By Don Simpson | January 5, 2011
Director: Kenneth Bowser
Writer(s): Kenneth Bowser
Starring: Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Christopher Hitchens
A majority of people probably do not know any songs by Phil Ochs and even less people know any biographical information about him. Even during his all too brief lifespan, Ochs was pigeonholed as a liberal folk singer and his songs were never accepted by mainstream culture, even though he recorded for two major labels (Elekrta and A&M). Only one song by Ochs ever hit the charts — “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” reached #119 on Billboard’s national “Hot Prospect” listing (that is until some radio station managers began to object to the line “smoking marijuana is more fun than drinking beer” in the fifth verse of the song). Joan Baez’s cover of Ochs’ “There but for Fortune” was a hit in the U.K. and peaked at #50 on the Billboard charts in the U.S., making it the most popular of Ochs’ songs.
Ochs arrived in New York City in 1962 and soon became an integral part of the Greenwich Village folk music scene. He considered himself to be a topical songwriter (Dylan once told Ochs: “You’re not a folksinger, you’re a journalist”) — ripping many of his songs straight from the news headlines — while most listeners consider Ochs to be a political songwriter. (Politically, Ochs considered himself to be a “left social democrat” but he criticized the left just as harshly as the right.)
Ochs believed that he and his music could change the world. Ochs was unabashedly American and fought to honor the United States. He protested the Vietnam War and supported various union strikes, and had no qualms about criticizing sitting Presidents — even the ones he voted for (for example: Ochs admired President John F. Kennedy, but vocally disagreed with the president on the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the growing involvement of the United States in the Vietnamese civil war).
Associating himself with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, Ochs became involved in the creation of the Youth International Party (or Yippies); all the while, Ochs crossed Yippee lines and actively supported Eugene McCarthy’s bid for the 1968 Democratic nomination for President. Ochs performed several times during the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. But things did not go well in Chicago — and Ochs was still stinging from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy — and Ochs took the failings of the Chicago protests quite personally. Ochs sank deep into depression and alcoholism. His downward spiral continued until Ochs hanged himself in 1976 at the age of 35.
Ochs recorded his first three albums for Elektra Records: All the News That’s Fit to Sing, I Ain’t Marching Anymore, and Phil Ochs in Concert. Ochs then moved to California and recorded five albums for A&M: Pleasures of the Harbor, Tape from California, Rehearsals for Retirement, Greatest Hits (which is not a greatest hits album, it consists of all new material) and Gunfight at Carnegie Hall.
I discovered Ochs in 1990 by way of Billy Bragg’s “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night” (from The Internationale), and I later learned more about Ochs’ history while reading about Bob Dylan (early in their friendship Dylan said of Ochs: “I just can’t keep up with Phil and he just keeps getting better and better and better”). Now, I consider Ochs to be my all-time favorite folk singer. I own all eight of his albums — on vinyl of course — as well as a handful of compilations. In my opinion, Ochs’ albums are all equally and consistently good and I never tire of listening to any of them. I cannot think of any other person whose political opinions I agree with more than Ochs’. So, needless to say, I was quite excited to hear about Ken Bowser’s new documentary Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune.
Trust me, there is much more that I could write about Ochs, but if you are truly curious about him then you should check out Bowser’s documentary. Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune is fairly traditional in structure and does not provide any earth-shattering new insights for people who already know the basics about Ochs’ biography. But for those of you who do not know anything about Ochs, this is the best place to start your learning.
To tell Ochs’ story, Bowser alternates between archival footage of Ochs and talking head interviews with Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Pete Seeger, Sean Penn, Billy Bragg, Jello Biafra, Peter Yarrow, Christopher Hitchens, Ed Sanders, and several others. Personally, I was hoping for more of the story to be told in Ochs’ own words — and I kept waiting for a few soundbites from Dylan — but I did enjoy hearing all of the first person recollections of stories about Ochs.
Something Bowser truly tries to stress is that Ochs’ unique combination of sharp wit, sardonic humor, earnest humanism, political activism and poetic lyrics makes his music still quite noteworthy 40+ years later. As Jello Biafra suggests, many of Ochs’ lyrics are as relevant today as they were in the 1960s (a perfect example is Biafra’s revamped cover of “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” recorded during the Clinton presidency). There is no doubt that Ochs’ songwriting has influenced the likes of Bragg and Biafra — and I would not be surprised if Joe Strummer, D Boon and Zack de la Rocha were strongly influenced by Ochs as well.
We have lost countless artists to mental illness over the years, and Ochs, like most of the others, never wanted to admit his problems because he felt as though his illness would be interpreted as his creative muse. Ochs’ songs are so positive, coherent and rationally sound that I would never imagine that he suffered from mental illness. It is a shame that Ochs missed out on his political songwriting progeny (such as The Clash, Dead Kennedys, Minutemen, Rage Against the Machine and Billy Bragg) because he would have realized that he was not a failure at all; Ochs probably would have had more in common, at least ideologically speaking, with Strummer and Bragg than he did with any of his contemporaries.
In my opinion, Ochs was not the failure he made himself out to be. Instead, I think he planted many seeds of ideas and it is up to ours and future generations to help those seeds grow to fruition. Social change comes very slowly in the United States — we often find ourselves years, if not decades, behind Canada and Europe — and unless the American working and middle classes become motivated enough to get off their lazy couch potato asses and start a revolution (or at least begin participating en masse in local, state and federal elections), we are just going to have to be patient. I probably will not see a minimum wage that is equivalent to the cost of living, an affordable health care system that covers all American citizens or an abolished death penalty during my lifetime, but I have no doubt that those changes will eventually happen in the United States — and hopefully people will still know the name Phil Ochs when those changes do occur.