Where is Phil Ochs When We Really Need Him?

I’m pretty sure it was in the ’80s when Reagan was president that these buttons appeared in the remains of head shops, probably in what was once the hip sections of certain cities that said: “Where is Phil Ochs now that we need him?”  Those buttons would be equally relevant and perhaps more so right now.  Instead what we have is close to 35 years after his death by suicide, a film revisiting Ochs’ life, There But For Fortune, directed by Kenneth Bowser.  Judging by the attendance at a repertory theater in Wilmington Delaware, tonight, I don’t know how many people this film will reach, or if will just be of interest to those who already know.  At this showing there were maybe two people under the age of 50, and definitely none under 40.

I first saw Phil Ochs perform on November 1, 1964.  The reason I remember the date is it was the day after Bob Dylan’s Halloween Concert at Philharmonic Hall in New York City (which Ochs also attended).  The occasion was the first Broadside Hoot at the Village Gate.  All the “topical” singer-songwriters who were written about in Sing Out! magazine, and whose songs were published in the mimeographed Broadside magazine were there (except of course the guy who played the night before).  In addition to Ochs, performers included Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Len Chandler, Julius Lester, Pat Sky, Buffy Sainte-Marie, as well as Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, and even Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, bringing things full circle with Woody Guthrie’s ballad, “1913 Massacre.”  The total cost for both shows was five bucks.

All the performers did one song.  Ochs debuted a new song, “Links On The Chain,” about the labor unions selling out.  Near the end of the show, he got up again, and calling Eric Andersen to the stage, he said, there’s a couple of songwriters we don’t want to forget, and they did the Lennon and McCartney’s “I Should Have Known Better.”

Ochs took his role as a topical, journalistic songwriter seriously.  His debut album was called All The News That’s Fit To Sing, and he stuck to that for the first few years of his career, and of that group of songwriters at the Village Gate that day who were all more than talented, he was the one that stood out.  But Ochs had one problem though, he wasn’t Bob Dylan – and he knew it.  Take the couple of songs they wrote on the same subject, like for instance Medgar Evers.  Ochs wrote “Too Many Martyrs,” kind of a bio which basically says Medgar Evers was a good guy and they killed him, and Dylan wrote “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” which gets deep into the psychology and the roots of racism, and the mindset it implants on people.  Similarly both “I Ain’t A-Marchin’ Anymore” (probably Ochs’ best-known song) and “With God On Our Side,” examine the history of the United States through war.  Both say war is bad, but one goes a bit deeper.  However, don’t get me wrong, I remember going to the first March on Washington against the Vietnam War in the spring of ’65, and as we made our way from Union Station to the Mall, as we approached the mall, and I realized Ochs was on stage singing that very song, I raced down to get as close to the stage as possible.

I saw Ochs many, many times, in concert, at rallies and demonstrations, at additional Broadside Hoots.  I bought his albums upon release.

When the great Bob Dylan going electric controversy went down at Newport, and divided the folk scene, Ochs was one of the people who stood up for him, unlike say, Tom Paxton who wrote an article for Sing Out! titled “Folk Rot.”  (Within a year, Paxton had bands on his albums.)

Ochs could be a great performer.  He could be extremely and bitingly funny in his song introductions, devastatingly honest, and had one of the greatest smiles of any performer I’ve ever seen.

Ochs started moving away from writing protest songs as early as 1965.  He started moving towards more personal topics with songs like “Flower Lady” and “Pleasures of the Harbor,” and more abstract commentary with “Ringing of Revolution,” and “Crucifixion.”  He left Elektra Records, not long after his In Concert album was released and eventually signed with Herb Alpert’s company, A&M.  But it took a couple of years for his next album, Pleasures of the Harbor to be recorded and released.  When the album finally came out, most Ochs fans were in for a shock.  The album was heavily produced, with lush kind of classical orchestrations.  Music and the music business of course was changing, and one of the big changes was when FM radio started playing rock and roll.  The first station to do so in New York was WOR FM, which lasted about a year, then almost the entire staff moved to WNEW.  One of the DJ’s on WOR (though not WNEW) was Murray the K, who liked to call himself the fifth Beatle, and had been soundly booed a couple of years earlier at Dylan’s first electric concert in NY at Forest Hills stadium.  Murray was a classic old time AM radio rock ’n’ roll DJ, and he brought a lot of his AM radio shtick with him.  In retrospect, had had a great show, because he played everything, and I mean everything.  But he divided it into segments.  There’s be a Soul/R&B segment, a British segment, and what Murray decided to call “Attitude Music,” “because it’s got an attitude about stuff.”  Phil Ochs was a frequent guest during the attitude segment while he was recording Pleasure of the Harbor, and talked about what he was trying to accomplish.  I was hoping Ochs’ visits to Murray the K would get mentioned in the movie.  Ultimately, some arrangements worked, others didn’t.  He killed one of his greatest songs, “Crucifixion” about the JFK assassination by setting it to electronic music arranged by Joseph Byrd, when in during his concert performances it was the rhythm of his acoustic guitar that propelled the song.  While as the movie points out, Pleasures of the Harbor was his biggest selling album, his career and his albums were the never the same after that.  Part of the problem was Ochs couldn’t, or wasn’t able to change his style of singing to fit what he was trying to accomplish musically.

