By Richie Unterberger

Rehearsals for Retirement might have been a prophetic title for an album by a major singer-songwriter who, after the 1969 release of this LP, would write and record barely any first-rate compositions, and would soon cease writing songs altogether. Despite the tombstone on the cover, though, it was only in hindsight that some critics viewed the effort as that of an artist who knew his creative muse was in danger of expiration. Phil Ochs’ writing, singing, and verve remained sharp and vital on his third A&M album, the last to be produced by Larry Marks. It was his optimism and drive that were wilting, in the wake of a year that had seen the counterculture take the brunt of Establishment repression at the 1968 Democratic Convention (at which Ochs performed and demonstrated), the escalation of the Vietnam War, and tumult in both campuses and inner-city ghettoes.

    In comparison to his previous pair of A&M albums (1967’s Pleasures of the Harbor and 1968’s Tape from California, both reissued on CD by Collectors’ Choice Music), the production on Rehearsals for Retirement was relatively straightforward. It largely eschewed the baroque orchestration that had colored much of those pair of Marks-produced efforts. The decrease of risk-taking with the arrangements might have meant that there were no peaks to match "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends," "The Party," and "The War Is Over." Yet it also guaranteed a consistency of tone that each of those earlier LPs lacked. Although Lincoln Mayorga contributed classical-flavored piano (as he had on Pleasures of the Harbor and Tapes from California), he and Phil were also joined by guitarist-bassist Bob Rafkin, who had a more conventional rock orientation than either of his colleagues.

    Much of Rehearsals for Retirement was inspired by Ochs’ experiences in Chicago. His disillusionment with idealistic activism and sense of despondency about American society could have hardly been reflected more bitterly than it was in the opening cut, "Pretty Smart on My Part." A peppy melody and characteristically exuberant vocal disguised a lyric about as disturbing as any in pop music, Ochs taking on the persona of a paranoid American who perceives anyone different from him as a threat, whether a hitchhiker that he beats up or a pretty woman he ties and whips. For all its bold and even violent imagery, note how similar the rhythms, melody, and execution are to those of Buddy Holly, an influence that would assert itself quite visibly on Ochs’ subsequent Gunfight at Carnegie Hall album.

    "The Doll House," decorated by Mayorga’s stately piano runs, was the oldest song on Rehearsals for Retirement. It was also, along with such late-‘60s Ochs compositions as "When in Rome" and "The Floods of Florence," one of his most surreal, containing a little-noticed blatant homage to/parody of Bob Dylan’s vocal style for a few lines. "I Kill Therefore I Am" was a return to the frightening realism of "Pretty Smart on My Part," another sketch (this time in the third person) of a macho man determined to keep America safe from longhairs, African-Americans, students, and others at odds with his narrow-minded view of the United States. Any doubt that Ochs’ angst had been largely triggered by events in Chicago was put to rest by "William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed." The melancholy tale of chaos in the city’s Lincoln Park was backed by grand Mayorga piano and accordion, in one instance where Ochs and Marks managed to use quasi-classical backing in an understated fashion.

    Ochs painted his loss of faith-in idealism and, more distressingly, his own purpose-in more personal terms in "My Life," which features some of his most moving vibrato singing. "The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns," inspired by a nuclear submarine accident, put the apocalyptic glumness that hovered over most of Rehearsals for Retirement in more symbolic terms: certainly it could just be taken as a tale of a ship lost at sea, but it also reflects directionlessness Ochs saw in both the course of America and within his own life. "The World Began in Eden But Ended in Los Angeles," an uncommonly straightahead barroom rocker for Ochs, portrayed Los Angeles not as paradise, but as a morally bankrupt, polluted, and overdeveloped city, a viewpoint much less prevalent in the 1960s than it is today. (Could it be that those tacky horns are a subtle dig at A&M Records co-founder Herb Alpert?) The country-rock-tinged "Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore" fit in well with the album’s somber ambience, but steered clear of sociopolitical comment, illustrating that loneliness and alienation can be found in the lives of everyday people, as well as in battlegrounds for America’s future.

    Ochs’ disenchantment with that future, however, roared back into play for "Another Age," with its infectious "Secret Agent Man" tempo and bold pledge of allegiance against the flag (and to vintage rebels such as Thomas Paine, Jesse James, and Robin Hood). The record ended on a suitably resigned note with the title track, again spotlighting Mayorga’s rolling, almost loungish piano accompaniment. Rehearsals for Retirement, for all its sad disappointment, was not a bummer to listen to: the melodies were graceful, and Ochs’ singing passionate and often uplifting, perhaps despite himself. It was a huge commercial disappointment, however, reaching only #167, and earning a deletion from A&M’s catalog just months after its release.

    At least Rehearsals for Retirement was released in the United States, which is more than could be said for Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, recorded in 1970 but not issued until the mid-1970s (and then only in Canada). That album, often difficult to obtain since it first came out, has been added to Rehearsals for Retirement on this CD.

    Gunfight was recorded at Carnegie Hall on March 27, 1970, during a most controversial phase of Ochs’ career. Exhausted by his struggles to embody the conscience of left-wing America during much of the 1960s, he began to wear Elvis Presley-style gold lamé suits onstage, and sprinkle his concerts with covers of vintage rock tunes, particularly those of Elvis and Buddy Holly. This was part of his effort to establish continuity with the socially aware material in which he specialized, and the roots music that he loved. In the event, however, it was accorded a mixed reception, much as Bob Dylan’s first electric concerts had sparked a divided reaction in the mid-1960s.

    Backed by Rehearsals session men Mayorga and Rafkin, as well as drummer Kevin Kelly (who had been in the Gram Parsons-era Byrds) and bassist Kenny Kaufman, Ochs delivered a set of both rock-oriented interpretations of some of his most popular tunes, and medleys of Presley and Holly songs. On top of that were covers of "Mona Lisa" (probably modeled on Carl Mann’s hit rockabilly version) and Merle Haggard’s "Okie from Muskogee." The latter was likely a willfully provocative choice, Haggard’s hit embodying the most reactionary elements of America, and Ochs himself embodying the least reactionary elements of the United States.

    The portion of the set preserved on Gunfight was actually an unbalanced representation of the show, which contained much original material that did not appear on the LP. (One of those songs, an acoustic version of "Crucifixion," did eventually get issued on the Chords of Fame anthology and the Farewells & Fantasies box set.) Because it leaned so heavily on the cover tunes (particularly the medleys), the record gave the not wholly accurate impression that Ochs was more interested in covering rock’n’roll oldies than performing his own songs at the concert. The audience’s response to those medleys was not quite vitriolic, but certainly muted and bewildered.

    Ochs was not a match for Holly or Presley as a rock singer, nor were his interpretations so radical or imaginative as to stand among his more notable creative endeavors. Gunfight, nevertheless, was an interesting, at times fascinating glimpse at a most odd detour in Ochs’ checkered career. He energetically ran through long Holly and Presley medleys (which were not confined solely to hits), and bantered somewhat exasperatedly with an audience that would have likely been far more enamored of his own vintage compositions. There was also the bonus of hearing no-frills rock versions of "Pleasures of the Harbor" and "Tape from California," songs bestowed with far more heavily produced arrangements in their studio versions. And he couldn’t have gone over too badly; it was 3am in the morning when Ochs launched into his encore of Elvis’ "A Fool Such As I," the hardy audience having stuck with him even after Carnegie Hall cut the power for a few minutes due to the late hour. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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