Phil Ochs’s Tragedy and Our Own

In December 1966, Phil Ochs appeared on a one-hour television program entitled The Rebel Songwriter on WNDT-TV in New York City.  A small studio audience was on hand to listen and ask questions.  Host Dennis Wholey, who was beginning his career in television and had befriended Phil in the bars, clubs and coffeehouses of Greenwich Village where Ochs was starting his career in music, interviewed the almost-26-year-old in between performances of his songs.  There was “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” already on its way to becoming the anthem of the resistance movement against the war in Vietnam, a medley including verses from “Santo Domingo,” “Draft Dodger Rag,” “Is There Anybody Here?,” “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” “Cops of the World,” and “I’m Going to Say it Now,” as well as complete performances of “Changes,” “Flower Lady” and “Crucifixion.”  Examples of Phil’s legendary wit were on display (“God isn’t dead, only Missing in Action”) and he sang his patriotic “Power and the Glory.”  After Anita Bryant’s fully-orchestrated cover version was played for the audience amidst scattered boos, Phil said he loved it.  At the request of one of the audience members, Phil closed the show with “When I’m Gone.”

Within a few years, WNDT-TV would become the fledgling PBS’s flagship WNET-TV.  Videotapes of WNDT-TV’s programming during the 1960s, which included Ralph Nader’s first appearance on television, as well as The Rebel Songwriter, were archived at Indiana University.  In the early 1970s, for reasons known only to the then-decision makers at PBS, these archival tapes were destroyed.  Because Agnes ‘Sis’ Cunningham and her husband Gordon Friesen held a microphone from a reel-to-reel tape recorder up to a television set in their apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side one night in December 1966, an audio record still exists of The Rebel Songwriter.  Cunningham and Friesen were the founders and editors of Broadside magazine, where the songs of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan and other aspiring singer/songwriters of the early 1960s folk revival were first published.  The same reel-to-reel that taped The Rebel Songwriter had recorded many of these artists’ songs for the first time.

Thanks to Ken Bowser’s new documentary film Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, the erasure of Phil Ochs from this country’s collective historical memory has just suffered from a well-deserved and hopefully irreversible blow.  A labor of love many years in the making, There But For Fortune premiered in New York City in early January and will open elsewhere nationwide throughout the year.  While audiences won’t be able to see the great American troubadour of the revolutionary 1960s in WNDT-TV’s studio that night in 1966, Bowser has unearthed a wealth of rare archival film, video, photographs and other material that should satisfy even the most demanding Ochs aficionado.  He has also provided some welcome illumination of the many-faceted life and work of one of this country’s most unique and talented songwriters, a true original whose tragically short life will forever be linked with the turbulent decade during which he wrote the songs most of us know him by.

But as important as it is for audiences to see and hear Ochs himself ? and as wonderful as it is to have some of Murray Lerner’s footage of Phil performing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and 1964 publicly on view for the first time ? it is the testimony of friends and family who knew him personally and intimately, and who generously share their insights, passion and perspectives, that gives There But For Fortune much of its depth and emotional power.  These range from the widely famous (Pete Seeger, Joan Baez) to music industry insiders (Van Dyke Parks, Jac Holzman) to confidants like Andy Wickham to wife Alice Skinner, brother Michael Ochs, sister Sonny, and daughter Meegan.

Among them is Ed Sanders, who along with Tuli Kupferberg founded the immortal underground rock band The Fugs in New York’s East Village in the mid-1960s.  Sanders wrote the liner notes to the compilation album Chords of Fame, released shortly after a combination of manic-depression, writer’s block, alcoholism and political disillusionment resulted in Ochs’ suicide in 1976 at age 35.  Sanders’ notes remain the literary gold standard of Ochs appreciation and are exemplary for the kinds of feelings Ochs evoked in those who knew him:  “To encounter Phil unexpectedly at a party, or at a riot, or on the street ? what a twinge of happiness.  Sometimes, we’d be talking, and suddenly he’d burst into a phrase of song ? it was always a pleasure.  He was a wonderful singer.  In my mind I hear Phil sing his songs all the time ? a permanent concert I turn to at will.  I would go so far as to say it’s part of a stream of eternity into which I dip each day.  Struggle and survive, o singers.”

Sanders’ poetic eloquence continues in There But For Fortune.  Discussing Phil’s final days, he speaks of the “mistakes . . . lodged like harpoons and fishhooks in a person’s soul.” The language is Melvillian and appropriate for an artist who spent the better part of his career launching barbs dipped in his own caustic humor and wit at the apathy, hypocrisies, and economic, political and moral outrages of his day.  One of Phil’s most memorable songs, the beautiful ballad “Pleasures of the Harbor,” was inspired by the John Ford/John Wayne/Gregg Toland film The Long Voyage Home (1940).  The film in turn was based upon several plays by Eugene O’Neill for whom, like Herman Melville, the sea proved a transformative source of artistic inspiration.  Says Sanders of the mistakes that tormented his beloved friend, “There’s no time machine to go back and fix them.”

