A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part VIII
The Ones Who Got Away!
By: David Wilson - Jul 13, 2012
Thinking we were close to winding down our series of conversations, I wanted to ask Herb about who he had been disappointed not to represent. As he reminisced about some noteables, the subject of Phil Ochs came up and the focus of our conversation changed to include remembrances by both of us of one of whom we had memories laden with affection, dismay, humor and regret.
David Wilson - Tell me about your regrets, Herb, who got away that you really felt bad to lose?
Herb Gart - As I had said I tried to get Joni Mitchell a record deal before she even knew my name, but when finally I could approach her directly in New York City, she preferred another manager. I may have helped her decision by telling her that I liked her lower range more and though most Artists write for their own instrument, it is not necessary nor advisable to show off the entire “instrument” - in this case, the voice - in every song. I have suggested a performance of “Both Sides Now” by Joni performed when she was having vocal problems, so that she was forced to use more of her lower range than usual. Judge for yourself. At any rate, this opinion did not endear me to her.
DW I will see to it that the video you suggested is embedded at the end of this posting.
HG I tried to sign Bette Midler to my Rainbow Collection label. She said she wanted to have Joel Dorn produce her first album and he was exclusive with Atlantic. I told her that my contract would guarantee Joel Dorn or I would give it up. She almost agreed, but Ahmed Ertegun, the Atlantic President, went to see her at The Baths in NYC and so impressed her that she signed with Atlantic. Later on, Joel Dorn produced his first record outside of Atlantic - it was a Don McLean album for me! One of the songs I had recommended to her was Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe” which became a major hit by Rod Stewart.
Robert Shelton, a critic for the New York Times told me that he had recommended me to a singer-songwriter in Nashville and that he was waiting for my call. I never got around to it because he was in Nashville. His name was Roger Miller. I really regret not making that phone call!
I also wasn’t able to sign Shawn Colvin. I put her on a concert with Don McLean and Don thought I was losing my mind by putting on such a no-talent as Shawn!
I still have some bad feelings about some of the ways I lost an artist. For example - Biff Rose. I did a great job for Biff and one of the things I did was to book him into the Cellar Door in Washington D.C. to open for Glen Yarbrough because I knew that Glen would love Biff and give us a bunch of dates. Well, Biff took the dates but never thought that that had been part of my plan, so he left me for Glen’s L.A. Manager. It still rankles.
The only time I lost a competition with Albert Grossman over a signing was Phil Ochs, but that didn’t matter as Phil left Albert pretty quickly.
DW Did Phil ever say why? I think he went with Arthur Gorson as manager then, but I never understood the why.
HG Phil was unmanageable. He thought he knew all the answers and wouldn’t listen to anybody. Arthur was a friend of his from political events and would do Phil’s bidding. To give Arthur some credit, I’m sure he wasn’t entirely a lackey. He must have fought with Phil from time to time. In fact, Phil was responsible for getting Jim & Jean to leave me for Arthur. I had them recording with Milt Okun as producer, who produced Peter, Paul & Mary and John Denver. Arthur thought he could do better and produced them himself! The result was good performances by Jim & Jean and lousy production by Arthur Gorson. Another one that rankles.
DW There But For Fortune, the documentary of Phil’s role in the ‘60s music scene is being shown this year at a number of venues and events, but I have yet to see it. We both knew Phil pretty well, he often stayed with me during Boston area gigs, though you shared time and space with him more often and in more ways than I. I’m sure you were as unprepared for his end as was I.
HG I have a theory about why Phil committed suicide. Phil’s father was hospitalized for depression and died of a brain hemorrhage. Phil told me that he had committed suicide. He may have been dramatizing it for some reason, but not only was he shocked and disturbed but Phil took it as an inheritance. Phil’s own darkness turned it into fear and eventually a solution to despair.
DW Phil was so presumptuous of his talent and so fragile all at the same time. It was a delight to be in his company during his warm and open moments and sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious when he got manic.
HG He was bi-polar in addition to his other problems. I was one of the first people to greet Phil when he came to the Village. I was managing Jim & Jean Glover and Jim was Phil’s roommate in college and had taught him guitar.
DW I know he was close to them. In early ’64 we made an arrangement with Phil to do a song column with transcription for each issue. It was called All The News That’s Fit To Sing and in it he would introduce a song of his and talk about what motivated his writing of it. He included a credit for assistance to Jean for There But For Fortune and with maybe some other songs as well.
HG Phil was driven in a way that caused him to twist any success into failure. He wanted to be the biggest star in the world, as almost all Artists do, but for Phil it meant something different. It meant that he desperately wanted to prove he was better and more important than the people he admired and idolized - but he wanted it out loud.
Consequently he often put himself in the position of being humiliated by not living up to his publicly stated “standards’. For example: “This will be the year I’ll be as big as Dylan“ in interviews and to all his acquaintances as well as friends. Earlier I spoke about the New York Folk Festival at Carnegie Hall and The Contemporary Singer-Songwriter Composer concerts. Naturally I booked Phil. One of the rules of the night was that all performers were limited to 3 songs so that there would be time for everyone. In order to prevent claims of favoritism because I represented several of the Artists, I programmed each of my clients into the death spots on the show, confident that they could handle it. Patrick Sky had to follow The Staple Singers and Buffy Sainte-Marie had to follow Phil.
