Phil Ochs

Protest-sign graphics go well beyond the scope of the 1960s technology

There are widespread protests against corporations, and globalism, and whatever, on Wall Street, Bay Street, everywhere, similar to when I was a college boy — but what seems to be absent from the mix right now is protest music, and that’s kind of a shame. Back in the day, no one knew much about the fine-points of protesting, lacking, as we did, such necessary instruments-of-organization as the latest updated version of Facebook for iPhone, or a copy of Adobe Illustrator for creating bold statements on placards. But, golly, did we ever have the music.


This brings me to the recent documentary film about the ’60s protest-singer Phil Ochs. I found it to be pretty decent, but not quite the standout movie the subject deserved. During his short, gifted, turbulent life, Ochs famously had a way of wearing people down. Small wonder, then, that the film grows tiresome after a while, even as it treats superficially, and tries to gloss over tactfully, the more soul-crushing aspects of the artist’s rise and fall.

Sean Penn, then referred to as “the bad-boy actor,” was threatening to direct and act in a proposed Ochs biopic, some 15 years ago. Penn could only have seen Phil as a kindred spirit, as a brother-activist and as a misfit with heart-unfashionably-sewn-to-sleeve. But his intended cinematic vision seems to have gone nowhere. Concept not bankable? Isn’t that the question they are said to always ask in showbiz accounting departments? In any case, I’d guess that the relentless intensity required to live in the skin o’ Ochs must have caused Penn to veer toward something less inherently depressing.

Regardless, the actor appears on screen in the new documentary, which is titled, after an Ochs tune, There But For Fortune. Fortune turned out to be rotten to the songwriter, but you probably would have predicted that was coming. The Ochs musical journey began in picturesque fashion, with our lad toting a guitar through journalism school at Ohio State University, and finished abruptly in 1975, at the end of a noose in the kitchen of his sister’s bungalow in Long Island.

In between, the documentary captures him as an edgy, goofy, anarchistic presence, who cheerfully antagonizes his admirers, many would-be benefactors, close friends, lovers, and musical contemporaries. Most of all, he seems to get under the skin of Bob Dylan. Dyl was known to be particularly cagey and uncomfortable around those he deemed competitors, such as his fellow folksinger, and quasi-brother-in-law, Richard Farina. (Farina took revenge on the callow l’il Bob in this song.) Several of the movie’s testimony-givers speak of Dyl’s gratuitous cruelty to Phil, who for his part seems to have regarded the Minnesotan in abject awe. As someone recounts to the camera, “Phil set out to be the greatest folksinger in the world. Then he met Bob and realized he was never going to be anything more than second-best.”

Of course, it’s never just that cut-and-dried. During some of his recent performances, Gordon Lightfoot has told much the same story, of his arrival in Greenwich Village with untrammeled ambition during the heyday of the folk music boom, only to slam against the reigning wunderkind, Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing. As Lightfoot recounts the experience, “I said to myself, ‘Give it up. You’re never going to catch that guy.’” And yet, Dylan was always, and remains, generous in paying tribute to Lightfoot’s body of work — while it is recorded in various accounts how he often seemed to go out of his way to treat Ochs with amused derision.

There’s a familiar anecdote involving Phil riding through Manhattan in the back of a limo hired by Dyl, and Dyl turns to Phil and asks for an opinion regarding one of the lesser tunes on the “Blonde on Blonde” LP, “Sooner or Later One of Us Must Know.” It is one of Dylan’s most inconsequential songs, and Phil had the temerity to say so. Bobbo went ballistic at the criticism, and ordered Ochs out of the limousine. Before the door slammed shut, Dylan reportedly shouted a taunt: “You’re not a folksinger. You’re nothing but a journalist.”

This reveals several intriguing points. The recent documentary chalks up the antagonism to a fundamental creative difference: Ochs continued to hone his facility for writing political material long after Dylan abandoned the genre to focus on poetics. (Click to hear one fine example: Ochs warbling “Cops of the World.”) But that overlooks the obvious. Dyl and Phil came into the world concurrently as doppelgangers, two introspective kids from the middlemost parts of the middle-west who parroted the voices they heard on the radio in their bedrooms in small-town post-war heartland America. Dyl, in thrall to disparate influences such as Woody Guthrie and Bobby Vee, became intent on making outsider music, and, in one frequently told tale, was driven by his enthusiasm to wreck the piano pedals during an early performance in the Hibbing high school gym. Phil, born in San Antonio, Texas, steeped in John Wayne films, was relocated by his parents to the Buckeye State, where he attended military school, fantasized about becoming James Dean, succeeded at becoming a rebel without a cause, strumming guitar chords in his dorm room while reading the New York Times (eventually cutting a brilliant record titled “All the News That’s Fit to Sing.”)

Dyl and Phil separately found their way to the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s. They became, to use the current term, frenemies. On separate stages, they would warble the old ditties by Cisco Houston and Woody Guthrie and the Weavers, and scribble down some original tunes of their own. Dyl would write “Masters of War” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Phil wrote “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” They both attracted a following at Gerde’s Folk City and the adjacent coffee houses. Each evening, slumming ad-industry hipsters in narrow ties and sharkskin suits would buy them drinks between sets. Women would take them home. The older singers they grew up idolizing — “Hey, isn’t that Josh White in the back of the room?” — dropped by to pay tribute. They began to get some out-of-town gigs, in Cambridge, Mass. and Rush Street in Chicago, and places like the Bohemian Embassy or The Riverboat in Toronto, Canada. They signed record company contracts and appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, right around the time the Beatles were about to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Beatlemania changed everything. Dyl got fully into the spirit of things, went electric, was booed by purists during live appearances. In Manchester, an audience member sees him pick up an amplified guitar, yells, “Judas!” This makes Dyl angry. He storms away, to smoke dope with John Lennon.