While Ochs may have moved away from writing direct topical songs, his involvement with political causes never wavered.  He continued to sing at rallies, for the striking students at Columbia, and of course the demonstrations at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, in which is he was strongly involved with the Yippie Party.  While the film has scenes of a Yippie Press conference, with Hoffman, Rubin, Ginsberg and others, as well as Tom Hayden recalling what went down, one thing I wish it had mentioned was that the Chicago demonstration was pretty much planned, promoted and organized on Bob Fass’ all-night radio show, “Radio Unnameable” on WBAI in New York.  While I have no doubt, the FBI had their informants, the funny thing is they didn’t really need to.  All you had to do was listen to “Radio Unnameable,” and Abbie Hoffman, and Paul Krassner were up there just about every night in the summer of ’68 discussing it.

What happened in Chicago by all accounts left Ochs beaten and disillusioned.  His next album, Rehearsals For Retirement featured his tombstone on the cover, with the tombstone reading, “Died in Chicago, 1968.”

Two years later, Ochs made one last album, Greatest Hits, the joke being it was all new songs.  On the front cover he held an electric guitar wore a gold lame suit just like Elvis’, and on the back it said: 50 Phil Ochs fans can’t be wrong.  Of all his non-acoustic albums, it was probably the best musically in terms of the arrangements with the production done by Van Dyke Parks.  Chillingly the last song, and easily the best of his “classical” arrangements was titled “No More Songs.”  There were few new originals after that.

Ochs followed up the album by touring with a band, wearing the gold lame suit, culminating in a concert at Carnegie Hall.  The concert, eventually released (originally as an import) titled Gunfight At Carnegie Hall, which found Ochs mixing his own songs with covers of Buddy Holly and songs like “Mona Lisa” left his fans confused and outraged.  Maybe Ochs needed his own Newport ’65.

After that concert, Ochs disappeared for a long time.  In the early ’70s he traveled to Chile (after Allende was elected) meeting Chilean singer-songwriter, Victor Jara, then to Bolivia and to Africa.  In Africa, where he actually recorded, as the film points out, long before Paul Simon, walking on a beach one night, he was mugged, strangled and left for dead.  He awoke to the realization that his vocal cords and been bent and permanently damaged.  If the end wasn’t already happening, this catapulted it.  Already paranoid, always living half in fantasy, he was convinced it was a CIA plot.  Returning to the US, he had to tune his guitar down in pitch to perform.  Deserted by his songwriting muse, the best he could to was rewrite his classic, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” to “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon.”

Always a drinker, he took it to new terrifying levels, though prone to manic highs, he did what he did best organizing, first, the “War is Over Rally” in Central Park at the end of the war, and then a tribute concert to Allende after the Chilean coup.  For the latter he managed to entice Bob Dylan to appear, when ticket sales were not happening.  Dylan did play, his first appearance a few months after his comeback tour in 1974, though the tapes reveal that neither he or Ochs were anything close to sober.

After that, Ochs’ decline was rapid.  He wouldn’t help himself or let his friends help him.  He was constantly drunk, living on the street, and bi-polar, he assumed the identity of “John Butler Train.”  Finally he moved to his sister’s house in Queens, where he hanged himself in April 1976.

There But For Fortune goes into all of this in startling brutal detail, through recollections of family, friends, other performers and, photos and footage, including hard hitting devastating footage of Ochs at his craziest.

One of the best recollections is Jello Biafra, who did a great update in the ’90s of Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m A Liberal,” changing it slightly to be about the Clintons.  Biafra says something along the lines of, “The amazing thing was how few words I had to change to make it work,” and then to prove his point seemingly adlibs a line about Obama.  Watching it, I couldn’t help but think that of all the segments in the film Ochs would have appreciated this one the most.

Near the end of the film describing his last days, his sister Sonny talks about how he would sit at the piano and sing “Jim Dean of Indiana,” a song from his final album and then footage of it shown.  It hits hard.  I had no idea Ochs even played the piano or could play like he played in this clip.  And even though it’s not what one would think of as a classic Phil Ochs song, it drives into you just who and what was so tragically lost.  Then as the credits roll, a solo unadorned and equally moving version of “No More Songs” is played.

I stopped going to Ochs concerts sometime in the mid to late ‘60s, though I still bought his albums.  The last time I saw him sing as at a McGovern rally in 1972.  I didn’t know he was going to be there.  However, the time I like to remember as the last time was in the spring of 1970, a few weeks after his “Gunfight At Carnegie Hall” concert.  It was a warm Sunday afternoon, so I decided to go play my guitar in Washington Square.  I was standing alone under a tree playing when who came along but Phil Ochs wearing the cap he wore on the cover of Pleasures Of The Harbor and smoking a cigar.  He stopped and watched me for awhile.  I nodded to let him know I knew who he was, debating in my mind whether to offer him my guitar, but kind of felt he didn’t want the attention.

Considering the state of America in the 21st Century, I think about Phil Ochs a lot and what he might’ve written and sung about what’s going on now.  Where is Phil Ochs when we need him?

PETER STONE BROWN is a musician, songwriter, and writer. He can be reached at: psb51@verizon.net

Peter Stone Brown is a freelance writer and singer-songwriter.