As director, Bowser scrupulously, and appropriately, presents Ochs as a complex individual, personally, musically and politically, his life and work resistant to facile summary and dismissal or pigeon-holing by ideologues of whatever persuasion.  Raised in a middle-class, apolitical Jewish family, Ochs spent two years at a military academy in Virginia, then enrolled as a journalism student at Ohio State University before dropping out in his senior year to pursue a career as a singer/songwriter.  He was also enthralled by movies from an early age, counting among his heroes John Wayne and James Dean.  Indeed, idol worship ? be it of Gary Cooper, Elvis Presley, Fidel Castro, or his friend Bob Dylan ? was a recurrent theme in Ochs’ life.  So was the drive to achieve his own celebrity and fame which, as a number of Bowser’s assembled cast point out, was often at odds with his deep personal commitment to issues of social justice and his willingness to give up paying gigs in favor of performing benefit concerts for the myriad causes he supported.

At Ohio State, Ochs was introduced to the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the Weavers by his college roommate, Jim Glover.  He also learned to play the guitar, acquired from Glover in a wager on who would win the Presidency in 1960 (Phil’s money and his heart were with John F. Kennedy, another figure he idolized).  Ochs, however, was already a musical prodigy by the time he reached Ohio State, having played the clarinet and saxophone in his teens.  His knowledge of classical music would emerge full-blown in the orchestral accompaniments and counter-melodies of his Pleasures of the Harbor album, with decidedly mixed critical and commercial results.  His boyhood love of Country & Western music would find its way into his ironically titled Greatest Hits album, including songs like “Chords of Fame.”  And as his brother Michael points out in There But For Fortune, Phil was in Africa in the early 1970s recording music ? notably a single he sang in Swahili, “Bwatue” ? years before the category ‘world music’ was invented.

Along with his introduction to the music of Guthrie and Seeger came his introduction to left-wing politics ? Jim Glover’s father had been a fellow traveler of the Communist Party ? and his nascent songwriting was soon at the forefront of the emerging New Left.  Arising from the fermentation on college campuses across the country set in motion in significant part by the civil rights movement, students in organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were increasingly taking the concept of democracy seriously, few more so than Phil Ochs.  Whether performing for striking coal miners in Hazard, Kentucky, at voter registration drives in the South, or at demonstrations against the escalating war in Vietnam, a number of which Ochs had a prominent role in organizing, Phil Ochs, like the eponymous Wobbly organizer and songsmith of his ballad “Joe Hill,” was always on the line.

Yet Ochs was too independent, intellectually curious, and politically astute to let his own political commitments devolve into rigid sectarianism.  His close friend Andy Wickham, for example, was a conservative who despised Jerry Rubin, with whom Phil had co-founded the Yippies along with Paul Krassner, Abbie Hoffman, and Stew Albert.  Phil had no problem publicly expressing his admiration for the wit and intellect of William F. Buckley, Jr., whom he praised as a rebel against the political system for running for Mayor of New York City in 1965, or singing the praises of Merle Haggard as a songwriter ? quite literally, in a gold lam? suit he commissioned from Elvis’ tailor ? by performing the latter’s “Okie from Muskogee” as part of his efforts to reach more of an American working-class audience in the wake Richard Nixon’s election as President in 1968.

In his liner notes to his second album, I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Ochs wrote that his songs are “intended to overthrow as much idiocy as possible, and hopefully, to effect some amount of change for the better.”  Since idiocy knows no national, political or religious bounds, no one and no thing was ? or is ? immune to Ochs’ penetrating verbal jousts.  “In an argument, Phil’s weapon of choice was the rapier,” wrote his close friend and fellow Greenwich Village folkie Dave Van Ronk, who has a couple of memorable appearances in There But For Fortune.  “As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since.”

Van Ronk knew whereof he spoke.  An accomplished jazz musician before he gravitated to folk circles, he had been a Village regular since his first visit at age 16, almost a decade before Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs appeared on the scene:

“By this time I had heard and read a great deal about Greenwich Village,” Van Ronk wrote in his memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street.  “The phrase ‘quaint, old-world charm’ kept cropping up, and I had a vivid mental picture of a village of half-timbered Tudor cottages with mullioned windows and roofs, inhabited by bearded, bomb-throwing anarchists, poets, painters, and nymphomaniacs whose ideology was slightly to the left of ‘whoopee!’

“Emerging from the subway at the West 4th Street Station, I looked around in a state of shock.

“‘Jesus Christ,’ I muttered.  ‘It looks just like fucking Brooklyn.’”

Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs.  While it is easy ? if somewhat shortsighted and unfair ? to speak of Dylan in the 1960s without discussing Ochs, it’s difficult to extend the same courtesy to Phil.  In part, this was his own doing.  As Van Ronk observed, “Ochs worshipped the ground Bobby walked on ? it actually became a sort of fixation, and did him a lot of harm.”  There were those at the time who, outraged that Dylan would turn his back on his left-wing folk audience to play rock and roll, looked to Ochs as the heir-apparent to Dylan’s throne.  Ochs defended Dylan’s move as an essential component of his growth as an artist.  In 1965, weighing on the one hand Dylan’s use of an electric guitar and the Beatles’ use of orchestral accompaniment in their song “Yesterday” on the other, Ochs chose the latter as the path of his own artistic development.  “I’m trying to push gas guitars over electric guitars,” Ochs explained.  “They’re cheaper and more to the point.”  In an era that embraced with open arms Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, and countless others wielding electric instruments, Ochs had made the wrong career move.

Although one shouldn’t overstate the case, perhaps a better way to understand the Bob Dylan/Phil Ochs relationship is to consider that between the actors and directors Elia Kazan and Nicholas Ray, absent the toxic cloud of HUAC and McCarthyism that poisoned the lives and political atmosphere of Kazan and Ray’s generation.  While each was a brilliant artist in his own right, there was no way Ray could lay claim to the position Kazan occupied on Broadway (A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman) and in Hollywood (Oscars for Gentleman’s Agreement, On the Waterfront).  Yet if it was Kazan who first directed James Dean for the big screen in East of Eden, it was Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause that unleashed a seismic shockwave throughout the culture that rattled the walls of young viewers like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and presaged the rumble of freedom’s call to which both would respond.  It was also Ray, who for a time in the 1930s shared a house with Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax and counted Woody Guthrie among his friends (and with whom he worked on radio broadcasts of Back Where I Come From in the early 1940s), whose Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s had a greater impact on the cinematic upheavals of the French New Wave and ultimately provide a more direct path from the cultural politics of the 1930s to the songwriters of Dylan and Ochs’ generation.

As Kazan put it, “Nick and I were very much alike.  We’d both started as actors and became directors.  But he went ‘all the way,’ and I did not.  I was more disciplined, more in control, more cautious, more bourgeois.  Perhaps, I thought, he’s been more of an artist, more of a gambler.  But hadn’t it been man’s deepest desire all through history to have it all, heaven and hell? . . .  It is the question that life asks:  How much do you want and how much will you give up for what you want?”

One of the most striking sequences in Bowser’s film is footage of Ochs in the last year of his life on the streets of TriBeCa in New York City engaged in an almost free-associational soliloquy about his plans to establish some kind of left-wing media empire called Barricade, Inc.  It bears an uncanny similarity to footage of Bob Dylan in England during his tour with The Hawks (later The Band), shot by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker and included as the opening of the second part of Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Dylan, No Direction Home (2005).  Both Ochs and Dylan are clearly strung-out and on a roll.  For Dylan, it’s verbal acrobatics as he begins playing with the words on the signs of the shops in front of him; for Ochs it’s manic, grandiose schemes for his media empire to be headquartered in a warehouse he points to across the street.  Both are clearly heading for a fall.  The difference is that the Dylan of 1966 was able to find his way, in large part by withdrawing from public performances, getting married, and raising a family.  The Ochs of 1976 was not.

Despite the other contributing factors to his demise ? chief among them his manic-depressive/bipolar illness and alcoholism ? it is impossible to separate the arc of Ochs’ brief and tragic life from that of the historical and political events of the 1960s.  Bowser’s film is no exception.  From the idealism and euphoria of Kennedy’s election and the victories of the civil rights movement, to the shock of Kennedy’s assassination, the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the urban insurrections of Harlem, Watts, Newark and Detroit, the rise of the counterculture, and the evidence provided by the events at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that a police state in America was not simply a possibility, Ochs’ songwriting not only chronicled these and other events but came to an almost complete stop after his personal experiences in Chicago in 1968.

Then there was the fact that, as James Baldwin said about the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other leaders in the African-American community at the time, “They’re killing my friends.”  Ochs shared a stage with King at a United Nations rally against the war in Vietnam in 1967.  He sang an a cappella version of his song “Crucifixion,” which is partly about John Kennedy’s assassination, to Robert Kennedy on a plane trip from Washington, D.C. to New York City not long before Robert himself was assassinated.  He traveled to Chile after the Marxist Salvador Allende had been democratically elected and became friends with Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, who was later murdered along with Allende and thousands of others in the U.S.-sponsored coup that established a military dictatorship in 1973.  Ochs never recovered from these traumas ? at once personal and political ? and his sense that both he, and the country he loved, had failed to live up to their promise.

The idea of America that Phil Ochs held dear could accommodate his appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show to perform “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” before a nationwide television audience with the fate of its foreign policy in Vietnam hanging in the balance.  In some respects, I don’t think he ever understood why the actual America could not.  It’s part of both Ochs’ tragedy, and our own, that it never did.

DOUG LORANGER can be reached at: