THE BOTTLE AND THE BIBLE
Noah, Phil Ochs, and Us
by Stephen Hazan Arnoff
It says in the Bible that Noah was the righteous man of his generation, which commentators of old noted was corrupt and twisted. Noah would have done well to make a Marxist exit from the Generation of the Flood – “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member” – rather than providing a floating vessel to save their sorry remnant.
Again thanks to Spotify, I recently reconnected with an album I once pilfered from my father’s record collection and then carried with me for years on a red-and-black 90-minute BASF cassette tape until it melted and died in a friend’s car: Rehearsals for Retirement by Phil Ochs.
Remember Ochs not as a pretender for the dubious Dylan folk crown or a master of the slightly grating topical songs of 1960’s coffeehouses. Remember him instead as an artist of great lyrical depth, melodic reach, and personal anguish. He killed himself after years of suffering in a Noahide struggle with booze and human frailty, eight years after the release of Rehearsals for Retirement in 1968. (We recall that Noah turned hard to wine once the deeds of the ark were done; whether out of despair for the world’s lot or the simple need to cut loose after all of that rage in a cage on the wild sea, we do not know.)Retirement is a stark foreshadowing of the way that Ochs’s own sensitivity and addiction would eventually drown him in the Flood.
As I understand it, Ochs enmeshed himself in the 1968 Democratic convention in the months before recording Rehearsals for Retirement. This chaotic event included offering a pig as a nominee for the highest office in the land. For Ochs, witnessing a crest of the violence and confusion in his political age left him bereft of hope for the future.
Midrash allows many liberties for allowing ancient dicta and narratives to make sensewithin a commentator’s reality, or to give sense to it. I imagine Phil Ochs’s words from the gorgeous, haunting title song of Rehearsals for Retirement in the mouth of Noah, both when Noah faces the task of saving some piece of flawed humanity, and after saving humanity, when he drowns in a frailty of his own:
Where are the armies who killed a country
And turned a strong man into a baby
Now comes the rabble
They are welcome
I wait in anger and amusement
In my rehearsals for retirement
What’s the resolution to all this sorrow? I can’t tell you, although research continues. We are currently consulting with our musical neighbors the Yayhoos, whose “Between the Bottle and the Bible” we encountered first on Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour:
Working on survival
It’s hard to choose
Between the bottle and the Bible
These are also words both Phil Ochs and Noah could have spoken.