And then dope changes everything. Dyl’s poetry goes free-form and kaleidoscopic, and he no longer pretends to be interested in current events and the political scene. Phil sticks with the traditional subjects for a while, but the influence of the Beatles and the electrified Dylan is too great. His songwriting begins to forsake the political for the personal. My friend Martin Myers remembers sitting on a dock in Muskoka one summer with some of his boyhood chums, when a friend-of-a-friend made his way north, to hang around the cottages, and pass the time drinking beer. This stranger carried a guitar, and drank bottle after bottle of Cinci or Red Cap, and kept playing the same chords over and over, trying different lyrics. “Sit by my side; come as close as the air…” Shit, what rhymes with air? Then the American mystery man would head off looking for a pay-phone, so he could call a girl he was deeply in love with. Honey, what rhymes with air? Then back to the guitar, and another beer, and the unfinished lyrics. That was Phil Ochs, writing his best-known and most-enduring song, “Changes.”

Phil released his last of three LPs on Elektra records, “Phil Ochs in Concert,” and it contained the completed “Changes,” suggesting that his forthcoming work would follow a less specifically political direction. He waited nearly three years before recording “Pleasures of the Harbor” for Herb Alpert’s A&M label. (Click to hear one of the lesser tracks, Miranda.) The record was a stunning work, with recurring ragtime and baroque motifs, but by then the Beatles already released “Revolver” and then “Sgt. Pepper,” and Dylan recorded his landmark, “Blonde on Blonde.” By now this business of making folk-rock music was being taken seriously as a commercial enterprise by adults. There were now critics who wrote about the rock music scene for a living, in big daily newspapers, and they pointed out that the Ochs work didn’t quite measure up to landmark status. His subsequent records also received mild praise, at best.

Phil became discouraged, began drinking to extreme excess, wallowing in his uncertainty. Manic episodes followed, along with depression. He became an acute embarrassment on Bleeker Street, not making sense, unemployable, unendurable. Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972 is said to have been the last straw, as Phil fell over the edge of despondency.

Losing himself in travel, between pointless non-remunerative assignments to review popular films for the underground press, he is attacked and strangled by robbers in Africa. He persuades himself that his voice is ruined, but rallies somewhat when Watergate brings down his bete noir, Richard Nixon. Ochs takes on the self-invented identity of “John Butler Train,” and acquires the unpleasant habit of threatening strangers with a ball-peen hammer. As Train, he discovers a nasal young songwriter, Sammy Walker, who has a retro sound, the sort of adenoidal timbre Dylan enjoyed when he was 20. Train/Ochs promotes Walker’s career and finds him a record deal, insisting, “Sammy will be the greatest folksinger, better than Phil Ochs, greater even than Bob Dylan.” Walker releases one very good album, followed by a disappointing one, and then vanishes forever.

Ochs finally drops the Train schtick, to the relief of all, seems to be on an upswing, even manages to resume performing, and turns up in Toronto one Saturday for an evening set at the reborn Riverboat Coffee House.

I sat in the back of the room and drank a couple of cappuccinos with a high school friend. Ochs seemed to be going through the motions on the small stage, a tired amnesiac vaguely remembering who he used to be. After his last set was done, the sparse audience was enthused, and a girl cried, “We love you, Phil.” He smiled. “Come back soon,” someone else yelled. He nodded, and seemed to look wistful. I wondered where he was staying in Toronto, thinking it probably wasn’t the Park Plaza. There had been stories in the Village Voice about John Train’s odd behavior, which included sleeping off his benders on the streets. Within a year of the Riverboat gig, Ochs would be dead by his own hand, and the news would rate only a few paragraphs in the daily papers.

A sad story, no two ways about it. However, the body-count of groovy young troubadours from the era, and more particularly the list of artistes from the Electra Records back catalogue, is well past single digits at this stage of things. Farina’s long gone, of course, along with Dave Van Ronk, Hamilton Camp, Bob Gibson, David Blue, Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Jeff Buckley, Dave “Snaker” Ray: gone to flowers every one. You needn’t bother keeping track of the close-calls, such as Dyl’s motorcycle accident, Dyl’s histoplasmosis, Lightfoot’s aneurysm, Lightfoot’s stroke. While, in contrast to the mortal next-generation, several of the older cats, Woody Guthrie’s contemporaries, including Pete Seeger and Oscar Brand, are not only still drawing breath into their tenth decade, but are still performing on occasion. That’s some unpredictable business, the protest-music business. Dylan becomes an industry, cranking out books, radio shows and nightly stadium concerts; Ochs gets to play a tragic corpse in a second-rate documentary.

Yes, well. Perhaps that hints at an explanation for the 2011 phenomenon of protests without the accompanying protest music. It still requires passion to take to the streets, but these days it only takes ten minutes on a computer to get, or make, music. For all the sweat, cigarettes and madness that previously went into the creation of music, the tunes of 2011 are all just part of the stack of digital content maintained in the cloud by one big company or another, for your listening enjoyment. For all the tears behind those ‘60s tunes, it all adds up to just a few more bloodless bytes toward your monthly download cap. Power to the people, the signs read, but if you can’t have power (and, pal, you can’t), here: have an iPod with touchscreen.

And yet, Ochs will be recalled as more than another doomed soul from a bygone age who fell under the weight of some bad fortune, along with dumb-ass behavior. His was an evocative, meaningful voice from a memorable time and place, and you, as a media consumer, should welcome the chance to spend a little more time with his memory. If the movie that prompts you to remember is not quite as good as it should be, why quibble? Netflix will have something else picked out for you in the streaming queue, right?


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