The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago marked the beginning of Phil Ochs personal deterioration. Despite his biting songs of protest and scathing attacks on the establishment, he always considered himself a patriot and retained hope that a better America would eventually emerge. That hope began to evaporate in the aftermath of the convention.
His musical reaction would be to release a bitter, dark, and deeply personal album. Rehearsals For Retirement also moved him ever closer to a rock ‘n’ roll sound and while he never completely crosses over it helps to salvage the mostly depressing nature of this release.
Given his future, the album cover is chilling. It portrays a tombstone with his name on it and while it was not meant to be about his own death, the connection is obvious. He only produced one more album of original material and would be dead within seven years. “My life has been a death to me” are lyrics from the song “My Life,” which is the last track on side one of the original vinyl release and they are like a door closing which can never be re-opened.
“Pretty Smart On My Part,” which leads off the album show the musical direction that Ochs was traveling and is the highlight of the release. His creative juices remain intact as he sings from the point of view of a right-wing activist who plans to kill the president among other things. The lyrics would become a part of his ongoing FBI file. The song would have a rockish feel in spite of the sparse arrangement. The bluntness of “I Kill Therefore I Am” is also made palatable by the fusion of folk lyrics and rock music.
Things begin to deteriorate on the second side of the album. “The World Began In Eden and Ended In Los Angeles” and “Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore?” are a combined nine minutes of heartbreak, despair, lack of hope, and depression. Except for “Where Were You In Chicago?” the famous Ochs humor is mostly lacking and it is sorely missed as it made his unyielding message accessible and palatable both to his listeners and to himself.
Rehearsals For Retirement find Ochs poetry and ability to present a message intact. It was his loss of faith that makes the album a difficult listen. It remains an interesting re-action by Ochs as he rants against the society and events beyond his control in the late sixties. It is an album not for the weak at heart.