Guy in Cowboy hat playing a guitar

Zach Whitney plays the Chords of Fame

It’s late December, and I’m standing at the Dick’s Den bar with my brother Charlie a little after six o’clock. We’re here to play the Phil Ochs Tribute Show, along with a couple of other bands and solo musicians. But we’re really just watching the audience. 

The thirty odd souls that have come out on a cold Thursday night to pay tribute to the last protest singer. Forty-three years since Phil was last alive. Not much of a crowd, really, but this isn’t early sixties Greenwich Village. This is Columbus, collared shirts and half smiles nursing their bourbon and Black Labels, vodka and tonics. An all-ages crowd that are going to stay for the full two and a half hours.

The performers are nervous, as nervous as I’ve ever seen. The guitars sound a little out of tune – nerves make you press too hard on the strings. The songs are tight somehow – “I Ain’t a Marchin’ Anymore,” “Christmas in Kentucky,” “When I’m Gone.” 

Ghosts. I chased Phil and Bob Dylan around the Village once, up and down Bleeker Street. I thought that maybe I could see the old coffee shops where they used to play with the folkies and the beat poets. Not a lot of that history is left. I had a quick drink at The Bitter End, which is now a rock club. The Gaslight Cafe closed in 1971. I had a good deal more than a drink at the Kettle of Fish Bar, which has moved from MacDougal Street to a basement location on Christopher Street. It’s now the bar for Green Bay Packers fans living in the City, whatever sense that makes. It faces the little park where the Stonewall Riot happened. 

Home again. Zach Whitney takes some of the tension out of the air with the Todd Snider song “Wild Thin Mercury,” about the time Dylan kicked Phil out of a limousine for criticizing Bob’s new song “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window.” You’re not a folk singer, Bob says, you’re a journalist. “Get out of the car Ochs.” Zach plays Phil’s “Chords of Fame” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Zach has gotten the audience engaged. 

Hippie Dave and Chris the Anarchist do this crazy bit of music while Dan Dougan reads Edgar Allan Poe’s Poem “The Bells.” Ochs recorded a musical version on his “All the News That’s Fit to Sing” album. “In the silence of the night, How we shiver with affright, at the melancholy menace of their tone.” 

Ghosts. Cafe Wha? is still in New York, although it’s a rock club now with Bob Marley Tributes. A nice place for a beer in the late afternoon. In Dylan’s autobiography “Chronicles” he says that this was the first place you played when you were new in town. Anybody could get 20 minutes on stage to do anything, and then you passed the tip basket. People would come down from uptown to gawk at the Beats and the new arrivals.    

Ghosts. I saw a video of Neil Young playing Phil’s “Changes” at Farm Aid. The drunks in the expensive seats didn’t like it – maybe they were hoping for “Cinnamon Girl?” Neil stopped the song, tore into them, and then played the last verse: “Moments of magic will glow in the night. All fears of the forest are gone.” 

Phil turns up in in Chumbawamba’s “Love Me.” Pearl Jam reworked “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” Billy Bragg did “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night.” Lady Gaga did “The War is Over.” Jim Carroll dedicated “The Basketball Diaries” to him. Stephen King brings him up in “The Tommyknockers.” Everywhere but nowhere.    

Columbus, though, is where Phil got his start.  And Eric Nassau suddenly brings it home by performing “Power and Glory.” The last verse: [b]ut our land is still troubled by men who have to hate, they twist away our freedom & they twist away our fate. Fear is their weapon and treason is their cry, we can stop them if we try.” Eric has found it – the inspiration and the fire. The audience is sitting up in their chairs and reaching out. The power of protest music – maybe it still exists?

Charlie and I stick around for a few beers after the show. We see someone wheeling in a keyboard that looks like a spaceship. The jazz is here and the ghosts are gone. 

I get home and listen to Nanci Griffith’s “[y]ou mourned the cause of discontent with those who couldn't lose the dark. From the broad of daylight to half spent stars just waiting dusk to fall. Tell me, what the hell were you saying? Was there a point at to it all? Oh, and did they really see you out there laughing at us all?”


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