Ian Curtis: In a Lonely Place

© Jeffrey Bertrand

Having followed his dreams and procured a length of solid rope, Joy Division’s vocalist Ian Curtis is now immortalized as the sad boy whose brief life amounted to a self-created death icon.  Born and raised in the small city of Macclesfield—situated between  hilly pastureland and the grey industrial husk of Manchester in north England—he saw little else to aspire to besides a world-famous tombstone.

Ian never got too far from home—and never for long.  Most of his intense rock n’ roll career was nurtured within a clinging arm’s length of his highschool sweetheart, Debbie—whom he married in his teens—and a pint glass’ throw from his childhood home.  Music was his only escape into a wider world.  By the time he closed the curtain on May 18, 1980 at the age of 23, he had only recorded two full-length albums and a handful of singles.  So he was damn sure to make every song count.

Like many boys in the bleak, economically depressed 1970s, Ian Curtis was immersed in the morbid iconography of martyred pop stars.  He loved James Dean and Janis Joplin.  Among his favorite songs were Jim Morrison’s “The End,” David Bowie’s “Rock n’ Roll Suicide,” and Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” (also written by Bowie.)  Ian frequently said he didn’t want to live past his twenties, and spent his few years with Joy Division writing songs to an oblivious world about why it was not worth living for.

Joy Division’s droning post-punk minimalism is a fitting compliment to Ian’s mesmerizing, if overly-affected baritone vocals—a voice that seems completely disconnected from the singer’s boyish face, like he was huffing keyboard duster before every song.  Curtis’ jerky, robotic dance moves were as disturbing to fans as they were thrilling—and made for a peculiar preview of the epileptic seizures that would wreck his health during his last years alive.

The band’s name is taken from The Doll House, a German novel about a Jewish girl sent to a concentration camp brothel provided for Nazi officers known as “the Joy Division.”  Ian’s raw-nerve sensitivity to the jagged edges of a cruel world is evident in their first full-length album, Unknown Pleasures, particularly the bitter distance that grows between two lovers:

Me in my own world, yeah you there beside
The gaps are enormous, we stare from each side
We were strangers for way too long…

Ian met Debbie when he was only sixteen.  Their first date was  to see David Bowie’s performance of Ziggy Stardust in Manchester.  Despite his father’s reservations, Ian sold his guitar to buy a wedding ring for his one true love.  He took a job as a civil servant and they bought a house together, though Ian’s rock n’ roll fantasies never wavered.

According to Debbie, her husband was consumed by incorrigible jealousy.  She claims that he only proposed to keep other men from showing her too much attention.  Ian did tend to freak out a lot, like the time he saw his wife-to-be dancing with one of her young uncles at their engagement party and threw a Bloody Mary in her face.  He was constantly worried that Debbie would meet someone else, and refused to let her wear anything remotely sexy out of the house.

Perhaps his fears were simply guilt-projection.  He later confided to a friend that he nearly backed out of the wedding because he felt sure that one day he would eventually be unfaithful.  Of course, a musician predicting his own philandering is like a hitch-hiker predicting a roadside molestation—it’s bound to happen eventually.

It was decided early on that wives and girlfriends had no place at Joy Division’s shows.  A rock star’s main squeeze always gets in the way of tour antics, and Joy Division’s endless pranks—which tended to involve their own shit and piss to an alarming extent—would have undoubtedly put off their lady friends.  So would the groupies.

Ian and Debbie’s daughter, Natalie, was born in the spring of 1979 during the recording of Unknown Pleasures.  Ian witnessed the birth, but it was a momentary connection for a young man prone to detachment.  While Debbie poured her affection onto her newborn baby, Ian’s eyes were fixed on the stars.

Annik Honoré was doing a bit of star-gazing herself, and after seeing Joy Division perform at Nashville Sounds in London, she decided to reach out and grab one of those crazy diamonds.  The lovely Belgian writer arranged to do an interview with the band for a fanzine, after which she and Ian remained in contact.  Ian was hardly a skirt-sniffing cad, but there was something about this exotic young woman that sparked an inferno inside him.  “There was some electricity in the air every time we would see each other,” she said after his death, “every time we looked at each other.”

Annik was everything that Ian’s wife was not: educated, articulate, well-traveled, and unwaveringly self-determined.  They would talk for hours about art, literature, and film, her sexy Belgian accent captivating the provincial English singer.  After their first kiss at London’s Electric Ballroom, there was no turning back.  Time was too short to waste on patience—yet Ian’s conscience was too strong to stave off the guilt.

Curtis tortured himself to death in the chasm between domestic responsibility and the romance of rock stardom.  He withdrew from his wife and daughter when at home, spending endless hours alone in his blue room with his notebook and little dog, Candy.  His grand mal seizures had also grown progressively worse, usually triggered by performances, though occurring more frequently at home.

Oddly enough, years before he suffered his first seizure in 1978 Ian had worked with a number of epileptics while employed as a Disablement Resettlement Officer, where he witnessed rooms full of pitiful patients wearing helmets and pads.  The song “She’s Lost Control” is apparently about one of these unfortunate souls:

And she screamed out kicking on her side and said
I’ve lost control again
And seized up on the floor, I thought she’d die
She said I’ve lost control…

Doctors fumbled in the dark to find a pill that could fix his brain, but effective treatments would not be developed for more than a decade. Too late.  The chemical cocktails began to fry Curtis’ circuits, sending him into long bouts of uncommunicative depression. Somehow he managed to take the stage night after night anyway, and in January of 1980 Joy Division embarked on their first—and only—European tour.

Debbie wanted to come along for the sights and adventure, but Ian stoutly refused, leaving her at home with the baby and their dog.  Despite Annik’s attempts to walk away from her impossible love, she would join him for six days in Europe.  It was to be the longest time they would spend together, and one of the last.

According to Annik, she and Ian never once made love.  Aside from her own guilt over an affair with a married father, she says she was a virgin, wary even of Ian’s modest sexual experience.  This apprehension, coupled with her lover’s rapidly deteriorating health, ensured that Annik’s nubile body would remain for Ian an unknown pleasure.  Their romance would continue in an urgent exchange of letters, but they could never come closer.

“You are the only thing that makes me truly happy at this moment,” Ian wrote, “when I’m with you, when I’m near you, when I think of you…

“I am paying dearly for past mistakes.  I never realized how one mistake in my life some four or five years ago would make me feel how I do.  I live beyond obligation and responsibility…. I struggle between what I know is right in my own mind and some warped truthfulness as seen through other people’s eyes…  I thank God I have my solitude…”

On the night of Ian’s return home, Debbie came home to find her husband pilled-out on the blue room’s floor and stabbing holes into a Bible with a kitchen knife, having already cut himself up a bit.  The next day she asked him if he didn’t love her anymore.

“I don’t think I do,” he said.

A few days later Debbie became desperate for answers and tore through Ian’s notebooks.  There she found Annik’s name and address.  She confronted him, and he admitted infidelity.  Debbie decided to get a divorce.

