Presented at EMP 2017
In the mid 1950s, right around when Elvis released “Heartbreak Hotel,” an underemployed actor named Ronald Reagan went to work as a full-time corporate spokesman for General Electric, and under the tutelage of the company’s marketing and PR ideologue Lemuel Boulware, polished up his anti-big government, pro- big business pitch. In those same years, economics students from Santiago Chile’s Catholic University, who would come to be known as the “Chicago Boys,” began traveling on scholarship, with the help of the State Department and the Ford Foundation, to the University of Chicago to earn graduate degrees learning the fundamentalist free market philosophy of Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman. Sometimes called monetarist, or neo-liberal, or classical liberal, or libertarian, or Austrian, or Chicago School, this approach opposed the prevailing post-war, New Deal, Keynesian economics of North America and Western Europe, and theoretically espoused limiting government intervention in the economy to the control of the supply of money. Friedman popularized these ideas with his 1962 best seller Capitalism and Freedom, linking free markets to personal and political liberty. Hayek’s best seller, The Road To Serfdom, warned of the inevitable slippery slope from the mixed economy, regulatory, welfare state to the updated feudalism of Stalin and Hitler.
On March 27, 1970 folkie politico, ofttimes topical, sometimes poetical songwriter and self-described Democratic Socialist Phil Ochs, deeply discouraged since the 1968 Democratic Convention about the counterculture’s ability to affect political reality, performed in Carnegie Hall in a gold lame suit, mixing his political songs like “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” with Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley medleys. As he said from the stage, “If there is any hope for a revolution in America it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.” And later, “In terms of changes in America you have to reach the working class, and to me Elvis Presley, in retrospect, is like a giant commercialization of the working class singer.”
Some see this concert as an expression of the growing split inside Phil Ochs’ personality. Some see it as a sincere if not all that successful attempt to break leftist politics out from a marginalized counterculture. I see it as both.
That September, worried by dwindling concert audiences and the commercial failure of Sunflower, their first album on hippest-record-label-of-the-era Warner Brothers, the Beach Boys replaced their long time manager with FM DJ Jack Rieley and began the slow reconstruction of their pop credentials. Atoning for the blunder of cancelling out on Monterey Pop back in 1967, they played the Big Sur Folk Festival, shared the stage with the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore East and performed at the huge 1971 May Day anti-war rally in Washington, D .C.
On November 3, 1970 Salvador Allende was inaugurated President of Chile, chosen by legislative custom as the winner of a plurality in a three-way split election, becaming the first democratically elected Marxist President in the western hemisphere if not the world. Two weeks earlier, Chilean Commander in Chief General Rene Schneider, a Constitutionalist opposed to military intervention in politics, was assassinated during a botched kidnapping attempt. Anticipating Allende’s election, forces inside Chile and the United States were arranging the pieces for an eventual coup.
Excited by the election of Allende, Phil Ochs flew to Chile in August of 1971 where he was befriended by his Chilean counterpart Victor Jara. Together they traveled to and sang at the copper mines and shared a Chilean TV Special. But the noose was tightening, after leaving for Uruguay Ochs was unable to re-enter Chile and eventually headed home.
Maybe Allende over-estimated his mandate and maybe he under-estimated the covert opposition and maybe he did what he could as the tragedy unwound and Henry Kissinger, Nixon, the CIA, and ITT incubated Chilean economic chaos, diplomatic isolation, and a politicized armed forces. On September 11, 1973 President Allende died during the coup that installed Army Commander General Augusto Pinochet, dissolved Congress, suspended elections, outlawed Marxist parties and rounded up, tortured and murdered the opposition, including Victor Jara.
That same September, Phil Ochs was touring Africa, where he was mugged and strangled on the beach in Tanzania and left for dead. He recovered but lost the top octave of his voice and only heard about Allende’s ouster and Jara’s murder when he returned to the USA in December. Horrified and feeling compelled to act, while convinced after the strangulation that he could no longer sing and his career had come to an end, he began to organize the May 9, 1974 memorial and fundraiser.
Concert benefits, unlike political rallies, can diminish by inclusion, a coalition of disparate performers cancelling out each other’s fan base. The benefit’s publicized acts included Arlo Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Melvin Van Peebles, and Gato Barbieri. Unable to land Joan Baez, Phil Ochs faced a more than half empty Felt Forum until Bob Dylan finally committed the day before the concert and the place sold out in hours. This was the emerging from seclusion Dylan before the release of Blood On The Tracks, a bona fide mysterious rock star risking a revisit to his Bleecker and McDougal roots.
From a distance, Ochs deserves great credit for pulling together and placing in the historical record, as a current online blogger puts it, “A Rock Concert at Madison Square Garden In Honor of Salvador Allende.” Up close, in person, it was for the most part a serious affair, with some notable irregularities. Ochs and Dylan were very drunk, too drunk to pull the evening together. That task was picked up by Arlo Guthrie, at the top of his game, appropriately referencing his Dad with “Deportees,” addressing the evening directly with his own composition, “Victor Jara.” Seeger, as was his New York City political benefit custom, opened and headed for home. Van Ronk sang “He was a Friend of Mine.”
And then there was the gold lame suit of the evening, Mike Love singing “California Girls,” introduced by Ochs, as I remember it, as part of the evening’s experiment in democracy. Here’s how Mike Love remembers it in his recently published memoir on page 235:
I did an antiwar concert without the Beach Boys, which I would do on occasion. Dylan was one of the headliners, and he asked me to sing “California Girls.”
