Thursday, August 19, 2010

Phil Ochs - Kansas City Bomber

You might expect a song called "Kansas City Bomber" by leftist troubadour Phil Ochs to be a sympathetic take on the plight of a wrongly accused Union Activist, or a scathing rebuke of a right-wing terrorist, or at least topical in some way. Instead it's a portrait of a Roller Derby Queen who finds success in love more difficult than victory in the ring. Ochs wrote the song for the 1972 Raquel Welch film of the same name, but the film's producers ended up not using it.

It's hard to listen to this song and not hear the pathos and desperation in Ochs' voice. As a committed protest singer, he had become a fish-out-of-water by the 1970s, and was struggling to remain relevant. He was battling an epic case of writers block. He was clinically depressed over the collapse of 60s idealism. His public behavior was becoming more and more erratic. So when producer Lee Housekeeper approached Ochs with the idea of writing the theme song for the upcoming Raquel Welch vehicle, he jumped at the opportunity, hoping it might re-ignite his diminished creative spark. After all, he enjoyed watching Roller Derby on TV, and a song about the sport probably seemed like as good an idea to him as anything else at the time.

Given the depressing (heartbreaking really) backdrop against which the song was composed, it is a wonder that it is listenable at all. But to my ears "Kansas City Bomber" is a catchy and--dare I say it--fun song. There's no deep meaning to be found in the song itself any more than there is in the movie. But like Ochs' best protest songs, it's about struggle and the will to persevere in the face of adversity. When Ochs sings "But now she is trapped on the track, on the track, And God help the lady in her way," I can't help but smile. Perhaps he's reaching for some grand metaphor here; if so, the fact that it doesn't really work only makes the song more appealing in its modest way.

Ochs' back up band on the track is the Australian retro-rock band Daddy Cool, who are apparently still active (you can become friends with them on Facebook). According to Wikipedia, Ochs also cut a demo of the song with The Monkees' Mickey Dolenz on backup vocals. I would love to hear that version someday.

The B-side to "Kansas City Bomber" is "Gas Station Women" a song featured on Ochs' light-selling final studio album, Greatest Hits (which was not a greatest hits compilation, but a collection of new album tracks). The fact that Ochs had to resort to using a song that had been released two years previous as a B-side suggests the depth of his writers' block at the time.

Nevertheless, "Gas Station Women" is another interesting songwriting experiment for Ochs. In form and content it is a straight ahead country number. Listening to it, I am reminded of just how closely Ochs' voice resembled that of one of his formative influences, the great honky-tonk singer Faron Young. Ochs crams as many honky-tonk clichés as he can into the lyrics. There's the mistake of leaving the farm for the city, then falling for the wrong kind of girl. There's the heartbreak that inevitably follows and turns the protagonist to drink. But then there's the chorus ("Fill 'er up with love, Please won't you, mister? Just the hi-test is what I used to say, But that was before I lost my baby, I'll have a dollar's worth of regular today") that takes the song well out of the range of generic country music and into the realm of the surreal. It is a very strange, but compelling song, and I always want to sing along to the chorus, even when I'm not drunk.

Speaking of Roller Derby, the sport seems to be making something of a comeback. Here in Rhode Island we have a highly active league that Providence Mayor David Cicilline has declared "the pulse of the city." The nice young lady who teaches my kids' sport classes at the YMCA is one of the Providence Roller Derby's biggest stars ("Crazy Dukes" of the Sakonnet River Roller Rats)... "And God help the lady in her way."


dan said...

I believe Dolenz was among Phil's partners in dissolution in the early 70s. I can only presume Mickey was buying most of the time.

Pete Bilderback said...

I remember Burt Ward was one of his poker buddies too.