Upon considering the fact that Ian carried pictures of his dog instead of his family, Debbie decided that she was done taking care of little Candy and gave her away as well.  She then proceeded to call Ian’s parents and tell them everything.  Finally, she called Annik at her office to berate her for being a home-wrecker.

Joy Division continued playing gigs around England and started work on their second album, Closer, but their singer was teetering on the brink.  On Good Friday 1980 the band played two shows back to back.  Ian worked himself into a spastic frenzy as usual, but fell unconscious at the peak of both sets, bringing the performances to a grinding halt.  The drinking, lack of sleep, and flashing stagelights had become more than his electrified neurons could handle.

On Easter Sunday he wrote a suicide note and swallowed a handful of Phenobarbitone.  Upon realizing that he had not taken enough to die, he woke his wife to call an ambulance so as to avoid becoming a brain-dead zombie pissing blood all over himself.  His failed attempt to play a show the next night resulted in a riot.  Ian’s manager found him crouched upstairs afterward, weeping.

Despite Ian’s ragged state, the band decided to go forward with an upcoming American tour, and were set to leave on May 19.  Rock n’ roll slows down for no man—“there’s no room for the weak,” as the lyric says.

Ian stayed away from home for a couple of weeks to let things cool off, but on May 17 he returned to pick up some things and say goodbye to his daughter.  Debbie found him there that afternoon, and he begged her to call off the divorce.  She agreed to spend the night with him and left for a bit, but by the time she got back he had changed his mind again and told her not to come back until he was on his way to the airport.  Apparently he had spoken to Annik on the telephone and promised to honor his last letter and end his marriage for sake of true love.  She was on her way from a trip to Egypt to see him.

Alone again, Ian pulled out pictures of his wife and daughter, and wrote an impassioned letter begging Debbie for reconciliation.  He watched Werner Herzog’s Stroszek, a film about a European artist who cannot decide between two women and so chooses to kill himself.  He put Iggy Pop’s The Idiot on the record-player, drank a pot of coffee, and finished off the last of a bottle of whiskey.  Then he tied a cord to their old-fashioned clothes rack and hung himself in the kitchen.  Debbie found the letter first, then noticed his body.  The noose had cut deep into his throat and he had practically sunk to his knees. 

© Brandt Hardin

Ian Curtis was pronounced dead on May 18, 1980, and was cremated a few days later.  His friends and family were devastated and confused, but his fans were riveted.  The single for “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was released that June, along with a music video—the last footage of Ian alive:

When routine bites hard
And ambitions are low
And resentment rides high
But emotions won’t grow
And we’re changing our ways, taking different roads

Then love, love will tear us apart again…

This single was followed the next month by the release of Closer, which was recorded a mere two months before the singer’s death and is perhaps the most mystifying posthumous album I have ever heard.  It is a suicide note set to gloomy keyboard hooks.  The icy vocals describe public torture for entertainment, complete alienation, and tragic love, but most of all, Curtis’ lyrics speak of the soul-crushing guilt of a heart torn between domestic devotion and burning romance.

In truly grim fashion, Debbie had “Love Will Tear Us Apart” carved into her husband’s tombstone (which, incidentally, was stolen by some curse-thirsty jerkoff in 2008.)  The grave remains a pilgrimage site for dour souls who still gather en masse on five- and ten-year deathdays.

“In a Lonely Place” was Ian Curtis’ final recording, finally released in 1981 by Joy Division’s surviving members, now known as New Order:

Warm like a dog round your feet
How I wish you were here with me now

Hang man looks round as he waits
Cord stretches tight then it breaks
Someday we will die in your dreams
How I wish we were here with you now

They might as well have slipped straight razors into the album sleeves, just in case.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

Joy DivisionTransmission

Bob Marley Died Dreaming
of Babylon on Fire

© Brandt Hardin

Bob Marley shined a ray of hope upon the starved and battered denizens of the Third World with his soothing reggae rhythms. The singer rose up from the brutal Jamaican ghetto to emerge on the international music scene as a charismatic voice of conscience, shedding light on the bitter legacy of European colonialism to the shame of well-fed “baldheads.” He sang an apocalyptic song of freedom, tapping Rasta prophecies that promised the return of Africans to their homeland, Zion, and the total destruction of decadent Western society, or Babylon. As the tumultuous 1970s drew to a close, Marley and his fellow Rastafari were certain that the end was nigh.

Bob Marley’s world ended in a Miami hospital bed on May 11, 1981, while the First World’s marketing gurus captured and framed his image in ganja green, blood red, and merchandising gold. Despite the best intentions of international charities and the impassioned diatribes of pot-smoking college students, thirty years after his passing the Third World continues to groan under the weight of commercial exploitation and crushing poverty. Perhaps Jah smoked one spliff too many and forgot all about Armageddon.

If Heaven is peace and plenty, then sweltering Caribbean ghettos are Hell on earth. Even sheltered tourists can’t help but notice the desperation and violence that seethes beyond the putting green. Jamaica’s African slaves were officially set free in 1838, which meant that masses of peasants had no jobs and the white aristocracy had little vested interest in providing adequate food or shelter. The 20th century saw a few enterprising individuals—mostly foreign investors—turning a profit by mining bauxite and growing bananas, while the rest of the island’s 2.5 million inhabitants were left grasping for dreams and submachine guns.

Bob Marley was born in the tiny Jamaican village of Nine Mile in 1945, the son of a poor, earth-hued woman who nurtured him to his dying day and an aging, lily-white seaman who set sail when Bob was a baby. The boy grew up in Trench Town, a shanty-strewn slum of Kingston, the nation’s capital. According to Timothy White’s romantic biography, Catch a Fire, young Marley was a respected streetfighter—his favorite jab was “Me got de handle, focker, yuh gon’ get de blade”—and soccer-playing rude boy who could also belt out a captivating tune.

Knowing that idle hands are ol’ Screwface’s plaything, Bob’s mother put him to work as a welder, but after a stray steel splinter lodged itself into his eye, music became his life. Though his earliest songs were dancy pop tunes, by the late 60s Bob Marley and the Wailers would shed their sharp suits and ties for the Rasta-inspired reggae style that would make them legends.

When he was a boy, the dusty, dreadlocked mendicants who wandered barefoot from the Dungle to the jungle struck fear in Bob Marley’s heart. At that time, the cult of Rastafari was still an obscure offshoot of Marcus Garvey’s militant “back to Africa” movement which gathered only the most austere adherents, but by the 60s much of Jamaican society embraced rebellious Rasta mysticism as the symbolic antithesis of the white ruling class they despised.

The sect’s belief system is an amalgamation of biblical prophecy and Afrocentrism, taking its name from Ras Tafari, who was crowned Ethiopia’s emperor in 1930 and thereafter known as Haile Selassie I. This was heralded by many of Marcus Garvey’s followers as a fulfillment of prophecy, citing Psalm 68:31: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” The Ethiopian press called Selassie “King of Kings” and the “Lion of Judah,” which fueled the fire.

