This article debuted last year on The Classical Mess, a newsletter I was creating on Substack until I found out they were doing bad stuff.
Anyone with a heart and a brain can tell you America is a land of disillusion, a land of embitterment, a land of anguish. There are systematic problems we refuse to address, even when the fix is simple, because we’re indoctrinated to be racist, selfish, and lazy. So the American experience involves grim acceptance. We try to ease our hopelessness with irony. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
You can hear all this on the 1969 Phil Ochs LP Rehearsals For Retirement, the acclaimed folk singer’s response to the dark tumult we stumbled through in 1968. The revolution was over, Ochs felt, a point driven home by the picture of his own grave on Retirement’s cover. Here’s a man resigned to an acrid fate of racial injustice, state violence, foreign wars, and toxic masculinity. Ochs doesn’t let that destroy his beautiful, compelling voice, though, and he hasn’t given up entirely.
“So I pledge allegiance against the flag and the fall for which it stands,” he declares amidst the simmer of “Another Age.” “I’ll raze it if I can.”
Phil Ochs had already drifted away from pure folk by this point. In fact, Rehearsals For Retirement was his third foray into standard pop and rock arrangements with producer Larry Marks (better known as the original singer of the “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” theme). What the pair accomplish on Retirement is masterful, from the delicate piano lilt of “The Doll House” to the hammy brass that accents “The World Began in Eden and Ended in Los Angeles.” There simply isn’t a false move.
Unfortunately, a fourth collaboration between Ochs and Marks wasn’t in the cards. Rehearsals For Retirement tanked and Ochs moved on to the bizarre final stage of his career. He began emulating the rock n’ roll stars of the 1950s in an attempt to, as he put it, “[get] Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.” Fans felt bemused or betrayed by the singer’s glitzier attire and Buddy Holly throwbacks. Ochs watched his career evaporate as personal problems seized his life. He hanged himself in April 1976.
The tragedy of this concluding chapter makes Rehearsals For Retirement’s emotionally raw title track all the more heartbreaking. “The days grow longer for smaller prizes, I feel a stranger to all surprises,” Ochs quietly laments. “You can have them, I don’t want them…I wear a different kind of garment in my rehearsals for retirement.”
It’s a true indictment of our nation that the social and political themes of Rehearsals For Retirement continue to be relevant 50 years after its release. Maybe in 100 years we’ll have evolved. I’m not holding my breath.