As Phil and I were standing in the wings he said that I was going to have to give him more than 3 songs; that he was going to do so well that the audience would demand an encore and stop the show. A declaration. He went on stage and did a great 3 song set. He received thunderous applause. He stood by me and strutted and said, “See. You’re going to have to give me another song. The audience won’t accept anything less!” At that very moment the MC announced Buffy Sainte-Marie. The applause and excitement left Phil standing there, forgotten by the audience. He had just done a truly great set, but he had turned it into humiliation.
That Contemporary Singer-Songwriter Composer show had another important benefit to Phil. Before that concert, most reviewers and critics called folksingers who wrote their own songs “protest singers’’; immediately afterwards they called them singer-songwriters. The protest singer moniker was cut back to mean Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Phil Ochs and a few others. Suddenly Phil was one of a handful of Artists doing what he was doing.
DW I remember him being in the forefront of many protests including the cause of the Appalachian miners, a cause which became a rehearsal for many of the protest movements to follow.
HG At the same time he was an active supporter of civil right activists and demonstrations and rallies against the Vietnam war. We talked about it a great deal and it soon became evident to me that Phil wanted to be the ONE who put an end to the war. He would consider himself a failure if he accomplished anything less.
Phil was easy to tease. He asked for it. He set himself up constantly. More opportunities to be humiliated - all day long.I once told him the real test of a good lyric is how it sounds with a Brooklyn accent, I then said, “Theah But Fa Fortoon Goes Youse and I.” Phil was not amused.
DW And that was a formula for disaster when you spent much of your day hanging out with the likes of you, not to mention Van Ronk and Sky. They must have constantly deflated him.
HG He was also severely deflated by Bob Dylan. He was in a limo with Bob and criticized one of Bob’s songs. Bob said he was not a songwriter, but a journalist and kicked him out of the limo. He ignored Phil after that which must have hurt Phil a great deal. Along with that, his judgment was awful. I used to say that if you want to know what to do with your career ask Phil and do the opposite.
One night at 3 AM, I woke up to Phil sitting on my bed to sing me the song he had just written called “Changes.” Several folksingers did that regularly because they knew I was one manager who wouldn’t mind. I told Phil that I thought the song was wonderful and he had missed his calling: songs of love and passion were where he was really great. He laughed it off.
DW It is too bad he was not able to see the truth in your observation and I think you were on to something. He wanted to think he was a skilled poet and we used to talk about what was and was not poetry. I had been in dialogue with a couple of academic poets and discussing the merits of contemporary lyrics of which they were disdainful. I thought their ideas to have some validity but to be pedantic, way out of proportion, and somewhat irrelevant to pop culture and offered them a platform to analyze and comment on a number of singer/songwriters. Phil was eager to have his work examined and was, of course, devastated at the outcome. They were as merciless with Paxton and others, excepting only Dylan. Paxton shrugged it off rightfully as opinion and irrelevant and then seemed to apply some of it to his writing which improved greatly thereafter. Phil obsessed on it and I think he felt in some way that I had betrayed him.
HG Bob Dylan essentially left the protest song scene with his Nashville Skyline album. He left the field wide open for Phil. That was the year Phil announced he would be bigger than Dylan.
As time wore on, he began to realize that he would not be the ONE to end the war; that his role was as entertainer at rallies. He didn’t accept how important that was. As time wore on, he found that he was not bigger than Dylan. He even tried for Elvis (the gold lame’ outfit). At any rate, he was more and more depressed and was feeling the pain of failure deeply as well as suffering from a severely painful stomach ailment; his drinking took over and he became a wreck He was having a nervous breakdown in public. He emitted an aura of, the stench of profound defeat.
DW I thought that his decision to make his younger brother his manager was an attempt to control circumstances and events in a way that was just not feasible.
HG One day, Bob Dylan re-entered the protest song movement with a song about Hurricane Carter which helped get him a new trial. Bob Dylan had written a protest song and he had moved mountains! That was the last straw. A little while later Phil Ochs committed suicide.
In our next and final installment of this series, Herb speaks of some of the quirks he faced, his gradual retirement and his current activities.
Joni Mitchell Both Sides Now
Bette Midler performs In My Life live on The Royal Variety Performance in Blackpool UK for the Queen
Roger Miller King Of The Road
Shawn Colvin Sunny Came Home
Biff Rose - Molly
Phil Ochs at The Bitter End There But For Fortune 1967
Phil Ochs and jim Glover Changes
A Conversation With Herb Gart – Part I
A Conversation With Herb Gart – Part II
A Conversation With Herb Gart – Part III
A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part IV
A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part V
A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part VI
A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part VII
A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part VIII
A Conversation With Herb Gart - Part IX