Phil Ochs - Rehearsals for Retirement (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Phil Ochs

Rehearsals for Retirement (1969)


                In 1968, the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. In addition to all the traditional big wheels of the Democratic Party that were present at the time, so where the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and perhaps more recognizably The Youth International Party or the The Yippies. While Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale are likely the most easily recognized names of those who would come to be known as the Chicago 8, folk singer Phil Ochs was also present. He watched police brutalize his friends and fellow travelers in August. He would begin recording, what would prove to be his penultimate studio album, later that year. It would be released in May of 1969. Rehearsals for Retirement was heavy with the political and social strife of its day, as such it was very dark lyrically and was a near failure commercially as it only sold 22,000 copies before being pulled out of print.

I found myself revisiting this album over the first weekend of 2020. It’s cover one of the few exceptions to the old adage “you can’t judge a book/album by its cover.” The headstone on the cover features Ochs’ name with his death being listed as occurring in Chicago in 1968. He’d often called the 1968 DNC the “death of America.” But, also it could be easily stated the personal death found on the album cover, wasn’t just metaphorical. Ochs would release one more album, before a series of medical issues and struggles with addiction would lead to him taking his own life less than a decade after this album came out.

The opening song, “Pretty Smart on My Part”, served as commentary on the reactionary right-wing politics of members of groups like the John Birch Society. The song was written from the perspective of a member of this group, and the humor was sardonic and drench in cynical sarcasm. The protagonist proclaims hatred for minorities, women, and shows an acute paranoia or immigrants. The songs verses end with Ochs singing, “we’ll assassinate the President and take over the government.” In short, the song was about a far-right reactionary political group and how they planned to rise to the top of the American political system. I am sure the lines about assassination hit harder then than they do now, as the United States was only one year removed from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1969.

Elsewhere, the album explores what contemporary society would call toxic masculinity on the track “I Kill Therefore I Am.” “The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns” speaks to how the Lost Generation were alienated by the Vietnam War. While other songs, such as “My Life” and the title track take more introspective look at the world through the eyes of an activist.

The second to last track on the album, is “Another Age” and takes aim at election that resulted in Richard Nixon being elected to the White House. Going so far as to question what Ochs saw as compulsory patriotism becoming the new norm and stating, “I pledge allegiance against the flag, and all for which it stands. I’ll raise it if I can.”

Listening to this album, I can’t help but think Phil Ochs would be overjoyed his music resonates with people to this day. I don’t know if he would be as overjoyed that some of his songs are still so timely. This album was heard by almost nobody, it took a cynical aim at the American political system and did so in a way that would have irked the powers of the day. While proto-punk may have been seen as a musical genre, I think it’s important to give people like Phil Ochs their due when it comes to their influence on punk rock. This album, especially, shows that to be true.