Rastafarians came to believe that His Majesty Haile Selassie would gather the lost tribes of Africa to the mother continent and establish God’s Kingdom on earth. Many believed him to be God incarnate. When the Emperor visited Jamaica in April 1966, over 100,000 fervent believers flocked to greet him on the tarmac, hoping that the divine king would finally liberate them from Babylon and bring them home. The Emperor was dumbfounded by this bizarre reception. While Selassie never denied his divinity, he suggested that the people of Jamaica pursue freedom on their own island rather than pour into Ethiopia.

Bob got married that same year, and his wife, Rita, witnessed Haile Selassie’s procession through Kingston. She was sure that the Emperor looked directly into her eyes and waved his hand—which bore a stigmata. It was not long before she became a devout Rasta, bringing the word back home to her husband.

Bob was not an instant convert. He had always been inspired by moralistic proverbs and enjoyed a nice puff of reefer now and again, but it was not until he met Mortimo Planno in 1967, the only Rasta elder to have direct contact with Haile Selassie, that Marley came to follow the Rasta path. During a heavy smoking session, Bob told Planno about a strange dream in which a khaki-dressed man gave him a ring with a black stone. Planno covered all angles, telling Bob the dream was a sign that he would either grow spiritually or “ketch a fire.” Preferring the former possibility, Bob began to grow out his dreads and “reason” with the Rastas.

During a disastrous, if serendipitous international tour in 1972, the Wailers found themselves stranded in London, where they met Chris Blackwell, founder of the rock label Island Records. Blackwell would go on to provide the capital and promotion behind the group’s phenomenal success among rock n’ roll fans, bringing reggae into the mainstream. After the remarkable critical reception of the back-to-back albums Catch a Fire and Burnin’ in 1973, Bob Marley and the Wailers became the Rastafari’s representative to the world.

Rastafari’s reputation for marijuana and sexual license has often overshadowed the rigid discipline of the sect. The commandments of God, or “Jah,” are to be followed rigorously. Drawing on Old Testament law, Rastas abstain from eating pork and shellfish—or any meat for that matter. Even salt is considered unclean. Their dreadlocks are inspired by the biblical decree that men are not to take a razor to their heads.

Of course, the cultivation, sale, and constant smoking of ganja is a central activity for Rastafarians. The Bible is regarded as the word of truth, but Rastas also hold that it has been corrupted by the editorial work of the wicked white man. Therefore their biblical study is to be assisted by inner visions, and there is nothing like a fat joint to inspire a vivid imagination.

The Rasta community generally survives on the squatter fringe of society. Material excesses are shunned, as well as the unnatural technologies of their white oppressors. Both capitalism and communism are generally held in contempt, the former for its exploitation of the People of Jah, the latter for its condemnation of religion. Despite their abiding faith that Jah will soon inaugurate an age of peace, Rastafarians are willing to defend their property, family, and honor by any means necessary.  Even those Jamaicans who find the Rasta beliefs to be nonsensical will generally show dreads the respect that any potentially violent earthly power commands.

In 1975 Haile Selassie was deposed—and most likely assassinated—by Marxist revolutionaries in Ethiopia, yet many Rastas refused to believe that His Majesty had actually died. How could God die? It had to be more lies from the Babylon press. It was just another sign of immanent Armageddon, and they would wait patiently for the return of their king.

The absolute kingship of Haile Selassie notwithstanding, Rastafari generally eschew all earthly hierarchies among men. However, women are not included in important activities—eg. the smoking of the sacred chillum—particularly during their menstrual cycle, when they are completely segregated from the men. Traditionally, Rasta women are there to have sex, bear children, cook meals, perform household chores, and keep their mouths shut unless asked for an opinion. They are to maintain the highest standards of modesty, wearing no makeup but “the beaded gleam on their brows and the dust on their necks, their only fragrance that of perspiration.” You know, a good woman.

Rita Marley was such a woman. While Bob shined in the spotlight, Rita sang backup. While Bob took countless beautiful lovers to bed—including Miss World ’76—Rita waited faithfully for her man to come home (most of the time, anyway.) And when Bob brought his numerous illegitimate children home for a visit, Rita bestowed her blessings, as Rasta women consider themselves to be mothers to all children. She even took a bullet for her husband.

1976 was a turbulent year for Bob Marley. He was riding the recent international success of his “No Woman, No Cry” single, and had acquired a luxurious house in a wealthy neighborhood in uptown Kingston. To the chagrin of his wife and fellow ghetto Rastas, Bob was drawn into the fold of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, an elitist splinter sect of the Rasta movement led by the charismatic Prophet Gad.

Bob’s close friend Skilly Cole became a Twelve Tribes disciple as well. The former professional soccer player was a man of many talents.  Aside from terrorizing and occasionally beating Jamaican DJs to get Bob Marley records on the air (which he admitted in court,) Skilly was also involved with a crime syndicate known as the Concrete Jungle.  One of their scams was to rig horse races by kidnapping and threatening jockeys, but when the deal went sour, Skilly’s gangster associates came after Bob. The thugs extorted Bob for Skilly’s debt, to be paid off two thousand dollars a day.

To top it off, Kingston was in the throes of a political frenzy.  Jamaican elections were often marred by shootouts between the hired thugs of both major political parties—the conservative Jamaica Labor Party and the socialist People’s National Party—but the 1976 elections were particularly riotous. With the global oil crisis crippling the economy, the streets stirred with discontent and the possibility of popular uprising. Prime minister Michael Manley sent an envoy to Bob’s house to ask him to perform at the state-sponsored Smile Jamaica concert before the December election in an attempt to calm the agitated public. Bob agreed, despite the threat of becoming entangled in the political violence.

One week before the concert, the PNP provided 24-hour security at the Marley house. As a result, the Concrete Jungle’s money collector was repeatedly turned away. On December 3, two days before the Smile Jamaica concert, seven thugs descended upon Marley’s house with guns blazing. His manager, Don Taylor, was shot in the legs and spine. Rita was hit in the skull while running out of the house with Bob’s children, and one of the gunmen popped Bob in the chest, barely missing his heart. The shooters escaped before police arrived. Somehow no one was killed, and Marley played an extended set at Smile Jamaica, famously saying, “De people trying to make dis world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?”

There are no official confirmations of the assailants’ identities, but according to Timothy White’s biography they were brought to justice. Two were shot in the head. Two had their throats slit in the jungle, Rasta style. The remaining two went insane, wandering the streets muttering about flaming ghosts and snakes in their heads—one hung himself, and the other simply disappeared. Years later, manager Don Taylor—who also claimed that Marley had beat the shit out of him on multiple occasions after he took a bullet for Bob—testified that he had witnessed some of the men being tried and hung in a back alley by a lynch mob.

Bob disappeared for a month while things cooled off, emerging with the release of Exodus the following year, calling for repatriation in the face of persecution on the title track:

Walk, through the roads of creation
We’re the generation
Who trod through great tribulation

Exodus, movement of Jah people…

It was that year, 1977, that Bob met with Haile Selassie’s exiled successor, Crown Prince Asfa Wossen. The men talked for hours, but before they parted, Wossen presented Marley with a token of his esteem. It was the late Emperor Haile Selassie’s ring, bearing a black jewel and an image of the Lion of Judah, which Wossen slipped onto Marley’s index finger—just like in his dream. Marley was dumbfounded. His fate was sealed.