I knew Dylan liked our music, but I didn’t know that that was the right song for a crowd of activists.
“Are you sure?” I asked him.
“Yeah, they’ll dig it.”
So I sang it, and it went over fine.
Well, I do recall some grumbling and confusion. The lefty sister in front of me shouted out in irritated bafflement, “Who are the Beach Boys?”
But let’s step back from Phil Ochs and his manic depressive downward spiral, Bob Dylan’s domestic woes and career recalculations, and Mike Love’s limited peace activist repertoire to honor the evening by interpreting it in the political context in which it was presented.
By May 1974, the Supreme Court had legalized abortion, the draft had ended, the Paris Peace Accord withdrew American forces from Viet Nam, and Watergate was catching up with Richard Nixon, who would resign in August. The Sixties had wound down, four years late, but the unraveling of Watergate was masking what was actually the biggest break with the recent past. The OPEC oil embargo combined with competition from reindustrialized Japan and Germany were symptoms of a new global economy that no longer behaved according to the prevailing Keynesian post-war, US led consensus. Global shock, panic at the pumps, stagflation. Disgraced Richard Nixon would be the last President to govern using the old play book. Ford and Carter would vacillate, jumping back and forth between remedies. Although the “Watergate Congress” that came in after the 1974 election had a two thirds Democratic Party majority in the House and the Senate, they did not have the will or vision or solidarity or interest or donor base to push through to a new strategy of industrialization and social welfare. And so began the drift towards financialization, free trade, deindustrialization, and the re-emergence of a growing gap in inequality.
While Ronald Reagan at GE, Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago and the Chicago Boys at Santiago’s Catholic University were ready. They had their big theory, they had their practice and details, and now with Pinochet, they would have the funding and armed forces.
Was Pinochet going to impose a shock and awe free market from the beginning, or did he bring in the Chicago Boys when inflation turned out to be the same catastrophe for him that it had been for Allende? Whatever the inside-the-junta intrigues, for the record it’s worth remembering that the first anti-Keynsian, anti-New Deal, anti-welfare state, pro-growth at all costs, deregulated economy wasn’t ushered in by the election of a Reagan or a Thatcher or a Putin, it was imposed by General Pinochet.
In that context, here’s how I look back on “An Evening With Salvadore Allende: The Friends of Chile Benefit.”. The early ‘60s topical folk song movement shared the radical cutting edge of a liberal center with the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements. It assumed or imagined that especially during the Kennedy Presidency there was an establishment that was paying attention and could be goaded or at least humiliated into action. This music and politics traced as far back as the New Deal and then the moment when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and folk singing lefties joined the World War II Popular Front as American patriots.
The end of The Sixties in 1973-74 didn’t just mark some aesthetic and musical dead ends, it marked the end of a long arc of economic dominance and rising prosperity. And, as I see it, that began an economic ideological floundering that allowed the our-bags-are-packed-and-we-are-ready-to-take-over broadly defined Chicago School to move into position, from reign-of-terror Pinochet to Chicago Lite New Labor Blair and New Democrat Clinton.
1960s topical songs that gained depth fashioned as personal statements like “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” depended on a context that disappeared, not only in details like the end of the draft and the Viet Nam War, but in the taken-for-granted prosperity that could no longer be taken for granted. Henry Kissinger folded in Viet Nam and failed to oust Castro, but he wiped out the left in South America without directly involving US troops, using Pinochet to spearhead Operation Condor.
Chile was and is a long way from Madison Square Garden, it would take years after Allende’s overthrow to uncover the involvement of the US in the destruction of democracy below our border. The Chilean economy has busted and boomed in an up to date fashion, unlike the sleepy fascism of Franco’s Spain or Salazar’s Portugal. We are still angered and confused by the fact that our prosperity depends on oil from the Middle East, and we are far from coming to terms with a domestic rust belt that now runs coast to coast. These catastrophic puzzles are better addressed and explained, so it seems to me, in narration, in books and movies and speeches and maybe even sometimes in political campaigns, rather than with songs. Where did we turn to try and understand the worldwide economic meltdown of 2007 and 2008?
But a concert or a career can be a kind of narration. I’ll credit the 1974 Allende Memorial as a muddled, premature, and honorable attempt to tell a new, unfolding, and scary story, and propose another concert as a success: 28 year old politically engaged Chilean pop star Nano Stern, August 11, 2013 at Teatro Caupolician in .Santiago, with guest appearances by a cross section of signifying Chilean musicians stretching from Victor Jara compadres Inti Illuminati to feminist more or less rapper Ana Tijoux as well as a jazz-rock-folk-pop cross section of signifying Chilean instrumentation: guitar, accordion, cello, violin, electric bass, keyboards, flute, and the charanga and quena, both banned by Pinochet for their association with the Allende era lefty folk song Nueva Cancion movement.
This concert tells a story of a country coming to terms with its very uneven, sometimes brutal, but real prosperity and the traumas and divisions of the Pinochet years, and the recovered legacy of an earlier democracy. In 1974 there was a story to tell about Chile that sounded very different from our own. Now it’s beginning to feel more familiar, and I’ll give Phil Ochs retroactive credit for sensing that politically, even while he could no longer figure out how to sing about it. Let’s hope Ochs and Stern roughly mark the beginning and end of an era of global free markets imposed by political repression.