Phil Ochs

The Early Years / Tim Buckley: Once I Was: BBC Sessions

by Thomas Swiss


Phil Ochs and Tim Buckley: two important musical figures from different ends of the the same complicated, haunted, and overly-analyzed decade: the 1960s.

While Ochs began his career in the early sixties playing politically-charged acoustic songs in the mode of other folkies such as Joan Baez and Richard Farina, he moved into electric music, and, eventually, more confessional lyrics. But this particular release represents only the so-called “early years”: it’s all acoustic and all of it strong, balanced, and historically-specific. It is also Ochs’s best work.

Don’t know Ochs? Well, he was in some ways the Woody Guthrie of his time—making his reputation with “protest music” and songs about the conditions of the disenfranchised, the out-of-luck, and the manipulated working class that is always and endlessly at the mercy of political and economic forces aligned against them.

A commited leftist, and (in his own words) a “singing journalist,” Ochs was gifted with a melodic, if limited singing voice. That is, while his voice and singing style is more open and wide-ranging than Dylan’s (his rival in the early ‘60s) his voice is, perhaps, finally, less expressive. But Ochs wrote a handful of fully realized and poetic songs, and most of the best are on this CD: “What Are You Fighting For,” “There But for Fortune,” “Ballad of Medgar Evers,” and at least a half dozen more of the 20 songs, total, collected here.

The Ochs legacy: you will find it in, say, Billy Bragg, or on the recent Bragg/Wilco CDs that pay homage to Guthrie. Or in the early Clash and, ongoingly, in Chumbawamba. If you like and listen to these artists, you’ll like Ochs—or certainly “get” him and understand his musical importance.

Ochs died in 1976, a suicide by hanging, one year after Tim Buckley’s death from a heroin overdose.

Seven years younger than Ochs, Buckley (born in 1947) was a romantic one-of-a-kind writer who fashioned his work more by the lights of improvisational jazz and rock psychedelia than did the folkie Ochs. Yet Buckley, too, had a strong folk-steak, as evidenced on this release of songs recorded for the BBC (from a tape found in a box of rotting reel-to-reels in Buckley’s basement). It’s a performance from the late ‘60s, with compositions such as the touching and compassionate “Morning Glory,” a song about both middle-class fear of and,ironically, the romanticization of the poor.

One is struck by the sheer power and variousness of Buckley’s voice, its range, its blues-meets-jazz-meets-wild-man-make-it-up-as-you-go-along ravings and stylings. Think early Patti Smith or Van Morrison in their heydays, but even more challenging and “experimental.” In short, it’s a wonderful CD: crisply recorded, various (with some of Buckley’s trademark and sometimes taxing nonsensical rave-ups) and yet, somehow, all of a piece.

While not, perhaps, the best introduction to Buckley’s work—that would be Live in London, 1968, a double CD—it is nevertheless a CD that fans of Buckley’s (like myself) will surely want to own. Those listeners new to Tim Buckley’s work (likely through the songs of his son, Jeff) will eventually want to get around to this one, too. In time.

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