Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Martyn Joseph and Murder Most Foul

Martyn Joseph will be appearing at The Georgian Theatre, Stockton on Friday June 4th at 7.30pm Tickets here> MJ – 4/6/2021

Pre December 2019 I had never seen Martyn Joseph live and had never listened to, never mind owned any of his albums. I’d heard the odd song on the radio but that was the limit of it. To be honest, I hadn’t paid him much attention. Amazing then, how someone who has been around for so long can suddenly enter your conscious. That’s the beauty of discovering new (and old) music I guess.

On 5/6/2019 I was enjoying a quiet night in with BBC 6 Music and it just so happened that Martyn was in conversation with Tom Robinson. I found myself drawn in and throughout their exchange Tom played a selection of Martyn’s music, for the first time I heard; Communion, I Searched For You, Driving Her Back To London and Here Comes The Young. Martyn had put the songs in context during the interview and I had been particularly inspired by the lyrical content of ‘Here Comes The Young‘.

I found myself listening back to those songs and they became welcome guests in that part of the brain that stores the good stuff. I got to dreaming and scheming as all music promoters do and made contact with Martyn’s UK tour manager Nikki Woodhead. Nikki and I duly made the necessary arrangements and a date was set for Martyn to come up to the northeast for a DBTR promoted show. The gig happened on 5/12/2019 at The Georgian Theatre, Stockton – exactly 6 months to the day that I had heard Martyn on the Tom Robinson Show.

In the lead up to the gig Nikki had made me aware that Martyn was due to release an album called ‘Days of Decision – A Tribute to Phil Ochs.’ Again, I knew the name, but had never paid much attention to Ochs. That December night in Stockton, over the course of two fantastic sets Martyn played songs from the album and spoke of how he had also been unaware of Phil Ochs until a US journalist had likened his music to that of Ochs, after reading that review Martyn embarked on his own journey of discovery and found that Ochs was indeed something of a kindred sprit. After the show Martyn and I had a brief conversation; we shook hands, he thanked me for promoting the gig and gave me a copy of Days of Decision.

After several listens to Days of Decision and also reading the sleeve notes written by Sonny Ochs (Phil’s sister) I was interested to know more of Phil Ochs. Of course, it’s easy to do research online these days but like a music lover prefers vinyl to an MP3 file, an avid reader will take a book over a computer screen every time. ‘Death of a Rebel’ by Marc Eliot, I quickly discovered is the definitive account of the life and times of Phil Ochs. A few days later, the postman handed me a copy of the book in question, which the seller had described as being in ‘acceptable condition’. I can confirm that Death of A Rebel is not only acceptable, it is fascinating; it’s a crazy ride with a tragic ending which I won’t spoil for you.

If you have got this far, perhaps like me music history is an area of interest. I find the early 1960’s a rich period, one I return to time and time again and still manage to find something new and captivating. One of the interesting storylines that runs through Death of a Rebel is that of Phil’s friendship with Bob Dylan. One of my favourite passages in the book is the story of Phil making off with Dylan’s hat and the lengths Bob went to to retrieve it. Why not have a listen to Martyn playing the title track from his album while I tell you how Bob and Phil met and how their music continues to explain and interpret events that have shaped our world.

In the early 60’s Phil had begun to make a name for himself on the New York City folk scene and had come to the attention of Broadside magazine, a small but influential publication which nurtured and promoted emerging musicians. Phil had begun writing for Broadside and it was while working at the magazine he got to know Bob Dylan. They became fast friends, going out to gigs, drinking together, playing poker, hanging out at each others apartments etc. All the things young guys do. One morning, at 5 am Bob dropped in on Phil who was still up drinking. Dylan had his guitar with him and performed [for the first time anywhere] ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. Phil was taken aback and told Bob – ‘that’s the greatest song I’ve ever heard.’

Over the course of his life Phil became involved in many political causes; one of the first was in the early 60’s when he and Bob gave their support to striking coal miners in the state of Kentucky. They were both active members of the miners support group that had been set up in New York City. The music community raised funds for the miners through a series of benefit gigs in New York and other cities. Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan and many others turned out for the cause; a group of them, including Phil and Bob also travelled to Kentucky and took with them donations of clothes, money and provisions and spent time with the miners, standing on picket lines and generally showing solidarity.

As is the case right now, times were politically divisive in the USA and on 22/11/1963 President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Phil was deeply affected by this and that same night he wrote ‘That Was My President’, a song covered by Martyn Joseph on Days of Decision. Dylan was also troubled by the death of JFK but at the time he avoided recording or saying anything quite as specific as his friend had. However, in 2020, as Phil had done 57 years earlier Dylan articulated his feelings on JFK’s assassination when he released the 16 minute long opus Murder Most Foul. I’m pretty sure Phil would have been on Bob’s mind while he was ruminating on that dark day in Dallas.

Phil certainly came to the mind of respected music writer Tim Sommer when he says, ‘While listening to and considering ‘Murder Most Foul’ I found myself repeatedly thinking of…. Crucifixion, Phil Ochs masterpiece about voyeurism and the JFK assassination, released in 1967. The message of Crucifixion was relatively simple: America must kill it’s idols and Americans demand to drool over pictures of the killing. Although both songs are significantly different in intent, there is a core idea that Crucifixion and Murder Most Foul share: Americans are uniquely bred to miss the point. Ochs says that our fascination with the details of the crime caused us to obscure the…harm it did a generation; and Dylan says that we used the superficial noise of pop culture to distract ourselves from the coup that took place right in front of our eyes.’

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