Fate is cruel to those who tell the truth. There are few better illustrations of this than the short life of Phil Ochs, the folk singer — he preferred “topical singer” — whose incisive songs, sung in his plangent tenor, are indelible anthems to the tumultuous ‘60s and early ’70s: the JFK assassination (“Crucifixion”), the Civil Rights movement (“The Ballad of Medgar Evars,” “Here’s to the State of Mississippi”) Vietnam (“I Ain’t Marching Anymore” “Draft Dodger Rag”), the lies of Lyndon Johnson (“We Seek No Wider War”), the hypocrisy of liberals (“Love Me, I’m a Liberal”). Disillusioned by the failure of his ideals to change the world, drinking heavily and suffering from bipolar disorder, Ochs hanged himself at his sister’s home in Far Rockaway, New York, on April 9, 1976. He was 35.
Unlike Bob Dylan, with whom Ochs had a friendly but rather heartbreaking rivalry (he desperately wanted Dylan’s approval), the brilliant and prophetic Ochs is remembered, except by leftists and diehard folkies, as a musical footnote. “It must have been hard to be Marlowe in the time of Shakespeare,” remarked director Kenneth Bowser at a screening of his new documentary, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune. But while Dylan’s music was more wide-ranging, it was the activist Ochs who was the genuine heir to Woody Guthrie, a crown Dylan coveted as he sat at the ailing Guthrie’s hospital bedside. Bowser’s film, an expert collage of archival footage, photographs, music and interviews with friends, contemporaries and family members, will bring renewed recognition to Ochs, who was sometimes described as “Tom Paine with a guitar.” (Paine, too, died alone in obscurity in New York.)
Through interviews with people like Peter Yarrow, Van Dyke Parks, Billy Bragg, Tom Hayden, singer Judy Henske, Pete Seeger, the late Abbie Hoffman, and Ochs’ former wife, brother, sister and daughter, a biographical portrait emerges of a young man, born in Texas who took refuge from family problems in music — not folk music, which he would discover later, but country artists like Lefty Frizell — and the movies, idolizing heroic Americans and imagining himself, throughout his life, the hero of his own movie.
At Ohio State University, his roommate introduced him to left-wing politics and the Weavers, and Phil devoted himself to writing songs, singing and playing guitar, moving to New York City to join other musicians who believed they could make a difference. The songs, based on the headlines of the day, poured out of him, forthright, honest, ironic and idealistic. He was singing songs against the Vietnam War as early as 1962, years before most Americans were even aware of the burgeoning conflict.
His songs illuminated hard truths; unlike those of Peter Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio, they couldn’t be sung holding hands and sitting around a campfire, which is a likely reason the fame he craved eluded him. Unlike Dylan’s more obscurant songs, like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Ochs’ songs got directly to the heart of the matter, with insights into issues that remain unchanged today, like the corporate interests that drive the wars that are sold as defending freedom. “Now the labor leader’s screamin’/When they close the missile plants/United Fruit screams at the Cuban shore/Call it Peace or call it Treason/Call it Love or call it Reason/But I ain’t marchin’ anymore/No, I ain’t marchin’ anymore.” He didn’t just write songs about the issues he cared about; he was committed to change, and performed at countless benefits, routinely passing up a paid gig to play at a labor rally for miners.
Though he sang of events of the day, he was no mere singing journalist; he was capable of a soaring poeticism. Listen to the haunting “The Highwayman,” based on Alfred Noyes’ narrative poem, the lovely “Changes,” or “When I’m Gone,” so sad in retrospect, about a man’s determination to go on living (“Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone/Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone/“So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here”). That his songs are as relevant today as when he wrote them is evident in Jello Biafra’s statement that he scarcely had to change the lyrics for the Dead Kennedys’ 1980 cover of “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” As the President talks of sending CIA “analysts” into Libya as part of its latest bombing adventure, we realize how little things have changed since Ochs sang “But the boy in the swamp didn’t care that he was killed by advisers/So please be reassured, we seek no wider war.”
After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Phil, like many other activists, lost his way. “He stopped looking outward, and then he got sick,” says one friend, and a family history of manic depressive illness caught up with him. The “manic” side may have fueled his incredibly prolific songwriting, while the bottom end left him in a black fog, isolated and, at the end of his days, living with his sister, watching endless television and playing cards.
After Ochs’ death, it was discovered that the FBI had kept a nearly 500-page file on his activities. Ochs, often misspelled “Oakes” in Hoover’s files, was considered “potentially dangerous,” as are all public truth-tellers. This film suggests that negative responses to Ochs weren’t limited to the government; its lens reveals a surprising negativity, as friends recall the less flattering elements of the famously funny, smart Ochs’ personality: his ambition (“He really, really, really wanted to be famous,” says singer Judy Henske), his “ridiculousness” (never explained, as Ochs seems anything but ridiculous) and, of course, the “arrogance, drunkenness and recklessness” of his later years, which began with his ill-conceived onstage appearance in an Elvis-style gold-lamé suit (it was meant ironically, but elicited audience jeers) and included aimless travels to Haiti, Chile and Africa, where street robbers attacked him and strangled him, permanently damaging his vocal cords (Ochs, paranoid but not without reason, suspected CIA involvement). His friends were at a loss about what to do with Ochs, who was unraveling, wildly wandering, getting arrested.
The film suffers from certain omissions and oddities. The talking-heads approach, much favored by this director (who has made documentaries about movie directors Frank Capra, Preston Sturges and others), makes for elliptical narration and the elision of certain details, such as the ending of Ochs’ marriage. You might also question the inclusion of certain commentators (Christopher Hitchens?) and the absence of others (where is Ochs’ friend Tom Paxton, and his moving song of remembrance, “Phil”?) For all the talk, we come away feeling we never really got to know Phil Ochs. Nevertheless, it is a necessary and worthy tribute to the visionary Ochs, who would have preferred to be famous in life rather than in death.