me that I’d already given that honor to another song. The ones I remember are “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Donovan’s “Celeste,” Judy Collins’ version of “Suzanne” and “Pleasures of the Harbor.” I haven’t listened to Donovan in years (I have Fairytale and Sunshine Superman on my to-do list), but I still think the other three qualify. Later dismissed for its “cinematic” music (a dismissal that even Phil Ochs bought into), I still find it heartstoppingly beautiful. My favorite passage is the ritual of sex and the sailor:

And the girls scent the air
They seem so fair
With paint on their face
Soft is their embrace
To lead them up the stairs
Soon your sailing will be over
Come and take the pleasures of the harbor

In the room dark and dim
Touch of skin
He asks her of her name
She answers with no shame
And not a sense of sin
‘Til the fingers draw the blinds
Sip of wine
The cigarette of doubt
The candle is blown out
The darkness is so kind

The shyness of the rough man as he faces the beauty of the woman is so touching; that “cigarette of doubt” he smokes is so real; the “darkness is so kind” to hide both our emotional vulnerabilities and the embarrassment of desire. Magnifique!

If Phil Ochs had ended Pleasures of the Harbor at this point, he would have had a masterpiece. That he gave us another masterpiece to end the album is astonishing. “Crucifixion” is primarily an allegory with John F. Kennedy substituted for Jesus, but in truth describes the human flaw of elevating people to heroic status, destroying them and then turning them into gods. It applies to JFK, Martin Luther King, Kurt Cobain . . . the whole tragic lot.

When I was still living at home, my parents made me watch a six-hour special (it must have been PBS) of the live NBC coverage of the events of November 22, 1963 to try to elevate my appreciation of the significance of the event. My first impression was amazement and the professionalism of the journalists; by the time I grew up, journalism had become a form of entertainment. More than that, I’d never seen so many truly spontaneous expressions of grief and shock; the faces and the voices of the people they interviewed in the streets dramatically expressed the incomprehensibility of the event. As part of my cultural study I’d paired with my musical exploration, I decided to learn more about JFK, particularly the meaning he had to people of the time (although I had a good sense of it by simply comparing him to the boring old fart who preceded him and the seriously weird pair who followed him). I was especially delighted by videos of his press conferences and how intelligent his answers were. I’d never seen that in a president!

Needless to say, I liked him much better when I found out what a horny bastard he was.

So, although I can’t emotionally appreciate the real impact of his death since I came eighteen years after the fact, I get it on an intellectual level. This was an event of monumental proportions that, if you follow the subsequent history, seemed to let all the evil genies out of the bottle. Lincoln Mayorga’s brilliant decision to use the eerie sound of dissonant strings to support the tale communicates the other-worldliness of the event better than words ever could. His equally intense scoring of the matador sequence is truly terrifying. Through this mad music, Phil Ochs relates the tale of the strange dynamic between leader and follower, one that is darkly complex and deeply disturbing, for the opposites of love and hate coexist in uneasy and ominous tension:

Then His message gathers meaning and it spreads across the land
The rewarding of His pain is the following of the man
But ignorance is everywhere and people have their way
Success is an enemy to the losers of the day
In the shadows of the churches, who knows what they pray
For blood is the language of the band
The Spanish bulls are beaten, the crowd is soon beguiled
The matador is beautiful, a symphony of style
Excitement is ecstatic, passion places bets
Gracefully He bows to ovations that He gets
But the hands that are applauding are slippery with sweat
And saliva is falling from their smiles

Another passage recalls a line from Ian Anderson’s “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me,” where he wrote, “And the limp-faced hungry viewers/Fight to fasten with their eyes/Like the man hung from the trapeze/Whose fall will satisfy.” In this context, though, the meaning is horrifyingly real, because I grew up in world where people were much more fascinated by the gruesome details of Kennedy’s assassination than any of his contributions, thanks to Oliver Stone:

But you know I predicted it, I knew He had to fall
How did it happen? I hope His suffering was small
Tell me every detail, I’ve got to know it all
And do you have a picture of the pain?

Back and to the left. Back and to the left. Back and to the left. All while his brain explodes on the big screen. Disgusting.

Although I shouldn’t be surprised, I’m dismayed that Phil Ochs is not as well-known today as some of his contemporaries, given the excellence and originality he displayed over a too-brief career. Following Dylan’s lead, he began to expand his reach beyond protest songs strummed on guitar and seemed to hunger for interesting new approaches to music while never losing his strong sense of social consciousness. Although his later years were characterized by wide behavioral swings and a growing sense of alienation (Mayorga said that “Phil saw himself as the artist trying to destroy himself.”), nothing can diminish the power of his work. Pleasures of the Harbor is one of the great albums in American music, and its messages retain their stark power today.

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Altrockchick

Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

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