Saturday, September 28, 2013

Excerpt from Chapter 11: A Small Circle of Friends

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
The following excerpt is from Chapter 11 titled "A Small Circle of Friends" and tells of our arrival at the Holy Order of Mans, the location of a youth hostel on Steiner St. in San Francisco, where we stayed April of 1976. This excerpt introduces a beloved American folk artist whose music became the inspiration for the title of my book.   
'As I sat down at the long pine table, I glanced over at the record player, and noticed a young man with long wavy brown hair tied back in a ponytail, wearing a chocolate brown corduroy jacket. He appeared to be in his late twenties and I hadn’t noticed him in the hostel the night before. Sifting through the albums, the man discarded one LP after another, a who’s who list of exceptionally talented pop artists whose music I would have been more than mildly happy to hear, in an effort to find something to his liking. The stranger stopped, held up a jacket with a man’s portrait on the front, and slid out the round black disc from its sleeve. After plunking it down on the turntable, he lifted the arm, and ever so gently, placed the needle down on the record.
     I didn’t recognize the voice of the singer, but others in the room who had already started to mill about did. Curiously, a couple began to complain about the young man’s choice, but he waved them away ignoring them. Jan entered the room and quietly took a seat next to me at the table as we listened to the distinctive, yet strange vocals of the singer, a man we soon learned was political activist and topical American songster, the late Phil Ochs. The album was titled Pleasures of the Harbor (1967) and the song, “A Small Circle of Friends,” emanated ominously through the speakers as it told a true story about a woman, Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death in broad daylight outside of her home in Queens, New York in 1964 while neighbors ignored her cries for help.
     “A Small Circle of Friends” became one of Ochs’s most popular compositions and a personal anthem.
     Phil Ochs, who’d had a uniquely prolific, but uneven career as a songwriter, singer and performer, had committed suicide on April 9, just two weeks before our arrival at the Holy Order of MANS (HOOM) Youth Hostel in San Francisco. At the time of his death, Ochs had lived with his sister Sonny in Far Rockaway, New York. After a disturbing and self-destructive final few years, the singer had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, and was prescribed medication. During the weeks leading to his suicide by hanging, Ochs was despondent and did little except watch TV and play cards with his young nephews. One of the boys eventually found Ochs’s dead body upon returning home from the store one afternoon after Phil had sent him out for ice cream.
     Phil Ochs and pop culture folk hero, Bob Dylan, had come up the ranks of the New York music scene together during the early 1960s in Greenwich Village and were close friends at one time. Over the years, their union slowly unraveled with the final blow wounding Ochs deeply when Dylan accused Ochs of having amounted to little more than a “journalist" rather than the poet (like Dylan) he had desired to be. Jan and I had seen Bob Dylan in concert in Toronto the fall before when he was on tour with the Rolling Thunder Revue – a traveling caravan of musicians that hit all the major cities in Canada and the United States. We’d sat ten rows from the stage and witnessed, not only Dylan up close and personal (he with painted white face finally faced the audience for his final two numbers), but we’d enjoyed the musical styling of Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson, Emmylou Harris, in addition to violinist Scarlett Rivera heavily featured on Dylan’s Desire album in 1976. I later learned that Phil Ochs had been designated to appear alongside Dylan on the tour but was cancelled out last minute. Rumors swirled that the final ultimate rejection from his former friend and comrade had aided Ochs on his downward spiral. (In recent years, Dylan is conspicuously absent from the brilliant 2011 documentary, Phil Ochs: There, but for Fortune, about Phil Ochs’s life, music and tribulations.)
     The young man who had inadvertently introduced us to the wit, poetry, and inexhaustible writing talent of Phil Ochs, explained to the critics in the room that in Ochs’s defense, the song they were listening to was still relevant and profound. He was emphatic in his argument that the piece paid homage to the recently deceased poet and tortured folk singer who had penned the controversial tune almost ten years before.'

1976: Tapes from California © 2013 Jill C. Nelson.

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