That same year, Bob Marley incurred a soccer injury on his toe, but the wound refused to heal. He was diagnosed with melanoma. Doctors advised amputation, but Marley refused, as such procedures were considered a bodily desecration by Rastafarians. He would put his faith in Jah and carry on.

For the next three years, Bob Marley released three brilliant albums, including his final revolutionary call to Jah’s people, Uprising. In 1978, he embarked on a sweeping Babylonian world tour of the US, Europe, Australia, and Japan. Jamaican expatriates in London, New York, and Miami were enthralled, as well as Aborigines in Australia and, oddly enough, rebellious Japanese youths.

That same year, Marley’s most telling statements came in an interview with Mumia Abu-Jamal, considered a political prisoner by the radical left after being convicted for murdering a white police officer. Their candid conversation is rarely mentioned in Marley’s glowing retrospectives.  Incredulous Babylonians would never understand.

[translation here]

“Once you smoke herb, you all must think alike,” Marley explained to Abu-Jamal, “Now if you thinking alike, dat mean we ‘pon the same track. If we ‘pon the same track, that mean we gonna unite….

“Exodus means coming together…the movement of Afrika, of Black people. Exodus from Babylon, we’re in Babylon, and then a physical exodus to Home. But what we really a say is dat, we waan Black people to unite, with one another, seen?…

“Because, what [Haile Selassie] say is true. Until the philosophy that hold one people higher than the other one is no more, then if it continue, ya gwanna have war! When it done, problem over, seen?…

“Because Christ government shall rule the earth, ya know? And Christ is Rastafari! Over a period of time, people think, and hafta get over thinking that Christ was White. But Christ a Black mon! Just like the Bible tell ya, say Christ Black, Solomon, say him Black, Moses, tell ya, say him Black, Jeremiah, say him Black, Haile Selassie Black. So Christ no white. Christ Black, you know?…

“[The Church in] Rome is the enemy, you know? Rome is the enemy of the people. Dem is the Anti-Christ, and dem walk around and tell people dem a deal with Christ. But naturally, dem is Anti-Christ, for Christ is Haile Selassie…

“Capitalism and communism are finished. It Rasta now! The Blackmon way of life. That’s what we a say now dread. We a say: give the Blackmon fe him way of life now. Mek him show you how government run and how people care for people….

“Cause the white man not living good, you know. The China man naa live good, either. Why? Because the Blackmon is not united. Because the Blackmon, him are the cornerstone pon earth! When time him shaky, the whole earth shaky. You see? When him solid, everything solid. And it a long while since we have been solid….”

In April 1980, Bob Marley appeared at the Zimbabwe Independence Day ceremonies before returning to New York. He knew that his time was short. Though kept a secret from the public, the cancer had metastasized from his toe to his lungs, liver, and brain. That September he played two final shows in Madison Square Garden, but collapsed the next day while jogging with Skilly Cole in Central Park. He was rushed to the hospital after suffering a stroke, where he immediately began receiving radium treatments in the Cancer Center.

Marley clung to life with all of his might. He flew to Germany to receive the contraversial treatments of Dr. Josef Issels, whose “whole body” theory held that nutritional deficiencies and toxic impurities were responsible for cancer, but life was slipping away.  En route to Jamaica, Marley was taken to the Cedars of Lebanon Hosptial in Miami, where he finally succumbed to the creeping illness on May 11, 1981.

The whole of the Third World and the fringes of the First wept at the death of their prophet. There was spiritual confusion.  If Jah’s blessing bestows health and happiness, why had His tortured disciple died in such a fashion, his body eating itself whole, his sacred dreadlocks falling away?

Bob Marley’s body was interred in a tomb near his hometown after a dramatic state funeral. The Twelve Tribes of Israel were left reeling, but their Prophet Gad was sure of one thing. He wanted the Emperor’s black-stone ring bearing the Lion of Judah, and hectored Marley’s mother in her time of mourning. Bob Marley was his disciple, the Prophet Gad insisted, and by rights the precious ring was his. The End Times were upon the land, and Gad was chosen to lead Jah’s people.

“De ring gwan back from whence it came,” Marley’s mother told the so-called Prophet. “It back on His Majesty’s mighty hand. And yuh know neither de day nor de hour.”

Marley’s message of freedom has since spread to the ends of the earth. Cynical Westerners may mock the ridiculous and generally superficial manner in which Bob Marley’s Rastafarian way of life is adopted by white kids lacking their own racial identity, but the sense of collective suffering and redemptive hope that Marley’s music inspires in the poorest corners of the earth is mind-blowing. From Carribean shanty-towns to New York tenements to the most squalid African village, revolutionary reggae presents the glorious possibility that one day all of God’s children will be invited to the table, while also tantalizing the listener’s vindictive desire to see Babylon and all of her whorish children burn like fields of sugarcane.

One Love, mon.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

Bob MarleyExodus

Marilyn Manson — Holy Wood
(In the Shadow of the Valley of Death)

In case you weren’t watching TV that day—any channel, at any given moment—on April 20, 1999, two black-clad teenage boys walked into their high school in Littleton, CO with an action hero’s arsenal of guns and homemade explosives. They had prepared for over a year, alternately referring to their plot as “Judgement Day” or “NBK”—after Natural Born Killers. The bombs were set to destroy the entire cafeteria, but when they failed to blow, the two boys proceeded to shoot and kill twelve students and one teacher in a sixteen minute rampage. Over two dozen others were wounded. A few are crippled for life.

After a brief standoff with the police, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold sat down side-by-side in the school library, lit one last Molotov cocktail, and blew their brains out in turn. Marilyn Manson wrote an entire album about it. He called it Holy Wood.

It bears repeating here that Marilyn Manson’s name was taken from Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson, the most popular sex symbol and murder icon of the Woodstock Generation. Marilyn Manson was conceived as a collective symbol for America, combining polar opposites: male and female, beauty and ugliness, Eros and Thanatos, God and Satan.

His early persona was like a luciferic Cat in the Hat taunting Jerry Falwell on a Saturday morning cartoon. The sleeve of his 1994 debut album features the singer’s face grinning on a television set above a young boy smeared with make-up and holding a revolver.

As a sort of disclaimer in his first newsletter, Mr. Manson made it clear to his growing cult of adoring adolescents that killing one’s parents or oneself “has no place in our movement.” He wasn’t building an army to fill a graveyard. He wrote:

“When WE become the majority, we will decide who ‘doesn’t belong.’ As misanthropes and throw-away kids we will not submit to mainstream. We will become it. And America should be very, very afraid.”

