I’m always a bit confounded whenever music fans of my own (baby-boomer) generation, including many whom I feel should know better, fail to recognize the name “Phil Ochs” when I mention it. Certainly, I’ve given up expecting anyone under the age of 40 to have heard of him. But baby boomers? Come on, this man was (in my opinion, to be sure, but I’m far from alone) the greatest singer-songwriter to come out of the 1960’s following the emergence of Bob Dylan. It seems the enormous shadow of Dylan has long since dwarfed such once-vaunted figures as Bob Lind (whose new DVD will be reviewed soon), Eric Anderson, David Blue, Fred Neil, David Ackles, Patrick Sky, and the various Tims (Hardin, Rose, and Buckley), to such an overwhelming extent that even Tom Paxton and, yes, Phil Ochs do not have anywhere near the name recognition value that they deserve.
Nevertheless, Phil Ochs still has a considerable following, albeit a specialized one, but large enough that the theatrical release of Kenneth Bowser’s biographical documentary “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” in 2010 was hailed as a major event among us old-folkie types. With the film’s release on DVD taking place this week, everyone can now see what all the fuss was about. This is one marvelous piece of work, a loving, skillfully-assembled, no-holds-barred portrait of a man who was misunderstood by so many people, including himself. It’s a tragic story, a tale of disillusionment, mental illness, alcoholism, dashed hopes, unfulfilled dreams, and eventual suicide, but one with a brilliant soundtrack of poetic lyrics, memorable melodies, and a one-of-a-kind voice.
Bowser has Included a wealth of interview clips, including many of the people closest to Phil Ochs - family (Phil’s famous photo archivist brother, Michael Ochs, who was one of this film’s producers; Phil’s well-known folk-music disc jockey sister and keeper of the Phil Ochs flame, Sonny Ochs; Phil’s wife and daughter), close friends (most notably Jim Glover of Jim and Jean, who was responsible for politicizing Ochs), musical associates (including early supporter Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow, Judy Henske, Van Dyke Parks, Lincoln Mayorga, Joan Baez - who recorded the best-known version of Ochs’ song “There But For Fortune” - and on film, Dave Van Ronk), political associates (Tom Hayden, Fugs members Ed Sanders among them), record industry associates (Elektra’s Jac Holzman, A&M’s Jerry Moss) - an incredible array of people important to Phil Ochs’ life and career. The result is a well-rounded selection of opinions, reminiscences, and emotional responses, chronologically arranged. One might wish that some of the clips had been longer, but that’s because Ochs himself had such an engrossing life.
It would seem Bowser didn’t miss very much. We hear about Ochs’ upbringing by a Jewish father who came back from World War II mentally unstable and a Scottish mother who refused to hide her unhappiness. We see photos of Phil growing up conservatively in small-town 1950’s America - local readers of this blog may not be aware that some of this growing up took place in nearby Perrysburg, NY, and that Ochs played clarinet at a SUNY Fredonia summer music camp; there’s even a vintage still of Gowanda’s Hollywood Theater. We find him dropping out of Ohio State University, discovering his first great political cause in the Civil Rights movement, finding hope in the presidency of John Kennedy, having his illusions shattered by Kennedy’s assassination and America’s increasing involvement in Vietnam. We learn how Ochs was browbeaten by his songwriting role model, Bob Dylan, which did not sidetrack Ochs’ unrealistic but fervent determination to make it big in show-biz through the writing of liberally-oriented (yet hardly doctrinaire) protest songs. As times change, we see him expanding (as did Dylan, of course) into more personal, less purely folk-style songs, moving beyond acoustic guitar backdrops to a more “produced” type of recording. (However, Ochs was not interested in folk-rock, but surrounded his songs with classical and orchestral influences. The results were superb, but decidedly non-commercial.) We follow his increasing involvement with the counter-culture taking unexpected turns, leading street-theater-of-the-absurd demonstrations which celebrated the end of the Vietnam War years before it actual ended. We feel impending disaster as he fatefully becomes involved as a key member of the Yippies and serves as a catalyst in the catastrophic demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. We puzzle at his dressing up like Elvis Presley in gold lame for his career-destroying Carnegie Hall concert, which lost him the support of many of his long-term fans. A journey to third world countries leads to a meeting with nueva cancion icon Victor Jara in Chile, two years before the coup against the Allende government and Jara’s execution. His travels also take him to Africa. where Ochs is attacked and robbed in an incident in Tanzania that ruined his vocal cords. All this while, he is increasingly falling victim to bipolar disease, exacerbated by finding far too much solace for his depression in alcohol dependence. His growing combativeness begins to offend even his friends. Eventually, he falls off the deep end mentally, and announces the demise of Phil Ochs, replacing him with an obnoxious alter-ego named John Train. And then come those sad last days of 1976. To sum it up - it’s all here, it’s all examined in some depth, and it’s all put into comprehensible contexts.
We see short video clips and hear audio excerpts of many songs from every stage of Phil Ochs’ career. I find it particularly revealing to hear live performances from after the Tanzanian incident. Yes, his voice has suffered and has lost its consistency. But the voice and style are still recognizably that of Phil Ochs. I truly believe that, if he had been so inclined, he could have continued his career well past this point. But it wasn’t Phil Ochs the singer who had been mutilated, it was Phil Ochs the man.
“Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” is, then, both a celebration of and eulogy for this important 20th-century artist. It would be easy to disparage him for what he became in the 1970’s, but I prefer to remember Phil Ochs as he was in the 1960’s. This film allows for both interpretations, and each viewer may take from it the Phil Ochs they wish to recall. Highest recommendation.
The film runs 97 minutes, plus a text bio of the director, and a photo gallery.