Remembering Phil Ochs’s ‘Gunfight at Carnegie Hall’

Worst. Concert. Ever.

Gunfight At Carnegie Hall, the last album protest singer Phil Ochs released before he took his own life on April 9, 1976, contains songs recorded at his infamous, gold-suited, bomb-threat-shortened Carnegie Hall concert in New York City on March 27, 1970, 47 years ago today.

Phil Ochs, circa 1976. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

It was the most notorious performance of his career, and I happened to be in the audience.  

Spring in the city

I was just 16 and visiting New York City with my best friend Lisa. The two of us were suburban antiwar hippie chicks who loved Ochs and his music. Although we had yet to see him in concert, we listened to his albums for hours and knew his songs by heart. He was no Bob Dylan, of course, but songs like “I’m Not Marching Anymore” and “There But For Fortune” were heartfelt and evocative and could move you to tears. He had a funny side, too, which came out on silly, self-mocking songs like “Love Me, I’m A Liberal.”  

It didn’t hurt that, unlike Dylan, Ochs had a conventionally lovely voice and was really cute in a scruffy, sincere, heart-on-his-sleeve kind of way. 

Lisa and I were visiting New York on spring break, crashing with relatives and going to museums and Broadway shows, and absolutely thrilled that we were finally going to see Ochs perform. But the concert, as it turned out, was really weird.

We expected Ochs to enter in his usual folkie garb and sing the protest songs we loved. Instead, he took the stage dressed like Elvis in a gold lamé suit and performed not only his own music, but a bunch of songs by Elvis, Buddy Holly, and even Merle Haggard. He actually sang “Okie from Muskogee"! 

All shook up

Sure, Bob Dylan, our generation’s musical hero, shocked his own audience by going electric in 1965. But at least when he did it, he played Dylan songs! Later, in interviews, Ochs explained that he was trying to educate his audience about the roots of his own sound and encourage us to broaden our musical tastes. But this wasn’t clear at the time, at least not to us. We didn't know what he was up to, except for maybe trying to bum us out.

There was immediate pushback from the crowd, who hadn’t come there to listen to Merle Haggard. Boos. Catcalls. Shouts of “Play your own music!” Ochs tried to placate the audience by cautioning us not to be closed-minded like Spiro Agnew, which was about the worst thing you could say to a politically engaged fan who paid a lot of money to enjoy an experience that Ochs apparently wasn’t going to give us.    

He played a song we loved and we were happy. But then he followed it with an Elvis tune and the crowd rebelled. In the middle of this acrimonious back and forth, with the audience hooting and jeering and Ochs pleading for understanding, then playing the songs he wanted to play instead of the songs we came to hear, the house lights suddenly came on. An announcer told the audience we all had to leave immediately. 

Someone had called in a bomb threat, but we didn’t know that at the time. We just assumed that between the crowd’s rowdiness, Ochs’s failure to win us over, and the escalation of the conflict, the management had decided to pull the plug on the whole fiasco and kick us out.

The war is over

Lisa and I joined the mass of people who slowly filed out of the hall, resentful and disappointed. We’d just spent a whole lot of money on a great big disaster. 

We were pissed off at Ochs. But we were also a couple of teenagers on vacation in the greatest city in the world. Within a few days, we forgot about the whole thing. And that would have been that -- except, five years later, the show was turned into an album.   

Listening to that album now, I can appreciate what Ochs was trying to do. (Although I’d still rather listen to him sing “Small Circle of Friends” than “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”) I now believe artists are entitled to play whatever they want when they take the stage. Plus, I have a lifetime of bad concerts to compare to that one, like the time Jerry Jeff Walker leapt onstage an hour late, greeted the crowd with a big, drunken whoop, then passed out cold. 

Still, for Ochs to pull a stunt like that on his loyal fans strikes me as a really boneheaded move. Yet, because it ended up being the most notable concert the man ever gave, I’m glad to have been part of it. I get a kick out of listening to it, knowing that 16-year-old me is still there in the crowd. Lisa and I didn’t shout, boo, or jeer, of course. We just listened, wondered, and tried to understand. 

Our readers respond

Dave Astor

of Montclair, NJ on March 27, 2017

Roz, terrific recounting of that unusual concert, which I've heard about. I love Phil Ochs's folk/protest music, but can understand him trying to branch out — though he could have handled that concert better, as you observed. Perhaps he was consciously or subconsciously expressing some frustration that he hadn't became a mass audience star like Bob Dylan even though, for a few years, he was musically as good as Dylan (at least I think that) and certainly had a nicer personality.

Kelly Siderio

of South Philadelphia, PA on March 28, 2017

What a cool story!

Colin Macdonald

of Honolulu, HI on May 11, 2017

I first met Phil Ochs in July 1973, when I worked for A&M Records of Canada and picked him up at the airport for series of concerts at the Riverboat coffeehouse in Toronto. I wasn’t really looking forward to the experience – I had turned very apolitical and disillusioned after the late 1960s political upheavals and the subsequent election of Richard Nixon – but he was such a captivating character, talking about the movies he loved and the Watergate hearings that were just beginning to ramp up, that by the time we reached his hotel I had become a big fan. At the same time, his career was at a low point and, as I soon discovered, he had a serious drinking problem.

I brought one of my mates from the company to meet him the next day, and he began to tell us the backstory of the Carnegie concert. Take it for what’s worth, but he told us the reason for the gold lamé suit and the Elvis songs was that he believed his folk persona and protest songs had reached as many people as they were ever likely to; that to reach the “silent majority” of Americans, he needed to speak their language and to channel Elvis. Needless to say, the concert audience wasn't ready for that kind of message, but Phil was sure that if the live recording was released, it might help to revive his popularity. Unfortunately, A&M in the U.S. had refused to because it would “ruin my career.” But Phil reasoned that “I don’t have a career to ruin any more.”

At that point, my friend and I took it as our mission to get the album released and to help him out in any way we could. We drove back to the office and immediately found a very friendly ear in our boss, who in turn phoned Gerry Moss (the “M” of A&M) and quickly got the OK to release the album in Canada. The album didn’t do much for Phil's career, but he was warmly embraced by the rest of our company and became a welcome guest at our annual summer picnics until his untimely death. I still miss him.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.