Small-town parents were horrified to see their kids wearing playful t-shirts that read WE HATE LOVE—WE LOVE HATE, and the classic:

Warning: the music of Marilyn Manson
contains messages that will
in your impressionable teenage minds.
As a result, you could be convinced to
and eventually in an act of hopeless
rock and roll” behavior you will
Please burn your records
while there’s still hope

With the release of Antichrist Superstar in 1996, Manson’s following grew exponentially. The album is a satire on the self-righteous shit-flinging between America’s polarized moralists. Playing upon the premillennial tension of the late 90s, Manson describes the so-called Antichrist as a hateful force lurking within each of us. The story’s protagonist is an alienated boy who becomes so infected with his culture’s megalomaniacal intolerance that he is ready to destroy the whole world in a sort of suicide/apocalypse:

I went to God just to see
And I was looking at me
Saw Heaven and Hell were lies
When I’m God, everyone dies

The album went platinum. Liberal politicians called it sick and offensive, while Christian protesters swarmed to arenas with picket signs, driving ticket sales through the roof. In concert, Manson stood on a podium reminiscent of Nuremberg or The Wall, tore pages from the Bible, and instructed his fans to spit loogies all over him.

“They want you to go to church,” he screamed, “but this is your church, motherfuckers!”

The message of his sermon?

“Be yourself.”

In 1998, Manson finally broke into the global mainstream with Mechanical Animals, a glam-inspired concept album poking fun at the bland MTV rock culture of the day. An androgynous alien descends to Earth lookin’ for love, only to find a dying world populated by doped-up, dumbed-down automatons “as hollow as the ‘o’ in God.” The album debuted at #1, and “the world spread its legs for another star.” The Rock is Dead tour sold out arenas, with Manson poised to become “bigger than Satan.” But there was trouble popping off behind the scenes.


Throughout Manson’s rise to superstardom, school shootings ramped up at an alarming rate. All across America, small-town white boys were arming themselves and waging war on the world:

  • October 12, 1995Blackville, SC. A 16 year-old shot and killed two math teachers before shooting himself.
  • November 15, 1995Lynnville, TN. A 17 year-old shot three people, killing a teacher and an 8th grader before he was tackled.
  • February 2, 1996Moses Lake, WA. A 14 year-old came to his algebra class in a long black coat. He shot and killed two students and a teacher, saying “This sure beats algebra, doesn’t it?” The line came from Stephen King’s novel Rage. The killer said his outfit was inspired by a scene in Natural Born Killers.
  • February 8, 1996Pala Alto, CA. A 16 year-old drove his car onto an outdoor basketball court, tossed dollar bills out the window, and unloaded on the kids running up to grab the money, injuring three before killing himself.
  • February 19, 1997Bethel, AK. A 16 year-old went on a twenty minute spree, killing his principal and a student, injuring two others. He held the gun to his own head before surrendering to police.
  • October 1, 1997Pearl, MS. A 16 year-old self-proclaimed Satanist and Hitler fan smothered his mother with a pillow, beat her with a baseball bat, and stabbed her to death with a kitchen knife. He then went to his school and shot his ex-girlfriend before firing at random, ultimately killing two and wounding seven.
  • December 1, 1997West Paducah, KY. A 14 year-old tried to impress the goth crowd by shooting up a prayer circle at school, killing three and injuring five. A copy of King’s Rage was found in his locker.
  • December 6, 1997Stamps, AR. A 14 year-old hid in a treeline and fired on students walking to class, injuring two.
  • March 24, 1998Jonesboro, AR. Inspired by the Stamps shooting, two boys—13 and 11 years-old—stole various firearms and a van, then drove their arsenal to their middle school. The younger boy pulled the fire alarm, then ran to the woods to join his friend. As the students filed out, the pair fired 30 rounds, killing four preteen girls and one teacher, injuring ten others.
  • April 24, 1998Edinboro, PA. A 14 year-old shot and killed a teacher and wounded two classmates at a graduation dance.
  • May 21, 1998Springfield, OR. A 15 year-old killed his parents and booby trapped their bodies with homemade bombs. He then went to school, where he fired on 400 students in the school cafeteria, killing two and wounding twenty-two.

In each of these cases, the shooter was a rural (or suburban) white male. It was like a psychopathic version of Revenge of the Nerds. None of the shooters were high up on the school pecking order—many were at the bottom of the food chain. All of them were either bullied (typically called “faggots”), sexually abused, compelled by a desire to prove their masculinity, suffering from feelings of persecution, desperately suicidal, or some combination thereof. It goes without saying that they all had access to guns.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had been watching these tragedies unfold on television. “Every day news broadcasts stories of students shooting students, or going on killing sprees,” Eric wrote in an English paper. “It is just as easy to bring a loaded handgun to school as it is to bring a calculator.”

“Thorough and logical,” his teacher remarked.  “Nice job.”

Eric was particularly taken by the meticulously planned massacre in Jonesboro, AR, and was itching to top the young pair’s body count. A competitive egomaniac, Eric even aspired to top the 168 deaths caused by Timothy McVeigh. Eric and Dylan’s “Judgement Day” was originally planned for April 19, 1999—the 4th anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing—but due to a delay obtaining ammunition, they settled for Hitler’s birthday instead. They dreamed big, and even discussed hijacking a plane to crash into a building in Manhattan, but their high school was more realistic. They constructed numerous propane bombs intended to collapse the columns in the cafeteria, which would send the library upstairs crashing down. They hoped to kill at least 500 students, and would shoot any survivors running out of the building.

“it’ll be like the LA riots, the oklahoma bombing, WWII, vietnam, duke and doom all mixed together,” Eric wrote. “maybe we will even start a little rebellion or revolution to fuck things up as much as we can. i want to leave a lasting impression on the world.”

In the end, they killed thirteen people and then themselves—undoubtedly, the impression was lasting. News teams descended on Littleton in droves. CNN and Fox News charted the highest ratings in their history, and proclaimed Columbine to be the bloodiest school shooting ever recorded—and recorded live, to boot. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, arrived with Amy Grant by his side to lead the mourners in prayer. Pop psychologists built entire careers around the shooting. Souls would be saved. Psyches would be probed. History would be made.

Before the day was over, Marilyn Manson became an instant scapegoat, carrying the sins of America’s homocidal youth. Headlines read: KILLERS WORSHIPPED ROCK FREAK MANSON and SHOCK ROCKER WHO FILLED PAIR WITH A THRILL TO KILL. He certainly looked the part.

Of course, the original claims that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were dressed like Manson were completely false, but first impressions tend to stick. Eric was obsessed with KMFDM, and Dylan listened to Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral again and again. It is certainly possible that they listened to Marilyn Manson as well, as some students claimed—or maybe they always thought he was “a joke,” as the killers were later quoted as saying.

Manson watched in horror as his contacts in show business and the music industry turned their backs on him one by one. Anonymous death threats began arriving soon after.

