by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith
“Phil Ochs: There, But for Fortune,” a documentary film written and directed by Kenneth Bowser.
Director Kenneth Bowser’s stirring documentary, “Phil Ochs: There, But for Fortune,” couldn’t have come at a better time. The film leaves you both inspired and depressed.
While watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel that we need a protest singer like Ochs today. There are, for instance, popular rappers, hip-hop artists, with messages addressing inner city life in the streets, gang wars, and police brutality, but whose style tends to put off a majority of people. Bowser’s film has you wanting to play Ochs’s music publicly—and loud—to rally others to protest the atrocities going on in the world today: the U.S. and NATO “wars” in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and soon, perhaps, Syria?, “austerity measures,” cutbacks in education and public services. Where are the activist talents whose lyrics address these issues?
These days, only one comes to mind—Michael Franti. He has appeared on “Democracy Now,” has given interviews to Mother Jones, and produces the Power to the People outdoor festivals each year not only to stir awareness around death-row inmate Mumia Abul Jamal, wrongly imprisoned for allegedly killing a police officer, but also global issues. Franti travels to developing countries, including in the Middle East, focusing on Palestine. He has coined the phrase seen on protest signs at antiwar rallies: “You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb it into peace.”
Bowser’s documentary is made up of archival film footage of Phil Ochs’s life and concerts, including revealing past and current interviews with Ochs’s brother, Michael; Joan Baez; Tom Hayden; Sean Penn; Christopher Hitchens; Dave van Ronk; Alice Skinner Ochs; his daughter, Meegan Ochs; his sister, Sonny Ochs; and record company executives.
Ochs, who began writing protest (he preferred the term “topical”) songs during the 1960s civil rights era, suffered from bipolar disorder and depression, exacerbated in 1968 as a result of the Chicago political riots, which led him to drug dependency, alcoholism, and eventual suicide in 1976.
Ochs played guitar and sang in a strident, rather flat, forceful manner that you couldn’t ignore. There was hardly a civil or federal political, social, labor, or race issue he did not address. He was generous with his time and talent, showing up at rallies, union meetings, and other gatherings simply because he was asked. To those that knew him, he appeared to be a “liberal dude,” to others—“uncool, but ultimately lethal,” behind his stinging lyrics. He hung out with the hip of New York, but because of his “uncoolness,” he was shunted off with other “uncools,” one of whom was his future wife, Alice Skinner.
Having sung about the wrong-headed involvement of the U.S. in Vietnam as early as 1962-63, he eventually signed with Elektra Records. So great was his appeal that he appeared with others at Carnegie Hall in 1963, and in a solo performance in 1966. He also performed at Town Hall hootenannies, gleaning ideas for songs by reading The New York Times—“All the news fit to sing,” which became the title of an Elektra album. “All the News” became his most influential antiwar song, along with other tracks that appeared on subsequent Elektra issues: “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” written in protest of the wars and the draft, and “Phil Ochs In Concert.”
In the early stages of protests and civil rights activism, he displayed optimism about the outcomes. Invited to the first Newport Folk Festival, he sang “Too Many Martyrs” (co-written with Bob Gibson), “Talking Birmingham Jam,” about the Birmingham bombing during the civil rights struggle, and “Power and the Glory,” the Guthrie-esque anthem that earned a standing ovation. Also on the bill were Peter, Paul, and Mary; Joan Baez; Pete Seeger; and friendly rival Bob Dylan.
Later, his brother, Michael, who narrates most of the film, became his manager and signed him with A & M records. One of his well-known epithets is: “Don’t blame the older generation for getting you into war—politicians get you into war.”
His wry, often biting, sense of humor is evident in his song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” a satire on liberalism, which includes the word, “ridiculous,” thus offending liberals and, at the same time, feeding the clueless egos of the social and political right. He used film and entertainment idols to illustrate his remarks, articles, and songs, e.g.: “John Wayne plays Lyndon Johnson, and Lyndon Johnson plays God.” Clips are shown in the film of Ochs singing about the deaths of Medgar Evers, John Kennedy, and Malcolm X.
Ochs was well known only in certain circles, yet his albums sold surprisingly well. Still, he didn’t achieve the acclaim that Bob Dylan had. One interviewee stated that Ochs was too resentful to become famous; he didn’t make you feel warm and fuzzy, like Dylan. He never crossed into the mainstream like The Weavers (Pete Seeger), the Kingston Trio, Harry Belafonte, or the Limelighters.
Ochs felt he’d become a “victim of the bonds of change.” He left New York for California, feeling that the Village (Greenwich) was dying. The “air got sucked out of it.” The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in view of neighbors who apparently did nothing to intervene, for which Ochs wrote the ballad, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” factored into his decision to leave.
Bowser included archival clips of heart-wrenching seminal events during Ochs’s time: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John Kennedy; shots of wounded and dying soldiers in Vietnam; Nixon pontificating from the Oval Office; Ochs singing his “Crucifixion” ballad to Bobby, a paean to his brother’s death, which Ochs believed inspired Bobby to run; Bobby’s presidential campaign and subsequent assassination.
Also included is footage of the Chicago police beating and tear-gassing protesters at the time of the 1968 Democratic Party National Convention, and the Kent State student murders by the Ohio National Guard. Ochs, who was in Chicago at the time of the police attack, felt deeply depressed; his drinking and pill-popping got worse. An album cover at the time is eerily prescient, showing a tombstone bearing a Phil Ochs likeness and an epitaph.
Disheartened with America, Ochs went to Chile, where Socialist Party candidate Salvador Allende had been democratically elected president in 1970. He befriended Chilean folksinger Victor Jara. But problems with the authorities in Argentina, Uruguay, and Bolivia led him to return to the States.
In 1973, he traveled to Africa. Film clips show him happily playing African instruments with natives. One interviewee states that Ochs created world music decades before it became “the thing.” In Tanzania, Phil was beaten and strangled by thugs. His vocal chords damaged, he felt he could no longer sing and believed the CIA was behind the attack. He became paranoid.
When Allende was assassinated that year, Ochs felt certain it was the work of the CIA (he was right). Director Bowser included footage showing the gruesomely horrific events that transpired the day Chilean military officials rounded up Victor Ibara and thousands of others and herded them into a stadium. Ochs pulled himself together and organized “An Evening with Salvador Allende,” to raise funds for Chile. Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Bob Dylan joined Ochs in concert.
The war in Vietnam ended in 1975. Ochs became even more depressed. In an interview, Joan Baez said, “What are we going to do now?” Ochs hired a friend with a camera to follow him around. The resulting footage appears to confirm what many believed—he’d lost his mind. In 1976, Phil Ochs hung himself.
The film closes with his friend, a melancholy Dave van Ronk, sadly singing “He Was a Friend of Mine.”
> This article was originally published in the April 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.