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Positive Force

Max Ochs Still Works and Sings For Social Justice

Michael Northrup

By David Dunlap Jr. | Posted 12/3/2008

By all rights, Max Ochs should be bitter. His college buddies, John Fahey and Robbie Basho, had more well-known and critically lauded musical careers. And the rare instance when Ochs does receive attention from the press, there's always an obligatory reference to his more famous cousin, Phil. Far from having a chip on his shoulder, the 67-year old Severna Park resident is bemused and grateful that folks are paying attention at all.

In fact, Ochs' appreciation and positive attitude are evident in the title of his brand new release on Tompkins Square Records, Hooray for Another Day, a name that might sound treacly by any other artist. The name comes from his father-in-law, Stephen "Tennis" Ogilvy, a charismatic Ivy League-educated, racquet-wielding father of nine, who seems like he might belong in a Wes Anderson adaptation of Infinite Jest. Ogilvy, an inductee into the New England Tennis Hall of Fame, began every day by yelling the phrase upstairs to his children. "It has an effect on your psyche," Ochs explains. "Pretty soon we'll start our own political party, the Hooray party. We can sing the Imaginational Anthem."

Ochs' "Imaginational Anthem" is actually quite real. He wrote the instrumental in 1966 in New York, partly as an alternative to the Star-Spangled Banner and as a tribute to John Fahey, who was Ochs' houseguest at the time. Although Ochs recorded the song in 1969, it remained unreleased until Josh Rosenthal, the founder of Tompkins Square Records, put it out in 2004. Rosenthal was so taken by the song, in fact, that he ended up naming a three-volume compilation of American Primitive folk guitarists after it.

Ochs made his recording debut in 1966 with a couple of instrumental guitar ragas on a Takoma Records compilation called Contemporary Guitar. Since Ochs never actively sought to pursue a musical career, his recorded output was slow and sporadic at best. Before traveling to Japan to perform for the Gunma Blues Society in 2001, Ochs hastily recorded a collection of songs called Letter to the Editor so that he'd have some merch to sell.

Hooray is a more meticulous affair and a better example of Ochs' blend of folk, blues guitar, and raga that seems peculiar to Marylanders. Ochs tries his hand at "Raga Puti," one of Mahatma Gandhi's favorite peace songs. "I tune the guitar to D A D D A D which are open fifth, and let the bottle [slide] float around looking for a musical idea," Ochs says. "It might catch a fragment of something like Blind Willie Johnson's 'Dark Was the Night.'" One of Hooray's highlights is Ochs' cover of Fahey's "In Christ There is No East or West," one of the staples of his live show. Ochs' dexterity and musical precision arguably are better than Fahey's, and the song finds new life in Ochs' hands.

Though the recordings are new, many of the songs were written a long time ago. In 1964, Ochs and a high school pal, Mike Tucker, wrote "Stranger," inspired by the Camus book of the same name and predating the Cure's "Killing an Arab" by 14 years. Ochs gives most of the credit to Tucker for the song, but Ochs' spare guitar playing and tentative, almost whispered vocals give the song a loner folk vibe, reminiscent of Pearls Before Swine. The song can't help but conjure up old memories for Ochs, who recalls Tucker fondly. "We were close back in high school and the years after college," he says. "But I ran up a mess of parking tickets while driving his Jeep through the doors of perception and Marcia, his wife, got mad at me." Although the two drifted apart, Ochs maintains that he'd "love to make amends and start playing some more music with him."

It's not as if Ochs could hold on to hard feelings even if he wanted to. He seems wired for positivity. Even with the nation's bleak economic outlook, Ochs' optimism is unflagging. For one thing, he's a big fan of the president-elect. "Now I can breathe because the better man won," he says. "Obama has the makings of a very good president, a real leader, someone I actually feel like following. I nod my head in agreement when he talks. Last time I felt like this about a leader was with JFK."

Ochs even views the energy situation as more of an opportunity than a challenge, phrasing it in his own free-spirited way: "The sun doesn't raise his prices. The wind blows free."

Ochs has earned his Pollyannish perspective. In a 2005 NPR interview, Ochs recalled protesting the Vietnam War and how he "got thrown in jail for two nights for stopping the Armed Forces Day parade in New York City." He's spent almost 20 years working with the Community Action Partnership to fight poverty. Social awareness and a driving sense of justice are traits that Ochs shared with his cousin Phil. Max described the complicated genealogy of the two distant cousins in his liner notes for Letter to the Editor, "Two brothers married two sisters at the same wedding ceremony, and his grandfather was my grandfather's brother, his grandma was my grandma's sister."

Max Ochs neither shrinks from his blood ties to Phil, nor does he try to parlay the relation for his own reward. Max has recorded a cover of Phil's "When I'm Gone," and on Hooray, he recites a poem that he wrote about his ill-starred cousin. Max had written the poem shortly after Phil's 1976 death and was motivated by "sadness, sorrow and disappointment that the world had let him down so badly that he committed suicide.

"I was angry," he continues. "I wanted to bring him back to life so I could kick his butt for lacking the imagination to see that he could get through if he would just have had patience." Max recalls of Phil that he "was astute in his insight into the flaws in our system, not just the government, but also the social system comprised of many 'small circles of friends.'"

The members of Max's own small circle--Phil Ochs, Fahey, Basho--all had their own lives truncated in sad, tragic ways. Besides Phil's suicide, Fahey's hard living weakened his heart in 2001, and Basho died by a mysterious chiropractic accident in 1986. And then there's Max Ochs, with his Cheshire Cat grin and his damnable optimism, still making music. When asked why he seems so calm and content, Ochs first plays it off as an aspect of his high metabolism, but then adds, "I suspect it may have more to do with my woeful state of ignorance. I just don't know any better. If I did, I would worry a lot more."

Ochs is playing a handful of shows in support of Hooray's release. In addition to the released songs, he's playing a few Blind Willie Johnson blues numbers. "I feel like a recycled teenager," Ochs says of his recent flurry of gigs and the attention. "I am just going to have to be honest and admit that I am enjoying the whole fuss, because I really do love making music." Ochs, the happiest bluesman in the history of blues, turns to a line from Mississippi John Hurt, the Delta blues artist that Ochs and his buddies helped rediscover back in 1963, to describe his present state of mind: "I'm satisfied, tickled too."

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