About a month after the shooting, Manson published an article in Rolling Stone entitled “Columbine: Whose Fault Is It?” He held violent human nature responsible for such tragedies, played upon by religion and mass media:

Christianity has given us an image of death and sexuality that we have based our culture around. A half-naked dead man hangs in most homes and around our necks…The world’s most famous murder-suicide was also the birth of the death icon—the blueprint for celebrity…

[The media] just created two new [folk heroes] when they plastered those dipshits Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’ pictures on the front of every newspaper. Don’t be surprised if every kid who gets pushed around has two new idols.

Manson does take on some of the blame, however, by virtue of his membership in the intrinsically violent human race:

In my work I examine the America we live in, and I’ve always tried to show people that the devil we blame our atrocities on is really just each one of us.

That said, the singer crawled into his attic for three months, where he wrote Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death). The record was released on November 14, 2000—just before the deathday of JFK—along with this on Manson’s website:

Is adult entertainment killing our children?
Or is killing our children entertaining adults?


Holy Wood approaches these questions with morbid curiosity rather than definitive answers. In some ways, Marilyn Manson shows more empathy for the troubled kids gathering in his shadow than on any other album. The narrative is cohesive and lucid as the inner world of a teenage killer unfolds with each song.

The album opens with a child’s prayer. God is Jesus Christ hanging on a cross. God is John F. Kennedy shot in the black limousine. God is John Lennon in the happy gun. God is a child killed on camera. God is dead, and so everybody loves him.

Manson elaborates on “Lamb of God”:

If you die when there’s no one watching
Then your ratings drop and you’re forgotten
If they kill you on their TV
You’re a martyr and the lamb of God

Columbine, the 2009 exposé by Dave Cullen, explores Eric and Dylan’s aspirations to televised deification in uncomfortably vivid detail, as well as providing heart-wrenching accounts of the victims, the survivors, and their families. Cullen draws on documents that were sealed during much of the media circus surrounding the tragedy, including the boys’ journals.

Eric Harris proudly entitled his writings The Book of God. The first line reads: “I hate the fucking world.” Further on, he writes:

“I feel like God. I am higher than almost anyone in the fucking world in terms of universal intelligence…ever wonder why we go to school? its not to obvious to most of you stupid fucks but for those who think a little more and deeper you should realize it is societies way of turning all the young people into good little robots.”

Despite these god-like flights of fancy, Eric was an avowed atheist disgusted by the megachurch-attending Christians that thrive in Littleton. “its just all nature, chemistry, and math. you die. burn, melt, evaporate, decay.” From this standpoint, he adopted a Nazi-like view of evolution.

In Eric’s twisted peanut, natural selection has been hijacked by medical care and special ed programs, leaving him surrounded by retarded automatons who not only refused to bow down, but had the nerve to insult him continually. Among his proposed solutions was to imprison the human race in an Ultimate Doom game and pick us off one by one. Another option, meticulously detailed in his writing, was “Judgement Day.”

“I know I will die soon; so will you and everyone else.”

Despite the constant irritation, Eric revelled in his ascendant position as the highest lifeform on Earth. For Dylan Klebold, being unique was depressing.

Dylan called his journal Existences: A Virtual Book. It’s pages are filled with sadness creeping toward suicide. “My existence is shit,” he wrote.

Dylan lamented his inability to shake society’s droids from their torpid ignorance. Early on, he only wanted to set “the zombies” free. While Eric was a hater who still managed to get laid now and again, Dylan was a lover who pined after girls in vain. The pages of Existences are filled with sketches of floating hearts surrounded by stars. He doted over the smallest details of his highschool crushes. These girls would never understand the universe opening up in his teenage mind.

A firm believer in God, Dylan tortured himself with the struggle between good and evil, Heaven and Hell. He frequently purified himself of vices such as playing Doom, watching porno, drinking booze, and notably, making fun of other kids—which he and Eric did relentlessly. Dylan’s soul was threatened with damnation, while on earth his fragile ego was menaced by the persecution of his peers. The slightest insult could send him spiraling into a vicious, overly-defensive tantrum. Again and again, he wrote, “the screws are tightening.” In the end, he followed his friend Eric to the only freedom he could imagine: NBK.

Holy Wood’s primary narrator is Adam Kadmon, who embodies the universal innocence of mankind. The naive Adam wants to change the world—to start a revolution that will free its inhabitants. He pursues the love of humanity, personified as his Eve (called Coma Black.) But in the end, she is just another plastic doll “the color of TV,” and so Adam decides to end the world that refuses to be saved on his terms.

The climax of the album is the frantic industrial track “King Kill 33°”. The title comes from James Shelby Downard’s freaked out conspiracy theory tract of the same name, which reconstructs the Kennedy assassination as a ritual sacrifice orchestrated by the Freemasons in order to harness the public’s emotional response through sorcery.  In the song, the rejected Adam Kadmon turns against the world in fury, then becomes a dying god in his own mind:

But I have to show you that you played a role
And I will destroy you with one simple hole
The world that hates me has taken its toll
But now I have finally taken control

You wanted so bad to make me this thing
And I want you now to just kill the king…

And I am not sorry, and I am not sorry,
This is what you deserve


There is always the question of blame whenever blood is spilled—without an answer, a killing becomes meaningless. Eric held the world responsible for its own destruction—people were just too stupid to live. His t-shirt on the day of the massacre read “Natural Selection.” (How ironic that he selected himself out of the gene pool.) Dylan blamed God for being so indifferent to his suffering. His t-shirt said “Wrath.”

After Columbine, evangelical Christians were quick to claim that Satan kills kids for lack of Jesus. Gun control advocates kept their sites on “the great equalizer” that allows anyone with a strong finger to end someone else’s world. Anti-bullying activists and minority advocates insisted that if everyone was just nice to everyone else all the time, kids would have no reason to kill. Various pop psychologists and political action committees pointed fingers at violent video games, violent movies, and yes, violent music as being the examples from which killers learn their behavior.

Dave Cullen promotes the FBI’s conclusion that, in the case of Columbine, neurological predisposition was to blame. Criminal psychologists determined that Eric Harris was a textbook psychopath—a sadistic manipulator and compulsive liar without the biological prerequisites to feel empathy. His sidekick Dylan was just a chronic depressive for whom the vacuum of despair opened a space for murder. In this reductionist view, Nature simply produces diabolical genetic aberrations here and there, making human reproduction into a game of Russian roulette that will periodically put a murderer under the firing pin. For Cullen, Eric Harris was a natural born killer, no matter what kind of music he liked.

Media coverage of the Columbine shooting sensationalized the link between rock n’ roll and violence, as they did with Charles Manson and The Beatles’ White Album, or Richard Ramirez and AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. Maybe the borderline retarded Seung-Hui Cho unloaded clip after clip—killing 32 fellow Virginia Tech students—because he listened to Collective Soul’s “Shine” a hundred million times.

So what album was 23 year-old Wellington Oliveira listening to earlier this month when he systematically executed twelve small children at his old elementary school in Rio de Janeiro? That is uncertain, but we do know that he was inspired by Cho and a previous Brazilian school shooter, calling them his “brothers” in the fight against the bullies of the world.

