There was a time in my life when I was absolutely sure I wanted to be a singer-songwriter. I remember sitting on my bed, holding my Gibson (no, that's not a euphemism) and writing 10 wrenching songs about a girl who turned me down — and that was just one afternoon!
When I wasn't penning these pained paeans, I was listening to every tunesmith in town. People who could write and couldn't sing, like Randy Newman. People who could sing and couldn't write, like Carly Simon. And guys like David Blue, who really stood out because he couldn't do either.
I was so obsessed with the idea of being a songwriter, that each day I acted, wrote, even dressed like one of my idols — Bruce, Jackson, Neil. This was fine until I began imitating Joni. Playing the dulcimer was fine, but you don't know how many laws a guy can break, when he wears a peasant skirt.
Regardless, at 18, with a trunkful of songs, I decided to go pro. I dropped out of college and began to start playing (on Hoot Night) at Manhattan's fabled Folk City. This was the club where Dylan did his first paying gig. Although, it was so long ago, I think The Bowery Boys were in the audience. Still, I figured, I could sing and play harp as good as Bob. Meaning, I could probably be heard by every moose in upstate New York. I was thought I was ready to record.
It wasn't all that easy. I hadn't anticipated the scene at Folk City. There were a lot of singer-songwriters there each Hoot Night. Every one of them hoping to be labeled the "Voice Of Their Generation." I was a bit more practical and concentrated on the basics. Like, not dropping my pick into the sound hole. For several weeks running, I went to Folk City, waited four hours and then sang three songs. Things went reasonably well. And regarding my introductions to these tunes? I'll always be grateful to that guy who told me that "anomie" and "alienation" are the same thing.
One night, however, was different from all the others.
I've experienced miracles in my life. I've bought a bag of Wise Potato Chips that was full. I remember a day during Nixon's presidency when he didn't lie. And, in front of an audience, I've actually been good. At least I didn't hyperventilate until someone had to put a paper bag over my mouth and tell me to breathe into it. This one night, at Folk City, was one of those nights. I did two good, new originals which went down well to the 20 people there. But not yet knowing enough about pacing, I closed with a cover of "The Night Chicago Died" — a song so awful, the guy who wrote it only comes up for parole this year.
One of the songs I did was an original called "It Is Always The Flock," a ballad about a guy who'd been to all the Rock Festivals and was now living in poverty in The Village, while "Stephen Stills/Just bought Two Coupe DeVilles." Just a sad, little character study of someone who makes a rocker rich and gets left behind. Being the schizzy songwriter I was, one minute it was as subtle and witty as Loudon Wainwight, the next, had all the delicacy and insight of Harry Chapin. I did my cover, thanked everyone and got ready to shove off.
I stood there looking cool and enigmatic for a few minutes, Just in case somebody wanted to sign me, but my gestures were lost on the crowd. So, I walked outside into the cold December night.
Out on West 3rd Street, zipping up my leather jacket, I heard a raspy voice call, "Hey kid, wait a second." I turned, expecting to see a leering perv, who wanted to buy me a hot chocolate or pay me to lick my sneakers. But this guy, in a stewbum's suit, who looked like he hadn't bathed since Ford took office, was faintly familiar. At least, he didn't seem capable of kidnapping me and forcing to me perform sex acts only legal below 8th Street. I stood there, waiting for the bite or for this guy to start a Branigan, or one of those other Damon Runyon words.
But, before things got ugly, I realized this was a guy I knew. It was Phil Ochs, an uber-famous protest singer in the '60s who sang "I Ain't Marching Anymore" and "Pleasures Of The Harbor." He was befriended by Bob Dylan and then, like the rest of the continental United States, dumped by Bob Dylan.
I knew Ochs had been drinking. I knew exactly what Ochs had been drinking. There were trace elements of four different kinds of liquor on the lapels of his winter coat.
"I really liked that song about the way stars leave people behind. So true," Ochs said, in his husky voice. Even though I was 18, the irony didn't escape me. In his case, Phil Ochs's audience had deserted him. I was not a huge fan, being about as political as Yogi Berra, but Ochs had made a bunch of records. For a while he was famous. He was once kicked out of a limo by Dylan. I thanked him.
We spoke for a while about the scene, how no one was getting signed out of Folk City anymore. I asked Ochs what he was working on.
"Oh, a bunch of things," he croaked. "I just have to decide which record label will be lucky enough to have me."
There was dead silence, I just stared at this ragged, rumpled man. He winked at me, then said, "It's okay to laugh." I tried, but it came out as sincerely as a smile by a mortician. So, I thought I'd take my compliment and leave.
"Uh, just one more thing," said this once-great star of the superheated '60s. "You, uh, got any money?"
I reached into my jeans and found a fiver. I knew that by giving it to Ochs meant Cocoa Puffs three times a day for the next week, but, I'm not the practical type. I knew Phil would probably use it to buy more of the drain cleaner he'd been guzzling that night, but I didn't think it would be a good idea to hand him the five and ask for change.
So, I just gave it to him. And as I handed Phil the bill, it was like a Scorsese freeze-frame. The money, our hands, seemed enjoined forever. But, during that endless moment, a ghastly image appeared in my mind. I saw myself, 15 years from now, asking some other fresh-faced kid for some dough.
In retrospect, this was the night that I began to stop trying to play music. I let go of Phil's hand. He began to walk away. I squelched any urges I had to tell him to buy a sandwich with the money. After all, he knew who he was and what he was, too. Me, I was just starting to find out.
As for careers, I ultimately went a different route. Maybe I was going there anyway. But, regardless? Thanks, Phil, you know... for the push.