I pulled this Max Ochs CD out earlier this week while digging through a box looking for something else and damn if it did not scratch an itch I didn’t even know I had. His most recent album, Hooray For Another Day, feels especially apropos in 2021 all things considered. This interview, conducted by the wonderful Peter Taylor, was originally published on Foxy Digitalis in 2008 and I am excited to make it available again. Max’s most recent works are available via Tompkins Square. – BR
Tompkins Square is to release a full-length record from prolific, and often overlooked, artist Max Ochs. For many years Ochs has been an avid participant in various artistic practices and socio-political activities. Attached to respected musicians including John Fahey and Skip James, Cousin to Phil Ochs, and an incredible guitarist/ poet in his own right – Max Ochs is full of surprises. His biography is extensive, covering five decades of varying creative and community projects. His relative anonymity is due to the acts of a seemingly modest and self-effacing man who requires little of the spotlight that many musicians crave. Ochs seems to have community at heart and faith in what the public can achieve (when unhindered by bureaucracy and greed). He spent eight years hosting a free concert at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis, until his eviction due to politically sensitive comments in regards to (former) President Bush. He has run the 333 Coffeehouse in Annapolis, staging live music. He has also lived and learned with Mississippi John Hurt and recorded as a Takoma artist. Max has led an active and contemplative life, which somehow finds its way into 45minutes of music and poetry on his forthcoming Hooray for Another Day LP, out in November. I was fortunate enough to ask Max a few questions, so read on, investigate Max Ochs and devour the record on its release.
You have had a diverse and rich career. What points have shaped you creatively and how do these manifest themselves on this record?
I have had a diverse and rich life, but my career has been meager and un-illustrious, to the point of being almost non-existent. I have had to find or steal moments to practice the guitar, write a song or poem, and for the most part watch the years passing with not much to show for all that time. There has been a lot of loving relationships with a variety of wonderful human beings, like Suzy my legally recognized civil partner of twenty years, a handful of musical friends, peacenik friends, Unitarian friends, poverty-fighting friends, but the small notoriety I have stirred up is largely local and stemmed primarily from a remark about W Bush’s aversion to reading.
We have heard snippets from you previously, but I’m at a loss to find such a rich document as the Hooray For Another Day LP, why now?
I suppose my passivity has been lamentable when it came to self-promotion. I just assumed, idealistically, that if I was good enough, my music would be recognized by the world. But it doesn’t happen that way often. Ezra Pound said, “Art is strategy.” Half of it requires talent, cleverness, and goodness, the other half requires the kind of public relations and promo work that agents and media consultants do. Distribution, connections, press kits, and a dedicated determination to make oneself into a famous celebrity. This I did not do. I just kept finding haphazard gigs in between regular jobs, waiting for opportunities to me instead of the other way around. I sensed that my entertainment skills were not up to snuff with all that excellent competition out there. Some kind hearts say, Oh it’s not a competition, it’s a community. ” But when we’re not kidding ourselves, let’s face it; it is a competition, the marketplace of venues that hire musicians, the shelf space in the music stores. And I was happy just to be able to sit in my kitchen and play old blues for my dog. Now, 40 years after I was included on an anthology of American guitar, along comes Tompkins Square records with a record of my compositions and poems. And I will be very happy if I get recompensed with a box of 50 of those CDs.
You have been credited as ‘influence to’ and ‘friend to’ many legendary musicians, namely John Fahey, Robbie Basho, and one of my personal favorites, Skip James. How have these people shaped your life, and namely, your music?
Skip James is one of my all-time favorites. Listen really closely to the old recording of “I’m So Glad” along with “Electricity” by Jimmy Murphy the singing cowboy of Baltimore, that record contains some of the fastest, snappiest most breathtaking brilliant guitar playing anywhere ever. It was mainly Fahey, at whose feet I sat for hours, fixing my stare on his hands, and delighting in the primitive, Aaron Coplandish way he brought the African American musical ideas out of his guitar. And Mississippi John Hurt. MJH most of all, who was more than a teacher of music and guitar, he was also a kind of Life Master, very sweet and wise and Zen.
You can get a little book from EG Dubovsky in Berkeley CA [Arkady Book Company – 2005] called With Mississippi John Hurt.
The LP contains a number of your poems. Which medium do you find more expressive, playing guitar or poetry?
This makes me think of the other impossible questions, like would you rather keep your sight or your hearing? (Hearing, for me) Poetry is words attempting to become music. Music is joyful noise. Music is so powerful, it is easy to seduce a crowd, just setting a poem to music gives it an edge, an advantage, a reason to listen, the sound justifies the sense. My poems used to be careless of access, full of obscuring personal symbolism, but certain experiences have brought thoughts which have in turn shamed me into obedience to a humbler standard. One such experience was reading “Of This Time, Of That Place” BY Lionel Trilling, where the teacher poet Howe is criticized for his lack of accessibility. What is sanity if not the ability and willingness to allow others to understand what you are saying? A really good poem can carry the hearer aloft in such a way that she won’t even miss the guitar. Like a really good vegetarian cook can serve a dish so delicious you won’t even realize there’s no meat.
You have a social responsibility as represented in your activist work. What are you currently focusing your attention on? Is the current socio-political climate, (against previous decades), one you feel you can influence in the same way?
I no longer feel it is effective to sign internet petitions. Once in a great, while I demonstrate with my physical presence, my body in some public place, holding a sign, like “Life is Sacred”, a statement which seems to make sense even coming from an atheist like me. This year, rather than giving Christmas presents, my wife and I are giving to the Maryland Food Bank. I have been involved in a lot of anti-racist work with the Unitarians. I have a play with music which I hope to launch before I expire, called Anna No Place, about racism in Annapolis Maryland – my hometown.
Which few artists (not merely musicians) are influencing and inspiring you today?
Mary Oliver, Chalmers Johnson (“Sorrows of Empire”), JS Bach, Francis Poulenc (especially sonata for clarinet and piano), Franz Kline, Charles Mingus, Carole King, Laura Nyro, Joan Armatrading, Django, Bud Powell, Harpo Marx, Cab Calloway.
I found an element of hope in the music that took me by surprise, especially after feeling deeply moved by some of the poetry. What was in your mind when collating the material for the record?
“Don’t die. Please stay alive. “
You have lived through several eventful decades, what do you feel you can achieve in the coming years in regards to your recording and social activities?
Honestly, not that much. Hope that mankind will not blow us up. That there will not be resource wars over water or territory when the waters rise from melted ice, from climate change. That humans can learn that they are happier when they share the bounty, that the word “Commonwealth” is not a dirty word.
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