Cho considered Harris and Klebold to be “martyrs” for the cause, and Eric Harris was inspired by the school shooting in Jonesboro, AR—just as that incident was an imitation of a previous school shooting in Arkansas. Like Harris, Klebold, and Cho, Oliveira left rambling video messages which put the blame for his murderous rampage on the world that persecuted him. “Each time you see someone making fun of someone else for their physical appearance, the clothing or any reason…remember that type of person is responsible for all these deaths, including my own.”

By their bloodthirsty nature, the news media then broadcasted each losers’-call-to-arms to the next psycho turning in the pistol’s chamber.  Loren Coleman’s research into “the copycat effect” gives strong evidence that mass shootings and suicides come in clusters, beginning with one widely publicized incident.  It seems that at any given moment there are a handful of wackos ready to snap, and seeing a gruesome news story validates their rage.

Despite recent claims that school shooters are typically not bullied outcasts, the most notorious school shooters complained of being disrespected, shunned, insulted, and/or beaten up by their peers. Whether they were just being hyper-sensitive whiners or were viciously attacked, in their own minds they were backed into a corner. Taking it on the chin was not an option. The indignities of life stuck to their souls, and revenge was the only purification.

In the early days, Marilyn Manson often spoke of his resentment at being bullied in school. He was tall, gangly, and weird, so naturally kids beat the shit out of him. For him, becoming a rock star was the greatest revenge he could have on his tormentors. He realized his vindictive impulses through art rather than with a gun, and kept his dick wetter than most for the effort.

Amplifiers cranked Brian Warner’s otherwise soft spoken murmer up to Marilyn Manson’s ear-drilling shriek, drowning out parents and priests.  Recording technology allowed him to break free from the ancient male pecking order by catching the camera’s eye and enticing the kiddie Id with taboo urges.  It is no surprise that people would find links between Manson’s music and hate-filled teenagers—they occupy the same spiritual space.  No salvation.  No forgiveness.

Show biz is a dirty business.  For all of his accusations that the media exploits tragedy for profit, Manson has sold over 9 million copies of Holy Wood to date.

Civilization has provided numerous ways to get around the rulership of brute force, including intelligence, cooperation, rhetoric, and art. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold utilized a relatively new technological alternative to liberate themselves: the gun.

For millennia, evolution selected for males endowed with physical prowess. Tribal leadership was granted to the greatest warriors. By the dawn of written history, mankind had created swords to maintain worldly power.  This gave some smaller men an edge, but a sword still requires strength and dexterity to wield. The revolver is a kid’s toy.

The rough-and-tumble environment of the schoolyard mimics the ancient environment, where the strongest muscles command the most respect and the frail are casually knocked out of the way. I imagine that weaklings have resented the blows dealt by stronger hands since vivid cerebral memory overtook blessed animal forgetfulness, but they were always powerless to do anything about it.

Today, the availability of guns provides an avenue to subvert this carnal hierarchy, granting power to the weak and the despised. In the blink of a scowling eye, any idiot with an opposable thumb and an itchy trigger finger can momentarily claim the ultimate right of an earthly King: the power to deal death as he chooses.  The popular media then line up to give voice to this whimpering proclamation of sovereignty.

In typical amoral fashion, Manson screams:

This is evolution
The monkey, the man
Then the gun

The possibility that unhinged individuals might draw destructive inspiration from such dismal visions should be unsettling—but not nearly so disturbing as the human condition that these expressions describe.  Sadly, as long as there are cameras, guns, and psychotic discontents, Holy Wood will continue to be a relevant piece of art.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

Marilyn MansonThe Nobodies


Coleman, Loren.  The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tommorrow’s Headlines. New York: Paraview Pocket Books, 2004.

Cullen, Dave.  Columbine. Boston: Twelve, 2009.

Newman, Katherine S.  Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Gorgoroth — “Carving a Giant”


Isn't he a handsome devil?

The first time I saw the video for Gorgoroth’s “Carving a Giant,” it gave me the screaming willies. I’ve seen worse—much worse—but there was something about these corpsepainted ghouls playing Norwegian black metal with bloody bodies writhing at their feet that really creeped me out. If demons fantasize about anything when they stroke it, surely it’s about stuff like this. In many ways, their stage props are the artistic realization of everything poor Per Yngve Ohlin of Mayhem had hoped to accomplish.

The vocalist in the video, known by his stage name Gaahl (age 35,) apparently lives up to this theatrical imagery. He brawled with Scandinavian street gangs as a youth, and was subsequently incarcerated for a brutal, sustained assault in 2001. Then in 2006 he spent nine months in prison for another assault during which Gaahl beat the damnit out of a beligerent visitor in his home, supposedly detaining and torturing the man, then collecting his pitiful captive’s blood to have a swig. In court, Gaahl’s mother insisted that her son is a vegetarian who “eats absolutely no innards,” so he would never drink blood. According to Gaahl, the man attacked him first so he proceeded to enact his own justice without recourse to local authorities.

“I am my own God as I am my own Satan,” he once told an interviewer. “Maybe you could call it Gaahlism.”

While he holds a rather high opinion of himself—as well as ancient Roman emperors such as Caligula and Nero—it takes a lot to win the guy over. Gaahl stated early on: “There are always someone to kill or curse, especially subhumans—niggers, mulattoes, muslims and others!” His pet peeves also include ugly people, sweatpants in public, concepts of equality, and of course, Christianity. He is an avid supporter of the church-burnings that swept Norway in the 1990s, and looks forward to the day they resume full force.

“We have to remove every trace from what Christianity, and the semitic roots, have to offer this world.”

But don’t freak out—Gaahl is no Satan-worshipper. However often he may use the name to describe “the natural order, the will of man, the will to grow, the will to become a superman,” Gaahl is on more of a Euro-shamanic kick.

“The word Satan is from hebrew religions and has nothing to do with my blood. I deny everything that comes from this semitic root. God has nothing to do with our race in any way.”

Aside from being a fierce Norse pagan and a renowned fashion show consultant, Gaahl was also the reluctant recipient of the “Gay Person of the Year” award at Norway’s 2010 Bergen Gay Galla. In a recent interview with Vice Magazine, Gaahl gushes about his young lover-boy, Robin:

“I’ve always preferred the aesthetics of men, but I’d never met a being that could put me out of balance with the universe like this.”

Gaahl left Gorgoroth in 2007 to pursue other projects—including a new fashion line called Wynjo, meaning “the road to happiness and perfection”—but his contribution to Norwegian black metal lingers like the smell of rotten corpses burning on stakes. You won’t find Gaahl hanging on any stakes, though. Not if he can help it.

The lyrics to “Carving a Giant” reflect the antithesis of martyrdom—or self-sacrifice of any sort:

Carving a giant
Carving the eye of a god
Create me

I interpret the song to be about imposing one’s Will upon the Universe, even if that means the Universe might run home to mommy with a ripped bunnyhole. For Gaahl, “the god within yourself is the only true god.” And I don’t think this guy is fucking around when it comes to deicide.

