Monday, February 21, 2011

ochs documentary

Yesterday I drove to Wellfleet Massachusetts--a town close to Provincetown on Cape Cod. I took the ride to watch a documentary on the life of Phil Ochs that was playing at a Wellfleet theater. Wellfleet is a good two hour ride from my home in Waltham, but the documentary--out since early January--is only playing in certain places and will not get closer to Boston until the middle of March.

I had read on the website that the theater was near the Wellfleet Post Office, a spot I know well as I have spent some time--as many Bostonians do--on the Cape during the summertimes. The Wellfleet Post Office is set off the side of what is called the mid cape highway. It is adjacent to a general store that makes one think of very small towns in America. I had not remembered a theater in the area, but I thought one must have been built recently.

I arrived at about 130 for the 2pm show, pulled into the small cluster of stores where the post office still is, and saw nothing that approached a theater. I went into the general store which still in 2011 looks like it could have been taken from a 1940s photo of any rural part of this country. Two people were sitting having coffee in the otherwise empty general store. I asked about the location of the theater. The proprietor--a young fellow who seemed half asleep or sour--repeated "The theater" somewhat disdainfully. He then asked me what was playing there. I told him that the theater was showing a documentary on the life of Phil Ochs.

"Who is he?" he wanted to know.

When I first started my now pushing 40 year stint as a college professor, nearly all my students knew who Phil Ochs was. I noticed over the first ten years of teaching that fewer and fewer did. Once in the early 80s I asked a large lecture class of about 100 and three students raised their hands. I found out subsequently that one of these three thought I had asked about someone else.

So in the early 80s, if this population was representative, about 2 percent of college students knew about Phil Ochs--a hero to many in the late 60s. Now, in 2011, I think half the faculty at my institution would not be able to place him.

At the theater--a modern building next to a new post office and a Dunkin Doughnuts-- which might explain the empty general store and the sour proprietor a half mile away-- there were about 60 people milling about ready to see the documentary. Nearly all were my vintage. During the showing they watched with appreciation the story of Ochs while listening to his songs.

When Nixon and Kissinger appeared on the screen, 60 something folks who looked like they might tell their children to "mind their manners" in a different context, hissed quite naturally, as if the hissing simply oozed from them at the site of a nemesis. At the end of the documentary there was applause, less for the documentary I believe, and more for Ochs himself and the era.

I milled around the lobby afterwards to hear the talk. One woman said she "was there then" meaning I think Greenwich Village when Ochs started his career. Others referred to him as "Phil" not it seemed to me because they were really friends, but because they had become so immersed in his music that he had become, in essence, an intimate from a distance.

Many clips from Ochs's songs were part of the documentary. The one that keeps surfacing in my consciousness today is from his song "Changes." If there had been background music in the post show theater lobby while the 60 year olds from the sixties clustered and reminisced the following lyrics from "Changes" would have been heard over the subdued conversations.

"Scenes of my young years were warm in my mind,Visions of shadows that shine.Til one day I returned and found they were the victims of the vines of changes...Passions will part to a strange melody. As fires will sometimes burn cold.Like petals in the wind, we're puppets to the silver strings of souls, of changes."

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