PHIL OCHS, FOLKSINGER...
...truly a victim of his times, and himself...
As of the early 1980's, I had only heard of Phil Ochs briefly, but I never knew anything about him until I found a biography, written by Marc Eliot, titled "Death Of A Rebel". I also had known that Phil committed suicide back in 1976. But this isn't your everyday-death-of-a-spoiled-Rock Star story; this is a story of a manic/depressive, sharper-than-a-whip, intelligent and humorous man who, in the end, lost it all. It's a sad story, but what a life he led.
Phil Ochs injected himself into the Greenwich Village (New York) folk scene way back in the early '60s. Back then, everyone was beginning to become more and more aware of political injustice, and Phil wrote tons of songs about current events, becoming one of the most expressive and informed singers on the scene. Indeed, his first album was titled, "All The News That's Fit To Sing" (Elektra Records). Phil was a contemporary of Bob Dylan, although Dylan moved away from social commentary to more of a poetic, personal sort of music. That was the biggest difference between the two.
This is a DVD that just hit the market a couple of weeks ago, and in about an hour and a half, tells the story of Phil Ochs in far more detail than I can do here. It's the story of Phil's life. He was ultra-involved in causes, political events (he just about got swept away by all of the rioting in the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago); he'd been excited that the nation had a young, strong leader in John F. Kennedy, which coincided with the folk-movement boom in the early '60s, and like all of us, he was shattered by the President's death. And he took it very, very personally.
This is one of Phil Ochs' albums from way back in the early days. Marc Eliot's biography of Phil indicates that due to nervousness, his performance was erratic, and so a lot of the vocal lines were re-done in the studio. A song on this album, "I Ain't Marching Anymore", a song in which the Universal Soldier sings, "Look at all we've done with a saber and a gun, tell me, was it worth it all...when I saw the cities burning, I knew that II was learning that I'm Not Marching Anymore". Phil, as always,
was on fire for many causes here.
The Folksinger scene began to disappear in the mid-60s, and Phil headed to California, seeking fame and fortune, and for a while, he had both. He signed with A&M records, which was one of the hippest-ever labels, and recorded three albums for them. His material was less cause-oriented and more personal, but He still could write a poignant comment when the occasion presented itself. He wrote about the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City. She was screaming and trying to fight her attacker but none of the neighbors paid any mind, and she died. "And it wouldn't interest anybody...outside of a "Small Circle Of Friends" which dressed up Phil's lyrics up with a honky-tonk piano and a snare drum...and he actually made the Top 40 with that song, in 1968. That's when I first saw Phil's name, on a record in a department store, but back then, I didn't know anything, so I didn't buy it.
Although Phil was insanely political, he spent most of the mid-to-late 60s trying to achieve the American Dream by becoming Really Famous, but that never did quite happen. One of Phil's songs, for example, appeared on the B-side of a Peter & Gordon 45, a song called "The Flower Lady" which Phil had done on his first A&M album, "Pleasures Of The Harbour", the title song of which is an achingly beautiful song. One of Joan Baez' first well-known songs, from earlier in the '60s, was another Phil tune, "There But For Fortune". A few prophetic lyrical lines from that song:
Show me the whisky that stains on the floor
Show me the drunkard who stumbles out the door
And I'll show you a young man with many reasons why
And there but for fortune go you or I...you or I.
But things began to get really ugly for Phil towards the end of the '60's. I mentioned he was manic/depressive and his distorted persona took over his life in the form of "John Train". One night onstage, Phil announced that he died and became "John Train", his alter ego, who was sloppy, drunk and loudmouthed, sleeping in alley ways, drunk and filthy, the whole nine yards. Before the advent of "John Train" he went to Chile to get into that country's political identity; he became great friends with Chilean singer Victor Jara. Jara was later killed by Pinochet's forces, and Phil virtually lost his mind over that. Phil went to Australia, his "John Train" persona showing up during his unfocused stay there. Phil also went to Africa. How was that trip paid for? Phil found a studio in Nigeria and recorded "Bwatue", a song he wrote in Swahili!!! and thusly wrote off the trip. And one night while he was walking on an African Beach, two thugs jumped him, choked him and mugged him. Phil's voice was never quite the same after that, and that only fed his depression.
One of Phil's mangled ideas was to "Make Elvis Presley become Che Guevara" (Che was a Cuban Radical), and Phil said, "if that can't be done, you're just beating your head against the wall, or some cop will be beating your head against the wall", which he said onstage at his Gold Suit Concert, of which the "Gunfight" album contains portions of that Carnegie Hall concert. Phil sang medleys of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly songs, really trying to rally the spirit of America. But, New York was the only fan base he had left, and as he stepped onstage in his Elvis-Styled Gold Suit, someone in the audience shouted, "Bring Back PHIL OCHS!"
As time moved on, Phil slowed down a bit and his mind began coming together again, but the thought he came away with, was that he'd pushed "John Train" too far, alienating (or so he thought) everyone in the process, and now that Train had left his psyche, he couldn't face appearing in public anymore. He spent some of his last weeks at the Long Island house of his sister, just going through the motions, and it was there he hung himself in April 1976. No one knew how to help him. Phil's last big event was "An Evening With Salvadore Allende", a benefit for Chilean refugees featuring many of Phil's fellow musicians taking part. And although Phil could never reach Bob Dylan on any kind of level, Bob appeared for Phil's Big Event, and for a while after that Phil was ecstatic. I find Phil's death sadly ironic. He was such a patriot, yet he didn't even make it to the bicentennial. That's the way it is with severe depression; you just don't notice things anymore. Depression is totally exhausting.
I found the Phil biography, "Death Of A Rebel" extremely interesting. I had never heard any of Phil's music until after I read it. With a life like that (a fantastic but tragic story), I just had to hear what he was all about. He had a great voice and lots of enthusiasm early on. And his later music, some of it downright morbid, is a great subject for study. Phil Ochs' music, or at least some of it, can be found on CD. My take, at least musically, is that Phil had a great sense of melody, and his almost-tenor voice was clear and engaging. Rest in peace, Phil.
It's a sad story. Who knows; if Phil was still around, what do you suppose he'd have done when the Iran controversy, or the war in Iraq took place? There'd still be a lot to sing about! I've pretty much fractured Phil's story; so many stories, so little time and space. There are quite a lot of Phil Ochs' songs posted on YouTube if you're interested. And that "There But For Fortune" DVD is definitely worth seeking out.