You’d think that the Christians of Norway would gather around this guy’s castle with torches and pitchforks before it’s too late, but I suppose that as long as they have room for “niggers,” “mulattoes,” whale-hunters, Muslims, and Jews, Norway will always have a special place for Gaahl.

Gorgoroth — “Carving a Giant

Phil Ochs Wrote the Songs,
but Who Tied the Noose?

The Vietnam War stirred a stunning spirit of rebellion in America’s youth, and folk singer Phil Ochs was at the front of the picket line to rouse the rabble with a tune. Like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs used his acoustic guitar to skewer the warmongering authorities and wowed the ladies with his earnest eyes. But unlike Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs did not go on to capriciously convert to a succession of Abrahamic religions, wear clownish white suits, paint his old face with girly make-up, or launch multiple comeback tours.

Unlike Dylan, Phil never achieved enough success to feel contempt for the stagehands who toil all day to erect his stage and lug his gear around. Phil never ordered his heavy-handed security guards to corral these grimy-pawed laborers into some dark corner backstage so that the legendary populist Bob Dylan wouldn’t have to make eye contact with the help… asshole.

Nope, Phil Ochs was found hanging in his sister’s New York apartment on April 9, 1976 at the age of 34.

Despite the bizarre antics of the schizophrenic alter-ego which consumed him in his latter days, Phil Ochs is remembered by the radical left as a man with a message. Whether it was civil rights in Mississippi, miner strikes in Kentucky, draft-paper bonfires in Washington DC, or revolution in Cuba, Phil Ochs had something to sing about the cause. His debut album in 1964, All the News That’s Fit to Sing, earned him the title of “the singing journalist.”

While kids were getting groovy in the Age of Aquarius, their television sets were dripping with the blood of young American men and Vietnamese villagers. Kids were coming home maimed or in coffins by the tens of thousands. That’s one bad fucking trip, man.

The obvious hypocrisy of spreading democracy by way of heavy artillery became more than many could bear.  American streets filled with angry youth whose radical ideas were often inspired by the revolutionary zeal that was transforming volatile nations such as Cuba or China.

What do we want?
When do we want it?
Not next week, you asshole!

Go to any anti-war rally, and there’s Phil with his guitar. The 1965 release of I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore solidified his identity as a voice of conscience in the folk scene. His goofy protest ditty “Draft Dodger Rag” became the feel-good hit of the Peace Movement.

The album’s title track hits a more serious note. Ochs sings from the perspective of all the young men throughout history who have marched to their deaths in war. He bore witness to the bloody Battle of New Orleans and the fratricide of the Civil War. He crawled in the trenches of Germany and heard Hiroshima’s “mushroom roar.” But Phil Ochs ain’t marching anymore, and he would appreciate it if everyone else would stop, too.

But the marching didn’t stop, and the war in Vietnam began to wear on Phil’s nerves. He threw himself into new songs. His sound began to change, utilizing more polished production techniques, and he eventually incorporated a full band. Many hardcore folk fans were furious at this new, electric Phil, but few could deny the power of his morbidly fascinated anthem, “Crucifixion.” Robert Kennedy wept when he heard Ochs perform the song on a DC train. Written as a tribute to John F. Kennedy, the lyrics could memorialize any martyr enshrined by masses:

But you know I predicted it, I knew he had to fall
How did it happen? I hope his suffering was small
Tell me every detail, for I’ve got to know it all
And do you have a picture of the pain?


So good to be alive when the eulogy is read
The climax of emotion, the worship of the dead
And the cycle of sacrifice unwinds…

Phil watched in horror as the US government went insane. The US government was also watching Phil, and the feeling was mutual. It is an established fact that the FBI and CIA were keeping tabs on troublesome youngsters clamoring for peace, and stepped in to manipulate the movement whenever possible. Some suspicious observers even accuse these powerful agencies of resorting to covert murder to stifle dissent. Poisoned tablets. Drug-induced mind control. Grassy knolls. Manchurian Candidates.

Phil’s tirades against The Man earned him a dossier in the extensive FBI files kept on dangerous “subversives” and “Communists.” After the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, Ochs began to wonder how long it might be before “Crucifixion” was about him.

Even in the face of what he thought to be certain death, Phil refused to be quiet. In 1969 he released his last studio recording, Rehearsals for Retirement. The cover features a somber tombstone that reads:

Phil Ochs
Born: El Paso, Texas 1940
Died: Chicago, Illinois 1968

The death date is a reference to the police brutality Ochs witnessed at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that year and the subsequent election of the ultra-conservative Richard Nixon. It must have killed his soul.

Ochs intended this last album to be Elvis Presley sings Che Guevara, but it sounds more like a jammin’ Jimmy Buffet grasping for the Revolution—and wrapping his fingers around another icy margarita instead.

Disillusioned with the radio’s refusal to play his music and America’s increasing apathy toward social idealism, Ochs set off to travel abroad in 1971. After a short spell in China, he moved on to Chile, joining folk-singer Victor Jara in support of the revolutionary Marxists that were taking hold in Latin America. Phil’s activist adventures found him running afoul of the Argentinian and Bolivian governments, from which he narrowly escaped long-term imprisonment. Shaken, he retreated back to the US before embarking to Australia, and then Africa in 1973. If there was any place for Phil to make a real difference, it had to be Africa.

One night Phil went for a walk on the beach in Tanzania. A band of thugs leapt out of the shadows and fell upon him. One held Ochs in a brutal stranglehold while the others stripped him of his possessions. His vocal chords were crushed.

Ochs refused to believe that the attack was the responsibility of savage marauders. It had to be a CIA plot. “They” had taken his voice away.

Broken and destitute, Phil returned to New York, where he flew over the cuckoo’s nest with all the grace of a crippled pigeon. The Vietnam War was finally “finished” in April of 1975. Suddenly the lifetime revolutionary was left without a purpose. Friends got worried. It wasn’t just his slurred rants about various government agencies out to get him or the countless hours spent alone in quiet misery. No, it was his insistence that he was no longer Phil Ochs that really raised eyebrows.

Phil Ochs was dead, he told people. John Train killed him. A song fragment scribbled at the time reads:

Phil Ochs checked into the Chelsea Hotel
There was blood on his clothes…
Train, Train, Train, the outlaw and his brain…

His psychotic transformation was sudden and absolute.  Phil who?

John Train is a right-wing hard-ass and a whiskeybent street-brawler. John Train sings country songs and punches you in the eye. John Train don’t take no shit from nobody, especially not Bob Dylan. In one delusional tirade, a wasted John Train told his audience:

“I put out a contract on [CIA Director, William] Colby for a hundred thousand dollars. I told Colby he’s got a half year to get out or he’s dead. They can kill me but he’s dead.”

William Colby was replaced by George H. W. Bush in January of 1976, and a few months later, John Train slipped a rope around Phil Ochs’ neck and strung him up in his sister’s apartment. It would be fifteen years before the next major war. When the bombs began falling on Baghdad in 1991, Phil Ochs’ passionate voice of protest was absent—but then, so was everyone else’s.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

Phil OchsI Ain’t Marching Anymore
c. 1966